What does Stephen Harper have against sociology?

One academic suggests some reasons why Canadian Prime Minister dislikes sociology:

So what does Harper have against sociology? First, Harper is clearly trumpeting a standard component of neo-liberal ideology: that there are no social phenomena, only individual incidents. (This ideology traces back to Margaret Thatcher’s famous claim that “there is no such thing as society.”) Neo-liberalism paints all social problems as individual problems. The benefit of this for those who share Harper’s agenda, of course, is that if there are no social problems or solutions, then there is little need for government. Individuals are solely responsible for the problems they face…

But there’s yet another reason this ideology is so hostile toward the kind of sociological analysis done by Statistics Canada, public inquiries and the like. And that has to do with the type of injustices we can even conceive of, or consider tackling, as a society.

You see, sociologists often differentiate between “personal injustices” and “systemic” or “structural injustices.” Personal injustices can be traced back to concrete actions of particular individuals (perpetrators). These actions are often wilful, and have a relatively isolated victim.

Structural injustices, on the other hand, are produced by a social structure or system. They are often hard to trace back to the actions of specific individuals, are usually not explicitly intended by anyone, and have collective, rather than isolated, victims. Structural injustices are a result of the unintended actions of many individuals participating in a social system together, usually without knowing what each other is doing. Whereas personal injustices are traced back to the harmful actions (or inactions) of individuals, structural injustices are identified by differential societal outcomes among groups. Sociologists call these “social inequalities.”…

What should be clear, then, is that Harper’s seemingly bizarre vendetta against sociology is actually an ideological attempt to prevent Canadian society from being able to identify, and tackle, its structural injustices. Without large-scale sociological analyses, we can’t recognize the pervasive, entrenched social inequalities that these analyses reveal. And because structural injustices are actually generated by our social systems, both their causes and solutions are social.

One of sociology’s key tenets and strengths is the ability to get beyond the individual level of analysis and look at the bigger picture in society. Think Durkheim’s explanations of sui generis social facts or Marx’s idea that people make choices within circumstances not of their choosing. Harper’s perspective sounds like one that is often identified with Americans, an individualistic approach that tends to ignore social structures and instead looks at whether people work hard or have good morals.

So why doesn’t someone ask Harper directly about social injustices? Certainly he must recognize some. Of course, he might still propose individualistic solutions to these but some are hard to pin solely on individuals such as situations like extreme poverty in developing countries.

Drawing Israel’s sprawling “urburbs” in the sand

Urban sprawl is not limited to the United States; a new installation in Israel looks at that country’s sprawl in the last half-century.

The State of Israel was created in 1948, with a population of around 800,000. Today, 8 million people live there—a tenfold increase that happened over the course of just a few decades. That kind of growth sparks a ravenous demand for land and housing, and in Israel has led to a housing sprawl that a group of designers, architects, and artists have coined the Urburb: neighborhoods that aren’t quite urban (they’re outside metropolitan areas) but not quite suburban (they lack the pockets of commercial businesses that define most suburbs).

To convey the notion of the Urburb, this group—comprised of architect Ori Scialom, artist Keren Yeala-Golan, designer Edith Kofsky, and professor Roy Brand—created an installation at the Israeli Pavilion for this year’s Venice Architecture Biennale. Inside the sunlit space, guests will find four large patches of sand. Atop each is a sand printer, a machine built by the group specifically to trace blueprints, Etch-a-Sketch-style, of Israeli neighborhoods into the sand. After the sand printer has drawn one plan, it wipes the sand clean and draws another. The four printers trace city plans of Jerusalem, Holon, Hadera and Yahud, and in succession, they show how Israel’s neighborhoods became what they are today…

This wasn’t by design. In 1951, when the nation was still in its infancy, a Bauhaus-trained architect named Arieh Sharon created a housing plan for Israel that advocated a dispersed approach to development. Unfortunately for Sharon, people gravitated towards the coast, Israel saw an influx of immigrants, and the plan didn’t take. Units went up quickly to accommodate a booming population, without much regard to architectural integrity. (Yeala-Golan describes the residences as “cookie-cutter houses.”)

Lousy aesthetics aside, the sprawl has also created a commuter culture that’s bad for the environment: Residents have to drive into the nearest city for practically everything—groceries, schools, entertainment, and so on—since commercial properties weren’t built into the neighborhoods.

Urburb is a unique term that seems most like bedroom suburbs in the United States that are primarily about residences.

There are perhaps some parallels here to American sprawl patterns. After World War II, facing rapid population growth, both countries allowed/promoted more sprawling development. In the United States, this was often tied to millions of returning veterans who encountered housing shortages when returning from the war and in Israel it was related to immigration. “Architectural integrity,” an interesting term in itself, was not a priority as people needed housing. When looked at in hindsight, this has its drawbacks.

An interesting question to ask may be what would lead countries like the United States and Israel to promote more sprawling policies while other countries have tried to contain growing populations in more dense urban centers. In the United States, you had a combination of government support (changed mortgage rules, Interstate construction) alongside a developed frontier and individualist ideology and stirrings of sprawling growth in the booming 1920s. Other countries have much longer histories of valuing the urban center. Perhaps where this is most pertinent today is in places like China that in several decades have moved from largely rural to largely urban. What are the political and cultural dimensions of that sort of rapid change?

Cities rethink privatization efforts

Leading with the example of Chicago’s 75 year parking meter lease, here is a look at how some communities are rethinking privatization of local services and amenities:

In states and cities across the country, lawmakers are expressing new skepticism about privatization, imposing new conditions on government contracting, and demanding more oversight. Laws to rein in contractors have been introduced in 18 states this year, and three—Maryland, Oregon, and Nebraska—have passed legislation, according to In the Public Interest, a group that advocates what it calls “responsible contracting.”

“We’re not against contracting, but it needs to be done right,” said the group’s executive director, a former AFL-CIO official named Donald Cohen. “It needs to be accountable, transparent, and held to high standards for quality of work and quality of service.” Cohen’s organization, a national clearinghouse exclusively devoted to privatization issues, is the first advocacy group of its kind…

Donahue, who has studied the issue since 1988, sees privatization as inherently neither good nor bad. Academic studies paint a mixed picture, he said. The private sector can deliver efficiencies when the task being sought is well defined, easy to measure, and subject to competition—mowing public parks, perhaps, or collecting trash.

But when the goals are fuzzier or competition is lacking, the picture gets cloudier. Is the purpose of municipal parking meters to maximize revenue, or is it to provide a low-cost amenity to citizens and the businesses they patronize? How do you value the various objectives of a prison system—justice, rehabilitation, social order—when the financial incentive is to lock more people up? In many cases, Donahue said, privatization and contracting save governments money not through increased efficiency but by undercutting public-sector wages and pensions or, as in the case of the parking meters, by effectively robbing the future to pay for the needs of the present. (By mid-2011, the city had spent all but $125 million of the $1.2 billion parking-meter payment.)

Three things seem fairly clear (to me):

1. One big mistake is privatization contracts that are way too long. Seventy-five years is a long time deal, particularly given how conditions can change. If the deal goes sour quickly or the public turns on it, this is a long time to wait for the contract to expire.

2. Not having enough time to read through contracts and then debate the particulars is a problem. Deals shouldn’t be entered into quickly, particularly when the public interest is at stake.

3. A lot of the public discussion of privatization seems more ideological rather than looking at research (some referenced in this article). Government vs. the private sector is a pretty large debate to have and there may be areas where each could perform better or might better protect the interests of residents.

Even if skepticism about privatization is increasing, this issue will continue to be important as numerous cities and communities seek to squeeze out more revenue from stagnant or limited resources.

Do conservatives only praise sociology when it fits their arguments?

Conservatives may generally dislike sociology but you can find cases where they are more than willing to accept the imprimatur of sociology if it fits their perspectives. Two recent examples:

1. Discussing a MSNBC exchange about Paul Ryan’s comments about the inner-city where one commentator suggested Ryan was echoing the arguments of Charles Murray, a Daily Caller writer defends Murray:

Murray is a prominent and widely-respected sociologist who penned the 1994 book “The Bell Curve,” which in one chapter posits certain racial differences in intelligence and suggests some of this may be due to genetics.

The book’s measured and well-researched take on a highly controversial issue failed to halt an immediate left-wing backlash. Murray was branded a racist pseudo-scientist, with the Southern Poverty Law Center filing his name under “White Nationalist” and falsely suggesting he maintains ties with neo-Nazi groups.

David Weigel, a left-leaning libertarian journalist writing for Slate, wrote that even after reams of well-received research since 1994, “[‘The Bell Curve’] wrecked Murray’s reputation with some people, and it won’t get un-wrecked.”

“But the conservatives of 2014 don’t cite Murray for his race work,” Weigel continued, noting that the fascinating work Murray presented in his later works “Losing Ground” and “Coming Apart” are much more likely to be referenced by opponents of the welfare state.

As I asked in February 2012, is Murray really a sociologist and how many sociologists would claim he is doing good sociological research?

2. Here is an interesting example from the Family Research Council of combining a temporarily favorable view of Hollywood actresses and sociology:

I know virtually nothing about contemporary stars and starlets, other than having consistently to turn away from the images of the substantially disrobed young “entertainers” displayed on the jumbotron across from my office in advertisements for their latest performances. Pornography, by any other name, ain’t art…

Now, however, Ms. Dunst is much in the news for having the audacity to say what she thinks of gender roles, to wit:

“I feel like the feminine has been a little undervalued … We all have to get our own jobs and make our own money, but staying at home, nurturing, being the mother, cooking – it’s a valuable thing my mum created. And sometimes, you need your knight in shining armour. I’m sorry. You need a man to be a man and a woman to be a woman. That’s why relationships work”.

Wow – how revolutionary! The idea that gender is not a social construct but actually has to do with biology, neurology, morphology, physiology, etc. is an affront to the received orthodoxy of the feminist left, many of whom have piled-on with a predictable combination of derision, illogic, non-sequitur reasoning, and obscenity…

So, men and women are different, and being a stay-at-home mother who cares for her children is something to be honored, not scorned: For affirming these self-evident truths, Ms. Dunst is being labeled “dumb” and ‘insufferable,” among the more printable adjectives.

Kirsten Dunst is now the good sociologist for agreeing with the organization’s perspectives on gender roles. No research required.

Conservatives aren’t alone in this behavior in cherry-picking studies and data they think supports their ideologies. Many groups are on the lookout for prominent studies and research to support their cause, sometimes leading to odd battles of “my three studies say this” and “your two studies say this.” But, given the complaints conservatives typically make about liberal ideas and research in sociology, how helpful is it to sometimes suggest conservatives should take sociology seriously?

Don’t be worried about dating a leftist sociologist

A recent wedding story in the New York Times included this bit about getting to know a leftist sociologist:

Ms. Levine, 61, is keeping her name. She is a sociology professor at Colgate University who has written six books, including “Class, Networks and Identity: Replanting Jewish Lives From Nazi Germany to Rural New York.” She graduated from Michigan State and received a master’s in sociology from McGill. She also holds a Ph.D. in sociology from the State University at Binghamton. She is a daughter of Rae Levy Levine of Peabody, Mass., and the late Frank Levine…

At the time, he did not care to know her name. But in February 2011, after his relationship ended, he changed his opinion. Once he found out she was Ms. Levine, he looked her up on the Internet.

“I saw titles,” he said. “I saw she was a leftist sociologist. So what?”…

He soon called with an invitation for dinner at his house, where they became so caught up in conversation that “the tuna steaks were way overcooked on the grill,” he said. While there, she scanned his bookshelf, and drew comfort from the fact he had books by Barbara Ehrenreich and so many other left-leaning authors she uses in her classroom. “It turned out we were much more compatible than I thought,” she said.

If sociologists can teach courses on love, they can also get married, sociological commitments notwithstanding.

Spreadsheet errors, austerity, ideology, and social science

The graduate student who found some spreadsheet errors in an influential anti-austerity paper discusses what happened. Here is part of the conversation about the process of finding this error:

Q. You say, don’t you, that their use of data was faulty?

A. Yes. The terms we used about their data—”selective” and “unconventional”—are appropriate ones. The reasons for the choices they made needed to be given, and there was nowhere where they were.

Q. And how about their claim that your findings support their thesis that growth slows as debt rises?

A. That is not our interpretation of our paper, at all. If you read their paper, it’s interesting how they handle causality. They waffle between strong and weak claims. The weak claim is that it’s just a negative association. If that’s all they claim, then it’s not really relevant for policy. But they also make a strong claim, more in public than in the paper, that there’s causality going from high debt to drops in growth. They haven’t been obvious about that…

Q. Paul Krugman wrote in The New York Times that your work confirms what many economists have long intuitively thought. Was that your intuition?

A. Yes. I just thought it was counterintuitive when I first saw their claim. It wasn’t plausible.

Q. This is more than a spreadsheet error, then?

A. Yes. The Excel error wasn’t the biggest error. It just got everyone talking about this. It was an emperor-has-no-clothes moment.

This would make for a good case study in a methodology class in the social sciences: how much of this is about actual data errors versus different interpretations? You have people who are clearly staking out space on either side of a policy discussion and it is a bit unclear how much does this color their interpretation of “facts”/data. I suspect some time will help sort this out – if the spreadsheet was indeed wrong, shouldn’t this lead to a correction or a retraction?

I do like the fact that the original authors were willing to share their data – this is something that could happen more often in the social sciences and give people the ability to look at the data for themselves.

NCAA Scholarly Colloquium: ideology versus “In God we trust; everyone else should bring data”

The Chronicle of Higher Education examines how much criticism of the NCAA will be allowed at its upcoming annual Scholarly Colloquium and includes a fascinating quote about how data should be used:

The colloquium was the brainchild of Myles Brand, a former NCAA president and philosopher who saw a need for more serious research on college sports. He and others believed that such an event could foster more open dialogue between the scholars who study sport issues and the people who work in the game.

Mr. Brand emphasized that the colloquium should be data-based and should avoid ideology. “Myles always used to joke: ‘In God we trust; everyone else should bring data,'” said Mr. Renfro, a former top adviser to Mr. Brand.

But as Mr. Renfro watched presentations at last year’s colloquium, which focused on changes the NCAA has made in its academic policies in recent years, he did not see a variety of perspectives.

“I was hearing virtually one voice being sung by a number of people … and it was relatively critical of the NCAA’s academic-reform effort,” he said. “I don’t care whether it was critical or not, but I care about whether there are different perspectives presented.”

This is a classic argument: data versus ideology, facts versus opinions. This short bit about Myles Brand makes it sound like Brand thought bringing more data to the table when discussing the NCAA would be a good thing. Data might blunt opinions and arguments and push people with an agenda to back up their arguments. It could lead to more constructive conversations. But, data is not completely divorced from ideology. Researchers choose what kind of topics to study. Data has to be collected in a good manner. Interpreting data is still an important skill; people can use data incorrectly. And it sounds like an issue here is that people might be able to use data to continue to criticize the NCAA – and this does not make the NCAA happy.

Generally, I’m in favor of bringing more data to the table when discussing issues. However, having data doesn’t necessarily solve problems. As I tell my statistics classes, I don’t want them to be people who blindly believe all data or statistics because it is data and I also don’t want them to be people who dismiss all data or statistics because they can be misused and twisted. It sounds like some of this still needs to be sorted out with the NCAA Scholarly Colloquium.

Evidence: TV shows can lower fertility rates

An article about the cultural power of television discusses several studies that show TV programs can lower fertility rates:

Several years ago, a trio of researchers working for the Inter-American Development Bank set out to help solve a sociological mystery. Brazil had, over the course of four decades, experienced one of the largest drops in average family size in the world, from 6.3 children per woman in 1960 to 2.3 children in 2000. What made the drop so curious is that, unlike the Draconian one-child policy in China, the Brazilian government had in place no policy to limit family size. (It was actually illegal at some point to advertise contraceptives in the overwhelmingly Catholic country.) What could explain such a steep drop? The researchers zeroed in on one factor: television.

Television spread through Brazil in the mid-sixties. But it didn’t arrive everywhere at once in the sprawling country. Brazil’s main station, Globo, expanded slowly and unevenly. The researchers found that areas that gained access to Globo saw larger drops in fertility than those that didn’t (controlling, of course, for other factors that could affect fertility). It was not any kind of news or educational programming that caused this fertility drop but exposure to the massively popular soap operas, or novelas, that most Brazilians watch every night. The paper also found that areas with exposure to television were dramatically more likely to give their children names shared by novela characters.

Novelas almost always center around four or five families, each of which is usually small, so as to limit the number of characters the audience must track. Nearly three quarters of the main female characters of childbearing age in the prime-time novelas had no children, and a fifth had one child. Exposure to this glamorized and unusual (especially by Brazilian standards) family arrangement “led to significantly lower fertility”—an effect equal in impact to adding two years of schooling.

In a 2009 study, economists Robert Jensen and Emily Oster detected a similar pattern in India. A decade ago, cable television started to expand rapidly into the Indian countryside, where deeply patriarchal views had long prevailed. But not all villages got cable television at once, and its random spread created another natural experiment. This one yielded extraordinary results. Not only did women in villages with cable television begin bearing fewer children, as in Brazil, but they were also more able to leave their home without their husbands’ permission and more likely to disapprove of husbands abusing their wives, and the traditional preference for male children declined. The changes happened rapidly, and the magnitude was “quite large”—the gap in gender attitudes separating villages introduced to cable television from urban areas shrunk by between 45 and 70 percent. Television, with its more progressive social model, had changed everything.

Four quick thoughts:

1. Such shows (TV and radio) have been used deliberately by public health organizations to fight AIDS. It is one thing to hold training sessions and open and maintain clinics but it is another to have successful soap operas that promote certain behaviors.

2. These situations provided some fascinating natural experiments. I occasionally ask students this very question: how might you set up a natural experiment to test the effects of television? In the United States, outside of some ultra-controlled environment a la The Truman Show, it is difficult to quickly answer this question.

3. Sociologist Juliet Schor nicely explains the mechanism behind this in The Overspent American. Mass media presents average residents a new, commonly known reference group to which they can compare themselves. Instead of primarily comparing themselves to neighbors or acquaintances, viewers started seeing what “middle-class” or “normal” look like on television and then work to emulate that.

4. Media output is not simply entertainment – something is being promoted. Being able to watch and experience this critically is crucial in a world awash with media and information.

Board games that teach about housing discrimination

Americans may like the real estate game Monopoly but it lacks one real-life phenomenon that a few games over the years have included: housing discrimination.

The Pop-Up City blog drew our attention last week to a great project from Toronto artist Flavio Trevisan, who has created a board-game-as-artwork enticingly titled The Game of Urban Renewal (OK, this is enticing to us, at least). The project reminded us that there is something of a history to board games dramatizing low-income and discriminatory housing policy. An earlier such game – one that looks like an antecedent to Trevisan’s, although he had not heard of it – makes a brief cameo in the House & Home exhibit currently showing at the National Building Museum.

That 1970 predecessor, called Blacks & Whites, was produced by the magazine Psychology Today, and was created to teach white players about what life was like for blacks in an era when all the housing rules were stacked against them. Not surprisingly, Blacks & Whites never went mass market (it doesn’t even appear to have gotten enough traction to have widely offended racists of the era)…

If you visit the exhibit, the game garners only a brief mention (and scanned image). But the most telling details are on the board itself and in the instructions. Blacks & Whites is organized like a Monopoly board, with properties increasing in value as you move around it. The property clusters have fantastically blunt names: the “inner ghetto,” the “outer ghetto,” “lower integrated” and “upper integrated” neighborhoods, “lesser suburbia,” “greater suburbia,” “newer estates” and, lastly, “older estates” (namely, Bethesda and Georgetown!). The board mimics the concentric housing rings of many cities as you move out toward the suburbs, from the all-black “inner ghetto” to the all-white “older estates.”

According to the instructions, the game tries to emphasize “the absurdities of living in different worlds while playing on the same board.” “White” players get a million dollars from the treasury to start the game; blacks get $10,000, and they’re restricted in where they can buy properties. Blacks and whites also draw from separate opportunity card decks.

You mean Americans don’t want to be reminded about social ills when playing their board games? At the same time, I bet it could be done if the game properly balanced between playability and concept. Pedagogically, games can be a great way to teach. By putting players into new situations and showing them what it takes to win and lose, certain values can be imparted. This reminds me of George Herbert Mead discussing how children learn about social interaction and adult life through playing and creating games and debating rules. These games also sound similar to social simulations that are occasionally used in classrooms or by some groups. Think of Monopoly: it is a game yet it also could be viewed as expressing some of the basic values of capitalism. In contrast, more recent Euro style games are built around different concepts. Perhaps some enterprising sociologist can properly achieve the gamification of an important social issue.

Now that I think about it, imagine what Simcity could be like if it had a more complex societal element. The biggest social issues that come up in Simcity are crime, education, traffic, and pollution yet there is little about social class (though one can build low, medium, and high rent residential, commercial, and industrial properties), race, immigration, discrimination, and religion/ideological differences. Similar to Monopoly, the game is geared toward accumulating higher levels of money and land values. Perhaps all of these real-life issues would be difficult to model but I bet it could be incorporated into the gameplay.

Chuck Todd: President Obama takes an anthropological view of the world

In an interview, journalist Chuck Todd explains how President Obama sees the world:

CHUCK TODD: I would say the real danger for the president on issues like this, is less about this, and more about–Paul Begala one time said this to me–he said, you know, the guy really is his mother’s son sometimes when it comes to studying society.  He’s anthropological about it.  Remember that time when he was studying people in Pennsylvania, and he said to that fundraiser in Pennsylvania, you know they cling to their guns.  He wasn’t meaning it as demeaning in his mind, but it came across that way.

ANDREA MITCHELL: It’s intellectualized.

TODD: He’s the son of an anthropologist, and I think sometimes he goes about religion that way, almost in this, as I said because he’s very well studied on, not just Christianity but on a lot of religions, but in that, frankly, anthropological way, and that can come across as distant.

As you can see from the link above, conservatives don’t particularly like this, particularly because they think intellectuals, and perhaps social scientists in particular (see this example regarding social psychologists), are against them already. But this is an interesting quote if correct: Obama then may see the world like a social scientist, looking at larger patterns and trends and making observations. Of course, an anthropological view may reveal unpleasant or unspoken truths, it may provide some insights, but it may also be unfamiliar to some and may be mixed up with political agendas rather than simply be “value-free” (a la Max Weber).

This also raises an intriguing question about what background Americans prefer a president to have. In the past, being a general was important or at least serving in the armed forces but this has declined in significance. Both parties tried a candidate who was a veteran in the last two presidential elections and both lost. Is a business leader better equipped? What about an academic? This is not simply confined to liberals; Newt Gingrich has a background as an academic historian. Hollywood or entertainment stars? Think Ronald Reagan, Jesse Ventura, Arnold Schwarzenegger, etc. Perhaps the best way to look at this is to work in the other direction and focus on different traits that polling organizations have asked about. Here are the results of a Gallup poll from a few months ago:

While more than nine in 10 Americans would vote for a presidential candidate who is black, a woman, Catholic, Hispanic, or Jewish, significantly smaller percentages would vote for one who is an atheist (54%) or Muslim (58%). Americans’ willingness to vote for a Mormon (80%) or gay or lesbian (68%) candidate falls between these two extremes.