Avoiding “vulgar sociologism” when responding to events like the London riots

Responding to commentary from social scientists about the recent riots in London, an Australian sociologist warns against “vulgar sociologism”:

ARGUABLY the greatest poet of the 20th century, Wynstan Hugh Auden, is reported to have quipped that, the goal of anyone seriously interested in human affairs, should be to “never commit a social science”. As I am an academic sociologist, one could be forgiven for thinking, I might take offence at such a blanket dismissal of my stock-in-trade.

However, I think WH was right on the money. And, the media and academic commentary on the riots in London days has only added to my conviction that ‘vulgar sociologism’ – as the Peruvian sociologist Cesar Graña termed it – is much worse than no sociology at all. If only social scientists knew how to keep their ‘traps’ shut, from time to time…

As a result of such shortcomings, what often passes for social science or social commentary, especially in the public domain, is no more than cliché, thinly veiled moralism or prophecy based on hindsight. Like the Old Testament prophets, who emerged from the desert to proclaim that unless the people repented, more God-willed disasters awaited, these social scientists and social commentators seem to relish holding society responsible for humanity’s ills…

If the recent outburst of public sociological commentary is anything to go by, we can see why Auden counselled against ‘committing’ the sin of social science. Bad social science reduces complex problems to simplistic formulas. It only fills our newspapers, radio and television airwaves, with irrelevant commentary…

The truth of the matter is, that unlike medical research and the fight against diseases, social science is acting in bad faith if it promotes the view that it can seriously enhance a society’s capacity to avoid or solve social problems. There is no social science equivalent to prevention or cure; and even diagnosis is a sketchy practice.

A sociologist is really arguing that sociologist can’t help society deal with social problems? Isn’t this what motivates many to become sociologists and what use is research if it doesn’t apply to society? If sociology can’t diagnose, let alone prevent or cure, what is left? What exactly does this sociologist lecture on in class?

At the same time, I can see some merit in another idea in this piece: it is difficult to quickly describe and/or understand what happened in London. While I don’t know many sociologists looking for “simplistic formulas,” this is a reminder that social behaviors and actions are often the product of complex circumstances. Quick, accurate, and helpful pronouncements about complex situations on television are hard to come by, whether the field is sociology, politics, economics, or something else. As this sociologist notes, there is quite a temptation to respond quickly: academics may want to be in the public eye and can be rewarded for it. In a world of sound bites and Tweets, is it any surprise that academics may want to take part and claim some space for themselves?

In the end, I’m somewhat bamboozled by this essay. Cautions about rushing to judgment are helpful but the broader statements about the capabilities of sociology and social science are unique.

Inside Higher Ed’s “Sociologists in Sin City” raises some interesting issues

Earlier this week, I offered some thoughts about the American Sociological Association meetings in Las Vegas and Inside Higher Ed also offered an overview of the conference:

There is something both jarring and perfectly apropos about bringing thousands of sociologists to Sin City. As the ASA press release delicately observed, “Las Vegas [is] vibrant and fascinating from a sociological perspective” – but it’s not difficult to conjecture why the conference had never been held here before. The very aspects of Las Vegas that might make it fascinating to a sociologist — the emphasis on consumerism and decadence; the unapologetic obsession with (and exploitation of) female flesh; and the city’s most celebrated pastime gambling, whose appeal is particularly mystifying to some with a background in statistics — are also the sorts of things that tend to be off-putting to academics, especially (or at least) in the presence of their colleagues. Little wonder that ol’ Lost Wages is one of the least-educated cities in the country. (As David Dickens, professor of sociology at the University of Nevada at Las Vegas, likes to say: “Thank god for Fresno.”) And little wonder, too, that even those who have dedicated their careers to studying human society weren’t wholly enthused about being thrust into the heart of this particular society, however fascinating it might be…

Sara Goldrick-Rab, associate professor of educational policy studies and sociology at the University of Wisconsin at Madison, emphatically agreed. “I found it hard to believe we sociologists would come to a place that clearly thrives on the exploitation of people’s financial and emotional insecurities,” she wrote in an e-mail. “The grotesque treatment of young women was visible and jarring.”…

Perhaps not incidentally, this faculty member was male – as was the graduate student from a highly respected private institution who suggested that any dislike of or discomfort with Las Vegas was limited to the conference’s female attendees. Also male: the grad student from a California public who smilingly boasted of having slipped a small bribe to the man at the check-in desk in exchange for a room with a good view of the pools (and the bikini-clad women therein) – which view, he said, he found rather distracting as he sat in his room preparing his presentation.

The article suggests several possible fault lines of opinion: between men and women (some of this is quoted above), those who like to gamble and those who do not, and those who work in Las Vegas (UNLV) versus elsewhere. But there was one particularly interesting thought from one of the UNLV sociologists:

Wade said it might not be a bad thing if the city made its visitors uncomfortable. Academics, she noted, tend to lead “pretty cushy” lives, and spending a few days in a difficult and even disturbing environment could prompt them to think about the “real people” who call the city home — and about the fact that, in many ways, Las Vegas is just a distilled and amplified representation of the world we all live in. “There’s a little bit of Vegas in all of us.”

I wonder how many sociologists would like to admit that as a possibility. But there is a point here: it is not as if exploitation, extreme gaps between the rich and poor, the objectification of women, and other issues are not present in other cities. Las Vegas, in its own unique way, seems to shove these issues in your face that doesn’t fit the typical academic experience.

Does this story suggest that sociologists are moralists, generally turned off by places like Las Vegas?

Reading that some people were unhappy to attend ASA in Las Vegas, it made me wonder whether ASA ever sends out surveys after the meetings to see how attendees liked the experience and what might be changed. If so, I don’t recall seeing one. Seeing that my car repair place always sends a survey afterwards, wouldn’t it make sense for ASA to do the same thing or do they not have to because they have a captive audience?

Another question: how exactly did Inside Higher Ed go about interviewing sociologists for this story?

Sociology: helping us move beyond common sense (and individualistic) understandings of the world

This overview of the recent book Everything is Obvious Once You Know the Answer: How Common Sense Fails Us does a decent job in explaining why sociology helps us move beyond common sense understandings of the world:

This thought-provoking book challenges the universal belief that management decisions based on common sense – rooted in best practices, hunches and experiences – often lead to the best outcomes.  According to the book, the reality ends up being quite different.  Relying too much on common sense often leads well-intentioned and intelligent people to make poor strategic and tactical decisions in areas such as capital investments, product introductions, new market entry and advertising decisions.

Watt’s supposition is that people give too much credence to their prior and accumulated experiences, history in general and what they perceive as best practices when making decisions.  According to the research, a person’s common sense is faulty for a number of reasons:  it contains intrinsic bias; it is based on unproven or wrong assumptions and; it is too difficult to deduce clear-cut conclusions and action steps from an environment that is overly complex or unclear…

Relying on common sense for decisions or to make predictions has dangerous implications.  For one thing, reality is usually very different from what was first imagined.  The future is quite complex and rarely reflects the same conditions that earlier decisions were based on.  As a result, it is highly unlikely positive outcomes will repeat themselves if the individual relies solely on history.  In my consulting experience,  the higher degree of uncertainty around a decision or potential outcome, the more likely senior executives will rely on subjective criteria like common sense or best practices as a basis for decision making.

I’ve made a similar argument to students: we tend to operate on a day-to-day basis by seeing things in terms of how we have seen or experienced them before. We make patterns out of things (we are pattern-making creatures) that have happened to us regardless of the amount of information to back up our conclusions. New information is then filtered through these older constructs. When confronted with new information that doesn’t “fit,” we have to ignore it, fit it into our old constructs, or develop new constructs.

Thinking sociologically means that we move beyond this individualistic level in a couple of ways:

1. We try to take a broad overview, recognizing that the world is complicated and many things are related. Instead of just thinking about how something affects us, we look at how systems are connected and social processes take place. The question is more “how does the whole affect the individual” rather than “how does the individual fit within the whole.”

2. Conclusions should be based on data that is collected and analyzed in ways that minimize individual level bias. Though we often are unable to create perfect models or understanding, we can make good estimates.

I may have to try out this description with my students to see what they think.

How sociology can “unravel the [London] riots”

The president and vice-chair of the British Sociological Association explain how sociology can help explain the London riots:

One of the first things that disappears when considering disturbances such as these is perspective. One loses sight of the fact that nine out of 10 local residents aren’t rioting, that nine out of 10 who are rioting aren’t local to the area, and that nine out of 10 of these non-locals aren’t doing it to commit crime. That is to say, it is a tiny minority who are participating and, of those that are, it’s a tiny minority who are doing so solely to commit crime. Crime is a motive, but crowd behaviour is a more complex process, and it is sociology as a discipline that best understands crowd behaviour.

Crowds are irrational. Crowds don’t have motives – that’s far too calculating and rational. Crowd behaviour is dynamic in unpredictable ways, and reason and motive disappear when crowds move unpredictably. But has anyone made a connection with the two media events that dominated media coverage on the same day – the irrationality of crowds on the streets and of traders on the stock market? Both sorts of behaviour are moved by emotion not reason, passions not predictability, and reason disappears. Economists are lauded for their accounts of the irrationality of the market traders, but sociologists get criticised for suggesting that allegations of criminality are a poor account of the irrationality of crowds.

Sociologists seek to explain – not explain away – these events. An understanding of the impact of social inequalities and deprivation, youth unemployment, racism and ethnic conflict, and crime and policing forms a large part of the concerns of UK sociology. Since most politicians and the police seem to have been taken unawares by the events of the past few days, it seems we need more understanding and explanation, not less, if we are to be able to draw lessons from the current events and prevent their recurrence. The British Sociological Association would be happy to put London’s mayor and his staff in touch with sociologists who could add real understanding to the all-too-easy condemnations of these disturbing events.

Several things stand out to me:
1. I like the opening suggestion and make a similar argument to my Introduction to Sociology class: instead of asking why a few people commit crimes or are deviant, why not ask why most people are so willing to follow social rules and norms?

2. I like the comparison of the role of emotions in stock trading and crowd behavior on the streets. Arguably, emotions may a large role in social actions but generally get short shrift from commentators and researchers.

3. But, why suggest that sociologists are bitter because economists “are lauded” for their explanations?

4. I like the distinction between explaining and explaining away. I’ve seen some commentators suggest that we shouldn’t talk about the class status or alienation of the rioters because this may suggest that their actions are justified. But, at the same time, there is something that set off these riots and sociologists are often looking to understanding why something happened and not something else (to paraphrase Weber). We should not be afraid of explanations though determining how one should respond once the explanation is known is another matter.

From gang member to sociologist

A sociologist tells how he journeyed from being a gang member to obtaining a PhD in sociology:

As a doctoral candidate in ethnic studies at the University of California at Berkeley, Rios spent three years shadowing 40 youths between the ages of 14 and 17, a lot of whom had arrest records and gang affiliations. He had plenty of opportunity to learn that many police officers had a poor opinion of any efforts to understand inner-city youths. The police were instead part of a system that kept the boys under constant surveillance, criminalized their even relatively benign behavior, and left them demoralized and angry, Rios argues in a new book, Punished: Policing the Lives of Black and Latino Boys (New York University Press).

When police officers demanded to know what he was doing, Rios knew the routine: Be deferential, even when abusively spoken to. He had grown up on those Oakland streets and he knew the costs of stepping out of line. One day, when he was 14, an officer “stomped my face against the ground with his thick, black, military-grade rubber boot,” he writes.

Rios, now an assistant professor of sociology at the University of California at Santa Barbara, was no angel when that happened. He had just been pulled over in a car he had stolen. He had joined a gang at 13, lured by the promise of protection in Oakland’s drug-riddled, gang-controlled neighborhoods. Soon he was dealing drugs. He was witnessing beatings, knifings, and murders. He served a string of juvenile-detention sentences. And he would soon see his best friend, Smiley, killed by a rival gang member, a bullet to his head.

How Rios, now 33, came to escape that life, and earn a Ph.D., is one striking narrative in Punished. Another is his account of the dissertation research that took him back to the neighborhoods where he grew up. Starting in 2002, he wandered the streets with his subjects at all times of day and night. He saw the jeopardy that defined their lives. And he met their families, their probation officers, and the police officers who constantly monitored them. The boys’ encounters with the police were almost always negative.

It sounds like Rios could have some unusual insights into gangs and policing from his experiences. It also sounds like there are some interesting methodological issues here as Rios was familiar with what he was studying: on one hand, this likely allowed him to understand certain things in ways that outsiders could not but on the other hand, he was warned about “going native.”

I also like how he flips the script with this remark:

Over lunch at the beachside faculty club on the Santa Barbara campus, where a whole academic lifetime seems indisputably safer than one day in gang territory, he says: “A great research question would be: Why not more violence? Why aren’t these kids attacking everyday people? Why are they only attacking themselves?” Knowing the answers, “we might get a little closer to finding ways to implement policies that will allow communities to bring in their own controls relating to group violence.”

This goes against many media portrayals of violence which seems to focus on how violence affects law-abiding (and wealthier?) citizens. I also ask my Intro to Sociology class to think about social order in this way: instead of thinking of why people are deviant at times, why not ask why many/most people are not deviant most of the time?

Additionally, is this growing evidence (along with this) that sociologists are more interested in including more biographical information in their work?

Peter Berger on his career as an “accidental sociologist”

Sociologists don’t often produce memoirs. But Peter Berger has a new book that has some insights into his career:

Since the 1970s, Berger admits to having felt increasingly removed from — or marginalized by — contemporary sociology, having no flair for quantitative analysis and little sympathy with leftist political agendas. As a social scientist, he stresses that his research is as “value-free” as he can make it, but that as a man, he is a moderate Christian, and as a citizen, he is what we might call a cultural conservative. He doesn’t disguise the fact that wealthy Texas businessmen and right-leaning think tanks have often sponsored his work…

During the mid-1950s, Berger served in the Army, and in the late 1950s, he taught at the Woman’s College of the University of North Carolina. These experiences shocked him into an awareness of American prejudice. He gradually came to believe that sociology’s “humanistic” purpose lay in debunking “the fictions that serve as alibis for oppression and cruelty” and, in particular, “unmasking the murderous ideologies underlying the death penalty, racism, and the persecution of homosexuals.” From these convictions, Berger has never wavered.

So why don’t more sociologists write about and think through their own careers in print? Perhaps there are a few reasons:

1. One would have to be a big name, someone like Berger, that many sociologists and other outside the field would easily recognize.

2. This sort of work goes against the data-driven expectations of the field. I suppose someone could argue they are using themself as the data in the work.

3. One wouldn’t get much academic credit for such a work since it is unlikely to advance the field.

At the same time, I think such books could be very useful, particularly to undergraduates who have a hazier view of what being a “professional sociologist” looks like. I would guess that many sociologists could offer compelling stories about how sociology changed their view of the world and how their research and teaching impacted others.

On another note, I remember reading another work by Berger that had some personal insights: Questions of Faith: A Skeptical Affirmation of Christianity. I wasn’t particularly impressed.

Redistricting with “sociological integrity”

Redistricting can often a contentious activity. But what if it is done with “sociological integrity”?

“Districts are ordered generally to maintain sociological integrity. Seward was happy paired with Homer and Seldovia as having the only outside deep water ports for the Kenai Peninsula,” Seaton said. “Now Seward is with Nikiski and Sterling – Homer with no other ports; Seldovia with Kodiak.”

A well-ordered voting district is one that generally has an amiable sociological mix that share economic and cultural ties to work toward common legislative goals. Nonetheless, Homer fares well with other Lower Kenai Peninsula communities like Ninilchik and Kasilof, and now the Russian village of Nikolaevsk, which formerly was represented in an entirely different district. The residents of Funny River Road may lack common issues and it “could take a while to develop that cohesiveness,” Seaton said. “It’s just different issues because they are looking at a main economic structure that is inland and revolves around the river. Not that there’s anything wrong with their new alignment, it’s just people will need to feel their way through and acclimate to working with different areas and different interests.”…

Since Alaska is one of the few states once found guilty of gerrymandering districts to favor issues or candidates, Alaska elections are overseen by the Federal Election Commission to ensure a strong voice for electing a minority candidate.

I like this term, “sociological integrity,” and think it has potential if it generally referred to positive social outcomes and plans drawn up from sociological principles.

Perhaps this is unique to Alaska, but this sounds like a different way of drawing up legislative districts: they should have a “amiable sociological mix that share economic and cultural ties to work toward common legislative goals.” What sounds different about this is that districts in other states are often drawn to collect a certain number of votes for a particular party. Those in charge of redistricting want to solidfy their own positions and reduce the ability of their competition to compete in districts. The definition from this article refers not to votes but rather a shared cultural and economic history as uniting voters. Perhaps party affiliations are tied to this (an example from the article above: perhaps deep water port communities are all on one side) but cultural and economic ties are also important as this is how residents and community leaders connect with each other more frequently.

Does any other state consider cultural ties when drawing up legislative boundaries or is it all just a naked grab for votes?

Using mapping to help students understand the racial dimension of their world

A sociologist describes a mapping project that helps students connect their everyday experiences to larger racial patterns:

Theresa Suarez, an associate professor of sociology at San Marcos, has taught partially online courses on racial and ethnic identity for years. But Suarez found it was difficult to enable her students, many of whom are people of color, to connect the theoretical material she taught in class and their own narratives, she explained during a session here on Tuesday at the Emerging Technologies in Online Learning conference, hosted by MERLOT and the Sloan Consortium…

Suarez, who describes herself as late-adopter (her presentation here was a rare foray for her into teaching with PowerPoint) and an occasional techno-skeptic, resolved to find a technological solution that would not require a lot of complexity or jargon. So she turned to online software that uses geographic information systems to let students superimpose demographic data about race and ethnicity onto maps of their local communities.

Suarez instructed her students to place digital pushpins on places that shape their own experiences of where they live. “Where do you shop?” she said, by way of example. “Where do you surf? Where does your girlfriend or boyfriend live? What schools did you attend? Where do you work? Where don’t you go?”

The students then had to reflect, in essay form, on the points of reference marked by the pushpins, describing how each of those places plays a role in their identities — particularly in light of what they learned by seeing demographic data mapped on to their communities.

Perhaps this project is not all that innovative but I like it for several reasons:

1. This seems to be a microcosm of a sociological perspective: providing a structural context for our individual actions. This project would help students see how their daily activities and identities are shaped by demographic patterns, even if they hadn’t noticed them before. Instead of seeing these activities as individual choices, students can see how racial patterns influence their behavior.

2. Students can use their personal experiences as “data” and then work to provide sociological explanations.

3. These mapping abilities and software are fairly easy to obtain and they would be useful for future work.

4. I’ve always liked maps as they provide an overhead view of the world (just like sociology).

I’ve thought about doing some sort of mapping project in my Introduction to Sociology class and this may just be a good springboard.

A sociological view of science

A while back, I had a conversation with friends about how undergraduate students understand and use the word “proof” when talking about knowing about the world. Echoing some of our conversation, a sociologist describes science:

I am a sociologist and read philosophy guardedly. As a social scientist, I tell my students again and again that while a theory or a sparkling generalization may be beautiful, the real test is always an “appeal to the empirical.” A proposition may be very appealing and may seem to provide powerful and enticing descriptions and understandings. However, until we gather evidence that shows that the proposition can be supported by information confirmed by the senses we must hold any proposition as one possibility among other competing explanations. Further, even when a theory or a set of ideas has been measured repeatedly against the empirical world, science never leads to certainty. Rather, science is always a modest enterprise. Even at its best and most rigorous, science is inherently “probabilistic” — we can have varying degrees of confidence in a finding, but certainty is not possible. As humans, our knowing is contingent and limited. Even the best designed scientific tests carry with them the possibility of disconfirmation in later tests. Science at its best offers acceptable levels of persuasiveness but cannot offer final conclusions.

Several things stand out to me in this explanation:

1. The appeal to data and weighing information versus existing explanations.

2. The lack of certainty in science and a probabilistic view of the world. Certainty here might be defined as “100% knowledge.” I think we can be functionally certain about some things. But the last bit about persausiveness is interesting.

3. Human knowledge is limited. There are always new things to learn, particularly about people and societies.

4. Scientific tests are undertaken to test existing theories and discover new information.

This sounds like a reasonable sociological perspective on science.

How a pharmacy receipt illustrates identity issues in the EU

Sociological ideas can come from all sorts of places. Here how a French receipt for toothpaste provides insights into the unity of the European Union:

Harrington had spent her senior year of high school in France and had fallen in love with a specific toothpaste flavored with a lemony-minty herb called “verveine.” So she went to the nearest pharmacy, bought the place out (all two bottles worth), and forked over her euros.

But when Harrington looked at her receipt, she saw something that looked out of place. Below the price of her toothpaste in euros, there was a conversion statement that said 1 euro is equal to 6.5597 francs.

Handy? Well, sure, until one remembers that France has been on the Euro since 1999. That gives people more than a decade to practice converting euros to francs.

Most people would probably forget about this cultural oddity as soon as they crammed the receipt into their back pockets. But Harrington is an economic sociologist at the Copenhagen Business School, and decided to dig deeper. What she found was that this little line on the pharmacy receipt was indicative of larger identity issues in contemporary Europe.

With the advent of the European Union and a common currency, citizens had to reconcile their national identities with a new continental identity. The process has been far from frictionless — not only do many French people still talk about prices in terms of francs, but Germans still speak in terms of deutschmarks (and they don’t even have dual pricing receipts).

Harrington says the current debt crisis has revealed cracks in the spirit of European collectivism “because it was never a seamless whole to begin with.”

This story suggests a kind of intellectual curiosity I would guess a lot of sociologists would want to instill in their students: how might you see the world, including pharmacy receipts, from a sociological perspective? Within the field of sociology, Harrington would have to build upon this single piece of evidence. In order to draw publishable conclusions about “European collectivism,” she would need to draw upon a broader dataset that would have demonstrated patterns of behavior.