Sociologists asking me questions

A few weeks ago I participating in an Ask Me Anything session on the Sociology Job Market Rumors board, a mostly anonymous board devoted to gossip and chatter about sociology and its subjects. It’s posted here (with some responses), but I’ve copied it below.

We thank renowned family and gender scholar, Dr. Philip Cohen, for participating in SJMR’s inaugural AMA. Below are Philip’s responses. You can learn more about his research by visiting his website and his blog.

1. What was your answer when, at the age of 9, people asked you: “what will you do when you grow up?”

At age 9 my plan was to be a writer. Then, in chronological order: artist, prophet, rock star, and eventually journalist.

2. If you could do your career over, what would you do differently? What would you *definitely not* do differently?

I would have learned more broadly earlier, starting in college: I should have taken more math and statistics, and natural sciences. A decision I would not change would be moving into demography. My original inclination was much more theoretical and historical (My MA thesis was on the women’s suffrage movement and intersectionality). But when I took my UMass MA to the University of Maryland the demographers there were very strong (and supportive): Harriet Presser, Suzanne Bianchi, Sonal Desai, and my advisor, Reeve Vanneman, and I got pulled in. That was great luck.

3. As one of the most prominent public sociologists, how do you balance your traditional scholarship with your public blog, media appearances/writings, etc. How do you decide which issue merits which approach? And how, if at all, do you think these roles can come into conflict?

There is not much method to my priorities, I’m afraid – I’m just not that well organized. But on the balance question, usually when people ask this they are concerned about academic productivity – real productivity – peer-reviewed research and grants. Sometimes when I’m chatting with someone who’s a regular research academic, we talk about the blog, and media stuff, and my textbook, and then they say, “So what are you working on these days?” I would – or at least could – have done more peer-reviewed research if I hadn’t written 760 blog posts and a textbook in the last 5 years. On the other hand, maybe I would have just been less productive altogether. Because all my research ideas now come from interaction around my public work, or from students I work with.

A lot of people worry that if they blog or get on Twitter or try to write op-eds they won’t be able to do research anymore. And for some people this could be a problem – if it doesn’t suit you, don’t do it. But if it does suit you it may make you more, not less, productive. You learn to write better, and faster, with more practice. And you might learn how to make your work more effective from the interactions you have.

On the other hand, the social media side is endlessly distracting, and this can be a serious problem. The only way I get anything else done is by making commitments and then forcing myself into fulfilling them. I’ve made some big commitments which help me focus by regularly imposing deadlines: writing my textbook, editing Contexts, and working with the Council on Contemporary Families – these all make deadlines for me. And working with students provides a steady stream of commitments (I have seven PhD student advisees) since we’re always co-authoring papers and meeting various deadlines.

Finally, as for topics, I’m very impressionable. I got heavily into the Regnerus affair because there was a need for organization and it was timely (my blog hosted the “200 researchers” letter that Gary Gates organized), and I was on the ASA Family Section council; I got into critiquing marriage promotion because I had the expertise and data necessary to debunk the nutty stuff those people were doing. And so on. In each of these cases I got positive reinforcement from a community of sociologists and others who appreciate my efforts.

On the conflict question, I don’t think I’ve had a problem with roles coming into conflict – though my critics might disagree. The fact is that the different kinds of work I do have overlapping audiences, so someone reviewing my article for a journal might know what I’ve written on the blog, and political critics have access to my scholarly work. That potential scrutiny is mostly good – my peer-reviewed work should be more carefully scrutinized if it relates to strongly-held value positions that I have made public.

4. How, if at all, should we study the role that culture may play in reproducing inequality? The sort of relevant cultural things (like in Lareau’s work, for instance) seem maddeningly difficult to measure and put into conventional regression models. Yet, simultaneously, there do seem to be strong cultural elements in play in addition to the well-established structural ones. Methodologically, epistemologically, politically, is it possible to move from either/or approaches to culture and structure to both/and approaches?

This is really important. Theoretically, this is all about capitalism, modernity, and social change – the core questions of sociology. What drives change? What defines our era and its identities? Etc. Politically, this is all about all the policy questions of inequality: Head Start versus welfare, K-12 versus community college versus Pell grants, the minimum wage and skyrocketing executive pay. And of course race, poverty, and crime. (The political discourse around this stuff is depressingly impoverished in either/or terms; “culture” usually means something is poor people’s fault, versus “structure” or “the economy,” which refer to the unquestioned behavior of elites, with their unassailable motivation for self-interest.)

To study it is of course very difficult, for the reasons you say. I am a big fan of Lareau, as well as some other book writers on the qualitative side in my area, like Kathryn Edin, Marianne Cooper, Shamus Khan, and Sarah Damaske (a non-exhaustive list off the top of my head), as well as historians. Not good for regression models, but great for getting a feel for inequality and generating hypotheses. In my stratification seminar I assigned some neighborhood work (Sharkey), as well as some work from audit studies of discrimination – showing the wide range of things you might lump under “culture.” Often, like with racism, “culture” lives in the residual of your regression model, or is proxied with unknown validity by variables such as education, race, nativity, family structure, and so on (though credit to Michael Gaddis and others who have tried to put this stuff right in the model).

I think it’s really important to shake up the either/or thing. For example, with regard to marriage, it doesn’t make sense to use “culture” to attribute blame to poor people for not marrying any more than it does to call failure to raise the minimum wage a cultural issue (which it is). Individuals act under the impositions of “culture,” which appears as structural to them as the economy – I’m thinking of norms that essentially force people into shotgun weddings or divorce. (When I’m in the mood, I actually love Bourdeiu’s structured structures and structuring structures.) Good luck with this in politics.

5. In the last few years, there has been growing numbers of economists studying traditionally sociological topics like the family and even gender. What do you think will be the impact of this influx on the way sociologists study these topics? Has it modified your own research in any way?

I don’t agree with the premise of the question. Gary Becker won a Nobel Prize for his work on subjects like that going back to the 1970s. When I was studying gender inequality in grad school in the 1990s, Claudia Goldin’s Understanding the Gender Gap (1990) and the work by Blau and Kahn from 1992-2000 was central. In fact, my own work on the gender gap in earnings is all based on assumptions from the human capital model. Economists of course cause all kinds of problems for sociologists, but that’s not a recent phenomenon. It takes real training for sociologists to learn how to understand what economists are doing – and why we might disagree with their approach – and I don’t think most of us get that training.

6. If you had free reign to recreate a grad program in sociology, what would the curriculum look like?

In my experience being in grad school in two departments and on the faculty in three, everyone has their own ideas of how the training should be – and we mostly want it to be like our training. I generally come down on the side of people who want the training to be more broad than narrow, more theoretical than not, and more demographic than not. The best seminars (and the ones that are hardest to teach) combine theory and methods around a substantive theme (one of the reasons demography is such great training is that their seminars do this). I also think grad students should learn how to write – including for different audiences – and (for those heading that direction) how to teach.

7. What’s the most important advice you give your grad students?

I have no idea. Read and write a lot. Go to talks. Support each other. Have a life. There’s no shame in leaving academia behind, but if you want to give it a try we’ll give it our best shot.

8. What is the current and future state of Maryland sociology given the deep budget cuts?

Deeply troubled. We have some great people and we’ll get through it. Pray for us.

9. Do you prefer Philip or Phil? I hear you refer to yourself as Philip, but others always seem to call you by Phil.

I prefer Philip – thanks for asking – but not enough to correct people. It’s just one of those names people shorten without asking. (In writing it has to do with not knowing how many L’s to use.)

10. What do you think of SJMR? Any theories as to why “right” wing posts and sentiments often dominate? What should it look like in the future?

I have no way of understanding what goes on because I have no idea who anyone is. People routinely lie about their status and affiliations, tell lies about other people, impersonate people, and spread misinformation. You can argue the benefits of anonymity, but it makes some awful stuff possible on here.

11. Almost all of your work focuses on the US (obvious exception: “Headed Toward Equality? Housework Change in Comparative Perspective”). Almost all of your blog focuses just on work done in the US (occasional exceptions: global comparisons). Michele Lamont said in her ASA presidential candidate personal statement:

“My intellectual agenda will be to promote a greater internationalization of American sociology, with a focus on cultural and social processes of inequality and stigmatization in the United States and abroad.”

Do you consider yourself a scholar of “inequality” or a scholar of “inequality in America”? What do you think the relationship should be between the study of inequality in the U.S. and the study of inequality globally? For instance, you often speak in your blog about inequality processes that are very specific to the US (say, mass incarceration or even the racial system more generally). While country-specific processes are interesting to study in the US, the only non-American work that seems to catch most people eye is more global, multi-country comparisons. What should be the role of (possibly) country-specific processes that take place in another country in the study of inequality? Beyond trite truisms like “I think it’s important to have a global perspective” that often get repeated (without that “global perspective” making much of an impact in citation networks), is there any way that American sociology can ever become less self-obsessed and provincial in its research interests?

It’s a really important question and a great subject, but I don’t know what to do about it. At Contexts, Syed Ali and I are really trying to recruit more writers from outside the U.S., with some success, but that’s just one editorship at one journal (where the editors have a lot of discretion).

American provincialism among sociologists is a big problem. We did a survey of people teaching family when I was preparing my textbook proposal, and very few teachers wanted global material. Which was fine with me, because most of the global comparisons you get in intro-level textbooks are obvious or cliché, like arranged marriages in India, polygamy in Africa, cohabitation in Sweden – things that make the superficial (though important) sociological point that it doesn’t have to be this way. I don’t know enough to write for real about societies other than this one, at least not without collaborators.

About 10 years ago some China scholars made a push, led by Wang Feng and Deborah Davis, to integrate studies of inequality in China and the U.S. They had some meetings and published an edited volume with Stanford called Creating Wealth and Poverty in Postsocialist China, that I was part of. They were tired of there being a China session at ASA, instead of having the papers on China spread around the substantive sessions that they were writing about. That was a great idea.

It’s difficult. There are institutional barriers, linguistic barriers. How much should a grad student risk studying in another country, learning a new language? What if the project doesn’t work out? There are some established comparative traditions, such as US/Scandinavia, or US/West Europe, so if you do one of those you can get funding, maybe a postdoc or a job. And there are demography opportunities in specific places. But what if you want to do less well-trodden cases? Picking a project is always the hard part. But when you’re choosing between Add Health and PSID then the harm from being wrong – and the cost of switching – is much less than if you’re choosing between Botswana and Cambodia. It’s just hard to promote that kind of risk-taking when funding is so precarious.

I have great respect for those sociologists who have developed projects in other countries, and trained students on them. (That includes my colleagues at Maryland doing the India Human Development Survey – these are often demographers.)

12. What’s the biggest mistake you see sociologists make? (You can interpret this in any way you wish.)

I don’t know whether it’s a mistake, but I don’t think a lot of academic sociologists take advantage of the privilege we have of studying whatever we want. My dissertation was on labor market inequality. Since then, I’ve written academic papers on children’s disability rates, divorce, gender and color preferences, Regnerus, race and genetics, and pornography – none of which I studied in grad school. And for my textbook I researched and wrote 15,000-word chapters on subjects I knew nothing about to start, such as family violence and sexuality. Wow! I love my job.

Thanks for inviting me to do this!

2 Comments

Filed under Me @ work

2 responses to “Sociologists asking me questions

  1. bjrisman

    They certainly asked me very different questions then they asked you! Far more provocative….

    Like

  2. C

    “There’s no shame in leaving academia behind…” Thank you very much. Given the current job market, we need more advisers and department chairs in Ph.D programs to believe this, and support those of us who leave.

    Like

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