Tag: social science (page 2 of 2)

More Momentum for the Social Sciences–Nobel Edition

For those that have not yet heard, the Nobel Prize for Economics (actually named the Sveriges Riksbank Prize in Economic Sciences in Memory of Alfred Nobel) was awarded this year to two recipients, one of whom–Elinor Ostrom–is a Political Scientist. As Tyler Cowen of Marginal Revolution notes:

It’s a nod in the direction of social science, rather than economics per se. It’s another homage to the New Institutional Economics and also to Law and Economics. It’s rewarding larger rather than smaller ideas, practical economics rather than abstract theory.

For those interested in a deeper discussion of her work, Henry Farrell at Crooked Timber provides an excellent overview and personal reflection on Ostrom.

As a political scientist, this is especially gratifying and I think reflective of some broader trends in social science, whereby the best insights and research culminate from the cross-fertilization of ideas from multiple disciplines within the social sciences (as well as the hard sciences). If you look at some of the more recent winners, their work transcended the discipline of economics and had a much broader impact on the study of human behavior and social dynamics broadly.

Personally, my research focused on decision-making, signaling & reputation, and conflict. The work of recent winners, such as Thomas Schelling (game theory), Daniel Kahneman (behavioral economics), A. Michael Spence (signaling), John Harsanyi & John Nash (game theory), and Douglass North (path-dependence, neo-institutionalism), all played a role in how I approached (and continue to approach) those issues.

Maybe a day will come when the prize is renamed the Nobel Prize for Social Science–another step towards the social sciences getting their day.

[Cross-posted at bill | petti]

Crowdsourcing Data Coding

I just finished watching a video of CrowdFlower’s presentation at the TechCrunch50 conference. CrowdFlower is a plaform that allows firms to crowdsource various tasks, such as populating a spreadsheet with email addresses or selecting stills from thousands of videos that have particular qualities. The examples in the video include very labor intensive tasks, but tasks that a firm is not likely to either need again or feels is worth dedicating staff to.

As I was watching the video I thought about the potential to leverage such a platform for large-scale coding of qualitative data. In the social sciences, often we find the need in large scale research for the massive coding of data, whether it is language from a speech, the tenor or sentiment of quotations (or newspaper articles in media studies), the nature of cases (i.e. did country A make a threat to country B, did country B back down as a result, etc.), or the responses from an open-ended survey. Coding is an issue whether you conducting qualitative or quantitative analysis–especially where you have captured large amounts of data. Often times the data is not inherently numerical and needs to be translated so that quantitative analysis can be conducted. Likewise, with a qualitative approach one still needs to categorize various data points to allow for meaningful comparisons.

The interesting thing about a service like Crowdflower is that it can leverage a ready group of workers globally who are ready and willing to conduct the coding at a reasonable price. Additionally, Crowdflower utilizes various real-time methods to ensure the quality of the coding. Partially this is achieved through the scoring of coders relative to their past performance, how they fair on tasks that are “planted” by Crowdflower (i.e. salting with tasks where the correct answer is known ahead of time), and how much agreement there is between coders on various items.

The final method comes up quite a bit in social science research when you have to determine how to categorize a given piece of data. The level of agreement is crucial to confidently coding a particular case. I would imagine that a platform such as CrowdFlower could make that task easier and more robust by quickly tapping into a larger pool of coders.

Has anyone used a service like CrowdFlower in this way (i.e. coding data from qualitative research)? Would be interested in your perspective.

[Cross-posted at bill | petti]

Academics say the darndest things….

From a recent article on social-science methodology:

For example, gravity is a trivial necessary cause of revolution, because gravity is simply always present regardless of whether or not a revolution happens.

Clearly, not everyone in my field is a science-fiction fan.

nb: someone has suggested to me that the authors mean “revolution” as in “Venus revolves around the Sun.” But gravity is certainly not a non-trivial cause of such revolution; given the context of the article, I’m pretty sure the authors use the term in the “grab the pitchfork and storm the castle” sense….

All conventional wisom is not created equal

Jacob Weisberg reminds us that conventional wisdom is often wrong, and then isolates seven instances of “received wisdom” that might prove wrong.

A lot of our premises have turned out to be wrong lately. I’m talking not about evanescent bits of conventional wisdom that have shifted but about overarching assumptions that were widely shared across the political spectrum—big things that experts and nonexperts agreed about—until they were proved false.

For instance, before 1989, virtually all Sovietologists agreed that the USSR was highly stable. Before 2001, few Middle East scholars worried that the United States was vulnerable to a major terrorist attack. Before 2003, everyone from neocon hawks to French lefties agreed that Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction. Before 2008, few economists wondered about the fundamental soundness of the American financial system. Popular opinion echoed the expert consensus on each of these points. Those who challenged the groupthink—such as Soviet dissident Andrei Amalrik, renegade counterterrorism expert John O’Neill, former weapons inspector Scott Ritter, and pessimistic economist Nouriel Roubini—tended to be dismissed as provocateurs, wackos, or (in Ritter’s case) worse.

Some of these examples are pretty darn poor, however.

1. To be blunt, a shitload of people were predicting a major terrorist attack on the United States long before 11 September 2001. I don’t know, of course, about the strange invocation of “Middle East” experts. Maybe Weisberg knows his point wouldn’t withstand scrutiny if it concerned the terrorism scholarly community?

2. Everyone most certainly did not agree that Hussein had “weapons of mass destruction.” Most observers thought Hussein had some kind of residual biological or chemical weapons program. But the ability to produce mustard gas is not synonymous with having WMD, and a lot of people knew it.

The Bush Administration’s great con was collapsing any kind of nuclear, biological, or chemical program into the dreaded “WMD threat,” and a great many people simply didn’t buy it. Weisberg should know better than to perpetuate this fraud six years after the fact.

The rest of the article is kind of enh in an I-need-to-write-an-article-and-I-don’t-have-any-good-ideas-right-now way. Examples include:

“Look, Freeman Dyson says that climate change might not be so bad. The models are uncertain and increased CO2 might lead to better growing conditions for plants” …. “Central authority in China might collapse!” …. “There’s this crazy theory that fossil fuels don’t come from fossils, and the chemical reaction even happens in laboratories!”

That sort of thing.

But, as an international-relations scholar, I feel compelled to comment on one: “Ken Waltz says nuclear proliferation might be stabilizing!”

Well, yeah.

Indeed, as my colleague, Matt Kroenig, has pointed out (PDF), many of the states that actively oppose nuclear proliferation do so precisely because they worry that Waltz is right about the deterrent effects of nuclear weapons.

Such states would, shockingly enough, rather not be deterred from engaging in force projection and various other forms of compellence.

Measuring Linguistic Norms

Recently, I criticized Sarah Palin’s pronunciation of “nuclear,” and suggested that electing her would only make Americans look as if we (still) don’t care how dumb our leaders appear on the global stage. At best, I expected a discussion about whether we should take such things into consideration in elections. More accurately, I expected that post to be ignored, and for most readers to latch on to the much more interesting food for thought to come in later posts that day. (Who would have thought English grammar would be more fascinating than the ethics of killer robots?)

Imagine my surprise to be introduced – by people I respect – to the theory that in fact, there is no one “correct” pronunciation of “nuclear”:

“I just can’t see this as a ‘correct’ or ‘incorrect’ matter. The English language is not a fixed thing but varies tremendous among geographical and social groupings.” – Dan Nexon

“I’m sorry but this is bullshit… Received pronunciation has nothing to do with… whether a used word is correct or not.” – Alex

“As someone who has consistently ‘mispronounced’ nuclear ever since I learned it from parents who mispronounced it, in a community which mispronounced it, I’ll have to agree with the previous commenter who called your argument ‘bull shit.’ How many accents to diplomats have to deal with every day?” – C. Hall

As a critical thinker, I take such claims quite seriously. It’s actually nice to be forced to think past my own biases. What if I’m actually wrong? What if there’s no correct pronunciation? What if I’m just exhibiting liberal, elitist bias, itself a sort of ignorance about the diversity of dialects out there in different communities of practice around nuclear science and policy?

Originally, I had written in the spirit of a frustrated citizen. Today, I write as a social scientist. On what ought to be the “right” pronunciation I now stand agnostic. But whether there is, in fact, a generally accepted pronunciation and a generally deplored pronunciation (as social facts) I can measure empirically.

Here’s a stab at doing just that. (It can be replicated much more systematically with a bit of time, money, and a team of student coders.) First, let us clearly state the question: is there a “normative” way to pronounce nuclear? (Not a right way. A way that exhibits the characteristics of a “norm” – a “collective expectation of the proper behavior of actors,” to quote Peter Katzenstein whose definition Dan Nexon cites in his famous blog post on international norms.) And the hypothesis: I hypothesize that the “normative” pronunciation is as it is spelled: “noo-clee-ar,” or its British derivation “nyu-clee-ar.” (Not because that’s the spelling. But because I predict people will behave as if that is the expectation in a measurable way.) The counterhypothesis is that the pronunciation “noo-kya-lar” enjoys the same or a greater degree of normative legitimacy (that is, is considered equally “correct.”)

One test of this would be practice: the frequency with which the two pronunciations are used among those engaged in “nuclear security” discourse. I would disconfirm my own hypothesis if I found that in a replicable sample of rhetoric, using replicable measures, speakers were equally likely to use either pronunciation. Today, in between panels at the NSF’s Human and Social Dynamics Annual Principal Investigator Conference, I tested this through an analysis of YouTube clips found using the search terms “nuclear security.” All were posted in the last two years, suggesting the results reflect current norms. I listened to each clip until the first use of the word “nuclear” and then coded the pronunciation, the title, URL and date (for replicability), and as much information as could be discerned about the national / regional background and professional affiliation of the speaker. Only the first word “nuclear” in each clip was used, for ease of replicability. In total, 25 observations were made before I ran out of time and energy. I excluded duplicates not only of the same clip but of the same speaker (so, for example, McCain is featured only once in the dataset). I excluded clips in languages other than English. I also excluded the video of Gorbachev’s interpreter because I couldn’t get it to load.

The remaining clips included all the rest that appeared on the first two screens of YouTube. This represents a sample of 25 out of a population of 1070; YouTube ranks them by “relevance.” These first, “most relevant” 25 include several clips of the Presidential candidates; journalists from the US, UK, Canada and Russia; analysts from Washington think-tanks; nuclear scientists; international diplomats and a comedian. They include speakers originally raised in the US South, MidWest, MidAtlantic and Northeast and Southwest. (Unfortunately none from the Northwest.) They include speakers from the U.S., Russia, England, Australia (I think), Canada (I think), North Korea and Iran. The results:

My dataset for those interested in replicating or supplementing (email me for the complete xls file):

This cursory analysis shows (I think – though bear in mind by this hour I’m slightly inebriated) that the majority of speakers in the sample pronounce the word as it is spelled. Within this (admittedly small and non-representative) sample, I found no variation according to US region. Although I had believed that speakers from the US South are likelier to use the pronunciation “nuk-ya-lar” (and several commenters also referred to “regional” dialects), in fact I found the spelled-pronunciation to be used by speakers from Georgia and Tennessee, as well as from the Midwest, Northeast, Mid-Atlantic, and Southwest.

Results are mixed, however, on whether the alternate pronunciation necessarily correlates with lack of knowledge about nuclear policy, as Alex Montgomery would have it, or on whether this usage is peculiarly American, as I had believed. Four speakers in my sample used the word “nukyalar.” We can, I think discount the political satirist (of unknown regional origin). The other three include only one one American: Senator James Imhofe (of Des Moines, IA). The other two “alternate pronouncers” are (I think) both non-American and at least one of them is clearly well-informed about nuclear policy: Australian nuclear energy expert George Collins, the chief of research at Australia’s Nuclear Science and Technology Organization.

So, one imagines that were this analysis continued on a much larger number of observations (there are 115,000 YouTube videos with the tag “nuclear”, and many of them contain more than one instance of a discrete speaker pronouncing the word) one might find an overwhelming majority using the spelled-pronunciation, but a population of alternate pronouncers that does not necessarily fit stereotypes.

Whatever it tells us in terms of a person’s qualifications on nuclear policy however, I can convincingly say that the use of “nukyalar” equals lack of fluency in (or willingness to adhere to) norms of nuclear speech. An even better indicator of this than frequency distributions of actual pronunciations is the reactions of third parties to the use of the alternate pronunciation, for as James Coleman reminds us, we know norms not by compliance, by the extent to which deviations from them are condemned by observers. Indeed, users of the “alternate pronunciation” are routinely lambasted by observers; the reverse is not true. If indeed both pronunciations were equally normative, one would expect to see another community of observers ridiculing those who pronounce the word as it is spelled just as often. I have found no evidence of this, though am willing to consider it if any of you have it.

Meantime, “M” suggests another possibility: that there are two sets of norms in two different communities of nuclear experts:

“I have long rolled my eyes at the “nuke-cu-lar” pronunciation. So, you can imagine my shock when I recently had the privilege of interacting with a number of nuclear weapons scientists and others associated with the US nuclear complex. The vast majority of them say “nuke-cu-lar”.”

Testing this would mean disaggregating the two communities; I’ve not done so here. This hypothesis could be tested by replicating the above analysis but replacing the search terms “nuclear security” with the search terms “nuclear scientist” or “nuclear engineer”; or, by gathering enough data points in that the number of nuclear engineers in the sample could be contrasted with the policy community in a statistically significant way. I am out of time today however, so must demure. I will point out, however, that in my sample, only 1 out of 5 nuclear scientists used the alternate pronunciation.

But in the meantime, these findings do, I think, suggest there is clearly a global normative pronunciation for the term, and a measurable opprobrium for those (many though they be) who deviate from it while expecting to be treated as smart, informed members of the global policy elite. Until I am convinced otherwise by something more than anecdotes and self-congratulatory statements from “alternative pronouncers,” I shall continue to advise my students to learn the conventions of the global policy elite. And I shall continue to hope for a President who defers to standard diplomatic convention.

P.S. I also checked whether in fact Palin had mispronounced “nukyalar” prior to the debate. She has, all along. So much for my theory that they prepped her to do this on purpose.

P.P.S. For those interested in YouTube and the US Presidential Election, check out this conference at my new institution.

Eggheads Requested

I wonder what readers of the Duck (and my co-bloggers) think about the DoD’s “Minerva” social science initiative. Short story is, the Pentagon plans to fund $8 million worth of social science research through the National Science Foundation this year. The NSF program solicitation is to be found here.

Today, the Washington Post reported that one “Network of Concerned Anthropologists” has expressed concern with the initiative:

“The Pentagon’s Minerva Research Initiative, named after the Roman goddess of wisdom and warriors, will fund social science research deemed crucial to national security. Initial proposals were due July 25, and the first grants are expected to be awarded by year’s end. But the Network of Concerned Anthropologists, which includes professors from American and George Mason universities, said dependence on Pentagon funding could make universities an ‘instrument rather than a critic of war-making.’

American Anthropological Association has issued similar concerns.

I think this position is bunk. The fact that the DoD is asking certain questions in a certain way and will be interested in the findings does not mean the DoD controls the research or that the science is compromised. It doesn’t mean that social scientists will be militarized or are unable to be critical of policies based on certain empirical fallacies. It does mean that those who want the money will have to demonstrate the relevance of their research designs to the kinds of questions the DoD wants answered, but that’s no different from any other NSF RFP. What it also means (significantly) is that the DoD at least wants to send the signal that it is actually prepared to consider the results. In light of recent history, I think this is a great leap forward.

Then again, perhaps I am just in favor because I want some of the money.

Why we do Social Science the way we do

Some of us here at the Duck would put ourselves into the “relational” camp when it comes to how we approach Social Science. Among other things, this approach looks at social and political actors based on their relations to other actors and position within a social network rather than as autonomous entities.

Dan’s work, for example, has made excellent use of social network theory to talk about empires and such.

Today’s Washington Post points out that

a growing body of evidence is suggesting that traditional social networks play a surprisingly powerful and underrecognized role in influencing how people behave.

In particular, a team of researchers has found that social networks strongly influence your health, with profound personal and political consequences:

obesity appeared to spread from one person to another through social networks, almost like a virus or a fad.

In a follow-up to that provocative research, the team has produced similar findings about another major health issue: smoking. In a study published last week in the New England Journal of Medicine, the team found that a person’s decision to kick the habit is strongly affected by whether other people in their social network quit — even people they do not know. And, surprisingly, entire networks of smokers appear to quit virtually simultaneously.

Taken together, these studies and others are fueling a growing recognition that many behaviors are swayed by social networks in ways that have not been fully understood. And it may be possible, the researchers say, to harness the power of these networks for many purposes, such as encouraging safe sex, getting more people to exercise or even fighting crime.

“What all these studies do is force us to start to kind of rethink our mental model of how we behave,” said Duncan Watts, a Columbia University sociologist. “Public policy in general treats people as if they are sort of atomized individuals and puts policies in place to try to get them to stop smoking, eat right, start exercising or make better decisions about retirement, et cetera. What we see in this research is that we are missing a lot of what is happening if we think only that way.”

Charles Tilly wins Albert O. Hirschman Prize

Charles Tilly has won the 2008 Albert O. Hirschman Prize.

From the announcement:

“Charles Tilly is one of the most distinguished of all contemporary social scientists,” said Craig Calhoun, president of the SSRC. “He is the most influential analyst of social movements and contentious politics, a pathbreaker in the historical sociology of the state, a pivotal theorist of social inequality. Among the most eminent of sociologists, he is also a leading voice in history and political science and has played a hugely important role in integrating these fields. His 1975 book, The Formation of National States in Western Europe, capped a major SSRC project on comparative politics. Since then, he has gone on to be the leading voice in the historical social science that project helped to create.”

Tilly was the choice of a selection committee chaired by Albert Fishlow, a former SSRC Board member and a professor of international and public affairs at Columbia University, where he also directs the Institute of Latin American Studies and the Center for the Study of Brazil. Serving along with Fishlow were Peter Gourevitch, a professor of political science at the University of California, San Diego, and Doug McAdam, a professor of sociology at Stanford University.

“We selected Charles Tilly as the recipient of the 2008 Albert Hirschman Prize in honor of his extensive career spanning the social sciences,” said Fishlow. “Through extraordinary and numerous scholarly contributions, he has pioneered research into a whole array of fields fundamental to the process of economic development over centuries. Tilly, like Hirschman, is an exceptional scholar.”

“I am a long-time admirer of Albert Hirschman which makes this a great honor,” said Tilly upon learning of the committee’s decision.

In the world of academia, the news of Tilly’s award has been greeted with interest and applause.

One of many reasons to watch the interview I posted about earlier.

More later.

Charles Tilly video interview

Daniel Little has a wonderful project instantiated in his website “UnderstandingSociety ChangingSociety” aimed at providing resources for those interested in social processes and social change.

He’s collected a number of interviews with prominent figures. I’ve watched the one with Charles Tilly, which is really a remarkable interview with a remarkable scholar and intellectual.

I highly recommend that readers of the Duck take a look, particularly those of you in academia or thinking of going that route. The first part of what turns out to be a very long discussion is below.

Although I’ve heard a lot of the content of Chuck’s interview before–I imagine most of his students and collaborators will recognize much of the commentary–seeing it all put together was an extraordinary experience.

Pay special attention to Chuck’s discussion of his intellectual odyssey, how his views on fundamental issues in social-scientific analysis changed over time, and his reflections on the tensions between the “ideal” of social-scientific progress and the social-psychological dynamics of advising PhD students.

I plan to check out the one with Sid Tarrow next.

No More Civilian Body Counts?


For the past several years, Adriana Lins de Albuquerque and Alicia Cheng have been publishing “Op-Charts” in the January NY Times with a visual representation of deaths in Iraq, with the deaths neatly broken down according to civilian, police, coalition troop, US troop, etc. This year’s installment came out earlier this month.

Two interesting things about this year’s chart.

[I always look for it because their use of symbols is a helpful tool in my Spring “Rules of War” class when I discuss civilian immunity. I want to get my students to recognize that adult men can be civilians too, and that there are many ways in which the use of language, symbols and social norms creates the impression that civilians = “womenandchildren.” This argument is developed more fully in my 2006 book. As you can see from last year’s chart, de Albuquerque and Cheng have been handing me a timely teaching tool for years.]

But this year, when I dug up the chart to update my Powerpoint, what do I find but the civilian icon missing altogether?!! Apparently, de Albuquerque and Cheng have stopped counting civilian casualties entirely in favor of disaggregating the uniformed dead.

This is to be explained by the second interesting difference in the Op-Chart, the fact that the analysts tallied deaths for the whole year rather than just for “30 Days in Iraq.” And:

“Sadly, civilian fatalities in Iraq last year were simply too numerous to represent on a single newspaper page.”

Call me kinda overcommitted to keeping civilians alive, but if I had to choose between doing a month with civilians included or a year with them dropped out of the equation altogether, I’d have used my commitment to civilians to bargain for multiple pages of space. Or something.

To view the entire 2008 chart click here.

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