Territorial pissings, yes please

I’m not sure about the need for mathematical modelling in sociology (although I am intrigued), but this is spot on:

2. Are you saying we saying we should become like economists? Dear Lord, no. As a group, economists have committed the scientific method fallacy. They assume that one really good tool for science accounts for all of science. They have essentially abolished field studies, history, ethnography, and other important tools. Sociology should not engage in petty debates that end up dumping our best work. Instead, we should create a social science that strives to combine important different types of research.

From OrgTheory.


That foucing Foucault

I know I promised a report on my essay for the Philosophy of Science course, but before that I promised to go Foucault on your ass. So here goes [1].

As mentioned earlier, I started reading a book on Michel Foucault. I won’t lie to you: I haven’t finished it yet. I have, however, read most of it, and I think I’m able to discuss it without stepping in dog doo. Here’s the book:

This is my version, but instead of the flying androgynous person...

This is my version, but instead of the flying androgynous person...

...I <em>could</em> have gotten the much cooler Scary Author look

...I could have gotten the much cooler Scary Author look

The book is divided into two parts, a hundred-page segment called “Truth and Method” and a 250-page one called “Practices and Knowledge”. The first part in part lays out Foucault’s views on how social science should be done, with writings about the philosopher’s difficult task in divulging something true about the world while at the same time staying away from the traps that language sets out for us. It also contains a very interesting bit about his debt to Nietzsche in his views on history and the historian’s method, genealogy. The second part details some of the historic work done by Foucault on different institutions of power in the history of (French) society: a history of madness, of crime and criminal institutions, of discourses of sexuality and control and some on the ethics of the ancient Greeks. The first part is definitely the most difficult of the two, but ultimately the most rewarding in terms of concepts.

I especially like the discussions of his method, which is basically historical in nature. In amounts to collecting large amount of source materials and meticulously tracing the changing meanings and evolutions of concepts that we deem central today. However, it’s important to note that this means specifically avoiding any linear form of explanation. History does not move “forward” in that sense. Nietzsche opposed the search for “origins”, and so should we, according to Foucault. To avoid this it is important to highlight the contingent nature of concepts, the little accidents and interferences that accompany any conceptual evolution. There are clear traces of this is in much contemporary thinking, and constructivism leans heavily on it.

The second part is also good, but more like case studies. Interesting throughout, and very convincing, I still wonder if his conclusions are what everyone would have made given the same source material. The increasing importance of control and discipline from the middle ages to modern late capitalism seems plausible enough to me, but maybe there are other possible views.

To me, this all makes good sense. There are, however, two things to keep in mind when assessing this. One is the problem of the source material. Foucault has been criticized for making arbitrary methodological choices, and it’s easy to see why. He presents no explanations as to why these sources can tell us something about this theme, and not others. As the literary professor teaching the course on Foucault admitted, it’s all somewhat based on intuition. Of course, all method is, ultimately. But that’s why it’s usually accompanied by an explanation as to why the chosen sources seem pertinent to the researcher. The other problem is the historical nature of this. While there is nothing wrong with looking at history (in fact, it’s essential), this is not a method for analyzing the present. Naturally, it could be argued that a thorough examination of the past gives us pointers as to how the present should be understood, but it still has its limits.

Overall, I actually find the interviews to be most enlightening, if only because they force our man to express himself concisely and clearly without the protection of a long text editing process. The best way to get a quick idea of how Foucault thinks and works is to read these interviews. I’m also impressed by his immediate and very extensive knowledge about a wide specter of subjects. The only thing I don’t understand is why he has to be such a smug, self-satisfied asshole[2] while explaining things to us. But that’s maybe one of the dangers of having professorships created for you…

As usual, on the end of a long Serious Post I throw you some candy. Check out what those usually lame skater videos can look like with a professional director: Spike Jonze directs skateboarding.

[1] This just means I have more stuff for blog posts later. Yay!

[2] “The rest of the world has spent so much time figuring me out”, “I don’t fit into your stupid categories”, “I transcend your conceptions” and so forth. NOTE: these are not actual quotes, just somewhat insulting approximations.

In the mirror

Today we had another installation of our course in Technology, science and culture, where we go through the different chapters of the recent third edition of The Handbook of Science and Technology Studies. Always interesting discussions going on there, with a critical eye on the texts we read.

You can only see the front here, but it's a <em>thick</em> bastard

You can only see the front here, but it's a thick bastard

During the presentations today I got to thinking about the STS field and its connection to other fields of study. We were discussing a text complaining about the lack of focus in STS on pedagogical methods and tools in the transfer of STS related knowledge to new students of the field. Since my master’s degree is in educational sociology, I feel I have some experience with both discussions of pedagogy and the problematic of interdisciplinary field identity: are they a discipline in their own right, or simply a field of study where different disciplines co-exist? Regarding the field of educational study, I would say they are definitely a field and not a discipline. There is very little independent theory and conceptual development to defend calling it a discipline in it’s own right, although this is not for lack of trying. It simply does not stick.

When it comes to STS, I’m more unsure. They certainly have a stronger claim to being a discipline than educational studies, with a mature set of theoretical concepts and methodological approaches. On the other hand, I feel I recognize a lot of the concepts from other fields, and I don’t think I’m the only one (Nora brought up the sociology of knowledge today, for example). The whole Handbook, which I’m guessing should be read as a sort of summing up of where the current debates stand and a presentation of the tools of analysis and methodology available to the student of Science and Technology, is very introvert, focusing mainly on debating how STS can become a discipline in its own right.

Reflexivity is both a sign of a mature discipline and a strategy of making it so. Several of the articles engage in what to me seems like pure conceptual imperialism, exporting STS concepts to other fields of study. This is both to show that STS concepts are robust and have application in many fields, but also to fortify positions. This can be good or bad. On the one hand, using new theoretical concepts on old themes can create new connections and new knowledge. Conceptual innovation and interdisciplinarity may not be an end in itself, but it is at least a useful tool to both examine one’s own field critically and maybe gaining increased communication. On the other hand, there is a worrying tendency where more and more disciplines are being splintered into ever more specialized fields of study, each with their own language and approach to problems that in many cases are overlapping. This makes interdisciplinarity harder, as translating between adjacent fields takes up more time and energy. We’ll have to see where this ends.

Many here at the institute and other places are currently working a lot on exactly these problems of the production of knowledge and interdisciplinarity. One recent example is the book Vitenskap som dialog, edited by people at ITK. The book is very good, accessible and interesting throughout. I’m sure there will be many interesting contributions to these debates in the time coming, although I can’t free myself from the nagging feeling that it’s a little close to staring into out own navels.

Whew, long post there. Here is some relief, a guy singing all 64 voices of Michael Jackson’s Thriller. In my next Serious Post, I’ll go all Foucault on your asses.

Operations research

As a result of my talk in Ankara a while back, I was approached by one of the cognitive researchers on maybe attending a stream on energy, environment and climate at a conference in Bonn in July. The conference is called EURO 2009, and will be dominated by researchers working within so-called Operations Research. For some reason, they have a huge picture of Beethoven on the front page:

Angry man

Angry man

I don’t know much about operations research, except that it was mentioned in the Mirowski & Nik-Khah paper I mentioned in my first formulation bank. They place it in a technocratic, almost taylorist tradition of optimization and computational theory. In fact, the authors call it the main unmentioned influence on modern ANT theory, because of its approach to social systems as machines or operational systems. The subheading for the conference is “OR creating competitive advantage”, which I think says a lot.

I haven’t decided on anything yet, but it would be interesting to go and see how things are approached in other corners of the field. Likely it would be a slightly annoying experience, but with the potential of provoking some thought. More to come on this.


Long post coming up:

One of the web pages I frequent is Edge. According to its founders, it is supposed to be a meeting place for “the third culture”. This stems from CP Snows classic “The two cultures”, where he bemoans the gulf between the social and natural sciences. Edge attempts to bridge the gap. The site is great, even if what they are championing is one culture’s invasion of the other. Just look at all the geneticists “proving” the genetical cause of all sorts of social phenomena [1].

Today, their main article is one on the dispersion of happiness in social networks. The whole article, which is published in the British Medical Journal, can be found here. Basically, it states that people are affected by others’ mood, and goes on to map out one network and quantify to what degree this is true. Supposedly, a close friend who becomes happier increases the chance of a similar development in you with 25 %. The same number for a coresident spouse is 8 %, siblings living nearby 14 % and next door neighbours 34 %, all with 95 % confidence interval.

Some thoughts and questions arise from this. First, for my own part, I realise I have to look into network analysis as method. Some of the results here seem somewhat ridiculous to me (Coresident spouse has the least effect on happiness? One fourth that of your neighbour?), and the whole idea of putting this in terms of probabilistic measures is very foreign to me. The question is how this method works, and what it is safe to use it for. I’ll ask Thomas Berker here at the institute, since he’s working on network analysis of real estate advertisement (a much safer venue, I think) [2].

Second, there is a central point in the article that I have trouble swallowing. According to the authors, happiness can be distributed by up to three degrees’ distance. That means that your happiness can be afflicted by the friends of your friends’ friends’ happiness, even if you don’t know them at all. Now, it’s obvious that this happiness effect must be distributed through the friends you actually know, but there is no discussion of this in the paper. Is there a linear distribution? Does the happiness increase disperse equally through the network? Do the causes of happiness increase matter for the dispersion? In fact, I don’t see how it is possible to measure that sort of distributed effect at all.

I’m not the only one thinking about these issues. According to this New York Times article (NYT again? That’s two in a row, mister),

A study also to be published Friday in BMJ, by Ethan Cohen-Cole, an economist at the Federal Reserve Bank of Boston, and Jason M. Fletcher, an assistant professor at the Yale School of Public Health, criticizes the methodology of the Christakis-Fowler team, saying that it is possible to find what look like social contagion effects with conditions like acne, headaches and height, but that those effects disappear when other factors are considered.

A more speculative method than the actually quite sober longitudinal study the authors use as main source (even if it is based on self reporting of emotional issues) is their treatment of social networking online. They want to see how internet affects the effect proximity on happiness distribution. How do they do it? By counting smiling and frowning people on Facebook. Here is a graphical representation of the network of smiling and frowning people:


Blue nodes: frowning | Green nodes: neutral | Yellow nodes: smiling

Smiles in a photo, for example while drunk at a party, as measure of general happiness? What about people who don’t like having pictures of themselves on these sites? They must be unhappy.

Anyway, I still think this is interesting. I’m looking forward to checking out this methodology, but it seems difficult to say anything of substance that isn’t riddled with problematic assumptions.

Did you make it all the way down here? Good boy/girl. Here’s your treat, a ridiculously overblown analysis of Star Wars aestethics. I love it.

[1] Bruno Latour warns us of using the term “social” as an explanatory variable for anything, and I see his point, but I’ll do it anyway. Sue me.

[2] By the way, check out Thomas’ book on Internet use. My German is a little rusty, but I’m not sure whether I would consider the Internet itself in a media analysis perspective at all. I’m sure he discusses the difference between the Internet in general and Internet media. I would have chosen a better cover, however…

Economic Imperialism

The title of this post is not a rant against the Evil Economists of our time, but the title of a paper written by an economist at Stanford, Edward Lazear. Thanks to Ali Esbati of Klassekampen, who pointed me to it in today’s paper (Norwegian only):

An article on reassessing the field of economics

An article on reassessing the field of economics

Basically, Lazear’s article argues that economics as a social science has invaded the territory of almost all the other social sciences, and in his view conquered them successfully. This is A Good Thing, apparently, because economists are the only social scientists applying the True Tools of Science (AKA maths, physics and behavioral psychology) to the social world.

Armed with the triplet concepts of utility maximizing behavior, equilibrium and “a clearly defined” concept of efficiency, the economic mercenary has in turn laid waste to studies of demography, business, discrimination, family and gender, religion, education, human resource management, finance, accounting, strategy (game theory), organizations, law, politics, health, and linguistics (!), all by moving the analysis in these fields to “a deeper level”. Truly a huge feat!

Before I start ranting against this position, which I will, despite the first sentence of this post, it is worth noting one last point. The whole conclusion of this 50-page essay is that “Economics has been successful because, above all, economics is a science”. The paper stresses that, because of it’s affinity for natural science terms, economics is in some way far superior to all other ways of studying social phenomena.

Now for some points where I disagree with the author. To me, the main flaws of the idea put forward in this paper is that it tries to use “economics” as a catch-all phrase for ways of thinking that wouldn’t necessarily identify themselves as economics. While it’s clearly correct that rational choice-influenced thinking has been introduced to many social studies, this does not mean that they are a) necessarily “economic” or b) dominating.

To point A: some of the ideas Lazear calls economic are pure positivist ideals that have been around for a long time. Calling these ideas economic just because economists started using the same tools as the positivists amounts to retroactively changing history to fit into the tale of one field of study.

To point B: basically the same point, namely that the story of economics as a field is given too much weight. Economics is definitely a perspective in most fields, but in almost none of the fields mentioned above has it come to be the dominating modus operandi. Business, finance, accounting and organization theory might be dominated by rational choice, efficiency-oriented thinking, but those are also the fields most closely connected with economics. Saying that law is dominated by economic thinking is ignoring the very peculiar thinking and method that goes on within law, and the same goes for gender studies or education, or any of the other fields mentioned.

An essay like this is clearly an attempt to become a self-fulfilling prophecy: it is in itself an attempt at economic imperialism from a field that is not yet an empire in itself. One tactic is taking thoughts from other schools and magically turning them into economics, to give the impression that the field is much more forceful than it really is. Suddenly, many perspectives preceding economics is actually economics under a different name, before the ones developing these perspectives realized that they were actually doing economics.

One last point: this essay is all about micro-economics. My impression is that micro-economists prefer to pretend macro-economics (that is, aggregated economics) doesn’t exist. Maybe because macro-economics presupposes an actual society, with collective behavior?

Anyway, this article is telling in its sincerity, and a good example of the self-confidence of economists. Let’s see if things change with the times we are in now.