Statistical Teaching (bleg)

November 20, 2012

Ok, in my research methods class, we are hitting an overview of statistics in the closing weeks of the semester. As such, i would prefer to include some empirical examples to visualize the things we’re going to talk about that are fun / outside my typical wheelhouse. So, do you have any favorite (read: typical, atypical, surprising, bizarre, differentially distributed, etc.) examples of univariate distributions and/or bivariate associations that may “stick” in their memories when they see them presented visually? I have plenty of “standard” examples i could draw from, but they’re likely bored with the one’s i think of first by this point in the term. So, what are yours? It’s fine if you just have the numbers, i can convert them to visualizations, but if you have visual pointers, all the better.

(cross posted)


Rojas Makes the Case for Formal Models in Sociology

March 4, 2011

Fabio makes his case here, but the debate began in the comments of this post.

While I’m sympathetic, I’m even more enthusiastic about sociologists learning to program. I’m working on that myself.

Ngrams of Social Science Disciplines

January 24, 2011

An “ngram” is an n-word phrase.  So, “human science” is a 2-gram.  If you’ve been living under a rock, you may not have heard about the latest gift from google – having scanned most published books in a number of major languages, they recently provided us the data, and a tool for easy visualization, of the relative popularity of words and phrases over time.  I thought I’d explore some terms of broad interest to sociologists with no particular idea about what I’d find.  Please take a look and help me interpret them.

Below you’ll find the relative frequency with which the major social scientific disciplines (plus psychology) are mentioned in books.  Let me explain the numbers on the Y-axis.  “psychology” is the most common word.  In 1950, it accounted for about 0.0034% of all words published.  In other words, google takes all the books published in a given year, and counts how many occurrences there are for each word.  Then it divides that number by the total number of words published.  There are many methodological considerations… for example, each book only counts once, regardless of how many copies are sold.

So what do we see?  Well, the rank order doesn’t really change over time.  Psychology gets the most mentions, then economics, sociology, anthropology and finally political science.  It’s tempting to interpret this as measuring the prominence of each discipline, but this isn’t a great test.  For starters, authors aren’t generally referring to the academic discipline when they use the word “psychology,” but they are when they use the phrase “political science.”  Sociology is probably between the two in terms of, “the share of word-mentions which actually refer to the academic discipline.”

I feel a bit more comfortable making inferences based on how each of these terms changes over time.  For example.  In in 1950, sociology received almost twice as many mentions as anthropology.  The situation was similar in 1980.  But in 1999, anthropology achieved parity with sociology, and they have been close to even in the decade since.  This appears to be evidence that anthropology gained prominence, relative to sociology, in the last half of the twentieth century.  Naturally, I don’t think we should put too much stock in this single measure of prominence.  We might want to look at trends in the number of students, and people working in each discipline.  We could count mentions in periodicals, citations to academic articles.  We could look to see how each word is used, and how much their usage changes over time.  Do these other measures corroborate, counter, or otherwise contextualize these trends?

I can’t give you easy access to all that data, but you can explore ngrams for yourself!

So readers, what do you see in this graph?  Care to nominate and discuss plausible/potentially useful and/or plainly dangerous assumptions that help us interpret these ngrams or lead us astray?

Teaching “The Wire”

October 26, 2010

We’ve had a number of posts here before about teaching.  Here’s a question I’ve seen debated a fair bit: does HBO’s, The Wire, have educational value?  In particular, can it be a productive part of a college course in sociology?

I’ve just begun watching the series myself, and yes, I am enjoying it.  But I didn’t need to watch it, or like it, to know that it could help teach.  In fact, it strikes me as curious that there would be public debate about whether The Wire could be curriculum.

Ishmael Reed thinks that the show reinforces stereotypes about blacks.  I’m not sure about that yet, one could argue exactly the opposite, but even if it this is true, what better way to address the stereotypes prevalent in popular culture, than to critique them in a class which also requires reading rigorous social science?

Some point out that one can learn a lot more facts  in an hour of reading about urban social problems than one can by watching one episode of a fictional television program.  I certainly agree, but there are a couple obvious responses: First, popular and critically acclaimed television may have an emotional impact is a valuable part of education, and in some ways cannot be matched by other content.  Second, watching The Wire need not replace reading peer-reviewed studies or other academic approaches.  I think it is quite plausible that one could expect students to do a typical reading load and have them watch some episodes of the Wire on top of that.  So for me there is no question about whether The Wire can be used in education, the only issue, but a very real one, is how it should be used.

Here’s what I find odd about this whole debate… how many unimportant and/or poorly taught classes are being taught this semester, in colleges all across the country?  Answer: lots.  How many articles do you see about important issues in higher education published in outlets like The Huffington Post, The Boston Globe, and The Washington Post?  Answer: few.  The reason this debate is prominent is that people want to read about The Wire, while pretending to read about important issues in education.  OK, that shouldn’t be a revelation for most people.  But it is worthwhile to have pointy headed types pointing out that that is what’s going on.

If, like me and millions of others, you can’t help but be interested in a somewhat silly debate about The Wire, William Julius Wilson and Anmol Chaddha defend their class in an op-ed for The Washington Post.

False dichotomies (and synonymies)

August 19, 2010

It’s been a while. Let me allow you a few moments to catch your breath over the surprise of me posting (a real post) here again.

…[twiddles thumbs] [taps foot] [checks watch]…

OK, feel better? On with it.

Back in the middle-stages of grad school, i started to hear a lot of harumphing* about the frustrations of qualitative folks and all of the “quant-shop” requirements of our particular program. At the same time, i couldn’t help but notice the dismissiveness of some of the most quantitatively oriented folks towards brilliant qualitative work we’d occasionally discuss. Now, i know that the quant-qual divide was not unique to our program, is not something new to sociology, and has been pointed out as a false dichotomy by many (more qualified) folks who’ve passed through these ranks before.

But what strikes me today is that for some reason, in my limited experience at least, most folks also assume a necessary overlap between “mathematical” sociology and “quantitative” sociology… Read the rest of this entry »

Just Give Them the Money

March 11, 2010

In the 1950’s and 1960’s, a Michigan town used urban renewal projects to destroy black neighborhoods.  Today, they are compensating some surviving victims by building them affordable housing. Though it is obviously coming too late, this may seem the most fitting and just response.  Unfortunately, it isn’t the best way to help people.

Michigan doesn’t need to build new low-income housing, they don’t have enough people for the housing they’ve got which results in it falling into disrepair.  A major reason the economy is so messed up is that we, as a society, invested too much of our scarce resources in housing.  This just exacerbates it.

What they should have done, is taken the money they used to build housing and just give it to the people they were trying to help.  They’ll spend it more wisely than we would on their behalf.  For insight into how, and why, government has historically liked to control aid to the poor, I recommend Viviana Zelizer.  The work I’m most familiar with is The Social Meaning of Money but it could be that some of her other work is even more relevant.

Assorted Links

February 2, 2010

Don’t trust the public use micro sample of the census for research on older Americans.

New standards for hiring and tenure?

Tiny Sketch of French Sociology.

Gently regulating academics’ speech with the bully pulpit?

Hirschman on Rational Choice Theory

January 26, 2010

Dan Hirschman, grad student at the University of Michigan, has a great post on rational choice theory.  It is framed as a critique, but I consider it wholly compatible with my defense of RCT. Human behavior is complex and different aspects of it will be best understood with different theories/models/levels of analysis.  See some of my previous posts on modeling here.

Under-Appreciated Research, Inside and Outside Views

January 20, 2010

What are the currently under-appreciated research areas in sociology? I have my opinions, but I’d actually prefer to focus your attention on the meta-question: how might decide which research areas are under-appreciated?

There are two basic approaches, inside views and outside views. Inside views require understanding a phenomenon in terms of its component parts. In contrast, outside views require the often easier task of appropriately categorizing the phenomenon, a.k.a. choosing a reference class.

For examples, let’s return to the original question, where the phenomenon under investigation is “the appreciation/under-appreciation of research areas in sociology.” An inside view might look like the following chain of (questionable) reasoning: 1. the highest goal of sociology is to discover the knowledge which results in the greatest good for the greatest number. 2. Insects are numerous. 3. Little sociological research is done on insects. 4. Therefore, Insect sociology is under-appreciated.

An outside view might look like this:
1. It has been proven that, in the past, research areas more popular with women have been the most under-appreciated. 2. Therefore, its a good bet that research areas more popular with women are currently the most under-appreciated, even if I have no idea what those research areas are or why they are valuable.

My inside view and outside view arguments are pretty weak, they are just there to illustrate the concept of inside and outside views.  Can you improve on them or make a case for inside/outside approaches more generally?

Free Textbooks on Networks

December 10, 2009

David Easley and Jon Kleinberg have a textbook coming out called Networks, Crowds, and Markets: Reasoning About a Highly Connected World.  It looks great, and for now you can download a preprint of the whole thing for free.  Cornell, home of founding co-blogger Matthew Brashears seems like a great place to do work on networks.

Robert Hanneman (with coauthors Riddle and Izquierdo) also has a free textbook or three for you to download.  I won’t try to summarize any of these books since you are just a click away from viewing them, but I will point out that they aren’t competitors… they each have a lot of unique material.

See more discussion of social network curriculum/pedagogy at Jimi’s post here.