Love and Lust is the cover story in the July issue of Psychology Today. And while the photos may be salacious, the writing is sagacious. The author, Virginia Rutter, is one of our favorite public scholars. On TSP, she’s known for her authoritative “Nice Work” contributions on Girl w/ Pen! and, more recently, Families as They Really Are and Council on Contemporary Families.

Apart from her formidable skills as a sociologist and writer, Professor Rutter’s work is distinguished by a characteristic all-too-rare among scholars: her generosity. To publish our work as academics, we often need to frame it in terms of the horrible weaknesses in everybody else’s work. This style might (or might not) work in the journals, but it undercuts us completely when we’re trying to reach a public audience — it makes it seem as though we don’t know anything at all. Virginia Rutter takes a different approach. Her Nice Work columns, like her new Psychology Today article, tell a much more coherent and cumulative story about the contributions made by different social researchers. Her new FATRA piece on the Equal Pay Act similarly offers a balanced presentation about what we know collectively and where we might go in the future.

So if you’re interested in writing successfully for venues like Psychology Today, Contexts, or TSP, you might take a cue from generous scholars like Professor Rutter. If you wish to be loved; Love!

 

Owned“Every school offers financial aid services, but listen to what the University of Minnesota is doing,” began Michelle Obama at a 2014 White House summit. “They’re committing to expand those services to include financial literacy programs to help students and their families manage the costs of college.”

In fact, all incoming students at the U of M now get lessons in credit and debt as part of the Live Like a Student Now So You Don’t Have to Later campaign. The website, Facebook, and campus posters offer a steady stream of practical advice on everything from buying generic ketchup to finding the free days at local museums. A Plan Your Debt page even suggests the maximum advisable debt limit for students planning careers as graphic designers, nurses, and accountants.

Such programs can be a great help to individual students, but they also obscure a bigger sociological story: structural and institutional changes place young people today at risk of enormous debt loads. When I started college at the University of Wisconsin, the annual tuition was only $994 per year ($2,442 in today’s dollars), which barely covers a course these days. So, it hardly seems fair to blame today’s students for accumulating more debt than I did—or to blame their debt problems on $4 lattes.

In C. Wright Mills’ famous terms, the sociological imagination reveals the link between our “personal troubles” with debt and the broader “public issues” that have placed us in this position. And it isn’t just students. For the past five years, headlines have shouted about all manner of debt—people, companies, and even cities declaring bankruptcy, families losing their homes to foreclosure, and, the Occupy Wall Street movement arising to challenge the “1%” who prospered in the Great Recession. That’s why we chose debt as the subject of a new TSP volume, Owned, due out this fall with WW Norton and Company.

In curating TSP and putting the book together, we’ve been learning a lot about the power and importance of a sociological approach to debt and inequality. Starting next week, we’ll be running a series to showcase some of these pieces.  We’ll have a real expert, Kevin Leicht, kick us off this Monday by explaining the development and depth of the debt crisis. With hard data and vivid description, he shows how middle-class families suffer when borrowing replaces earning. On Wednesday, Leicht offers a hard-hitting progressive critique of the “politics of displacement” that distract us from needed economic reform, while proposing three steps to reinvigorate the American Dream. We’ll conclude Leicht’s series on Friday with a cogent piece contrasting the old “pull yourself up by your bootstraps” success narrative with the current structural realities. In the weeks to come, we’ll be running more new features, including interviews and articles with contributors like Dalton Conley, Bill Domhoff, Rachel Dwyer, Erin Hoekstra, Karyn Lacy, Rahsaan Mahadeo, and Andrew Ross. And don’t forget earlier pieces such as Out of the Nest and into the Red, where Jason Houle shows exactly how debt has shifted across the last three generations, Alexes Harris on the Cruel Poverty of Monetary Sanctions, David Schalliol’s Debt and Darkness in Detroit, and Rob Crosnoe on the Hourglass Economy.

The best sociology has long been critical of existing social arrangements and idealistic about the alternatives. And the new sociology of debt (reflected here and in projects like debtandsociety.org) is no exception. In detailing the grand society-level problems of the debt crisis, these TSP features point to social solutions on both ginormous (global climate reparations) and modest (a lone shopkeeper lighting his street) scales. And making small reforms to alleviate human suffering is hardly incompatible with changing the structural conditions that create or sustain the problem. So students can simultaneously rally for lower tuition and loan rates for everyone as they learn about personal finance to manage their own debt. Some might dismiss the latter efforts as “Band-Aids” for the structural issues, but we wouldn’t discount them completely. A well-applied Band-Aid can sometimes stop the bleeding while we pursue a more lasting fix to our problems.

CCF platform logoBig news! The Society Pages is absolutely delighted to welcome the Council on Contemporary Families to TSP. Over the past two decades, CCF has built an outstanding reputation as a go-to source for authoritative social research on family life. Much like the Scholars Strategy Network, CCF will work with our staff and students to post selected policy briefs and research statements on timely topics, all of which can be found here. In addition, the CCF’s peerless contributors, including Barbara Risman, Philip N. Cohen, Adina NackVirgnia Rutter, and others will soon be blogging in TSP’s Community Pages (several already write for Sociological Images, Girl W/ Pen!, and more). We look forward to great conversations, cutting-edge research, and an ongoing examination of American families—as they really are. You can follow CCF on Twitter at @CCF_Families.

Follow tip #2 to banish keyboard dust bunnies. Photo by Kiran Foster via Flickr.
Follow tip #2 to banish keyboard dust bunnies. Photo by Kiran Foster via Flickr CC

Last week I danced in my first flash mob, saw a powerful set of storytellers at a live Life of the Law event, and pontificated on public outreach with super sharp friends from JustPublics, OpenDemocracy, and LOTL. In my #LSAMN14 session for graduate students and new professors, I offered 5 bits of advice for those eager to write for a public audience.

1. Use your expertise. Make it about your expert knowledge as a social scientist rather than your views as a citizen. Use the command and authority you’ve developed on a project to really break it down for the rest of us.

2. Don’t wait for tenure. Graduate students and assistant professors today should develop an online presence. And writing short pieces for the public can often offer accessible calling cards to your work and interests.

3. Timing matters. Don’t just react to the news by beginning a new piece. Have some ideas and drafts that you can work up quickly when the time is right. Many events are seasonal or predictable (e.g., back to school season, election season, release-of-crime-statistics season), so write now for August or December.

4. Avoid zero-sum thinking. Public work need not detract from your research. In my experience, my journal articles and public posts tend to be mutually reinforcing and complementary rather than competing substitutes for one another. Staying in touch with journalists, for example, helps me stay on top of new developments in my field. And the more you write, the easier writing becomes.

5. Use your editor! There’s a premium on brevity & clarity in public writing. My first op-eds were a sea of red ink, as sharp editors reduced both my word count and my syllable-per-word count by at least 50 percent. And, in my experience at TSP and Contexts, the most famous and highly regarded experts in the field tend to be most amenable to smart editing. They get it.

In the spirit of brevity and humility about the limits of my own expertise, I’ll close by repeating the best bit of advice I learned in school — what I’ve come to call the Wu Admonition: “Remember, Chris, that not all advice is good advice.”

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.

strainer
Photo via Marina Noordegraaf flickr.com CC.

Social media feeds are like carnival money booths: we snatch away greedily as the links swirl past, but we’re rarely enriched by the experience. In the rush to process so much so quickly, we’ve become lousy filters for one another – recommending “great articles” that ain’t so great by social science standards.

Many rapidly-circulating stories offer grand assertions but paltry evidence about the social world. It seems silly to direct much intellectual horsepower at every li’l item whooshing past (why, that Upworthy post needs an interrupted time-series design!). So people just hit the “thumbs up” button if they like the sentiment and send it down the line. Passing along such blurbs can seem like a modern equivalent to the kindly/nosy relative who sent us Dear Abby clippings in the newsprint era. Yet there’s a danger to indiscriminate recommendations that can subvert our authority as experts. In my case, I’ve developed a set of policy preferences on crime and economic issues, which I adjust in response to new evidence. If I start endorsing weak studies just because they affirm my preferences or prejudices, then I’d rightly be considered a hack.

As conservatives like to remind progressives — from the comfort of their thin-paned glass houses — there’s a big honking gap between the truth about the world and the truth we’d like to believe about the world. Accordingly, there’s a big honking gap between a “great study” and a “great sentiment” that neatly aligns with our views. And, unlike your kindly/nosy relative, good social scientists have a real responsibility to evaluate the quality of the evidence we cite – especially when we claim to be experts on a matter.

Sometimes we forget that social science provides mighty tools and deep training in evaluating evidence. For example, any good sociologist should have a pretty good sense of whether a given sample is likely to be representative; whether a design is best suited for making causal, descriptive, or interpretive claims; whether to gather data from individuals, groups, or nations in making such claims; and, how to make sense of complex processes that unfold dynamically across all these levels. But while we might closely and carefully scrutinize research methods in our professional work, we seem to get beer goggles whenever a sexy story flits past on Facebook.

When I suspect I might be playing too fast and loose with such stories, I use a three-step approach to consider the evidence:

  1. Restate the central empirical claim (e.g., raising the minimum wage reduces crime)
  2. Identify the theory and evidence cited to support that claim (e.g., a simple plot showing lower crime rates in states with higher minimum wage levels)
  3. Evaluate the design rather than the finding. Is the design so elegant and convincing that I would have believed the results had they gone the other way? Or would I have simply dismissed it as shoddy work? (e.g., a simple plot showing higher crime rates in states with higher minimum wage levels).

Depending on the direction of the wage-crime relationship, my reaction would have changed from “See! This shows I was right all along” to “Bah! These fools didn’t even control for income and poverty rates!” Of course, few of the stories flitting past can withstand the strict scrutiny of a top peer-reviewed journal article. But while I might still circulate them for descriptive or entertainment value, I’m now making fewer unqualified personal recommendations. I’d rather reserve the term “great study” for designs that are so spine-crushingly beautiful that they might actually change my mind on an issue. Researchers know that winning over skeptics is way more fun — and way more important — than preaching to the converted. At TheSocietyPages, this process always animates our board meetings, in lively debates about the research evidence that merits highlighting in our podcasts, citings, TROTS, reading list, and feature sections.

As Clay Shirky says, “It’s not information overload. It’s filter failure.” At TSP, we’ll do our best to screen for solid evidence and big ideas about the social world, in hopes that we can all grab something worthwhile from the information swirl.

socsciVery cool to see the first issue of Sociological Science, a new open-access journal for primary research articles. While I should disclose that I’m a consulting editor for the publication, I should also disclose that I can’t claim any credit for the good stuff therein:

UPDATE: Vol 1., No. 2. On the subject of new publications, we also want to show a little TSP love for Social Currentsthe impressive new journal of the Southern Sociological Society. Editors Toni Calasanto and Vinnie Roscigno just released their second issue, with some really provocative work by some of the best sociologists in the business.

I could write many more nice things about each publication, but I’ll likely be submitting my own research to Sociological Science and Social Currents — and nobody likes an apple polisher.

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Photo via MarkShoots flickr.com CC. Click for original.
Photo via MarkShoots flickr.com CC. Click for original.

Nicholas Kristof called out professors today, saying we’ve “fostered a culture that glorifies arcane unintelligibility while disdaining impact and audience.” While the snarkmeister in me is tempted to return serve — couldn’t one say the same thing about the Times? — I actually concur with Mr. Kristof on several key points.

To paraphrase, he cites dreadful writing, a lack of political and ideological diversity, a dearth of public intellectuals, obstructionist professional associations, little social media presence, “hidden-away” journals, and a reward structure that privileges technique and abstraction over relevance, clear thinking, and broad dissemination.  In truth, we at TSP make largely the same claims in pitching our li’l project to authors, readers, and potential partners. We use different words, of course, but the whole point of TSP is to help bring social science to broader visibility and influence. This mission drives all the choices we’ve made: to stay open-access, to put our resources into a best-in-the-business professional editor and site designer, and to partner with other groups who “get” our mission and vision — like WW Norton, the Scholars Strategy Network, and Contexts magazine.

While many academics feel marginalized by mainstream media and society, Mr. Kristof points out that we’re also self-marginalizing. As a scholar, an editor, and an academic administrator, I’d agree that at least some of our injuries are self-inflicted.  For example, I was gratified when Attorney General Holder used some of my felon voting research last Monday. We’d undertaken the project with both science and policy in mind, in hopes of doing good sociology that would also encourage the sort of  national conversation now taking place. When the Times wrote a characteristically smart op-ed on Tuesday, friends asked why they linked to an old working paper rather than the polished journal article. This is likely because the article remains “hidden away” behind a paywall. I suppose they could have secured permissions from the authors, the journals, and the professional association that owns the journals, but we all tend to work on timelines that are a wee bit more protracted than the speech-on-Monday/op-ed-on-Tuesday news cycle.

While we can’t solve all of the problems of academic self-marginalization, we can at least offer Nicholas Kristof a free subscription to TheSocietyPages.org. And we’ll continue to extend the same offer to every one of the million-plus readers stopping by every month.

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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.

Hodges
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.