return to silver

Almost exactly a year ago, The Society Pages published my feature, “The Sociology of Silver,” about statistics, public discourse, and pop statistician Nate Silver. Around the time of the 2012 Presidential Election, Silver received a great deal of attention (and generated controversy in some parts) for the stunning accuracy of his predictive models. This week, he once again set the chattering class achatting for his big move away from The New York Times and to ESPN.

For those who have followed Nate Silver’s work closely, it was not terribly surprising to learn last week that he had decided to return to realm of sports where he began. If there was a surprise, it was that he willingly decided to step away from the prestige of working for The New York Times, the nation’s paper of record. But then, ESPN has its own merits including an increasingly sociological perspective in some of its programming (maybe I’ll say more about that in another post).

In the wake of his departure, many media watchers have been trying to describe his legacy at The Grey Lady. One common trope is that he challenged the values of political journalism and was sometimes resented for it. In a rather gossipy column, The Times’ Public Editor Margaret Sullivan writes, “[Silver] was, in a word, disruptive … A number of traditional and well-respected Times journalists disliked his work.” If political journalists depend on toss-up elections, narrated with daily rundowns of unimportant events magnified into “game-changers,” then Silver’s model, which showed a clear Obama win beginning in June 2012, made them look foolish. As Silver told NPR’s Morning Edition today, “At some point, I began to push back and to kind of launch a counter-critique of some of the conventions of horse-race journalism and punditry. I have less of a critique of traditional shoe leather journalism.”

Here, Silver, distinguishes among 1) data-driven journalism, 2) horse-race journalism, and 3) traditional shoe leather journalism (a.k.a. investigative journalism). To distill a bit, he’s saying that he’s smart, the shoe leather journos are hard workers, and the race watchers are insipid and bow to market demand for spectacle. Such a typology is partially about drawing status distinctions within the journalistic field, but it also recognizes a growing divide not so much between Nate and everybody else, but among the types of methodologies used by journalists. As I wrote last summer, the development of advanced statistics, widespread availability of fast computers and readily accessible data, and a smaller, but more technocratic marketplace of ideas paved the way for journalists to adopt data-driven methods. “Silver may have been the first to post Stata output on the New York Times’ web site, but if he hadn’t, someone else surely would have.” In his eulogy to Silver’s tenure at the Times, Ezra Klein gets it exactly right when he says that Silver wasn’t doing anything unique statistically. His main achievement is a journalistic one: “What Silver figured out was how to make data-driven election journalism into a daily product that could satisfy political obsessives.”

So, those (including Silver himself) who have said that he attacked the idea of horse race coverage of the election or emphasized data over narrative are dead wrong. Silver’s coverage was day-to-day coverage of ups and downs in a horse race where one horse was pretty consistently winning. Moreover, his coverage was desirable to a particular consumer base precisely because it animated data with narrative. In some ways, Silver embodies the very journalistic values he claims to critique. His primary innovation was to integrate a new type of methodology into the journalistic field and such “paradigm shifts” are not usually well received. But just watch as isomorphism takes hold. The New York Times will hire a new Nate Silver (Drew Linzer maybe?). The Washington Post will hire a stats guy for Ezra Klein’s wonkblog. And eventually, the methodological innovation becomes commonplace and no longer threatening.

As Silver noted on Morning Edition, the sportsworld largely accepted statistics as an essential analytical tool over a decade ago (See: Moneyball). If he fits in better at ESPN than the Times, it won’t be because his new colleagues are invulnerable to market demand or as enlightened as he about not falling into horse race rhetoric (hell, sometimes they cover actual horse races!), it will be because his methodology is more accepted.

Feminism and Slut Shaming in MadMen

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I’ve been watching MadMen since its inception. Yes, I see the show as a way of having discourse about current issues within the safety of a period drama set now in 1968. I’ve felt that the show could be more interesting in examining social issues, which it does do, but I just find its treatment of them to be uneven.

I sometimes take issue with the cultural narrative that it may be creating, which brings us to last Sunday’s episode of Mad Men (S06E04). Last season, Joan’s character slept with a client she wasn’t attracted to and parlayed that into a 5% partnership stake at the SCDP ad agency. Quid pro quo. I felt that this pandered to the “Oh no she didn’t” school of writing that was vaguely misogynistic in its portrayal, despite the idea that the show was set in 1968. One read is that her maneuver shows her self-empowerment. She’s using the tools at her disposal within an organizational and sociocultural context to get ahead as a single mom.  On this week’s episode, Joan fires Harry’s (Head of Television) secretary for having someone else punch her time card. Joan is portrayed as a dictatorial bitch and it’s hard to be sympathetic to her situation, even if one believes she is totally in the right. Harry goes ballistic, as her actions make him feel unempowered (arguably emasculated) and he makes a spectacle of calling Joan out for her actions by interrupting a board meeting. Oh, he adds the slut-shaming zinger directed at Joan:

“I’m sorry my accomplishments happened in broad daylight and I can’t be given the same rewards.”

Harry’s invective had the impact of de-legitimizing her status in the company and labeling her as a whore. Not only calling into question her ethics, it also casts doubt on her abilities. While the means by which Joan became partner may provide for some shock and awe value, i.e., Joan selling her body to get ahead, couldn’t this be a parable depicting a 1967 version of leaning in? Now, let me make it clear that I get that there is the difference between women being a part of generic “lean in” circles and Sheryl Sandberg’s Lean In™ machinery, involving a book, a movement (with only stories with positive endings, please), and a backlash.

The idea of “leaning in” is innocuous enough: women need to lean in at the workplace in order to advance, embrace  ambition and in a sense “do what it takes” to succeed despite challenges in balancing career, family, relationships, etc. There is a certain pragmatics to this that speaks to addressing the issue of women getting paid 77¢ on the male dollar.

Tracie Egan Morrissey’s Jezebel recap of the episode leans in that direction, quite explicitly. Morrissey doesn’t have an issue with Joan’s rise to the top and remarks how Joan indeed has the chops to do her job. The narrative of the show supports the idea that she is qualified. Her techniques may be brusque and could be construed as “bitchy”, but incompetent she isn’t. (Effective is another matter, but I’ll leave that for another day.)

Tracie Egan Morrissey notes how the latter is embracing a lean in type of attitude, in that Joan realizes she has the admiration and respect of other women and delegates responsibilities in order to gain more respect of her male counterparts. Morrissey acknowledges that Joan prostituted herself, but that’s OK because she has the skills. My take was that Morrissey felt that Joan did indeed prostitute herself, but that she earned being partner based on her accomplishments. So, it’s not sex work, but sex for work in a situation where the sex is opening a door that would never be opened to her. Yet, Harry’s slut shaming reminded the Board and the audience that Joan engaged in “prostitution”.

Unfortunately, Joan’s story arc is one of several prostitution references in the show (i.e., flashbacks to Don Draper’s childhood growing up in a brothel, Don’s comparison of Megan’s acting with love scenes to prostitution). I suppose what rubs me the wrong way with Morrissey’s recap is how Joan’s “prostitution” is somehow pragmatic and lean in-like, yet, prostitution and sex work are still a point of derision:

“Speaking of worth and transactional sex, I thought that having Sylvia (the neighbor Don is having an affair with) use a penny as the secret code for Don was genius. It works on so many levels! It helps illustrate that Don is nothing but a cheap whore, the ultimate irony after trying to insinuate that Megan is a prostitute because she gets paid to perform love scenes on her soap. (Also, I think that Don, who’s been “acting” for most of his adult life, believes that if you’re good at pretending, then you’re a bad person. So he views Megan’s career as some kind of moral failure. Even more irony.)”

Moreover, there’s more than a nod to the normative here:

Also the idiom: a bad penny always turns up, meaning that a worthless person always comes back to the place he started. For Don, who was raised in a brothel, that’s loveless sex.

Morrissey’s take on the episode highlighted what I see to be a huge problem in the current discourse space. Within the spectre of pragmatics like lean in, sex work can have its place, but only if it fits a certain narrative? I say this, as it still can be used to marginalize or otherwise put down others. I don’t think it matters that Don Draper is depicted as a white male with power. It’s pretty transparent that he’s being leveled by Morrissey who calls him a “cheap whore” and states he’s motivated by “loveless sex”. Feminists casting aspersions like this on sex work only serve to further create divisions by reinforcing judgments and social normatives. Hannah Betts in The Guardian warns that feminism should be mindful of hating prostitutes. Betts notes a prevailing notion that money for sex is fine, as long as its legitimized:

Marriage continues to be considered to veil sex with respectability, whatever its financial motivations. Nobody campaigns against the career courtesans who are Belgravia bankers’ wives, or the footballers’ consorts of Cheshire. The message: sex for money is fine – just put a ring on it before you put out.

Morrissey’s “lean in” stance is similar in that Joan’s use of her body is legitimate, but the tomcatting Don Draper is reduced morally by being equated to a “cheap whore” raised in a brothel—where “loveless sex” occurs, an act with no legitimacy. Is this just semantics? Should I just lighten up, it’s just a TV show, after all? Doesn’t Morrissey really mean that Don is a phoney, cheat, and a lout, but “cheap whore” simply has a succinct and terse economy of phrasing? Well, I think language does indeed matter and the use of such slut shaming terminologies with historical baggage in describing behaviors, real or fictional, matters.

Moreover, I think that Morrissey uses a too-literal transactional definition of sex work as sex-for-money, as opposed a more nuanced sociological one. Melissa Gira Grant in another Guardian article from 2011 defines sex work in more nuanced terms:

What sex workers are actually selling is our ability to make our customers think they are getting what they want, and we try to sell that with as little strain on our time and our bodies as possible. You wouldn’t be able to tell this from sex trade ads because it would be incredibly bad marketing, but it’s the illusion around which sex work turns.

The creation of value through experiences people want may sound like so much marketing mumbo jumbo, but I think it’s not only the foundation of marketing, but many everyday social actions. We present ourselves to others in everyday life, in a Goffman sense, in our daily social interactions. So, sex work cannot be simply reduced to sex for money, it’s fostering an illusion, but if we really think about it, perhaps this is a more general concept applicable to the labor market. This isn’t to say that illusions are devoid of value or are trickery. Here, I’m implying that there is a performative that is used as the basis for exchange value. Sex work, like many social interactions are—dramaturgical.

Lean in as a generic concept is about a gendered performative in the workplace, which is fine. I think it probably fails as a one-size-fits-all overarching metanarrative, as the experiences of women in the Judith Butlerian intersection of race, class, and gender blasts apart the idea that there can be a singular lean in. Perhaps additionally problematic for feminism are other metanarratives, such as a normative orthodoxy on sex work that may not hold true as a sociological phenomenon, again, at the intersections of race, class, and gender. Nevertheless, I think social movements as a whole can learn from a better understanding various micronarratives and care should be taken not to use language to marginalize those who may be outside of the dominant paradigm.

There’s a certain irony that MadMen allows an examination of contemporary themes through a safer lens of the wayback machine of period television, but it’s interesting how we can’t seem to escape the historical burden of our sociocultural neuroses about sex.

why marriage equality isn’t “if,” but “when”

On this morning’s The Today Show, the nation’s second place intellectually-barren morning fear-mongerer, Matt Lauer pointed out that the debate over same-sex marriage is far from settled with 36% of Americans opposing it. Conservative activists have made similar arguments, noting that whatever the polls might say, ballot measures reveal a higher degree of opposition to marriage equality. As Gary Bauer told Fox News Sunday:

“I’m not worried about it, because the polls are skewed. Just this past November, four states, very liberal states, voted on this issue and my side lost all four of those votes. But my side had 45, 46 percent of the vote in all four of those liberal states.”

In a WashPost blog post titled
Is support for gay marriage oversold?“, Aaron Blake and Scott Clement summarize the work of political scientist Patrick Egan who finds that due to social desirability issues in polling and greater election turn-out by conservative activists, polling results do, in fact, underestimate opposition to same-sex marriage.

But I’m not worried. Whatever the Supreme Court may decide, in the long-term, public opinion is solidly on the side of justice. As Sarah Kliff demonstrates on Workblog, demographic trends strongly favor advocates for same-sex marriage. Beyond demographics, there may be some institutional reasons to believe expect greater acceptance of same-sex marriage in the future.


1) Attitudes evolve. We all know about President Obama’s “evolution” on the issue of same-sex marriage, but, to a great extent, the rest of the country has followed suit. As seen below, every single age group has grown more supportive of same-sex marriage in the past ten years and particularly in the last four. Since 2000, according to Pew Research, support in my Grandma’s generation has grown from 21% to 31%. That’s huge! As several charts on Kliff’s post reveal, one of the best predictors of supporting same-sex marriage is knowing that a friend or family member is gay. With greater numbers of Americans coming out, we would expect more attitudes to “evolve.”

Pew Research Polling of Same-Sex Marriage Opinion Over Time

2) Old people oppose same-sex marriage. But old people die. Among people born since 1981, support for same-sex marriage is currently 70%. Even a majority of Republicans under 30 support same-sex marriage.

3) Radical Professors and the Liberal Media. Sometimes Fox News gets it right. My Facebook feed, composed almost entirely of college students, college graduates, and Professors, is red as hell today with the Human Rights Campaign Marriage Equality sign. While surveys of professors are few and far between, one survey of Constitutional Law Professors found 87% support same-sex marriage. While sociology certainly skews Left, I suspect the academy as a whole is more support of marriage equality than the country. Likewise, though many media depictions of gays and lesbians are deeply stereotypical, there’s no question that industry elites who produce TV, movies, and print publications tend to favor same-sex marriage. As former New York Times Public Editor Daniel Okrent once wrote, “The [New York] Times present the social and cultural aspects of same-sex marriage in a tone that approaches cheerleading … That’s all fine, especially for those of us who believe that homosexual couples should have precisely the same civil rights as heterosexuals.” With popular shows like “Modern Family” and “Glee” offering favorable depictions of healthy same-sex relationships alongside positive examples of same-sex couples in Amazon Kindle and JC Penny commercials, the mass media increasingly paints a picture of life in same-sex relationships that is unthreatening. While there are any number of examples of homophobia in the academy and the mass media both are agents of socialization that largely favor same-sex marriage. To bastardize Marx, as go elites, so goes the nation.

HRC sign

4) Same-sex marriage exists (and things are okay) in big, growing states. Sixteen percent of Americans live in states with marriage equality and if Prop 8 is overturning, it will jump to 28%. And, taken together, the states with marriage equality are growing faster than those without it. More of the population will be living alongside married same-sex couples and it will become plain that the reality of same-sex marriages is as unexciting and mundane as opposite-sex marriages.

These are among the reasons that marriage equality is not a question of “if,” but “when?” What other reasons should we add to this list?

Donkey Kong with a Female Hero

This makes me want to learn code.

Aside from being a jealous parent of a daughter, I’m struck by how powerful it looks to have a childhood staple re-articulated to reflect more egalitarian norms.

HT: Cory Doctrow

This is How the Internet has Redefined Resistance

A Harlem Shake video reportedly in from of the Muslim Brotherhood headquarters in Egypt.

HT: Andrew Sullivan

The Filibuster is Back!

Pet rocks, drive-in theaters, 8-track players and Senate filibusters. One of these four things made a triumphant return to the Senate yesterday. Rand Paul and friends engaged in an ol’ school debate over the Obama administration’s drone policy — for 13 hours!

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Whether you agree with Paul or not, actual Senators using the filibuster to actually deliberate about actual policy is a beautiful thing. You almost get a glimpse of what representative democracy is supposed to be. I’m not getting to used to the idea of Senators actually stepping up and actually debating ideas through the filibuster. I recognize that few people in the Senate want to be on their feet for hours on end to oppose legislation. But for at least one day, we got a look into how the filibuster could be used as a mechanism to draw out policy distinctions and grab the public’s attention as to the seriousness of the issues at hand.

WPSA Brown Bag and Governmentality from Below

I just took part in the first Western Political Science Association brown bag meeting with Mobilizing Inclusion authors Lisa Garcia Bedolla and Melissa Michelson. Aside from being a wonderful talk, this blog post is a testimonial to how you can actually learn something useful for your own work when you take part in discussions of this nature.

For me, the most intriguing part of the talk was the discussion of Arjun Appadurai’s idea of governmentality from below. Appadurai is inverting Foucalt’s view of governmentality as a process by which citizens are identified and counted and thereby subject to control. While Foucault is wary of this identification process, Appadurai is interested in how, in a world of unmanageable global flows, some people’s become engaged in a process of self-counting or self-identification. His conclusion is that for those without voice, autonomy is less important than becoming voiced and empowered.

To those familiar with Foucault’s ideas, this may seem to be a worrisome form of auto governmentality, a combination of self-surveillance and self-enumeration, truly insidious in its capillary reach. But my own view is that this sort of governmentality from below, in the world of the urban poor, is a kind of counter-governmentality, animated by the social relations of shared poverty, by the excitement of active participation in the politics of knowledge, and by its own openness to correction through other forms of intimate knowledge and spontaneous everyday politics. In short, this is governmentality turned against itself (Appadurai 2001, 37).

While Garcia-bedolla and Michelson use it in referenced to sustained voter mobilization, I find this to be a useful distinction in my own emerging work on civic hacking, or the use of new technologies to gain access to and productively use government data. I think those engaged in advocacy of civic hacking see it as “governmentality from below” while it’s critics are more prone to see it as an extension of self-surveilance. Appadurai’s framing helps reorient our thinking from whether civic hacking is or isn’t governmentality from below to “when is it governmentality from below”? I tend to think that this is the rub on the democratizing effects of technology. Are there instances where elected officials in city governments freely give away information that can be used to eventually reduce their power? or is it always an exercise in managing the perception of openness and solidifying power through the expansion of governmentality.

Here is the talk. Give it a listen :)

Specialization and Synthesis — More on Adam Smith

I’m only 10 pages into it and I can see the profound influence this idea of a division of labor has, not only on understanding economic development, but understanding social/power relations. For Adam Smith, specialization is the unique characteristic that differentiates the enlightened West from its “savage” neighbors. The “peasant” in places where there is a pronounced division of labor is made better off the by accumulation of “things” he/she is able to acquire through being able to sell the labor that is made valuable through his/her own specialization. He even extends this to philosophers and scientists, but that’s for another day….

The extent to which specialization is employed to reinforce superiority along cultural lines is startling, but not unexpected for the times. This is a particularly instructive passage:

It may be true perhaps that the accommodation of a European prince does not always so much exceed that of an industrious and frugal peasant as the accommodation of the latter exceeds that of many an African king, the absolute master of the lives and liberties of ten thousand naked savages (117)

Because the “industrious” and “frugal” peasant trades his specialized labor for “things,” he is better accommodated than the leader of “ten thousand naked savages.” What an dismissal of the synthetic knowledge those “naked savages” had and have about how to organize a meaningful and rewarding life. This is the great crime (and perhaps virtue?) of colonialism — the arrogance to employ a specific frame about how the world should be upon those who did not seek it. Applying this logic to today, you wonder how societies can be integrative (e.g. having the ability to specialize in ways Smith discusses while having the ability to cultivate more integrated ways of knowing necessary for the development of full human beings). Can we specialize and synthesize at the same time?

Virtual Brown Bag Series: Mobilizing Inclusion by Lisa Garcia Bedolla and Melissa Michelson

The following announcement is from my colleague Jessica Feezell:

On Tuesday, March 5th at 1:00 PST, the Western Political Science Association will launch their new bi-monthly “Virtual Brown Bag” series where we will discuss a new book written by authors affiliated with the WPSA. This Virtual Brown Bag will be hosted on a social video platform, Spreecast, where you can submit questions to the authors, “chat” with others in the audience, go on camera to engage “face to face” in the discussion, or simply sit back and watch.
The first Virtual Brown Bag discussion will feature Dr. Lisa Garcia Bedolla & Dr. Melissa R. Michelson, authors of Mobilizing Inclusion: Transforming the Electorate Through Get-Out-The-Vote Campaigns. You can find out more about their new book here.

On March 5th, please join us! Better yet, if you are one of the first 10 people to RSVP to the Virtual Brown Bag and “follow” the WPSA on Spreecast, the WPSA Social Media Task Force will send you a free copy of their new book compliments of the publisher. To RSVP, simply go to the event page, establish a free account and click “RSVP.”

This initiative has emerged from a task force on social media convened by our regional association in Political Science. For us it is an exciting experiment in the possibilities of creating scholarly conversation using new media tools. We strongly encourage you to be part of the conversation!

Adam Smith thinks I’m Indolent and Lazy

So because I sometime blog from home and sometimes blog from my office, I decided to start a second book while I’m at home. So lucky for me, the first book on the top left corner of my shelf was Adam Smith’s Wealth of Nation (a book I never read in its entirety in grad school). So here I go.

Smith dives right in arguing about the productivity benefits to the division of labor, an argument so worked through in recent history that it almost bears ignoring, but does strike me as interesting the extent to which Smith attaches specialization to progress, claiming that:

in every improved society, the farmer is nothing but a farmer; the manufacturer nothing but a manufacturer.

He goes on to argue that productivity increases come from unique aspects connected to the division of labor:

1) increased skill/dexterity
2) time saving by not having to swtitch tasks (which apparently makes one indolent and lazy)
3) mechanization

I’ll read more, but initially I’m struck by how anachronistic this would seem to most students graduating from American colleges today. The idea that productivity would come from doing one thing for very long periods of time would strike many as drudgery. Most of use who are knowledge workers would probably fall into the category of task switchers. I’m no productivity expert but I wonder what the research literature says about whether actually leads to more productivity. Interestingly, Yahoo has recently mandated that it’s workers work at the office, presumably because the ability to “switch tasks” at home makes their workers “indolent and lazy.” I have to say, I’m apparently a bit of an advocate of indolence since I’d rather fill my day with a range of diverse tasks that need to be completed. I’m a big believer in the “write 20 minutes a day” philosophy.