Sociology is a Science

Month: October, 2011

Sociology’s Blind Spot

Sociologists and journalists often assume that interviews and surveys of peoples’ opinions (about life, about themselves) are valuable data in understanding how and why social life operates the way it does.

This is a well meaning but wildly dubious  inference that basically cannot be maintained without putting your head in the sand and ignoring much important work in fields like cognitive psychology and behavioral economics over the last two decades or more.

But, it persists.

It is an inarguable fact, established in countless studies, that people very often do not know why they engage in the behaviors they engage in. HOWEVER, they will certainly be happy to oblige your research with a post hoc, after-the-fact interpretation of their actions that sociologists diligently record and expect to build a science on.

Sociologists can no longer afford to be so embarassingly naive as to assume that we can learn about how society operates by simply asking people why they operate. This is inane and indefensible.

Our sociological impulse to ask people in order to learn about their behavior stems from our romanticization of our own species. Humans are intelligent, introspective, self-aware and self-monitoring animals that keep a constant, more-or-less accurate log of their motivations and experiences. Right? Wrong.

Certainly, asking a person why they did something is a source of data. People do give reasons for their actions, and these reasons do sometimes feed back on peoples’ behavior, potentially altering it in the future. But, no longer can this be our only source of data.

All is not lost.

If sociologists were able to watch the formation of identities and patterns of behavior in real-time (as they occur), we could then match self-reports with antecedent behaviors and begin to model human behavior in terms of distortions, misrepresentations, lies, confusions, half-truths, and forgotten truths. But how can we gather a captive population of humans to study?

One problem I have with sociology is its lack of imagination. If Kim Kardashian advertised on her show an offer for eligible young bachelors to come and live in her house and be filmed 24/7 in order to be deemed a ‘suitable’ or ‘unsuitable’  romantic catch for one of her rich debutante friends, men would sign up in droves.

They would happily put their lives on display 24/7 for a piece of fame. They might even consider it an adventure, or ‘trying something new’. Look at the success of reality shows that encourage people to prostitute their privacy for ratings – it’s rampant.

Why don’t sociologists exploit this? Why don’t sociologists put out an ad for people to be monitored 24/7 for some cash prize? We could study them, scale their identities (and changes in their identities) against their behavior and even, if we must, interview them so as to hear their nonsense explanations of their actions.

Would the IRB (‘Institutional Review Board’; a committee that judges whether or not scientific experiments are ethical) approve such an experiment? Do you think I fucking care? Do you think reality television cares about the IRB? Do you think participants in reality television care about the IRB?

Wake up, sociology.


The Social Responsibility of the Sociologist

The sociologist’s job is to study society. Sociologists are  a unique niche in science – they occupy that which they study.

So what happens when a sociologist lives in a dying society? Leading up to World War 2, Germany experienced an incredible drain of some of its most important intellectuals. Fascism and free, scientific inquiry are fundamentally opposed.

The social responsibility of the sociologist is to identify dying societies. A modern society can die for a variety of reasons and in a variety of ways. Perhaps the most tragic, however, is the move from a relatively free society to a society that denigrates free thought and inquiry.

Of all the Republican nominees for president, only Jon Huntsman (who lags in the polls) believes that the Earth is slowly warming on account of trapped greenhouse gas. Mitt Romney appears to be somewhat on the fence and non-committal though his answers have been encouraging.

Regarding evolution, only Jon Huntsman and Newt Gingrich support the unequivocal teaching of natural science in biology classrooms. All other major Republican presidential candidates are either profoundly confused (“I believe in both religion and science! God simply directed evolution!!”) or are simply certain that Genesis 1:1 has all the answers.

The Republican party has long been opposed to free, unfettered inquiry but their frustration with the scientific community is growing.

If a Republican from the current list of candidates is elected to the White House, there is a very good chance that they will move to cut education even further. Some major candidates, like Herman Cain, Rick Perry, and Michelle Bachmann have openly advocated deleting the Department of Education altogether. This is a Tea-Party backed policy move.

Tenure will be challenged, as well. Without tenure, there can be no academic freedom.

Sociologists and the rest of the scientific community have a moral responsibility to abandon any country that ignores their work and trivializes their accomplishments.

Sociologists have a responsibility to identify dying societies. And then leave them.



History of Brain Drains:

Republican Candidates on Science:

The Shadows of Graduate School

Of all the things I most dislike in myself and others, it is the artificial ‘presentation of self’ and the superficial displays that we all show to each other. I’m guilty of it, we are all guilty of it.

I’ve noticed a few behaviors that overwhelmingly preoccupy people, including myself. I also find that most people, most of the time, are ashamed or embarrassed to admit to worrying about these things.

Let’s take the example of appropriate interests. In grad school, there is a lot of pressure to be interested either in (a) what your professors have spent their lives studying or (b) whatever faddish interests other graduate students have at the moment. Thus, there is this uncomfortable sense that you should both know exactly what interests you and have a clear, articulable plan as to how to justify that interest.

Another behavior is obsession over in-class comments. Oftentimes, graduate classes are small. As a consequence,  speaking up or arguing a point or asking a question takes a lot of guts and can really backfire if your peers think your comment is stupid.

Thus, an obsession with saying the right thing at the right time phrased the right way prevails and oftentimes prevents people from chiming in or feeling bad about having done it. At its core, this is a fear of judgment. And, given all the potential ways to screw up or lose status (however conceived)  in grad school, this fear of judgment makes a lot of sense.

A third behavior is  a preoccupation with professor response. Professors are oftentimes ill-read, out of date, bored, vindictive or looking for opportunities to assert authority. As a consequence, professor response to in-class or out-of-class question may be short, curt, unfriendly, unforgiving or critical.

A desire to avoid such responses closely parallels a fear of judgment and is at least as understandable as having a fear of in-class comments. Unfortunately, this fear of professorial judgment prevents many grad students from (a) challenging and (b) collaborating with professors. Most crucially, more vocal, outgoing, resilient graduate students might even get more academic opportunities than they deserve simply because they have thicker skins.

What about the obsession over intelligence? If graduate students could ask a genie in a lamp only 2 questions, the first would be, “Am I smart?” and the second would be, “Will I be a good professor/researcher?”  The former is, of course, related to the latter. Oftentimes, graduate students judge their own intellect in relation to their contributions. But, as contributions are often attenuated by a fear of judgment, it may well be that the intelligent, but quiet, students remains insecure while the boisterous and outgoing, but relatively dense, relish in their confidence.

A final concern that I want to mention is concern over the role of social and physical characteristics. How much of one’s success in in graduate school (hell, in life) is dependent on being a man? Or coming from a comfortable financial background? Or being white? Or simply having a good memory recall?

Graduate school is about both learning how to be capable and how to feign capability. This is true in any area of life.

Oh, well.

To be unconcerned with judgment, unconcerned about saying the wrong thing, unconcerned about liking the wrong thing or about being the wrong thing is to be non-human. It might not even be possible or desirable to live a life that encourages you to say whatever you wish, whenever you want, in whatever manner you like.  Moreover, those who judge others based only on superficial physical characteristics deserve no more respect for their judgment than they often get for their character. Existence is itself a compromise.

Chomsky (see link)

What Fucking Terrifies Me

There are liberals and there are conservatives. There are democrats and republicans.

And moderates (aka libertarians, aka social liberals/fiscal conservatives).

And I call myself a liberal.

I tend to like libertarians and get along with them. I just disagree on a little part (that has big implications). I actually get along best with conservatives sometimes. I find their ruggedness and ease of conversation to be uplifting and relaxing. Unfortunately, these folks hold fast to tradition and the status quo.

Conservatives are way backwards on social issues. Libertarians and democrats and I’d say most liberals agree on this. Primarily, it’s the religion that encourages intellectual and moral timidity. There is an established empirical link between conservative political opinions and inclinations towards feeling disgusted.

That’s right. Conservatives are adult versions (with the same cognitive style) of the kids on the playground that thought everything was ‘gross’ and ‘icky’ and ‘disgusting’. So they hate boobs, hate vaginas, hate the gays, hate anal sex, hate the idea of a killed fetus or an unborn baby (‘eeeewww, no that’s wrong!’), sex is nasty and carnal etc. etc.

So, I feel good about my position on social issues. But what about fiscal, economic ones? Conservatives want to keep the economy the way it is, OR cut programs and REWARD ‘heroes’ (businessmen and churches).

Libertarians figure everyone can prosper if they work hard enough. So fuck some of the social problems. And cut the goddamn taxes.

The liberals want to raise the dividend tax on people who make money on shares of stock so that other programs can be paid for. Obama wants to end the tours in Iraq – they’re allegedly coming home in time for Christmas. How fucking lovely.

BUT there is a big fucking problem here. The economy cannot be predicted. There are simply too many variables operating and now these variables have spilled out worldwide. No human being and no current econometric model can even remotely model all of the intricate activities of the United States economic structure. If you are inclined to disagree with what I’m saying, go talk to Daniel Kahneman. He is an psychologist at Princeton. And he won the Nobel Prize in Economics. I’ll have a link below.

So the economy cannot be predicted. Where does this leave our respective partisan economic opinions? Well grounded? Or COMPLETELY full of shit?

It is, frighteningly, the latter. Sure, we know that IF conservative fiscal policies were put into effect, an avalanche of negative social consequences would arise. This is relatively easy to show. But what of the effect on the economy? Would it generate some sort of financial boom? Would the increasing poverty in this country reach a critical mass and generate an emergent creativity that jump-starts the economy? Who can know?

And so, as regards economic policy, I, and we, stand at the precipice. Most of us, that is, libertarians and liberals, know and understand how others should be treated – as they themselves wish (so long as they hurt no one, and within some certain limits). But all of us, regarding how money moves in an insanely complex system, are left childishly guessing about the economy.

And so my economic convictions are firm. I am a liberal and I know what I think will help the economy.

But it’s based on bullshit.


Conservatives and disgust (I like Paul Bloom, a jovial type I imagine):

Kahneman and the ultimate unpredictability of the economy:

The Ethics of Teaching

The sweeping majority of my days in high school were spent egging houses, skipping classes to go Burger King and endlessly walking the halls with a ‘bathroom pass’ to avoid having to be once more subjected to what was called ‘learning’.

Were any teacher to dare tell me what to read, or (even worse) how to write, I would instantly disengage from their instruction. I would glare at them, seething, intentionally putting my work in the trash when it was handed to me. This was high school. I didn’t do well.

And then I have this one teacher senior year. First day of class, he sits on top of his desk and swings his feet. A goofy fuck he was but engaging and unrelenting. When he told me what to read he saw my eyes drop to the floor. I tried to walk out of the class without picking up the stupid textbook and he catches me and stops me.

And leads me over to his bookshelf behind his desk and says, “Read whatever the fuck you want.”

That’s what he said.

And so I did. I picked up a copy of the Unabomber’s Manifesto. And I read that. Then I got “The End of History and the Last Man” by Fukuyama. Then it was 9/11 by Chomsky. Then it was “The Bell Curve” by Herrnstein and Murray. And on and on and on.

And I didn’t fucking read that textbook, I think it was literally just called, “American Government”. I never ended up taking it. Fucking filthy, worthless book.

So Kropf, that’s the teacher’s name, he gives us our final assignment. I hadn’t done any of the homework up to this point in the year. Well, maybe a few in-class assignments but that was it. But the final was required. And I hadn’t been reading the textbook.

So I decide to just write on what I’d been reading about. And I turn that in. And he gives me an F.

And then I go talk to him. And he sees it’s me. And he gives me an A. And he doesn’t tell me why.

But he asks me about my life and I tell him I am looking for a job at California Pizza Kitchen and I’m gonna be a cop and blah blah blah.

And I always say “Hi” to him in the halls after that.

And I barely graduate from high school a few weeks later.

I’ve gone back to see Kropf a few times since high school. I can tell he doesn’t remember me, or at least not well. I’ve actually stopped going to see him.

This teacher changed my life. For some reason, I made it to graduate school because he showed me that ‘learning’ isn’t the same thing as learning. The former is forced, the later is organic.

But he doesn’t remember me, and he probably doesn’t really care to. He had a hunch, and took a shot at shutting me up. And it backfired or correctly-fired or who knows.

My life was therefore altered. By a chance occurence. Or non-occurence.

The Varieties of Available Knowledge

It is a common (and commonly boring) trope to express a desire to travel so that one might ‘learn about the world’.

It is also a common (and commonly boring) trope to express a desire for ‘experiential’ knowledge over ‘book’ knowledge.

It is also a common (and commonly boring) trope to assert some undefined, mystical difference between ‘book’ smarts and ‘common sense’ or ‘street smarts’.

I think all of these are false dichotomies perpetuated by people looking for an excuse not to read.

One learns about the world only through learning – this is axiomatic.

Non-fiction books (good ones, that is) are a focused tour, led by an expert, of whatever domain of inquiry the book deals with.

Trips and vacations are not a focused tour, led by an expert. Oftentimes trips are simply experiential hedonism, allowing the unrestrained subjective experience of things like foods, architecture, and novel customs. There is no ‘learning’ implied in this. It is simply a series of novel, subjective experiences that one may learn from OR not learn from.

The best form of knowledge in current existence is a book. If you do not read books, you cannot possibly understand reality regardless of how much ‘experiencing’ and ‘thinking’ you’ve done. This is because all of your thoughts are, by definition, sollipsistic. You can NEVER get outside of your own head.

Therefore, other people who have spent their lives studying something you’ve never considered, must, if you are to learn, download their knowledge into your brain via some medium. The written word has proven to be the most reliable method of knowledge transmission because it allows people to carefully craft how they will explain something. If you doubt this, travel in time back to pre-literate society and see how fun it was. Learning verbally works, too, of course, but it is less reliable regarding complex subjects.

‘Street smarts’ is another word for adaptive behavior in a local ecology. It has absolutely, positively, nothing to do with real knowledge. ‘Street smarts’  are simply a sloppy, adaptive behavioral attempt to survive or operate in a specific  context. Such kinds of adaptation may not relate at all to the objective constraints of the environment, or to how one might ACTUALLY adapt to the environment.

In other words, when ‘street smarts’ become systematic, abstract, principles, they become book smarts (in the sense that book learning, in general, allows for greater complexity and planned specification of ideas). If your ‘street smarts’ AREN’T systematic, abstract and generalizable to similar contexts, they aren’t worth anything anyway; and if they ARE, you should write them in a fucking book so that others can learn them.

People have had access to their ‘experiences’ and ‘ideas’ and ‘views’ since the beginning of time, and all of them, added up, amounted to mostly worthless garbage before the invention of the printing press, literacy, and systematic science. The more you tell yourself that your personal experience matters, the less likely you are to understand anything.

Mine is a fiercely communal definition of knowledge. If most intelligent people disagree with something you say, than your idea is not interesting. This tyranny of the majority is something I’m perfectly happy living with. After all, if most intelligent people disagree with something you say, you are always free to find evidence and improve your arguments so as to sway popular opinion. Gaining true knowledge is a struggle. And it should feel like a struggle.

Recently, book retailer Barnes and Noble bought the fledgling Borders bookstores. Before being sold, Borders had been marketing an ‘e-reader’ called a “Kobo” (a device that allows you to download and read books ‘on the go’ whatever the flying fuck that even means). Similar e-readers are also available, such as Amazon’s “Kindle” and Barnes and Noble’s’  “Nook”.

These e-readers have been very popular. Ads for these electronic reading devices sell them as the standard middle-class college working person’s accessory. Ads promoting these devices engage in a shameless association between owning this device and appearing intelligent and fun.

Problem is, in order for these e-readers to work, you have to download books onto them. Who decides what books are available? Why, the masses of course (through sales and market demand). And so, while it is currently physically impossibly to obtain downloadable e-reader versions of critically important works in science, philosophy and politics, it is abundantly simple to create a formidable electronic library of vampire novels, Christian fiction and diet books.

Meanwhile, the last bastion of thought, university libraries, are struggling with restrictions in public funding and budget cuts. For this reason, many important books are either not updated with new editions or simply never purchased in the first place. In turn, to offset costs that arise from a reduction in sales, academic and non-fiction booksellers in general raise their prices or dilute their content to appeal to the romance-novel guzzling masses.

I’m not one to deny the label of elitism, as I do not find this word necessarily immoral or ill-advised. Certainly, when it comes to the importance of learning, and access to the materials that best provide it, I am an incorrigible elitist.

It isn’t that vampire novels and Christian fiction aren’t fun to read or, at least, potentially enjoyable. It is that our current inclinations toward reading are zero-sum. The more vampire/Christian/self-help nonsense you read, the less good stuff you’ll read.

And if one still thinks that ‘good’ reading is completely subjective, come back and talk to me when the reading comprehension and math literacy of our country has dropped beneath the second world.

Cheers to a lazy Sunday read.

Dear Mr. Marx,


You were very interested in economic systems and the effects they had on people’s sense of themselves. I think your bias was humanistic – you were more worried with personal liberation than economic growth. Of course, the two are, for you, inseparable.

But you were alive way too early in the history of capitalism. For you, capitalism was the wage relation. But, really, what this meant, when you were writing, was factory working in dim and pathetic conditions.

You felt for the poor, dirty factory workers with no money, no clean face, and no spirit. Their religion pacified them and it tormented you that the angel of history could be so ignorant.

But today, the factory workers are far away in other countries. We don’t see their faces and we have a lot of people like Milton Friedman who have made a lot of money reassuring us that a 50cent wage per day is a blessing for them.

So I don’t know any factory workers, primarily because I don’t have any friends in India or Malaysia or China.

I do, however, know plenty of white collar and upwardly mobile young middle class people. Many of them are elated to be called things like regional manager, or an accountant, or a director of human resources, or a police officer, or a personal banker. Most of them are well-paid, clean and have lots of gadgets like iPhones and ipads and iwhateverthefuckitisthesedays.

They are rarely, however, encouraged to use their creativity. They never walk into their office with the intention of  creating their own work schedule. They are told what to do, how to do it, where to do it, when to have it done, and what will happen if they don’t. But they make good money, many of them, and they don’t struggle financially.

I know you wrote about the petit-bourgeoisie that we today largely call the middle class. I just wish I could show you how many of these people of my generation spend their days literally, LITERALLY, trading their youth,  minds and creativity for cash and toys.

The factory, Mr. Marx, is much cleaner now, and much better paying.

You were wrong to want communism. Communism isn’t inspiring. It is boring, un-creative, controlled and sterile. I think if you were alive today, you’d see pure communism as opposed to the very human creativity you spent your life defending.

In the 21st century, it seems like a mixed economy (with socialist and free-market elements) is the best fit for our species of primate.

Thus, the new problem, for you and your followers,  is to paint high-prestige office work as the intellect-crushing, autonomy-raping, creativity-draining factory work it is.


Harvard Psychologist Steven Pinker at Cal Tech




Go to this link for more information:

A Thought Experiment

In my opinion, sociology is dying.

If the founders of sociology were alive today, I think most of them would decline to self-identify as sociologists.

There are three reasons for this.

First, the discipline of sociology, as it currently exists, has no consensus on the definition of fundamental concepts. No living sociologist that I am aware of has tied concepts like ‘society’,’ action’, ‘agency’, ‘culture,’ ‘social life,’ ‘social change,’ ‘religion,’  or ‘class’ to some objective mathematical referent that can be measured.

Isaac Newton did this, in physics, with otherwise hard to define terms like ‘velocity’ and ‘acceleration’ and ‘infinity’. No living sociologist has done this with sociological terms. This is a major reason why sociology is dying – it has no agreed-upon subject matter.

The second reason sociology is dying is because it is not a science. Sociology treats humans as ‘actors’ and ‘agents’ and ‘people’ instead of animals or energy transduction systems (which is what we are, literally). Sociology also treats ‘culture’ as something to be respected and admired and enjoyed instead of something to be broken down and analyzed.  Sociology also respects ‘theoretical traditions’ instead of seeing the word ‘tradition’ as a euphemism for lack of progress.

The third reason sociology is dying is because it is isolated from the other natural sciences. Sociology is (for completely indefensible reasons) classified as a ‘social’ and not a ‘natural’ science (because social things, of course, aren’t natural).

I would hazard a guess (which is based only on my experience) and say that about 80% of sociologists (8 in 10) have absolutely no clue how natural science works or about the current debates in those fields. The vast, vast majority of sociologists read only sociology. Because the concepts used within sociology are largely undefined (see above) this actually amounts to many sociologists not really knowing much of anything.

This is a problem. The founders of sociology took it as obvious that sociology was completely irrelevant without trans-disciplinary insight (even if only as an analogy, like Durkheim).

So, here’s a thought experiment that might help to re-focus our efforts on making sociology important again.

Suppose you wake up tomorrow and find a golden book, 300 pages in length, that describes the entirety of social life.  Every single possible question a person might ask about social life is answerable with the equations in this hypothetical book.

Here’s the 20 million dollar question:

What one or two things (if you only had the opportunity to ask one or two questions) do you think most people would ask this book?

What question would YOU ask the book?