Sociology prof behind San Jose measure to raise business taxes

Sociologist Scott Myers-Lipton has worked to raise business taxes in San Jose:

With little discussion, the council unanimously approved putting a November ballot measure before city residents that would double annual business tax revenue from $12.7 million to $25.4 million. But the business tax voters will decide differs significantly from what Scott Myers-Lipton, the San Jose State University sociology professor who had led a successful 2012 campaign to raise the minimum wage in the city, had proposed last year.

Myers-Lipton was close to gathering enough signatures to qualify his measure for the ballot, but withdrew it to allow for the city compromise measure.

The measure the council approved for the ballot would increase the annual “base rate” businesses pay by $45 and then charge companies with three or more employees $30 to $60 for each worker, depending on the company’s size, capping at $150,000 a year. It would include inflation adjustments. The city’s current tax is $18 per employee for companies with eight or more workers without inflation increases and caps at $25,000.

Myers-Lipton’s proposed measure would have charged large companies based on their gross receipts, either 60 cents, 90 cents or $1.20 for every $1,000 in revenue. The model, he argued, has been successful in other large cities like San Francisco, Oakland and Los Angeles. A city study estimated the change would put an extra $39 million annually into the city’s pocket for services like public safety, roads and libraries.

It sounds like a typical political conversation about taxes. On one side, proponents argue that businesses should pay more, particularly when needed local services are on the line. On the other hand, proponents suggest businesses will leave and/or not locate in San Jose and instead locate in places with cheaper taxes.

Yet, does it make any difference that this tax proposal was brought forward by a sociologist? Conversations about public sociology sometimes suggest that sociologists have limited ability to bring about policy change. This would seem to be a positive example: sociologist who helped bring about a raise in the minimum wage now has a chance to help pass an increased tax on businesses. Both measures could be viewed as moves toward lessening inequality; this is a cause that many sociologists would support. At the same time, do Myers-Lipton’s moves differ much from typical liberal proposals?

Perhaps many businesses in San Jose can afford such an increase with the wealth in the area. Such a tax may not hurt very much in a thriving area compared to a struggling Rust Belt city.

Biggest European youth survey to conclude with two documentaries

Several researchers are embarking on what they say will be the biggest survey of young adults in Europe but what the results will lead to is different:

RTÉ is seeking 18-34-year-olds to take part in a pan-European online survey that it hopes will produce the “most comprehensive sociological study” of the age group ever presented…

Processing the data will involve a three pronged approach. There will be a quantitative side based on the questionnaire results, a qualitative approach based on documentary videos of groups of people and individuals filling out the survey, and a comparative approach looking at how the answers compare with other European societies…

“We’re ultimately going to produce two one-hour documentaries later this year, which will be the sociological analysis of the survey, and which we hope will provide a very valuable window into contemporary Ireland today.

If there is so much good data to be collected here, the choice to conclude with a documentary is an interesting one. On one hand, the typical sociology approach would be to publish at least a journal article if not a book. On the other hand, if the researchers are trying to reach a broader audience, a documentary that is widely available might get a lot more attention. At least in the United States, documentaries might be seen as nice efforts at public sociology but they are unlikely to win many points toward good research (perhaps even if they are used regularly in sociology courses).

Why doesn’t the American Sociological Association have an arm that puts together documentaries based on sociological work? Or, is there some money to be made here for a production company to regularly put out sociological material? Imagine Gang Leader For a Day or Unequal Childhoods as an 80 minute documentary.

Walk-NYC-sociologist gives pricey tours based on his knowledge

Sociologists often debate or lament their public role but one sociologist who has walked all of New York City 16 times makes money on giving tours:

Helmreich, who wrote “The New York Nobody Knows: Walking 6,000 Miles in the City,” wants more than anything to share these lesser-known wonders of New York with others. He’s even willing to play tour guide, showing off his knowledge of the city’s more than 121,000 blocks…

Helmreich’s tour, dubbed “The New York That Nobody Sees,” can accommodate up to six people on an eight-plus-hour tour to any of the five boroughs. The cost: up to $1,500 per person, including meals, luxury transportation, travel expenses and signed copies of his book.

If a descendant of Italian immigrants wants to see the neighborhood his great-great-grandfather lived in when he came to America, Helmreich can show him and tell him about how it’s changed. If a real estate developer wants to know what the next hot neighborhood will be, Helmreich, a sociology professor at City College well-versed in gentrification patterns, can bring her to the precise block with the best housing stock ripe for a renaissance…

“The New York Nobody Knows” was such a hit that Princeton University Press signed him to write five more books, each one delving deeper into one of the boroughs.

Is he doing a public service through sharing his research knowledge or is he out to make money? Can he do both? It is not uncommon for academics to get involved with consulting or working with organizations. Yet, it sounds like the opportunities created by these tours are primarily for the wealthy and people who could capitalize on the information. Additionally, how recognized are his sociological observations by other sociologists and other scholars of New York City? Sociologists can seem to discredit more popular appeals – see the discussion around Sudhir Venkatesh’s The Floating City – even as many want to have broader recognition from the public.

More broadly, it would be worth hearing from more sociologists about the line between research and entrepreneurship. Is there a line where one has “sold out”? How can one do both?

Sociology class on Malcolm Gladwell suggests his books communicate sociology better than academic texts

The University of Houston is offering a new class on the sociological writings of Malcolm Gladwell:

Who and what is a sociologist? A new undergraduate course taught by Shayne Lee, associate professor of sociology at the University of Houston, will focus on the writings of journalist and best-selling author Malcolm Gladwell in order to delve into the nature of the scientific study of human social relationships and institutions through the lens of popular culture consumption…

Lee says Gladwell’s ability to shape and redirect popular understanding of sociology concepts makes his work an excellent framework for exploring how human action and consciousness shape and are shaped by cultural and social structures.

“Students will assess how the ‘Gladwellian’ perspective confirms and challenges established social theories and offers intriguing new insights for the discipline of sociology,” said Lee. “It places the contributions of a pop cultural superstar like Gladwell in conversation with prominent sociologists of the past and present, posing new questions concerning who and what is a sociologist.”…

“Scholar texts don’t have nearly the same impact on teaching students to think more sociologically than ‘Outliers,'” said Lee. “Hence, it is my contention that Gladwell’s works make people more informed about the nuances and complexities of the human condition.”

Gladwell’s communication abilities are the reason he won an award from the American Sociological Association.

Two thoughts:

1. Gladwell communicates better than many sociologists in his books through: (1) the use of stories and narratives as opposed to data and (2) not too many references to academics and their work. In other words, it doesn’t read much like a typical academic text using lots of sociological terms and full of statistics.

2. Gladwell is indeed a good introduction to sociology. At the same time, I wonder how many college students would read his books and then dig into the academic work behind it. The same features noted in #1 that make his work interesting to the general public also mean that the academic work is buried behind the stories and he is not testing and refining theories rather than summarizing existing work.

The value of bringing gripping sociology into a continuation high school

Sociologist Victor Rios was recently invited to a Sacramento high school where students were engrossed by his story and book:

When Erin McChesney went to her principal with a new book for her high school English students, he was skeptical.

Consider the cover. The title, “Street Life: Poverty, Gangs and a Ph.D.,” is scrawled in a graffiti-style font. A cartoonish drawing depicts a man half-dressed in graduation regalia, half in trademark gangster attire.

But Bob Wilkerson, principal at Vista Nueva Career and Technical High School, agreed to read it. Not only did he give McChesney the green light to use it in her classroom, he assigned it to his entire staff to read during last year’s summer break. And after McChesney scraped together funds to bring the book’s author, Victor Rios, to campus, Wilkerson relished a day of watching his students engage so deeply in an educational opportunity.

“You know what? I’ve got to get these kids to read. I’ve got to help them read better,” said Wilkerson, a longtime educator. “What I have to think about – within reason – is what is best for my students. And if they’re going to read that – if they’re going to read the autobiography of Derek Jeter – I’m OK with that, because they’re reading.”

On Wednesday, Rios – a former Oakland gangster who teaches sociology at the University of California, Santa Barbara – spent the morning at the continuation high school sharing his story and fielding questions about his path from gangs to academia. Speaking to an audience primarily filled with students of color from the impoverished neighborhoods surrounding the East Del Paso Heights campus, Rios spoke of his family’s struggles spanning from Mexico to a drug-infested Oakland neighborhood. He talked about poverty, racism, lack of opportunity, dropping out of a school system that did not engage him – and the teacher from that system who ultimately inspired him.

Sounds like a good learning experience. Additionally, it is good to see a sociologist using his work and life to help inspire others.

What other sociology texts might be similarly inspiring to high school students? Perhaps books of a similar ilk, ones that are both personal and interesting in terms of explaining social phenomena not easily understood, would work. Is appealing more to high schooler’s sense of identity formation and construction the way to go or can some of them understand a more structural approach? If I remember correctly, the sociology class offered at my high school (which I did not take) tended to rely on pop sociology books like Fast Food Nation.

Claim: all media companies have a resident sociologist

This is all tongue-in-cheek but MTV suggests sociologists are in demand:

While falling in love can seem complicated at times, behavior experts can break down the science behind attraction in the simplest terms, so we called upon MTV’s resident sociologist (what media company doesn’t have one?) to deconstruct last night’s “Are You The One?” premiere using her Five Factors of Love thesis.

If there are not real sociologists on TV much, perhaps we could argue many networks and stations have people who play sociologists. Aren’t many of the talking heads pontificating about social forces?

On one hand, if these sociologists were primarily tasked with analyzing the latest reality dating shows, the job may not be that exciting. On the other hand, if there was a sociologist who was able to talk about important issues on TV, areas that consistently match with their research, and was afforded the ability to interact with other experts as well as TV personalities, it could be a very interesting gig. All together, this may mean MTV would not be the best place for a TV sociologist…

What exactly is the ethnographic line between entertaining stories and academic content?

One sociologist expresses his dislike of Sudhir Venkatesh’s latest book Floating City and raises an interesting question about the line between entertaining stories and sociological analysis:


Early in my career I had a book reviewed by a wise sage of Fleet Street who mocked my sociological language and academic conceits. Some years later, a literary agent explained that if I were to abandon academic conventions but retain the stories of “low life”, untold riches would surely follow. In exchange for academic orthodoxy I should situate myself firmly in the narrative, charting my no doubt dangerous but hilarious adventures through the life-world of the lower orders. Although I rejected this suggestion, I always wondered what an ethnography eviscerated of academic content would look like.

Floating City has answered this question and much more. A self-styled “maverick sociologist” and experienced urban ethnographer who holds a named chair at an Ivy League university, Sudhir Venkatesh drains his study of illegal entrepreneurship in New York of most of the academic conventions that will come naturally to someone with almost a quarter of a century of experience in the dangerous enclaves of US higher education. On arriving in New York from Chicago, Venkatesh finds life in a “World City” unfamiliar (but isn’t Chicago a World City?), with old standbys such as neighbourhood and community apparently made redundant by globalisation…

The populist format of Floating City is insistent that the Homeric author is a pioneer, the first in the field, an ingénue intent on emphasising that the unique demands of researching the global city require a rejection of academic tradition. But his outsider stance and maverick posturing are an irritant; they get in the way of his street-savvy case studies and vignettes of urban life. For at the heart of this book is a conventional ethnography that challenges the author’s ingénue facade by using the full arsenal of ethnographic orthodoxy, and along the way highlighting the enduring importance of community and neighbourhood.

The best of this book is precisely the result of the “traditional sociology” that Venkatesh derides. I will not forget in a hurry the poignancy of his descriptions of Manjun and his family, who run a shop selling pornographic DVDs, or his fine-grained interaction with a group of aspirational prostitute women struggling on streets paved with something less than gold. His interaction with coke-addled socialites I found irritating and somewhat pointless, and his aim to make connections between the so-called upper- and underworlds fizzles out. For while the city may be more fluid, the rich and the poor remain separated, and the dots are not joined.

This gets at some basic issues sociologists face:

1. What audience should they aim for when writing a book? If they write for the public, they may be derided by fellow academics for not having enough academic content. If they write a more academic book, few in the public will touch it. It is rare to find such sociological works that can easily transcend these audience boundaries. Just the other day, I was explaining to someone how the book Bowling Alone was one of these rare texts that contained an academic approach to a problem that caught people’s attention.

2. How exactly should ethnographic research be conveyed? Yes, there are stories to relate but it also needs to contain some sociological analysis. Different ethnographers rely on different mixes of narrative and analysis but the sociological element still has to come through to some degree.

3. If the sociologist is studying “low life,” how can these lives be explored without being exploitative or cheapening? Salaciousness might sell but it does not tend to grant dignity and respect to those being described. Sociologists also often develop personal relationships with those they are studying and these complicates the retelling.

These are common concerns of ethnographers and there are not easy answers. Amongst themselves, sociologists disagree how to do these things better.

“Learn to Write Badly: How to Write in the Social Sciences”

A new book titled Learn to Write Badly highlights the poor writing in the social sciences. Here is an example of such writing as sociologist C. Wright Mills tries to simplify the work of Talcott Parsons:

No reader of The Sociological Imagination (1959) will soon forget C. Wright Mills’s “translations” of a few passages from The Social System by Talcott Parsons, one of the most eminent American social scientists of the day. Here’s a representative selection from The Social System, in the original Parsonian idiom:

“Attachment to common values means, motivationally considered, that the actors have common ‘sentiments’ in support of the value patterns, which may be defined as meaning that conformity with the relevant expectations is treated as a ‘good thing’ relatively independently of any specific instrumental ‘advantage’ to be gained from such conformity, e.g. in the avoidance of negative sanctions. Furthermore, this attachment to common values, while it may fit the immediate gratificational needs of the actor, always has a ‘moral’ aspect in that to some degree this conformity defines the ‘responsibility’ of the actor in the wider, that is, social action systems in which he participates.”

And here is how Mills put the same thoughts into demotic English:

“When people share the same values, they tend to behave in accordance with the way they expect one another to behave. Moreover, they often treat such conformity as a very good thing – even when it seems to go against their immediate interests.”

To get the full effect, you have to see Mills perform the operation upon much larger chunks of ore – a solid page of Parsons, massy and leaden, followed by its rendering into three or four spry statements of the relatively obvious. “I do not pretend that my translation is excellent,” Mills writes, “but only that in the translation no meaning is lost.” He later quotes a suggestion by Edmund Wilson that social scientists get help from their colleagues in the English department.

The short book review suggests the author argues disciplinary jargon is the result of new adherents wanting to fit in. One way to fit in is to talk and write like a social scientist, which includes certain conventions.

Still, I’ve heard this argument for years from within sociology and from the outside (including lots of students): sociologists should be able to explain their ideas in simpler terms. Particularly when the complaint arises that sociology gets less of a public hearing than other disciplines, this topic comes up. But, I haven’t heard too many responses to this complaint that include citing sociologists or journals or book series that do a good job of writing sociologically. Are there widely accepted examples of sociologists consistently writing well?

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.

New ASA task force on social media

The American Sociological Association has a new task force on social media that will meet during the 2013 ASA meetings in New York City:

According to Tapia, the ASA has “worked hard to keep pace with the changes in social media” by adopting practices such as maintaining a Facebook page and working with Twitter. However, she added, many sociologists lack the experience and knowledge to fully utilize social media. While in graduate school, sociology students are required to read an extensive amount of literature that goes back hundreds of years but do not receive comparable training in using online tools.

“The purpose of the task force is to think more broadly about ways in which we can help to shine a bright light on sociology,” she said. “For example, many members are eager to promote their books. But some members don’t quite know how to go about it.”…

The Task Force on Social Media will hold its first face-to-face meeting at the ASA Annual Meeting in New York City on Aug. 10. The bulk of the task force work will be done by sub-committees operating electronically and by conference calls over the next 18 months. There will be a second face-to-face meeting in August 2014 at the ASA Annual Meeting in San Francisco.

As a discipline, sociology could use more positive exposure through social media. According to a posting earlier this year, the full name of the group is the Task Force on Using Social Media to Increase the Visibility of Sociological Research. At the same time, Twitter and Facebook and other places don’t always lend themselves to nuanced scientific explanation of the social world…