Tax Time Sociology

Kenworthy's latest, with cool background via University of Arizona.

Kenworthy’s latest, with cool background via University of Arizona.

Procrastination? No way. When it comes to economics, it’s just that I’ve spent my past few weeks thinking about the topic in sociological rather than personal terms.

It started back around spring break, when a group of political scientists proposed a reading group on Thomas Piketty’s Capital in the Twenty-First Century.  The book is a little windy and Piketty may be an economist, but he thinks like a sociologist—not only in taking on the problem of inequality itself but in seeing it as a problem, in understanding its roots in social and political systems, and in using graphs and charts to bring complicated and troubling economic trends to life.

It continued a week or two later when Richard L. Zweigenhaft and G. William Domhoff sent us a synopsis of the new edition of their book on corporate diversity (or the lack thereof) in the contemporary United States. I love this long-term, fairly basic  project because so often when we sociologists study social inequality we focus on disadvantage, marginalization and poverty. Zweigenhaft and Domhoff—or, as I like to call them, Richie Z. and the Big B.D.—turn this on its head, tracking the social demographics of the other side of the economic coin, the most privileged of Americans, the corporate elite. We published that just last week as “Trends at the Top: The New CEOs Revisited.”

And, after lecturing on the cultural and political foundations of capitalism last week in my Intro class, I’ve spent the last few days reading Lane Kenworthy’s bold, visionary call for better government involvement in our economy and collective lives, Social Democratic America. The timing isn’t accidental, nor all just about taxes. Kenworthy is going to be here on campus at Minnesota tomorrow, as part of our ongoing Scholars Strategy Network series. It should be good.

Okay, now that I’ve got that off my chest, I’ve got a little paperwork to prepare for tomorrow’s mail.

Friday Roundup: April 11, 2014

RU041114A tag-cloud for this week’s roundup might be astounding and jarring, since it runs the gamut from candy and cohabitation to affirmative action revision, diversity trends among the powerful, community health centers in Texas, and 20 years of remembrance in Rwanda. Herewith: what we’ve been up to this week.


Trends at the Top: The New CEOs Revisited,” by Richie Zweigenhaft and Bill Domhoff. A look at who’s sitting in the corner office—or just outside it, nose pressed to the glass—reveals a new trend in diversity.

How Recent Immigration Complicates Our Racial Justice Policies,” by Asad L. Asad. Should affirmative action be reformed to include newer, but still marginalized, groups within the U.S.?

Office Hours:

Samira Kawash on Candy,” with Kyle Green. The self-proclaimed @candyprofessor joins us for a look at the rise and fall and rise and fall—oh god, is this a sugar high?—of candy’s rep in American culture. (more…)

So You Wanna Write for TSP

Well, we’re pretty sure you can, too—no dance-offs required. Still, there are some guidelines that will help you in pitching an article idea and getting from proposal to finished product. We work hard to make sure that this is a rewarding, relatively painless process in which your words get the special treatment from our editorial staff and your graphics get spiffed up by our excellent graduate student Suzy McElrath. Here’s how to get started:

  1. TSP is not a typical journal. Broadly, we want to publish big picture articles that can provide basic data and information missing from public debates, supply context to the news, or add sociological insights to the general public.
  2. Jargon lover? Strip it out to the extent that you can. Again, we have an enormous and lively audience of readers, and there’s no way all million of them are sociologists. They don’t speak academic-ese, so you’ll have to try to drop it. When it’s useful, use the terminology but add a parenthetical that explains it informally.
  3. Now, if you’re still feeling excited and want to get a little feedback before diving in to a full-length draft, send us the following:
  • Your hook. What’s the intriguing first sentence? What’s the five-word title of true interest? We prefer titles without colons or question marks, so try to go for interest over explanation in your title. Let the paper do that work.
  • Your first paragraph; we’d like an idea of what your style is and where you’re going with the piece.
  • The overall point. What do you want readers to take away from the piece?
  • Your recommended readings. We’d like to see 4-6 recommended readings that will help the lay reader who is interested in learning more about your topic. If it’s not behind a paywall, awesome! Eventually, we would also like a descriptive sentence that explains why each reading is particularly useful or ground-breaking.

Now you’re ready! Get that sociological imagination in gear, because open-access AND the chance to make it into a print volume is just too cool to pass up.

Friday Roundup: April 4, 2014

RU040414What’s up with what’s up on The Society Pages this week:


Health, Science, and Shared Disparities with Brian Southwell,” by Sarah Lageson. Social networks may be great for getting the word out, but that’s highly dependent on the network. (more…)

There’s More to Methods than Tweaking and Critiquing

a 2013 CNLG workshop

a 2013 CNLG workshop

My spring break involved an intense research trip to Rwanda with Hollie Nyseth Brehm, but we reserved the last day for something fun:  a methodology workshop for researchers at The National Commission For The Fight Against Genocide. We gave a whirlwind presentation from 9-12, then held office hours to address specific projects. I worried we wouldn’t get much traffic, but the researchers had so many sharp and important questions that they kept us hopping all afternoon.

With so much recent hand-wringing over the relevance and impact of social research, it was inspiring to connect with researchers squarely addressing problems of unquestioned importance —  understanding a genocide that took a million lives, investigating and ameliorating its effects on survivors,  and working to prevent its recurrence within and outside Rwanda. So I began by asking, “Whose research is more important than yours?” and then stressed the central role of design and methodology in getting it right.

The researchers were super-smart and accomplished but came to us with varying levels of methods training. We therefore emphasized building a strong foundation: posing tight research questions, theory and conceptualization, levels of analysis, data and valid measures, sampling difficult-to-study populations, criteria of causality, research ethics and positionality, publishing and dissemination, and specific issues in interviewing, comparative and historical analysis, and univariate, bivariate, and multivariate statistical analysis. That’s a lot for a semester, let alone a half-day workshop. Throughout, we discussed the importance of humility in doing good research — listening, learning, and keeping an open mind. As is often the case in teaching, we were humbled by the collective expertise and dedication among the researchers. On the subject of “sensitive interview questions,” for example, I turned the microphone over to a participant who had just finished a set of interviews that were an order of magnitude more sensitive than any I’d conducted in my research career.

We can’t say whether or how our little methods session might affect the Center’s research, but Hollie and I certainly gained much from the experience. Yes, we “know stuff” as social scientists, but we have also developed a wonderfully useful set of tools for acquiring this knowledge. And once researchers understand the basic idea of something like multistage cluster sampling, they can often make thoughtful design choices that yield better research with fewer resources. It may seem too obvious to mention, but many of our methods discussions within the field seem devoted to “tweaking and critiquing” more esoteric designs and models. So it is both refreshing and empowering to share some of the methodological foundations of our field with such sharp and motivated researchers.

Friday (what?) Roundup: March 31, 2014

RU033114Okay, let’s be real. It’s not Friday. But wouldn’t that be fun? We could annoy ourselves with that Rebecca Black song, merrily chirp “T.G.I.F.!” at passers-by, and dream of our weekend plans… none of which I was doing this past Friday, when I was so mired in work I couldn’t look ahead, let alone behind to sum up the week on TSP. Now’s the time for a little reflection!


Same-Sex, Different Attitudes,” by Kathleen Hull. A lot’s changed in just a few years—why are American attitudes on same-sex marriage moving so quickly? (more…)

Talking about Society with Society

Maybe a little less of this? Photo by Axel Hartmann (no relation), Click for original.

Maybe a little less of this? Photo by Axel Hartmann (no relation), Click for original.

Spring break brings time for reflection. Last week during my days at home in Minnesota (where it still does not feel like spring), I spent a little time reflecting on what we’ve learned about sociology in doing The Society Pages. And in that process, I came across this line, which can be found in the “About Us” that runs in the banner on our home page: “we’re talking about society with society.”

I haven’t always been enamored with this phrase. In the past, it has read to me as a bit trite, and probably kind of functionalist. Truth be told, I’ve tried to edit it out of existence several times. But somehow—largely, I think, due to the insistence of our masterful associate editor and coordinating producer Letta Page*—it has hung around, and recently, it has begun to grow on me. Part of its emerging appeal is that I have had folks use it to introduce me and TSP at several public events recently. Clearly it works, it has appeal. It means something. Why is that? What is that?

Besides the catchy turn of phrase, I think the reason it resonates is because it stands in contrast to the usual “detached ivory tower intellectual.” It signals a vision of sociology and scholarly activity that is embedded and engaged in the worlds and with the people that it studies—or, even better, engaged and involved in the communities of which it is part and parcel.

One of the readings that has been a staple of the senior capstone sociology course I teach regularly has been a piece from Minnesota public affairs scholar Harry Boyte. The basic gist is that social scientists should not think of themselves as legislators (who come from on-high, bearing truth to the people), but  as interpreters, whose job it is to produce information and ideas that can enrich public discussion and policy. Even better, they should be part of those processes of deliberation and public policy formation. In other words,  social studies scholars should understand ourselves as part of the public, working with everyone else to refine our understandings of the worlds we all share and live in together.

This more involved, reflective orientation isn’t just about producing a more accessible and useful sociology for society (which we talk about a lot here at TSP), but actually—in its engagement with real people in the social world—a better sociological understanding of society itself. In short, it’s about creating a better sociology.

*I knew he’d come around. –Ed.

Friday Roundup: March 21, 2014

RU032114Spring Break. March Madness. Yet another snow storm. A new volume in production and two getting ready to go to the press. There are lots of great reasons that TSP’s HQ has been quiet this week, but of course, our ambitious grad students, dedicated SSN fellows, and dogged bloggers have been spreading the soc, rain, shine, or sleet (all of which have fallen on us, by the way… we get all the weather). (more…)

Friday (err, Sunday) Roundup: March 16, 2014

Ru031614Sometimes, time gets away from you! As does debt, as shown in this week’s contribution from Dr. Jason Houle, showing the increase and changes in debt over three generations. Other things that can get away from you: March Madness (I mean, it’s called Madness), the reproduction of sexism and racism, and parental worry.


Out of the Nest and Into the Red,” by Jason N. Houle. Three generations of debt reveal changing ideals and life courses. Oh, and debt. (more…)

March Madness and Me, on TV

It’s that time of year. So when our university media relations folks called, I agreed to do a little segment for the local Fox News Station (channel 9, in the Twin Cities market) on the madness of the NCAA’s annual college basketball tournament. Turned out, the TV team wanted to talk about its impacts on office productivity–not exactly something I’m an expert on. Luckily, I got a few leads from former Contexts graduate board student editor Wes Longhofer (who is now in the business school at Emory University) on research suggesting that while productivity does decline a bit, it is more than offset by increases in workplace morale. (See here, for one such study.) I’m not exactly sure about the methodology and all, but it was a starting point.

Anyway, I told the producer I could talk about the relationship between productivity and morale a bit, and then try to explain–from a sociological point of view, of course–both why morale may be more important than we often realize *and* why sport provides such a great context for building office culture and community. I also said I wanted to say a bit about the dangers and limitations of all this, especially who might be left out of this (think, gender and those who don’t like sports) and how and when things can get out of whack (think sports obsessiveness and excessive gambling). I even provided links to a couple of pieces on community and gender I’ve written that I thought would be useful for prepping and framing these points.

You’ll have to be the judge, but they seemed to buy into my framing (a victory in itself!) and I think it all went okay. One thing I considered mentioning–but didn’t–was the anthropologist Clifford Geertz’s notion of “deep play” as described in his classic piece on cockfighting, betting, and kinship in Bali. With his ideas about how unusual popular cultural forms such as sport provide a perfect setting for the reproduction and reinforcement of social ties through rooting and betting, I think the piece provides a wonderful and revealing context for understanding March Madness. However, judging from the anchorwoman’s reaction to my brief description of the piece right after the cameras were turned out (I’m pretty sure she never got past cockfighting), it was probably the right call not to go there.



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