The “sonic sociologist”

It can often to be interesting to see how people describe sociology in the non-academic realm. How about a “sonic sociologist“?

DJ Ms Thang is a relative “novelty’’ (her word) in the nightlife business: a sought-after female DJ who can get a room pumping whether she’s spinning for 20-something club kids or a ballroom full of gala-goers. Those skills, as well as her runway-model good looks (she’s sometimes been booked on those alone, she acknowledges), make it clear that “I can hold my own with the boys,’’ she added slyly.

To those who groove or merely toe-tap to the selected beats she puts out, the allure is in her perceptive crowd-reading, and her soulful style, a melange of genres…

“You’re like a sociologist,’’ she said, in her case, one in stilettos, jeans, and lace fingerless gloves. On a Tuesday night at Minibar, the sonic sociologist spins some mellow tracks for a reserved sampling of clubgoers. She starts with the Revenge Rework of Marvin Gaye’s “Heavy Love Affair.’’

It would be interesting to read a study as to how DJs develop these people-watching and perception skills. Similar to some other culture industry insiders, would DJs describe their abilities as “intuition” or “innate abilities”? If so, I suspect a sociologist might find that DJs acquire and develop these skills as they get more opportunities and hone their craft.

The synchronicity of stock traders

In recent years, sociologists have produced a number of interesting works regarding the behavior of economic insiders. In a recent study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, the authors argue that stock traders have fairly synchronized behavior:

Sociologist Brian Uzzi of Northwestern University in Evanston, Illinois, and colleagues analyzed all trades taking place in a single firm of 66 employees over 2 years. As is usual in trading firms, the employees specialized in different markets—housing, autos, or health care, for example—so they had no obvious incentive to copy one another’s behavior. Each trader typically bought or sold stocks about 80 times a day, which the researchers allotted to second-long time windows.

A 7-hour working day is roughly 25,000 seconds, so the chance of one employee’s 80 trades randomly synchronizing with any of his colleague’s is small. Yet Uzzi’s group found that up to 60% of all employees were trading in sync at any one second. What’s more, the individual employees tended to make more money during these harmonious bursts…

This is interesting information in itself: there are common patterns to behaviors in which we might typically assume that traders act on their own. But perhaps the more interesting aspect of all of this is why these trader’s actions are so synchronized. Here is what the authors suggest:

They believe the synchronized behavior is simply a general indicator that the market is ripe for safe trading. Although each individual trader has a short-sighted view of his or her specialist market, the traders’ collective monitoring of events in the outside world means that, at some point—indeed, at 1 second—group instinct prompts many of them to buy or sell together. The researchers found that instant messaging among traders spiraled at times of synchronicity, which seems to support this view. Trading out of sync, Uzzi says, would mean the trader misses out on the time when the market information was optimal for a return.

So even with specialized tasks, these traders are then monitoring broader conditions and responding to group behavior. This seems to fit with other sociological research that suggests that economic decisions that often get chalked up to things like rationality or intuition are influenced by social factors.

There is an intriguing implication as well:

Uzzi thinks trading firms could capitalize on the phenomenon by giving their employees more money to trade when they are in sync. But he warns that the traders themselves must never be told about the decision. “It is well-known that once people become self-conscious of their own behavior, their behavior changes,” he says.

So will behaviors (and outcomes) change if this article becomes common knowledge amongst traders?

Scorecasting: Freakanomics for the sports world

A movement has been growing in the sports world in the last few decades: the use of lots of data in order to make decisions. Some of this data goes against “conventional wisdom” such as ideas of whether players can be “clutch” (some good stuff on which NBA players you would want to take the final shot with the game on the line) and what should actually be valued in free agents (MLB’s shift toward statistics like on-base percentage over home runs and RBIs).

A new book, Scorecasting, tackles a number of sports issue from a quantitative perspective. Read an interview (including a few examples from the book) with one of the authors here.

It will be interesting to see just how mainstream these sorts of ideas become. Does the average sports fan, or even the average sports broadcaster, want to rely on these kinds of data as opposed to their intuition or their feeling? Numbers may provide a better explanation – but numbers have all sorts of perceptions tied to them including the idea that people are just twisting the data to fit their explanation and that numbers about sports are developed by geeks who can’t play sports (or something along these lines).

I, for one, would like to have more quantitative data available to me when watching sports. Information like the batting average of a batter for particular parts of the plate (usually split into nine segments) or on a particular count would be useful. The data might seem overwhelming but ultimately, I think it helps people see the patterns underlying their favorite sport. For example, a home run hit on an 0-2 count in the 9th inning to win the game is impressive in its own right. But to know how rarely home runs are hit on the 0-2, even more so for some batters, adds to the feat.