Best sociological finding I heard at ASA 2019

Not surprisingly, the most interesting sociological finding I heard at the annual ASA meetings this past weekend involved research into suburban life. More specifically, Weininger and Lareau looked at how middle-class parents choose where to live:

ASAsession19

As they explained in their presentation, we might imagine these relatively educated and well-off families would look at all sorts of data regarding neighborhoods, compare their relative merits, and then choose one. Instead, they found these families would rely on limited vouching for particular locations from ties in their social networks – sometimes fairly weak ties – and then make decisions based on that. This could even occasionally lead to mistakes.

I look forward to hearing more about how this all works and what this leads to. There is interesting material to consider here including:

-What if there are conflicting network recommendations (either different preferred locations or different opinions on the same location)?

-How does the process change when the respondents do or do not have much local knowledge of the communities they are considering?

-Does this effect hold for middle-class residents of different racial and ethnic groups?

-Can networks help people move into more hetereogeneous locations or do they primarily help reinforce homogeneity?

Speculating on why sociology is less relevant to the media and public than economics

In calling for more sociological insight into economics, a journalist who attended the recent ASA meetings in Philadelphia provides two reasons why sociology lags behind economics in public attention:

Economists, you see, put draft versions of their papers online seemingly as soon as they’ve finished typing. Attend their big annual meeting, as I have several times, and virtually every paper discussed is available beforehand for download and perusal. In fact, they’re available even if you don’t go to the meeting. I wrote a column two years ago arguing that this openness had given economists a big leg up over the other social sciences in media attention and political influence, and noting that a few sociologists agreed and were trying to nudge their discipline — which disseminates its research mainly through paywalled academic journals and university-press books — in that direction with a new open repository for papers called SocArxiv. Now that I’ve experienced the ASA annual meeting for the first time, I can report that (1) things haven’t progressed much since 2016, and (2) I have a bit more sympathy for sociologists’ reticence to act like economists, although I continue to think it’s holding them back.

SocArxiv’s collection of open-access papers is growing steadily if not spectacularly, and Sociological Science, an open-access journal founded in 2014, is carving out a respected role as, among other things, a place to quickly publish articles of public interest. “Unions and Nonunion Pay in the United States, 1977-2015” by Patrick Denice of the University of Western Ontario and Jake Rosenfeld of Washington University in St. Louis, for example, was submitted June 12, accepted July 10 and published on Wednesday, the day after it was presented at the ASA meeting. These dissemination tools are used by only a small minority of sociologists, though, and the most sparsely attended session I attended in three-plus days at their annual meeting was the one on “Open Scholarship in Sociology” organized by the University of Maryland’s Philip Cohen, the founder of SocArxiv and one of the discipline’s most prominent social-media voices. This despite the fact that it was great, featuring compelling presentations by Cohen, Sociological Review deputy editor Kim Weeden of Cornell University and higher-education expert Elizabeth Popp Berman of the State University of New York at Albany, and free SocArxiv pens for all.

As I made the rounds of other sessions, I did come to a better understanding of why sociologists might be more reticent than economists to put their drafts online. The ASA welcomes journalists to its annual meeting and says they can attend all sessions where research is presented, but few reporters show up and it’s clear that most of those presenting research don’t consider themselves to be speaking in public. The most dramatic example of this in Philadelphia came about halfway through a presentation involving a particular corporation. The speaker paused, then asked the 50-plus people in the room not to mention the name of said corporation to anybody because she was about to return to an undercover job there. That was a bit ridiculous, given that there were sociologists live-tweeting some of the sessions. But there was something charming and probably healthy about the willingness of the sociologists at the ASA meeting to discuss still-far-from-complete work with their peers. When a paper is presented at an economics conference, many of the discussant’s comments and audience questions are attempts to poke holes in the reasoning or methodology. At the ASA meeting, it was usually, “This is great. Have you thought about adding …?” Also charming and probably healthy was the high number of graduate students presenting research alongside the professors, which you don’t see so much at the economists’ equivalent gathering.

All in all — and I’m sure there are sociological terms to describe this, but I’m not familiar with them — sociology seems more focused on internal cohesion than economics is. This may be partly because it’s what Popp Berman calls a “low-consensus discipline,” with lots of different methodological approaches and greatly varying standards of quality and rigor. Economists can be mean to each other in public yet still present a semi-united face to the world because they use a widely shared set of tools to arrive at answers. Sociologists may feel that they don’t have that luxury.

Disciplinary differences can be mystifying at times.

I wonder about a third possible difference in addition to the two provided: different conceptions in sociology and economics about what constitutes good arguments and data (hinted at above with the idea of “lots of different methodological approaches and greatly varying standards of quality and rigor.”) Both disciplines do aspire to the idea of social science where empirical data is used to test hypotheses about human behavior, usually in collectives, works. But, this is tricky to do as there are numerous pitfalls along the way. For example, accurate measurement is difficult even when a researcher has clearly identified a concept. Additionally, it is my sense that sociologists as a whole may be more open to qualitative and quantitative data (even with occasional flare-ups between researchers studying the same topic yet falling in different methodological camps). With these methodological questions, sociologists may feel they need more time to connect their methods to a convincing causal and scientific argument

A fourth possible reason behind the differences (also hinted at above with the idea of economists having a “semi-united face” to present): sociology has a reputation as a more left-leaning discipline. Some researchers may prefer to have all their ducks in a row before they expose their work to full public scrutiny. The work of economists is more generally accepted by the public and some leaders while sociology regularly has to work against some backlash. (As an example, see conservative leaders complain about sociology excusing poor behavior when the job of the discipline is to explain human behavior.) Why expose your work to a less welcoming public earlier when you could take a little more time to polish the argument?

New mismatches in sociology job market between grad student interests, job specializations

While the sociology job market is looking up, there is a lingering issue: what graduate students are studying doesn’t line up with specialty areas for the advertised job openings.

Another problem within the sociology job market is the “mismatch” between sociological specializations areas sought after by search committees and areas of interest from graduate students. The area of social control, law, crime and deviance was the most highly-valued specialization based on position advertisements. But graduate students ranked that specialization area fourth.

Likewise, there was a mismatch between the second most frequent advertised specialty, race and ethnicity. This was the ninth most popular with graduate students, which Spalter-Roth said she found surprising, since it is a “central focus” of sociology.

To address this mismatch issue, Spalter-Roth said sociology Ph.D. students should be encouraged to make their studies relevant to multiple specialty areas. So, for instance, someone who is interested in gender studies can also take criminal justice courses and take a closer look into crimes against women.

Globalization and global issues ranked fifth in job listings and 15th among graduate students. This mismatch may be short-lived, since graduate programs are increasingly offering more courses and programs in this area of specialization.

The five areas with the biggest mismatch, according to the full report:

SocJobsBiggestMismatch2012-2013

Interesting data. The biggest gaps here do seem to come in important sociological subfields: inequality? Organizations? Deviance? The growing area of medicine? This could be useful information to grad students, at least in terms of having an idea of how they are going to have to pitch themselves on the job market. But, considering the length of grad school plus possible several opportunities a grad student might have to test the market (while writing the dissertation, graduating, perhaps in a post-doc, after a visiting position, etc.), wouldn’t it be more helpful to look at year to year trends? See the report on the 2010 job market here:

One of the widest gaps is in criminology (a.k.a. social control, crime, law and deviance), which made up 31 per cent of all postings on the ASA’s job site in 2010, but was only listed as an area of special interest for 18 per cent of PhD candidates whom were surveyed by the ASA.

The opposite problem exists too. More people are interested in “inequities and stratification” than any other field — 35 per cent of candidates chose it as one of their special interests — but only 19 per cent of jobs advertised were in that area.

There’s also a shortage of jobs for those interested in teaching gender and sexuality. One fifth of students are interested in the subject, but only one tenth of advertised jobs were in that field.

So some similarities and differences a few years ago.

The annual conference sessions ASA wants the press to know about

The American Sociological Association has a new press release telling the press they can register for the August meetings in Denver. The press release includes a list of sessions, presumably sessions ASA thinks journalists might be interested in. Here are the session highlights:

• Creating Workplace Gender Equality

• Global Warming and the Prospects for Real Utopias

• Real Utopian Visions of Health Care

• Is Marriage Part of a Utopian Future?

• Building a Better K-12 Education System

• Assessing the Impact of Social Networking and Mobile Internet Access

• Contemporary LGBT Sexualities and Social Justice

• Obstacles to Utopia: Race, Gender, Class, and Election 2012

• Islamic Utopias

While a number of these sessions are tied to the Utopian theme of the conference, these sessions appear to promoting another message: “Hey media types, we sociologists study and discuss relevant and hip topics!” This is not necessarily a bad idea; earlier this year, there was a newspaper back and forth in Britain about whether sociologists were really tackling the economic crisis. More broadly, sociologists don’t have the same kind of public clout as economists or psychologists so it makes sense to try to promote the field and its research.

ASA pushing for better sociology Wikipedia entries

This news came out earlier this week in the American Sociological Association’s Footnotes: the ASA is hoping sociologists and sociology students will help improve Wikipedia pages pertaining to sociology.

In an essay on the association’s online newsletter (scheduled to be included in the next edition of its print newsletter), Wright this week announced the Sociology in Wikipedia Initiative: a formal call to sociologists to help improve and expand Wikipedia entries that might benefit from their expertise and consider assigning their students to do the same.

“Wikipedia has become an important global public good,” Wright writes in the essay. “Since it is a reference source for sociologically relevant ideas and knowledge that is widely used by both the general public and students, it is important that the quality of sociology entries be as high as possible. This will only happen if sociologists themselves contribute to this public good.”

Not only might Wikipedia benefit from contributions by students steeped in academic research methods, but the exercise might help students learn how to read the crowd-sourced encyclopedia in the proper context, said Wright.

“What better way to get students to understand that it’s actual people like them who have written this stuff, than for them to write this stuff?” he said.

Is this “public sociology” at work? I don’t mind this call as it would help ensure that Wikipedia has accurate and in-depth sociology information rather than just a bare bones outline. Actually, I’ve thought the sociology Wikipedia entries weren’t that bad already, particularly compared to other disciplines. For example, the statistics pages on Wikipedia are technically correct but it is very difficult for a layperson to understand what is going on.

But how many sociology faculty will spend much time with this since there aren’t many professional incentives? Even publishing in online journals as opposed to more traditional print journals is not well-regarded so what’s the point of helping improve Wikipedia entries? This may seem like a move toward embracing technology and toward a younger generation of sociologists but the discipline has a long way to go.

At least a few leaders of major academic groups are admitting that they use Wikipedia as a source. Not too long, admitting this would not have been good for one’s status. How far away are we from Wikipedia being an acceptable source?

One problem area in Sociology PhD job market: a mismatch between advertised fields and PhD student’s interests

MacLeans points out one of the issues raised by a recent ASA publication titled Moving Toward Recovery: Findings from the 2010 Job Bank Survey:

It’s not all good news, however. The report also surveyed PhD candidates and found some major mismatches between their “areas of special interest” and the jobs that were available in 2010.

One of the widest gaps is in criminology (a.k.a. social control, crime, law and deviance), which made up 31 per cent of all postings on the ASA’s job site in 2010, but was only listed as an area of special interest for 18 per cent of PhD candidates whom were surveyed by the ASA.

The opposite problem exists too. More people are interested in “inequities and stratification” than any other field — 35 per cent of candidates chose it as one of their special interests — but only 19 per cent of jobs advertised were in that area.

There’s also a shortage of jobs for those interested in teaching gender and sexuality. One fifth of students are interested in the subject, but only one tenth of advertised jobs were in that field.

The article misses one other subfield with a large difference: 8.4% of advertised jobs were looking for someone in the sociology of culture while 24.3% of students had an interest in this area.

Will the free market work this out? Who needs to change in this area: should students start pursuing these in-demand sub-fields or do graduate programs hold any responsibility, perhaps for encouraging students in subfields that reflect their faculty more than the jobs available in the field?

Inside Higher Ed’s “Sociologists in Sin City” raises some interesting issues

Earlier this week, I offered some thoughts about the American Sociological Association meetings in Las Vegas and Inside Higher Ed also offered an overview of the conference:

There is something both jarring and perfectly apropos about bringing thousands of sociologists to Sin City. As the ASA press release delicately observed, “Las Vegas [is] vibrant and fascinating from a sociological perspective” – but it’s not difficult to conjecture why the conference had never been held here before. The very aspects of Las Vegas that might make it fascinating to a sociologist — the emphasis on consumerism and decadence; the unapologetic obsession with (and exploitation of) female flesh; and the city’s most celebrated pastime gambling, whose appeal is particularly mystifying to some with a background in statistics — are also the sorts of things that tend to be off-putting to academics, especially (or at least) in the presence of their colleagues. Little wonder that ol’ Lost Wages is one of the least-educated cities in the country. (As David Dickens, professor of sociology at the University of Nevada at Las Vegas, likes to say: “Thank god for Fresno.”) And little wonder, too, that even those who have dedicated their careers to studying human society weren’t wholly enthused about being thrust into the heart of this particular society, however fascinating it might be…

Sara Goldrick-Rab, associate professor of educational policy studies and sociology at the University of Wisconsin at Madison, emphatically agreed. “I found it hard to believe we sociologists would come to a place that clearly thrives on the exploitation of people’s financial and emotional insecurities,” she wrote in an e-mail. “The grotesque treatment of young women was visible and jarring.”…

Perhaps not incidentally, this faculty member was male – as was the graduate student from a highly respected private institution who suggested that any dislike of or discomfort with Las Vegas was limited to the conference’s female attendees. Also male: the grad student from a California public who smilingly boasted of having slipped a small bribe to the man at the check-in desk in exchange for a room with a good view of the pools (and the bikini-clad women therein) – which view, he said, he found rather distracting as he sat in his room preparing his presentation.

The article suggests several possible fault lines of opinion: between men and women (some of this is quoted above), those who like to gamble and those who do not, and those who work in Las Vegas (UNLV) versus elsewhere. But there was one particularly interesting thought from one of the UNLV sociologists:

Wade said it might not be a bad thing if the city made its visitors uncomfortable. Academics, she noted, tend to lead “pretty cushy” lives, and spending a few days in a difficult and even disturbing environment could prompt them to think about the “real people” who call the city home — and about the fact that, in many ways, Las Vegas is just a distilled and amplified representation of the world we all live in. “There’s a little bit of Vegas in all of us.”

I wonder how many sociologists would like to admit that as a possibility. But there is a point here: it is not as if exploitation, extreme gaps between the rich and poor, the objectification of women, and other issues are not present in other cities. Las Vegas, in its own unique way, seems to shove these issues in your face that doesn’t fit the typical academic experience.

Does this story suggest that sociologists are moralists, generally turned off by places like Las Vegas?

Reading that some people were unhappy to attend ASA in Las Vegas, it made me wonder whether ASA ever sends out surveys after the meetings to see how attendees liked the experience and what might be changed. If so, I don’t recall seeing one. Seeing that my car repair place always sends a survey afterwards, wouldn’t it make sense for ASA to do the same thing or do they not have to because they have a captive audience?

Another question: how exactly did Inside Higher Ed go about interviewing sociologists for this story?