How Healthy is Your Democracy?

If you’re not busy and are interested in democratic outcomes, you should really read this important piece by Ben Page and Martin Gilens.

The authors test four preeminent theories of democratic influence in which different actors have disproportionate influence in the American political system (average voters, economic elites, general interest groups and business oriented interest groups). Here’s the takeaway:

Economic elite policy preferences strongly correlate with “average” citizen policy preferences, but aggregated interest groups preferences do not. Business interest group influence does not always correlate with economic elite influence (economic elites want all government spending reduced and business interest groups want spending on their areas of influence).

When it comes of policy outcomes, economic elites and interest groups have the most influence…

a proposed policy change with low support among economically elite Americans (one-out-of-five in favor) is adopted only about 18 percent of the time, while a proposed change with high support (four-out-of-five in favor) is adopted about 45 percent of the time. Similarly, when support for policy change is low among interest groups (with five groups strongly opposed and none in favor) the probability of that policy change occurring is only .16, but the probability rises to .47 when interest groups are strongly favorable (see the bottom two panels of Figure 1.)

This is an empirical confirmation of my “NCAA Tournament” view of American politics. The “3 seed” usually beats the “14th seed,” but not always. A good way of measuring democratic health is how often “bracket busters” occur.

Betsy Leondar-Wright, “Missing Class: How Seeing Class Cultures Can Strengthen Social Movement Groups”

Gender and race are visible markers of identity, regularly talked about both in the news and sociology circles. There is another marker, however, that is just as important and predictive, but much less visible – social class.  In Missing Class: How Seeing Class Cultures Can Strengthen Social Movement Groups (Cornell University Press, 2014), Betsy Leondar-Wright attempts to bring class to the forefront of the conversation by describing how belonging to a particular social class can affect interaction within social movement groups.  She classifies a number of “class cultures” based primarily on formal education and occupation, such as lifelong working-class, lifelong professional middle class, voluntarily downwardly mobile and upwardly mobile class.  Through a comprehensive study of 25 activist groups, Leondar-Wright discovers that class, more than gender or race or age in many cases, greatly predicts attitude and behavior (the way one deals with conflict or the way one speaks, as examples).  Acknowledging class differences in social activist groups can help to ease communication and better use the strengths that each particular class culture can offer.

Search for a New Journal Editor – Journal of Integrated Social Sciences

The Journal of Integrated Social Sciences (JISS) is searching for a new Political Science editor. The journal is a web-based, peer-reviewed international journal committed to the scholarly investigation of social phenomena.

In particular, JISS aims to predominantly publish work within the following social science disciplines: Psychology, Political Sciences, Sociology, and Gender Studies. A further goal of JISS is to encourage work that unites these disciplines by being either (a) interdisciplinary, (b) holistically oriented, or (c) captive of the transformative (developmental) nature of social phenomena. Aside from the theoretical implications of a particular study, we are also interested in serious reflections upon the specific methodology employed – and its implications on the results. JISS encourages undergraduate and graduate students to submit their best work under the supervision of a faculty sponsor. More details can be found at

General responsibilities include:

• The day to day running of the journal political science editorial office, including managing article peer review, liaison with authors, editing of articles, and preparation of editorial copy.
• Contributing to strategic development of the Journal
• Attracting submissions and themed issue proposals to the journal to ensure continued relevance and quality of content
• Promotional activities, including attending conferences

To make an application, you will need to send a statement outlining your reasons for seeking the position, and overall objectives as political science editor of JISS.

To discuss further or submit an application, please contact Dr. Jose Marichal (current Political Science Divisional Editor of JISS) ~

Vershawn Young, Rusty Barrett, Y’Shanda Young-Rivera, and Kim Brian Lovejoy, “Other People’s English: Code-Meshing, Code-Switching, and African American Literacy”

[Cross-posted from New Book in Language] In linguistics, we all happily and glibly affirm that there is no “better” or “worse” among languages (or dialects, or varieties), although we freely admit that people have irrational prejudices about them. But what do we do about those prejudices? And what do we think the speakers of low-status varieties of language should do to overcome them?

Take the case of African American English. An influential approach, code-switching, advises teachers to help their AAE-speaking students to identify the systematic differences between their variety and the prestige variety (“Standard English”), and eventually to be able to switch effectively between both varieties according to the circumstances.

However, although code-switching seems to promote communicative effectiveness, Vershawn Young and colleagues argue that that approach is inherently problematic. By effectively labelling AAE as inappropriate for public contexts, code-switching runs the risk of promoting and reinforcing society’s prejudices against the language (and indeed its speakers).

Young and colleagues offer an alternative vision for the multilingual classroom, which they refer to as “code-meshing”, a process by which multiple varieties can sit side-by-side in a speaker’s communicative repertoire. Their book, Other People’s English: Code-Meshing, Code-Switching, and African American Literacy (Teacher’s College Press, 2013), explores this concept in theoretical and practical detail, discussing the rationale for encouraging code-meshing, the effect of this on communicative abilities, and some of the ways in which code-switching can be and has been implemented in real-life teaching.

In this interview, we discuss the effect of code-switching on the speaker’s identity, the ubiquity of code-meshing across a range of actual discourse contexts, and some of the challenges that code-meshing might present in the classroom. And we consider why Barack Obama isn’t criticised for code-meshing but Michelle Obama is.

Paul-Brian McInerney, “From Social Movement to Moral Market: How the Circuit Riders Sparked an IT Revolution and Created a Technology Market”

[Cross-posted from New Book in Political SciencePaul-Brian McInerney is assistant professor of sociology at the University of Illinois-Chicago. He is the author of From Social Movement to Moral Market: How the Circuit Riders Sparked an IT Revolution and Created a Technology Market (Stanford University Press 2014).

McInerney’s book tells the fascinating history of the Circuit Riders and NPower, the leading organizations in the nonprofit information technology social movement of the late 1990s. He ties together excellent elite interviews with social movement leaders with a clear institutional history of the time period. There is so much for political scientists, sociologists, and economists to learn about how social movements work.

For listeners, McInerney mentions one of the presentations made to funders to support the movement. See Rob Stuart’s Circuit Rider presentation here.

Steven L. Jacobs, “Lemkin on Genocide”

[Cross-posted from New Books in Genocide Studies] It’s hard to overestimate the role of Raphael Lemkin in calling the world’s attention to the crime of genocide.  But for decades his name languished, as scholars and the broader public devoted their time and attention to other people and other things.

In the past few years, this has changed. We now have a greater understanding of Lemkin’s role in pushing the UN to write and pass the Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of Genocide.  Moreover, researchers have a newfound appreciation for the depth and insights of his research.  Genocide scholars talk about their field experiencing a ‘return to Lemkin.’

It seems an appropriate time, then to reexamine Lemkin’s ideas and career.  We’ll do so in a special two-part series of interviews with scholars who have edited and published Lemkin’s writings.  Later this month, I’ll post an interview with Donna Lee Frieze, who has meticulously edited Lemkin’s unpublished autobiography, Totally Unofficial.

First, however, I’ll talk with Steven L. Jacobs.  Steve recently published a carefully edited and annotated edition of Lemkin’s writings about the history and nature of genocide, simply titled Lemkin on Genocide (Lexington Books, 2012).  This work was written during the 1940s, but never published.  Through it, we gain a new appreciation for the depth of Lemkin’s theoretical understanding and the breadth of his research.  In addition, reading Jacob’s book provides us a richer sense of how Lemkin fit into the ideological currents of his time.  In editing this work, Steve has done a great service to all those interested in genocide.

Nick Yee, “The Proteus Paradox: How Online Games and Virtual Worlds Change Us–and How They Don’t”

[Cross-posted from New Books in Technology] The image of online gaming in popular culture is that of an addictive pastime, mired in escapism. And the denizens of virtual worlds are thought to be mostly socially awkward teenaged boys. In his new book The Proteus Paradox: How Online Games and Virtual Worlds Change Us–and How They Don’t (Yale University Press, 2014), Nick Yee asserts that the common stereotypes of gaming and gamers are not, and have never been, based in fact. Massively multiplayer online role-playing games, or MMORPGs as they are called, attract a diverse community of users with a range of ages, economic statuses, and motivations for playing. Basing his conclusions on his own research into online gaming and virtual worlds, Yee finds that far from creating separate worlds with new rules for its member, MMORPGs reinforce the social norms from offline society.

George E. Vaillant, “Triumphs of Experience: The Men of the Harvard Grant Study”

There are very few studies like the Harvard Grant Study.  Started in 1938, it has been following its approximately 200 participants ever since, analyzing their physical and mental health and assessing which factors are correlated with healthy living and healthy aging.  One of the psychiatrists of the study is George E. Vaillant, who was a young man in 1966 when he joined the research group, and has now written Triumphs of Experience: The Men of the Harvard Grant Study (Harvard University Press, 2012).  This fascinating book relates how the participants have changed over the course of their lifetimes (yes, Dr. Vaillant claims, people can change) and highlights the factors correlated with both happiness (e.g. warm childhoods, close relationships) and misery (e.g. alcoholism).  Some of the findings are what you would expect, but this longitudinal study also holds some surprises, even as its participants reach their 90s and beyond.

Making Sense of the Madness

The following post is by Ryan Larson ’14, a senior sociology major at Concordia College. He loves sports of all kinds, plays jazz sax, and will begin a graduate program in sociology in the fall.

With the NCAA’s Men’s Basketball Tournament starting today, the media are alight with predictions as to who will cut down the nets April 7th. The annual phenomenon of penciling in the winners in tens of millions of brackets has a new twist this year: a billion dollar prize. The grand prize is being offered by Quicken Loans, the Detroit mortgage lender, with the backing of Warren E. Buffett, to anyone who fills out a perfect 2014 tournament bracket. The prize money will be paid out in 40 annual payments of $25 million, or a one-time lump sum of $500 million. However, how likely is a perfect bracket to surface?

Dunkin' Robot

In all likelihood, it won’t. No record of a perfect bracket has surfaced to date, and the advent of Internet-based bracket filling makes this much easier to track. For example, in the 16 years of the ESPN online bracket challenge, not one has been perfect (this also holds for the other Internet-based hosts). Jeff Berge, Professor of Mathematics at DePaul University says the odds of picking a perfect bracket randomly is 1 in 9,223,372,036,854,775,808 (the probability of getting 63 out of 63 right is the product of the probability of getting each one right, which for a coin flip is 50 percent). If everyone on earth filled out 100 brackets, it would theoretically take 13 million years to get a perfect bracket. In sum, the prediction worth putting much credence in is the notion that Buffett won’t have to part with his billion.

However, not all NCAA March Madness contests are a 50/50 coin flip. A no. 1 seed has never lost to a no. 16 seed, which makes these games easier to predict correctly than the Final Four contests. Incorporating just this one piece of information, University of Minnesota Professor of Biostatistics Brad Carlin put the odds at more like “1 in 128 billion.” This estimate is based solely on the probabilities of correct predictions in each round: the probability of calling a first-round game correctly ranges from 51 percent for the No. 8 vs. No. 9 game to 100 percent for the No. 1 vs. No. 16; and that second-round games can be called with 65 percent accuracy. The figures are 60 percent for Sweet Sixteen games and 50 percent for every game from the Elite Eight through the final. To put this in perspective, your odds of being killed by a vending machine are higher than picking a perfect bracket at even with the incorporation of these conditions.

All hope is not lost (although it’s pretty close to it). Implementing statistical modeling techniques on historical tournament data can help increase your chances of picking games correctly (however, at a very modest rate). Arguably the most popular model is that of former New York Times, now ESPN prognosticator Nate Silver. Silver, and his team at fivethirtyeight, are in their fourth year of building a model to correctly pick the winners of the March Madness contests. The model is primarily based (weighted at 5/7 of the model) of a composite of computer college basketball rankings. These computer based rankings are combined with two human based metrics (2/7 of the model): the NCAA selection committee’s S-Curve and preseason rankings from the Associated Press and the coaches (used as an indicator for “underlying player and coaching talent”). Additionally, Silver and his team adjust for injuries and player suspensions (using a statistic called win shares) and travel distance. Silver then simulates the tournament thousands of times to obtain predicted probabilities of each team advancing in each round (interactive graphic with the final model can be found here).

What other factors influence a win probability? Other inquiry has backed up Silver’s notion that rankings matter, and that season performance (wins (particularly away wins), offensive scoring) and historical team performance (final four appearances, championships) also can lend some predictive insight. Ken Pomeroy’s predictive rankings are also very popular (and also incorporated into Silver’s model), although details of his methods are hidden behind a paywall. His models highlight the importance of strength of schedule as an important factor in the equation. Additionally, ESPN’s Basketball Power Index (BPI), created by Alok Pattani and Dean Oliver, accounts for the final score, pace of play, site, strength of opponent and absence of key players in every Division I men’s game (a new addition to silver’s model this year). However, the inclusion of these metrics into a regression equation rarely gets you more predictive prowess than a coin toss (R2=.5).

Although modeling could help you gain valuable insight into your office bracket pool, it will not lead to a perfect bracket without a large amount of luck coming your way. Although sports do have a large amount of systematic variation, the inclusion of a good amount of random variation is what makes both prediction difficult and athletic contests beloved. When filling out your brackets this year, data driven analysis should give you leg up wouldn’t have had otherwise. Listen to what the fox has to say. (For further reading: predictive analytics are also used to predict which teams will be selected to the tournament on Selection Sunday, with surprising accuracy).

Joshua Dubler, “Down in the Chapel: Religious Life in an American Prison”

[Cross-posted from New Books in Religion] In almost every prison movie you see, there is a group of fanatically religious inmates. They are almost always led by a charismatic leader, an outsized father-figure who is loved by his acolytes and feared by nearly everyone else. They’re usually black Muslims, but you also see the occasional born-again Christian gang. They promise salvation and, of course, protection. And they are scary.

But what’s religious life in prison really like? In order to find out, the intrepid and brave religious scholar Joshua Dubler actually moved into a prison. He lived among the inmates and those clerics who had devoted their lives to bringing them spiritual comfort. The picture he paints in his wonderful new book Down in the Chapel: Religious Life in an American Prison (Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 2013) is nothing like the one you see on TV or in the movies. In fact, it’s so irreducibly complex that it almost defies description. The spirituality he finds behind bars is adapted to the harsh realities of prison life and the personalities of the religious (and quasi-religious) inmates themselves. Dubler reminds us that churches–of whatever type and wherever found–are made of people in all their idiosyncratic variety. Listen in to our fascinating and lively discussion.