NYT lays out three options for how personal religious faith could influence sociological work

At the end of a column looking at this summer’s public debate over research findings from sociologist Mark Regnerus, the writer suggests there are three ways personal religious faith could influence a sociologist’s work:

So if there is not really a Christian method in sociology, but there is a role for a self-described Christian in sociology, as Dr. Regnerus once averred, then what is that role? One can imagine several answers.

First, the religious — or atheist, for that matter — sociologist might have a set of topics that she finds particularly relevant to her beliefs. Given their traditions’ emphasis on traditional family, for example, a conservative Catholic or evangelical Protestant could reasonably gravitate toward the study of family structure.

Second, a scholar might have faith that good research ultimately brings people to God or furthers his plans. A Christian historian might trust that even a modest study of the Spanish-American War, or of Rhode Island history, would do a small part to reveal the providential nature of all history.

Finally, a scholar might be a “Christian scholar” by virtue of the pride he takes in his faith, especially in the secular academy. Dr. Regnerus was a proud Christian witness, once upon a time. But these days he won’t discuss his faith, even with a Christian magazine. Two weeks ago, Christianity Today ran a lengthy interview with Dr. Regnerus in which he said nothing about his religious beliefs.

Option one presented here seems to be the one that would probably be most acceptable to the broader scientific community. Lots of researchers have personal interests that help guide them to particular areas of study but then we tend to assume (or hope), a la Weber’s arguments about value-free sociology, that the findings will not necessarily be influenced by these personal interests. At the same time, some might argue that completely separating personal life and research results may be a modernist dream.

I suspect options two and three wouldn’t get as much broad support.

It would also be interesting to see how this would play out if we weren’t talking about personal religious beliefs but other personal beliefs. For example, Jonathan Haidt has been looking at politics within social psychology and thinking about how these personal (and more collective) beliefs might influence a whole field.

Losing something in the research process with such easy access to information

A retired academic laments that the thrill of the research hunt has diminished with easy access to information and data:

It’s a long stretch, but it seems to me that “ease of access” and the quite miraculous enquiry-request-delivery systems now available to the scholar have had an effect on research. The turn to theory – attention to textuality rather than physical things such as books, manuscripts, letters and paraphernalia of various kinds – has, I think, coincided with big changes in method. Discovery has been replaced by critical discourse and by dialectic.

Fieldwork was, typically, solitary. Lonely sometimes. The new styles at the professional end of the subject are collective – if sometimes less than collegial. The conference is now central to the profession, particularly the conference at which everyone is a speaker, a colloquiast and a verbal “participant”.

One can see something similar at the undergraduate level. I suspect that in my subject (English), some undergraduates are nowadays doing their three years without feeling ever obliged to go the library. Gutenberg, iBook, Wikipedia, SparkNotes, Google and the preowned, dirt-cheap texts on AbeBooks have rendered the library nothing more than emergency back-up and a warm place to work, using wi-fito access extramural materials. The seminar (the undergraduate equivalent of the conference), not the one-on-one tutorial or the know-it-all lecture, is the central feature of the teaching programme.

There may be something to this. Discovering new sources, objects, and data that no one has examined before in out-of-way places is certainly exciting. However, I wonder if the research hunt hasn’t simply shifted. As this academic argues, it is not hard to find information these days. But today, the hunt is more in what story to tell or how to interpret the accessible data. As I tell my students, anyone with some computer skills can do a search, find a dataset, and download it within a few minutes. This does not mean that the everyone can understand how to work with the data and interpret it. (The same would apply to non-numeric/qualitative data that could be quickly found, such as analyzing online interactions or profiles.) Clearing a way through the flood of information is no easy task and can have its own kind of charm.

Perhaps the problem is that students and academics today feel like having the quick access to information already takes care of a large part of their research. Simply go to Google, type in some terms, look at the first few results, and there isn’t much left to do – it is all magic, after all. Perhaps the searching for information that one used to do wasn’t really about getting the information but rather about the amount of time it required as this led to more profitable thinking, reflection, and writing time.

New Microsoft lab in New York City to study social media and social science

Microsoft is opening up a new laboratory in New York City that will focus on the intersection of social media and social science:

Microsoft Research is opening a new lab in New York City, headed by ex-Yahoo senior scientists. The star crop of researchers includes sociologist and network theorist Duncan Watts, computational scientist David Pennock, and machine learning expert John Langford…

Microsoft’s research hubs are behind several of the company’s successful products. The Kinect and Bing were both developed for years as research projects before Microsoft turned them into products…

The NYC lab recruits bring in mathematical and computation tools that could work magic with existing social media research already underway at Microsoft Research, led by folks like Gen-fluxer danah boyd. “I would say that the highly simplified version of what happens is that data scientists do patterns and ethnographers tell stories,” boyd tells Fast Company. While Microsoft Research New England has strengths in qualitative social science, empirical economics, machine learning, and mathematics, “We’ve long noted the need for data science types who can bridge between us,” boyd explained in a blog post announcing the NYC labs.

Data available via social networks like Twitter and Facebook finally offer a discrete measure of how people interact with one another, and how influence flows through their web of social links. As Watts explains it: “We want to understand how these phenomena work, we have to take a very large scale view of the world but have to refine our viewing a very fine grained way.”

Microsoft has hired 15 founding members (8 of those names are public), but that number is likely to grow in the coming months “like a university department in good times,” Chayes said. (Microsoft Research’s other units vary in size from 40 to 400 members of staff). The lab will draw on collaborators at the University of Pennsylvania, Rutgers, Princeton, New York University, and Columbia who’ve expressed an interest in working with the NYC labs.

This sounds like a fascinating opportunity to bring together a number of notable researchers across disciplines to tackle new issues and data.

I wonder how many academics would bristle at this news simply because of the connection to Microsoft, the supposedly big bad company that has tried to force its way in the computing world and is seen less favorably than “cooler” firms like Yahoo, Google, and Apple. At the same time, it is only with the resources available at these sorts of companies that you could put together labs like this and grant employees (Google is particularly famous for this) time to do their own creative work. How much of the work in this lab will be expected to be funneled into Microsoft products versus the general world of academia? Well-known researchers like danah boyd and Duncan Watts have made it work in the past but how different is it to work for a corporation versus an academic institution? I assume there must be some nice perks, including salary…

Sociologist reflects on his research about the LA Riots

Sociologist Darnell Hunt studied how perceptions of media coverage of the 1992 LA Riots differed by race in Screening the Los Angeles ‘Riots’: Race, Seeing, and Resistance. Hunt recently reflected on his research:

Darnell Hunt was a graduate student at the time of the riots, studying race and media.

“I was looking for a case study,” he said. “And then the riots happened.”

He immediately focused on the reaction to the news coverage of the riots, which would later form the basis for his dissertation. Hunt took his camcorder down to the center of the protests and left the VCR running, he said, so he could compare the media’s take on the events that day compared to the reality just outside as part of his research.

Hunt is now a sociology professor at UCLA, and director of the Ralph J. Bunche Center for African American Studies. While he witnessed firsthand much of the upheaval across the city while conducting his research, he said he found optimism in the clean-up period following the six days that the riots took place.

“People saw (the aftermath) as this moment when people came together around a common cause, across racial lines, and talked about the possibility of coalitions and achieving some type of progress,” he said.

Hunt’s research from 20 years ago, which he continues to observe and build upon, showed that people of different ethnicities perceived media depictions differently.

Thursday, he spoke at a UCLA event that explored the role played by the media during the L.A. riots.

Hunt recalled the riots still being fresh in the minds of many when he started out as a professor, but now only a couple of hands go up when he asks who remembers them in his lectures, he said.

But the issues that contributed to the riots are still relevant, he said. Unemployment and economic disparity have not necessarily improved in the city, he said.

“It’s been a couple steps forward, a couple steps back,” Hunt said. “One positive development is that we do have more communication across racial and ethnic lines.”

Several quick thoughts:

1. This seems to be a good example of taking advantage of a research opportunity. Does this illustrate the advantages of being at a school in a big urban center where a lot of things are going on?

2. Though the remarks above are brief, it sounds like Hunt is suggesting that not much has changed in regards to race in Los Angeles?

3. I’m amused that Hunt says that students don’t remember these events. Of course, traditional students in college today would have been born between 1990 and 1995 so it would be difficult to remember events from 1992. At the same time, this illustrates the need for faculty to keep up with research: if the careers of faculty are mainly based on their dissertation, this could become outdated or uninteresting to new generations rather quickly. That doesn’t mean students shouldn’t know about what a professor researched but the passage of time can make it harder to make a case for its relevance.

Quick Review: The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lack

After a few people mentioned a particular New York Times bestseller to me recently, I decided to read The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lack. While the story itself was interesting, there is a lot of material here that could be used in research methods and ethics classes. A few thoughts about the book:

1. The story is split into two narratives. One is about both the progress science has made with a Lack’s cells but also the struggle of her family to understand what actually has been done with her cells. The story of scientific progress is unmistakable: we have come a long way in identifying and curing some diseases in the last sixty years. (This narrative reminded me of the book The Emperor of All Maladies.)

2. The second narrative is about the personal side of scientific research and how patients and relatives interpret what is going on. The author initially finds that the Lacks know very little about how their sister or mother’s cells have been used. These problems are compounded by race, class, and educational differences between the Lacks and the doctors utilizing Henrietta’s cells. In my opinion, this aspect is understated in this book. At the least, this is a reminder about how inequality can affect health care. But I think this personal narrative is the best part of the book. When I talk in class about the reasons for Institutional Review Boards, informed consent, and ethics, students often wonder how much social science research can really harm people. As this book discusses, there are some moments in relatively recent history that we would agree were atrocious: Nazi experiments, the Tuskegee experiments, experiments in Guatemala, and so on. Going beyond those egregious cases, this book illustrates the kind of mental and social harm that can result from research even if using Henrietta’s cells never physically harmed the Lacks. I’m thinking about using some sections of this narrative in class to illustrate what could happen; even if new research appears to be safe, we have to make sure we are protecting our research subjects.

3. This book reminded me of the occasional paternalistic side of the medical field. This book seems to suggest this isn’t just an artifact of the 1950s or a racial division; doctors appear slow in addressing concerns some people might have about the use of human tissue in research. I realize that there is a lot at stake here: the afterward of the book makes clear how difficult it would be to regulate this all and how this might severely limit needed medical research. At the same time, doctors and other medical professionals could go further in explaining the processes and the possible outcomes to patients. Perhaps this is why the MCAT is moving toward involving more sociology and psychology.

4. There is room here to contrast the discussions about using body tissue for research and online privacy. In both cases, a person is giving up something personal. Are people more disturbed by their tissue being used or their personal information being used and sold online?

All in all, this book discusses both scientific breakthroughs, how patients can be hurt by the system, and a number of ethical issues that have yet to be resolved.

Still using Chicago as “urban laboratory”

Following in the tradition of the Chicago School which saw the city as an “urban laboratory,” sociologist Robert Sampson explains how the findings from studying Chicago apply to the entire country:

Many cities were considered as a possible launching pad for the study, but Chicago got the nod for its composition of whites, blacks, and Latinos — the three largest groups in the United States — and for the access to the city’s extensive statistics on health, police, and more. “Chicago offered us a picture of American life that we thought was broadly representative,” Sampson said.

According to Sampson, a vast array of social activity is concentrated in place. “We studied crime, health, altruism, cynicism, disorder, collective efficacy, civic engagement, leadership networks — all of which are influenced and shaped by neighborhood effects.”…

Even as the world is increasingly globalized, neighborhood structures remain local and important. “Neighborhoods have legacies,” he said. “Crime and poverty are durable over long periods of time. From the 1960s onwards, cities went through amazing social change — riots, crime — to one of the largest decreases in violence from the late 1990s to the present. Yet communities are persistent in rank ordering. People are moving in and out of neighborhoods, but the perceptions of neighborhoods stay largely the same.”

What’s more, he found, no community in Chicago transitioned from black to white, a pattern he shows is similar to the United States as a whole.

To sum up: place matters.

I’ve thought several times over the years that I would like to see more work about whether Chicago is really representative of America as is often suggested or if other cities are better options. To put it another way, is Chicago studied more often because there is a legacy of studying Chicago well at the University of Chicago and other schools or because Chicago is truly unique? Others have argued that other places are more emblematic of more recent patterns – check out the Los Angeles School for a differing opinion. Chicago might represent Rust Belt cities but what about Sun Belt cities?

When looking at American cities that seem to get most research attention or are covered in “classic works”, having an established research school with an interest in urban sociology seems to matter. Chicago gets a lot of attention as does Philadelphia, Boston, and New York City. This makes sense: these cities have great universities and it is logical that researchers and graduate students would look at some of the surrounding areas and be able to justify this study beyond simply saying it is more convenient or cheaper. In contrast, other major cities don’t seem to get the same level of scrutiny, places like Washington, D.C., Detroit, Atlanta, Dallas, Houston, and a number of other ascendent Sun Belt cities.

Perhaps my thoughts are too impressionistic and one could try to quantify just how much each city actually does get studied. But even then, there are cities with histories that matter, research legacies that have inertia and are likely to continue for some time. Someday we might have a Houston school or an Atlanta school but that requires resources, effort, and research that is recognized as being relevant and innovative.

Journal editors push authors to add citations to improve impact factors?

A new study in Science suggests that some journal editors push authors to include citations in their soon-t0-be published studies to boost the reputation of their journals:

A system of “impact factors”, tied to references listed in studies, pervades the scholarly enterprise, notes survey author Allen Wilhite and Eric Fong of the University of Alabama in Huntsville, who reports the survey of 6,672 researchers in economics, sociology, psychology, and business research in the current Science journal. The survey covered journal editor behavior from 832 publications.

Overall, about 20% of survey respondents say that a journal editor had coerced extra citations to their own journal from them. Broadly, journals with higher impact factors attract more prestige, advertising and power in hiring and firing decisions in scholarly circles, the authors note, giving journal editors an incentive to extort added citations to their publications in the studies they consider for publication. “(T)he message is clear: Add citations or risk rejection,” write the authors.

In particular, younger professors with few co-authors who need publications to keep their jobs reported the most pressure. Business journal editors coerced the most often, followed by economics, and then psychology and other social sciences. As well, “journals published by commercial, for-profit companies show significantly greater use of coercive tactics than journals from university presses. Academic societies also coerce more than university presses.”

Less than 7% of the respondents thought researchers would resist this coercion, so desperate for publication are professors. “Although this behavior is less common in economics, psychology, and sociology, these disciplines are not immune—every discipline reported multiple instances of coercion. And there are published references to coercion in fields beyond the social sciences,” concludes the survey report…

While I’m glad to see that sociology seems to be toward the bottom of this list, this is still a problem. In some ways, this is not surprising as many in academia feel the pressure to make their work stand out.

However, I think you could ask broader questions about the system of citations. Here are a few other ideas:

1. Do researchers feel pressure to add citations to articles simply to reach a “magic number” or to have enough so that it looks like they have “properly” scoped out the topic?

2. How much have citations increased with the widespread use of online databases that make it much easier to find articles?

2a. Since I assume this has increased the number of citations, does this lead to “better research”?

3. When choosing what articles to cite, how much are researchers influenced by how many other people have cited the article (supposedly a measure of its value) and the impact factors of the journal the article is in?