Determining “essential concepts” and “essential competencies” for sociology

A new book suggests academic disciplines – like sociology – would benefit from defining “essential concepts” and “essential competencies.” Here are some of the outcomes for sociology:

To come up with learning outcomes in the selected six disciplines, which collectively account for more than 35 percent of undergraduate student majors in the U.S., the Measuring College Learning project began by contacting disciplinary ssociations in each field. Those groups helped select 10 to 15 faculty members to lead the work — a total of 70 professors participated…

In sociology, for example, one of the five essential concepts is the “sociological eye,” which means students “will recognize key theoretical frameworks and assumptions upon which the discipline is founded and differentiated from other social sciences.” That underpinning, the book said, includes founding theoretical traditions (Marx, Weber, Durkheim, Mead), a critique of rationality to explain human behavior and how social forces affect individuals.

Socialization is another essential concept, which is defined as students understanding the relationship between self and society, and how the self is socially constructed and maintained at multiple levels.

On the competency side, the panel said undergraduates in sociology should be able to apply scientific principles to understand the social world, evaluate the quality of social scientific data and use sociological knowledge to inform policy debates and promote understanding, among other essential competencies (there are six total).

I imagine this would generate a lot of discussion among sociologists about the merits of these kinds of outcomes, what is essential to the discipline (particularly at the undergraduate level), and how these might be accurately assessed.

On this general topic, is sociology uniquely positioned because of its emphases and skills (ability to see the big picture, focus on social structures, variety of methods, etc.) to contribute to assessment conversations?

Haidt argues Anthro and Soc are the worst academic monocultures

Jonathan Haidt discusses the monoculture of academia and names two disciplines that may be the worst:

JOHN LEO: To many of us, it looks like a monoculture.

JONATHAN HAIDT: Yes. It is certainly a monoculture. The academic world in the humanities is a monoculture. The academic world in the social sciences is a monoculture – except in economics, which is the only social science that has some real diversity. Anthropology and sociology are the worst — those fields seem to be really hostile and rejecting toward people who aren’t devoted to social justice.

JOHN LEO: And why would they be hostile?

JONATHAN HAIDT: You have to look at the degree to which a field has a culture of activism.  Anthropology is a very activist field. They fight for the rights of oppressed people, as they see it. My field, social psychology, has some activism in it, but it’s not the dominant strain. Most of us, we really are thinking all day long about what control condition wasn’t run. My field really is oriented towards research. Now a lot of us are doing research on racism and prejudice. It’s the biggest single area of the field. But I’ve never felt that social psychology is first and foremost about changing the world, rather than understanding it. So my field is certainly still fixable. I think that if we can just get some more viewpoint diversity in it, it will solve the bias problem.

Interesting view from the outside as Haidt says later in the interview, “Anthro is completely lost. I mean, it’s really militant activists.” From the inside, a lot of sociology faculty and students seem to be at least partly motivated by wanting to address particular social issues or problems. Whether that clouds their research judgment more than social psychologists – who just want to understand the world, as any scientist would claim – would be interesting to explore.

If you haven’t read it, Haidt’s book The Righteous Mind is fascinating. He argues that opposing sides – say in politics or academic disciplines – have different narratives about how the world works and this causes them to simply talk past each other. In a 2012 piece, Haidt describes the moral narratives of the American political left and right:

A good way to follow the sacredness is to listen to the stories that each tribe tells about itself and the larger nation. The Notre Dame sociologist Christian Smith once summarized the moral narrative told by the American left like this: “Once upon a time, the vast majority” of people suffered in societies that were “unjust, unhealthy, repressive and oppressive.” These societies were “reprehensible because of their deep-rooted inequality, exploitation and irrational traditionalism — all of which made life very unfair, unpleasant and short. But the noble human aspiration for autonomy, equality and prosperity struggled mightily against the forces of misery and oppression and eventually succeeded in establishing modern, liberal, democratic, capitalist, welfare societies.” Despite our progress, “there is much work to be done to dismantle the powerful vestiges of inequality, exploitation and repression.” This struggle, as Smith put it, “is the one mission truly worth dedicating one’s life to achieving.”

This is a heroic liberation narrative. For the American left, African-Americans, women and other victimized groups are the sacred objects at the center of the story. As liberals circle around these groups, they bond together and gain a sense of righteous common purpose.

Contrast that narrative with one that Ronald Reagan developed in the 1970s and ’80s for conservatism. The clinical psychologist Drew Westen summarized the Reagan narrative like this: “Once upon a time, America was a shining beacon. Then liberals came along and erected an enormous federal bureaucracy that handcuffed the invisible hand of the free market. They subverted our traditional American values and opposed God and faith at every step of the way.” For example, “instead of requiring that people work for a living, they siphoned money from hard-working Americans and gave it to Cadillac-driving drug addicts and welfare queens.” Instead of the “traditional American values of family, fidelity and personal responsibility, they preached promiscuity, premarital sex and the gay lifestyle” and instead of “projecting strength to those who would do evil around the world, they cut military budgets, disrespected our soldiers in uniform and burned our flag.” In response, “Americans decided to take their country back from those who sought to undermine it.”

This, too, is a heroic narrative, but it’s a heroism of defense. In this narrative it’s God and country that are sacred — hence the importance in conservative iconography of the Bible, the flag, the military and the founding fathers. But the subtext in this narrative is about moral order. For social conservatives, religion and the traditional family are so important in part because they foster self-control, create moral order and fend off chaos. (Think of Rick Santorum’s comment that birth control is bad because it’s “a license to do things in the sexual realm that is counter to how things are supposed to be.”) Liberals are the devil in this narrative because they want to destroy or subvert all sources of moral order.

Holding so tightly to different understandings of the world means that compromising is very difficult.

Do conservatives only praise sociology when it fits their arguments?

Conservatives may generally dislike sociology but you can find cases where they are more than willing to accept the imprimatur of sociology if it fits their perspectives. Two recent examples:

1. Discussing a MSNBC exchange about Paul Ryan’s comments about the inner-city where one commentator suggested Ryan was echoing the arguments of Charles Murray, a Daily Caller writer defends Murray:

Murray is a prominent and widely-respected sociologist who penned the 1994 book “The Bell Curve,” which in one chapter posits certain racial differences in intelligence and suggests some of this may be due to genetics.

The book’s measured and well-researched take on a highly controversial issue failed to halt an immediate left-wing backlash. Murray was branded a racist pseudo-scientist, with the Southern Poverty Law Center filing his name under “White Nationalist” and falsely suggesting he maintains ties with neo-Nazi groups.

David Weigel, a left-leaning libertarian journalist writing for Slate, wrote that even after reams of well-received research since 1994, “[‘The Bell Curve’] wrecked Murray’s reputation with some people, and it won’t get un-wrecked.”

“But the conservatives of 2014 don’t cite Murray for his race work,” Weigel continued, noting that the fascinating work Murray presented in his later works “Losing Ground” and “Coming Apart” are much more likely to be referenced by opponents of the welfare state.

As I asked in February 2012, is Murray really a sociologist and how many sociologists would claim he is doing good sociological research?

2. Here is an interesting example from the Family Research Council of combining a temporarily favorable view of Hollywood actresses and sociology:

I know virtually nothing about contemporary stars and starlets, other than having consistently to turn away from the images of the substantially disrobed young “entertainers” displayed on the jumbotron across from my office in advertisements for their latest performances. Pornography, by any other name, ain’t art…

Now, however, Ms. Dunst is much in the news for having the audacity to say what she thinks of gender roles, to wit:

“I feel like the feminine has been a little undervalued … We all have to get our own jobs and make our own money, but staying at home, nurturing, being the mother, cooking – it’s a valuable thing my mum created. And sometimes, you need your knight in shining armour. I’m sorry. You need a man to be a man and a woman to be a woman. That’s why relationships work”.

Wow – how revolutionary! The idea that gender is not a social construct but actually has to do with biology, neurology, morphology, physiology, etc. is an affront to the received orthodoxy of the feminist left, many of whom have piled-on with a predictable combination of derision, illogic, non-sequitur reasoning, and obscenity…

So, men and women are different, and being a stay-at-home mother who cares for her children is something to be honored, not scorned: For affirming these self-evident truths, Ms. Dunst is being labeled “dumb” and ‘insufferable,” among the more printable adjectives.

Kirsten Dunst is now the good sociologist for agreeing with the organization’s perspectives on gender roles. No research required.

Conservatives aren’t alone in this behavior in cherry-picking studies and data they think supports their ideologies. Many groups are on the lookout for prominent studies and research to support their cause, sometimes leading to odd battles of “my three studies say this” and “your two studies say this.” But, given the complaints conservatives typically make about liberal ideas and research in sociology, how helpful is it to sometimes suggest conservatives should take sociology seriously?

How much do academics cite work in another discipline?

Sociologist Jerry Jacobs has a new book about the value of specific academic disciplines and presents this data regarding how much academics cite work outside their field:

“Interdisciplinarity depends on strong disciplines,” he said.

He said he became interested in the topic while serving as editor of American Sociological Review. He wanted to see if the articles in that journal were showing up as citations in the work of non-sociologists, and found that they were, leading him to question the idea that disciplines don’t communicate with one another. Using National Science Foundation data, he looked at where science journals are cited, and found that a “substantial minority” of citations come in other fields.

Citation Outside of Disciplines

Discipline % of Citations From Outside Field
Physics 18.3%
Chemistry 31.0%
Earth and space sciences 16.8%
Mathematics 22.6%
Biology 38.3%
Biomedical research 24.6%
Clinical medicine 28.6%
Engineering and technology 38.1%
Psychology 34.5%
Social sciences 22.7%

Jacobs then analyzes the various social sciences, and finds that scholars in the interdisciplinary field of area studies are more likely to cite non-area studies work than their own fields, while economics scholars are mostly likely to cite their own field. “These data on cross-field citations raise an important question for advocates of interdisciplinarity, namely whether the fields that are most open to external ideas are also the most intellectually dynamic,” Jacobs writes. “If this were true, area studies would be the envy of the social sciences, and economists would be busy trying to figure out how best to emulate the success of areas studies scholars. In fact, the reverse is true: economics is the most influential field in the social sciences, and it is also the most inwardly focused.”

While interdisciplinary is a hot topic, it is nice to see some data on the topic. How much should scholars cite those outside their disciplines? Jacobs suggests here that he thinks 20-30% of citations outside of one’s field is a good total – roughly one-fifth to one-third of citations. Should this be higher? Who gets to set these guidelines? The table also suggests this can vary quite a bit across disciplines.

I’ve noticed in my own research that certain topics in sociology lend themselves to more interdisciplinary citations, particularly for certain subject matter and new areas of study. I study within the subfields of urban sociology and the sociology of culture, subjects with plenty of sociologists but also plenty of interest in other disciplines. Some of my recent projects have been more historical, meaning I’m interacting more with historians, and about the media, meaning I’m interacting with work in media studies, communication, English, and elsewhere. Also, studying less-studied topics means one has to go further afield to understand what all of academia has said. In my work with McMansions, I’ve found that sociologists haven’t said much so I’ve worked with sources in history, planning, law, and housing (a rather interdisciplinary field).

Nobel Prize winning economist Gary Becker on the difficulty of sociology

The authors of Freakonomics and SuperFreakonomics are primarily interested in economics but they do make occasional mention of sociology. Here is one example involving the Nobel Prize winning economist Gary Becker describing his own life (page 15 of the deluxe edition):

“I began to lost interest in economics during my senior (third) year because it did not seem to deal with important social problems. I contemplated transferring to sociology but found that subject too difficult Fortunately, I decided to go to the University of Chicago for graduate work in economics. My first encounter in 1951 with Milton Friedman’s course on microeconomics renewed my excitement.”

Two things stand out:

1. Sociology is about social problems. This is a long-standing part of the discipline and the reason many introductory level college classes in sociology are about social problems. At the same time, this tends to portray sociology as more as an activist discipline – which it may be, depending on who you talk to – and less of a scientific enterprise.

2. Though he doesn’t say why, Becker suggests sociology was “too difficult.” From a smart guy, this is a nice hint that sociology isn’t just common sense. Society, groups, interactions, and individuals influencing each other leads to a complex set of theories and methods.

Argument: scientists need help in handling big data

Collecting, analyzing, and interpreting big data may just be a job that requires more scientists:

For projects like NEON, interpreting the data is a complicated business. Early on, the team realized that its data, while mid-size compared with the largest physics and biology projects, would be big in complexity. “NEON’s contribution to big data is not in its volume,” said Steve Berukoff, the project’s assistant director for data products. “It’s in the heterogeneity and spatial and temporal distribution of data.”

Unlike the roughly 20 critical measurements in climate science or the vast but relatively structured data in particle physics, NEON will have more than 500 quantities to keep track of, from temperature, soil and water measurements to insect, bird, mammal and microbial samples to remote sensing and aerial imaging. Much of the data is highly unstructured and difficult to parse — for example, taxonomic names and behavioral observations, which are sometimes subject to debate and revision.

And, as daunting as the looming data crush appears from a technical perspective, some of the greatest challenges are wholly nontechnical. Many researchers say the big science projects and analytical tools of the future can succeed only with the right mix of science, statistics, computer science, pure mathematics and deft leadership. In the big data age of distributed computing — in which enormously complex tasks are divided across a network of computers — the question remains: How should distributed science be conducted across a network of researchers?

Two quick thoughts:

1. There is a lot of potential here for crossing disciplinary boundaries to tackle big data projects. This isn’t just about parceling out individual pieces of the project; bringing multiple perspectives together could lead to an improved final outcome.

2. I wonder if sociologists aren’t particularly well-suited for this kind of big data work. Given our emphasis on theory and methods, we both emphasize the big picture as well as how to effectively collect, analyze, and interpret data. Sociology students could be able to step into such projects and provide needed insights.