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.”

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!

creative commons image by tonrulkens

Sally Hillsman of the American Sociological Association makes a strong and timely case for sociology as a “STEM” discipline in the February issue of Footnotes. Though STEM is an acronym for “Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics,”  the social sciences have struggled to find a place at the STEM table.

In response, Professor Hillsman offers three compelling points:

1. Sociology is part of the national science community.

2. Sociology is a core part of applied science.

3. Sociology is a gateway to science for undergraduates.

Not every sociologist self-identifies as a scientist, though it is difficult for me to conceive of my research and teaching as anything but social science. Yet even friendly colleagues in the natural sciences seem surprised to learn that a sociologist like me spends time specifying and testing hypotheses, writing and reviewing National Science Foundation grants, attending the American Academy for the Advancement of Science meetings, and thinking about how my work might contribute to the systematic understanding of the (social) world.  By spreading the word about the great diversity of good work being done by our colleagues, I’d also like to think that our Society Pages project can play some role in raising the profile of the social sciences.

The most recent wave of social science legitimacy issues are likely a product of internal conflicts as well as external attacks, but it isn’t all doom and gloom. In our view, sociology offers a near-ideal setting for teaching and learning scientific thinking — the phenomena we study are immediately engaging and accessible, yet their complexity demands critical analysis and sophistication in conceptualization and method. What better setting for educating our students and publics about science?

Image by Letta Page

‘Twas the night before break and Suzy was cranking away on a TSP piece at 7:30 pm.  When the custodian chided me for “keeping Bob Cratchit working pretty late,” I was feeling my inner Scrooge. But everybody at The Society Pages seems to work hard with good cheer. Doug and I owe many thanks: to Letta Page and Jon Smajda, for making it all both possible and beautiful; to our wonderful grad board and undergrad interns (above), for wicked-good work all over the site and behind the scenes; to our friends at WW Norton and SSN, for their inspiring vision and support; to the brilliant and prolific bloggers on our community pages; to the generous scholars who review our white papers and support us in myriad ways; and to you for giving us your precious time and attention. Happy holidays to you and yours!

(R-L) Doug Hartmann, Suzy Maves McElrath, Rahsaan Mahadeo, Kia Heise, Andrew Wiebe (Fall intern), Grad Board Editor Hollie Nyseth Brehm (semi-hiding), Sarah Shannon, Erin Hoekstra, Chris Uggen, Sarah Lageson, and Kyle Green.
(not pictured) Letta Page (behind the lens), Shannon Golden, Jon Smajda, Stephen Suh, Lisa Gulya, and Evan Stewart

Creative Commons Image Courtesy of WhatDaveSees

When people ask why I pursued or persist in sociology, I sometimes say that the world just makes no sense without it. With a few basic concepts, some systematic observation, and a little analysis, however, we can at least begin to fathom the unfathomable. Our new TSP feature on genocide by Hollie Nyseth Brehm offers a grim example, but my favorite physical therapist offered another illustration this weekend. She had just attended a conference on understanding pain and injury—a big part of any PT’s job—and came across some cool studies on the social construction of these phenomena.

My favorite new example is “Neck Pain in Demolition Derby Drivers” by Alexander Simotas and Timothy Shen in Archives of Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation. In the general population, about 10 percent of people who have a car collision will develop chronic severe neck pain. Doctors Simotas and Shen surveyed 40 demolition derby drivers, who had undergone a median of 1,632 lifetime collisions at an average estimated speed of 26 miles per hour, 55 percent of which were rear-end, with no special safety equipment. Yet only 3 of the derby participants (7.5 percent of the sample) reported even mild chronic neck pain and none reported moderate or severe chronic pain.

In short, the “accidents” experienced on the street appear to exact a much greater toll than those at the county fairground, even though the events involve the same biomechanics: an “acceleration-deceleration mechanism of energy transfer to the cervical spine.” The sampling strategy and response rate are not ideal in this study, but I suspect that the basic pattern of results is likely to hold up to a more rigorous analysis.

In my view, the question is less about whether these injuries are socially constructed than about the relative contribution of various social determinants. From a sociolegal or economic perspective, one might look to financial incentives (e.g., it appears that chronic neck pain after car accidents is far less prevalent in nations (such as Greece) where victims receive little financial remuneration). From a sociology of sport perspective, one might explain the denial of injury among participants in terms of the culture of risk surrounding contact sports. Finally, the fact that offending drivers (the “hitters”) experience far fewer symptoms than the targets (or “hittees”) suggests that playing social roles as aggressors or victims might also be important. The emotions of the events are obviously quite different as well, with derby likely invoking fun or thrilling feelings, while car accidents tend to invoke fear or worry.

Of course, the fact that whiplash injuries are socially constructed doesn’t mean that myriad other physiological and  psychological mechanisms are not also in play. In fact, my personal explanation for these results is a biopsychosocial theory developed to account for my immoderate pie-eating behavior:  anything this wonderful has just got to do a body good.




Creative Commons Image courtesy of we creative people

In social science, as elsewhere, an elegant design makes all the difference. When I hear a great talk or read a first-rate article, I’m geeked up both by the new discovery and by precisely how the discovery was made.  And while I try to stay on top of the latest and greatest methodological techniques,  I most appreciate social scientists who can responsibly render the world’s complexity in a simple and comprehensible manner.

Design should never say, ‘Look at me.’ It should always say, ‘Look at this’. – David Craib

I doubt that designer David Craib attends a lot of social science presentations, but he might have liked a talk I heard at the American Society of Criminology meetings last week. Patrick Sharkey of New York University spoke about how exposure to violence might affect kids at school. The answer is important both for assessing the social costs of crime and for understanding the sources of persistent educational inequalities. And since an ethical researcher would never want to experimentally manipulate a child’s exposure to violence, we need to be especially creative in making good use of the available “observational” data. Professor Sharkey has been pursuing such questions for several years and he’s now assembled a lot of evidence from different cities using different methodologies. Last week’s talk matched test score data from New York City public schools with very precise information about the dates and places in which violent crime was occurring throughout the city. To isolate the effect of violence, he compared kids who experienced violent crime on their block just before the scheduled tests with kids who experienced violent crime on their block just after the test date. I’d never considered such a design, but was immediately attracted to the idea of using time’s arrow in this way. By talk’s end, I was convinced that recent exposure to violent crime reduces performance on reading and language tests.

This design is a lot cleaner than trying to name, measure and statistically “control for” everything under the sun that might influence both test scores and neighborhood violence (e.g., poverty, gang activity, lead exposure …). Another powerful approach in such situations is to use each student as his or her own control, testing whether test scores drop below student-specific average scores after exposure to violence. Professor Sharkey (along with Nicole Tirado-Strayer, Andrew V. Papachristos, and C. Cybele Raver) employ this technique as well as the pre/post-exposure design in a new American Journal of Public Health article. Each method has its advantages, but they are especially convincing in combination. I’d imagine that the pre/post-exposure comparison would be especially helpful in situations in which the researcher lacks a long series of repeated measurements on the same individuals. Since I often find myself or my advisees in such situations, I’m sure I’ll be borrowing this idea before too long.

Every designers’ dirty little secret is that they copy other designers’ work. They see work they like, and they imitate it. Rather cheekily, they call this inspiration. — Aaron Russell

Maybe these results seem obvious to you (if so, does it also seem obvious that the effects of violence would be much weaker for math tests?), but conclusively nailing down such relationships is extraordinarily difficult.  Or maybe a design comparing data collected “ten days before” with that collected “ten days after” just seems too simple mathematically to make a convincing case. I’d disagree, as would many designers.

Math is easy; design is hard. — Jeffrey Veen

creative commons photo by Hans Thijs

We hope TSP’s Reading List is both an informative source for cutting-edge research and an aid in strutting your eminently informed stuff at fancy cocktail parties and on The Twitter. We’ve experimented with different writing models, but these days we’re producing reading list items collectively. It turns out to be a lot of fun to go around the room and “pitch” the best and/or coolest thing we’ve read in the past month.

I’m sometimes asked how we find the good stuff to write about. Here’s a little backstage info on how the (vegan andouille) sausage is made. We first divvied our grad student board into two teams (Team Chris and Team That Other Guy), with each board member responsible for pitching three articles per month. One is supposed to come from a mainstream sociology journal, one from the student’s specialty area, and one can be a rip-roaring wild card. We then engage in a good-natured throwdown, debating whether the article tells us anything we didn’t already know, whether the evidence is really there to support its conclusions, and whether we can adequately convey the piece to non-specialists and non-academics. After the pitch session, we look at how all the articles fit together and pick one (or more) for each person to write up.

Folks then present their drafts at the next meeting, where we edit them live and on-screen. This would be a daunting process if our grad board members weren’t such confident and creative writers. After we all suggest a few clearly inappropriate but wickedly funny titles, each writer polishes up their piece and sends it off to Letta Page for a final edit. We also write up quicker short-form reading list items without much editing, just to spread the word about work we find exciting, important, or engaging in some way.

You can see the result of this process in Sarah Shannon’s Ain’t to Posh to Push (on Louise Roth and Megan Henley’s Social Problems article on C-sections) or Stephen Suh’s Talking Basketball (on Kathleen Yep’s Ethnic & Racial Studies piece on race, hoops, and history) or the other items we’ve uploaded recently. While the individual authors deserve great credit, I’m really glad it is a collective process. We’ve tried to do this individually, with each person simply preparing their items without collective discussion, but this process wasn’t nearly as much fun as kicking ideas around over a bowl of Letta’s (vegan andouille) chili. Here’s hoping that the resulting items are as rich and tasty as the chili.

I was delighted to read that Nick “The Feelin'” Mrozinski landed a spot on Team Cee-Lo on NBC’s “The Voice.” I was fortunate to share billing with The Feelin’ (a/k/a Nicholas David) on one of my all-time favorite research presentations a few years back.

TSP grad board member/musician/entrepreneur Sarah Lageson set the whole thing up: why not combine a research release with a performance by an amazing musician and a fundraiser for a worthy community organization? So I gave my first powerpoint presentation on the effects of low-level criminal records at the Downtime Bar.  It might seem strange, but the research paired perfectly with Mr. Mrozinski’s smart and soulful repertoire — as well as the strong Surly beer on tap at Downtime. I was nervous at the start of the talk, but loosened up once I got a “right on!” and head nod from The Feelin’. I’m starting to feel a TSP-sponsored concert series coming on, alternating presentations of our featured papers with inspired and inspiring music.  In the meantime, I hope that fans of The Voice and TSP might a send a li’l love and support the Feelin’s way.

Loggins and Messina reading Zoo World

If you really love a small publication, I hope you’ll someday have the opportunity to visit its offices. Take a firsthand peek behind that impressive professional masthead and you might discover that the whole awesome shebang runs on the caffeine and good energy of a tiny crew with an even tinier budget. Stick around a bit longer and you’ll want to buy this crew lunch. And maybe an air conditioner and a few decent chairs.

Seeing the conditions under which your favorite magazine is produced would likely deepen your respect for its staff and your appreciation for its content. The only downside to visiting is that it might sting a bit more if and when the publication can’t make it financially — and you’re confronted with an editor’s letter that starts reading like an obituary.

With so many good publications struggling to stay afloat, I’ve been reading a lot of obituaries lately. Around here, the TSP team was especially disappointed to see the Utne Reader leave Minnesota in a cost-cutting move. Founder Eric Utne, Editor David Schimke, and the wonderful Utne staff have been a special source of inspiration and guidance for our own rag-tag crew.

This week, I was disappointed to see FINAL ISSUE! on the cover of Twin Cities Metro magazine and to read Dana Raidt’s final editor’s letter.

[T]his magazine has always been a labor of love. And you can only expect content of METRO’s caliber to be produced with few resources and little in the way of financial return for so long. You can only work so many hours, fight so many uphill battles and burn so much of your creative energy before it’s time to file the whole situation under “shit happens” and move on with your life. So that’s what we’re doing: choosing to remember the good, learn from the bad, give credit to everyone who furthered our beyond-ambitious mission and honor you, the people who supported the magazine—and therefore, us—by buying it and singing its praises… [P]roducing this issue knowing it is our last has been a challenging, heartbreaking and surreal process.

Ouch. For six years, Metro consistently managed to place well-researched stories on topics like gender inequality and the school achievement gap amid fluffier stuff on the best dive bars and the beautiful people of Glamorama. More personally, I admired Metro’s art and illustrations and their engaging layout and design work. While I don’t know much about their operations, I know that it requires creativity, dedication, and talent to consistently deliver such well-designed pages on a shoestring.

Publications such as Metro and Utne would seem to have little in common with academic journals, but the best journal editors bring the same passion to their work — and many express sentiments similar to those of Dana Raidt when that work is concluded. The difference, of course, is that we academic editors tend to have day jobs and steady paychecks as professors — unlike the talented folks who staff our journals and our magazines. At an independent press gathering in the depths of the recession, one editor assured me that she never worried about losing health insurance — she’d never had any health insurance to lose.

So if you really love a small publication,  find ways to promote, celebrate, and support those who work so hard to produce it. Don’t let your subscription lapse and don’t be fooled by their fancy masthead — they could be dangerously close to writing their own obituary.

Jumping Jim Brunzell is profiled in a fine where-are-they-now article from Debra Neutkens of Press Publications, offering nostalgia for Saturday morning wrestling fans and a useful first-day-of-school reminder for students and teachers.

Mr. Brunzell is only 5’10” and pretty much bereft of the macho swagger that characterizes the profession, yet he parlayed his secret advantage into three decades of professional wrestling success. You see, Jumping Jim could sky. A high jumper on his high school track team, Mr. Brunzell’s 36″ vertical leap was beautiful to behold in the ring. Possessed of the finest dropkick in the business, he earned a reputation as an athletic “high flyer” in an era of earthbound plodders.* 

Unlike Mr. Brunzell, we academics often fail to capitalize on our secret advantages. A good advisor or editor, however, can sometimes help us ferret them out. Whether you’ve worked as a lobbyist or a farmer, traveled the world in a military family or a circus, or graduated from an elite prep school or the juvenile justice system, you’ve likely gained knowledge and perspective that will interest other scholars and readers. Our job is to help you learn what’s news and how best to analyze and communicate it. Sometimes the biggest hurdle is just convincing you that the rest of the world doesn’t know about a phenomenon or process you’d taken for granted — and that you might be the best person in the world to tell the story.

Secret advantages of this sort can arise from tastes, experiences, aptitudes, ascribed characteristics, or plain dumb luck. To really exploit them, however, you need to take inventory: write down where you’ve been, what you’ve done, and how you might use it. And don’t brush off compliments too quickly — especially when editors or advisors tell you that you’re onto something or that some insight you shared was completely, refreshingly, and delightfully new to them. Pay special attention when you hear imaginary “air italics” in the compliment (e.g., “you’re really good on this” or “I’ve never seen anyone make that connection”).

What if nobody supports or compliments you, you’ve taken inventory, and you’re still coming up empty? Well, we’ve all been there — at least until someone convinced us we might have something interesting to say. Just go with your strengths and use what you’ve got, even if it doesn’t fit the prototypical mold. Who knows? You might be creating the new prototype.

* I couldn’t find a good highlight clip, but you can witness Mr. Brunzell dropkick a future governor at about 1:48 of this Phil Donahue deconstruction.