David Denby’s polemic against smart-alecky new media types attracted a lot of, well, snarky reviews when it arrived in bookstores a few years ago. Of course, the First Amendment has protected all manner of speech about public figures since at least the Times v. Sullivan decision in 1964. Denby points to exceptions, but most of the serious journalists that I know seem almost constitutionally incapable of abusing such freedoms. In my view, the uglier snark story concerns not professional journalists, but the cultural transmission of snark in which all of us post breathlessly and nastily on social media.

It certainly seems easy to take shots at celebrities, politicians, and even our own friends and family with mean little missives on twitter or facebook. Watching indie darling Bon Iver on Saturday Night Live last weekend, for example, I wanted to post something clever about his descent through Coldplay territory and into Hornsby range (Christopher Cross won Grammys too, you know). After seeing Midnight in Paris, I felt a similar urge to tweet a line about Woody Allen’s real genius being reflected in somehow rehashing Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure with actors lacking Keanu Reeves’ emotional range. The trouble with such snark is that it isn’t based on any real thought or analysis — it is snark for snark’s sake. I hadn’t critically engaged Woody Allen or Bon Iver (much less Keanu or Coldplay) or even thought more than two seconds about it. I can’t fathom the motives here — are we in it for the “likes” and retweets? Do we feel better about ourselves when we rip the famous or successful?

Iggy Pop once said that “nihilism is best done by professionals” and so, I suspect, are such off-handedly cruel attacks. As an aspiring rock writer in the 1980s, I appreciated both the romantic humanism of Lester Bangs and the hyperliterate sneak atttacks of Robert Christgau. Mr. Christgau’s wicked/smart capsule reviews, were peppered with mean and clever phrases like “idolization is for rock stars, even rock stars manqué like these impotent bohos” (on Sonic Youth) or “the words achieve precisely the same pitch of aesthetic necessity as the music, which is none at all” (on Radiohead) or “As bubble-headed as the teen-telos lyrics at best. As dumb as Uriah Heep at worst” (on U2). The quintessential Christgau review? The fictitious two-word appraisal of Spinal Tap’s Shark Sandwich — the very definition of snark.

But Christgau also did real analysis, as in this rumination on the Eagles: “Another thing that interests me about the Eagles is that I hate them. “Hate” is the kind of up-tight word that automatically excludes one from polite posthippie circles, a good reason to use it, but it is also meant to convey an anguish that is very intense, yet difficult to pinpoint. Do I hate music that has been giving me pleasure all weekend, made by four human beings I’ve never met? Yeah, I think so. Listening to the Eagles has left me feeling alienated from things I used to love. As the culmination of rock’s country strain, the group is also the culmination of the counterculture reaction that strain epitomizes.”

Most of the tweets I see on, say, the death of Whitney Houston or a politician’s fall from grace aren’t nearly so reflective, even when smart people are tossing them off. As a criminologist, I’m often trying to cultivate a little reflection and empathy in my students, so that they see criminal behavior as human behavior — and the person convicted of crimes as more than the personification of a single, awful act. David Carr describes this duality with staggering clarity in telling his own story: “If I said I was a fat thug who beat up women and sold bad coke, would you like my story? What if instead I wrote that I was a recovered addict who obtained sole custody of my twin girls, got us off welfare and raised them by myself, even though I had a little touch of cancer? Now we’re talking. Both are equally true…”

Carr isn’t being snarky, he’s just an unflinching professional reporter trying to tell a complex story. One-sided snark, in contrast, simply “piles on” people at their weakest moments. I’ll confess that after seven years of blogging, I’ve probably written my share of thoughtlessly cruel comments. Even when the object of your derision could not possibly be hurt by it, haven’t you felt a little pang of regret after posting or repeating something petty, malicious, or unfounded? It feels, to me, as though I’d just binged on really unhealthy food or drink. Back when I was known to enjoy a beer or two during a flight delay, I recall getting some cheap laughs with an over-the-top Greta Van Susteren impersonation (don’t ask) at the Detroit airport. Though nobody registered any dissatisfaction (and Ms. Van Susteren seems to be doing just fine, thankyouverymuch), I still feel rotten about it three years later.

So for now I’ll stand with Denby — in our bermuda shorts, watering our respective lawns — and his old-fashioned assertion that mindless hair-trigger snark might somehow deplete us. If every cruel line in the snarkstorm represents an ugly little human transaction, is it so far-fetched to suggest that their collective weight might be dragging us down?

Slowly but steadily, we’ve been introducing a number of changes around The Society Pages, particularly in the last couple of weeks. Today, as you head into the weekend, I’d like to bring your attention to the first installments of several new features that we’ll be building on, and, of course, warn you that our web editor, Jon Smajda, will be carefully carving out a new place for each of these items on our front page. Which is to say: spoiler alert! TSP 2.0 (or, more likely, 5.1.4) is on its way.

Roundtables: This afternoon, our associate editor, Letta Page, put up the inaugural Roundtable, in which our intellectually curious and always gregarious graduate team members reach out to social scientists on the topics of the day. Our first features some movers and shakers talking about research on social movements, from how you do it (and do it well) to how you carve out your own role within the movement as an embedded social scientist. As Letta puts it, “This is the first of many Roundtable installments to come—a wide-ranging attempt to look at a topic through many different lenses. Soon, we’ll be taking on politics and humor and how sociologists and political scientists each have a different idea of just what polling is and does. Enjoy!”

Special Features: I’m excited to report that, as of this afternoon, we have two Special Features up for you to devour. The first is Letta’s talk with Jessie Daniels about using documentaries in the classroom effectively—and about which ones you might want to adopt. We’ve gotten some great feedback, including a number of comments from educators and students sharing their own favorite films for class, and we hope to create a permanent repository for the latest and greatest in clips, shorts, and features for your use. In our second Special Feature, grad student Sarah Shannon talks with public sociologist Joe Soss about his new book, Disciplining the Poor, and discusses how race, welfare, and poverty policy intersect. Soss gives some clear results from his research and some straightforward ways that policies might be better created and implemented.

Our Special Features will expand to include all sorts of wonderful things—from the photographic/sociological conversation we see shaping up between our own Doug Hartmann and Minneapolis photographer Wing Young Huie to edited interviews from our Office Hours podcasts and beyond.

Reading List: Just a couple of weeks old, you’ll be seeing the Reading List grow over time. Every few days or so, we’ll be putting up a new or classic work in social science that we find particularly relevant for the public discourse, and if you click on the title “Reading List” from any single article, you’ll find the whole running list. We’ve also tagged each recommendation so that, in time, we’ll make it easy for you to pull your own topical reading list on demand.

White Papers: If we keep pushing hard, we should be launching our first new TSP White Papers late next week. More in the vein of a Contexts, New Yorker, or Economist article than anything out of an academic journal, these papers are to be written by well-informed social scientists stripped of their jargon and lit reviews. In 3,000 or so words, the White Papers will give you a smart, grounded social scientific take on a given issue, and a list of suggested readings, should you hope to follow up and dig deeper yourself.

I do want to stress that, while you will notice design changes, the core mission of The Society Pages remains the same: to bring social scientific knowledge to the broadest public audience in the most accessible, open way possible. Heck, you can even follow us on Twitter (@TheSocietyPages) for thoughts from the HQ throughout the day. You won’t have to pay to read what we write, you won’t have to worry that we’re muzzling our amazing bloggers (we couldn’t possibly have the time with the prolific likes of Sociological Images, Graphic Sociology, Cyborgology…), you won’t have to look up word after word in a desperate attempt to understand what we’re saying. We’re talking about society with society.

Jesse Wozniak jets off to a job interview this week, where he’ll talk about his research on state reconstruction and the new Iraqi police force. Jesse is an advisee, Contexts student board member, and frequent contributor to the Office Hours podcasts. All dissertations demand sacrifice, but this one posed particular challenges.

In fact, Jesse’s project calls to mind what Pierre Bourdieu called “the craft par exellence of the researcher:  investing a theoretical problem of far-reaching implications in an empirical object that is well constructed and controllable with the means at hand, that is, possibly, by an isolated researcher, with no funding, limited to his[her] own labor power.” Doug Hartmann loves this passage, as it simultaneously conveys both the enormity of our task and our power and capacity to get it done.

The “theoretical problem” of civilian policing and state reconstruction certainly has far-reaching implications. I couldn’t be 100% sure, though, that the “empirical object” of contemporary Iraq training academies was quite so “controllable with the means at hand.” And, despite a fine academic record, Jesse had a tough time securing funding for his ambitious dissertation plan — observations at training academies, interviews with officials, surveys and interviews with recruits in training, extensive archival research, and some very costly plane tickets and living expenses.

While he put in several grant and fellowship proposals, most reviewers and funders simply viewed the project as impossible. How could a single graduate student possibly secure human subjects approval, gain clearance from the Department of State, learn a new language, live and travel extensively in a war zone, and gain repeated access to the officials and recruits he planned to interview and survey?

Well, now he has done the impossible and returned with data in hand. When he didn’t get funding, this “isolated researcher” was undaunted – he simply took on extra teaching and all manner of additional work so that he could self-fund the project. The proof, of course, will be in the pudding that Jesse is still preparing. Having seen the materials he brought back from Iraq, however, I’m confident that the hard work and fearlessness will pay off in a terrific dissertation and book.

In some ways, we’re fortunate to work in a field where isolated researchers can still learn so much by the sweat of their brows. And while a couple years of cushy dissertation funding would have made Jesse’s life a whole lot easier, I’m guessing that something real and true has been gained in the struggle.

* The quote is from page 156 of Pierre Bourdieu’s 1988 “Program for a Sociology of Sport” in the Sociology of Sport Journal 5:153-161.
** The photo is from Ben Brears’ photostream, licensed as Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 2.0 Generic (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0) under creative commons.

Image via CyborgologyOne of the core values of The Society Pages is that knowledge should be transparent, accessible, and uncensored. Proposed legislation, known as SOPA in the Senate and PIPA in the House, undermines these core values and threatens the very foundation of the Internet. Many prominent websites, such as Wikipedia, have chosen tomorrow as a day of action regarding these legislative moves.

We have decided to join in with these groups and we will present site visitors to The Society Pages with a “splash screen” or “blackout screen” for the entirety of 1/18/12. The screen will inform visitors of the implications of SOPA/PIPA and link to further reading on the subject.

Please note, our readers will still be able to click through to all of our content; they will simply be met by the black informational screen first.

We’ll be  getting the word out on Twitter and Facebook, but we’d appreciate it if you’d do the same. This will both raise awareness of the issue and prevent (we hope) any panic on the
part of our loyal readers when they see a drastically different screen when they first visit a TSP page tomorrow.

Thanks—in advance—for your support. You all mean the world to us, and we think this is the right course of action for our site as a whole.

All the best from our whole team,

The Society Pages

Criminologists Al Blumstein and Kiminori Nakamura offer a powerful New York Times op-ed this week, arguing that “stale criminal records” should expire when they can no longer distinguish criminals from non-criminals.

But this isn’t just a couple of bleeding heart academics advocating on behalf of a stigmatized group—there’s a solid research foundation supporting the argument. Several smart and creative studies have now followed people arrested or convicted of crimes to watch how long it takes before a criminal’s risk of a new offense drops to the point that it is indistinguishable from those with no record of past crimes.

Several teams of social scientists have designed really elegant studies to answer this important question. Most use some variant of event history or survival analysis—a semi-fancy but straightforward set of statistical tools. Based on their own research, Blumstein and Nakamura now conservatively estimate the “redemption time” at 10 to 13 years. Megan Kurlychek, Bobby Brame, and Shawn Bushway came up with about a 6-year window using somewhat different data and methodology in 2006.

While the specific “time-to-no-crime” varies across studies, the best evidence is now calling into question standard “lifetime” bans on employment, voting, and other rights and privileges. This doesn’t mean that the laws will be changed or even that they should be changed. But it does show how good social science can challenge old assumptions and inject much-needed evidence into public debates. And, for those of us who like to put our semi-fancy statistics to good purpose, the op-ed and the research beneath it offer a fine example of public scholarship.

I’m always impressed with teachers who blend established knowledge with shifting social currents, bringing it together in ways that students can understand and appreciate. My pubcrim colleague Michelle Inderbitzin seems to do this every year in her classes at both Oregon State University and Oregon State Penitentiary.

This fall, her Inside-Out Prison Exchange students combined a social fact (that 1 of every 100 American adults is incarcerated) with a new social movement (the We are the 99 Percent cry of the Occupy movement) , photographing prisoners and the people around them holding signs that shared their stories. The result is We are the 1 in 100, a class project and tumblr site that shows an important side of the American incarceration story.

 As a professor who works and teaches in this area, I rarely come across materials that render the lived everyday reality of prisons in such a clear, human, and intimate way. You can read Michelle’s account on pubcrim or visit and add to the archive with your own photos and stories. It takes courage and trust — and an impressive amount of  work, in a 10-week class — to bring these private moments and messages to light.

Even in the most diverse cities, marathoners see mostly white legs and faces at the starting line. At Citings and Sightings, Suzy and Hollie point to a new Runner’s World piece, which asks “Why is Running so White?”

This issue also arose at a Robert Wood Johnson Foundation meeting this year, when James Jackson noted that African American neighborhoods often provide few safe places to run, but ample outlets for fast food and alcohol. While both running and junk food can relieve stress in the short-term, their long-run health effects will differ dramatically. There are other reasons for race differences in running, of course, and the Jay Jennings article touches on everything from hair to role models.

In running, as in other sports, strong stereotypes persist about race and athletic ability. I once shared a starting line laugh with a fellow middle-aged, middle-of-the-pack runner … who happened to be from Kenya. He said he was a slooooow runner but people seemed to make the assumption that all Kenyans must be faster than all Americans. Some were so convinced of his abilities they’d invite him to join the elite runners at the start of the race — which, when you think about it, is actually a pretty horrifying prospect for middle-of-the-pack runners like us.

Speaking of running, I was resplendent in Minnesota colors at this year’s Twin Cities marathon. This brought a few inquiries about exactly where one buys maroon shoes with gold swooshes and aglets. I fibbed that I had them specially commissioned, but these are really just “Nike Livestrong Air Pegasus +28,” which can still be had for about $69 online. Fair warning, though: the kicks make for controversial office attire. Ann Meier, our Director of Graduate Studies, told me that they were not acceptable — and most definitely not acceptable when one is bedecked in a maroon sweater and gold shirt.

(All photos are the model’s own!)

Because our department always seems to be celebrating something, Dean Jim Parente often asks, “What manner of Bacchanalia goes on in Sociology this week?” Well, it wasn’t exactly bacchanalia (that’s Izze’s sparkling clementine juice, I’ll have you know), but the denizens of the society pages enjoyed a fine party Wednesday at Wing Young Huie’s supercool gallery, The Third Place.  It was the perfect space and moment to thank our friends, commemorate our final Minnesota issue of Contexts magazine, and to begin turning the (society) page.

We were honored to feature a sampling of Wing’s photographs in our final issue, which nicely punctuates a line tracing the sociological imagination of great artists, social entrepreneurs, and cultural observers — Sebastião Salgado’s photography; the art of Anne Taintor and Harvey Pekar; and, the wit and wisdom of rock critic Chuck Klosterman, humorist Dylan Brody, and magazine entrepreneur Eric Utne. Editing Contexts was always intellectually stimulating, but it was positively thrilling to engage such work with the sociological enterprise.

As for the party, we had a great turnout, tons of fun, and a fitting tribute to a project that brought together so many good people in so many capacities the past few years.* Doug, Letta, and I feel humbled and grateful to have worked with so many brilliant contributors and colleagues at Contexts, the American Sociological Association, and around the world. We only wish we had the budget to fly you to beautiful Minnesota for an enjoyably brisk winter’s night. As you can probably guess, though, it won’t be too long at all before we’ll have another big announcement, celebration, and (yes) some measure of bacchanalia to share with the new TSP crew. Just drop us a line if you’d like an invite.

*If you squint real hard you can see folks like Linda Henneman of ThinkDesign (who did amazing work putting our pages together); national board members and contributors like Monte Bute and Andrew Lindner; undergrad students like Sweet Al Casey; grad board alums such as Wes Longhofer, Hollie Nyseth, Suzy McElrath, Jesse Wozniak, Sarah Shannon, Kyle Green, and Kia Heise; good university friends like Elizabeth Boyle, Rachel Schurman, Michael Goldman, Teresa Swartz, Ann Miller, Alex Rothman, Ann Meier, and Mary Drew; and, plenty of family and friends, including Harper Inea, 2051-2054 Contexts editor.

Academics feel narcissistic or anti-intellectual when we check citations to our work, but it isn’t just an ego thing. Citations tell us who is using our research and who we should be reading — a big help in making intellectual connections. If we really want people to read the work we spend so much time writing, then we need to figure out why some articles rise and others (ahem) drop from cite. Analysis can also reveal correctable mistakes. We may have written the right paper for the wrong audience or used a title or abstract that all but guaranteed our work would never be read or referenced.

I ran the numbers, but never looked much at citation indexes until seeing Google Scholar, which tends to be more inclusive and useful than other indexes. Editing TheSocietyPages.org, though, I’m starting to think we need new ways of measuring both scholarly and public impact. For example, I’m convinced that Lisa Wade and Gwen Sharp are having an enormous impact at Sociological Images, but it isn’t (yet) counted in ways that make sense to the Social Science Citation Index or Google Scholar. I’m not just talking about hit counts—increasingly, students and other scholars are adopting the site’s sensibility and and its application to the visual social world.

For now, though, Google Scholar represents a huge advance over the sort of citation trackers we had just a few years ago. Seeing Philip Cohen’s google scholar profile this morning, I made my own. A few observations:

1. Scale. Before constructing such a profile, you should know that some people and papers get cited a lot, but it takes most of us a few years to develop an audience. Nobody cited my stuff at all as an assistant professor, but folks began excavating the nuggets once a few pieces got a little attention. In Google, as elsewhere, try not to compare yourself against the standard set by the top senior scholars in your field (a.k.a. “Sampson Envy”).

2. Inclusiveness. Google scholar is indeed more inclusive than other sources. For me, at least, it includes three times the citations and twice the number of writings than SSCI (2,578 citations in Google to 84 “things” (articles, chapters, grant reports, committee documents) and 767 citations in SSCI to 35 journal articles). Some may find it overinclusive, but Google seems far more effective in bringing to light intriguing intellectual connections. For instance, I learned that a Swedish economist found use for one of my papers in a presentation on the “entrepreneurial life course of men and women”—which jazzed up my own thinking about a project on entrepreneurship and prisoner reentry.

3. Bias? For me, at least, the Social Sciences Citation Index seems to give a pretty misleading picture of scholarly impact. Since SSCI doesn’t count books or book chapters, it misses a couple more-cited pieces—a book with Jeff Manza and a popular chapter in an edited volume. [Junior scholars are often told to avoid writing book chapters, but some of them seem to find a pretty good audience.] Also, when I rank the articles by citation count, Google seems to have better face validity — it does a better job picking up the contributions that people ask me about than SSCI. As chair in a department that values both books and articles, the omission of books in any index is really problematic. I haven’t done a careful analysis, but my sense is that Google Scholar is also better than SSCI at tracking my criminological and interdisciplinary work.

4. Flagships. But still …. articles in the so-called sociology flagships get cited way more often than articles in other journals or book chapters. By either index, my 3 most-cited pieces (and 6 of the top 16) appeared in American Sociological Review or American Journal of Sociology.

5. Future. I expect that people will always want to assess the scholarly and public impact of academic work, and that these tools will evolve rapidly. Google Scholar offers a great set of tools already, but I suspect we’ll soon be able to run much more sophisticated searches that allow us to track impact across a broader spectrum of outlets. People are sure to debate “what counts” as a citation, but the really big honkin’ question concerns “what counts” as scholarly publication. My sense is that journal impact will remain important, but we’ll soon have the tools to identify and assess a more robust and varied set of impacts. And that’s a good thing for pages like these.

I spent some time in court today, taking the stand to share some research on voting and disenfranchisement. I’ve done this sort of thing a few times before, but courtrooms, sworn oaths, and cross-examinations are still a little scary to me — more like heebie-jeebies scary than howling fantods scary — but scary nonetheless. Whenever I get anxious, though, I try to “do as I say” in my capacity as advisor, editor, or chair.

When my students are anxious about presentating their work, I tell them what my little league coach told me on his (frequent) trips to see me on the pitcher’s mound: trust your stuff. I remind them about all the preparation, hard work, painstaking research, analysis, and careful writing they’ve done on the subject. If they”re well-prepared, know what they’re doing, and have good stuff to present, there’s really little reason for anxiety. And, at that point, they can direct their energies into communicating effectively, rather than worrying about freaking out, melting down, or curling up in a fetal position before a room of stunned observers.

Social scientists are trained to be appropriately cautious in presenting our work to peers and to the public, but such caution shouldn’t morph itself into learned helplessness or defeatism. As editors, we’re often encouraging writers to trust their stuff — “We actually know a lot about that right? You don’t need to put “may,” “perhaps,” “preliminary,” and “exploratory,” in the concluding sentence. You’ve actually written some good stuff that’s quite convincing on those very points, right?” 

So, while it makes good sense to worry about “overselling” a particular study or finding, there’s also a danger in “underselling” the real knowledge we’ve gained on a topic of importance. When I see social scientists overselling or overreaching, it is usually because they’ve gotten away from their stuff and started popping off about things they haven’t researched or thought much about.

I was thinking of this after raising my right hand and striding across the courtroom to take the stand — just stay on your research and trust your stuff. And it seemed to work out okay today — I said “I don’t know” when I lacked the information to answer a question responsibly, but I also made clear that we have learned some information relevant to the case at hand.

Learning how to trust your stuff comes in as handy in the courtroom as it does in the lecture hall or on the pitcher’s mound. Of course, it won’t eliminate all sources of anxiety. While 95 percent of my attention may have been devoted to responsibly communicating the research, about 5 percent was still pretty anxious. So, however much I may trust my research, I’m still mortified that my fly may be down when I feel a cool breeze on my way to the witness stand.