During the 2012 campaign, I made the prediction that Newt Gingrich would become the Republican party nominee over Newt Gingrich because he was more adept at what I called “high valence” politics, or the ability to remain relevant in the attention economy by saying outrageous, emotion laden, things that would attract the media’s attention. I was wrong.

It appears I was off by four years.

Whether Donald Trump becomes the Republican nominee for the presidency is almost secondary to the fact that he has mastered the art of agenda control in the new media age. A citizenry that has been trained to demand quick hits of rapid fire novelty by their smart phones has little patience with long, involved political debate that produces little emotional payoff. The dopamine effect of an easily digestible outrageous statement is infinitely more powerful than the slow burn of a well crafted argument. Saying that “we’re going to win so much you’ll be tired of winning” is clear, concise and charged with optimistic positivity. If you noticed from the video below, Donald Trump speaks in tweets. Our politicians are speaking in Tweets.

YouTube Preview Image

Even Bernie Sanders, to whom I have more affinity, is engaging in a form of high valence politics by tapping into citizen anger towards Wall Street. While justifiable, his notion that all of society’s ills reside with hedge fund managers is presenting a simplified view of reality that is bound to disappoint. For better or worse, we need Wall Street, unless we intend to radically change the global political economy which would have its own unpredictable, unintended consequences.

This idea of high valence politics is with us to stay. Rather than pine for a return to a more deliberative and rational way of doing politics, we instead need to figure out a way to make reasoned arguments compete in the new attention economy. The trick is making complex, nuanced views of political reality emotion laden and digestable.

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.

Science recently published a study done by its researchers in collaboration with the Information School at the University of Michigan that finds that Facebook isn’t entirely to blame for political polarization in the United States. It found that its own news feed algorithm has a small but significant effect on filtering out opposing news content for partisan users on Facebook. More importantly for the researchers, the algorithm did not have as strong an effect on filtering opposing news as users themselves. Predictably users on the far right and far left of the political spectrum filter their news content in line with confirmation bias theory.

Zenyep Tufecki already did a takedown of the sampling problems with the study. Here is the description of the sample from Science:

All Facebook users can self-report their political affiliation; 9% of U.S. users over 18 do. We mapped the top 500 political designations on a five-point, -2 (Very Liberal) to +2 (Very Conservative) ideological scale; those with no response or with responses such as “other” or “I don’t care” were not included. 46% of those who entered their political affiliation on their profiles had a response that could be mapped to this scale.

A key problem with this study is the standard problem of “selecting on the dependent variable.” By only sampling partisans, you are likely to find people who act in partisan ways when they evaluate news content. But my problem with this study runs deeper than selection bias. The study’s underlying assumption is that Facebook is simply a neutral arbiter of political information and it’s relevance is only applicable to those heavily interested in politics. In my view, Facebook’s influence runs much deeper. It changes the ways in which we relate to each other, and in turn, the ways in which we relate to the public world.

Facebook and related social media have created a seismic shift in human relations. Facebook’s platform takes conversations between friends, once regarded as “private sphere activity,” and transmutes it into what appears to be a public sphere for the purposes of serving the dictates of market capital. Facebook has created unique and powerful tools to allow individuals with the opportunity to more carefully “present themselves” to a hand picked circle of intimates (and semi-intimates). Facebook’s particular logic is connection and disclosure. More often than not, connection happens through expressive communication of feelings (pictures, observations, feelings, humor, daily affirmations, etc.). Facebook encourages us to “present ourselves” to our networks in order to form closer bonds with our friends and loved ones. It’s part of it’s business model. But we are in competition with others to gain the attention of our circle, so we are driven to use expressive discourse that is high-valence (e.g. strong attractive or aversive) content to gain the attention of others.

I argue in my 2012 book, Facebook Democracy, that Facebook constructs an architecture of disclosure that emphasizes this type of high-valence, expressive, performative communication. To Facebook, political content is simply one more set of tools we can use to “present” ourselves. If we want to use politics to connect with others, it needs to be impactful, expressive content that sends clear messages about who we are, not invitations for further conversation or clarification on public issues. This is not to say that people don’t argue on Facebook or have useful deliberative discussion, but I’d argue they do this in spite of Facebook’s goals. Argumentation or deliberation are not typically used to bring one closer to one’s friends and family.

While the personal and emotive is a key way in which we get into politics, staying engaged requires both expressive/connection based discourse and rational/deliberative discourse that encourages “listening” rather than simply “performing.” The notion that a “click through” necessarily means engagement with the ideas presented in “cross-cutting” articles suggest sharing cross-cutting/opposing articles is done in the spirit of deliberative discussion. More likely, cross-cutting articles are intended to reinforce an identity. More useful for Facebook scholars might be to look at instances where partisans are sharing cross-cutting articles and examining how they present the article. Are they presenting it and inviting mockery of it? Or are they inviting their networks into a conversation about it?

This is the key challenge that Facebook poses to democratic life. Rather than ask whether Facebook’s algorithm presents partisans with access to opposing views, we should be asking how we use political content on Facebook to present ourselves to others (and how we can do it in more productive ways). If Facebook and other media encourages expressive discourse over deliberative discourse, we run the risk of becoming a society of citizens that talk without listening.

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.

I quit running half-marathons because of my RunKeeper app. During each of my half marathons, the 90’s hip-hop on my phone would be interrupted by a tinny voice reminding me that I was getting farther and farther off my two hour pace. While RunKeeper didn’t make me a sub-par distance runner, its constant quantification of my performance made me a disgruntled runner. When it comes to how fast I was running, I wanted to know, but I didn’t want to know.

In my day job as a political scientist, I see parallels between my frustration with “quantified running” and our national frustration with American politics. Our impulse towards knowing without understanding is making us a society of disgruntled citizens. While the Fitbit doesn’t make us hate Congress directly, it serves as a symbol of our society’s insatiable need for information. In my case, my “need to know” resulted in slapping “analytics” onto my running that I really could have done without. In politics it leads to a relentless demand that the system be transparent and accountable at all times, even if we’re not entirely sure what we’re looking for.

What is so bad about transparency in politics or in life? Most Americans would say that we need more accountability and transparency from our political institutions, not less. In March of this past year, C-SPAN, the cable channel that shows Congress, celebrated its 35th year of broadcasting the proceedings of the House of Representatives. Six years later, C-SPAN began televising the Senate. In both cases, there has been little reflection on how these technological intrusions have affected the work of either chamber.

What underlies the public’s call for more cameras is summed up by Justice Louis Brandeis famous quote that “sunlight is said to be the best of disinfectants.” But if this were true, why is Congress’ popularity at an all time low? Confidence in institutions has steadily eroded since the 1970’s. According to Gallup, in April of 1986, the last poll taken before C-SPAN began broadcasting the Senate proceedings, 42 percent of Americans approved of Congress. No great number, but in August of 2014, Congress’ approval rating had fallen to 13 percent. A January 2013, Public Policy Polling Survey found Congress to be less popular than, among other things, cockroaches, France and used car salesmen.

To be sure, Congressional approval ebbs and flows, but we’ve seen a steady downward trend in our view of our legislative institutions over the last three decades. While cameras in Congress hasn’t caused the decline in popularity, cameras haven’t helped.

We live in an age where technology promises to help us gain greater access to ourselves. Through apps that track our sleep, mood, fitness, food intake, blood sugar levels, etc., we are promised better living through information. But as we gain more information, do we gain greater understanding? Scientists are taught that data collection should follow from good theory. Theory is what helps us understand what we are looking for when we observe the world. In other words, scientists need a well thought out reason for collecting data, otherwise it’s just noise.

As far as politics are concerned, the majority of the American public would like more noise. A 2009 poll commissioned by C-SPAN found that 65 percent of respondents agreed there should be cameras in the United States Supreme Court. In a chapter for the 1997 book “Covering Congress, C-Span president Brian Lamb noted that 75 percent of the public approved of having cameras in the House and Senate. Lamb noted that one response to the survey suggested that “cameras should be everywhere except bathrooms.” But if we are to gain more information about Congress, are we prepared as citizens to make sense of it?

Americans in general have little interest in making sense of the noise. Political Scientists John Hibbing and Elizabeth Theiss-Morse observed in 2002 that most Americans favored a system of stealth democracy where they were not called upon to participate actively in or know much about in the political process. According to surveys done by Hibbing and Theiss-Morse, most Americans were less interested in transparency and more interested in “effective management” of problems like job creation or fighting terrorism.

So why the cameras if we’re really not that interested? The effect of C-SPAN cameras in Congress has been to turn every session and committee hearing into a low-intensity, reality television show. Whether C-SPAN cameras are directly to blame, It is no coincidence that the drop in Congressional approval corresponds with the advent of a 24- hour news cycle that demands to be fed information. By now, we are well aware that personal failings, flubs during speeches or grandstanding efforts like the Ted Cruz filibuster in 2013 are more impactful than the actual product of Congress. In 2014, Florida Representative Joe Garcia(D) was caught on C-SPAN’s cameras picking and eating his own ear wax. Having access to Congress on television might produce hilarity on “The Daily Show,” but at what cost?

In the Virtues of Mendacity: On Lying in Politics, UC-Berkeley historian Martin Jay argues that our demands for authenticity in politics has led separate politics from “the political.” We expect our public officials to have the same integrity, honesty and accessibility we demand from our private relationships. He finds this problematic, since “dealmaking” is a vital mechanism for arriving at compromise in American politics.

But as a public, we are uncomfortable with this idea. We want our elected officials to be beyond reproach, but because we suspect they are not, we want someone to watch them to make sure they are behaving themselves. Hence, the real “watchers” of C-SPAN are interest groups, political parties and think tanks, that are more than happy to look for ways to confirm the public’s suspicions, particularly when it comes to their opponents.

Because members of Congress know this, they seek out spaces to conduct private work. The House leadership, intuitively are aware of this. have kept rigid control over the positioning of the cameras in Congress. On numerous occasions, the House leadership, regardless of party, has ordered the cameras to be turned off or positioned away from part of the chamber. During the contentious 2003 floor vote over the Medicare prescription drug bill, the Republican leadership kept the cameras pointed towards the Democratic side of the aisle for three hours, presumably so the public would be spared the sight of the majority’s relentless arm twisting of its members.

Each emerging technology changes the relationship between the viewer and what is being viewed. My run was affected by my constant quantification of its speed. On a run, the synthetic voice would interrupt my mid-nineties hip-hop to tell me that I had run the previous mile in 10:15, when I was shooting for 9:30. By knowing this piece of data, I have put a label on it. By calling it something (a “slow run” in this case) I have in a real sense reduced its value. I could have seen a beautiful sunset on that mile or had a personal insight, but by viewing through the lens of my run tracker, it became a slow mile, and nothing else.

With Congress, our perception of it is impacted by our televising its proceedings. We may not watch CSPAN but most of us like knowing its being televised because “someone will be watching.” Rather than unquestioningly embrace the accumulation of information, we should be asking ourselves, what do we want this information for and how do we intend to use it? and recognize how politics works. We don’t need to get rid of information. Instead, we need a more subtle understanding of the reasons for its collection. To be sure, there is an important place in American politics for a watchdog role. But a good watchdog knows what they are looking for and doesn’t bark at every subtle movement.

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?

A seminal book in I read in grad school many, many years ago, was baumgartner and Jones’ Agendas and Instability in American Politics, Second Edition . They offered what seemed a logical and comforting view of the American political system and how/when policy changed occurred. They argued that the underlying dynamics of the system were quite stable and change happened incrementally, but there were periods where vast social and cultural upheaval produced dramatic and systematic policy change. They called their theory “punctuated equlibrium“… a theory borrowed from evolutionary biology to explain why some species had sudden bursts of genetic adaptations after long periods of stasis.

In politics, social “shocks” to the system force the sytsem to adapt by reorient our expectations about what government can and should be able to do.

Here’s a question I’m wrestling with. What role does social media play in the political “adaptation process”? Does it diffuse the pressure that might otherwise be placed on the system to bring about change? Or does it amplify it in ways that will inevitably lead to a much different system than we have today?

You can reasonably make a case for either. In the first instance, you can say that social media produces political “chatter” that isn’t often funneled through formal advocacy or institutional groups that have the capacity to act on emerging themes. As such the “issue attention cycle” never gets past the “discovery” phase into actual attempts at problem solving and the agenda gets set by those with the strong incentives and financial ability to stay engaged.

The other case, maybe the “pro” social media case, is that for a platform like Twitter that has a high degree of sharing between networks, the medium can serve to reinforce norms. of sincerity, fairness and tolerance. This is particularly evident when corporations or celebrities use Twitter or Instagram to “reach out to fans” and instead get “trolled.” These efforts at a form of cultural rectitude may seem like actions at the margin, but as evolutionary biologists point out, those on the margins of a species’ population are often the impetus for systemic change.

I’ve spent the day reading journal articles, both popular and academic, about the political importance of twitter.

Twitter has grown so precipitously in the last few years because it resolves the “problem of voice” in many societies. Put simply, we all want to be heard, but we don’t know how to articulate what we believe, see or experience or we don’t have the megaphone to put those perceptions out to the mass public.

By giving you a medium that, in its architecture, allows you to quickly and effectively proclaim yourself, Twitter provides a way to “talk to the world” by allowing you to follow or be followed by a vast number of people. It is broadcasting in a way that Facebook isn’t, since it is based on social proximity. In addition, Twitter’s 140 character limit forces you to be pithy. The economy of words, as Orwell or Hemmingway would attest, increases the impact of the narrative being presented.

Whereas Blogs or Facebook are roundhouses, Twitter is a quick jab. But as fans of boxing know, the accumulation of jabs can be very effective in setting up the big punch. Hashtags allow a barrage of jabs to breakthrough the attention economy, by allowing the accumulation of voices in one package.

But does this mass expression of voice change anything. The jabs have to be followed up with something more substantial. It requires an organizational infrastructure that can build upon the agenda setting success of a viral hashtag campaign to mobilize voters, raise money or pressure elected officials.

This part of “hashtag activism” is not well understood. How does Twitter modify or subvert the traditional policy making process? Agenda setting has always been a part of this process, but new technology is impacting it in poorly understood ways.