Content Analysis of Pop Lyrics for Cultural Narcissism

April 9, 2011

Mark Liberman, over at Language Log, is discussing a content analysis of pop lyrics. Are trends in cultural narcissism picked up by the changing frequency of first-person pronouns? It seems like an interesting idea, but Liberman shows that their data analysis and interpretation is lacking. The original study claims to find a steady increase in the use of first-person pronouns since 1980, but, as Mark shows, their own data points to a decline in recent years.

I’ll add data on published books from google ngrams to the discussion.

The graph above would suggest the trend in cultural narcissism is flat until the late nineties, and only then starts increasing. But maybe books are merely a lagging indicator relative to pop lyrics?

No, I’m afraid that can’t save the thesis either. Look what happens when I plot other pronouns:

Looks like a general increase in the use of pronouns in the late 1990s.

Play with the google ngrams for “me”, “mine”, “my”, “I” yourself.
Capitalizations are less common so I put them on a separate graph:“Me”, “My”, “Mine”.

“myself”, “yourself”, “yourselves”


The Abuse of Language

May 11, 2010

I cannot rigorously define “the abuse of language,” but I can offer one example:

Arnold Kling recently asked his blog readers whether they belong to the Church of Unlimited Government.  Sounds pretty bad to me, I don’t think I want any part of that.  But wait, though he never defines it carefully, it seems Kling would put you in the Church of Unlimited Government unless you value limited government for its own sake.

In other words, you could favor school vouchers, privatizing the post office, and cutting the military budget in half, but if you favored those proposals because (and only because) you thought they’d have good consequences (e.g. better schools, lower taxes, better foreign relations, etc.) then you could still be accused of belonging to the Church of Unlimited Government.

It is understandable, and unavoidable, that people will frame issues to make their views sound appealing, but hopefully social scientists can enforce a norm of using more mutually acceptable language.  It is a part of debating charitably.

Anyone want to offer another example of the abuse of language?


How to talk about Association

October 30, 2009

Statistician and political scientist Andrew Gelman recently offered some thoughts on how to talk about associations that could be causal.  In my opinion, even when we limit ourselves to high quality scholarship, some work offers far more evidence of causality than other work.  The evidence for this claim, and the consequences which follow from it, should be the topic of much future research (and blog posts).  In our research, many of us want to make claims that sound like, e.g. “on average, an hour of studying improves final exam scores by 5%,” which we might consider, “a strong effect of studying on test scores.”  When is this causal language justified?  First of all, I think every paper needs to address potential threats to causal interpretations.  Randomized controlled trials, and natural experiments, have the best claim to proving causal relationships – they clearly justify the causal language above.  But with appropriate qualifications, I think a paper using propensity score matching/stratification, and in many contexts, plain old regression techniques (especially, e.g. diffs-in-diffs) can justify the use of causal language.  The truth is, the devil is in the details.  In general, I think we sociologists could be a little more careful in our use of causal language.  Of course, causality isn’t everything.  How to weigh the importance of demonstrating causality versus other important goals in our research is a very difficult question.