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.

Jeremy Freese (who I met last week during a brief trip to Evanston and who turns out to be as awesome in person as he is online and in print!) and the scatterplotters revealed this week (gasp!) that nobody who’s anybody pays attention to the page limit guidelines for ASA submissions.

Page limit? What page limit? (photo 2009 by Sara Grajeda cc-by-nc-nd)

This page limit absorbed way too much of a close friend’s time this week, but the fact that many ASA submitters do not pay any attention to it is not a shocker.

Indeed, many ASA attendees treat the conference like you might treat an annoying relative: fundamentally flawed in ways that are both too numerous to mention and too deep to try to be repaired, but nonetheless sufficiently unavoidable once a year that you reconcile your differences and do what you need to do in order to visit.

Having also spent a little bit of time at conferences that are not sociology conferences, I can say that ASA is not extraordinarily bad. Aspects of ICA, CHI, and CSCW are equally broken and all the brokenness serves as a vivid reminder that institution-building remains a hard difficult process – even for people who study institutions, collaboration, and human behavior.

That said, there are some pieces of ASA that work quite well and maybe, if as olderwoman and Jeremy note in the comments, we want to inform future policy decisions around these issues, it’s worth distinguishing between what’s broken and what’s not a little more clearly.

So, with that in mind, here are a few things that I like about ASA:

  • Socializing with colleagues and peers (In particular, I recommend the Berkeley Sociology department’s annual party).
  • One-stop-shop access to colleagues and friends who you never see in one place otherwise.
  • Cross-generational dialogues with scholars and students of all ages.
  • The occasional great presentation or conversation about research.

And here are some negatives (beyond the page limit):

  • Socializing with colleagues and peers (has its dark side too).
  • A bizarrely large program that is painful to read and navigate.
  • Soul-crushingly boring & nearly uniform format of panels and presentations.
  • An arbitrary, unblind, single review process for submissions.
  • The horrible tools and information made available to conference attendees for searching presentations and panels.

I’d be curious what pieces of other peoples’ positive and negative ASA experiences I’m missing. Other thoughts? Feedback? See you in the comments…

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.

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.

Everybody and their cousin’s got a link to Duncan Watt’s recent NYTimes Magazine piece on cumulative advantage. It’s a nice bit of public sociology and an interesting application of experimental methods to understand how social networks function.

The argument also has implications for the ongoing debates about the nature of the networked public sphere. Watt’s results suggest that there may be some merit to the position of folks like U Chicago’s Cass Sunstein, who claims that big media has historically promoted civic virtues by exposing us to ideas we wouldn’t encounter by googling alone. If, as Watts says, people’s interests are over-determined by knowledge of what is popular, then search algorithms predicated on popularity (like “PageRank“) could produce a feedback mechanism that stifles diversity in public debate. To adopt Matthew Hindman’s phrase, we’d be left with “googlearchy.”

Yochai Benkler has disagreed with both of these views for a while [full disclosure: I currently work as a research assistant for Benkler], in part because they both idealize the state of public discourse prior to the creation of the Internet. Watt’s data could just as easily be turned around to make the claim that traditional print media and television – much like the recording industry – were giving us a false impression of popularity (or importance) that only reflected the prejudices of a handful of editors and industry executives. By disseminating these perspectives widely, the big media therefore imposed an elitist politics and outlook on the public as a whole.

I’ll have to do some more thinking and reading to figure out where I fall on this issue – but for the moment, studies like Watts’ shed important light on the complex nature of social networks and reputation on the role of information in society.

I just got back from hearing Kieran Healy’s presentation of his latest research at the Harvard Economic Sociology Seminar. In this new project, he seeks to apply the performativity thesis – that so-called calculative technologies do not merely describe the world, but reformat it in their own image – beyond studies of financial markets and economics. The talk elaborated a preliminary sketch of how the rise of social network theory might have followed a comparable pattern through its subsequent formalization in the Internet.

Since this is still unpublished and very much work-in-progress, I won’t say more about the details of Kieran’s argument; however, the talk got me thinking about a broader issue that has not attracted sufficient attention in the existing work on performativity within economic sociology.

Without question, the most well-substantiated work in this area is Donald MacKenzie’s An Engine Not a Camera (2006). MacKenzie does an excellent job methodically documenting the impact of finance theory on financial markets during the latter half of the twentieth century. Yet, despite MacKenzie’s attention to detail and thorough support for his theoretical claims, it is his theory that proves somewhat unsatisfying in the end. Performativity theory’s greatest weakness – as it currently stands – remains its inability to explain why certain calculative technologies (theories, formulae, models, etc.) gain greater purchase on the world than others. This is important for several reasons, but the one that most interests me has to do with the role of power and institutions.

Ultimately, all ideas – like the people that create and apply them – are not created equal. Within the context of MacKenzie’s work, the Black-Scholes-Merton options pricing model gained traction in the world partly on the basis of its scientific merits (precision, validity, elegance, etc.) and partly on the basis of its political and social position. Performativity theory pays attention to the first of these factors at the expense of the second.

Without an adequate analysis of the role of power and institutions in shaping the outcomes of a given scientific field, it is very difficult to understand why one model of the world wins out over the competition. If you can’t explain that, the value of performativity as an analytical tool becomes limited.

To put the problem in concrete terms, I’ll borrow an example that did come up in Healy’s talk and which has frequently been a topic of concern for scholars of the Internet. How do we explain the success of Google? Did Larry and Sergey merely find the correct algorithm that most accurately described the emerging social space of the web? Clearly not. It would be more precise to say that they applied a set of theories about how information and knowledge function in the world and formalized those theories into the famous “Page Rank” algorithm. Page Rank went on to radically transform the way that people use and understand the Internet, spawning an entire sub-industry of consultants seeking to game their formula (an area of work known as Search Engine Optimization, or SEO for short). Ta-da! Performativity in action!

Not so fast. I’d wager that Larry and Sergey’s success – and therefore the success of their spiffy little algorithm – had everything to do with the institutional setting and power-dynamics of the field within which they worked at the time. The Stanford University Computer Science Department and the Silicon Valley of the late 1990’s needs a larger place in this story if we want to understand where Larry and Sergey’s ideas came from, how they got the money for their start-up, and what sorts of problems they ran into (or not) along the way.

Somebody will tell this story well at some point – whether they do so in the peculiar language of sociological theory is not really important. What matters is that they recognize that without both the calculative technology and the institutional context you ultimately can’t explain very much about the current shape of the Network Society.