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Kieran Healy

Scottish Voter Turnout

by Kieran Healy on September 19, 2014

So, Scotland remains part of the United Kingdom. This morning on the bus (I should run a series called “Idle Data Analysis on the Bus”) I looked at how the high turnout compared to other Scottish elections. Data on turnout is easily available back to 1970. Here are two views of it.

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The Persistence of the Old Regime

by Kieran Healy on August 6, 2014

This afternoon I ended up reading this Vox story about an effort to rank US Universities and Colleges carried out in 1911 by a man named Kendric Charles Babcock. On Twitter, Robert Kelchen remarks that the report was “squashed by Taft” (an unpleasant fate), and he links to the report itself, which is terrific. Babcock divided schools into four Classes, beginning with Class I:

And descending all the way to Class IV:

Babcock’s discussion of his methods is admirably brief (the snippet above hints at the one sampling problem that possibly troubled him), so I recommend you read the report yourself.

University reputations are extremely sticky, the conventional wisdom goes. I was interested to see whether Babcock’s report bore that out. I grabbed the US News and World Report National University Rankings and National Liberal Arts College Rankings and made a quick pass through them, coding their 1911 Babcock Class. The question is whether Mr Babcock, should he return to us from the grave, would be satisfied with how his rankings had held up—more than a century of massive educational expansion and alleged disruption notwithstanding.

It turns out that he would be quite pleased with himself.

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Gary Becker, an Appreciation by Michel Foucault

by Kieran Healy on May 4, 2014

Gary Becker, University Professor of Economics and Sociology at the University of Chicago, has died at the age of eighty three. I am certainly not going to attempt an obituary or assessment. But something Tim Carmody said on Twitter caught my eye: “People sometimes talk about ‘neoliberalism’ as a kind of intellectual bogeyman. Gary Becker was the actual guy.” In a somewhat similar way, people sometimes talked about ‘poststructuralism’ as a kind of intellectual bogeyman, and Michel Foucault was the actual guy. It is worth looking at what one avatar had to say about the other. Foucault lectured on Becker and related matters in the late 1970s. One of the things he saw right away was the scope and ambition of Becker’s project, and the conceptual turn—accompanying wider social changes—which would enable economics to become not just a topic of study, like geology or English literature, but rather an “approach to human behavior“. Here is Foucault in March of 1979, for instance:

In practice, economic analysis, from Adam Smith to the beginning of the twentieth century, broadly speaking takes as its object the study of the mechanisms of production, the mechanisms of exchange, and the data of consumption within a given social structure, along with the interconnections between these three mechanisms. Now, for the neo-liberals, economic analysis should not consist in the study of these mechanisms, but in the nature and consequences of what they call substitutible choices … In this they return to, or rather put to work, a defintion [from Lionel Robbins] … ‘Economics is the science of human behavior as a relationship between ends and scarce means which have alternative uses’. … Economics is not therefore the analysis of the historical logic of processes [like capital, investment, and production]; it is the analysis of the internal rationality, the strategic programming of individuals’ activity.

Then comes the identification not just of the shift in emphasis but also point of view:

This means undertaking the economic analysis of labor. What does bringing labor back into economic analysis mean? It does not mean knowing where labor is situated between, let’s say, capital and production. The problem of bringing labor back into the field of economic analysis … is how the person who works uses the means available to him. … What system of choice and rationality does the activity of work conform to? … So we adopt the point of view of the worker and, for the first time, ensure that the worker is not present in the economic analysis as an object—the object of supply and demand in the form of labor power—but as an active economic subject.

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Silver vs Krugman

by Kieran Healy on March 26, 2014

Nate Silver’s relaunched FiveThirtyEight has been getting some flak from critics—including many former fans—for failing to live up to expectations. Specifically, critics have argued that instead of foxily modeling data and working the numbers, Silver and his co-contributors are looking more like regular old opinion columnists with rather better chart software. Paul Krugman has been a prominent critic, arguing that “For all the big talk about data-driven analysis, what [the site] actually delivers is sloppy and casual opining with a bit of data used, as the old saying goes, the way a drunkard uses a lamppost — for support, not illumination.” Silver has put is tongue at least part way into his cheek and pushed back a little with an article titled, in true Times fashion, “For Columnist, a Change of Tone“.

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You know the game I mean. As per Chris Brooke, I look forward to your Iroquois Confederacy joke.

American Vista

by Kieran Healy on December 27, 2013

U.S. District Court Judge William Pauley has ruled that one of the NSA’s mass metadata collection programs is lawful. On p.25 of the ruling itself, there’s a nice Appalling Vista moment:

Regarding the statutory arguments, there is another level of absurdity in this case. The ACLU would never have learned about the section 215 order authorizing collection of telephony metadata related to its telephone numbers but for the unauthorized disclosures by Edward Snowden. Congress did not intend that targets of section 215 orders would ever learn of them. And the statutory scheme also makes clear that Congress intended to preclude suits by targets even if they discovered section 215 orders implicating them. It cannot possibly be that lawbreaking conduct by a government contractor that reveals state secrets—including the means and methods of intelligence gathering—could frustrate Congress’s intent. To hold otherwise would spawn mischief: recipients of orders would be subject to section 215’s secrecy protocol confining challenges to the FISC, while targets could sue in any federal district court. A target’s awareness of section 215 orders does not alter the Congressional calculus. The ACLU’s statutory claim must therefore be dismissed.

Of course this specific claim, this particular ruling, and this one case are all located in a much broader legal and political crisis. But the logic is striking all the same. “To hold otherwise would spawn mischief”, indeed.

Here’s a piece by me from earlier this year on the power of metadata.

Karl Marx or Pope Francis?

by Kieran Healy on November 26, 2013

Pope Francis’s new Apostolic Exhortation, Evangelii Gaudium, has been getting some attention today, mostly thanks to its reiteration of some long-standing Catholic doctrine on social justice and the market. So, here is a quiz to see whether you can distinguish statements by Pope Francis from statements by Karl Marx. I figured someone was likely to do this anyway, so why not be first to the market? It’s fair to say that the Pope and Karl Marx differ significantly on numerous points of theory as well as on what people asking questions at job talks refer to as the policy implications of their views. So I don’t think this quiz is very hard. At the same time, I sort of hope it will be picked up, stripped of this introductory paragraph, and circulated as evidence that the Pope and Marx agree on pretty much everything.

Questions!

1. In a similar way, by raising dreams of an inexhaustible market and by fostering false speculations, the present treaty may prepare a new crisis at the very moment when the market of the world is but slowly recovering from the recent universal shock.

2. … society needs to be cured of a sickness which is weakening and frustrating it, and which can only lead to new crises.

3. In this play of forces, poverty senses a beneficent power more humane than human power. The arbitrary action of privileged individuals is replaced … Just as it is not fitting for the rich to lay claim to alms distributed in the street, so it is also in regard to these alms of nature.

4. Yet we desire even more than this; our dream soars higher. We are not simply talking about ensuring nourishment or a “dignified sustenance” for all people … for it is through free, creative, participatory and mutually supportive labour that human beings express and enhance the dignity of their lives.

5. … the limitless possibilities for consumption and distraction offered by contemporary society. This leads to a kind of alienation at every level, for a society becomes alienated when its forms of social organization, production and consumption make it more difficult … to establish solidarity between people.

6. Today everything comes under the laws of competition and the survival of the fittest, where the powerful feed upon the powerless. As a consequence, masses of people find themselves excluded and marginalized: without work, without possibilities, without any means of escape.

7. In this system, which tends to devour everything which stands in the way of increased profits, whatever is fragile … is defenseless before the interests of a deified market, which becomes the only rule.

8. Inequality eventually engenders a violence which recourse to arms cannot and never will be able to resolve. … Some simply content themselves with blaming the poor and the poorer countries themselves for their troubles; indulging in unwarranted generalizations, they claim that the solution is an “education” that would tranquilize them, making them tame and harmless.

9. The worldwide crisis affecting finance and the economy lays bare their imbalances and, above all, their lack of real concern for human beings; man is reduced to one of his needs alone: consumption.

10. Solidarity is a spontaneous reaction by those who recognize that the social function of property and the universal destination of goods are realities which come before private property.

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Sociological Science

by Kieran Healy on September 17, 2013

I’m very pleased to see that Sociological Science is open for article submissions, and expects to start publishing articles early next year. The journal is designed to ameliorate several problems that beset academic publishing. It’s an open-access, peer-reviewed journal that promises a fast turnaround time in review. It’s common enough in some fields for authors to get stuck, literally for years, in Reviewer Hell. There, papers are subject to repeated rounds of review, new reviewers are added at each round, new demands are placed on authors, and later reviewers routinely object to content in the paper—e.g., further supposed theoretical development or methodological bells and whistles—that was added at the behest of earlier reviewers. Reviewer Hell is only one of the pathological forms peer review can take. but recently it’s become a real problem for some of the leading journals in the field. Sociological Science promises a 30 day up-or-down review process, with no “development” effort and no R&R process. They hope to accomplish this with a relatively large pool of Deputy Editors with authority to accept or reject articles.

As a properly open-access journal, they’ve chosen to fund themselves through submission and publication fees instead of signing up with a major journal publisher or soliciting institutional support from a university or a foundation. The fee schedule is graded by rank, so students pay least and full professors pay most. The incentive is that authors retain copyright on their work and everything published is available ungated and immediately.

All in all, I think Sociological Science is a really worthwhile effort to provide an alternative model for publishing serious peer-reviewed work in a timely and accessible way. I hope it succeeds.

L.A. Paul at 3:AM Magazine

by Kieran Healy on August 31, 2013

The philosopher L.A. Paul is interviewed at 3:AM Magazine. Topics include becoming a philosopher, the relationship between science and metaphysics, causation, phenomenology, xphi, and what you can’t expect when you’re expecting. Oh yeah, something, something, full disclosure, something. 3:AM Magazine has a great collection of interviews at this point, with all kinds of interesting people. You should read them.

Robert Bellah Has Died

by Kieran Healy on July 31, 2013

I learned this afternoon that Robert Bellah has died following complications from surgery. He was 86. Bellah was one of the giants of American sociology, especially the sociology of religion. He taught at Harvard for ten years and then at Berkeley for most of his career. Bellah was a student of Talcott Parsons, and some of that influence can be seen in his late work, Religion in Human Evolution. (Bellah was a rather better-informed theorist of social evolution than Parsons.) But he is best known for his work on American religion and society. He formulated the concept of “American civil religion” in the late 1960s and it quickly became the standard shorthand for the fusion of Christian and secular ideals and rituals that anchor much of American public life. His work on that idea led to the book The Broken Covenant in 1975, and much else besides. A little later on he was—together with Charles Glock and other colleagues and students—at the leading edge of the study of changing forms of private religious practice. Initially, in The New Religious Consciousness, the focus was on religious aspects of 1960s counterculture and their persistence into the 1970s. By the 1980s this line of thought led to Habits of the Heart (again a collective product), a study of American religious practice and its connection to the common good. Habits of the Heart had a huge influence in the field. For a serious piece of social science it sold in large quantities; it pinned down some aspects of spiritual life in the U.S. (most notably with the idea of “Sheilaism“) that were in the air at the time; it helped set the agenda for a revived sociology of culture in the United States; and its methodological mix of in-depth interviews backed by survey research was an influential template for a great deal of sociological work that followed it.

I can’t really do justice to the man and his work here. I’m sure that over the next few weeks there will be many more in-depth appraisals from colleagues and experts. But he was the sort of academic whose influence was felt both through his work and his students, and whose scholarship shaped work in subfields at one and two removes from his own, even if this wasn’t always directly acknowledged.

Monsters University: the Aftermath

by Kieran Healy on June 23, 2013

Monsters University, the prequel to Monsters, Inc, opened this weekend. I brought the kids to see it. As a faculty member at what is generally thought of as America’s most monstrous university, I was naturally interested in seeing how higher education worked in Monstropolis. What sort of pedagogical techniques are in vogue there? Is the flipped classroom all the rage? What’s the structure of the curriculum? These are natural questions to ask of a children’s movie about imaginary creatures. Do I have to say there will be spoilers? Of course there will be spoilers. (But really, if you are the sort of person who would be genuinely upset by having someone reveal a few plot points in Monsters University, I am not sure I have any sympathy for you at all.) As it turned out, while my initial reactions focused on aspects of everyday campus life at MU, my considered reaction is that, as an institution, Monsters University is doomed.

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Using Metadata to find Paul Revere

by Kieran Healy on June 10, 2013

A small demonstration, from the 1770s.

PRISM

by Kieran Healy on June 6, 2013

Bureaucratic administration means fundamentally domination through knowledge. … This consists on the one hand of technical knowledge, which, by itself, is sufficient to ensure it a position of extraordinary power. But in addition to this, bureaucratic organizations, or the holders of power who make use of them, have the tendency to increase their power still further by the knowledge growing out of experience in the service. For they acquire through the conduct of office a special knowledge of facts and have available a store of documentary material peculiar to themselves. While not particular to bureaucratic organizations, the concept of “official secrets” is certainly typical of them. It stands in relation to technical knowledge in somewhat the same position as commercial secrets do to technological training. It is the product of the striving for power.

Google Glass and the need for XU Design

by Kieran Healy on May 6, 2013

I was reminded this morning of an old Dotcom Era commercial from IBM. With some helpful prompting on Twitter, I eventually tracked it down. As you can see—pixelated video notwithstanding—IBM had some of the main concepts of Google Glass covered back in 2000, notably the clear presentation of the wearer as a jerk.

One of the standard jobs in software development these days is UX Design. User Experience covers “any aspect of a user’s experience with a given system … addressing all aspects of a product or service as perceived by users.” Products like Google Glass make it clear that we should formalize the development process further to include what we can call “Experience of User” or XU Design. The XU Designer’s job will be to assess and tweak how third parties experience the users of your product or service. Is the XU experience intrusive? Is it annoying? Do our product’s XU Metrics all point in the direction of “Christ, what an asshole?” As the XU specialty develops we can trace its history back to phenomena like people loudly using cellphones in public, or people talking to you while wearing headphones, and the various ways norms and tolerances developed for these practices, or failed to develop. Right now, though, it looks like Google Glass is shaping up to be the leading XU Design disaster of our time.

Now if you’ll excuse me, I need to trademark the term XU Design and start a consulting company.

New Tools for Reproducible Research

by Kieran Healy on April 17, 2013

Clippy's Revenge

You can see this point made in somewhat more detail here.