Sports talk as a space for bad amateur sociology

Sports talk is a popular genre yet it often involves broad statements about society grounded in very little evidence. Here, Colin Cowherd is singled out for his particular brand of amateur sociology:

It is Cowherd’s job, his peculiar burden and gift, to generate outrage, using only recycled news items and his own slapdash sociology, every weekday morning. But the myopia of his July 29 diatribe, in particular, was monumental. Without meaning to, it crystallized the cognitive dissonance that haunts America’s vast Football Industrial Complex (FIC) at this historic moment.

Which is to say: Those who pose as the industry’s critics have to pretend awfully hard that they hate violence and misogyny and greed and homophobia while at the same time promoting a game that is, objectively speaking, violent, misogynistic, mercenary, and homophobic.

The top-tier talkers manage to sound utterly convincing, even as they craft arguments of dazzling fraudulence and obdurate illogic. It appears never to have occurred to Cowherd that football might be a culprit in America’s cult of violence. No, that crisis can be pinned on brutes from the lower castes hopped up on sadistic fictions. It is the feral inclinations of such men — and not, say, the fact that football is vicious enough to cause brain damage among its players — that keeps Cowherd from taking his son to a game. The poor lad might be subjected to a brawl in the stands.

What marks Cowherd as a true pro is his ability to tap into the meta-narrative of grievance that undergirds all punditry. It turns out the Rice case really isn’t about football at all — it’s about governmental negligence and corporate greed! Fortunately, there are intrepid voices inside the FIC willing to speak truth to power.

Cowherd may have his own style but this sort of explanation could apply to lots of sports talk hosts (as well as many other talk radio hosts). The genre works because people like arguments and opinions as well as the ability to be a part of the endless conversation about sports. Yet, the arguments tend to involve little evidence and a lot of opinion and anecdotes. Some of this can be quite engaging but it often requires making broad statements about individuals, teams, fans, cities, and society that are not always thought through. Granted, erudite conversations about sports don’t exactly fit this genre yet it is too much to ask that sports talk hosts think a little bit more about the big picture in addition to their personal opinions?

Can Malcolm Gladwell’s writings lead to “the sociology of success”?

Sociologists might like Malcolm Gladwell but I wonder how many of them would go so far as to endorse a course titled “the sociology of success” based on his writings:

The Idea Lab has completed the first course of an ongoing educational offering called Krypton Community College, a free online/offline project based on a simple idea: We learn better when we do it together. Every four weeks, Krypton Community College presents a different course, based around the work of an acclaimed author / teacher / scholar / speaker – someone with something to say and a track record doing it. The first course, No. 001, was based on the works of acclaimed leadership expert Seth Godin.From noon to 1 p.m. on Nov. 5, The Idea Lab will present the first session of four-week course No. 002 of Krypton Community College. “We are happy to announce that the second course, The Sociology of Success, comes from the works of Malcolm Gladwell,” Ashby said. “This course draws from Malcolm’s writings about how the society we build influences who we become, the heroes that lead us, and the choices we make.”…
Ashby explained how Krypton Community College works. “With every course, we meet each Tuesday for lunch for four weeks,” he said. “Everyone who enrolls in the course gets a PDF document with links to articles and other resources. We come together to discuss and encourage each other to dive deeper into the work.”

On one hand, perhaps this takes advantage of what Gladwell does well: synthesize social science research and create interesting narratives. People who might typically not consider sociological ideas can attend this lunch course and learn something.

On the other hand, perhaps this is “pop sociology” at its worst: quickly scanning the works of Gladwell in a hour and hearing sociology through a journalistic lens. Even more problematic might be the title of the whole class – finding “success,” whatever that means, or talking about leadership. This course isn’t really about sociology but rather than American values of getting ahead with a veneer of academic respectability.

In the end, I would be suspicious that there is much sociology in this one lecture. Granted, this isn’t a full course but it seems like a very limited sociological approach.

Venkatesh on writing for a mass audience vs. a more scholarly audience

A review of Sudhir Venkatesh’s latest book Floating City: A Rogue Sociologist Lost and Found in New York’s Underground Economy notes that Venkatesh finds himself between writing for the public versus academics. And the reviewer doesn’t like hearing about this tension:

There’s one more thing that’s irritating: Early on, Venkatesh tells readers that some sociologists at his Ivy-League institution look down on writing a book for the masses. And he describes being caught between wanting to be taken seriously as an academic and telling stories and reaching a larger audience. But that internal torture sounds hollow, and it seems pretty clear that Venkatesh, well-known already, likes the spotlight of mass appeal. So why not just drop the pretense and write?

While the average reader might not be interested in this tension, I feel I have heard versions of this conversation numerous times. But, which way the conversation goes tends to depend heavily on the context. At the more official sessions and events of the ASA, you get more of a push for the scholarly audience. The big names are present, there is a lot of conversation about theories and the latest research, and there are awards for he best scholarly work. At more regional meetings, you hear a mix. When teaching undergraduate liberal arts students, they often ask why academics tend to write in journals that relatively few people read. From their point of view, why become a sociologist if not many people pay attention to your findings and ideas?

Perhaps the reviewer is right: Venkatesh and others could just pick a side and go with it. Yet, there are clear consequences for such decisions. There are certainly sociologists who have gone the more mass market approach and done okay, even if their status within the academic discipline doesn’t rise accordingly or they are viewed by some as lightweights.

Is Charles Murray really a sociologist?

I’ve seen a number of news stories about Charles Murray’s latest book and one thing caught my eye: the claim that Murray is a sociologist. (See examples from the Philadelphia Inquirer, BusinessWeek, and the National Catholic Reporter.) Is he really?

Murray’s page at his current scholarly home, the American Enterprise Institute, says he is a “political scientist, author, and libertarian.”

Wikipedia’s main entry for Murray clearly calls him a political scientist and records his PhD in political science but this list of sociologists includes Murray.

Perhaps the confusion comes from the fact that Murray is working with a lot of topics that are commonly covered by sociology such as race, social class, and family life. Even the New York Times describes his work as sociology:

Few people today would dismiss the idea that values, culture and intelligence all play a role in economic success. But it is hard to know what to make of some of Murray’s findings. As with David Brooks’s “Bobos in Paradise,”Murray’s sociology depends a lot on his own, sometimes highly idiosyncratic, fieldwork. To demonstrate that the elite are more likely to drive foreign cars than domestic ones, Murray notes the makes of automobiles in a couple of mall parking lots. In an otherwise persuasive chapter arguing that Ivy League graduates tend to live near one another, Murray quotes a remark by Michael Barone, the conservative commentator, complaining about the profusion of Harvard and Yale graduates on his former block. If Murray believes that wealthy yuppies suffer from creeping nonjudgmentalism, I invite him to spend an hour on

This quote suggests that Murray’s work is sociology because he is explaining sociological phenomena, not because he is working within the sociological tradition, utilizing sociological theories and methods, or even thinking like a typical sociologist. Practicing sociology (sometimes termed “pop sociology”) is quite different from being a sociologist. Is this simply lazy journalism or a bigger problem in that people don’t know how sociologists actually go about their work?

In a related question, how many sociologists would claim Murray is a sociologist? First, this could be tied to whether he is practicing good sociology. Second, this could be about whether he is espousing ideas that fit with sociological theories and data (and they generally don’t). How many sociologists would want to add libertarian as a descriptor of their image?

“Hardware sociology” in New York City?

The Wall Street Journal has an article examining a few small hardware stores in Manhattan’s Upper East Side. Here seems to be the extent of the sociology:

Here’s where the provincialism of New York City comes in, and customer loyalty that can be measured in a thimble with room to spare. One wouldn’t think that moving from 87th to 82nd Street, albeit also from Madison to Lexington, would be the equivalent of relocating to the Mongolian steppes. But much of Feldmans’ customer base, pleased though they undoubtedly were to have the store in the neighborhood all those years when they needed Liquid-Plumr or light bulbs for their Picassos, didn’t follow.

Takeaway: “New York is said to be a city of neighborhoods. It’s more like a city of individual blocks.” So New York City, like most big cities, has a number of different subcultures.

This may be pop sociology at its finest/worst. There is not much sociological content here and sociology seems to be the pseudo-academic cover for explaining the idiosyncrasies of the local city.

How to qualify as a pop sociologist

One Wired writer has a humorous take on what one has to do to be a pop sociologist:

I’ve been reading a lot of books by Malcolm Gladwell and books remarkably similar to books by Malcolm Gladwell. The pattern is pretty straightforward: You give your book a one-word title and then explain what the hell you’re talking about in the subtitle…

The two main qualifications for being a pop sociology author appear to be the ability to ask rhetorical questions, and the ability to share anecdotes that vaguely answer those questions. Is this something I could do? According to a tangentially related study of bar-hopping patterns among female youth in Prague, yes it is…

Learning about what made Darwin, Gershwin and to a lesser extent Paquin who they are is not going to do a damn thing for you, any more than the Babar books turned you into elephant royalty like you always secretly hoped they would. So my book is going to focus on the one thing that all successful, world-changing geniuses have in common: They’re not you.

What follows is an excerpt from my upcoming book, Nope: Success, Brilliance, Innovation and Why Those Words Never Come Up When People Talk About You.


I do have to give Gladwell some credit. He does seem to do his scientific homework as even sociologists like his work (as evidenced by the award he received from the American Sociological Association). Not everyone can do what he does: present scientific findings in an engaging way. I wonder if sociologists are sometimes jealous at the kind of writing he is able to do compared to the more scientific writing required in academic journals and monographs.

Oh, and it doesn’t hurt to pick a topic that is ripe for translating from new scientific findings into the popular realm.

From bobos to social animals: the upcoming book from David Brooks

Commentator David Brooks will soon be releasing a new book titled The Social Animal. This Newsweek story provides some clues about the new book:

The book’s subtitle—The Hidden Sources of Love, Character, and Achievement—conveys its ambition. Brooks’s first two books, Bobos in Paradise and On Paradise Drive, were acutely witty satires of a social group whose name he coined: bobos, or “bourgeois bohemians,” the “affluent educated class” that frequents “gourmet coffeehouses” and issues corporate reports “with quotations from Émile Zola.” The books are smart—Brooks is a shrewd anthropologist of this fanciful type—and hugely entertaining. But they lack gravitas. The Social Animal is of a whole other order: authoritative, impressively learned, and vast in scope.

Its thesis can be stated simply: who we are is largely determined by the hidden workings of our unconscious minds. Everything we do in life—the careers we choose; even, on a deeper level, the way we experience and perceive the sensation of being alive—emerges from an infinitely complex neuronal network sending out signals (Brooks calls them “scouts”) that, largely unknown to us, assess and determine our behavior. Insights, information, responses to stimuli are governed by our emotions, a rich repository of thoughts and feelings that courses just beneath the surface of our conscious minds. They are “mental sensations that happen to us.”

Brooks has absorbed and synthesized a tremendous amount of scholarship. He has mastered the literature on childhood development, sociology, and neuro-science; the classics of modern sociology; the major philosophers from the Greeks to the French philosophes; the economists from Adam Smith to Robert Schiller. He quotes artfully from Coleridge and Stendhal. And there’s nothing showy about it. He’s been busy, working on the book over the past three years during the stray hours when he isn’t writing his column, appearing on TV, or lecturing around the country. “I used to play golf,” he says. “I gave up every second that I wasn’t hanging around with my wife and kids.” (He has three, and lives, bobolike, in the Washington suburb of Bethesda, Md.)

To create a readable narrative from this daunting store of information, Brooks has written the book in the form of a novel, following an imaginary couple named Harold and Erica from womb to tomb.

Based on the summary here, it sounds like I will pick up this book somewhere down the road.

It is interesting that this reviewer suggests that Brooks was an “anthropologist” in writing his first two books. Brooks himself suggests in Bobos in Paradise that he was practicing “comic sociology.” This new book sounds more like anthropology as Brooks sets out to explore why humans are the way they are. Or more broadly, Brooks is approaching a question that many humans throughout history have asked(see a recent example here): what exactly makes us human?

Also, I am not sure about the idea that his first two books suffered from a lack of gravitas. Sure, the books were somewhat snarky. But there was also some truth in them about recent changes in American suburbs. Did they lack gravitas because they pointed out some of the foibles of bourgeois bohemians?

(Read other posts about David Brooks: making a pitch for sociology; a system that might discourage good candidates from running for political office; and defending the liberal arts.)

George Will on the Arizona shooting, sociology, and social engineering

The opinions are flying regarding the Arizona shooting over the weekend. Conservative commentator George Will enters the fray with some thoughts about sociology:

It would be merciful if, when tragedies such as Tucson’s occur, there were a moratorium on sociology. But respites from half-baked explanations, often serving political opportunism, are impossible because of a timeless human craving and a characteristic of many modern minds. The craving is for banishing randomness and the inexplicable from human experience.

The craving is for banishing randomness and the inexplicable from human experience.

This does seem to be a common human desire: to establish order within the chaos of life. But I would make a distinction between his quick thought here that sociology and half-baked explanations are related. As a discipline, sociology seeks to observe and measure reality. Bad sociology leaps to half-baked conclusions while good sociology follows the scientific process, looking for evidence of causation. Bad sociology is really “pop sociology” or “armchair sociology” where commentators leap to certain conclusions without carefully considering the evidence or attempting to be objective.

Will then goes on to talk about what he thinks is behind the desire of the Left to blame the Right for the shootings:

A characteristic of many contemporary minds is susceptibility to the superstition that all behavior can be traced to some diagnosable frame of mind that is a product of promptings from the social environment. From which flows a political doctrine: Given clever social engineering, society and people can be perfected. This supposedly is the path to progress. It actually is the crux of progressivism. And it is why there is a reflex to blame conservatives first.

Using the term “social engineering” is an interesting choice. It implies images of 1984 or A Brave New World where a powerful government dictates what people should do in order to fulfill their own ideas of human perfection. Of course, there is a lot that could be discussed on the subject of human perfection (can humankind bring about its own redemption?), what kind of perfection is desirable (individualism or a Marxist collective?), and how to reach this point (and whether it has to be “clever” or not). And if we have some tools and knowledge that could help improve the social environment, available through disciplines like sociology, shouldn’t we pursue some of these options?

But by linking sociology and social engineering, Will is obscuring the fact that the social environment does play some role in influencing human behavior. It does not completely determine human behavior but there would be few social scientists who would claim this. Figuring out why humans do what they do is a complicated story involving both nature and nurture.

From Will’s point of view, do conservatives deny that the social environment affects human behavior? Do conservatives not try some social engineering of their own to advance particular ideas and policies?