Posts tagged ‘sociology of science’

Towards a sociology of living death

| Gabriel |

Daniel Drezner had a post a few months ago talking about how international relations scholars of the four major schools would react to a zombie epidemic. Aside from the sheer fun of talking about something as silly as zombies, it has much the same illuminating satiric purpose as “how many X does it take to screw in a lightbulb” jokes. If you have even a cursory familiarity with IR it is well worth reading.

Here’s my humble attempt to do the same for several schools within sociology. Note that I’m not even to get into the Foucauldian “whose to say that life is ‘normal’ and living death is ‘deviant'” stuff because, really, it would be too easy. Also, I wrote this post last week and originally planned to save it for Halloween, but I figured I’d move it up given that Zombieland is doing so well with critics and at the box office.

Public Opinion. Consider the statement that “Zombies are a growing problem in society.” Would you:

  1. Strongly disagree
  2. Somewhat disagree
  3. Neither agree nor disagree
  4. Somewhat agree
  5. Strongly agree
  6. Um, how do I know you’re really with NORC and not just here to eat my brain?

Criminology. In some areas (e.g., Pittsburgh, Raccoon City), zombification is now more common that attending college or serving in the military and must be understood as a modal life course event. Furthermore, as seen in audit studies employers are unwilling to hire zombies and so the mark of zombification has persistent and reverberating effects throughout undeath (at least until complete decomposition and putrefecation). However race trumps humanity as most employers prefer to hire a white zombie over a black human.

Cultural toolkit. Being mindless, zombies have no cultural toolkit. Rather the great interest is understanding how the cultural toolkits of the living develop and are invoked during unsettled times of uncertainty, such as an onslaught of walking corpses. The human being besieged by zombies is not constrained by culture, but draws upon it. Actors can draw upon such culturally-informed tools as boarding up the windows of a farmhouse, shotgunning the undead, or simply falling into panicked blubbering.

Categorization. There’s a kind of categorical legitimacy problem to zombies. Initially zombies were supernaturally animated dead, they were sluggish but relentlessness, and they sought to eat human brains. In contrast, more recent zombies tend to be infected with a virus that leaves them still living in a biological sense but alters their behavior so as to be savage, oblivious to pain, and nimble. Furthermore even supernatural zombies are not a homogenous set but encompass varying degrees of decomposition. Thus the first issue with zombies is defining what is a zombie and if it is commensurable with similar categories (like an inferius in Harry Potter). This categorical uncertainty has effects in that insurance underwriters systematically undervalue life insurance policies against monsters that are ambiguous to categorize (zombies) as compared to those that fall into a clearly delineated category (vampires).

Neo-institutionalism. Saving humanity from the hordes of the undead is a broad goal that is easily decoupled from the means used to achieve it. Especially given that human survivors need legitimacy in order to command access to scarce resources (e.g., shotgun shells, gasoline), it is more important to use strategies that are perceived as legitimate by trading partners (i.e., other terrified humans you’re trying to recruit into your improvised human survival cooperative) than to develop technically efficient means of dispatching the living dead. Although early on strategies for dealing with the undead (panic, “hole up here until help arrives,” “we have to get out of the city,” developing a vaccine, etc) are practiced where they are most technically efficient, once a strategy achieves legitimacy it spreads via isomorphism to technically inappropriate contexts.

Population ecology. Improvised human survival cooperatives (IHSC) demonstrate the liability of newness in that many are overwhelmed and devoured immediately after formation. Furthermore, IHSC demonstrate the essentially fixed nature of organizations as those IHSC that attempt to change core strategy (eg, from “let’s hole up here until help arrives” to “we have to get out of the city”) show a greatly increased hazard for being overwhelmed and devoured.

Diffusion. Viral zombieism (e.g. Resident Evil, 28 Days Later) tends to start with a single patient zero whereas supernatural zombieism (e.g. Night of the Living Dead, the “Thriller” video) tends to start with all recently deceased bodies rising from the grave. By seeing whether the diffusion curve for zombieism more closely approximates a Bass mixed-influence model or a classic s-curve we can estimate whether zombieism is supernatural or viral, and therefore whether policy-makers should direct grants towards biomedical labs to develop a zombie vaccine or the Catholic Church to give priests a crash course in the neglected art of exorcism. Furthermore marketers can plug plausible assumptions into the Bass model so as to make projections of the size of the zombie market over time, and thus how quickly to start manufacturing such products as brain-flavored Doritos.

Social movements. The dominant debate is the extent to which anti-zombie mobilization represents changes in the political opportunity structure brought on by complete societal collapse as compared to an essentially expressive act related to cultural dislocation and contested space. Supporting the latter interpretation is that zombie hunting militias are especially likely to form in counties that have seen recent increases in immigration. (The finding holds even when controlling for such variables as gun registrations, log distance to the nearest army administered “safe zone,” etc.).

Family. Zombieism doesn’t just affect individuals, but families. Having a zombie in the family involves an average of 25 hours of care work per week, including such tasks as going to the butcher to buy pig brains, repairing the boarding that keeps the zombie securely in the basement and away from the rest of the family, and washing a variety of stains out of the zombie’s tattered clothing. Almost all of this care work is performed by women and very little of it is done by paid care workers as no care worker in her right mind is willing to be in a house with a zombie.

Applied micro-economics. We combine two unique datasets, the first being military satellite imagery of zombie mobs and the second records salvaged from the wreckage of Exxon/Mobil headquarters showing which gas stations were due to be refueled just before the start of the zombie epidemic. Since humans can use salvaged gasoline either to set the undead on fire or to power vehicles, chainsaws, etc., we have a source of plausibly exogenous heterogeneity in showing which neighborhoods were more or less hospitable environments for zombies. We show that zombies tended to shuffle towards neighborhoods with low stocks of gasoline. Hence, we find that zombies respond to incentives (just like school teachers, and sumo wrestlers, and crack dealers, and realtors, and hookers, …).

Grounded theory. One cannot fully appreciate zombies by imposing a pre-existing theoretical framework on zombies. Only participant observation can allow one to provide a thick description of the mindless zombie perspective. Unfortunately scientistic institutions tend to be unsupportive of this kind of research. Major research funders reject as “too vague and insufficiently theory-driven” proposals that describe the intention to see what findings emerge from roaming about feasting on the living. Likewise IRB panels raise issues about whether a zombie can give informed consent and whether it is ethical to kill the living and eat their brains.

Ethnomethodology. Zombieism is not so much a state of being as a set of practices and cultural scripts. It is not that one is a zombie but that one does being a zombie such that zombieism is created and enacted through interaction. Even if one is “objectively” a mindless animated corpse, one cannot really be said to be fulfilling one’s cultural role as a zombie unless one shuffles across the landscape in search of brains.

Conversation Analysis.

1  HUMAN:    Hello, (0.5) Uh, I uh, (Ya know) is anyone in there?
2  ZOMBIE1:  Br:ai[ns], =
3  ZOMBIE2:       [Br]:ain[s]
4  ZOMBIE1:              =[B]r:ains
5  HUMAN:    Uh, I uh= li:ke, Hello? =
6  ZOMBIE1:  Br:ai:ns!
7  (0.5)
8  HUMAN:    Die >motherfuckers!<
9  SHOTGUN:  Bang! (0.1) =
10 ZOMBIE1:  Aa:ar:gg[gh!]
11 SHOTGUN:         =[Chk]-Chk, (0.1) Bang!

October 13, 2009 at 4:24 am 21 comments

So long (distinctive) Notre Dame economics

| Gabriel |

For many years Notre Dame had a “heterodox” economics department known for approaches that were less rosy on laissez-faire policy and formal modeling methods than your typical econ department. A few years ago the university created a conventional econ department alongside the heterodox department. Now it is closing down the old heterodox department and spreading the faculty among sister departments.

Even though I’m an economic sociologist (and thus by definition think conventional economics leaves out a lot of interesting stuff about markets and exchange), I think overall Chicago style economics has a more accurate and parsimonious model of exchange than does the style of economics that we can no longer associate with Notre Dame. Nonetheless even though I don’t agree with many of their models and conclusions, I think it’s unequivocally a shame both for economics as a discipline and Notre Dame as an institution that a department providing a distinctive perspective has been turned into yet another second-tier conventional department.

First, what this means for economics as a discipline. The development of ideas come out of meaningful intellectual diversity, especially when there are viable circles where people who have novel ideas can bounce off of each other. So long as the departure from the discipline’s dominant paradigm is not truly ridiculous (e.g., a biology or geology department known for young Earth creationism), I think it’s healthy for the field to have a few circles that break from the consensus.

Second, for Notre Dame as an institution. Notre Dame is embracing the strategy of middle-range conformity and this strikes me as a bad idea. Let’s take it as granted that there is no way that Notre Dame economics is going to crack the US News or NRC top 10 in the medium-term. If so, it seems like Notre Dame is better having a deviant but distinctive department than a conventional department without any reputation at all (in the Zuckerman “focused identity” sense). This is the exact opposite of the famous GMU strategy to raise up their third-tier law school and econ department into the top half of the second-tier by developing a high profile and distinctive identity by emphasizing “law and economics” and the Austrian school. This was incredibly successful and managed to put GMU on the map (and raise the profile of these ideas, see point #1). GMU administrators describe their strategy as “moneyball,” meaning they found a niche with a lot of unappreciated and underpriced faculty talent, but I think of equal or greater importance was that they created a very focused and distinctive identity. [See the Crooked Timber book symposium on Rise of the Conservative Legal Movement for some very interesting thoughts on this].

The only way it could possibly benefit Notre Dame is in undergraduate education, if we feel (plausibly but not certainly) that undergraduates benefit from learning the conventional theories and (plausibly but not certainly) that most high school seniors aren’t aware of the specific intellectual reputations of specific departments. However if undergraduates know broadly what to expect of an institution (perhaps because Catholic universities are known for embracing the church’s “social doctrine” of center-left economic policy) then they’ll understand what they are signing up for and I think it’s good that they have the option of choosing an unconventional economics education.

Finally, I think it’s ironic that conventional economics assumptions of perfect information and free competition make a more plausible case that Notre Dame should keep a heterodox econ department (for reasons of undergrad pedagogy) than do the heterodox assumptions of bounded rationality and captive audiences. On the other hand, heterodox econ and econ soc are much better at predicting that Notre Dame would conform to disciplinary conventions.

September 22, 2009 at 4:56 am

Data collection

| Gabriel |

A few months ago I took this picture at a rest stop on I-40 near Tucumcari, New Mexico.

It struck me as pretty funny that the highway department would collect quality control data in this way. On ruminating about it, there’s a kind of McLuhanesque “medium is the message” quality to it in that a survey conducted with push buttons and lightbulbs is necessarily going to be terse and to the point. Compare this to your standard social science or marketing survey, gavaged with the “usual suspects” battery of demographic background questions, the interminable list of Likert-scale questions that are only slight paraphrases of each other, etc.

August 17, 2009 at 5:00 am 1 comment

Scientific Inference, part 1 of 4

Last week I listened to this bloggingheads diavlog between Lipson and Stemwendel and I found it to be really interesting since a lot of philosophy of science and sociology of science is implicit in their conversation. The focus of their conversation is alternative medicine (which they agree is mostly hogwash) and particularly Senator Harkin’s advocacy of continued funding for the National Center on Complementary and Alternative Medicine (NCCAM).

Stemwendel seems to think there is some value in finding the null and disproving kooky ideas, but Lipson takes an even harder line and argues that ideas which are nonsense on the face of it don’t deserved to be dignified by an empirical test (in part because of the problem of false positives being exaggerated by publication bias). I entirely agree with them about the relative merits of traditional vs. alternative medicine and I actually get angry when I hear bullshit about thimerasol or magnets or vague “toxins” but I also had a series of reactions to this issue on a meta level.

Nonetheless, my initial reaction to this was, wow, talk about social closure. Here we have an instance of a contested field and the dominant faction in the field is arguing that the subordinate faction is ipso facto illegitimate and its ideas don’t even merit a hearing. Even though I support the dominant faction on the merits this still seems like the kind of thing that would make J.S. Mill and Karl Popper turn over in their respective graves.

Then I was thinking about how this social closure problem is particularly severe since there’s the structural bias that, unlike traditional medicine, alternative medicine can’t get funding from big pharmaceutical companies and so it’s government grants or nothing. This is a common argument you hear from alternative medicine advocates but when you think about it, it doesn’t really make sense. The argument has several implicit assumptions:

  • Alternative medicine is not commercial
  • Alternative medicine can’t be protected by intellectual property law
  • Intellectual property law is the only way to capture rents from intellectual property

All of these assumptions are false. First, Alternative medicine actually involves a lot of commerce (which unlike traditional medicine is on a cash basis as it’s usually not covered by insurance and thus, if anything, it’s even more commercial). Some of this could be covered by intellectual property law (most of the little gadgets and doodads they produce are patentable) but much of it is not. Nonetheless this doesn’t mean that the sponsors of research can’t make money off of it. You could imagine scenarios under which research could be a kind of club good allowing the sponsors of the research to capture most of the rents flowing from it. For instance, pomegranates have been around at least since Persephone ate those seeds and so it seems like they would be long since off-patent, and hence there would be no private sector incentive to sponsor research promoting pomegranates. Nonetheless a major pomegranate processing company did sponsor research into pomegranates which is why you now see all those ads talking about antioxidants. The processor owned enough of the market that they were able to capture the rents associated with research making pomegranates more attractive, even though at first glance they seem like a commodity. Likewise you might imagine that some kind of major alternative medicine facility (like the Victorian-era resort in “The Road to Wellsville”) could profit by promoting techniques even if it couldn’t patent them.

My final thought was to unpack what it means to say that even if a hypothesis is testable, it is such utter nonsense that it doesn’t deserve to be tested. For instance, consider the claim that putting magnets in your shoes will align your energy field which will improve your health. It would be easy to design a very rigorous experiment that would test this hypothesis. In this sense Popper and the positivists would approve of it as a hypothesis. However the hypothesis is completely incommensurable with the body of scientific knowledge about human physiology. In other words, it falls outside the paradigm. A lot of people (especially those who haven’t actually read Kuhn) see paradigms as a bad thing, a mechanism for social closure and close-mindedness. However Kuhn makes a positive case for paradigms in that it is impossible to come to the world as a naive empiricist and accomplish anything useful. A paradigm is necessary to give order to the world sufficient to motivate hypotheses and make sense of specific findings. In this sense when Lipson argues for defunding NCCAM he’s really making a very Kuhnian argument — we have a paradigm, it seems to be a pretty good paradigm (i.e., it has few anomalies and continues to inspire productive research agendas), and let’s not get distracted with stuff that falls outside of it.

Since we’re now getting into the philosophy of science, over the next few days I’ll be posting my lecture notes on the subject in a series of three posts.

March 30, 2009 at 9:45 am

Newer Posts

The Culture Geeks