Tag Archives: social science

welfare is social security (not the other way around)

The Republican nominee for Senate in Nevada, Sharron Angle, is being attacked today for calling social security “welfare.” But what’s really interesting is how welfare and Social Security are historically quite closely intertwined. In fact, it’s more factually accurate to say welfare is a form of social security rather than the other way around. As political scientist Robert Lieberman details in his book Shifting the Color Line: Race and the American Welfare State, the Social Security Act of 1935 created a number of important social policies, including Old Age Insurance and Aid to Dependent Children. But while Old Age Insurance came to be simply referred to as “Social Security” (a term that carries a positive connotation in public discourse),  Aid to Dependent Children came to be known as “welfare” (a term that, by contrast, carries negative and racially-charged connotations).


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boxing, chess, and game theory

I recently read the sociologist Loic Wacquant’s Body and Soul: Notebooks of an Apprentice Boxer. While the book as a whole offers a really intriguing ethnographic look into the culture and practices of boxers at a Chicago gym (including Wacquant himself), an off-handed paragraph struck me as perhaps of interest to social scientists more generally:

Thus the strategy of the boxer, as product of the encounter of the pugilistic habitus with the very field that produced it, erases the scholastic distinction between the intentional and the habitual, the rational and the emotional, the corporeal and the mental. It pertains to an embodied practical reason that, being lodged in the depths of the socialized organism, escapes the logic of individual choice. [from the footnote] One glimpses here in passing all that the strand of sociology inspired by game theory could gain by taking as paradigm a very “corporeal” game such as boxing rather than an eminently “intellectual” one like chess or military strategy. (2004: 98)

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poli sci and the dutch election results

Erik Voeten has a nice overview of the Dutch election results over at The Monkey Cage. For some additional social scientific analysis that might help frame a discussion of what comes next, check out the latest issue of the Annual Review of Political Science, if you have access to it. Strom, Muller, and Smith have a nice piece called “Parliamentary Control of Coalition Governments,” while Kalyvas and van Kersbergen offer a solid overview of “Christian Democracy.” The former profiles how preference divergence, uncertainty, and opportunism offer three central conditions maing the control of governing partners difficult in coalition governments, especially in PR systems. The latter has an interesting discussion of how the arrival of right-wing populism, lead by Pim Fortuyn, has affected Christian Democrats in the Netherlands (see p. 194).

In general, the Annual Reviews could be excellent resources for political journalists, but they do require a subscription.

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blogging in grad school

Drew Conway offers up ten reasons grad students should blog. It’s a good list — and, naturally, I basically agree with the general argument — but I’m a little concerned he goes a bit overboard, especially in reason #5:

The faculty in your department will not think less of you – I have been asked several times by fellow grad students some form of the following question: “Weren’t you worried what your advisors would think about your blog?” Of course, I never even thought about this question, as I started blogging before actually matriculating to NYU (note that ZIA’s anniversary is early-June and most universities begin the Fall semester in late August). This, however, is besides the point. No, I was never worried about what my advisors would think. The things I write about on ZIA are exactly the same kinds of things I say in seminar and write for term papers (in fact, these ideas often flow both ways). Furthermore, most of those faculty who might actually view blogging in a negative light are also those most unlikely to ever read your blog.

Well, maybe. I’d certainly like to think this is true, but I’m not quite as convinced as Conway. I blogged regularly for years before coming to grad school but mostly stopped upon my arrival. In part this was due to a lack of free time, but there was also a sense of professional concern. Political scientists tend to strive for an apolitical tone in their work and often frown on outright displays of ideology or partisanship. In this regard, political science can often seem far less, well, political than disciplines like comparative literature, history, or sociology. Blogging need not be intensely partisan, of course, but it does tend to lead to a more personal style of writing than standard academic fare, which lends itself to a bit more straightforwardness of expression. And at least at the more conventionally prestigious departments, there’s generally no clear reward for engaging in public discourse in this way, as hiring and tenure decisions tend to be based effectively on the number and quality of peer-reviewed journal publications. Blogging can be viewed as a distraction from the real work of grinding out research.

This is not to say that, normativelly, blogging shouldn’t be viewed as a good thing for social scientists to do more of. I think it should be. But, empirically, I’m not sure it’s always so easy.

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speaking of atheism

I should shout out one of my favorite sociology articles in recent years:

Penny Edgell, Joseph Gerteis, and Douglas Hartmann, “Atheists as ‘Other’: Moral Boundaries and Cultural Membership in American Society,” American Sociological Review 71 (2), 2006.

The authors use survey evidence to demonstrate that as tolerance for religious diversity grows, it does so at the expense of non-believers.

The article is available from Gerteis’s website here (.pdf).

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political science and journalism

Greg Marx at the Columbia Journalism Review has an interesting article about the relationship between political scientists and journalists. Political scientists tend to be skeptical of journalists because they effectively make their living propagating baseless myths about politics, while journalists tend to be skeptical of political scientists because a) they’re convinced their “real world experience” gives them unique insights into the political process, and b) political scientists often obscure their findings in mathematical equations, forgetting to translate them into plain English for others — like journalists —  to assess.

Take Marc Ambinder’s unfortunate comment when John Heilemann and Mark Halperin’s book was released as an example:

Political scientists aren’t going to like this book, because it portrays politics as it is actually lived by the candidates, their staff and the press, which is to say—a messy, sweaty, ugly, arduous competition between flawed human beings—a universe away from numbers and probabilities and theories.

Or Matt Bai’s oddly uncalled-for grumbling:

Generally speaking, political writers don’t think so much of political scientists, either, mostly because anyone who has ever actually worked in or covered politics can tell you that, whatever else it may be, a science isn’t one of them. Politics is, after all, the business of humans attempting to triumph over their own disorder, insecurity, competitiveness, arrogance, and infidelity; make all the equations you want, but a lot of politics is simply tactile and visual, rather than empirical. My dinnertime conversation with three Iowans may not add up to a reliable portrait of the national consensus, but it’s often more illuminating than the dissertations of academics whose idea of seeing America is a trip to the local Bed, Bath & Beyond.

Both these contain a certain pseudo-populist attack on the Ivory Tower, but both ultimately fail, well, empirically. It might be the case that an hour long conversation over dinner with three Iowans is a great way to explore the nuances of a few people’s beliefs, but if you were a political strategist, would you really feel comfortable making a controversial policy decision based on that, or would you benefit more from a randomized poll of 1,000 national respondents? Human beings may well be “sweaty,” “ugly,” and “messy,” but social life in the end does tend to be probabilistic. While journalists will, for example, search for every possible explanation when the Democrats lose seats in the midterm election, the actual answer won’t sell too many papers: the incumbent party pretty much always loses seats in the midterms. It’s not special enough to merit wasting so much space on the editorial pages over.

But, while I’m obviously quite critical of journalists here, political scientists deserve a bit of blame for the situation too:

  • When political scientists do make it into the mass media, they can be awestruck by glimpses of fame and merely end up repeating the common wisdom rather than relying on social scientific analysis to correct common journalistic tropes. This is especially true of political scientists who have made their names as media darlings first-and-foremost, rather than first gaining credibility within the academy. Political scientists are, after all, humans like any one else, and their analysis is only more useful than any other random hack of a source when it is backed up by the sort of research that would make it through a peer review process.
  • As Jonathan Cohn pointed out in a 1999 article in The New Republic (which doesn’t seem to be legally available online for free viewing), many political scientists seem genuinely uninterested in being politically relevant, focusing far more on increasingly sophisticated models of the sort that earn them the ire of the Ambinders and Bais of the world. Along the way, they rack up academic journal publications and, thus, tenure, thereby generating and maintaining the status quo of political irrelevance. But this is hardly true of everyone in the discipline.

So what’s the best way forward? A few things might help. For one, more active communication between political scientists and journalists would benefit both. Indeed, political scientists have as much — if not more — to gain than journalists, as such communicaton would provide incentives to write with greater clarity and keep the relevance of their work in mind. So, political scientists should start more blogs!  Short of that, they should send relevant research to journalists, especially new media types that are actively sympathetic to the discipline (see Klein, Ezra and Yglesias, Matthew). Political reporters, likewise, should read academic work in a more systematic way. Indeed, the substantive knowledge provided by a bachelor’s degree (or even master’s degree) in a discipline like political science is, at this point, frankly more relevant to the future direction of political journalism than the type of skillset developed by conventional journalism programs.

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    social science is an anagram of cocaine slices

    Andrew Sullivan highlights a new Political Research Quarterly article by Peter K. Hatemi and a gang of coauthors. They report finding no evidence of a genetic basis for partisan preferences, but argue there is evidence of a genetic component in shaping the intensity of partisanship, regardless of whether individuals are Democrats or Republicans.

    Research into the genetic basis of political behavior is one of the latest fads in political science. I can’t say I’m especially fond of it. I think I understand why it’s popular — “penis envy for the natural sciences” is a tempting way of phrasing it — but it seems ultimately unenlightening. There have been no super sexy findings — like a gene that makes you a Republican — only statistical suggestions that certain genes make one more likely to turn out to vote, more likely to feel intensely about issues, etc. But while this is taken by many to be properly pushing the boundaries of the discipline, I find it, in the end, a little uninspired. Genes…affect things? They can lead people to have certain personality traits rather than others? Really?

    I think I’m in the minority here, but I see little more than an excuse to dress up the presentation of statistical results in the language of the natural sciences.

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