Can sociology classes keep up with the latest happenings in society?

A recent analysis of the top assigned sociology texts in the Open Syllabus Project has a number of interesting findings including a large number of texts from the mid-1970s to the mid-2000s:

Sociology is a dynamic discipline, so the inclusion of many texts published in the past 30 years is not surprising. Nor is the continued importance of the foundational sociology texts published between 1850 and 1950. But perhaps we can see another kind of generational dynamic at work here. Most of the OSP collection comes from courses taught between 2006 and 2014. Perhaps the emphasis on works published from the mid 1980s to the mid 1990s reflects a process of canonization that takes roughly 10 or 15 years, as faculty in their 40s become senior faculty in their 50s or 60s, balanced by the need to assign material that is still feels relevant to the analysis of contemporary problems, which may have a roughly similar temporal horizon. Again, the OSP offers only some data points, at present, toward an understanding of contemporary sociological knowledge. But they are suggestive ones and worth further exploration as the data set matures.

This argument makes sense: sociology faculty will tend to assign texts they are familiar with and that is likely material they know from graduate school as well work that informs their own.

But, it does raise some interesting larger questions:

  1. Certainly, it takes some time to put together good research that involves theory, data collection and analysis, and thinking about the implications. Yet, this lag in texts and current events means that individual faculty have to find ways to bridge the gap. I’m not sure the answer is to significantly speed up the publication process with journal articles and books – as it can often take years – as this limits the times needed to develop good analysis. It does suggest that other outlets – like blogs or op-eds or more popular books – might offer a solution and this may mean such work should count for something in the discipline.
  2. How much does the knowledge of faculty “freeze” in what they learned in their training or from their early career? I remember hearing that sociologists may know the most when they were doing their comprehensive exams. How well can people keep up with all the literature that arises, particularly if they have heavy teaching loads?
  3. This suggests that a lot of sociological classwork involves historical analysis as the texts used as typically from enough years ago that students don’t know all of the details of the context. How good are sociologists at doing historical analysis with undergraduates?

“The rise and rise of Pierre Bourdieu in US sociology”

A French sociologist looks at the popularity of Pierre Bourdieu:

Pierre Bourdieu would have turned 85 on 1 August 2015. Thirteen years after his death, the French sociologist remains one of the leading social scientists in the world. His work has been translated into dozens of languages (Sapiro & Bustamante 2009), and he is one of the most cited social theorists worldwide, ahead of major thinkers like Jurgen Habermas, Anthony Giddens, or Irving Goffman (Santoro 2008). That Bourdieu is one of the most prominent social theorists will come as no surprise to those accustomed to the academic scene. A more surprising fact, however, is that he is probably the most cited scholar in the social sciences. In a forthcoming paper on the reception of French sociologists in the United States, Andrew Abbott and I show that, at the turn of this decade, he is referenced in more than 100 sociological articles a year. Important authors like Paul Di Maggio or James Coleman are only cited 60 times, while Mark Granovetter has nearly 50 mentions. Bourdieu is also referenced more often than Émile Durkheim, who for a long time epitomized (French) sociology…

This diversity of topics influenced the reception of Bourdieu’s work abroad. As has been pointed out (see Sallasz and Zavisca, 2008), it was initially read by different (unrelated) groups. Though it happened fairly early, the reception of his work remained confined to local areas for over two decades. In the United States, this situation changed in the late 1980s following a number of efforts to emphasize the systematic character of Bourdieu’s research. The key initiative among these was the 1992 interview book co-authored by Bourdieu and Loïc Wacquant, Invitation to a Reflexive Sociology. Written in English with a US audience in mind, it aims at presenting Bourdieu’s system to a foreign audience. Our data shows that after publication of this book, his work subsequently gained widespread exposure beyond the limited local fields in which it was already popular. Not only were his concepts now used outside of those fields, but references to his work also increasingly pertained to theoretical aspects rather to empirical ones. Starting in the mid-1990s, Bourdieu was regarded as a general social theorist and read across sub-disciplinary lines—as well as across disciplines.

What will happen next? Although prediction and social science don’t square well, several signs indicate that Bourdieu is currently entering the canon of worldwide sociology. In the United States, our study shows that while the number of references to his work continues to increase, scholars’ level of engagement with the text is decreasing. In fact, over the last few years, references to Bourdieu have become more allusive. To measure this change, we hand-coded several hundred references from different periods. The proportion of those extensively citing Bourdieu has decreased steadily since the 2000s. This trait is characteristic of a process of canonization, when an author becomes equated with an idea or a set of ideas (e.g. Foucault and power, Goffman and face-to-face interactions, etc.), and is therefore considered a mandatory reference on the topic. The citation becomes a ritual. In some cases, the author has obviously not read the text in question.

Has Bourdieu become a museum piece? It does not seem so, at least for now. Scholarly interest is still strong and his work is still very much discussed. A good indicator of this is the number of references to an author per article, and comparison with other authors is telling here. Whereas Durkheim is routinely cited but not much debated, and receives an average of one reference per article citing him (fig2a), Bourdieu’s work is still an object of active investment (fig2b). At least 25% of the articles citing Bourdieu make two references to his work, sometimes many more. Bourdieu may well be entering the canon, but his appropriation abroad still fosters debates.

This sort of analysis could be undertaken with any major figure in an academic field: how did their work spread, who was spreading it, when did it peak, and how did the citations coalesce around particular topics or ideas?

The case of Bourdieu is interesting for several reasons. It involves a sociologist from another country who wrote in another language and American sociology can sometimes be provincial. Bourdieu’s work began in the ethnographic realm but hit upon key areas in sociology after the 1960s including social class, culture, and education. His findings have been utilized in multiple disciplines and across countries.

At some point, will there be a Bourdieu backlash or major opposition? The article suggested the next stage is “museum piece” and this seems to imply that his work will remain important but fade into history. Who has the big ideas to replace Bourdieu or significantly tweak his work?

Many top-cited papers initially rejected by good journals

A new study finds that top-cited scientific studies are often rejected, sometimes without even going out for peer review:

Using subsequent citations as a proxy for quality, the team found that the journals were good at weeding out dross and publishing solid research. But they failed — quite spectacularly — to pick up the papers that went to on to garner the most citations.

“The shocking thing to me was that the top 14 papers had all been rejected, one of them twice,” says Kyle Siler, a sociologist at the University of Toronto in Canada, who led the study. The work was published on 22 December in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences

But the team also found that 772 of the manuscripts were ‘desk rejected’ by at least one of the journals — meaning they were not even sent out for peer review — and that 12 out of the 15 most-cited papers suffered this fate. “This raises the question: are they scared of unconventional research?” says Siler. Given the time and resources involved in peer review, he suggests, top journals that accept just a small percentage of the papers they receive can afford to be risk averse.

“The market dynamics that are at work right now tend to a certain blandness,” agrees Michèle Lamont, a sociologist at Harvard University in Cambridge, Massachusetts, whose book How Professors Think explores how academics assess the quality of others’ work. “And although editors may be well informed about who to turn to for reviews, they don’t necessarily have a good nose for what is truly creative.”

The gatekeepers seem to be exercising their power. Academic disciplines usually have clear boundaries about what is good or bad research and the journals help to draw these lines.

An alternative explanation: the rejections authors receive help them shape their studies in productive ways which then makes them more likely to be accepted by later journals. If this could be true, you need to expand the methodology of this study to look at the whole process. How do authors respond to the rejection and then what happens in the next steps in the publishing cycle?

“Sociology’s most cited papers by decade”

Kieran Healy looks at the patterns among the most cited sociology papers:

Again, we’re looking at the Top 10 most-cited papers that were published in the 1950s, 1960s, and so on. This means that while the eleventh most-cited paper from the 1980s might outscore the fourth most-cited paper from the 1950s in terms of cumulative citations, the former does not appear here whereas the latter does. There are some striking patterns. One thing to notice is the rise of articles from the Annual Review of Sociology in the 2000s. Another is the increasing heterogeneity of outlets. Of the top ten papers written in the 1950s or before, seven appear in the American Sociological Review, two in the American Journal of Sociology, and one in Social Forces. (That is SF’s only entry in the list, as it happens.) ASR and AJS rule the 1960s, too. After that, though, there’s more variety. Strikingly, for the 2000s only one of the ten most-cited articles is from ASR and none is from AJS—a complete reversal of the pattern of the ‘50s and ‘60s. You can also see the long shadow of post-war university expansion and “Boomer Sociology”. The most-cited work from before 1970 is not nearly as widely cited as the most-cited work from the ‘70s and ‘80s, despite having been around longer. The drop-off in citation numbers in the Top 10s from the ‘90s and ‘00s is to be expected as those papers are younger. American dominance—or insularity—is also evident, as the only non-U.S. journal to make any of the lists is Sociology, and that was in the 1970s.

Turning to the subject matter of the papers, I think you can see the importance of articles whose main contribution is either a methodological technique or a big idea. There are fewer papers where a specific empirical finding is the main contribution. If you want to hang in there as one of the most-remembered papers from your decade, it seems, give people a good concept to work with or a powerful tool to use. Of course, it’s also true that people tend to have a lot of unread books lying around the house and unused drill attachments in the garage.

It is tempting to connect these two patterns in the data. To speculate: ASR and AJS remain amongst the journals with the very highest impact factors in the discipline. Publishing in them has become more important than ever to people’s careers. Yet the most-cited papers of the last two decades appeared elsewhere. These journals demand the papers they publish meet high standards in methods and ideally also innovate theoretically, along with making an empirical contribution to knowledge. That, together with a more competitive and professionalized labor market, produces very high-quality papers. But perhaps it also makes these journals less likely than in the past to publish purely technical or purely theoretical pieces, even though some papers of that sort will in the end have the most influence on the field.

Outlets like Sociological Methods and Research and Sociological Methodology now publish articles that might in the past have appeared in more general journals. Similarly, big-idea pieces that might once have gotten in at ASR or AJS may now be more likely to find a home at places like Theory and Society or Gender and Society. At the same time—perhaps because the state of theory in the field is more confused than that of methods—theoretical papers may also have been partially displaced by ARS articles that make an argument for some idea or approach, but under the shield of a topical empirical literature review. In a relatively fragmented field, it’s also easier for methodological papers to be more widely cited across a range of substantive areas than it is for a theory paper to do the same.

These seem like reasonable arguments to me. It is also interesting to see that a few subfields attract more attention, like theory and methodology but also social networks, social movements, gender, and cultural sociology, while other subfields are not among the most cited.

Analysis suggests a sociologist in the running to win 2014 Nobel Prize for Economics

A new analysis suggests five leading candidates for the 2014 Nobel Prize in Economics and one of them is a sociologist:

But a recent Thomson Reuters analysis predicts five leading contenders for the top honour in economics this year: Philippe M. Aghion and Peter W. Howitt for their contributions to growth theory, William J. Baumol and Israel M. Kirzner for their study of entrepreneurship, and Mark S. Granovetter for his pioneering research in economic sociology.

The first four names are well known in economics while the fifth is not actually an economist. Granovetter is a sociologist but his research appears to be the most interesting among that of the five contenders listed by Reuters. The caveat here is that the Reuters list is merely indicative, based on a quantitative analysis of the number of citations of each scholar in the discipline. The Nobel committee is unlikely to be influenced by quantitative metrics alone though the Reuters analysis claims that most scholars it has identified have eventually ended up winning the Prize…

There are earlier precedents when the Nobel committee has chosen persons outside economics departments for the prize, although a sociologist has never won it till date. The political scientist Elinor Ostrom, who shared the Nobel in 2009 with Williamson, is the most recent example. Ostrom challenged conventional wisdom by showing that common property resources can be managed successfully by user associations.

But a recent Thomson Reuters analysis predicts five leading contenders for the top honour in economics this year: Philippe M. Aghion and Peter W. Howitt for their contributions to growth theory, William J. Baumol and Israel M. Kirzner for their study of entrepreneurship, and Mark S. Granovetter for his pioneering research in economic sociology. The first four names are well known in economics while the fifth is not actually an economist. Granovetter is a sociologist but his research appears to be the most interesting among that of the five contenders listed by Reuters. The caveat here is that the Reuters list is merely indicative, based on a quantitative analysis of the number of citations of each scholar in the discipline. The Nobel committee is unlikely to be influenced by quantitative metrics alone though the Reuters analysis claims that most scholars it has identified have eventually ended up winning the Prize.

Read more at:

Granovetter’s paper on the strength of weak ties is one of the most cited sociology articles. Even so, naming a sociologist as a winner of the prize for economics would be an interesting choice given the relationship between the two disciplines.

How much do academics cite work in another discipline?

Sociologist Jerry Jacobs has a new book about the value of specific academic disciplines and presents this data regarding how much academics cite work outside their field:

“Interdisciplinarity depends on strong disciplines,” he said.

He said he became interested in the topic while serving as editor of American Sociological Review. He wanted to see if the articles in that journal were showing up as citations in the work of non-sociologists, and found that they were, leading him to question the idea that disciplines don’t communicate with one another. Using National Science Foundation data, he looked at where science journals are cited, and found that a “substantial minority” of citations come in other fields.

Citation Outside of Disciplines

Discipline % of Citations From Outside Field
Physics 18.3%
Chemistry 31.0%
Earth and space sciences 16.8%
Mathematics 22.6%
Biology 38.3%
Biomedical research 24.6%
Clinical medicine 28.6%
Engineering and technology 38.1%
Psychology 34.5%
Social sciences 22.7%

Jacobs then analyzes the various social sciences, and finds that scholars in the interdisciplinary field of area studies are more likely to cite non-area studies work than their own fields, while economics scholars are mostly likely to cite their own field. “These data on cross-field citations raise an important question for advocates of interdisciplinarity, namely whether the fields that are most open to external ideas are also the most intellectually dynamic,” Jacobs writes. “If this were true, area studies would be the envy of the social sciences, and economists would be busy trying to figure out how best to emulate the success of areas studies scholars. In fact, the reverse is true: economics is the most influential field in the social sciences, and it is also the most inwardly focused.”

While interdisciplinary is a hot topic, it is nice to see some data on the topic. How much should scholars cite those outside their disciplines? Jacobs suggests here that he thinks 20-30% of citations outside of one’s field is a good total – roughly one-fifth to one-third of citations. Should this be higher? Who gets to set these guidelines? The table also suggests this can vary quite a bit across disciplines.

I’ve noticed in my own research that certain topics in sociology lend themselves to more interdisciplinary citations, particularly for certain subject matter and new areas of study. I study within the subfields of urban sociology and the sociology of culture, subjects with plenty of sociologists but also plenty of interest in other disciplines. Some of my recent projects have been more historical, meaning I’m interacting more with historians, and about the media, meaning I’m interacting with work in media studies, communication, English, and elsewhere. Also, studying less-studied topics means one has to go further afield to understand what all of academia has said. In my work with McMansions, I’ve found that sociologists haven’t said much so I’ve worked with sources in history, planning, law, and housing (a rather interdisciplinary field).

Most cited works in sociology journals in 2013

Here is an analysis of the 45 most cited works in sociology journals last year. The top ten:

1. Bourdieu, Pierre. Distinction: A social critique of the judgement of taste. Harvard University Press, 1984.
2. Glaser, Barney G., and Anselm L. Strauss. The discovery of grounded theory: Strategies for qualitative research. Transaction Books, 2009.
3. Putnam, Robert D. Bowling alone: The collapse and revival of American community. Simon and Schuster, 2001.
4. Raudenbush, Stephen W. Hierarchical linear models: Applications and data analysis methods. Vol. 1. Sage, 2002.
5. Massey, Douglas S. and Nancy Denton. American apartheid: Segregation and the making of the underclass. Harvard University Press, 1993.
6. Goffman, Erving. The presentation of self in everyday life. Garden City, NY (1959).
7. Steensland, Brian, Lynn D. Robinson, W. Bradford Wilcox, Jerry Z. Park, Mark D. Regnerus, and Robert D. Woodberry. “The measure of American religion: Toward improving the state of the art.” Social Forces 79, no. 1 (2000): 291-318.
8. Swidler, Ann. “Culture in action: Symbols and strategies.” American sociological review (1986): 273-286.
9. McPherson, Miller, Lynn Smith-Lovin, and James M. Cook. “Birds of a feather: Homophily in social networks.” Annual review of sociology (2001): 415-444.
10. Granovetter, Mark S. “The strength of weak ties.” American journal of sociology(1973): 1360-1380.

No major surprises here: several important works on methods (hierarchical linear modeling, grounded theory, defining religion), several dealing with social networks, and key works in important subfields spanning from the sociology of culture to tastes and social class. Are they over-cited or the sort of influential works sociologists will still recognize years from now?

It might also be interesting to see what sociology works are cited the most outside of sociology journals. I assume Bourdieu, Putnam, and Granovetter are cited frequently elsewhere but what about Goffman, Massey and Denton, and Swidler?

Will citing the Kindle location, and not the page number, become the norm?

Nate Silver’s book The Signal and the Noise contains an interesting bibliographic twist: he sometimes cites Kindle locations, not page numbers. Here is an example: footnote 42 in Chapter 8.

McGrayne, The Theory That Would Not Die, Kindle location 46.

Silver doesn’t do this for every book though he does sometimes say a book is the Kindle edition if he is giving the full citation. Is Silver on to a new trend? Will readers and scholars want Kindle locations?

I think we’re probably a long ways from this becoming standard. The problem is that it requires having all of your books in Kindle form. Ebooks are popular but I’m not sure how far people are willing to go to replace all of their older books with Kindle editions. (Particularly if you are dealing with more esoteric published material.) I could see this happening more for new books which are more likely to be purchased in Kindle form. Or perhaps we are headed for a world where everyone has Kindle access to all major books (a subscription service? An expanded Project Gutenberg?) on their phone, tablet, or computer and looking up a Kindle location becomes really easy.

Perhaps this won’t really matter until I see it in a student research paper…

Sociologist receives award in part for one article being cited over 24,000 times

Mark Granovetter’s 1973 article “The Strength of Weak Ties” is a sociological classic and still is cited frequently in top sociology journals (see 2012 data here). This impressive number of citations contributed to the naming of Granovetter as the recipient of an award:

Cited over 24,000 times, Granovetter’s 1973 paper “The Strength of Weak Ties” is a social science classic and a milestone in network theory. Our close friends are strongly in touch with us and each other, he wrote, but our acquaintances – weak ties – are crucial bridges to other densely knit clumps of close friends. The more weak ties we have, the more in touch we are with ideas, fashions, job openings and whatever else is going on in diverse and far-flung communities.

The award honors the late Everett M. Rogers, a former associate dean at the University of Southern California’s Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism and an influential communication scholar whose Diffusion of Innovation is the second-most cited book in the social sciences.  Presented since 2007 on behalf of USC Annenberg by its Norman Lear Center, the award recognizes outstanding scholars and practitioners whose work has contributed path-breaking insights in areas of Rogers’s legacy.

At the USC Annenberg School on Wednesday, September 18 at 12 noon, Granovetter will present “The Strength of Weak Ties” Revisited.  He will discuss how he came to write it; where it fits in the history of social network analysis; how its argument has held up over the years; and its significance in recent social revolutions, where it’s often been claimed that social networks are at the core of the new political developments.  The event is free and open to the public but RSVP is required. (RSVP is available online at:

There is no doubt that being cited over 24,000 times is impressive. Granovetter’s work has been utilized in multiple disciplines and came at the forefront of an explosion of research on social networks and their effects.
At the same time, the press release makes a big deal about citations twice while also highlighting Granovetter’s specific findings. Which is more important in the world of science today: the number of citations, which is a measure of importance, or about the actual findings and how it pushed science forward? This award can contribute to existing debates about the importance of citations as a measure. What exactly do they tell us and should we recognize those who are cited the most?