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.
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.