Tag Archives: sociology

Comment on Goffman’s survey, American Sociological Review rejection edition

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Peer Review, by Gary Night. https://flic.kr/p/c2WH2E

Background:

  • I reviewed Alice Goffman’s book, On The Run.
  • I complained that her dissertation was not made public, despite being awarded the American Sociological Association’s dissertation prize. I proposed a rule change for the association, requiring that the winning dissertation be “publicly available through a suitable academic repository by the time of the ASA meeting at which the award is granted.” (The rule change is moving through the process.)
  • When her dissertation was released, I complained about the rationale for the delay.
  • My critique of the survey that was part of her research grew into a formal comment (PDF) submitted to American Sociological Review.

In this post I don’t have anything to add about Alice Goffman’s work. This is about what we can learn from this and other incidents to improve our social science and its contribution to the wider social discourse. As Goffman’s TED Talk passed 1 million views, we have had good conversations about replicability and transparency in research, and about ethics in ethnography. And of course about the impact of criminal justice system and over-policing on African Americans, the intended target of her work. This post is about how we deal with errors in our scholarly publishing.

My comment was rejected by the American Sociological Review.

You might not realize this, but unlike many scientific journals, except for “errata” notices, which are for typos and editing errors, ASR has no normal way of acknowledging or correcting errors in research. To my knowledge ASR has never retracted an article or published an editor’s note explaining how an article, or part of an article, is wrong. Instead, they publish Comments (and Replies). The Comments are submitted and reviewed anonymously by peer reviewers just like an article, and then if the Comment is accepted the original author responds (maybe followed by a rejoinder). It’s a cumbersome and often combative process, often mixing theoretical with methodological critiques. And it creates a very high hurdle to leap, and a long delay, before the journal can correct itself.

In this post I’ll briefly summarize my comment, then post the ASR editors’ decision letter and reviews.

Comment: Survey and ethnography

I wrote the comment about Goffman’s 2009 ASR article for accountability. The article turned out to be the first step toward a major book, so ASR played a gatekeeping role for a much wider reading audience, which is great. But then it should take responsibility to notify readers about errors in its pages.

My critique boiled down to these points:

  • The article describes the survey as including all households in the neighborhood, which is not the case, and used statistics from the survey to describe the neighborhood (its racial composition and rates of government assistance), which is not justified.
  • The survey includes some number (probably a lot) of men who did not live in the neighborhood, but who were described as “in residence” in the article, despite being “absent because they were in the military, at job training programs (like JobCorp), or away in jail, prison, drug rehab centers, or halfway houses.” There is no information about how or whether such men were contacted, or how the information about them was obtained (or how many in her sample were not actually “in residence”).
  • The survey results are incongruous with the description of the neighborhood in the text, and — when compared with data from other sources — describe an apparently anomalous social setting. She reported finding more than twice as many men (ages 18-30) per household as the Census Bureau reports from their American Community Survey of Black neighborhoods in Philadelphia (1.42 versus .60 per household). She reported that 39% of these men had warrants for violating probation or parole in the prior three years. Using some numbers from other sources on violation rates, that translates into between 65% and 79% of the young men in the neighborhood being on probation or parole — very high for a neighborhood described as “nice and quiet” and not “particularly dangerous or crime-ridden.”
  • None of this can be thoroughly evaluated because the reporting of the data and methodology for the survey were inadequate to replicate or even understand what was reported.

You can read my comment here in PDF. Since I aired it out on this blog before submitting it, making it about as anonymous as a lot of other peer-review submissions, I see no reason to shroud the process any further. The editors’ letter I received is signed by the current editors — Omar Lizardo, Rory McVeigh, and Sarah Mustillo — although I submitted the piece before they officially took over (the editors at the time of my submission were Larry W. Isaac and Holly J. McCammon). The reviewers are of course anonymous. My final comment is at the end.

ASR letter and reviews

Editors’ letter:

25-Aug-2015

Dear Prof. Cohen:

The reviews are in on your manuscript, “Survey and ethnography: Comment on Goffman’s ‘On the Run’.” After careful reading and consideration, we have decided not to accept your manuscript for publication in American Sociological Review (ASR).  Our decision is based on the reviewers’ comments, our reading of the manuscript, an overall assessment of the significance of the contribution of the manuscript to sociological knowledge, and an estimate of the likelihood of a successful revision.

As you will see, there was a range of opinions among the reviewers of your submission.  Reviewer 1 feels strongly that the comment should not be published, reviewer 3 feels strongly that it should be published, and reviewer 2 falls in between.  That reviewer sees merit in the criticisms but also suggests that the author’s arguments seem overstated in places and stray at times from discussion that is directly relevant to a critique of the original article’s alleged shortcomings.

As editors of the journal, we feel it is essential that we focus on the comment’s critique of the original ASR article (which was published in 2009), rather than the recently published book or controversy and debate that is not directly related to the submitted comment.  We must consider not only the merits of the arguments and evidence in the submitted comment, but also whether the comment is important enough to occupy space that could otherwise be used for publishing new research.  With these factors in mind, we feel that the main result that would come from publishing the comment would be that valuable space in the journal would be devoted to making a point that Goffman has already acknowledged elsewhere (that she did not employ probability sampling).

As the author of the comment acknowledges, there is actually very little discussion of, or use of, the survey data in Goffman’s article.   We feel that the crux of the argument (about the survey) rests on a single sentence found on page 342 of the original article:  “The five blocks known as 6th street are 93 percent Black, according to a survey of residents that Chuck and I conducted in 2007.”  The comment author is interpreting that to mean that Goffman is claiming she conducted scientific probability sampling (with all households in the defined space as the sampling frame).  It is important to note here that Goffman does not actually make that claim in the article.  It is something that some readers might infer.  But we are quite sure that many other readers simply assumed that this is based on nonprobability sampling or convenience sampling.  Goffman speaks of it as a survey she conducted when she was an undergraduate student with one of the young men from the neighborhood.  Given that description of the survey, we expect many readers assumed it was a convenience sample rather than a well-designed probability sample.  Would it have been better if Goffman had made that more explicit in the original article?  Yes.

In hindsight, it seems safe to say that most scholars (probably including Goffman) would say that the brief mentions of the survey data should have been excluded from the article.  In part, this is because the reported survey findings play such a minor role in the contribution that the paper aims to make.

We truly appreciate the opportunity to review your manuscript, and hope that you will continue to think of ASR for your future research.

Sincerely,

Omar Lizardo, Rory McVeigh, and Sarah Mustillo

Editors, American Sociological Review

Reviewer: 1

This paper seeks to provide a critique of the survey data employed in Goffman (2009).  Drawing on evidence from the American Community Survey, the author argues that data presented in Goffman (2009) about the community in which she conducted her ethnography is suspect.  The author draws attention to remarkably high numbers of men living in households (compared with estimates derived from ACS data) and what s/he calls an “extremely high number” of outstanding warrants reported by Goffman.  S/he raises the concern that Goffman (2009) did not provide readers with enough information about the survey and its methodology for them to independently evaluate its merits and thus, ultimately, calls into question the generalizability of Goffman’s survey results.

This paper joins a chorus of critiques of Goffman’s (2009) research and subsequent book.  This critique is novel in that the critique is focused on the survey aspect of the research rather than on Goffman’s persona or an expressed disbelief of or distaste for her research findings (although that could certainly be an implication of this critique).

I will not comment on the reliability, validity or generalizability of Goffman’s (2009) evidence, but I believe this paper is fundamentally flawed.  There are two key problems with this paper.  First the core argument of the paper (critique) is inadequately situated in relation to previous research and theory.  Second, the argument is insufficiently supported by empirical evidence.

The framing of the paper is not aligned with the core empirical aims of the paper.  I’m not exactly sure what to recommend here because it seems as if this is written for a more general audience and not a sociological one.  It strikes me as unusual, if not odd, to reference the popularity of a paper as a motivation for its critique.  Whether or not Goffman’s work is widely cited in sociological or other circles is irrelevant for this or any other critique of the work.  All social science research should be held to the same standards and each piece of scholarship should be evaluated on its own merits.

I would recommend that the author better align the framing of the paper with its empirical punchline.  In my reading the core criticism of this paper is that the Goffman (2009) has not provided sufficient information for someone to replicate or validate her results using existing survey data.  Although it may be less flashy, it seems more appropriate to frame the paper around how to evaluate social science research.  I’d advise the author to tone down the moralizing and discussion of ethics.  If one is to levy such a strong (and strongly worded) critique, one needs to root it firmly in established methods of social science.

That leads to the second, and perhaps even more fundamental, flaw.  If one is to levy such a strong (and strongly worded) critique, one needs to provide adequate empirical evidence to substantiate her/his claims.  Existing survey data from the ACS are not designed to address the kinds of questions Goffman engages in the paper and thus it is not appropriate for evaluating the reliability or validity of her survey research.  Numerous studies have established that large scale surveys like the ACS under-enumerate black men living in cities.  They fall into the “hard-to-reach” population that evade survey takers and census enumerators.  Survey researchers widely acknowledge this problem and Goffman’s research, rather than resolving the issue, raises important questions about the extent to which the criminal justice system may contribute to difficulties for conventional social science research data collection methods.  Perhaps the author can adopt a different, more scholarly, less authoritative, approach and turn the inconsistencies between her/his findings with the ACS and Goffman’s survey findings into a puzzle.  How can these two surveys generate such inconsistent findings?

Just like any survey, the ACS has many strengths.  But, the ACS is not well-suited to construct small area estimates of hard-to-reach populations.  The author’s attempt to do so is laudable but the simplicity of her/his analysis trivializes the difficultly in reaching some of the most disadvantaged segments of the population in conventional survey research.  It also trivializes one of the key insights of Goffman’s work and one that has been established previously and replicated by others: criminal justice contact fundamentally upends social relationships and living arrangements.

Furthermore, the ACS doesn’t ask any questions about criminal justice contact in a way that can help establish the validity of results for disadvantaged segments of the population who are most at-risk of criminal justice contact.  It is impossible to determine using the ACS how many men (or women) in the United States, Pennsylvania, or Philadelphia (or any neighborhood therein), have an outstanding warrant.  The ACS doesn’t ask about criminal justice contact, it doesn’t ask about outstanding warrants, and it isn’t designed to tap into the transient experiences of many people who have had criminal justice contact.  The author provides no data to evaluate the validity of Goffman’s claims about outstanding warrants.  Advancements in social science cannot be established from a “she said”, “he said” debate (e.g., FN 9-10).  That kind of argument risks a kind of intellectual policing that is antithetical to established standards of evaluating social science research.  That being said, someone should collect this evidence or at a minimum estimate, using indirect estimation methods, what fraction of different socio-demographic groups have outstanding warrants.

Although I believe that this paper is fundamentally flawed both in its framing and provision of evidence, I would like to encourage the author to replicate Goffman’s research.  That could involve an extended ethnography in a disadvantaged neighborhood in Philadelphia or another similar city.  That could also involve conducting a small area survey of a disadvantaged, predominantly black, neighborhood in a city with similar criminal justice policies and practices as Philadelphia in the period of Goffman’s study.  This kind of research is painstaking, time consuming, and sorely needed exactly because surveys like the ACS don’t – and can’t – adequately describe or explain social life among the most disadvantaged who are most likely to be missing from such surveys.

Reviewer: 2

I read this manuscript several times. It is more than a comment, it seems. It is 1) a critique of the description of survey methods in GASR and 2) a request for some action from ASR “to acknowledge errors when they occur.” The errors here have to do with Goffman’s description of survey methods in GASR, which the author describes in detail. This dual focus read as distracting at times. The manuscript would benefit from a more squarely focused critique of the description of survey methods in GASR.

Still, the author’s comment raises some valid concerns. The author’s primary concern is that the survey Goffman references in her 2009 ASR article is not described in enough detail to assess its accuracy or usefulness to a community of scholars. The author argues that some clarification is needed to properly understand the claims made in the book regarding the prevalence of men “on the run” and the degree to which the experience of the small group of men followed closely by Goffman is representative of most poor, Black men in segregated inner city communities. The author also cites a recent publication in which Goffman claims that the description provided in ASR is erroneous. If this is the case, it seems prudent for ASR to not only consider the author’s comments, but also to provide Goffman with an opportunity to correct the record.

I am not an expert in survey methods, but there are moments where the author’s interpretation of Goffman’s description seems overstated, which weakens the critique. For example, the author claims that Goffman is arguing that the entirety of the experience of the 6th Street crew is representative of the entire neighborhood, which is not necessarily what I gather from a close reading of GASR (although it may certainly be what has been taken up in popular discourse on the book). While there is overlap of the experience of being “on the run,” namely, your life is constrained in ways that it isn’t for those not on the run, it does appear that Goffman also uses the survey to describe a population that is distinct in important ways from the young men she followed on 6th street. The latter group has been “charged for more serious offenses like drugs and violent crimes,” she writes (this is the group that Sharkey argues might need to be “on the run”), while the larger group of men, whose information was gathered using survey data, were typically dealing with “more minor infractions”: “In the 6th Street neighborhood, a person was occasionally ‘on the run’ because he was a suspect in a shooting or robbery, but most people around 6th street had warrants out for far more minor infractions [emphasis mine].”

So, as I read it (I’ve also read the book), there are two groups: one “on the run” as a consequence of serious offenses and others “on the run” as a consequence of minor infractions. The consequence of being “on the run” is similar, even if the reason one is “on the run” varies.

The questions that remain are questions of prevalence and generalizability. The author asks: How many men in the neighborhood are “on the run” (for any reason)? How similar is this neighborhood to other neighborhoods? Answers to this question do rely on an accurate description of survey methods and data, as the author suggests.

This leads us to the most pressing and clearly argued question from the author: What is the survey population? Is it 1) “people around 6th Street” who also reside in the 6th Street neighborhood (of which, based on Goffman’s definition of in residence, are distributed across 217 distinct households in the neighborhood, however the neighborhood is defined e.g., 5 blocks or 6 blocks) or 2) the entirety of the neighborhood, which is made up of 217 households. It appears from the explanation from Goffman cited by the author that it is the former (“of the 217 households we interviewed,” which should probably read, of the 308 men we interviewed, all of whom reside in the neighborhood (based on Goffman’s definition of residence), 144 had a warrant…). Either way, the author makes a strong case for the need for clarification of this point.

The author goes on to explain the consequences of not accurately distinguishing among the two possibilities described above (or some other), but it seems like a good first step would be to request a clarification (the author could do this directly) and to allow more space than is allowed in a newspaper article to provide the type of explanation that could address the concerns of the author.

Is this the purpose of the comment? Or is the purpose of the comment merely to place a critique on record?  The primary objective is not entirely clear in the present manuscript.

The author’s comment is strong enough to encourage ASR to think through possibilities for correcting the record. As a critique of the survey methods, the comment would benefit from more focus. The comment could also do a better job of contextualizing or comparing/contrasting the use of survey methods in GASR with other ethnographic studies that incorporate survey methods (at the moment such references appear in footnotes).

Reviewer: 3

This comment exposes major errors in the survey methodology for Goffman’s article.  One major flaw is that the goffman article describes the survey as inclusive of all households in the neighborhood but later, in press interviews, discloses that it is not representative of all households in the neighborhood.  Another flaw that the author exposes is goffman’s data and methodological reporting not being up to par to sociological standards.  Finally, the author argues that the data from the survey does not match the ethnographic data.

Overall, I agree with the authors assertions that the survey component is flawed.  This is an important point because the article claims a large component of its substance from the survey instrument.  The survey helped goffman to bolster generalizability , and arguably, garner worthiness of publication in ASR.  If the massive errors in the survey had been exposed early on it is possible that ASR might have held back on publishing this article.

I am in agreement that ASR should correct the error highlighted on page 4 that the data set is not of the entire neighborhood but of random households/individuals given the survey in an informal way and that the sampling strategy should be described.  Goffman should aknowledge that this was a non-representative convenience sample, used for bolstering field observations.  It would follow then that the survey component of the ASR article would have to be rendered invalid and that only the field data in the article should be taken at face value.  Goffman should also be asked to provide a commentary on her survey methodology.

The author points out some compelling anomalies from the goffman survey and general social survey data and other representative data.  At best, goffman made serious mistakes with the survey and needs to be asked to show those mistakes and her survey methodology or she made up some of the data in the survey and appropriate action must be taken by ASR.  I agree with the authors final assessment, that the survey results be disregarded and the article be republished without mention of such results or with mention of the results albeit showing all of its errors and demonstrating the survey methodology.

My response

Regular readers can probably imagine my long, overblown, hyperventilating response to Reviewer 1, so I’ll just leave that to your imagination. On the bottom line, I disagree with the editors’ decision, but I can’t really blame them. Would it really be worth some number of pages in the journal, plus a reply and rejoinder, to hash this out? Within the constraints of the ASR format, maybe the pages aren’t worth it. And the result would not have been a definitive statement anyway, but rather just another debate among sociologists.

What else could they have done? Maybe it would have been better if the editors could simply append a note to the article advising readers that the survey is not accurately described, and cautioning against interpreting it as representative — with a link to the comment online somewhere explaining the problem. (Even so of course Goffman should have a chance to respond, and so on.)

It’s just wrong that now the editors acknowledge there is something wrong in their journal — although we seem to disagree about how serious the problem is — but no one is going to formally notify the future readers of the article. That seems like bad scholarly communication. I’ve said from the beginning that there’s no need for a high-volume conversation about this, or attack on anyone’s integrity or motives. There are important things in this research, and it’s also highly flawed. Acknowledge the errors — so they don’t compound — and move on.

This incident can help us learn lessons with implications up and down the publishing system. Here are a couple. At the level of social science research reporting: don’t publish survey results data without sufficient methodological documentation — let’s have the instrument and protocol, the code, and access to the data. At the system level of publishing, why do we still have journals with cost-defined page limits? Because for-profit publishing is more important than scholarly communication. The sooner we get out from under that 19th-century habit the better.

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Goffman dissertation followup

I previously reviewed Alice Goffman’s book On The Run, and wrote a critique of the survey that was part of that project (including a formal comment sent to American Sociological Review). Then I complained that her dissertation was not made public, despite being awarded the American Sociological Association’s dissertation prize. I proposed a rule change for the association, requiring that the winning dissertation be “publicly available through a suitable academic repository by the time of the ASA meeting at which the award is granted.”

Here’s a quick followup.

shelf_of_dissertations_500

I was interested in Goffman’s 2010 dissertation because I thought it might have more information about the survey she conducted than the 2014 book did. When I inquired about the dissertation on June 4 of this year, Princeton’s director of media relations, Martin Mbugua, told me she “was granted an exemption from submitting her dissertation to the University Archives, so we do not have a copy of her dissertation in our collection.”

Jesse Singal at New York magazine reported yesterday that they now have the dissertation, and he’s read it. Not only does it not have more methodological information than the book, Singal reports, it actually has less, as the methodological appendix that’s in the book is not in the dissertation. In a saved-you-a-trip-to-Princeton email to me, Singal says the dissertation’s description of her survey is “basically identical” to what is in ASR. That speaks to my critique of her survey, which seems unaffected by the release of the dissertation. (I’m not in charge of dissertations at Princeton, so I’m not critiquing the dissertation anyway.)

With regard to the open-science-inspired rule change for ASA dissertation awards, Singal’s article just reinforces my desire to see the rule adopted. Mbugua told Singal that Princeton now allows up to two two-year embargo periods for PhD students who don’t want their dissertations publicly released. But why embargo it? I think most people do this because they don’t want to undermine their book deals. The need for this may be overstated, but it’s a thing. (Eric Schwartz who acquires sociology books for Columbia University Press, tweeted: “No problem. Book and dissertation are for different audiences.”)

Anyway, Singal quotes Goffman giving a quite different reason:

The dissertation contained very sensitive material about people who were vulnerable to arrest and incarceration. … I wanted to think through the ethical and human subjects issues of making it available beyond the committee members and I wanted some time to go by between the actual events and a public reading. That felt safer for the people who had granted me permission to write about their lives, and for me, than publishing right away.

Apart from the fact that this concern did not prevent Goffman from submitting her book to a reading by an awards committee — “beyond the [dissertation] committee members” — I do not find this very credible, and I don’t like that rationale. If it was wrong to release it in 2010 because it would endanger her subjects, then it was wrong to publish a book in 2014 with the same — actually, more — incriminating information. In fact, as we now know, identifying the individuals mentioned in the book was trivial using Google, and of course the police knew who they were anyway. By this rationale, I cannot understand why the dissertation would not be given to the library until 14 months after the book was published — or until three months after the commercial paperback edition was published. Oh, wait.

Look, if people want to embargo their dissertations for financial gain, and their elite private universities allow it, then so be it. But that doesn’t have to be ASA’s problem. We can add one small piece to that calculation: giving up the ASA Dissertation Award.

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On Goffman’s survey

Survey methods.

Survey methods.

Jesse Singal at New York Magazine‘s Science of Us has a piece in which he tracks down and interviews a number of Alice Goffman’s respondents. This settles the question — which never should have been a real question — about whether she actually did all that deeply embedded ethnography in Philadelphia. It leaves completely unresolved, however, the issue of the errors and possible errors in the research. This reaffirms for me the conclusion in my original review that we should take the volume down in this discussion, identify errors in the research without trying to attack Goffman personally or delegitimize her career — and then learn from the affair ways that we can improve sociology (for example, by requiring that winners of the American Sociological Association dissertation award make their work publicly available).

That said, I want to comment on a couple of issues raised in Singal’s piece, and share my draft of a formal comment on the survey research Goffman reported in American Sociological Review.

First, I want to distance myself from the description by Singal of “lawyers and journalists and rival academics who all stand to benefit in various ways if they can show that On the Run doesn’t fully hold up.” I don’t see how I (or any other sociologists) benefit if Goffman’s research does not hold up. In fact, although some people think this is worth pursuing, I am also annoying some friends and colleagues by doing this.

More importantly, although it’s a small part of the article, Singal did ask Goffman about the critique of her survey, and her response (as he paraphrased it, anyway) was not satisfying to me:

Philip Cohen, a sociologist at the University of Maryland, published a blog post in which he puzzles over the strange results of a door-to-door survey Goffman says she conducted with Chuck in 2007 in On the Run. The results are implausible in a number of ways. But Goffman explained to me that this wasn’t a regular survey; it was an ethnographic survey, which involves different sampling methods and different definitions of who is and isn’t in a household. The whole point, she said, was to capture people who are rendered invisible by traditional survey methods. (Goffman said an error in the American Sociological Review paper that became On the Run is causing some of the confusion — a reference to “the 217 households that make up the 6th Street neighborhood” that should have read “the 217 households that we interviewed … ” [emphasis mine]. It’s a fix that addresses some of Cohen’s concerns, like an implied and very unlikely 100 percent response rate, but not all of them.) “I should have included a second appendix on the survey in the book,” said Goffman. “If I could do it over again, I would.”

My responses are several. First, the error of describing the 217 households as the whole neighborhood, as well as the error in the book of saying she interviewed all 308 men (when in the ASR article she reports some unknown number were absent), both go in the direction of inflating the value and quality of the survey. Maybe they are random errors, but they didn’t have a random effect.

Second, I don’t see a difference between a “regular survey” and an “ethnographic survey.” There are different survey techniques for different applications, and the techniques used determine the data and conclusions that follow. For example, in the ASR article Goffman uses the survey (rather than Census data) to report the racial composition of the neighborhood, which is not something you can do with a convenience sample, regardless of whether you are engaged in an ethnography or not.

Finally, there are no people “rendered invisible by traditional survey methods” (presumably Singal’s phrase). There are surveys that are better or worse at including people in different situations. There are “traditional” surveys — of varying quality — of homeless people, prisoners, rape victims, and illiterate peasants. I don’t know what an “ethnographic survey” is, but I don’t see why it shouldn’t include a sampling strategy, a response rate, a survey instrument, a data sharing arrangement, and thorough documentation of procedures. That second methodological appendix can be published at any time.

ASR Comment (revised June 22)

I wrote up my relatively narrow, but serious, concerns about the survey, and posted them on my website here.

It strikes me that Goffman’s book (either the University of Chicago Press version or the trade book version) may not be subject to the same level of scrutiny that her article in ASR should have been. In fact, presumably, the book publishers took her publication in ASR as evidence of the work’s quality. And their interests are different from those of a scientific journal run by an academic society. If ASR is going to play that gatekeeping role, and it should, then ASR (and by extension ASA) should take responsibility in print for errors in its publications.

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Gender and the sociology faculty

In an earlier post, I reported on gender and the American Sociological Association’s (ASA) leaders, PhDs received, subject specialization, editors and editorial boards. Here is a little more data, which I’ll add to that post as well as posting it here.

Looking at the gender breakdown of PhDs, which became majority female in the 1990s, I wrote: “Producing mostly-female PhDs for a quarter of a century is getting to be long enough to start achieving a critical mass of women at the top of the discipline.” But I didn’t look at the tenure-ladder faculty, which is the next step in the pipeline to disciplinary domination.

To address that a little, I took a sample from the ASA’s 2015 Guide to Graduate Departments of Sociology, which I happened to get in the mail. Using random numbers, I counted the gender and PhD year for 201 full-time sociology faculty in departments that grant graduate degrees (that excludes adjuncts, affiliates, part-time, and emeritus faculty). This reflects both entrance into and attrition from the professoriate, so how it relates to the gender composition of PhDs will reflect everything from the job market through tenure decisions to retirement and mortality rates.

The median PhD year in my sample is 2000, and women are 47% of the sample. In fact, women earned 52% of sociology PhDs in the 1990s, but they are only 40% of the faculty with 1990s PhDs in my sample. After that, things improved for women. Women earned 60% of the PhDs in the 2000s, and they are 62% of current faculty with PhDs from the 2000s in this sample. So either we’re doing a better job of moving women from PhD completion into full-time faculty jobs, or the 2000s women haven’t been disproportionately weeded out yet.

Here is the breakdown of my sample, by PhD year and gender:

soc-prof-gender

With 15 years or so of women earning 60% of the PhDs, they should be headed toward faculty dominance, and that yet may be the case. If men and women get tenure and retire at the same rate, another decade or so should do it, but that’s a big “if.” I don’t read much into women’s slippage in the last few years, except that it’s clearly not a slam-dunk.

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Proposed rule change for the American Sociological Association Dissertation Award

open science can

Dear Prof. Janoski and members of the ASA Dissertation Award Committee,

I am writing to suggest a rule change for the Dissertation Award. Jordan Robison at ASA told me:

Any rule change for an award committee is usually voted on by the same award committee, presented to Committee on Awards. If Committee on Awards approves any rule change it is then brought to Council, who makes the final vote.

So it is my hope to persuade you to take this rule change up the chain to the Committee on Awards (currently chaired by Jane Sell at Texas A&M), and from there to Council (where the current liaison to the Committee on Awards is Adia Harvey Wingfield at Georgia State, moving to Washington University in St. Louis).

Background

The issue has been raised with regard to 2011 winner Alice Goffman’s dissertation at Princeton. That dissertation is not available at the Princeton library. A query from me to the library produced this response from Martin A. Mbugua, Director of Media Relations & University Spokesperson:

Alice Goffman was granted an exemption from submitting her dissertation to the University Archives, so we do not have a copy of her dissertation in our collection. The Graduate School in 2012 instituted a dissertation embargo policy under which no dissertation would be exempted from the submission requirement. Thus, a dissertation may be embargoed for a period of time to allow for publication in other forms, but it must be submitted to the University’s Seeley G. Mudd Manuscript Library.

Rationale

Goffman’s case is extreme in that her dissertation apparently may never be available, but it remains the case that people at Princeton (and at other schools) may choose to embargo their dissertations, to keep them out of public circulation, while they publish them commercially. Perhaps other schools also allow a complete exemption. If that is their privilege, and they choose to exercise it, then I believe they should be ineligible for the ASA Dissertation Award. My logic is that, if ASA holds up a dissertation as the best of the year, the purpose of that honor is partly to inspire and inform other sociologists about what constitutes the best doctoral research. If the dissertation is not publicly available, that purpose is undermined. Further, I think it would be a welcome – albeit small – signal in support of emerging norms of open science for the association to affirm the principle that dissertation research should be publicly available.

Proposal

I propose the following rule be added:

In order to be considered for the ASA Dissertation Award, a nominee must commit to making his or her dissertation publicly available through a suitable academic repository by the time of the ASA meeting at which the award is granted.

Thank you for considering this request. I welcome your response, and would be happy to work with you on getting this rule – or something like it – passed by the ASA Council. Please let me know if there is anything else you need.

Sincerely,

Philip Cohen

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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!

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New data on gender-segregated sociology

Four years ago I wrote about the gender composition of sociology and the internal segregation of the discipline. Not much has changed, at least on the old measures. Here’s an update including some new measures (with some passages copied from the old post).

People may (or may not) want to be sociologists, they may or may not be accepted to graduate schools, thrive there (with good mentoring or bad), freely choose specializations, complete PhDs, publish, get jobs, rise to positions of leadership, and so on.  As in workplaces, gender segregation in academic sociology represents the cumulative intentions and actions of people in different institutional settings and social locations. It’s also the outcome of gender politics and power struggles. So, very interesting!

A report from the research folks at the American Sociological Association (ASA) got me thinking about this in 2011. The conversation revived the other day when someone asked ASA Vice President Elect Barbara Risman (a friend and colleague of mine), “What do you make of the fact that increasingly the majority of ASA election candidates tend to be women?” As we’ll see, the premise may be wrong, but the gender dynamics of ASA are interesting anyway.

#1: ASA leadership

The last four people elected president of ASA have been women (Ruth Milkman, Paula England, Annette Lareau, and Cecilia Ridgeway), and the the next winner will be either Michele Lamont or Min Zhou, both women. That’s an unprecedented run for women, and the greatest stretch of gender domination since the early 1990s, when men won six times in row. Here is the trend, by decade, starting with the decades before a woman president, 1906 through the 1940s:

sociology segregation.xlsx

Clearly, women have surpassed parity at the top echelons of the association’s academic leadership. ASA elections are a complicated affair, with candidates nominated by a committee at something like two per position. For president, there are two candidates. In the last nine presidential elections, six have featured a man running against a woman, and the women won four of those contests. So women are more than half the candidates, and they’ve been more likely to win against men. That pattern is general across elected offices since 2007 (as far back as I looked): more than half the candidates are women, but even more women win (most elections have about 36 candidates for various positions):

sociology segregation.xlsx

The nominating committees pick (or convince) more women than men to run, and then the electorate favors the women candidates, for reasons we can’t tell from these data.

These elections are run in an association that became majority female in its membership only in 2005, reaching only 53% female in 2010. That trend is likely to continue as older members retire and the PhD pool continues to shift toward women.

#2: Phds

Since the mid-1990s, according to data from the National Science Foundation, women have outnumbered men as new sociology PhDs, and we are now approaching two-thirds female. (The data I used in the old post showed a drop in women after 2007, but with the update, which now comes from here, that’s gone.)

sociology segregation.xlsx

Producing mostly-female PhDs for a quarter of a century is getting to be long enough to start achieving a critical mass of women at the top of the discipline.

#3: Specialization

These numbers haven’t been updated by ASA since 2010. The pattern of section belonging at that time showed a marked level of gender segregation. On a scale of 1 to 100, I calculate the sections are segregated at a level of .25.

sociology segregation.xlsx

#4: Editors and editorial boards

Finally, prestigious academic journals have one or more editors, often some associate editors, and then an editorial board. In sociology, this is mostly the people who are called upon to review articles more often. Because journal publication is a key hurdle for jobs and promotions, these sociologists serve as gatekeepers for the discipline. In return they get some prestige, the occasional reception, and they might be on the way to being an editor themselves someday.

Journal leadership is dragging behind the trends in PhDs, ASA members, and ASA leadership. I selected the top 20 journals in the Sociology category from the Journal Citation Reports (excluding a few misplaced titles), plus Social Problems and Social Forces, because these are considered to be leading journals despite low impact factors. The editors of these journals are 41% female (or 40% if you use journals as the unit of analysis instead of editors). Here is the list in two parts — general journals and specialty journals — with each sorted by impact factor. For multiple editors I either list the gender if they’re all the same, or show the breakdown if they differ:

Book12

It looks like the gender gap is partly attributable to the difference between journals run by associations and those run as department fiefdoms or by for-profit publishers.

For editorial boards, I didn’t do a systematic review, but I looked at the two leading research journals — American Sociological Review and American Journal of Sociology, as well as two prestigious specialized journals — Sociological Methods and Research, and Gender and Society (which is run by its own association,Sociologists for Women in Society, whose membership includes both women and men). Here’s the update to my 2011 numbers:

sociology segregation.xlsx

I removed a couple board members I know to have died in the last year, so these lists might not be that up to date.

Note on the journals that SMR and AJS are fiefdoms with no accountability to anyone outside their cliques, so it’s not surprising they are decades behind. ASR and G&S, on the other hand, are run by associations with majority-female memberships and hierarchies, in the case of G&S with a feminist mission. (ASA demands reports on gender and race/ethnicity composition from its editors.) AJS has no excuse and should suffer opprobrium for this. SMR might argue they can’t recruit women for this job (but someone should ask them to at least make this case).

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