Author Archives: chris


We’ve lost a true friend and remarkable colleague. Tim Ortyl was an extraordinary young sociologist and TSP grad board member. His countless friends are shocked and saddened by news that he’d passed away yesterday of natural causes due to epilepsy.  It is too early and too damn painful to post personal recollections or pictures — especially when Tim’s joy, sly wit, and vitality seem to leap from every image. But his talents and range as a sociologist are amply displayed in the publications he leaves behind, his public writing and podcasts for TSP and Contexts, and in the care and commitment with which he taught hundreds of students about statistics, gender, family, and sexuality. We mourn Tim Ortyl as a young friend with limitless potential, but we also recognize him as an accomplished and respected sociologist.

Politics as a Vocation


Star-Tribune photo

I’ve long believed a graduate degree in the social sciences provides excellent preparation for elective office. We learn to critically analyze data, to abstract from individual cases to broader social processes, and to understand how both powerful institutions and grass-roots movements shape the social world. Though few U.S. sociologists have entered the fray since Pat Moynihan left the Senate, our training and experience should prepare us well for many  aspects of the political arena.

Consider today’s Star-Tribune  profile of Betsy Hodges, who is making a strong run to become mayor of Minneapolis. Ms. Hodges, who did her graduate work in sociology at Wisconsin, is characterized in the following terms:

  • “numbers-oriented and careful with her words”
  • “adept at untangling complicated financial matters”
  • “a theme of activism around social justice”
  • a concern with “people being separated from one another by things that don’t matter”
  • showing “leadership above and beyond her own stated personal views and keeping people together”

Ms. Hodges certainly possessed many of these skills and orientations before entering graduate school (though I believe that Wisconsin implanted a “numbers-oriented and careful with words” chip in all graduate students throughout the 1990s). So why don’t more of us pursue politics as a vocation? I got a glimpse of the answer when I chided a legislator for not “demonstrating courage”  on a crime policy. He said, “its a helluva lot easier to be courageous when you’re not running for reelection. Give me your university tenure and I’d demonstrate courage up the [wazoo].”  Good point, that — and all the more reason to appreciate courageous sociologist-politicians like Betsy Hodges.


Sketch #4: TSP @ White House

hagan_foster13I was surprised to receive an invitation to speak at the White House this August, as part of a parental incarceration workshop sponsored by the American Bar Foundation and National Science Foundation. Though I’d written a bit on the subject and had followed the research closely for a decade, I could not claim any great expertise. Fortunately, they didn’t need me for that. They’d already assembled an impressive roster of experts to speak on topics such as demography and family dynamics, behavioral and health problems, education and exclusion, justice policy, and caring for children. My job, according to the draft agenda, was to offer “concluding comments” in the final half-hour session. Or, as John Hagan put it, “Just do what you do.”

Riiiiight. Do what I do.

Well, I couldn’t just come out and ask what I do, so I decided to do TSP. (more…)

There’s Research on That!

creative commons image, courtesy Wisconsin DNR

Anyone tracking both popular and academic writing knows that media reports often miss out on the best, most directly relevant research on the story. At TSP, we’ve batted our heads against this wall for years. Yes, Citings and Sitings reports on social scientists in the press and the Reading List brings new research discoveries to light, but we’ve lacked a forum to make the connection more explicitly — to point to good work that should be cited in the news stories of the day.

So, like many of our readers, we find ourselves spitting coffee each morning and shouting, “There’s Research on That!” when the news somehow misses a perfectly on-point expert and study. [This ain't necessarily the journo's fault, of course. One of my favorite writers at the Times recently emailed to ask, "Can you send me your article from JournalX? Costs like 80 bucks to get."] While we can’t take down everyone else’s paywalls (can we, Jon?), we can point readers to first-rate research on the day’s issues. And we’ll do so in a brand new TSP feature titled (what else?), There’s Research on That! From Evan Stewart of our grad board:

In our continuing quest to bring great social science to everyone, TSP is rolling out our latest blog project—There’s Research on That!, where we offer up great research from across our fields that speaks to the big events of the day. For journalists, TROT is a great place to find an interviewee or a new perspective on reporting. For general readers, TROT is a place to discuss current events and find some great book recommendations that are sure to impress at the next cocktail party. For sociologists, TROT posts can spark conversations about where our research connects with the real world. Of course, we welcome continued suggestions for pieces in the comments and on Twitter (hashtag #TROT, of course)!

We’re hoping to make this a quick-hitting and timely feature, so we’ll keep the posts short and spread the word on social media. We hope There’s Research on That informs, inspires, and provokes you — and that you’ll cite your own favorite research in the comments section.

If You See Something, Say Something


Image courtesy of @Doug88888 via Creative Commons

A shedload of sociologists descends on New York next week for a big annual meeting. As we scuffle for jobs and book deals or steel ourselves for presentations, the vibe can be a bit tense in the hotel lobbies. It isn’t easy to present new ideas to an audience that prides itself on the critical analysis of new ideas.

But there’s a small move you can make to improve said vibe, whether you’re a professional academic or a civilian reader who just enjoys sociological writing. Has anyone’s work inspired or influenced you? Did a writer turn a particularly memorable phrase in an article or post on TSP or elsewhere? If so, let them know about it! Send a quick note or strike up a conversation with someone whose work you’ve enjoyed and tell them so.

A good compliment is an amazing restorative – enough to sustain many of us through professional or personal rough patches. But there’s a strong professional bias against giving and receiving compliments, as sociologists take a jaundiced view of the practice. A 2012 study is titled “apple-polishers, butt-kissers, and suck-ups” and most research on compliments points to class, race, and (especially) gender disparities in ingratiation. But there’s also a grain of truth in Oscar Wilde’s admonition in Lady Windermere’s Fan: it is a great mistake to give up paying compliments, “for when we give up saying what is charming, we give up thinking what is charming.”

Compliments can be an unexpected delight — people noticing your name tag or sending an email out of the blue (especially when you’re not chairing a hiring committee). And the more obscure and left-field the compliment, the better. Kind words about a newsletter piece, a talk for a community organization, or a small contribution to a book that sold 5 copies are especially appreciated. Looking over the past year, did you find something charming or true in one piece you read? Or, perhaps, in a piece of a piece you read? If so, the author would like to hear about it.

If you’re so inclined, here are a few general characteristics and specific examples of good compliments, as distinct from simple schmoozing. The first is the most important; if you’re not feeling it, the recipient won’t either. And do try to avoid backhanded compliments (saying something positive, and then bringing the nasty).

1. Genuine

  • Good: “I was struggling with the method until I read your description in that AJR article – it was so clear! I can’t tell you how much that helped me.”
  •  Less good: “I saw your new article in AJR. It must be nice to be friends with the editors!” [tip: resist all temptation to follow-up a compliment with an “it must be nice to…” or “I wish I had…”].

2. Personal

  • Good: “As an ethnographer, I rarely find quantitative research that taps into what I’m doing. But you really seem to ‘get’ the processes I’m seeing in the schools.”
  • Less Good: “Your work has decent face validity.”

3. Acknowledge Effort

  • Good: “Please tell me it took you all day to write that last paragraph – you completely nailed that civic reintegration idea.”
  • Less Good: “I’ve seen your blog. I wish I had so much extra time on my hands!”

4. Specific

  • Good: “I really liked your health disparities review piece, especially how you pulled in public health stuff – it was great for my prelim.”
  • Less Good: “I’ve read a lot of your articles” [As an old friend once said, “that’s how I know they’re lying – there aren't that many of my articles to read!”]

5. Memorable

  • Good: “Smashing network diagrams!”
  • Less Good: “Nice slides.”

Don’t be surprised if the recipient of your compliment doesn’t know how to respond (usually, a simple “thanks” will do). We’ve been socialized to expect ulterior motives or to think our work isn’t worthy of kind words. But don’t worry about embarrassing those you compliment. As Erving Goffman pointed out, when a person blushes upon receiving a compliment, she may lose her reputation for poise but confirm a more important reputation for modesty.

Kieran Healy on Paul Revere and Social Networke Analysis


Paul Revere by John Singleton Copley, 1768
Courtesy of MFA Boston & Wikipedia via Slate

An elegant design, compelling evidence, and a timely story rendered exceptionally well. Sociologist Kieran Healy’s wonderful post on using metadata to find Paul Revere (and/or Jack Black) is now attracting megareaders at Slate. (more…)

Welcome Walt! Dispatches from a New Dean

waltThe bad news is that our great friend is heading out of town. The spine-crushingly good news is that Professor Walt Jacobs will now be contributing regularly to the TSP community pages, in his Dispatches from a New Dean. A sociologist and recent chair of African and African American Studies in Minnesota, Walt’s just starting a new job as the social sciences dean at the University of Wisconsin-Parkside.

As you might have heard in his podcast on race and comedy, Walt has a keen eye and ear for the telling detail. He’s also a terrific academic leader, who uses sociology to good advantage in organizing people and resources. In Dispatches, Walt will be sharing these experiences, showing how a good social scientist wrestles with the demands and opportunities of higher administration. I’ve never met anyone in academic administration who worked harder or with greater sensitivity to the needs and interests of a larger community. Did you hear the line about commitment and breakfast? [That is, in a bacon and egg breakfast, the chicken is involved, but the pig is committed.] Well, Walt is committed. He’s heading off to Wisconsin and, by all reports, living amongst the first-year sociology students. We’re sorry to see him go, but so happy he’s staying on TSP.

Sociological Science

creative commons photo by brad stabler

creative commons photo by brad stabler

Well, our TSP offices are buzzing about the announcement of Sociological Science, an exciting new open-access research publication. There’s a very accomplished editorial team in place, with a clear commitment to “speed, access, debate – and a light touch” — fine attributes for journal editors, as well as guitar players. To keep everything free and open-access, the project will be supported by submission and publication fees charged to authors, rather than subscription fees or association dues.

Sociological Science is distinctive in positioning itself as a rigorous peer-reviewed outlet for primary research. Our friends Jenn Lena, Brayden King, Mike3550, and many others have already offered thoughtful posts and comments. I too have loads of advice for the editors, but I suspect they’re getting enough advice already (and the really useful stuff is best conveyed off-line). Instead, I’ll just offer a few words for the new journal’s prospective authors and readers.

Try to remember that editing any sort of publication is a labor of love, since the ratio of effort to reward (however defined) is usually pretty high. I can see that the team has already invested a lot of thought and hard work  in the venture already. This is especially the case with a DIY effort, so let’s cut the new editors a little slack as they get off the ground. It is always easy to find fault with something in a publication (you call that kerning? how could the first issue completely *ignore* the Freedonian situation?), but initiatives like this are almost always undertaken with a civic-minded/public-goods orientation. I guess I do have one suggestion to pass along to the editors: celebrate each milestone, well and often!


President Obama on NSF and the Social Sciences

I’m not sure it qualifies as an actual war, but politicians such as U.S. Representative Lamar Smith and Senator Tom Coburn have certainly been firing broadsides at the National Science Foundation and social science research. So it is heartening to hear President Barack Obama single out the social sciences in his speech at the 150th anniversary meeting of the National Academy of Sciences on Monday. The President pledged to protect peer review and research integrity:

With all the one of the things that I’ve tried to do over these last four years and will continue to do over the next four years is to make sure that we are promoting the integrity of our scientific process; that not just in the physical and life sciences, but also in fields like psychology and anthropology and economics and political science — all of which are sciences because scholars develop and test hypotheses and subject them to peer review — but in all the sciences, we’ve got to make sure that we are supporting the idea that they’re not subject to politics, that they’re not skewed by an agenda, that, as I said before, we make sure that we go where the evidence leads us.  And that’s why we’ve got to keep investing in these sciences. 

And what’s true of all sciences is that in order for us to maintain our edge, we’ve got to protect our rigorous peer review system and ensure that we only fund proposals that promise the biggest bang for taxpayer dollars.  And I will keep working to make sure that our scientific research does not fall victim to political maneuvers or agendas that in some ways would impact on the integrity of the scientific process.  That’s what’s going to maintain our standards of scientific excellence for years to come.

Some sociologists will bristle because we weren’t enumerated alongside psychology and political science, while others will surely take issue with the President’s emphasis on hypothesis testing. I’m just glad to hear such a clear statement of support for the social sciences and the integrity and independence of the NSF review process — especially in light of Representative Smith’s draft “High Quality Research Act.”

Welcoming Girl w/ Pen to TSP!

girl w pen bannerWell, the TSP headquarters are abuzz: Girl w/ Pen has arrived! Our newest Community Page, Girl w/ Pen consistently makes good on its aim of bridging feminist research and popular reality. Their interdisciplinary team of writers and editors is exceptionally accomplished and prolific, and we’ve been fans for years.

GWP is an important go-to resource for gender scholars, but its clear writing and engaging style attract a much broader general readership. Take a look at just a few recent posts: Virginia Rutter’s Nice Work column breaks down and explains a new Gender & Society piece on overwork and gender segregation; Adina Nack’s Bedside Manners column examines condom distribution in Catholic colleges; Heather Hewitt’s Global Mama takes up the future of online feminism; Susan Bailey’s Second Look considers women’s history month; and founding editor Deborah Siegel details her TEDxWindyCity project on gender in early childhood. But this really just scratches the surface—the site boasts at least a dozen regular columnists, writing such columns as Body Language, Body Politic, Girl Talk, Global Mama, Mama w/ Pen, Off the Shelf, Pop Goes Feminism, and Science Grrl.

We owe special thanks to TSP’s web editor Jon Smajda and the entire GWP team for managing the transition to The Society Pages. We’re delighted to be working together!

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