Image from BoingBoing (cc-by-nc).

In the midst of all the excitement about the Higgs Boson, I’m not the only one who has been fascinated by the metaphors that different people use to try to explain what’s going on to us non-physicists.

Depending on who you ask, the Higgs field might be better imagined as a giraffe or paparazzi or a swimming pool. The best explanation anybody’s encountered was a hand-drawn animation. Meanwhile, the Higgs particle itself has been compared (figuratively) with God. The research project itself has even been set to song .

All of this led me to think a little more about the fact that metaphors are among the best linguistic tools you can imagine when it comes time to explain a complex idea to someone who is (relatively speaking) clueless about the topic in question.

So that (and the more general notion that academics ought to put Malcolm Gladwell out of business <link>) got me thinking about some big sociological ideas that could do with a bit more metaphori-ification (?) in order to make them more intelligible.

First on my list is the notion of social structure – or maybe any of the big, structural social forces that contribute to the reproduction of social inequality (e.g. class, race, gender, etc.).

Even though it’s important to continue to think and argue about exactly how these phenomena operate, it’s critical to communicate that, in general, social forces are often invisible and never equally experienced by everyone, even though they effect everyone to some extent or another.

In other words, socioeconomic structure could be thought of as a sort of Higgs field in its own right — conditions of birth, early childhood, culture, and socialization impart a certain, relative amount of “mass” (poverty? oppression?) to individuals, who are then generally able to move more or less easily through the social world as a result.

Does this make sense? Are there other, better ways to explain complex sociological notions in a manner that do not involve the words habitus, governmentality, hegemony, institutions, etc. but that also do not deviate too far from the way sociologists use them? For someone who has never encountered such theoretical jargon, these terms can be literally meaningless and it’s up to someone else who understands them to provide some sort of conceptual bootstraps so that the rest of us can haul ourselves up.

Matt Salganik and Karen Levy (both of the Princeton Sociology Department) recently released a working paper about what they call “Wiki Surveys” that raises several important points regarding the limitations of traditional survey research and the potential of participatory online information aggregation systems to transform the way we think about public opinion research more broadly.

Their core insight stems from the idea that traditional survey research based on probability sampling leaves a ton of potentially valuable information on the table. This graph summarizes that idea in an extraordinarily elegant (I would say brilliant) way:

Figure 1 from Salganik and Levy (2012), which they title: "a schematic rank order plot of contributions to successful information aggregation systems on the Web."

Think of the plot as existing within the space of all possible opinion data on a particular issue (or set of issues). No method exists for collecting all the data from all of the people whose opinions are represented by that space, so the best you – or any researcher – can do is find a way to collect a meaningful subset of that data that will allow you to estimate some characteristics of the space.

The area under the curve thus represents the total amount of information that you could possibly collect with a hypothetical survey instrument distributed to a hypothetical population (or sample) of respondents.

Traditional surveys based on probability sampling techniques restrict their analysis to the subset of data from respondents for whom they can collect complete answers to a pre-defined subset of closed-ended questions (represented here by the small white rectangle in the bottom left corner of the plot). This approach loses at least two kinds of information:

  1. the additional data that some respondents would be happy to provide if researchers asked them additional questions or left questions open-ended (the fat “head” under the upper part of the curve above the white rectangle);
  2. the partial data that some respondents would provide if researchers had a meaningful way of utilizing incomplete responses, which are usually thrown out or, at best, used to make estimates about the characteristics of whether attrition from the study was random or not (this is the long “tail” under the part of the curve to the right of the white rectangle).

Salganik and Levy go on to argue that many wiki-like systems and other sorts of “open” online aggregation platforms that do not filter contributions before incorporating them into some larger information pool illustrate ways in which researchers could capture a larger proportion of the data under the curve. They then elaborate some statistical techniques for estimating public opinion from the subset of information under the curve and detail their experiences applying theses techniques in collaboration with two organizations (the New York City Mayor’s Office and the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, or OECD).

If you’re not familiar with matrix algebra and Bayesian inference, the statistical part of the paper probably won’t make much sense, but I encourage anyone interested in collective intelligence, surveys, public opinion, online information systems, or social science research methods to read the paper anyway.

Overall, I think Salganik and Levy have taken an incredibly creative approach to a very deeply entrenched set of analytical problems that most social scientists studying public opinion would simply prefer to ignore! As a result, I hope their work finds a wide and receptive audience.

Tony Curzon Price has a thoughtful piece at Open Democracy in which he examines what he calls The G20’s sins of commission.

I’m interested in a whole bunch of angles that Price explores, but the money shot for all you global governance and development geeks out there is a graph Curzon Price recycles from Paul Swartz at Council on Foreign Affairs Geo-Graphics blog:

Curzon Price goes on to use the graph to make an interesting (and important) claim about the implications of China’s newfound romance with the IFI’s and global regulation.

I, on the other hand, thought it would be kind of fun to play with the graph to try to get a better sense of what may have driven these changes in the IMF’s role over time. Since Swartz doesn’t share the data or source for his graphic, I’m reduced to hacking around with the .jpg in the GIMP (which made for a really fun distraction during a meeting the other day). Apologies for the resulting visual clutter, but here’s the same graph with some new knobs and bits. The bigger dots correspond to the events that accompanied the biggest shifts:

My jumbled, colorful dots represent a few of the most relevant political and economic events of the past thirty years. What’s interesting to note is which ones seem to correlate with changes in the IMF’s role as the “lender of last resort” for the Global South. Here’s the key to the dots:

  1. Margaret Thatcher elected: May 1979
  2. Black Monday: Dec 1987
  3. Berlin Wall taken down: November, 1989
  4. Soviet Union Collapses: December 8, 1991
  5. Mexican Peso crisis: Dec 1994
  6. Asian Financial crisis: July 1997
  7. Brazil devalues the Real: Jan 1999
  8. Dot-com bubble bursts: March 10, 2000
  9. September 11, 2001
  10. Argentine debt default: Dec 2001
  11. US invades Iraq: March 20, 2003
  12. Brazil and Argentina pay off IMF debts: Dec. 2005
  13. Global Recession: October 2008

Some of the things I thought might correlate with sudden changes in the global weight of IMF lending – such as Black Monday (2); the Dot-com bubble burst (8); Argentina and Brazil paying off their debts (12) – didn’t seem to matter at all.

Others – such as Thatcher’s (and Reagan’s) election (1); the Mexican Peso crisis (5); and the 1-2 combo of the Asian (6) and Brazilian (7) financial crises – appear magnified when seen through this lens.

Most intriguing to me is the long steep slide that occurs following September 11, 2001 (9). My inclination is to explain that as the result of a perfect storm that combined the eroding credibility of the IMF (Joe Stiglitz, eat your heart out!) and a real estate derivative and petro-dollar fueled explosion of private lending world-wide. No matter how you slice it, though, there’s no denying that the world financial system has gone through some exceptionally dramatic changes in the last ten years.

Other than that, I don’t have a flashy Theory of Everything to explain all the data here. Heck, as I said, I don’t even have the data. Nevertheless, it’s fun to speculate.

Chris Soghoian describes how he bumped up against Google’s questionable ad-sense trademark enforcement policies.

Soghoian’s story is troubling and it exposes yet another way in which the structure of web traffic has positioned Google as a de-facto arbiter of all kinds of legal speech, political salience, and good taste. More broadly, it demonstrates how key actors and institutions exercise influence in the networked public sphere.

For more on that idea, check out Matthew Hindman’s research. In his new book, The Myth of Digital Democracy, Hindman makes a related argument in a number of different ways, not the least of which is his compelling notion of “Googlearchy.” I disagree with Matt on a number of substantive points, but the significance of his analysis is undeniable. His work complements more established models for thinking about how social structure circumscribes certain kinds of thought and action.

One of the fascinating aspects of the Internet is that powerful forms of social order & status originate in seemingly innocuous expressions of aggregated opinions (e.g. the PageRank algorithm). Hindman’s work takes on the notion that such aggregated opinions are somehow equivalent to a utopian radical democracy or a free market of ideas.

In this sense, his argument parallels the work of economic sociologists, many of whom have analyzed the importance of the “embeddedness” of economic markets. Simply put, the thesis behind the concept of embeddedness is that the sorts of decentralized, disaggregated behaviors that occur in market-like settings are always an extension of the social and cultural contexts in which they occur. It’s a relatively simple idea, but it violates one of the core assumptions of neo-classical economic theory: that markets are a free and accurate expression of individual actors expressing rational preferences for the enhancement of their own wealth and welfare.

Sociologists such as Viviana Zelizer have shown how the economists’ assumptions break down in markets for deeply valued cultural goods such as intimacy and adoption. More recently, a number of scholars (including Marion Fourcade – a professor of mine at Berkeley) have taken up the idea that financial markets are also expressions of (economists’) cultural preferences and not merely an aggregated form of pure rationality.

Considering Hindman’s work and the continuing emergence of experiences like Soghoian’s, I think there’s a case to be made that research on the embeddedness of search technology might be a promising topic. Granted, I don’t know if there are many “neo-classical” information theorists out there that would be willing to defend the straw-man position that search technology serves up knowledge in a pure and rational form.

My trusty RSS feeds have turned up two interesting recent posts on the subject of the Obama campaign and it’s implications for the future of governance in a networked society.

First, David Lazer, professor at Harvard’s Kennedy School and Director of the Program on Networked Governance, asks some big questions (emphasis added):

The lights are not going off on this operation. If Obama loses, the network provides him an instant infrastructure to run again. The more intriguing question to me, as a student of politics, is what happens if, as seems likely right now, he wins. There are inter-related political and strategic questions. On the political side, the question is how Obama might use the apparatus to help him govern. Does he directly appeal to his e-mail list to support his policy objectives? There are, on average, about four thousand politically active Obama supporters in each Congressional district–that could be a lot of letters to Members.

And a few lines down:

On the strategic side, the question is to what extent does the apparatus continue to evolve to allow grassroots involvement, and to what extent does stuff flow up as well as down? In the long run, the only way that there will be some stickiness to the structure is if the people who have been involved can mobilize for local action, can connect to each other, and feel that their voices matter.

network cables (photo by pascal.charest cc-by-nc-nd)

network cables (photo by pascal.charest cc-by-nc-nd)

Meanwhile, Joshua-Michele Ross at O’Reilly interviews Jascha Franklin-Hodge (founder and CTO of Blue State Digital, or BSD), who offers some partial answers to many of the same questions.

I recommend reading the whole post (and watching the videos, if you’re more of a visual person or whatever), but here’s the bullet-point version of Ross’s claims if you absolutely insist (emphasis removed from the original):

  1. Online U.S. political communities will morph from a campaign fundraising role to a governing role.
  2. Rather than one centrally governed behemoth, MyBO is enabling a thousand small campaigns to flourish…This kind of swarm politics has generated enormous amounts of energy (and money) from ordinary citizens.
  3. Technology (infrastructure and know-how) will become a necessary core competence in all U.S. political campaigns…Campaigns that maintain or are able to tap into a continuity of software, infrastructure and human capital will have serious advantage.
  4. When lobbyist data, earmark data etc. is available in standard formats it will be a great leap forward for more transparency in government.

Responses 1-3 are in varying stages of already being true. Number 4, on the other hand, has a long way to go (although the folks at the Sunlight Foundation are plugging away on that front).

Whether Franklin-Hodge’s vision of digital democracy comes to fruition, the devil will be in the details. An underlying concern voiced by Lazer is how the nodes (citizens and groups) at the edges of U.S. politics might use digital networks to enhance traditional mechanisms of representation (politicians and political parties). I would build off this insight to ask both authors whether they think the architecture of the network and the technologies that run it will also play an important role in determining the fate of netwoked democracy? If so, how do we design networks to facilitate democratic practice?

As a number of folks have argued, the choice of particular platforms and standards will enable certain forms of civic engagement while foreclosing or devaluing others. Furthermore, just because voters could gain access to the same kinds of technologies doesn’t mean they’ll use them equally effectively or even in the same ways (check out Eszter Hargittai’s research on skillful Internet use if you want some really sobering examples).

All of this is to say that the prospect of a networked polis (like a networked public sphere) presents a number of problems and challenges that few (if any) societies have been able to resolve with earlier communications technologies or institutional formations. In the ancient Greek version of the polis, a narrow class of citizens (land-owning men of means) had the ability and the right to participate. While contemporary democracies have become more populist and inclusive, the reality is that the playing field remains wildly uneven in favor of the wealthy, the well-educated, and the well-connected.

If the future imagined by Franklin-Hodge, Lazer, and others indeed comes to pass, all the fiber optic cable in the world will not make the democratization of effective citizenship any less of an uphill battle.

A second large international survey has found that Danes are the world’s happiest people.

”]Photo by World of Oddy (CC-BY-NC-SA)The Der Spiegel article linked to above offers a few explanations, including a quasi-structuralist class analysis:

The strong social safety nets that cradle Danish citizens from birth until death are welcoming to foreigners, too. Kate Vial, a 55-year-old American expat who has lived and worked in Denmark for more than 30 years, passed up opportunities over the years to return to the U.S., choosing instead to raise her three children in Denmark. Vial knows she will never be rich, but says that she valued family, the ability to travel, and simple economic security above all else. “I just chose a simpler lifestyle, one where I could ride my bike all over and where I don’t have to make a great living to survive,” she says.

And a more culturalist version:

Some people attribute the prevailing attitude among Danes to something less tangible, called hygge (pronounced “hooga”). Danes say the word is difficult to translate — and to comprehend — but that it describes a cozy, convivial sentiment that involves strong family bonds. “The gist of it is that you don’t have to do anything except let go,” says Vial. “It’s a combination of relaxing, eating, drinking, partying, spending time with family.”

Gotta get me some of that hygge.

In the meantime, I’m sure a bumper crop of follow up studies will try to explain the results. Personally, I wonder what sorts of behavioral and political results stem from being happy. Are Danes more cooperative? Do they smile more? If you walk into a bar full of Danes and tell a bad joke, are they more likely to laugh?

Please share your own theories, questions, and dim-witted asides (along with any spare hygge you may have lying around the house) in the comments…

Copyright law guru William Patry takes a look at Robert Merton’s thoughts on the ownership of ideas.

The moral of the story: the notion of originality (and therefore ownership in some sense) is vastly overrated.

Patry links to a number of Merton’s essays as well as his ASA Presidential address. I’ll be following up since I’m long overdue to read a lot more Merton.