Archive | Other social science

Blame the Sociologists

Matthew Yglesias quotes Maciej Ceglowski complaining about the concept of “social graphs” underlying Facebook, Google+ etc.

You might almost think that the whole scheme had been cooked up by a bunch of hyperintelligent but hopelessly socially naive people, and you would not be wrong. Asking computer nerds to design social software is a little bit like hiring a Mormon bartender. Our industry abounds in people for whom social interaction has always been more of a puzzle to be reverse-engineered than a good time to be had, and the result is these vaguely Martian protocols.

But the hyperintelligent people cooking up these ideas weren’t computer nerds (or, if they were, it was only because they were only R enthusiasts and LaTeX typography geeks on the side). As recovering sociologist Kieran Healy argues, the people to blame are in fact network sociologists.

As a disciplinary project, network theory has grown from a peripheral position in the early 1970s—or, more charitably, from its niche as a respected but specialized subfield—into a central project within contemporary sociology. Network theory has proliferated and diffšused across the intellectual landscape over this period with great success. Its ability to cash out some of its most important theoretical concepts and images in formal methods and usable tools has been a vital part of this process. As in the case of theories of finance and their expression in financial markets, we see network theory and its analytical toolkit embedding and extending themselves in a range of settings. The growth of network theory within sociology, in other words, has been accompanied—and is perhaps by now overshadowed—by its practical embedding in the world at large.
… In the previous section we saw a range of Web 2.0 services that put calculative devices in the hands of users in interesting ways. These devices acted as “cognitive prostheses,” in Callon’s phrase—they allow users to do things they were unable to do before, such as easily see three or four degrees out of their social network, or discover which of thousands of strangers is most similar to them in their taste in books, or quickly locate people with similar financial goals, and so on. It is a relatively short step from here to taking advantage of these tools in ways that bear on actors’ conformity to some aspect of network theory. To take a simple but significant example, FaceBook uses its data on the global structure of the social graph to routinely suggest lists of “people you may know” to users, with goal of encouraging users to add those people to their network. In this way, the application works automatically to encourage the closure of forbidden triads in the network — something which, in theory, should be the case anyway — and likely also to increase the degree of measurable homophily in the network. Were a complacent analyst subsequently to acquire some portion of the FaceBook social graph and run some standard tests on the network’s structure without, they would find — to their satisfaction — some confirmatory results about the structure of “people’s social networks.

I should note that I switched a few days ago to Ceglowski’s Pinboard social bookmarking service, on the recommendation of Cosma Shalizi (who also prodded Kieran into finally putting that paper up on the WWW – no unclosed triads in this social graph …), and that it works very nicely, with a minimum of fuss.

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The Origins of Conspiracy Theories

What drives conspiracy theorizing in the United States?…For purchase on this problem, we attempt the first systematic data collection of conspiracy theories at the mass and elite levels by examining published letters to the editor of the New York Times from 1897 to 2010 and a validating sample from the Chicago Tribune. We argue that perceived power asymmetries, indicated by international and domestic conflicts, influence when and why conspiracy theories resonate in the U.S. On this reasoning, conspiracy theories conform to a strategic logic that helps vulnerable groups manage threats. Further, we find that both sides of the domestic partisan divide partake in conspiracy theorizing equally, though in an alternating pattern, and foreign conspiracy theories crowd out domestic conspiracy theories during heightened foreign threat.

From a new paper by political scientists Joseph Uscinski and Joseph Parent, and Bethany Torres, an undergraduate at SUNY-Buffalo.  A conspiracy theory is defined using four criteria:

…the letter had to include four elements: (1) a group who (2) acted in secret to (3) alter institutions, usurp power, hide truth, or gain utility at (4) the expense of the common good.

Uscinski and colleagues find that during the Cold War and when the U.S. was threatened by another “great power,” conspiracy theories emphasized foreign actors.

They also find that conspiracy theories about domestic actors depend on the party of the president.  When the president was a Democratic or the congressional majority was Democratic, conspiracy theories emphasized left-wing actors and communists.  When Republicans controlled the presidency or Congress, conspiracy theories emphasized right-wing or business interests.

They conclude:

Paradoxically then, democracy is both a source and a remedy for conspiracy theories. Groups across the political spectrum have leveled conspiracy accusations at others and been subject to the same accusations themselves because the regular vicissitudes of power in a democracy mean that sooner or later everyone plays the loser.

[Photo credit: Robert Simmons]

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In Defense of Studying College Students

Matt Yglesias:

By the same logic, my study of human behavior indicates that Americans of both genders typically wake up between 10 and 11 a.m., and subsist primarily on Natty Light and pizza. Yet somehow everyone understands that college students’ behavior does not allow us to draw generalizable conclusions about human behavior. And yet I’m constantly seeing psychology studies that look at a small sample of college students and draw wildly broad conclusions. College students aren’t even demographically representative of the college-age population. Can’t we do better than this?

We may not need to.  Jamie Druckman and Cindy Kam:

In this chapter, we investigate the extent to which using students as experimental  participants creates problems for causal inference. First, we discuss the impact of student subjects on a study’s internal and external validity. In contrast to common claims— including Sear’s (1986) widely cited proclamation of students being a “narrow data base”—we argue that student subjects do not intrinsically pose a problem for a study’s external validity. Second, we use simulations to identify situations when student subjects are likely to constrain experimental inferences. We show, perhaps surprisingly, that such situations are relatively limited. Third, we briefly survey empirical evidence that provides guidance on when researchers should be particularly attuned to taking steps to ensure appropriate generalizability from student subjects. We conclude with a discussion of the practical implications of our findings. In short, we argue that student subjects are not an inherent problem to experimental research; moreover, a case can be made that the burden of proof—of student subjects being a problem—should lie with critics rather than experimenters.

They note that the ability to generalize from an experiment involves many dimensions besides the demographics of the experimental participants.  To me, experiments are probably compromised more by the way they fail to mimic real-life situations than by their 19-year-old subjects.

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Crowd Sourcing a Bibliography: Social Media and Protest

I want to try something new here at The Monkey Cage, and if it works I’d be happy to do it again in the future. Basically, I want to see if we can crowd source a bibliography on a particular topic. The topic I’m interested in is social media and protest (see here and here for past Monkey Cage posts on the topic). More specifically, I want to know what scholarly works are out there that assess – either theoretically or emprically – the impact of social media (Facebook, Twitter, Blogs, etc.) on protest: when it occurs, whether it contained/suppressed, if the protest is “successful”, etc. My assumption is that I’m not the only one interested in looking into this topic, so it is worth a post here. Also, Sam Greene of the New Economic School in Moscow, Russia has been generous enough to start us off with a list (after the jump below) of works that are either directly or tangentially on the topic. So we’re not starting from scratch.

But more generally, I’m kind of interested in whether this could be a new use for a blog like The Monkey Cage. I’m on some specialized list-serves where occasionally someone passes along a request for literature on a particular topic, and it always seems to me a very efficient way to quickly get access to a lot of information about a particular literature. And yes, I know that Google Scholar also makes this a fairly simple process, but I think that crowd sourcing like this could be both more efficient and produce better results than using key words in Google Scholar. I also wonder whether the fact that the Monkey Cage is read by both academics and non-academics could generate interesting suggestions for each audience that they might not consider.

So I’m going to give this a try and we’ll see what happens. Sam’s initial list is after the break. You’ll notice that a lot of this comes out of the communication studies literature, so I’m especially interested in pieces more rooted in political science that we may be missing:

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More on Social Media, England, and Collective Action

To follow up on Erik’s post, I wanted to offer a few quick observations about what recent events in London can teach us about the relationship between social media and collective action.

First, those of us who study protest I think originally focused on the potential for Twitter, Facebook, and other social media to help citizens in authoritarian societies to outmaneuver authorities bent on repression. This story was first told in regard to Moldova’s Twitter Revolution (although eventually there would be a lot of debate about whether the use of social media among the opposition was actually overstated), and then even more so in Iran in 2009 and Egypt earlier this year. What we have learned the last few days in London, however, is that these same tools can be applied by people in open, democratic societies who want to commit unlawful acts that require collective action. Perhaps this shouldn’t be so surprising: after all, the name of the game in both cases is to continue doing what you are doing while avoiding punishment from security services. Nevertheless, it is interesting that less attention was previously paid to the “negative” potential for social media in coordinating mass action (although I am happy to stand corrected if others know of commentary/research in this regard). I also fear that this is a genie that is now out of the box – it is hard to imagine that others won’t follow the lead of the British rioters in using these kinds of tools in the future. (Although as Erik has noted, #riotcleanup shows that Twitter can just as easily be used to mobilize counter-veiling forces in society as well!)

Second, I think it is important to note that not all social media are created equally. I emailed a colleague in London about the riots, and he first wrote to tell me that this was a story about Twitter. But then he shortly thereafter wrote back to note that actually what was going on was that people were using Blackberry Messengers, which are not public in the way that Twitter is. This point was driven home when I noticed the following quote in a BBC story about rioting in Birmingham, England:

Police said they had been aware of “Twitter intelligence” from lunchtime on Monday, suggesting there would be trouble in the city during the evening.

So this is also something that struck me as new – the fact that authorities could use Twitter to try to anticipate the actions of the masses. Again, in the London context this is from the perspective of maintaining law and order, but I can’t imagine why this isn’t something that could be replicated in the case of peaceful protest against authoritarian regimes as well.

Finally, there is an important lesson from Mancur Olson that is worth reiterating here: collective action is always easier with small groups than with large groups. I am struck by the continued references in all the stories regarding the riots in England to the sizes of the groups involved: numbers between 100-200 seem to keep coming up. Twitter, Blackberry Messengers, and Facebook may make real time collaboration among potential collaborators easier regardless of the size of the group, but it is possible that they may have more of an impact among groups of particular sizes. Perhaps in the future we may come to realize that this range of 100-200 people represents a kind of “social media sweet spot”, whereby the group is too big to function without the social media, but small enough that social media can actually facilitate tight and effective coordination. This would certainly be a very interesting question for future research.

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Twitter and Collective Action (London Edition)

This pic and variants of it are making the rounds on twitter (#riotcleanup). I haven’t seen much yet on if and how social media played a role in coordinating the rioters. Surely this will be another interesting data point for those interested in the role of education, social media, and protests. It’s also simply a very cool and powerful image.

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Does Nudging Explain Differences in Organ Donation Rates?

It’s great that David Brooks is taking to the NYT to defend NSF funding for the social sciences. This is not the kind of cause that NYT op-ed writers usually take up. Even so, one of the examples of social science in action that he points to is not nearly as clear-cut as he suggests.

Brooks argues:

When you renew your driver’s license, you have a chance to enroll in an organ donation program. In countries like Germany and the U.S., you have to check a box if you want to opt in. Roughly 14 percent of people do. But behavioral scientists have discovered that how you set the defaults is really important. So in other countries, like Poland or France, you have to check a box if you want to opt out. In these countries, more than 90 percent of people participate. This is a gigantic behavior difference cued by one tiny and costless change in procedure.

Contra Brooks, there is no ‘gigantic behavior difference’ cued by a default assumption of opt-in (or, as it is called in the relevant literature, ‘presumed consent’). As Kieran Healy discusses in this 2006 article, presumed consent countries have transplantation rates that are only a little bit higher than informed consent countries. Moreover, the most plausible explanation for this difference isn’t differences in default choices. It’s differences in the quality of organization:

Presumed-consent countries do in fact perform a little better on average than informed-consent countries. I have argued that this is not because of any direct effect of the law on individual choices. Rather, countries with presumed-consent laws are more likely to have paid close attention to the social organization of their transplant systems. High yield cases like Spain and Italy stand out not because their legal systems mandate a different kind of choice for donors, nor because they offer some special incentives for donor families or next of kin. Instead, they have invested effectively in the logistics of the transplant system: they put more staff on the ground, trained them better (especially in the crucial process of requesting consent from families), and improved coordination between the different actors and agencies in the procurement process. Recent research shows that similar reforms may boost donation rates in United States organ procurement organizations.

The just-so story seems to be traceable back to Dan Ariely who notably relies on a relationship between opt-in/opt-out regimes and survey data on whether people would be hypothetically willing to donate organs (this, presumably, is what Brooks is referring to as ‘participation’). But it would appear that this hypothetical willingness does not translate into large scale differences in actual observed behavior. However, the stylized story has become quite widespread among pop-sociology/economics writers, quite likely because it is both appealingly counter-intuitive, and fits neatly with a broader story about the beneficial consequences of policy nudges. Interestingly, blood donation patterns have been the subject of a similar set of controversies, between libertarians who argued for market solutions, and lefties who argued that voluntary donations would be driven out by a market logic (again, reality is more complicated than either of those stylized stories would suggest).

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Political Vitriol and Political Violence

This is from a statement by the National Jewish Democratic Council, quoted in the New York Times:

It is fair to say—in today’s political climate, and given today’s political rhetoric—that many have contributed to the building levels of vitriol in our political discourse that have surely contributed to the atmosphere in which this event transpired.

The statement is careful, to be sure: “many have contributed” to a “discourse” that “surely contributed to the atmosphere” in which the shooting of Gabrielle Giffords and the others took places. This is a far cry from saying that vitriol led to violence. But it takes a step in that direction, and it is a step too far, given what we know at this point in time.

How might we approach this link between vitriol and violence from a social science perspective? According to Dick Armey, we shouldn’t really bother:

In the final analysis, when we get the final answer, why did this fellow do this? The answer will come from psychology, not from sociology or political science. If we really want to understand deviance and danger in this country, we should apply the correct field of study, the correct disciplines and tools of understanding with rigor and responsibility, not just exercising pop sociology out of our hip pocket.

I’m all for rejecting pop sociology and of course psychology is relevant, but I do think other social sciences can say something as well.

Is there any evidence that vitriol leads to violence? Yes. See this paper (pdf) by Nathan Kalmoe, a doctoral student in political science at the University of Michigan:

Does violent political rhetoric fuel support for political violence? Political leaders regularly infuse communication with metaphors of fighting and war. Building from theoretical foundations in media violence research, I field a nationally-representative survey experiment in which subjects are randomly assigned to different forms of the same political advertisements. I find that even mild violent language increases support for political violence among citizens with aggressive predispositions, especially among young adults.

Kalmoe exposed subjects to the text of two fictional political advertisements. Some subjects saw ads that use the verb “fight.” Some saw the one that used phrases like “stand up” or “work for.” Some saw a combination. Here is the text of one ad, with the variations made obvious:

Americans today are fighting/struggling to keep their jobs and their homes. All you ever asked of government is to stand on your side and fight/stand up for your future. That’s just what I intend to do. I will fight/work hard to get our economy back on track. I will fight/work for our children’s future. And I will fight/work for justice and opportunity for all. I will always fight/work for America’s future, no matter how tough it gets. Join me in this fight/effort.

Subjects were then asked questions about political violence, such as whether they agreed or disagreed with this statement: “Sometimes the only way to stop bad government is with physical force.”

  • Finding #1: The vast majority of people disagreed with these statements. That is, they did not support violence.
  • Finding #2: Seeing one or both of the “violent” political ads had NO overall effect on support for political violence.
  • Finding #3: Seeing violence political ads DID have an effect among those with a predisposition to aggression, as measured with a standard psychological battery. Among those with the greatest predisposition to aggression, being exposed to a violent political ad increased their support for political violence by about 20 points on a 100-point scale. Among those with the least predisposition to aggression, being exposed to a a violent ad actually decreased their support for violence.
  • Finding #4: This conditional relationship—between seeing violent ad and a predisposition to aggression—appears stronger among those under the age of 40 (vs. those older), men (vs. women), and Democrats (vs. Republicans).

Although this study concerns only attitudinal support for violence, not actual acts of violence, its findings seem, on their face, to suggest that Jared Lee Loughner could have been motivated by violent political rhetoric. Such rhetoric exists, obviously. Some of it concerned Giffords in particular. And Loughner was a man under the age of 40 with some apparent predisposition to aggression. But that’s not a conclusion we can draw at all, and this is why the National Jewish Democratic Committee’s comment struck me as going too far.

Again, social science can help—and especially conventional theories about how information affects attitudes and behavior. For information—vitriolic political discourse in this case—to influence Loughner’s attitudes and behavior, he would have had (1) to be exposed to that discourse and (2) to accept or believe what he was hearing. Was he? We do not know.

To prove that vitriol causes any particular act of violence, we cannot speak about “atmosphere.” We need to be able to demonstrate that vitriolic messages were actually heard and believed by the perpetrators of violence. That is a far harder thing to do. But absent such evidence, we are merely waving our hands at causation and preferring instead to treat the mere existence of vitriol and the mere existence of violence as implying some relationship between the two.

For more on this general subject, see this thread at Chris Blattman’s blog, John Pitney’s book on military rhetoric in politics, Lee’s old post on militant extremism, and my post on Scott Roeder. I thank Brendan Nyhan for reminding me of the Blattman thread.

Matt Grossman, who I thank for sending me the Armey quote, also sent along these possible topics, for which there might be some extant research of value:

1) the relationship between polarization and political violence
2) how individual attitudes change after losing competitive elections
3) the lack of ideological coherence in the political views of radicals
4) changes in the use of violent or military metaphors in politics
5) how radicals interpret political messages in the media
6) the relationship between polarization and civility by elites and political tolerance or the acceptance of violence

I welcome comments about these topics or anything else in comments.

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Boys, Monkeys, and Toys with Wheels

We compared the interactions of 34 rhesus monkeys, living within a 135 monkey troop, with human wheeled toys and plush toys. Male monkeys, like boys, showed consistent and strong preferences for wheeled toys, while female monkeys, like girls, showed greater variability in preferences. Thus, the magnitude of preference for wheeled over plush toys differed significantly between males and females. The similarities to human findings demonstrate that such preferences can develop without explicit gendered socialization. We offer the hypothesis that toy preferences reflect hormonally influenced behavioral and cognitive biases which are sculpted by social processes into the sex differences seen in monkeys and humans.

More is here. Yet more confirmation that my son may be a rhesus monkey.

[Via Matt Yglesias]

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