ACS logoUnder the title “Know Thyself, America,” Washington Post columnist George Will wrote a piece a little over a week ago that advocated for the continued support of the American Community Survey (ACS), an ongoing, long-form supplement to the decennial U.S. Census.

This shouldn’t seem like a particularly significant or controversial issue, but for those who fear the intrusion of government into any and all aspects of social life, it apparently is.

Much of Will’s defense of the ACS is, predictably, intended to appeal to conservatives. For example, he argues that the study serves the economic growth of the nation by providing important market information to businesses and corporations. He also insists the survey helps rein in the foolish behaviors to which politicians in democracies are prone. “In the absence of data,” Will says, “politicians pluck factoids from the ether.” The way that the column both bucks and buttresses a certain conservative rhetoric is vintage Will: “The collection and dissemination of useful information by government serve the deregulation of life by empowering the public to direct the government, to judge its performance, and to decrease dependence on government by invigorating the private sector.”

The more important and telling aspect of the piece (for me at least) is that Will begins it by locating the justification for the ongoing study in the enlightened faith of the founding fathers in reason, information, and responsible thought. Will’s most basic insight about the importance of data and information—in any society, but especially a democracy—resonates with some of the conversations my TSP partner Chris Uggen and I have been having about sociology and the future of The Society Pages. Sociology, we believe, is well-known for its cultural commentary and critical insight, and we’ve got tons of great perspective and critique on our blogs. But what sociology also produces is basic knowledge and information about society and the world around us.

In an increasingly complicated, fragmented, and changing world, data and facts are crucial. To us, this seems simple and obvious. Yet the most basic facts about society are also hard to publish in the journals (academics already knew that, didn’t we?) and even harder to circulate and disseminate to policy makers, journalists, and a broader public audience (all of whose attention can be swayed by the latest news cycle).

What information does society need? What data do we have? How do we get the word out? These are among of the basic challenges for the social sciences, sociology, and The Society Pages project. One of our collective goals for the year to come is to do a better job of delivering such basic social knowledge and information on our site.

The latest mock-up of the cover for our third TSP volume.
The latest mock-up of the cover for our third TSP volume.

If you are a parent with kids in summer sports, like myself, you may recognize the feeling: the last regular season games are wrapping up, the playoffs are about to begin, and, oh-so-tantalizingly, then comes the freedom of a completed season and, hopefully, some well-earned rest and relaxation. That home stretch feeling is kind of the phase we are in here at The Society Pages with our new race volume, the latest installment in the series we are partnering on with W.W. Norton & Co.

The volume will be called Color Lines and Racial Angles, and it will feature about a baker’s dozen of the best pieces on race and diversity that have been developed on our site thus far. You may recall, for example, Jennifer Lee’s piece on “stereotype promise” or Wendy Roth’s article exploring the creation of a “Latino” race. There have been roundtables with distinguished scholars discussing the media and Trayvon Martin in the weeks immediately following his death and the history and future of American immigration, and a few weeks ago we ran a provocative little treatment of the social origins of the term “white trash” by Matt Wray. And waiting patiently in the pipeline are pieces on Native American mascots, diversity discourse, and environmental racism, as well as an interview exchange with Michelle Alexander, author of the prominent and controversial crime and punishment tome The New Jim Crow.

Along with TSP tie-ins that bring readers back to our Community Pages to further explore the topics in the volume, as well as discussion questions and group activities for reading groups and classrooms, these pieces will form the core of the new book—and they’ll remain freely available on our website. But you’ll have to be patient, of course! Over the next week or so, we’ll be doing final revisions and editing, tweaking the introduction, pulling all of the files together for delivery to our editors and designers at Norton. We hope to have the finished product ready in time for 2014 teaching (the first two volumes, The Social Side of Politics and Crime and the Punished, are expected to publish before the end of 2013). In the meantime, you can revisit our already-published pieces and look forward to some spectacular ones on the way. Here’s to summer reading!

Cover image via 911truth.org.
Cover image via 911truth.org.

Social facts have been the focus of several conversations around TSP “world headquarters” recently as we’ve begun to formulate our plan for next year. It is our continuing mission to best represent and explain the value and contribution of sociology to public discourse and the understanding of society. One of sociology’s most important contributions is basic: we report empirical information about how people live and how the world they live in is organized. Often these facts are kind of demographic or quantitative—poverty and income rates, for example, or the number of people having kids, that sort of thing. But sometimes the facts we collect and contribute are of a more cultural or subjective nature, about how folks think about various things, how they understand the worlds that they live in, what they value or aspire to.

All of this took on new salience over the weekend when I read this little post from our old friend Jeff Weintraub. Weintraub, a specialist in social and political theory, recommends a recent column on conspiracy theories from Andrew Sullivan–who insists that there is important insight to be gained from taking even the most ludicrous conspiracy talk seriously–as well as several recent contributions to the scholarly literature on conspiracy theories, urban legends, and the like. Coming from the state that elected Jesse Ventura governor once upon a time, this seems like a literature worth delving into. But what really caught my attention was simply how Weintraub framed his post:

Mass delusions, including paranoid conspiracy theories and other widely shared myths, may be factually and logically absurd, but it’s important to remember that they’re also social facts worth noticing and trying to understand—and if enough people believe them, they can sometimes be quite important and consequential social facts.

Absolutely. We may disagree as to the truth value of these theories and claims, but we can’t dismiss those who hold them. And beliefs, even crazy ones—perhaps especially crazy ones—reveal important things about how people think. They can also have powerful consequences if and when believers act upon them. And so all beliefs are “facts” about the social worlds we live in. We must take those beliefs and those believers seriously if we are to understand social worlds and the people that compose them. Conspiracy theories as social facts–just another one of those great, social oxymorons that make it so much fun to be a sociologist.

Medgar Evers and John F. Kennedy, Jr. in 1963.
Medgar Evers and John F. Kennedy, Jr. in 1963.

In this morning’s Philadelphia Inquirer, sociologist Chip Gallagher reminds us that two formative events in the history of American race relations unfolded just hours apart, fifty years ago today: JFK’s ground-breaking speech demanding that the federal government address institutional racism against African Americans and the murder of NAACP field secretary Medgar Evers. Gallagher uses the anniversary to reflect on the “undeniable… progress that has been made” and how much more remains to be done to “level the playing field.” Gallagher writes, “Social scientists are fond of pointing out that when individuals, typically white individuals, discuss racism, they use the past tense,” but wonders, “How much has changed in 50 years? Is our democracy self-correcting, with our moral arc consistently bending toward justice…?” He concludes with a open challenge: “What we should be asking ourselves is, Where are the speeches like Kennedy’s that appeal to the citizenry’s better angels to right a social wrong? Where are the pleas to Americans on moral and ethical grounds by those who can use the bully pulpit to raise public awareness of the social inequalities that continue to plague our nation?”

Finishing Strong

Here in Minnesota it appears (knock on wood) that the terrible long winter is behind us–which means that finals are upon us, commencement is coming, and grades will soon be due. And even as academic terms wrap up all over the country, the Pages remain vibrant. Highlights from the past week include:

–a public criminology post on the new Minnesota law that makes it illegal for employers to ask about an applicant’s criminal history until an interview is granted or a job is offered;

–the introduction of a brand new TSP blog, Walt Jacobs’s “Dispatches from a New Dean

–and the two latest “data based” columns from cyborgology–one on health, the other on love;

Digging back in the archive a bit, you might also take a look at Jennifer Lee’s provocative piece on Asian American exceptionalism and what she calls “stereotype promise“–which we are re-releasing now with video!

Field research photo by Nicolas Nova via flickr.
Field research photo by Nicolas Nova via flickr.Just

Just one more, late addition to last week’s round-up: the TSP Media Award for an article in The Atlantic earlier in the spring. The piece described the growing trend in market research of hiring anthropologists to do fieldwork on how people actually use and talk about the products they consume.

In addition to the phenomenon itself, there was a lot of great food for ethnographic thought in the piece. Some highlights include:

  • the discussion of how the co-founder of one of these companies was enamored with German philosopher Martin Heidegger and his insistence on the difference between the objective attributes of things and the deeper subjective meanings attributed to them by end users
  • how much market research lacks the “human factor” for grasping how people actually use and understand the goods and products they buy and consume
  • the messy, complicated research processes of going beyond and behind the numbers and statistics to understand the special importance that people assign to various objects and things in their houses, for products ranging from from vodka and kitchen appliances to televisions and to computers and Coca-Cola
  • the “discovery” that finding out that what consumers say they want is often different from “what their actions reveal about the social effect[s] they crave” in buying and using a product
  • the tensions between academic and corporate anthropology (and the parallels in this debate to discussions in sociology about the value of applied and public forms of our scholarly practice)

The Atlantic article was smartly written and came with some uncommonly insightful lines (for example, on Heidegger): “ReD offers businesses Heideggerian analysis, which sounds even more improbable to a scholar than to a layperson.”

Two things prompted me to want to offer one final shout-out to the piece. One is that after a decade’s long hiatus I’m teaching the graduate ethnography seminar in here at Minnesota again and we had a great roundtable discussion of fieldwork with students, faculty, and our distinguished keynote speaker Javier Auyero at our department’s annual research symposium last Friday afternoon. It all made me want to proclaim: “Fieldworkers, Unite!”

The other is that Chris and I have been talking a lot and posting some on certain disturbing developments (NSF funding, STEM initiatives, the Supreme Court) that call into question our national understanding of and commitment to the social sciences. Reflecting over the weekend, it seems so strange, ironic, or almost comical to see hard-nosed, bottom-line corporate America finding value and relevance in one of the softer, more interpretive of our methods even as our public leaders seem to be wondering about the authority and value of the social sciences on a much larger scale.

In the wake of our award from the Merlot group for outstanding multi-media educational resource, we have been thinking a lot about on-line teaching and learning here at TSP. Can everyone now say “MOOC”? Okay, that’s not been the only topic of conversation but it is a big—or should we say, massive—one. Anyway, if you are interested or intrigued about these huge courses now being pioneered on-line, the New York Times ran a fun little first person reporting piece on the phenomenon over the weekend. (And thanks to our colleague Rachel Schurman for highlighting this piece).

The Society Pages scored a nice little win in Las Vegas last week—not at the slots or the craps tables, but at the 6th Annual Meetings of the Sloan Consortium for Emerging Technologies for On-Line Learning. Our award was for Outstanding Peer-Reviewed, On-line Resource in Sociology. It came, unsolicited and much appreciated, from the Merlot (Multimedia Educational Resources for Learning and On-line Teaching) group, whose social science committee was chaired by Mike Miller, a sociologist at the University of Texas, San Antonio.

It’s a major award!

The conference was an eye-opener in many ways. An amazing array of new technologies and devices and platforms for higher education is already on the market or in production, and the amount of energy and capital devoted to new resources is astounding. (One plenary speaker claimed that venture capitalists invested over $1 billion in educational startup funds in 2012 alone.)

We were also honored to give a presentation on TSP. I gave a quick overview of the site and all its wonderful features and contributions, and talked about the unique publishing partnership with Norton that is our support system. And there was a good deal of talk and exchange—both enlightening and inspiring—about all of the ways in which the site is used for teaching and learning these days.

When Chris Uggen and I were editing Contexts magazine, we had a feature call “reflected appraisals” where we tracked media references to sociology and sociologists (it was a precursor of sorts to our current Citings & Sightings feature). We were inspired by the old sociological adage that you learn about yourself by paying attention to how others perceive you. Well, at the Sloan/Merlot Consortium, we learned a couple of things about TSP. One is that while we often stress our accessibility (both in terms of the language and the open-access nature of the site), it’s really the multiple formats of content and content delivery that folks find particularly unique and useful: podcasts, images and video clips, interactive graphics, essays, and the like. Another thing we saw on display was the tremendous synergy between public engagement and the teaching and learning of social science. We often focus on the former, but one of our largest and most dedicated followings is from sociology students and teachers at both the collegiate and high school level. In other words, it appears that the TSP content and formats that work for a general public readership also serve teachers and learners in a range of very important ways.

Finally, we couldn’t help but think about how much work remains to continue to build and sustain what we’re doing. Excited and inspired as we all are about online, open-access, multimedia resources for the social sciences, we were reminded that the best material available online (as distinct from all of the platforms and technologies being marketed by educational companies) remain, essentially and fundamentally, labors of love. We need to figure out how to sustain and support such operations and initiatives in the coming years. Hopefully, TSP can be a leader on that front. It is definitely what our fans and new friends at Merlot and the Sloan Consortium seem to be expecting.

Addendum to my post last week criticizing Scalia’s characterization of the state of sociological research on the question of the impact of gay and lesbian parents on child development:

Phil Cohen (and others, in both public comments and private communications) point out that Scalia didn’t just miss the ASA brief or make up his claim that there is “no clear answer” among sociologists on the matter.  Rather, it would appear that he got the line from reading another brief on parenting submitted by sociologist Mark Regenerus and his colleagues that explicitly and directly countered the organizational consensus account. (See Cohen’s account.)

So is Scalia off the hook? Not quite that easy. For one thing, Regenerus’s brief is based on a highly controversial paper published in the journal Social Science Research about a year ago. (To say that that study has been controversial is putting it mildly; just take a look at some of the reactions chronicled previously by Cohen). Setting aside the question of how this piece got published in the first place (a significant matter of speculation and consternation in the field), one wonders if Scalia read the paper, or subsequent commentary about it—much less really parsed through the research on both sides of the issue. And even if some of the findings hold more water than most sociologists will allow, there seems little ground to warrant the larger societal implications that Regenerus imputes.

I won’t get into the specifics further, except to paraphrase Cohen’s summary: So what we have here is one sociologist (or one sociologist and his collaborators) denying the scholarly consensus which Scalia takes to mean there is no consensus. “Just like with evolution and climate change,” as Cohen puts it. I guess there are folks scientists who still think the earth is flat or that gravity isn’t really real either.

Screen shot 2013-03-30 at 8.50.51 AMRemember how I said it was the worst spring break ever? Well, I’m usually not one to dwell on the dismal, but sometimes circumstances dictate the mood. I’m speaking, of course, of Justice Antonin Scalia’s comment in the Supreme Court hearings on the U.S. law defining marriage that “there’s considerable disagreement among sociologists as to what the consequences of raising a child in a single-sex family, whether that is harmful to the child or not.”
(Truth be told, my surly disposition may also have something to do with the fact that my disappointing spring break turned into a nasty stomach flu this week, thus causing me to miss all of the annual Midwest sociology meetings in Chicago—one of my favorite associations in one of my favorite cities. But that’s making the personal a bit more public than may be appropriate.)
Back to Scalia. There are several disturbing aspects about Scalia’s assertion. First and most basic, sociologists aren’t actually divided on this matter. Here’s the official American Sociological Association‘s statement:

The claim that same-sex parents produce less positive child outcomes than opposite-sex parents—either because such families lack both a male and female parent or because both parents are not the biological parents of their children—contradicts abundant social science research. Decades of methodologically sound social science research, especially multiple nationally representative studies and the expert evidence introduced in the district courts below, confirm that positive child wellbeing is the product of stability in the relationship between the two parents, stability in the relationship between the parents and child, and greater parental socioeconomic resources. Whether a child is raised by same-sex or opposite-sex parents has no bearing on a child’s wellbeing. The clear and consistent consensus in the social science profession is that across a wide range of indicators, children fare just as well when they are raised by same-sex parents when compared to children raised by opposite-sex parents.

Pretty clear, huh? No disagreement. No division or dispute. The research shows that children do just as well when raised by same-sex parents as they do when raised by two parents of the opposite sex.

How did Scalia miss that? Good question. Especially because it turns out that this paragraph summarizing the state of social scientific research and knowledge on the topic wasn’t published in an academic journal or buried in press release or anything like that. It’s from the amicus curiae brief that the ASA filed in the very case Scalia was commenting on. In other words, as Ezra Klein put on March 29:

[T]he official organization representing American sociologists went out of their way to provide the Supreme Court with their “consensus” opinion on the effect of same-sex parents on children. And yet, when struggling for a “concrete” harm that could come from gay marriage, Scalia went with “considerable disagreement among sociologists.”

So this is the second disturbing dimension of Scalia’s comment. Klein explains further what is so troubling:

So we’ve gone from a weak claim— “considerable disagreement” over harm is not the same thing as actual harm—to an explicitly wrong claim. Scalia offered no details or evidence of this considerable disagreement among sociologists, and it’s hard to believe he’s a better judge of the profession than the ASA, whose brief he notably declined to mention.

That’s all unfortunate enough. But what really has me thinking and brought me down into the depths is the larger, cynical message about social science that is being sent. For Scalia and his ilk, there is no real knowledge in the social sciences, no authority. Not even any real data or useful information. Just a lot of disagreement and differences of opinion. This disturbing message and implication compounds the frustrations and concerns about (lack of) public understanding of the significance, importance, and value of the social sciences I expressed last week in my little commentary on the Congressional attacks on NSF funding for political science.  More to say here, obviously, much more, though I’m not sure I’ve got stomach for it right now.

(If you skipped the link above, here it is again: The ASA’s amicus curiae brief.)