Dr. Strangesoc, or: How I learned to stop worrying and love mathematics

For those of you who don’t know me, my name is Matthew E. Brashears. I’m an Assistant Professor of Sociology at Cornell University and am currently serving as the webmaster for the ASA section on Mathematical Sociology. As a part of my duties as webmaster, I have played a role in organizing this blog. I have done my best to recruit an interesting group of contributors, all of whom have a great deal to say about mathematics, sociology, and the intersection between them. Yet, as I assembled this team, I have often been asked a question. This question has, off and on, been echoed by a variety of colleagues who have learned of my efforts: why? Put more fully: why on earth should an ASA section start a blog?

It is not immediately apparent to most people, or even most academics, what the purpose of a MathSoc section blog is. Surely not to disseminate news- we have our website and newsletter for that. Surely not to offer advice on statistics- we have books and professors for that. Of course, I expect that from time to time we will answer questions about statistics, but that is not the main reason we’re here. So, we return to the original question: why a MathSoc blog? I suspect that for each contributor there will be a reason, but right now I will simply share my own.

The thing to understand is that as an undergraduate I found myself loving science, and particularly social science, but viewing myself as being poor at mathematics. I honestly think part of the appeal of sociology may well have been that it was a science that didn’t seem to require much math. I did well enough- surprisingly well I thought- on the GRE math section, but nevertheless viewed the required graduate statistics courses with a great deal of hesitation. I expected to be a qualitative researcher but wanted to at least be competent with mathematical methods. And so, like many first year graduate students, I began my stats sequence with ill disguised fear.

MathSoc to many first year graduate students

MathSoc to many first year graduate students

In graduate school, much to my shock, I discovered that everything I thought I knew about mathematics and the social sciences was wrong. I discovered, first, a love of social network analysis. As an undergraduate I had never even heard of this area, but I was recruited into my graduate program on the strength of a lecture on SNA during recruitment weekend. It is a decision that I have never regretted. Second, I found that statistics made deep sense to me when they were explained as more than a set of recipes for getting an answer. When the theory and logic behind statistics was explained, including the connections to the philosophy of science, suddenly I found myself fascinated. And perhaps most important, as I started to discover how mathematics could be used to analyze social life, I began to find that I was good at math.

Times have obviously changed for me. Here at Cornell I teach basic statistics to both our undergraduates and to our graduate students. I use quantitative methods in every paper I write. At conferences I tend to show up at panels that feature formal models or explore simulations. And I often find that some of my best research ideas can be expressed most fluently using equations and symbols.

The thing is, I remember that this was not always the case, and I suspect that I will always see the reflection of an uncertain and math-phobic undergraduate in whatever gloss my mathematical mojo acquires. And that, really, is why I want to contribute to this blog. I think that sociology has a lot of very smart, very motivated people. I also think it has vast reservoirs of untapped mathematical talent. We are a discipline that can benefit from the increased, and even enthusiastic, introduction of mathematical insights into our undergraduate and graduate curricula. Yet, if this is to happen, an effort must be made to help everyone who is afraid of math but in love with sociology stop being the former without losing the latter.

Here on Permutations I hope to be a part of this process. I hope you want to join in.

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2 Responses to Dr. Strangesoc, or: How I learned to stop worrying and love mathematics

  1. multimode says:

    Matt Brashears had the idea that a blog for mathematical sociologists might be a way of making some connections among folks who do “formal” analysis in disciplinary sociology. Sounded good to me. I do happen to have a couple colleagues in my home department at U.C. Riverside who don’t think I’m completely mad (they may be wrong in that); but, I suspect that many mathematical sociologists are regarded as something of an oddity in their departments, and could use some social support from time to time.

    Oh, by the way, let me also introduce myself. I’m Bob Hanneman, but I’ll be using “multimode” as a handle for the blog.

    Matt also had the thought that a blog might help make some connections between people who are mathematical sociologists and folks who use similar methods to deal with some related – or maybe just formally similar – problems in other fields. I sure hope so. If any economists, political scientists, psychologists, ecologists, biologists, or any other “…ists” out there have stumbled on this blog, we sure hope you’ll join in. I spend a fair about of time with engineers, computer science types, mathematical statisticians, and ecologists. You do need to learn to deal with a lot of disrespect and/or puzzlement about what we do, but you can learn a lot from it.

    Matt also – without saying it quite so bluntly – thought that it might be time for the older generations of mathematical sociologists (like me) to try some new ways of communicating. OK. I’ve never “blogged” before, and I really am clueless. But I do like to play with software (I expect that others reading this share the same weakness). So, I’ve downloaded the evil empire’s “Window’s Live Writer” (to do off-line editing of blog posts). The software seems OK (I’d bet that other folks use software they like better, though). The on-line tools look good too.

    Mostly, I’d like to share some (often half-baked) thoughts about some of the projects that I’m working on. And, I’d like to hear about what other folks are doing. So I’ll probably be sending a few notes along soon on some things that I’m doing (network evolution and agent-based models of micro-dynamics, systems simulations of societal evolution, various projects that look at multi-modal social networks, a project using qualitative comparative analysis).

  2. Michael Bishop says:

    I want to thank Matt for inviting me to contribute to the blog.

    A little about me… I’m a Ph.D. student at the University of Chicago analyzing academic norms and popularity/centrality with the social network data from the longitudinal study of adolescent health. This is fascinating work, but I am subject to distractions in the academic blogosphere. I think they are a fascinating and wonderful new way share research more widely and more quickly, but they also address important issues that are considered inappropriate for journal publication. One of my goals is to promote exchanges with more established blogs, so they will often be the jumping off point for my posts.

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