Nice papers (!)

April 22, 2010 § Leave a comment

The Disgruntled Sociologist read two recent AJS papers last night and actually somewhat enjoyed them.  This was after TDS had nearly given up hope upon – what with the Jason Beckfield article in a recent issue that had something like 11 figures, all of them maps of the world with incoherent scribbles all over them.  Apparently this was a network diagram of the world system.  Impossible to make heads or tails of (or to tell the difference between them).  Amusing, though, that the article referred to the figures as if they were in color.

In any case, TDS should focus on the good news.

First, the winner for best title in a very, very, very long time is Rick Grannis, for “Six Degrees of Who Cares?”  The whole six degrees of separation / small world stuff has gotten out of hand in recent years. Nay, it has been out of hand since Watts’s 1999 article.  Mathematically elegant and all, even beautiful.

But the scope conditions for that stuff are pretty constraining; most importantly, that everyone be connected in one giant component (i.e., everyone is reachable).  If in fact everyone is connected in this way, then small world effects are pretty cool.  But of course the literature has taken off on the assumption that the world is connected in this way.  Everyone forgets that 70% of Milgram’s letters did not reach their destination.

And what Grannis does a nice job of showing is that this is a pretty strong assumption; more importantly, he shows that very small differences or errors in the measurement of ties can have a huge effect on whether or not we can identify a giant component.  The examples involving PhD flows between departments are particularly nice.  A lone voice in the wilderness advocating conservatism in measurement.

Another nice paper, methodologically at least, is by Christine Schwartz, on how changes in marital patterns may have contributed to increasing income inequality in the United States. TDS liked this paper for the clean and sensible empirics.  There’s not much in the way of theory.  The story is that an increase in the tendency for married partners to be matched in income levels leads to growing income polarization.  The nice methodological part is to point out that studying this through simple correlations is problematic, since there is no guarantee that the changes are the same in different parts of the income distribution.  So a more flexible log-linear specification is used.

The remarkable fact, which TDS did not know, is that changes in the association of husbands and wives’ incomes account for 25-30% of the increase in inequality.  That seems huge.  Maybe even too huge, but TDS doesn’t have a story for why, and it seems in line with other work.

In any case, nice to know that sometimes good stuff does get published.


Is restating the question a finding?

April 20, 2010 § Leave a comment

TDS is not a labor sociologist but has read some books. Which makes reading Stepan-Norris and Southworth’s piece in the ASR, “Rival Unionism and Membership Growth in the United States, 1900 to 2005: A Special Case of Inter-organizational Competition” galling, because I could see large holes in the argument. The real problem isn’t this paper per se but rather the system that considered this (to quote the ASR‘s scope and mission) an example of “works of interest to the discipline in general, new theoretical developments, results of qualitative or quantitative research that advance our understanding of fundamental social processes, and important methodological innovations.” Ain’t no such thing.

The finding: Stepan-Norris and Southworth use time-series data “to explore the effects of rivalry between labor unions as a special case of inter-organizational competition.” They find that “Both the number of members in rival unions and the total number of rival unions positively impact the rate of change in overall union density and and in AFL density. The size of independent unions has a negative impact on AFL/AFL-CIO density but no effect on overall union density.” To quote from their discussion, “the benefits of direct competition between unions outweigh the disadvantages of diffuse competition for the American labor movement.” Competition, it seems, is good.

Why does this disgruntle? Prior to about 1935, everyone agreed that competition was bad for labor. That didn’t mean that the various factions set aside their differences and united, because of course they thought that their rivals were going to take the whole movement to Hell on a fast train. Instead they included the disastrous effects of disunity in their list of reasons why everyone else should unite with them.

Then the CIO happened. Huge split, huge growth. People started to wonder whether competition might be good for union growth. I mean, look at the CIO! Of course, people also pointed out that the CIO case was horribly confounded: the Depression, the New Deal, the specific legal changes affecting unions, World War II…then of course there was the sheer size of the AFL/CIO rift; the CIO was orders of magnitude larger than, say, the TUUL had been. Could you generalize from the CIO? Most discussion about labor competition for the last sixty years has taken this external-validity problem for granted.

Just glancing through Stepan-Norris and Southworth’s tables, it is obvious that most of their results are driven by…drumroll…the CIO split! Um, no kidding? The growth during the rise of the CIO is why people started asking this question in the first place. How is a “finding” that demonstrates precisely the empirical phenomenon that prompted the original question a contribution to the state of knowledge?!

There’s are other problems with the paper, but I think that one fatal flaw is enough.

…OK, one more: when I see measures like “Competitor Union Number,” i.e., how many rival unions there are, I get a little concerned. Because you see, when on the one hand we have the AFL, which is based on many unions with narrow, skilled, craft jurisdictions, and on the other hand we have, say, the Industrial Workers of the World, whose motto the last time I checked was “ONE BIG UNION,” I start to worry that we might have the teensiest of problems with our construct validity.

I don’t mean to imply that Stepan-Norris and Southworth are trying to make their finding appear more significant than it is. I think that they are honest researchers; that is the tragedy of a paper like this. Did no one in the peer-review process stop to ask whether, given a research question prompted by the rise of the CIO, it would make sense to show the same results while excluding the CIO? Or what about bringing in competition and density data from other countries, to grapple with the over-determination problem?

Or, on the methodological angle, how about pointing out that, while Stepan-Norris and Southworth have tried to use more “continuous” measures of political influence, unemployment and the like than did earlier studies, which used period dummies like “Great Depression” or “World War I,” the very benefit of such period dummies is that they soak up other period-specific effects which could affect union density? The irony here is that the authors’ independent-variable strategy probably admits far more omitted-variable bias than earlier studies.

The findings in this paper can’t be new to labor sociologists. All the rest of us are offered, though, is some suggestion that unions might be a “special case” of inter-organizational competition. But if they’re a “special case,” then why would a non-labor sociologist care about these findings?

In short, why do we care?

Hello world!

April 20, 2010 § Leave a comment

What does The Disgruntled Sociologist (TDS) do?

Express disappointment, of course.  Point out how ridiculous certain things are.

TDS has no particular target.  Although the current state of sociology as a social science will often be in our cross-hairs, no doubt.  As will the folly of the dominant journals.  And reviewers.  And professional associations.  And other people’s work.

In the interest of expressing our disgruntlement with full vigor and vim, TDS shall remain anonymous.  What the heck, it may just be fun.  Or at the very least a way to blow off steam.

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