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Archive for the ‘The State of Sociology’ Category

The other day, somebody started a petition to move the annual meetings of the American Sociological Association. The petition asks that ASA reconsider not only where the meetings are held, but when. Knowing basically nothing about conference scheduling, but assuming that many of the most well-known sociologists (with the resources to attend ASA no matter where it is) would not want to visit Kansas in August, it seems like the request regarding the timing of ASA is more likely to be considered by those who decide these sorts of things. Next year’s meeting in Chicago is scheduled for August 22-25, which seems fairly late. If nothing else, the ASA should make the timing of the conference a part of its consideration of various locations (for example, if Chicago is more expensive in early August than late August, maybe we shouldn’t go to Chicago).

With presidents who serve on a one-year basis, it may be hard for any suggestions to gain much traction within ASA, but I hope that the petition gets the attention of Ruth Milkman, ASA President-elect.

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Social ScienceBill O’Reilly!

Lately, some of my Facebook friends have been posting a link to Herbert Gans’s 2002 entreaty to become public sociologists. In it, Gans states that anybody can become a public sociolgist but cautions that “Audiences are the ultimate gate keeper” and that “public intellectuals must be willing to speak to topics that interest them, and with frames and values that are comprehensible and acceptable to them.”

The above photo, in which a bookstore’s Social Science section (which consisted of one shelf) has been overrun by Bill O’Reilly, indicates that we might not be doing the best job of this. The Social Sciences section was next to the politics section, so it is likely that these books overflowed from there (although I would argue that they don’t belong there, either!) but I couldn’t find a single book on this shelf that was actually based on social science research. The next shelf was related to crime and was filled mostly with the “true crime” genre.

I think that Nathan Palmer’s recent reminder that, for our students, we are the public face of sociology is important, but we still appear to be failing Gans. If none of sociology’s best sellers appear in a bookstore in a rural area of the country and people’s idea of sociology itself is derived from Sudhir Venkatesh’s appearance on the Colbert Report, then maybe we are too focused on what our colleagues think of our work and not focused enough on what our neighbors think of it.

“Like” Memoirs of a SLACer on Facebook to receive updates and links via your news feed.

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Following up on the idea of publicly-accessible Federally funded research, Fabio at Orgtheory has posted a poll. Go take it.

As a bonus, you can use the poll as an example of how not to write survey questions in your Research Methods courses this semester.

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Does the fact that Martin Luther King, Jr. was a sociology major make up for Ronald Reagan?

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When discussing statistical significance in class I always preface my discussion by highlighting the arbitrary nature of accepted p-values. “If you had cancer,” I ask my students, “and a doctor said that there was a 94% chance that a particular treatment would cure you, would you take it?” They would, they assert. But a 94% chance isn’t good enough for social science research. Neither, suggests Valen Johnson, a statistician at Texas A&M, is a 95% chance, or a 98% chance. As discussed by John Timmer at Ars Technica, Johnson mathematically links Bayesian statistics to probabilities:

The math then allows a direct comparison between the probability values. In his comparison, scientific standards seem pretty weak. The 95 percent certainty corresponds to a Bayesian evidence threshold of between three and five, which Johnson notes is typically considered “positive evidence”—but it falls well below the values considered to be “strong evidence.” It takes 99 percent certainty to get there.

Johnson concludes that if we assume that only one-half of the hypotheses should give us a positive result, then “these results suggest that between 17 percent and 25 percent of marginally significant scientific findings are false.” If we assume the proportion of correct hypotheses is larger—which we might, given that scientists are usually pretty clever about the hypotheses they choose to test—then the problem gets even more pronounced. Overall, Johnson’s suggestion is simple: raise the statistical rigor all around. Demand that experiments produce a p value of 0.005 or smaller. And be even pickier about results that we consider highly significant. There is a cost to this, in that you need bigger samples to achieve the higher statistical rigor. In his example, you’d have to double the sample size. That’s no problem if you’re breeding bacteria and fruit flies, but it will add a lot of time and expense if your project involves mice.

Or, of course, humans. One implication that Timmer notes for increased significance thresholds is that those with small sample sizes would have to consider discussing non-significant results, potentially undermining our blind faith in statistical significance. While that would be nice, in the world we actually live in the more likely outcome is that individual or small-scale research would be even more difficult to conduct successfully. Good luck getting that NSF grant!

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Fund Sociology

At the recent annual meeting of the American Sociological Association in New York, the ASA made a statement that others should “Keep Calm and Fund Sociology,” as our purple conference bags noted. The continued funding of sociological research is certainly important, as successful efforts to deny NSF funding to political science make clear. Nevertheless, maybe the ASA should have used the approach of the British Sociological Association, which produced a video at its own annual meeting (available below) showing all of the ways why it is important to commit sociology. The video shows why sociology is important, which will hopefully lead to continued funding. It also makes me want to join the BSA.

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As if academic false consciousness wasn’t bad enough at our institutions and among graduate students, it appears that it is also present at academic journals. Last week, Olderwoman at Scatterplot posted about receiving a packet of five reviews of the same article, stating:

Although five was over the top and freaked me out, it has become pretty common now for me as a reviewer to get a packet with four reviews. No wonder we regular reviewers are feeling under the gun. The old calculation of two or even three reviews per article has gone by the wayside. The pressure for fast turnaround and the high turn-down or non-response rate among potential reviewers has led editors to send out articles to extra reviewers in the hopes of ending up with at least the minimum two or three.

But this is a death spiral. As a frequently-sought reviewer I get at least four requests a month, sometimes as many as eight, and I used to get more before I got so crabby.  When I was young and eager, I was reviewing an article a week [and thus, by the way, having a huge influence on my specialty area], and I know some people who are keeping that pace. But at some point you burn out and say “no more.” I, like all other frequently-sought reviewers I know, turn down outright the requests from journals I don’t know for articles that sound boring, and then save up the other requests and once a month pick which articles I want to review. So the interesting-sounding articles from good journals get too many reviewers, while the boring-sounding articles from no-name journals get none. If journal editors respond to the non-response by reviewers to boring-sounding articles by sending out even more reviewer requests per article, our mailboxes will be flooded even more and the non-response rate and delayed-response rate by reviewers will go up even more. Senior scholars are asked to review six to eight (or more?) articles per month. You have to say no to most of the requests.

And then we have the totally out of hand R&R problem. I think it is completely immoral to send an R&R to ANY new reviewers. I know a young scholar with a perfectly good paper who is now on the 4th (!!!!) iteration of an R&R from ASR. Not because she has not satisfied the original reviewers, but because the editors keep sending each revision to a new set of reviewers in addition to the original reviewers and, of course, the new reviewers have a different perspective and a new set of suggestions for the paper, some of which cover ground that was gone over in one or more of the previous revisions. Not to mention the problem that R&R memos are now longer than the original articles!!  We are no longer a discipline of article publishing, we are turning into a discipline of R&R memo-writing.

She proposes several ground rules that she thinks would help the problem and that reminded me a bit of Gary Fine’s discussion of similar problems as editor of Social Psychology Quarterly.

Fabio followed her post with one of his own, talking specifically about ASR and the number of R&Rs that are given:

This issue has arisen with respect to the American Sociological Review, the flagship journal of the American Sociological Association. The ASR has been giving R&R’s to many submitted articles, much more than average, and they are soliciting many reviews per article. It has also been sending articles through multiple rounds of revisions, leading to articles being held at the journal for years. Since they seem to accept to same number of articles per year (about 40), that implies that the multiple rounds of revision do not lead to publication for many authors. Here is my response to that post:

I am asking the American Sociological Review to curtail this practice. In writing this, I have no personal stake in this matter. I do not have any papers under review, nor has the ASR accepted my previous submissions. I only write as a member of the profession, senior faculty at a top 20 program, a former managing editor of an ASA journal (Sociological Methodology), former associate editor of the American Journal of Sociology, occasional board member for various journals, author, and reviewer.

The inflated R&R policy is damaging sociology in a few ways. First, by continually R&R’ing papers that have little chance of publication, the ASR is “trapping” papers that may be perfectly suitable for specialty journals or other outlets. Thus, inflated R&Rs keep good research out of the public eye for years. You are suppressing science.

Second, inflated R&Rs damage the reputation of the ASR itself. The goal of a flagship journal is to be very picky. When people hear that a paper has been invited for revision, they believe that the editors think that the paper is of great merit and wide relevance. Inflated R&Rs undermine that perception.

Third, you are damaging people’s careers. By trapping papers, you preventing papers from being resubmitted to other journals that can help their careers. Also, R&R invitations are often seen as signs of intellectual progress, especially for doctoral students and junior faculty. By lumping together strong and weak papers, you are debasing the “currency” of the R&R. When people see “R&R at American Sociological Review,” they no longer know what to think and that pollutes the junior level job market.

Fourth, you are wasting precious time. Reviewers are usually full time faculty who teach, mentor graduate and undergraduate students, do administrative work, conduct research, and have full family lives. Thus, when you ask for a fourth reviewer, or a invite a paper for a third round of R&R, you are taking up many, many scarce resources.

Olderwoman, Fine, and Fabio all make valid points that need to be addressed by editors as well as their reviewers. More than any of the other instances of academic false consciousness, this seems like something that can be addressed quickly and relatively easily. Let’s do it.

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At the end of my last post, I noted that the difficulties I faced writing an entry for an academic encyclopedia are likely to be shared by sociologists attempting to reach a broader audience. The lack of peer review* in this type of work also means that there is a greater possibility for distortion**, as Philip N. Cohen highlights when critiquing W. Bradford Wilcox’s recent article about fatherhood at Slate. The greatest danger with these types of articles that are aimed at a broader audience is probably not deliberate distortion but the type of subtle distortion that occurs when we try to remove the context and subtlety from the research we discuss.

*Incidentally, I’ve been told that the experience of writing for Contexts is similar, though the fact that Contexts articles are peer-reviewed hopefully reduces the likelihood of distortion.

**Of course, the recent controversy surrounding Mark Regnerus’s work demonstrates that the possibility for distortion exists within peer-reviewed work as well.

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I recently wrote an academic encyclopedia entry for my area of specialization; it was strange. The first reason for strangeness is that I associate writing encyclopedia entries with graduate school. Several of my graduate student colleagues wrote encyclopedia entries that had been passed on to them by professors – sometimes these professors coauthored the entries and sometimes they did not. This association is likely faulty – I’m sure that many professors, even those at my graduate institution, have written encyclopedia entries that I am not aware of since they aren’t likely to be publicized much – but it still made the thought of writing one myself seem strange.

This association was easily overcome by the fact that writing the entry would be relatively easy since it in my area of expertise and it would count as a form of the “evidence of scholarly activity” my school wants to see; the second was more difficult. The instructions and sample encyclopedia entry made it clear that I was to write with no citations in an authoritative tone. As an academic, the first of these requirements was difficult. After years of citing everything and instructing my students to do the same, I had a hard time writing about research findings without the context provided by authors and dates.  As a sociologist, the practice of writing in an authoritative tone was also difficult. I’ve read a number of psychological studies where the authors state that their findings “prove” a hypothesis while sociologists are more likely to say that their findings “demonstrate” something. For the encyclopedia entry, though, I had to write as if the findings by one or two groups of researchers could be taken as fact. I attempted to overcome this as much as possible by mentioning the context in which studies were conducted (e.g., “a nationally representative sample” or “a study of women in their 30s”).

In the end, I think that the difficulties I experienced were similar to the obstacles sociologists face when communicating with the general public. We like to emphasize the contexts in which research was conducted in order to recognize the diversity of the social world. This diversity also prevents us from making broad declarative statements regarding the generalizability of our findings. The public, or at least the media that typically exposes the public to our research, likes short, easily digestible statements (possibly in bullet-point form). Finding a comfortable middle ground is a challenge that we have to face if we want to reach beyond the ivory tower.

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Speaking of stupid ideas, the full functionality of the ASA’s website was restored yesterday after its database upgrade. To their credit, this only took one more day than they estimated. Of course, the fact that this work only took one extra day does not excuse the fact that it was poorly scheduled. I guess that we can all resume committing sociology now!

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