Archive for May, 2013

Cultural Learnings of Economics for Make Benefit Glorious Discipline of Sociology

| Gabriel |

[Note, if you subscribe by RSS or email you might have gotten an earlier and incomplete version of this that I posted by accident on 5/25/13]

A few weeks ago the political scientist Henry Farrell posted a point-by-point critique of an LA Review of Books essay that was smugly denouncing economics while getting pretty much all its facts about economics dead wrong. (Most notably it confused the difference between public choice and game theory in ways that are extremely funny if you have a working knowledge of both literatures). The thing that made me really cringe about the LARB article though, which was written by a non-academic journalist/ social critic, was how if you told me it was written by a sociologist and got through peer review at a soc journal, I would have believed you.

Sociologists love to talk about how obtuse and limited in vision economists are but we often do so with only a vague awareness of how they do things but a pervasive suspicion that whatever they’re doing, it’s probably nefarious. It’s kind of like hearing peasants describe Jews. At this point I wouldn’t be surprised to hear a sociologist claim that economist tears prevent AIDS, or at the very least that they have horns.

The main reason for this is that we tend not to study economics itself, at least not on any kind of systematic basis but rather learn about it by reading polemical criticisms of economics’ excesses and/or intrusions into sociological turf. Which is fair enough since it’s hard enough to learn your own discipline without getting another too, but it does give us a rather particular vantage point that’s not at all emic. So rather than reading stuff that economists tend to consider fundamental we might read specific works in economics that either seem to be internal criticisms that grope towards sociological enlightenment (e.g., Akerlof, Williamson) or we read stuff that tries to reconceptualize sociological phenomena as exchange (e.g., Becker or Posner on sex and the family) and which tends to involve bizarre epi-orbit type arguments (e.g., “rationally maximize bequests”) or simply make bad predictions we can debunk.

(Note though that Pierre Bourdieu is a lot closer to Gary Becker than you’d think based on the kind mood affiliation heuristic in which we’re supposed to love one and boo and hiss at the other. Not only are both of them known primarily for extending the metaphor of “capital” but Bourdieu’s theory of gifts is very Becker/Posner like in seeing gifts as ultimately a calculated exchange).

A slightly more charitable way to put it is that your average sociologist’s understanding of economics is a lot like learning about Gnosticism by reading Against Heresies. Iraneus had himself read Valentinius and knew enough about Gnosticism to intelligently critique it from the perspective of proto-orthodoxy, but most later Christians and historians knew gnosticism only through Iranaeus’s arguments against it. In this analogy actually learning and reading economics for yourself is like finding the Nag Hammadi library. Once you’ve translated AER and a Principles textbook out of Coptic, you’ll see that they do indeed say a lot of the things we attribute to them, others of their arguments we characterize uncharitably to the point of being barely recognizable, much of what we think they hold central is actually incidental in their own conception, there’s a lot of stuff they care about which we never noticed, and there’s actually a lot of overlap.

Now mind you, it’s not like economists have a clear understanding of what we do either, with their understanding generally falling into three categories:

  • Homo sociologicus ordinarius – A politically correct ninny with more indignation than expertise
  • Homo sociologicus reticularis – Social network analysts who make cool pictures and have mastered a technical expertise different from but on par with anything economists do
  • Homo particularis sociologicus – A particular colleague or noteworthy scholar who happens to be a sociologist but with their identity and contribution being understood as idiosyncratic rather than disciplinary

On the other hand, the economic folklore about sociology is different in character from ours of them insofar as economists’ views of the other social sciences are like how Bukowski was asked what he thought about another poet would always reply “I don’t think about him.” In that sense econ’s ignorant understanding of soc is more like our understanding of anthro than our understanding of economics since there’s a big difference between having a vague understanding of a discipline that you’re dedicated to critiquing and a vague understanding of a discipline that you mostly just ignore.

May 28, 2013 at 7:28 am 15 comments

Technical difficulties

Apologies if you’ve been getting partial drafts. I’ve been trying to sync incomplete local drafts from my Android app and end up posting. I delete them when I notice this, but they stay in RSS (and I imagine email).

May 27, 2013 at 12:58 pm

How Long Are Songs

| Gabriel |

Last night Scott Golder asked me how long pop songs are. I checked the Whitburn file’s “pop annual” tab to see this, at least for hit singles. The “time” variable appears consistently starting in the mid-50s. Just to be safe though I only looked at data starting with 1960 through 2008 (which is when my copy of the Whitburn file ends).

The short answer is that there’s a bimodal distribution, with one mode a bit shy of three minutes and another mode of a bit shy of four minutes. There are very few hit songs under two minutes. (Sorry Black Flag, sucks to be you). There are also relatively few hit songs over five minutes, though the right tail extends pretty far, with the following songs being over eight minutes: “Everybody Move” by Cathy Dennis, “The Astronauts (Parts 1 and 2)” by Jose Jimenez, “I Will Possess Your Heart” by Death Cab for Cutie, “American Pie (Parts 1 and 2)” by Don McLean, “November Rain” by Guns N Roses, and “A Better Place to Be (Live) (Parts 1 & 2)” by Harry Chapin. (Honorable mention to “2 Legit 2 Quit” by MC Hammer at 7:55).


Bimodal distributions always make me nervous, so let’s break this up by decade.






Breaking it up by decade makes it clear that the “bit under three minutes” mode is disproportionately songs from the 1960s and the “bit under four minutes” mode from subsequent periods. This makes sense when you realize that the dominant technological format of the 1960s was the 7-inch 45rpm single, which had a limit of three minutes. In contrast, 45s were less commercially important in subsequent periods and such technological formats as 12 inch 33rpm LPs, cassettes, CDs, and MP3s have no such time limitation that would reasonably matter for a single song. Moreover, there were also changes in radio. Genre-based radio formats were given a big boost in the late 1960s with the commercialization of the FM band and 1970s era formats like “Album-Oriented Rock” allowed for airplay that was more, well, album-oriented in terms of drawing cuts from LPs and not just 7 inches.

Another thing that’s pretty clear from looking at the decade-specific histograms is that there are sharp discontinuities. The three minute mark discontinuity in the 1960s is obviously a reflection of the technology of 7 inches. The other eras also show discontinuities at 3 and half minutes in the 1970s and 4 minutes in the 1980s and 1990s, with much weaker discontinuities at 4 minutes in the 1970s and 2000s. The recent 3:30 and 4:00 discontinuities are much harder to explain than the old 3:00 discontinuity because they don’t reflect a hard technological constraint. Rather, they seem to reflect a convention of radio airplay. Here’s a passage from Jacob Slichter’s one-hit wonder memoir, So You Want to Be a Rock N Roll Star (p 138-9):

In anticipation of “crossing over” the single to radio formats other than alternative rock, we did a pop mix (by Don Gehman with lighter portions of electric guitar) and an acoustic mix (by Puig, a soccer-mom version with no electric guitars and no drums until the second verse). Each mix had to be edited down to under four minutes, an important limit in the mind of radio programmers. (To submit a single with a track length of 4:01 is as foolish as pricing kitchen knives sold on television at $20.01). We pestered Bob Ludwig, the mastering engineer, with a slew of editing adjustments. “Okay, shorten the intro to what it was two verses ago, cut eight bars off the end of the bridge, and undo the cuts we asked you to make to the final chorus.”

(btw, the album version of “Closing Time” clocks in at 4:34.)

Nonetheless, the strength of this convention seems to have weakened since Slichter’s story takes place in 1998, with the 2000s showing a much weaker discontinuity and many more songs a few seconds over 4 minutes than did the 1990s. I don’t know why this is, but I think it’s worth noting that it doesn’t necessarily reflect weakening of the 4 minute radio rubicon but could also reflect changes to how the chart is calculated, such as the rise of a digital singles market (which has been weighted into the Billboard Hot 100 since 2005), or how the time variable is measured (perhaps it’s the iTunes or album time, not the time for the radio edit).

Here’s the code:

cd ~/Documents/codeandculture/whitburn
clear all
insheet using popannual.txt, clear
gen min=real(regexs(1)) if regexm(time,"([0-9]+)\:")
gen sec=real(regexs(1)) if regexm(time,"\:([0-9]+)")
gen time_sec=min*60+sec
sum min sec time_sec

gen decade=.
replace decade=1 if year>=1960 & year<1970
replace decade=2 if year>=1970 & year<1980
replace decade=3 if year>=1980 & year<1990
replace decade=4 if year>=1990 & year<2000
replace decade=5 if year>=2000 & year<2010
lab def decade 1 "1960s" 2 "1970s" 3 "1980s" 4 "1990s" 5 "2000"
lab val decade decade
histogram time_sec if decade!=., discrete xlabel(0(60)600) title("Billboard Hits, 1960-2008")
graph export time.png, replace width(1600)
histogram time_sec if decade==1, discrete xlabel(0(60)600) title("Billboard Hits, 1960-1969")
graph export time_1960s.png, replace width(1600)
histogram time_sec if decade==2, discrete xlabel(0(60)600) title("Billboard Hits, 1970-1979")
graph export time_1970s.png, replace width(1600)
histogram time_sec if decade==3, discrete xlabel(0(60)600) title("Billboard Hits, 1980-1989")
graph export time_1980s.png, replace width(1600)
histogram time_sec if decade==4, discrete xlabel(0(60)600) title("Billboard Hits, 1990-1999")
graph export time_1990s.png, replace width(1600)
histogram time_sec if decade==5, discrete xlabel(0(60)600) title("Billboard Hits, 2000-2008")
graph export time_2000s.png, replace width(1600)

*have a nice day

May 21, 2013 at 1:32 pm 3 comments

Blogs, Payola, and Gift Exchange

| Gabriel |

In a review of the MRU media economics MOOC course (to which I contributed a guest lecture, part 1 and part 2), Ashok Rao asks why is there not more focus on new media. It’s a fair question and one that could be extended to my own course on media sociology, which for the most part could be fairly described as “sociology of the media as it existed through the 1990s” (I do deal with a few recent issues like how piracy unraveled bundling). In particular, Rao wants to know about blogging payola. This is actually an interest of mine as I’ve done work on radio payola and I’ve been thinking a lot lately about gift exchange.

First of all, Rao’s model is about exchange among bloggers, whereas traditionally payola involves exchange between two different types of actors, such as record labels and radio stations. As I’ve previously discussed, we have seen examples of this with bloggers who seem to be a little too close to political campaigns. Likewise a few years ago the FTC announced that bloggers should disclose when they’d received incentives from companies whose products they were discussing. The business model of Klout is basically to institutionalize this, by quantifying how influential social media users are and then serving as a broker for companies who want to give freebies to relatively influential folks in the hope that they’ll blog or tweet about their experiences.

That said, let’s get back to Rao’s model of blogging, which is that we link to higher status bloggers in the hopes that they’ll reciprocate with a link back. (Did I mention that I saw Rao’s post, via MR?). I’m not sure if I’d exactly call this “payola” but it is an interesting phenomena and is related insofar as it involves an exchange of fame. In fact it closely follows Roger Gould’s model of status. Gould’s model of status is that it’s a combination of preferential attachment and reciprocity. The preferential attachment dynamic means that we prefer to direct our attention towards high-status actors. However the reciprocity heuristic means that we also expect our attention and resources to be reciprocated. To the extent that the high status actors have finite attention with which to reciprocate, the two heuristics are in tension with each other and so in effect low status actors jointly optimize the two heuristics by accepting asymmetric relationships with high status actors, even as they would refuse similarly asymmetric relationships with low status actors. So I am willing to link to Tyler or Megan more than they link to me because they are higher status than I am and so this asymmetry in power makes me grateful for what attention they give me rather than resenting that I give them more attention than they do me.* And in a sense, I should be grateful since their attention is worth so much more than mine, as indicated by a look at the “referrers” section of my WordPress stats.

Nonetheless, as Podolny‘s model of status argues, the Gould model tends to result in cumulative advantage since the preferential attachment heuristic means we are willing to forgo a certain amount of reciprocity when dealing with high status actors. (Note that JLM treats exploitation in patronage as contingent, see figure 6.6 in Social Structures). As such, only occasionally reciprocated links will tend to lead to cumulative advantage in blogging fame.


* It’s hard to describe patronage without sounding like you’re complaining. All I can say is that I have no complaints at all about my relationships with various famous bloggers and I consider some of them to be among my closest friends.

May 17, 2013 at 10:47 am 4 comments

The Culture Geeks