Good data is foundational to doing good sociological work

I’ve had conversations in recent months with a few colleagues outside the discipline about debates within sociology over the work of ethnographers like Alice Goffman, Matt Desmond, and Sudhir Venkatesh. It is enlightening to hear how outsiders see the disagreements and this has pushed me to consider more fully how I would explain the issues at hand. What follows is my one paragraph response to what is at stake:

In the end, what separates the work of sociologists from perceptive non-academics or journalists? (An aside: many of my favorite journalists often operate like pop sociologists as they try to explain and not just describe social phenomena.) To me, it comes down to data and methods. This is why I enjoy teaching both our Statistics course and our Social Research course: undergraduates rarely come into them excited but they are foundational to who sociologists are. What we want to do is have data that is (1) scientific – reliable and valid – and (2) generalizable – allowing us to see patterns across individuals and cases or settings. I don’t think it is a surprise that the three sociologists under fire above wrote ethnographies where it is perhaps more difficult to fit the method under a scientific rubric. (I do think it can be done but it doesn’t always appear that way to outsiders or even some sociologists.) Sociology is unique in both its methodological pluralism – we do everything from ethnography to historical analysis to statistical models to lab or natural experiments to mass surveys – and we aim to find causal explanations for phenomena rather than just describe what is happening. Ultimately, if you can’t trust a sociologist’s data, why bother considering their conclusions or why would you prioritize their explanations over that of an astute person on the street?

Caveats: I know no data is perfect and sociologists are not in the business of “proving” things but rather we look for patterns. There is also plenty of disagreement within sociology about these issues. In a perfect world, we would have researchers using different methods to examine the same phenomena and develop a more holistic approach. I also don’t mean to exclude the role of theory in my description above; data has to be interpreted. But, if you don’t have good data to start with, the theories are abstractions.

Viewing the suburbs from The Floating City

Sudhir Venkatesh’s The Floating City examines some of the underground economy in New York City but also contains several interesting brief perspectives on the suburbs.

1. As he is introducing one of the main characters early in the book, Venkatesh recalls an earlier conversation at the University of Chicago (p.16):

“How funny would it be if I did a study comparing J.B.’s film business to Shine’s drug business? my mind drifted to a conversation I’d had with a faculty member at the University of Chicago right at the beginning of my academic career. “I want to study the suburbs,” I’d said. He looked at me as if he’d seen a bug. “They’re white and middle class,” he’d said. “What’s there to study?”

2. Later in the book, Venkatesh describes why he studies what he does. In doing so, he compares portrayals of urban and suburban life (p.144):

“As my tone may hint, this is a pet peeve. for the last decade, I’ve been fighting the stereotypes of the poor that began to pervade American society after the publication of the infamous Moynihan Report in 1965, which argued that the history of slavery and generations of single-parent matriarchal families had created a “tangle of pathology” that made it difficult for many inner-city blacks to enter the social mainstream. The truth in this analysis took a backseat to the blaming, it seemed to me. White families had high divorce and addiction rates too, but their entry into the job market wasn’t blocked by patronizing assumptions about their tangle of pathology. Suburbs also bred family dysfunction, not to mention some of the highest rates of alcohol and drug addiction, domestic abuse, and other forms of delinquency, but you didn’t hear people talk about the tangle of suburban pathology. Poverty has been growing faster in the suburbs than in the inner city since 2000, but a dozen years later the cliche of the urban poor remains intact. my argument, based on the experience of my years in the Chicago ghetto, is that the poor are actually more resilient and economically creative because the have much bigger obstacles to overcome – just as a small house built by hand can be much more impressive than a mansion built by experts.”

Both points strike me as having some truth: sociologists tend to see the suburbs as dull and middle-class even as interesting things are taking place both in urban and suburban neighborhoods. And Venkatesh has done much, along with others, to give us realistic rather than stereotyped depictions of poor urban life at the turn of the 21st century.

Yet, I think these two passages contradict each other. The first suggests there isn’t much worth studying in suburbs. Cities are global centers and urban sociology has a long history of examining urban neighborhoods The second passage suggests suburban life has its own issues and more of the “urban” issues – like poverty or increasing presence of gangs or higher proportions of immigrant residents – are now present there. The second suggests sociologists need to be studying both cities and suburbs while leaving behind the urban elitism of the first. Since a majority of Americans live in suburbs and there are dynamic things happening in many metropolitan areas, where are the ethnographers and urban sociologists in training some of the same techniques and analytical lenses on the suburbs?

What kind of sociology book gets trade press attention before it is published

Books by sociologists don’t often become bestsellers or draw the attention of a broad range of presses, reviewers, and the public. But, here is some backstory on the soon-to-be published On the Run and why it is drawing attention:

As an author, Alice Goffman has a few things going for her. She’s the daughter of the late Erving Goffman, a giant in the field of sociology, and her surname alone has long made her of interest to those in academia. Then there is her young age (32) and the somewhat dramatic nature of her fieldwork: starting her research when she was a college freshman, Goffman spent six years following a small group of young black men in inner-city Philadelphia. All of this has put a spotlight on Goffman’s forthcoming book, On the Run, which the University of Chicago Press is releasing on May 13. The excitement around the title has led the scholarly publisher to break with a number of norms; it has gone back to press three times already, and has auctioned off the paperback and digital rights to a trade house…

The planned book was an ethnography examining the effect of the prison system beyond the reaches of confinement; it focused on the lives of a group of young, male African-American friends in a Philadelphia neighborhood. The proposal was brief, touching on the failings of the war on drugs—specifically, the havoc wreaked by the parole system—but it was impressive enough, Stahl said, that the press acquired it. (At the time, Goffman was a 20-year-old undergrad at the University of Pennsylvania, and, according to Stahl, UCP had never before acquired a title by someone still in college.) When Goffman turned in her manuscript a decade later—the submission date was loose, given the lengthy nature of fieldwork—Stahl said UCP’s editors realized the book was not only a “great ethnography,” but also a “gripping read.”…

While Star said it’s “striking” that Goffman started her fieldwork when she was so young, and that there are elements of her own backstory that may draw media attention, he believes the book stands on its own. And, although On the Run is an academic text, Star thinks it touches on themes front and center in the public debate: namely, the inordinately high incarceration rate for black men in the U.S. In the wake of books like The New Jim Crow (Free Press, 2010), which Star felt began “raising questions about who goes to prison and why,” On the Run taps into a “very important set of issues involving the intersection of justice, crime, poverty, and race.” And, echoing Stahl’s feelings about the trade appeal of the book, Star said that On the Run is also, despite its academic nature, a book with “novelistic qualities.”

If it is accurate to compare The New Jim Crow to On the Run, FSG and UCP have a hit on their hands; the former book, by Michelle Alexander, has sold over 200,000 copies in paperback and hardcover combined at outlets that report to Nielsen BookScan. Star certainly feels the topicality of On the Run will help it in the trade market; he pointed to another book he recently acquired, tentatively titled Locking Up Our Own, by Yale Law School professor James Forman Jr., which also delves into the subject of black men and prison. Locking Up examines the correlation between the rising number of African-American elected officials and the incarceration of African-Americans in cities like Washington, D.C.

It will be interesting see how much attention this gets after its release as well as the book-sale figures. Several things seem to make this stand out from other academic books: the backstory of the author from her young age at the beginning to a well-known father; a topic that lines up with a lot of recent conversations (inequality, race, the prison system, the plight of cities); and “novelistic qualities” that help it move beyond a dry academic texts with more elements of story. I wonder if a parallel to this work isn’t the work of Sudhir Venkatesh which shares some similar traits: interesting story of how he started the project (held by a gang while trying to do survey research in a housing project); describing the business-like qualities of gangs even as urban crime and economies were becoming prominent conversation topics; and Venkatesh has plenty of interesting stories (which lately seem to have drawn some criticism for being “thin”). So, based on On the Run and Gang Leader for a Day, sociology bestsellers need to be ethnographic works that focus on race, cities, and crime?

Another question: is this the sort of book that is the left’s answer to all of the right-wing best-sellers of recent years? I wonder who exactly will purchase this book.

Social network analysis of Chicago violence show differences in risk, differences compared to Boston

Read a summary of recent research by sociologist Andrew Papachristos about social networks and violence in Chicago:

Take, for instance, a 2013 paper, published with Yale colleague Christopher Wilderman in the American Journal of Public Health. It’s set in a community in Chicago with a litany of familar risk factors: half of all households were led by a single female; 43 percent of the 82,000 residents had less than a high-school education; a third of households were below the poverty line. And the homicide rate, over the five years of the study, was 55.2 per 100,000, about four times the citywide rate (Daniel Hertz’s maps of homicide rates by police district are a good way of putting that in context; it’s high.)…

Simply being arrested during this period increases the aggregate homicide rate by nearly 50%, but being in a network component with a homicide victim increases the homicide rate by a staggering 900% (from 55.2 to 554.1)…

Even in this extremely abstracted form, from a third paper by Papachristos you can see a remarkable contrast between gang violence in Chicago and Boston. Each node is a gang; each line is a homicide or shooting; each bidirectional line is a reciprocal homicide…

Chicago’s social network of homicide is a knotty mess: 98 percent of all Chicago gangs were connected within the city’s homicide network during that timeframe, 32 percent higher than Boston’s shooting network. The network density of black gangs in Chicago is particularly intense, 30 percent compared to 4.5 percent for Latino gangs…

And a place to start for gathering more data—as Papachristos points out, his analysis is limited to people doing bad things. Robert Sampson, the Harvard (by way of Chicago) sociologist, has done pioneering work, most recently in his book Great American City, showing how positive social networks reduce crime and improve public-health outcomes in socially-organized neighborhoods like Chatham. Another possible implication is figuring out what kinds of networks “inoculate” people from violence.

Looks like a good summary of some interesting research. On one hand, this should be reassuring to the public: the perception is that crime rates in Chicago are out of control (even as they have declined in Chicago over the years and in many American cities) yet much of the violent crime is in the hands of a relatively small group of people. On the other hand, the density of violence in Chicago suggests there are some serious issues in particular social interactions and locations that are not easy to solve.

I’m also reminded of the work of sociologist Sudhir Venkatesh who has argued in several books that gangs in Chicago as well as more informal black market networks might be considered “efficient” or “rational” in what they do because of a lack of legitimate opportunities in poor neighborhoods. Whereas legal businesses might seek the best way to make profits, social networks in disadvantaged neighborhoods make do with what they have, even if the means are not legitimate. This doesn’t condone violence or other illegal behavior but Venkatesh’s work shows these aren’t haphazard or chaotic social networks and interactions.

Research suggests drug addiction influenced by environmental factors

New research from a psychologist suggests environmental factors play a large role in drug addiction:

Then, after that sample of crack to start the day, each participant would be offered more opportunities during the day to smoke the same dose of crack. But each time the offer was made, the participants could also opt for a different reward that they could collect when they eventually left the hospital. Sometimes the reward was $5 in cash, and sometimes it was a $5 voucher for merchandise at a store.

When the dose of crack was fairly high, the subject would typically choose to keep smoking crack during the day. But when the dose was smaller, he was more likely to pass it up for the $5 in cash or voucher.

“They didn’t fit the caricature of the drug addict who can’t stop once he gets a taste,” Dr. Hart said. “When they were given an alternative to crack, they made rational economic decisions.”…

“If you’re living in a poor neighborhood deprived of options, there’s a certain rationality to keep taking a drug that will give you some temporary pleasure,” Dr. Hart said in an interview, arguing that the caricature of enslaved crack addicts comes from a misinterpretation of the famous rat experiments.

“The key factor is the environment, whether you’re talking about humans or rats,” Dr. Hart said. “The rats that keep pressing the lever for cocaine are the ones who are stressed out because they’ve been raised in solitary conditions and have no other options. But when you enrich their environment, and give them access to sweets and let them play with other rats, they stop pressing the lever.”

But, might it not be easier as a society to blame individuals for drug addiction, a lack of willpower, a lack of good decision making rather than deal with the deeper underlying issues in impoverished neighborhoods? As a sociologist, I look at a story like this and see the power of the social conditions to influence an individual’s behaviors: if society offers few good options, drugs seem like a more rational alternative. This work might also fit with arguments Sudhir Venkatesh has made in the last decade or so about urban gangs: they are often characterized as blood-thirsty killers but they might be responding more rationally to contexts with few legitimate ways to achieve societal goals. In fact, as The Wire also suggested, these gangs might be set up as business-like structures that happen to use illegal means to reach commonly sought-after social goals like economic comfort and respect.

h/t Instapundit

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.

Sudhir Venkatesh helps make sociology appear “less stodgy” yet generates controversy

A profile of sociologist Sudhir Venkatesh in the New York Times suggests he has “succeeded against long odds in making sociology seem less stodgy.” Here is how the article suggests he has done this and the controversy that has developed:

[B]y writing in magazines, being featured in the book “Freakonomics,” and even appearing on late-night television, he has succeeded in bringing that research out of the academy and into the public realm…

And at Columbia, where he briefly led the university’s largest social science research center, he was the subject last year of a grueling investigation into a quarter-million dollars of spending that Columbia auditors said was insufficiently documented, misappropriated or outright fabricated…

Beyond the content of the book, its basic style raised eyebrows. “Gang Leader” includes the kind of satisfying narrative arcs and dramatic characters (like the street hustler who reveals that he not only went to college, but also studied sociology) that have more in common with Hollywood films than with most dry academic discourse…

Camille Z. Charles, a sociologist who runs the Department of Africana Studies at the University of Pennsylvania, said she was even more disturbed by the “thrill” he described at being around drug dealers — like his fantasy that one meeting he attended would involve “half-naked women sitting poolside and rubbing the bosses with sunscreen.” In an essay in the journal Sociological Forum, Professor Venkatesh responded to such criticism by saying he “hoped that my readership would understand urban poverty as they followed my own self-discovery of these conditions — specifically, as I discovered my own stereotypes to be faulty. In a memoir, one has to admit one’s own failings.”

Such situations have always interested me. In this genre of situation, a sociologist does things that many sociologists could only dream of: reach a broad public audience with their work. Despite all the talk about public sociology in recent years, how many sociologists have truly accomplished this? Yet, those who are able to do this tend to run into arguments like those outlined in the article: they are accused of taking liberties with their narratives and making it more appealing for the public and they are accused of not respecting their subjects by opening up the stories to public interest and entertainment.

Of course, such arguments happen with lesser known works as well. I’m reminded of a very public exchange between several ethnographers, Loic Wacquant, Elijah Anderson, Mitchell Duneier, and Katherine Newman, in the early 2000s about how ethnography about marginalized groups should be undertaken. And there are plenty of conversations in the field about writing and how it can be done better or worse. Because of its broadness of topics and a variety of research methods, sociology as a discipline tends to have these kinds of lively debates.

To sum up, when the New York Times discusses debates among sociologists, does this display how science really works (scholars trying to come to a consensus with a dose of personalities) or does it suggest that sociologists can’t agree and this torpedoes attempts at public sociology?

(A later note: how many sociologists really disagree with what Venkatesh did in Gang Leader for a Day? Anywhere even close to a majority? I wonder if this article is highlighting some vocal/well-placed dissenters.)