Photo by Jeep-people

The rains came at mile 19. If I turned left, I’d face two hilly miles of trails. If I turned right, I’d be home and dry (apart from the post-run beverage) in 3 minutes. I’d wanted to put in 21 miles today, since I’ve got exactly five weeks to deflabulate before the Twin Cities marathon. I was definitely leaning rightward until I recalled a conversation with (grad student and TSP board member) Suzy McElrath, where she shared her enthusiasm for rain-soaked running.

So I headed left, plunged down the slippery trail, and staggered up the first big hill, hamstrings tight and calves aching. It was just me on the trail, aside from a gang of wild turkeys and a few rabbits. It wasn’t a hard rain and the cool water felt good. As I moved farther from the street, everything got quiet except for the steady patter of rain and reverberating footsteps.

I couldn’t see much through the rain and fog of my glasses, which seemed to accentuate the sound. I noticed that the rain almost hissed as it slid through the willow tree by the pond. The big oak leaves brought a crisper midrange sound, like the bite of an apple or a ’62 stratocaster. But then I turned a corner and hit a patch of broad leaves that looked like rhubarb, close to the ground. The raindrops played these deep and low like timpani drums, but tapped lightly by fingertips rather than mallets.

Suffice it to say that miles 19 to 21 turned out to be really beautiful, and that I wouldn’t have run them at all without Suzy’s encouragement. This reminds me that when a university brain mill is really humming, there’s a mutual-inspiration feedback loop between students and faculty, which surely ranks among the greatest privileges and joys of being a professor.

So after today’s rain-soaked training run, I wanted to add a special note of thanks to the TSP grad board as an addendum to Doug’s post about the community that came together in Denver. The grad board generally toils anonymously, though our editorial team and WW Norton take care to recognize their contributions. And, if all goes as planned, you’ll soon be hearing more about some new pages on the site to more properly introduce you to their great ideas, vision, and scholarship. 

Board members like Suzy (at right), Hollie Nyseth Brehm (at left), and their cohorts probably don’t know how much they inspire us to build and sustain The Society Pages. But when Doug, Letta, Jon and I confront a fork in the road, time and again our grad board pushes and inspires us to take the route that is both more challenging and more richly rewarding.

Creative Commons photo, courtesy of Thokrates

Writing an essay for Gore Vidal reminds me of picking up a guitar after Segovia passed — any attempt pales in such close proximity to the master. But I’ll offer a few notes in hopes of drawing some new readers to Mr. Vidal’s exemplary writing and powerful social critique and analysis.

I encountered many of Mr. Vidal’s essays long before encountering sociology, so my mind was effectively pre-blown before entering the field. Just as early exposure to The New Yorker opened new worlds to young Gary Keillorthose wicked-smart essays brought this Minnesota kid a new vision and perspective on American society. He made historical and literary allusions that were new to me, but the writing was richly rewarding and accessible to any 10th-grader with a little patience and a lot of dictionary.

I inhaled the entire Vidal collection in the public library, but today I’m recalling two basic insights. He wasn’t the first to make them, of course, but he made them so clearly and elegantly that they quickly took root. First, he offered a sharp-eyed insider’s analysis of how wealth and power might really operate in the United States. Now, I can’t say I ever swallowed this vision hook, line, and sinker, but it did seem to comport with the evening news about as well as the facts I’d been taught in my history and social studies classes (Dems versus Republicans? That’s splitting hairs, my boy. Think: who’s pulling the strings?). And by the time I got to college and discovered sociologists like C. Wright Mills and William Domhoff, I could approach their arguments with some degree of familiarity and preparation.

Second, Mr. Vidal’s sensitive (and, at times, hilarious) writing on sexual diversity convinced me that the putatively fundamental categories I’d taken for granted were surely oversimplifications. Here too, Mr. Vidal’s perspective provided a better fit to the social facts I was encountering as a high school student and music writer. Here’s a passage touching on both power and sex, from a 1979 Playboy interview that I likely read behind Ralph’s grocery at Charlton and Wentworth:

Today Americans are in a state of terminal hysteria on the subject of sex in general and of homosexuality in particular because the owners of the country (buttressed by a religion that they have shrewdly adapted to their own ends) regard the family as their last means of control over those who work and consume. For two millennia, women have been treated as chattel, while homosexuality has been made to seem a crime, a vice, an illness.”

Some of Mr. Vidal’s obits hint that his essays are too historically specific to stand the test of time, but I’m guessing that  Bernard Shaw’s obit writers said the same things about his remarkable prefaces. The excerpt above suggests that either American society has not changed all that much in 33 years or that, like a good sociologist, Gore Vidal’s analysis transcends the particular moments and controversies of his research sites. Judge for yourself, perhaps starting online or with United States: Essays 1952-1992.

 I went to a rock concert the other night and a cello recital broke out. It was a standard summer festival, but the three bands I saw (Avett Brothers, Lumineers, and Lucy Michelle and the Velvet Lapelles) all featured more cello than ELO. While I made some pretty outlandish predictions as a music writer — pegging Stan Ridgway as the Dylan of the New American West, to take but one erroneous prediction — I never foresaw so many beer-drinking twentysomethings whooping it up over a cello solo. 

Sarah Lageson’s Office Hours interview with Jennifer Lena is helping me puzzle through the mystery. Professor Lena’s Banding Together offers a rich sociological account of musical communities and Ms. Lageson is an especially knowledgable interviewer. That’s why we’ve paired her KFAI radio documentary on Minnesota’s Bluegrass Revival — from Bill Monroe to Trampled by Turtles — with this podcast. Sarah plays banjo, rather than cello, but she’s an active performer and radio producer who knows a lot about musical genres (and, I might add, as of 2:32 pm she’s also ABD). If this one whets your appetite for a sociological discussion of music and culture, you might also check out Dave Grazian’s two-part podcast with Chuck Klosterman.

While we’ve yet to launch TSP-TV, we’ve always envisioned The Society Pages as a multimedia project. Office Hours, Improv and New Books listeners have been especially supportive of TSP — and vocal in their requests for more podcasts. We’ll do all we can to feed the need in ways that connect social science with the social world.

At first I demurred — and I was such a pretentious little dirtball that I might’ve actually said, “I demur.” I’ll get to the context in a minute, but today’s hot summer wind calls to mind a July day that taught me something about opportunities.

Another epic post-church Sunday rush had finally wound down at the pancake house. Stuck over a hot grill since 5:30 in the AM, I couldn’t wait to scrub off the grease and collapse on the naugahyde couch in the cool of my parents’ basement. As I walked out of the kitchen, I saw a couple of the twentysomething waitresses outside, making plans. Terry said her band was playing at Kaposia Park that afternoon and invited me to stop by and sit in on a few songs.

I liked Terry. She was too serious for some of the cooks, but even as a kid I respected people who took their work seriously. And, when we weren’t swamped with orders, I noticed she used the same tone of voice with everyone from the shift manager, to the cops drinking coffee, to the busboys working the carpet sweeper. That made her a good egg in my book. Somewhere along the line, she told me she sang in a country band and I’m sure I must’ve yammered on about my rock star aspirations.

Out in the parking lot by the walk-in cooler, I said, “It sounds like fun, but I’m just not into that kind of music. No offense.”  I’m sure it was the “no offense” that did it. For a second, Terry flashed me the sort of look I’d get if I’d dropped a plate on the floor. Then, with just a hint of a smile on just half of her face, she said, “Well, you must be one heckuva musician if you can afford to be so picky about opportunities to play.”

A direct hit – and totally disarming. She knew I was a 3-chord wonder, more scared of the stage than averse to the genre. But instead of calling me out on it, she was offering a face-saving invitation: C’mon, man, are you serious about this or not? I said I’d try to make it.

By the time I got to the park, there was a big joyful noise coming from the pavilion. I don’t recall much after that, except that the band was fast, loud, and awesomely sloppy and that Terry (who’d literally let her hair down) was an engaging frontwoman on stage. Eventually, I sang along on some sing-alongs, including Mamas Don’t Let Your Babies Grow Up to be Cowboys and Good Hearted Woman. My guitar stayed in its case and I had to freestyle-mumble the verses, but I stomped my feet and shouted along on the choruses. Though I didn’t make much of a contribution, I felt more happy, relaxed, and energized than I’d been in weeks.

I never grew into a real musician, but I still think of Terry when confronted with new opportunities. I say no sometimes, but I try to make sure my knee-jerk negative reactions aren’t driven by the fears and insecurities I felt at 17. Now that I’m more “senior,” students are starting to ask me for career advice. Often, where I’ll see tremendous career opportunities they’ll just see a bullet to be dodged. I’ll gently suggest that it might not be so disastrous to take that research assistantship or collaborative opportunity or post-doc position, even if it doesn’t perfectly align with their current career interests. And when I’m feeling especially bold or the summer heat just summons my own travails, I’ll offer half a smile and say, “Well, you must have one heckuva lot going if you can afford to pass on an opportunity like this.”

photo courtesy Curtis Gregory Perry,

I just finished a press briefing with a bunch of very sharp journalists. I love this part of my job, though I’m inevitably way more confident in the research than I am in my ability to convey it to others. Today it was the release of a Sentencing Project report, coauthored with Sarah Shannon and Jeff Manza, where we offer some new numbers on the people affected by U.S. felon voting restrictions.

Academics often feel tension between their research and public outreach activities, but the two can work hand in hand. A few suggestions when writing a report such as this one:

  • Embrace description. To a much greater extent than academic audiences, journalists and their readers value our ability as social scientists to provide basic social facts about the world. We can still sneak in a little theory and analysis, of course, since it provides much-needed context for the data we present.
  • Vet your methods. If your report is not peer-reviewed, it is critical to point to your peer-reviewed articles applying the same methods to the same data that you will be presenting publicly. Good journalists care about the academic integrity of the work they write about (and, these days, some will dig deep into the methods sections of those articles). At the outset, we could easily identify some particularly surprising and, hence, controversial numbers (sorry, Florida) and we did all we could to double- and triple-check them.
  • Insist on caveats — but you don’t need to lead with them. Responsible social scientists are transparent about potential problems with their data or analysis, but a high “caveat to content ratio” will kill a press release. Editing this report we ultimately moved some caveats from the first page to the last — but we would not have cut them.
  • Choose partners who respect research. Marc Mauer and the Sentencing Project have earned a great reputation for their non-partisan reform work. While some organizations are more oriented to deadlines or to spin than to research integrity, Marc and his colleagues were remarkably patient and understanding about our need to get it right before going public.
  • Teach! Whenever I’m in doubt about how to present something to journalists or policy folks, I try to think about how I’d teach it. For example, Sarah, Jeff, and I realized that the felon voting story was increasingly “spatial as well as racial.” So, we made some cartograms like the one above to visually represent the concentration of disenfranchisement in the Southeast (arguing at length about whether it was appropriate to refer to certain states as “engorged”). We still present plain vanilla charts, of course, but the cartograms and our slider maps tested especially well in my lectures this spring, with students quickly picking up the story behind the numbers.
  • Tough it out. Backlash is always a possibility, with people sending nasty comments or emails about everything from your research to your haircut — and they aren’t always as polite as our academic critics. Sometimes this is because the reporter got something wrong or because you didn’t express things precisely, but mostly it is because they simply disagree with the implications of your work. That’s just part of the deal, I think. If you’ve done the work in good faith and to the best of your ability, your career and your ego will survive the criticism.
  • Don’t worry about cite count. To the extent that stories are written, some mention names and others won’t make any attribution. Either way is just fine with me. We pick up certain research projects because we’d like to encourage a public conversation about them — not to see our names in the paper. Often, I’ll only know they’re using my work because I recognize a number or two that came out of our shop.

photo by Pete AylwardScott Jurek is a badass distance runner, but he’s also one silver-tongued persuader. The ultramarathoner’s Eat and Run lays out such a compelling case for a plant-based diet that this old-school marathoner suddenly found himself devouring baked tofu in lieu of his post-run steak n’ eggs. Countless others had suggested I work in a salad from time to time. Why would I ignore years of advice from my doctor but take dietary cues from a self-described Minnesota redneck?

Well, I guess Mr. Jurek just spoke my language. He begins his story as a “serious carnivore,” who grew up yanking walleye from Lake Mille Lacs. A skinny kid, he learned to run and ski cross-country, faring pretty well against the “cake eaters” on Duluth’s east side. He was introduced to “‘hippie food” by coaches and a college girlfriend, discovering that he felt stronger and performed better when he ate “plant-based” food (his diet is clearly vegan, but the “plant-based” label seems to come with less baggage). Oh, and I almost forgot: he regularly runs distances of 100 miles or more faster than anybody on the planet.  His recipes are thus interwoven with ripping yarns from some of the world’s toughest races.

Scott Jurek’s crossover success as a food writer might offer a few lessons for social scientists aiming to get people thinking in new ways. As academics, we’re often presenting our research in hopes of changing the hearts and minds (and votes) of politicians, publics, or policy makers. But we forget that it takes a lot to actually change somebody’s mind. In my career, it only seems to happen when folks (a) agree that my evidence is really powerful; and (b) somehow identify with me as a credible expert who knows and appreciates their own worldview. Mr. Jurek nailed me on both counts, overcoming my prejudices with evidence and answering my knee-jerk objections in precisely my own language.

Before I give public talks, I ask what sorts of evidence might change my mind about issues on which I’ve developed firm opinions (e.g., gun control, progressive taxation, public education). That’s a pretty high bar for most of us, right? I certainly wouldn’t be talked off my opinion by some dork from the university half-assedly opining on his “reading of the literature.” To get my attention (let alone change my mind), I’d want a supertight smoking-gun study along with some sort of richly textured first-hand testimony from people I trusted. So when I’m testifying, I never expect folks to accept my ideas uncritically. I might have real authority and legitimacy on the subject of crime, for example, but so too does the state legislator who served ten years as a district attorney. I’m not going to talk her off her position unless I’ve got something really convincing to say — and I can say it in ways that resonate with her own experiences.

Scott Jurek and his editors understand all this implicitly. While it is certainly easier to preach to the converted, overcoming disbelievers can be a rich and satisfying experience. Sort of like that post-race lentil-mushroom burger …

photo by Pete Aylward

Photo by Bjorn Christianson,

Professional editing is our “secret advantage” at TSP and this secret advantage has a name: Ms. Letta Page. Without her sharp-eyed and supportive editorial work, we’d be offering far less content on these pages — and what we could provide would be much sloppier and less readable. Together with web editor Jon Smajda, she’s also responsible for much of the elegant design work and illustration you see around the site.

Associate editor Letta Page usually toils anonymously in her behind the scenes role as self-described editrix and language maven. Today, however, she’s featured in the Minneapolis Star-Tribune style section. Letta’s style and positive energy shine through in her editorial work, but she’s also got killer fashion sense. Because her contemporaries are rarely so passionate about grammar, diction, and the (retro-cool) Elements of Style, she suspects that our authors tend to picture her as “the sort of editor who wears her glasses on a chain.”

Ms. Page is also passionate about intellectual property, ensuring that we don’t appropriate the work of photographers, writers, and artists without their permission. A shortened version of the article is online, but you’ll have to purchase the newsprint version of this morning’s Strib to see the full story and images.

Our authors don’t care so much about our fashion choices, of course (which is fortunate, in light of the crimes against fashion routinely perpetrated by professors Uggen and Hartmann). But they do appreciate an editor who can simultaneously sharpen their prose and bring their ideas to full flower. Great editing, like great style, never goes out of fashion.

Whenever I get to teach a criminology seminar, I always assign a little James Q. Wilson in the very first week. Not his influential writing on policing, mind you, but his powerful 1975 critique of academic criminology in Thinking about Crime. With his death this week, I’m Thinking about Wilson. Though we came from very different places, his work reshaped my approach and orientation as a social scientist, public criminologist, and TSP editor.

In that book, Professor Wilson argued powerfully and convincingly that (a) we lacked strong evidence about the most critical questions about crime policy; and, (b) we then fell back on our views as private citizens when we were consulted as crime experts:

[W]hen social scientists were asked for advice by national policy-making bodies they could not respond with suggestions derived from and supported by their scholarly work … as a consequence such advice as was supplied tended to derive from their general political views as modified by their political and organizational interaction with those policy groups and their staffs (p. 49) … I am confident that few social scientists made careful distinctions, when the chips were down, between what they knew as scholars and what they believed as citizens (p. 68).

During my first heady days of graduate school, I was simultaneously encountering similar ideas from Max Weber. But the spot-on power of James Q. Wilson’s polemic hit me like a line drive to the chest. I immediately recognized myself as the sort of mushy-headed liberal who sought a Ph.D. credential as a bully pulpit for offering well-intended but baseless policy pronouncements.

After digesting Thinking about Crime, though, I resolved to conduct the sort of research that would provide a sound evidentiary base for policy. I cannot claim complete fidelity to this approach (nor, I suppose, could Professor Wilson), but it led me to research questions where I could make myself useful (e.g., employment and crime, felon disenfranchisement). 

I’ve also taken to heart Professor Wilson’s admonition to distinguish the research-based opinions we present as experts from those derived from our private beliefs as citizens. My friends and students recognize this as the “hat” issue: I’ll offer a private opinion on anything from Tony Lama boots to the Fed’s quantitative easing policy, but I try to be a little more circumspect when wearing the expert hat (which happens to be a brown fedora).

While I’ll stipulate to some important “Yeah, buts” here (recognizing  instances where we all stray from our high-minded ideals), Thinking about Crime still functions as both critique and call to action — for individual careers and for whole disciplines. Engaging pressing policy questions can give added meaning and purpose to our work. But such engagement is most legitimate and authoritatitive when it is founded on a real base of knowledge, interpretation, and analysis.

The good news is that “what we know as scholars” has changed much since Professor Wilson wrote in 1975. Social scientists are today assembling a more powerful, relevant, and solidly credible evidentiary base; we are thus better able to offer policy suggestions “derived from and supported by our scholarly work,” while also bringing much-needed global and historical perspectives to contemporary debates that would otherwise be framed too narrowly.

The ongoing challenge, for our careers and our disciplines, is to find new and effective ways to bring this knowledge and perspective to light. Hence, our mission at TSP: to bring social scientific knowledge and information to broader public visibility and influence. And regardless of your opinion on James Q. Wilson’s scholarship or his political inclinations, he stood as a highly visible and remarkably influential public intellectual.

photo by lokarta (creative commons license)

I’m picking up a lot of good energy and ideas — and meeting multitudes of kindred spirits — at the AAAS (American Association for the Advancement of Science) meetings this weekend.  I’ve been meaning to attend these meetings for years, so I jumped at the invitation to give a paper and let my (science) geek flag fly.

The most provocative session was a huge plenary on public engagement titled Science is Not Enough, moderated by former CNN correspondent and anchor Frank Cesno. The panelists were James Hansen (climate change scientist and author of Storms of my Grandchildren), Olivia Judson (evolutionary biologist and author of Dr. Tatiana’s Sex Advice to All Creation), and the irrepressible Hans Rosling (international health innovator, known for his amazing TED talks and, of course, a TSP podcast).

Their themes will be familiar to TSP readers:  (1) science is in a “street fight” with anti-science; (2) we could and should do a better job communicating scientific evidence to broader publics; (3) science reporting is often geared less toward accurately characterizing the state of knowledge in a field and more toward conveying two extreme positions; (4) the continuing struggle to simplify, clarify, and communicate our research without dumbing it down or burying important caveats; and, (5) the tensions between value-neutral objectivity and advocacy in public communication.

The panelists came from distinctly different places on these issues and their conversation seemed to echo conversations I’ve had with Doug Hartmann at our weekly editorial meetings. Dr. Judson saw her role as stoking scientific imaginations with the curiosity to know and the passion to care. Dr. Hansen more sharply emphasized how money and power could overwhelm scientific mesages (e.g., the petrochemical industry on climate change) and our responsibility as scientists to subsequent generations. Dr. Rosling viewed his role as seizing upon and illuminating intersections of public ignorance and indisputable scientific consensus.

There were lighter moments, of course, and a good bit more scatological humor than one might expect at the AAAS meetings. Hans Rosling was incredulous when other panelists claimed not to have time for facebook or twitter, for example, saying “that’s like not having time to use paper on the toilet.” He also got off a nice line about “peeing your trousers in winter” that I’ll just have to save for my next lecture.

My own talk was in an early morning session on mass incarceration, organized by Bill Pridemore and Bob Crutchfield on behalf of the American Society of Criminology. The papers were strong, the audience offered great insights and questions, and some supersharp journalists followed-up afterwards with the sort of  penetrating questions that took me years to formulate.

And I guess that’s the challenge and the promise of good science communication. If a roomful of curious non-experts can somehow apprehend the crux of the biscuit at 8 am on a Saturday, there’s no reason that sites like TSP can’t do our bit to bring social scientific knowledge and information to broader public visibility and influence.

Sociologist Eric Klinenberg’s Going Solo is garnering well-deserved attention in venues ranging from Fortune to Slate to This American Life, but his Rolling Stone article today is my favorite thus far.

Eric has assembled a terrific playlist for his new book — everything from Billy Idol’s Dancing with Myself to Beyonce’s Single Ladies. And you know that a researcher like Professor Klinenberg wouldn’t limit himself to the obvious hits. He unearthed nuggets like Tom Waits‘ “Better Off without a Wife” and Loudon (via Rufus) Wainwright’s One Man Guy, Morrissey’s “I’m OK by Myself” and Uggen’s “One-Way Love Dirge.”

OK, OK, I’m kidding about that last one. The spotify list makes for good fun and a great argument-starter (e.g., I’ve got a different take on “No Woman No Cry”), but the article and the book make a much bigger sociological argument. Eric is really telling a story of massive social change — the extraordinary rise of living along  alone:

Until the middle of the 20th century, no society in human history had sustained large numbers of singletons. In 1950, for instance, only 4 million Americans lived alone, and they accounted for less than 10 percent of all households. Today, more than 32 million Americans are going solo. They represent 28 percent of all households at the national level; more than 40 percent in cities including San Francisco, Seattle, Atlanta, Denver, and Minneapolis; and nearly 50 percent in Washington D.C. and Manhattan, the twin capitals of the solo nation.

Check out the playlist and stay tuned (so to speak) for an upcoming office hours podcast with our own Arturo Baiocchi.

*photo by Tor Kristensen