A few national polls showing Donald Trump beating Hillary Clinton in the general election have many on the Left in full panic mode. To be sure, Trump presidency is an alarming possibility, but, for a number of reasons, they ought to be concerned, but not panicked. At the same time, there are some reasons for concern. I discuss each.

Reasons not to worry
1. Trump isn’t really winning. It’s just a few polls out of many. Most poll aggregators including Huffington Post and FiveThirtyEight have Clinton up by 1 or 2% (RealClearPolitics is an exception, showing Trump with a slight lead). And while national polls on Election Day are fairly predictive of Electoral College results, these polls aren’t aggregated state-level polls that would allow us to build a full-fledged model. We just don’t have enough polls yet. Moreover, candidates almost always get a short-lived bump after wrapping up the nomination.

2. It’s too early to matter. The NYT Upshot has a great piece this morning showing that it’s too early for the polls to even be meaningfully predictive. Punchline: “Since 1980, the polling average 167 days before the general election has been off by about 8.8 percentage points.”

3. The party will unite. We’re probably looking at Clinton’s low point. Four weeks ago, the Republican Party looked to be in disorder compared to the relatively united Democrats who were having a love-in primary. Now, the GOP is slowly coalescing around Trump and the primary between Hillary and Bernie has turned pissy. But several things will likely happen once Hillary wraps up the nomination formally and accepts the nomination at the Democratic convention. First, Obama, who has high favorables with Dems and independents, will endorse and campaign for Clinton. Second, the Bernie supporters will come around. Not all of them, but most. Right now, depending on the poll, 55-60% of them say they will support Clinton. According to Nate Silver, if that number increased to 75%, Clinton would immediately be up by 4-5% in the national polls. That 75% figure is well below the comparable figure in the past. The Dean supporters came around, the Clinton supporters came around. It happens every time.

4. Most people aren’t paying attention. Do you know that 18% of independents have never heard of Bernie Sanders and another 12% have no opinion of him? If you’re reading this post, you are a weirdo. Normal voters aren’t paying attention to Trump’s outrageous comments. They don’t know about Bernie Bros or the Nevada convention. They’re not paying attention. So, sorry, journalists and their political junkie readers who need a new dose of drama every day, you just have to wait.

Reasons to worry
1. A third is still a lot. The betting markets have Clinton’s implied probability of winning at 66.67%. In other words, if this election played out three times, we’d expect Trump to win once. There’s a one in three chance that a major earthquake with hit the Pacific Northwest in the next 45 years. If I lived there, I’d be worried and buy insurance or move.

2. Republican dominance. I’m fairly confident that Clinton will win, but if she does, she will still probably face an obstinate and extremist Republican House, majority Republican governors, and Republican control of most state legislatures. GOP control ain’t going away.

3. A real fissure. Trump is the candidate who launched a thousand thinkpieces about the breaking up of the Republican Party. Some have suggested that the same is happening with the Bernie contingent and the Democratic Party. That’s wrong. Bernie – whatever he may say about socialism – is a conventional Democrat, just further left. Most Hillary supporters say they’d vote for Bernie. By contrast, Trump breaks the conventional spectrum on the Right. Is he a moderate? A radical? He’s disavowed by some party elites (e.g., the Bushes) in a way that Bernie just isn’t (despite his seeming death feud with Debbie Wasserman-Schultz).

So, who would break the spectrum on the Left? Ross Douthat told Ezra Klein that he thinks it would be someone like a BlackLivesMatter candidate. Identity politics have already demonstrated their capacity to divide traditional liberals and activists who use more radical rhetoric and approaches to addressing racial and gender inequality. The debate about P.C. culture on campus represents this divide in microcosm. What if there were a candidate who could tap into not only the youth vote (like Bernie has), but also draw people of color and women in mass numbers away from an establishment Democrat like Clinton? What if that candidate talked about race injustice in language that the Chuck Schumers of the party felt compelled to condemn? For those invested in the Democratic Party, a candidate who took a more radical approach to race and gender could produce a real fissure. Depending on one’s orientation, that might be a cause for concern or a reason to celebrate. However, I suspect such a candidate would have about the same odds with the general voting public as Trump.

To summarize, worry about the big picture and what it means for policy. Don’t sweat the polls for at least two months.

Guest Post by University of Minnesota graduate student and friend of the blog, Ryan Larson. See the more lovely pdf version here.

When reading my esteemed colleague (and former official, and current satellite-unofficial, advisor) Andrew Lindner’s post on the shift in buying power in English Premier League teams, my interest was sparked by one of his last propositions: “It may just turn out that 2015/16 was an outlier season and that the clubs with the deep pockets will buy their way to success again next season.” In order to adequately evaluate this claim, data from the coming seasons would be needed. However, we can assess whether the 2015-2016 break in the “buying wins” trend is due to a few influential points. In other words, do a small number of teams disproportionately account for the change in trend?

After replicating Andrew’s data manipulation and models, I looked at some influence regression diagnostics, namely Cook’s Distance. In a nutshell, Cook’s Distance measures the change in a regression coefficient when an observation is deleted. The following plot shows influence indicies for each point in the 2015-2016 model, and indicates that points 101 and 112 are statistically influential: Leicester City and Chelsea.


In accordance with the high Cook’s Distance values, I removed Leicester City and Chelsea from the 2015/2016 model. Although the downturn of money-flush Chelsea and the success of relatively pauperized Leicester City are influential, they in themselves do not account for the break in the trend. In terms of the trend Andrew is noting, the correlation between wage bill and points in the 2010/2011-2014/2015 seasons is .81, and the correlation (with estimated points) in the current 2015/2016 season is .43 – indeed a marked difference. But even after removing Leicester City and Chelsea, the correlation in the current season is .64. In other words, wage bill is still giving teams less point return as compared to previous seasons, even after the removal of Chelsea and Leicester City (see updated plot below). This strengthens the assertion that the diminishing power of deep pockets is an overall trend (at least for this season) as opposed to just the disproportionate influence of two wildly performing teams respective to their piggybanks.


Cross-posted at my web site.

Arsenal’s victory with a breathtaking extra time goal by Danny Welbeck this past weekend notwithstanding, Leicester City’s season has had the kind of storyline we normally only see in Hollywood movies. This isn’t a March Madness Cinderella team upsetting Duke in a one off win. Leicester is a team with a wage budget less than a quarter of the size of the league favorites. Leicester finished 14th in the English Premier League last season. Leicester’s leading scorer this year, Jamie Vardy, had 5 goals in 36 matches last season.

But this season, Leicester has had sustained success, leading the league through the first two-thirds of the season and downing major clubs like Man City. Vardy has become a hero, leading the league with 19 goals. As Sports Illustrated soccer writer, Grant Wahl, put it on Twitter,

But just how unusual is this season? Very. Compared to the socialist sports leagues of the United States with their strict salary caps, the EPL is the Wild West where top teams can pay players as much as their owners are willing to spend. It has led to massive inequality between clubs with four teams spending at least £100 million more in player salaries than most of the rest. Unsurprisingly, it is usually the case that clubs that pay for better talent do better.

Taking data on club wage bills and season point total from the past five years¹, I produced the figure below that charts the relationship between spending and success for the four campaigns from 2010/11-2014/15 in red (with some assistance from my Skidmore colleague, Michael Lopez, who has studied salary and wins in MLB). In a normal season, £25 million in additional wage spending is worth about 6 points (or two wins). Moreover, team simply do not join the rarefied club of 75+ points in a season without a wage bill north of £140 million.

EPL Points by Wage Bill

This season broke that (see the blue points). The aristocrats were deposed (well, at least Chelsea and Liverpool). Southampton and West Ham are in positions to win Champions’ League spots. As of writing, positions 5 and 14 on the table are separated by only 3 wins. This season, £25 million in additional wage spending is worth about half a win.

And, well, Leicester … as NBCSN commentator Peter Drury exclaimed during Leicester City’s victory over Manchester City, “They’re not just beating the richest club in the land! They’re rippin’ them on their own patch! Why shouldn’t they be champions?” As the figure show, Leicester of this season is an unbelievable outlier. Over the past five years, the next closest club with a wage bill under £50 million had 22 fewer points (7 wins)!

What explains the wilting effect of wages on points? It’s easy for the punditocracy to come up with individual accounts. Leicester’s success is due to its “team spirit and togetherness.” The seeds of Chelsea’s unprecedented misfortunes were visible in their low-scoring title year last season. But the truth is that even the data-equipped are grasping for answers.

It may just turn out that 2015/16 was an outlier season and that the clubs with the deep pockets will buy their way to success again next season. For now, let’s just enjoy the competitive balance and hope that Leicester can win a title for underdogs everywhere.


¹Because the current season is still underway, I estimated this season’s final point total based on current standings.

Cross-posted at my web site.

Last week, in response to presidential candidate Donald Trump’s proposal that the U.S. ban Muslim immigrants, MSNBC host Chris Hayes tweeted …

Thirty percent seemed high to me (or at least I hoped it was high) and I thought I’d try to come up with a better estimate of the percentage of Americans who might support an American National Front party if we had a parliamentary system. I also wanted to explore who these people would be. But first a few caveats …

In the Land of Imaginary Politics

In some ways, considering any question about parliamentary system in the U.S. is a bit like asking, “how would things be different if everything was completely different?” In part, that is because a parliamentary system would allocate representatives differently, shifting power away from low population states (e.g., Wyoming, North Dakota) that are overrepresented because of their mandatory one House seat and two Senate seats. A truly proportional system would be more urban, more coastal, more diverse, and almost certainly a bit more Lefty. The Democratic and Republican coalitions would also probably split into multiple parties. It’s quite possible that we could see a white working-class unionist party with some strong protectionist policies that might contend with the National Front for votes. Any case, there are a lot of “known unknowns” and probably a few “unknown unknowns.”

For the sake of this exercise, let’s assume a few things. First, I’ll assume that the U.S. National Front has the organizational and financial resources to operate a functional political party and field reasonably electable candidates. Second, let’s stipulate that the mainstream media regards the NF as a legitimate political party and treats them with the same commitment to the objectivity norm that we see with the Democrats and Republicans. Trump’s recent Muslim ban proposal caused a number of mainstream media outlets to break with that practice, calling it dangerous and racist. Finally, while the National Front is more or less a single issue party, they do have stances on other issues. For example, the National Front in France is pro-choice and pro-civil unions for same-sex couples (though opposed to same-sex marriage). Let’s chalk that up to the particulars of each country’s domestic politics and ignore the party’s secondary positions.

With all those provisos, let’s now explore how many Americans have attitudes that might align with a U.S. National Front party using data from the 2014 General Social Survey.

The American National Front

The National Front’s primary issue is opposition to immigration. The most basic question we can ask is, how do Americans feel about the current levels of immigration? The view that immigration should be reduced is, by no means, rare. A full 43.6% think immigration ought to be decreased – a minority, but a sizable one.

But there’s more to the National Front than just wanting to reduce immigration. The key to understanding them is that they see immigration as fundamentally destructive to the nation’s culture. Compared to the level of support for reducing immigration, far fewer Americans hold (or at least admit to) this view. Only 3% of Americans strongly agree that “immigrants undermine American culture” and only an additional 18.2% agree. Even among those who favor reducing immigration, only 29.4% see immigrants as undermining American culture at all.

Those who favor reducing immigration and see immigrants as undermining American culture – the key positions of the National Front – make up approximately 12.8% of the American public, according to 2014 GSS data. That makes it a fringe group.

Still, as Figure 1 shows, depending on the exact issue, up to half of Americans favor some of the views and policies of the National Front. A majority of Americans disagree that legal immigrants should have the same rights as Americans. About 35% agree that immigrants take jobs away.


Taken together, these results tend to suggest that a U.S. National Front could draw substantial support if they avoided the rhetoric of immigrants damaging culture and focused on policy.

Who are the core National Front supporters?

If we take only those who are on board for the full anti-immigrant slate (reduce immigration, shouldn’t have the same rights, take jobs away, hurt American culture), they make up only 8.2% of those that answered all of these questions in the GSS’s sample. That 8% would likely be the NF’s corest of core supporters.

But to expand that a bit, let’s assume that the NF’s cultural grievance is essential to the party’s nature and combine that with the issue dominating the news at the moment: closing the borders. That gives us the 12.8% previously mentioned, the largest group that matches up with the NF on both culture and policy.

Who are the core of an American NF? Surprisingly, they only partially fit with the popular image of Tea Party types. The group is 79.3% white, 57.8% female (yes, female!), has slightly higher incomes, and has a mean age about 3 years older than the rest of the sample (50.7 years). They are also much more likely to come from the South Atlantic region and only 17% of them have a college degree or higher. Perhaps, most surprising, they’re not all or even mostly Republicans as Figure 2 shows. In a multi-party system, a U.S. NF would probably draw votes away from the two current parties in relatively equal proportions.


In conclusion, Chris Hayes’ estimate of 30% is well above the 12.8% who are strongly aligned with the National Front’s views. The anti-immigrant sentiment that Trump is tapping into is not merely a subset of Republicans. Rather, it appears to be an ideological group that is concentrated among low education Southerners, but also one that spans the current parties. Though the cultural anti-immigrant argument does not resonate with most Americans, depending on how the party campaigned and who their opposition was, they might attract a larger pool of voters who agree with them on immigration policy.

Cross-posted at my web site.

For the past few years, I’ve been researching the field of citizen journalism (you can read a bit about our project here). For the current paper I’m working on with UMN sociology grad student and jazz saxophone beast Ryan Larson, we’re looking at changes in the organizational population of citizen journalism (CJ) sites over time. In other words, we’re asking: how many CJ sites are there? And how has that changed over time? Then, we discuss some important social and historical forces that may have contributed to it.

One of the factors that I wonder about is the public’s interest. There’s a substantial academic literature on CJ that just keeps growing, but how interested in CJ are normal people? This afternoon, I decided to give it a quick-and-dirty look. I used three sources of Google-powered data. First, I tracked the number of Google Scholar references to the exact phrase “citizen journalism” over time (that’s the yellow line). Second, I used Google’s Ngram, which searches for references in the vast collection of books archived in Google Books (available through 2007). The number presented in the double blue lines is percentage of books each year with a reference to “citizen journalism” presented in 10 millionths of a percentage. Finally, the dotted gray line is search volume data from Google Trends (available from 2006 on). It’s a normalized interest index that is relative not absolute and varies from 1-100. I averaged the monthly values to produce annual scores.

CJ Trends

A few important things jump out. One is that “citizen journalism” as a term essentially didn’t exist before 2002. That said, the practice of CJ, ordinary people gathering and reporting news, is actually older than having professional journalists who report the news. It took academics until about 2004 to start writing about CJ in large numbers, but, man, are we pumped about it now! In 2014, almost 2,000 sources in Google Scholar mentioned “citizen journalism.” Though the books data only go through 2007, they seem to be running slightly ahead of articles, but follow the same trajectory.

As for the public, the big finding since 2006 is a dramatic decline in search volume. What does this mean? Is the public less interested in CJ? Are they using different terms to describe the same practice? Or are they turning to Twitter and Facebook rather than Google to locate it? I think all of the above are possible. The chart does make me wonder if citizen journalism is a trend that is more meaningful to media and academic elites than to the general public.

So, did citizen journalism rise and fall without the academy noticing? Stayed tuned for our paper.

Like everybody else, I’ve been following the controversy involving NAACP leader Rachel Dolezal who identifies as black despite her lack of African-American ancestors. A few quick thoughts:

1. I don’t know her life. In both the cases of Michael Lacour (he of the Science fraud) and Rachel Dolezal, I’ve been thinking a lot about journalist and humorist, Jon Ronson’s, new book, So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed (here, as an excerpt in the New York Times Magazine). Web 2.0 is technologically designed for cascades, for the viral. What serves to spread knowledge and empower, also serves as a powerful tool for ridicule, humiliation, and hatred. We should hold fraudsters accountable and make them answer for their behavior. But shaming is no pathway to understanding and reconciliation.

There’s certainly a place for expressing outrage and anger. But, as Jon Ronson told GQ online this week, there’s a big difference between Rachel Dolezal and the McKinney cop. Neither Lacour nor Dolezal are perpetrators of violence or hate speech. In Dolezal’s case, she has quite clearly done remarkable work to advance the black community and the cause of social justice.

Any scholar of restorative justice would say, let’s fully acknowledge the wrongdoing, but respect the wrongdoer’s human dignity and look for reasonable pathways by which s/he can be part of the restoration and healing process. It’s not what Twitter is built for, but let’s give it a try.

2. Speaking of accountability … icon of men’s fashion, Matt Lauer, made a real hash of his interview with Dolezal this morning because he seems to have an incredibly poor understanding of race and ethnicity. He let Dolezal off the hook by allowing her to say, “I identify as black,” without pressing her and asking, “What is your ancestry? What are their ethnic origins?” She would have been forced to acknowledge that her ancestors did not identify as black and are ethnically of European descent. Instead Lauer repeatedly used the term “Caucasian” — a sure sign you don’t “get” race and ethnicity — and allowed her to dodge the deeper question.

Here’s what Lauer should’ve asked: Race is a social construction, but also becomes “real” in people’s minds and its consequences. Our construction of race links blackness to African ancestry and a set of phenotypes. Is race fluid enough that people can opt to identify as a race without any of the ethnic background typically linked with the group? Moreover, is it wrong to adopt that identity without having the experiences of growing up black and as someone with the privilege to give it up at any time? In other words, he should’ve asked her to defend her conceptualization of race and answer for the moral issues with adopting it.

3. Identity or status? Lauer didn’t make Dolezal say it, but what she’s doing is treating race as a fluid identity and ignoring the fact that it’s also an ascribed status. Several people have pointed out why it was easy for her to do that and what’s wrong with doing it (and especially why it’s especially wrong that she adopted “peak blackness”). All of those points are right, but I also think it’s been made possible by a shift in our sociological thinking about race.

As a structural kind of a guy, I tend to think about race (along with gender, class, sexuality, etc.) as a status. It’s a status that is associated with an enormous wealth gap, a higher risk of victimization by police, experiencing discrimination in hiring practices, and so on. Admittedly, treating race as a status alone grants people little agency when we know that people also make meaning from and perform race in various ways. As a corrective to a narrowly status-based understanding, many scholars and activists have framed race/gender/sexuality (and, to a lesser extent, class) as identities — which they absolutely also are. We hear this perspective in phrases like “I identify as a man” rather than “I’m a man” or “I identify as a white” rather than “I’m white.” This move is an empowering one because it acknowledges our human agency. The risk of emphasizing the identity component over the status component is that we create the impression of unlimited agency and may not consider either the way society ascribes status or the moral implications of adopting particular identities (e.g., a person of European ancestry identifying as black, a person with only heterosexual relationships and desires identifying as “queer”).

Of course, both status and identity are real. To deny neither agency nor structure, we need to balance the two in conceptualizing race.

Cross-posted on my web site.

Most Americans get their news from local TV news programs. While TV news does a fine job with “Local Boy and Lost Dog Reunited” stories, where they often fall short is on stories that require more than a cursory rundown of the day’s events. So, what most Americans saw when they tuned in to the local newscasts this week was a story about wild and irrational rioters in Baltimore looting and destroying their city.

Of course, today, the news ecosystem is a lot bigger than just TV and, in some ways, the Internet offered promising alternative coverage. Those following hashtags like #BlackLivesMatter on Twitter were reminded that these riots spring forth from a context of persistent police violence against black residents, including Freddie Gray who died after suffering a spinal cord injury while in police custody. On web-based news startup sites, including Vox.com, we were reminded that half of the residents of Freddie Gray’s neighborhood don’t have jobs. On his blog, journalist Ta-Nehisi Coates pointed out that calls for nonviolence and “calm” among protesters are not matched with similar condemnations of violence by police in daily encounters with black residents.

On my own Facebook feed, several friends shared research findings that note rates of incarceration of black men by orders of magnitude higher than any country in the world, failing schools in poor neighborhoods, and inadequate access to healthy food and even clean water in urban black communities. One friend shared a classic academic article called “The Diffusion of Collective Violence” by Daniel Meyers that explains how urban riots grow.

All of these web-based media provide precisely what’s missing from local TV news: the sort of sociological and economic context necessary to understand the events in Baltimore. But then again, many of my Facebook friends are college professors who do things like share data on social media. Elsewhere on the web, it was easy to find openly racist commentary on the Baltimore protesters, but also decent, open-minded, white people who don’t understand why recent issues with police amount to more than a few bad apples.

The Internet is a democratizing force that gives many more people the opportunity to express themselves – and that’s a double-edged sword.

Media scholars have long observed the danger of the Internet to act as an echo chamber where the likeminded speak to the likeminded. As a consequence, Internet news may provide desperately needed context, but it’s unlikely to reach those who need to hear it in order to stand for real justice.

The protests turned violent in Baltimore are borne of years of economic and social deprivation, institutional racism, and police brutality towards people of color. In the mainstream news media, it’s all too easy to miss that context. In the public sphere offered by the Internet, we risk preaching to the choir. If we are to achieve any measure of social change and reconciliation, we must deliberately engage with ideas and evidence that could lead us to change our minds.

It’s a truism that the Civil Rights Movement succeeded in the 1960s because TV cameras captured the violence against nonviolent protesters. The current movement against police brutality has gained steam, in part, because of smartphone videos uploaded to the web. As much as media has brought public attention to issues of racial injustice, neither the mainstream news model nor the web-based model are fully equipped to promote understanding and social change. As news consumers, we need to demand insight, not mere updates from traditional news outlets. As neighbors and citizens, we need to push ourselves to learn more, have hard conversations with those we disagree with, and develop greater empathy for each other.

This week, my manuscript, co-authored by Melissa Lindquist and Julie Arnold, “Million Dollar Maybe? The Effect of Female Presence in Movies on Box Office Returns” was published online by Sociological Inquiry. It will appear in print later this year. Cross-posted at my web site.

In 2012, I wrote an essay for The Society Pages about how Nate Silver of FiveThirtyEight (at the time, hosted by the New York Times and now by ESPN) was carving out a new “blogger sociology.” As I wrote then, Silver writes for a new technocratic audience and produces posts with “outputs from multivariate regression analyses, resplendent with unstandardized coefficients, standard errors, and R2s.” It might not have quite the rigor of academic papers, but it yields many of the same results. Even more importantly, “Unlike academics, Silver is unburdened by the constraining forces of peer review, turgid and esoteric disciplinary jargon, and the unwieldy format of academic manuscripts. He need not kowtow to past literature, offer exacting descriptions of his methods, or explain in tedious detail how his findings contribute to existing theory.”

That essay proved prescient because on April 1, 2014, Nate Silver scooped me (how cruel to do it on April Fool’s Day!).

Well, it wasn’t exactly Nate Silver. It was Walt Hickey, a writer for FiveThirtyEight. But Hickey’s article essentially yielded that same results as a paper I’d been trying to publish since 2011. In this post, I explain how social science’s dysfunctional system of peer-review and publication inhibits the dissemination of worthwhile findings using my article as a case study. (I also point out some of the value of our system).

For the record, I really like Walt Hickey’s writing and how he has consistently raised issues of sexism in film. I don’t think he stole my idea at all. I’m also proud of the paper I wrote with two undergraduate students. This post isn’t a case of sour grapes so much as a very common backstory that we rarely hear.


Case Study

In summer of 2010, I had read about the Bechdel Test, a test of gender representation in film conceived of by graphic artist Alison Bechdel. The test asks, “Do two or more named women talk to each other about something other than a man?” I had heard that most movies failed. As I rode my bike to work that day, I wondered whether the underrepresentation of women in film was due to audiences disliking movies featuring women or Hollywood under-funding Bechdel movies. I cooked up the idea to link a content analysis of whether movies pass the Bechdel Test with data on the movies’ box office performance, production budget, and critical appraisal. That fall and winter, two wonderful students, Melissa Lindquist and Julie Arnold, and I collected the data. In short, we found that Bechdel movies earn less at the box office, but it’s because they have smaller production budgets, not because audiences reject them. A simple study, but, I think, an interesting one.

In August 2011, we presented the paper at the American Sociological Association meeting in Las Vegas. Based on positive feedback from several people who know what they’re talking about, I shot high and sent it to one of our top two journals. Figure 1 summarizes what happened next. Some of the methodological suggestions from Top Two Journal proved helpful and I did some extensive new coding after a re-sample. However, the changes did not substantively alter the findings. Because of the critique that it was not of broad interest in sociology, I reframed it to connect with more macro-level theory about gender and submitted to Gender Journal. Gender Journal rejected it saying it didn’t tell us enough about gender in society as a whole and suggested that I aim for a more niche gender journal. To be fair, I might have done that and published it sooner, but I believed it would be of interest to a general sociology audience. I reframed it to be about larger social processes connected to gender and a gendered division of labor. I sent it to Top Five Journal and it was rejected.

Figure 1. A Brief History of An Article


At this point, I faced facts that it wasn’t cut out for a top tier journal and that the literature review needed an overhaul. I was probably a bit demoralized, too, and had other projects, not to mention a 3-3 teaching load. So, I worked on the revision here and there and didn’t send it back out until after the school year ended in June 2013. My bad. I sent it to Journal of Regional Association and they sent back a desk R&R asking that I revise it as a Research Note, cutting the length in half. Delighted by the opportunity, I did that work in a month. Despite having to cut it in half, the reject letter said it needed more theory.

At this stage, I felt at a loss for what kind of theory people wanted … or maybe what theory even means. I’m all for theory – sociology shouldn’t be an archipelago of unlinked empircs – and, like others, I worry about the loss of social theory as a subfield. At the same time, every article can’t do everything. Journals should evaluate theory and make sure that data and theory make sense together, but reviewers shouldn’t be selecting on whether their pet theory is used.

In Jan. 2014, I sent it to Sociological Inquiry (once again as a full article) where it would ultimately be published. While it was being reviewed, the Hickey piece came out. One reviewer for Sociological Inquiry recommended acceptance and in the Comments section wrote, “Nothing in particular.” Best. Reviewer. Ever. The two other reviewers were very helpful and suggested using Griswold’s “cultural diamond” and Acker’s “gendered organizations.” I believe that applying these literatures improved the manuscript greatly.

What It Says About Science

My point is not that I was treated badly. Rather, there is nothing abnormal about this story. Every academic has a story to tell like this one. My study wasn’t and isn’t the best one ever and I probably aimed a bit too high initially. But after the Top Two Journal Submission, the critiques were not methodological. All the critiques were about theoretical framing. How many competent empirical studies are being held up as the authors revise to find a framing that suits everybody’s fancy? How many of us get demoralized by the process and dump a worthwhile manuscript in a drawer? How many important findings does the world not know about right now because of a review process where the wheels turn too slowly?

By contrast, from initial data collection to publication took Hickey about a month (Personal Communication). The FiveThirtyEight model is scooping sociology because we’re too damn slow and obsessed with “theoretical framings.” Some efforts like Sociological Science are speeding that process up (30 days guaranteed!). And in the natural sciences, arXiv allows people to post working papers and then vote them up. Meanwhile, our predominant model is broken.

Where Science Wins

No offense to Hickey and FiveThirtyEight, but my paper with Melissa and Julie is better than his post in some ways. Our dataset is not a convenience sample. It is a population of the hundred most widely-distributed films for a decade. Our codings probably have higher reliability than what comes from a crowdsourced web site. And the literature illuminates the social meaning of the findings more fully.

But the findings are the same. On a friend’s comprehensive exams, one of the questions was, “What is one thing we have learned from multi-level modeling that we wouldn’t have known anyway?” There is a good answer to that question, but it’s limited. As a field, we need to consider how much all our fussiness over methods and theory is worth it. “The philosophers have only interpreted the world, in various ways; the point is to change it,” wrote one of our great theorists. It’s hard to change the world much if many of our empirical findings are still under review.

What do you think? What can we be doing as researchers, peer reviewers, and as a scientific community to address these issues?

In this week’s NYT Sunday Review, Arthur C. Brooks, the President of the American Enterprise Institute (AEI) cites Pew polls figures showing that Americans are bothered by the commercialization and consumerism of the Christmas season. Brooks explains it away saying, “The frustration and emptiness so many people feel at this time of the year is not an objection to the abundance … [but rather] a healthy hunger for nonattachment.” Like any self-respecting enlightened capitalist, he makes a superficial nod toward Eastern philosophy and tells us to “collect experiences, not things” (easy when you have nice things like groceries). Good advice, but it’s lost in the mix when he forgives all capitalist excesses because they allow for poverty amelioration: “This season, don’t rail against the crowds of shoppers on Fifth Avenue or become some sort of anti-gift misanthrope. Celebrate the bounty that has pulled millions out of poverty…” The whole op-ed is fairly nonsensical but the sort of the thing you’d expect from the President of AEI. You might hope that the NYT would choose a better lead story for their Sunday Review on the week that saw the release of the Congressional report on the use of torture, the anniversary of the Sandy Hook shooting, and a massive Justice for All March in D.C.

I do wonder what it means that a nation of such avid consumers is so horribly troubled by consumption during the Christmas season. Jean Baudrillard once argued that Disneyland exists so that Americans can identify it as fake, allowing us to avoid facing the overwhelming unreality of life in America as a whole. Do our critiques of consumerism around Christmas serve the same function? Perhaps we condemn consumerism within the sacred space of December as a way of making consumerism during the eleven profane months more acceptable. The only thing that makes Zen master Brooks different is that he revels in our “abundance” (that’s enlightened capitalist code for buying shiny crapola) all year. He’s all too happy to spread the profane.

I tend the other way. It doesn’t bother me that Christmas cranks consumerism up to 11. It would be fine if we went on a sweater-buying frenzy for a month out of the year if we didn’t drive gas-guzzling cars and live in giant houses and get trapped in a work-spend cycle the rest of the year. What concerns me is that we keep Christmas consumerism in our hearts all the year round. In other words, many of our concerns about Christmas consumerism are misplaced, but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t be worried about consumption in general. Now, back to my Christmas shopping …

Six years ago, my wife and I moved to Fargo, North Dakota for my job at Concordia College across the Red River in Moorhead, Minnesota. Growing up in Bergen County, New Jersey, my view of the country looked a lot like the famous 1976 New Yorker cover, “View of the World from 9th Avenue.”
New Yorker's View of the World

As a kid, a friend’s father tried to convince us that North Dakota didn’t exist (a take on the Bielefeld Conspiracy gag) and it seemed somewhat plausible. Even as I prepared to move, most of my understanding of Minnesota was informed by The Mighty Ducks and, like most people, what little I knew about North Dakota came from the Coen Brothers’ movie, Fargo. In other words, I was profoundly ignorant about the people, the culture, and the geography of our new home.

Six years later, in early June of this year, my wife and I packed up and moved back east to Saratoga Springs, NY for my new position at Skidmore College. In that time, I have had the pleasure of teaching many remarkable students and working alongside some wonderful colleagues. We have made lifelong friendships with people who are smart, progressive, and cosmopolitan, and who violate nearly all of the stereotypes of Midwesterners (except for calling soda “pop” — that’s actually real).

I’ve learned an incredible amount during these years and have come away with some perspective that I don’t think I would’ve had if I’d never left the East Coast. Here are four important things I’ve learned from living in the Midwest:

1. There is no Midwest. Ohio is different from Michigan, which is different from Minnesota. But Grand Rapids, MN in the Iron Range is also different from Minneapolis. Indeed, some of the identity of being an Iron Ranger is constructed in opposition to the culture of people from “The Cities.” While most Minnesotans and North Dakotans I know identify as Midwestern, evidence shows the percentages identifying as Midwestern are lower than for people living in Indiana. In my experience, North Dakotans especially are more likely to specify that they’re from the “Upper Midwest.”

But when it comes to understanding “the culture of the Midwest,” the divides of urban and rural, major city and small city are far more profound than the differences between Midwest and East Coast. The cultural difference between Chicago and NYC is smaller than the cultural distance from Minot, ND and St. Paul, MN. The caveat I would offer is that many urban dwellers in the Midwest are only a generation or two removed from a farm and tend to have greater familiarity with rural life than I have encountered in the East.

An important lesson to an ignorant East Coaster like myself is that “The Midwest” is far from monolithic.

2. If the American Dream is alive anywhere, it’s in the Midwest. With a little help from a 577 page surprise bestseller by a French economist with a name we’re stilling learning to pronounce correctly, we’re in the midst of a national conversation about inequality. It is now well-established that income and wealth inequalities are as great as they have been since the Gilded Age and that the extent of inequality is far greater in the U.S. than in Europe. Likewise (or perhaps consequently), the United States has much lower social mobility than Europe or Canada. Many social scientists and political figures alike fear that the toxic combination of high inequality and low social mobility seriously jeopardizes the dual promises of meritocracy and middle class prosperity that make up the American Dream.

But social scientists have also shown the United States is not uniformly unequal. As the Equality of Opportunity Project has shown, the states of the western Midwest (WI, MN, ND, SD, NE, IA, MT) are among the most equal and socially mobile in the country (see figure).
Social Mobility

Though I grew up with it, when I go back to New York or New Jersey now, I’m stunned by both the concentrated poverty and the extreme wealth. Fargo, a city of almost 200,000, has a booming economy and one of the largest Microsoft campuses and still can’t support a Banana Republic. Meanwhile, nine of the forty-five Gucci stores in America are within 20 miles of each other in the New York area. Of course, major Midwestern cities, like Minneapolis, have greater wealth and poverty, but they simply cannot compare to the intergenerational durability of wealth and permanence of poverty in either the Northeast or, especially, the South. If the American Dream of hard work and upward mobility is alive anywhere today, it’s in the Midwest (actually, it’s in Denmark or Norway where social mobility is much greater).

3. The Midwest has a deserved chip on its shoulder. The nation’s centers of power are on the coasts. The economy and the press are in New York. The government and military are in D.C. The culture industry is in L.A. And over half the nation’s population lives within 50 miles of a coast (39% live in coastal counties representing less than 10% of the country’s land (http://oceanservice.noaa.gov/facts/population.html)). As a result, the Midwest (especially the Upper Midwest) is too often neglected. A snowflake falls in Midtown Manhattan and CNN flies into crisis mode. It takes serious devastation (or an absolutely massive oil boom) for the Coastal press to take notice of little ol’ North Dakota.

One of the more cringe-inducing experiences in Fargo is seeing a visiting band or comedian take the stage and make a hackneyed joke along the lines of “Wow. I’m in Fargo. It sure is cold!” And here’s the thing: the crowd eats it up! Because it’s a form of recognition. All that talk about the “real America” from the likes of Sarah Palin? Those are desperate cries that “hey, we count, too!” Especially in places like Fargo, what I’d call “place entrepreneurs” engage in active PR campaigns to show that life isn’t as bad as you think way out here (e.g., the #ilovefargo hashtag on Twitter started by a local urban promoter).

There’s a defensiveness in the region that stems from a real neglect and a feeling of disempowerment. On the other hand, it’s worth noting that feeling of disempowerment is somewhat counteracted by the highly disproportional representation that these largely low population areas have in Congress (Obamacare’s “public option,” for example, was taken out of the bill by seven Senators representing 3.6% of the U.S. population).

4. It is a Christian country in the Upper Midwest. An acquaintance, a mother of two small children, told me a story about her move from Connecticut to Fargo. She enrolled her kids in a non-religiously-affiliated day care in Fargo and when she picked them up during the middle of the day, she found that they were saying a prayer before snack time. None of the parents seemed to have a problem with it. She pointed out that in CT, the parents would have flipped out. Now, it’s not because everybody in North Dakota is a pious Christian, but because Christianity is so assumed as a part of everyday life that having a quick prayer shouldn’t bother anybody. The level of diversity in CT makes that unthinkable. As one of the chaplains at Concordia College once told me, “this is Christendom.” It does not operate at the level of aggressive evangelism (in fact, most people I knew are progressive Lutherans). Rather, Christian is taken to be the default category.

The two facts that define New York and New Jersey where I grew up are incredible diversity and extreme inequality. I grew up with a lot of secular Jews and, during the December holiday season, the schools took great pains to have as many menorahs as Santas. Like the rest of the country, all parts of the Midwest are becoming more racially and religiously diverse. So, Christendom is in decline even the Upper Midwest, but there is not the public secularity of the East or the West coasts.

To many Midwesterners, these points may be blindingly obvious, but they are things I couldn’t see as an East Coaster. From my conversations with other coastal folk, I’m not alone. So, thank you to my Midwestern friends who put up with a loudmouthed New Jerseyan and taught me more about my country. To my East Coast friends and family, let’s try to reject that New Yorker cover vision of America.