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Kieran Healy

Fuck Nuance

by Kieran Healy on August 31, 2015

About nine months ago, my colleague Steve Vaisey told me he was interested in organizing a session at the American Sociological Association Meetings about the idea of “nuance” in sociological theory, and in particular about how there seemed to be a lot of demand for the stuff. He asked me if I’d be interested in submitting a paper called something like “Against Nuance”. I replied that if you were going to do something like that, you should just go ahead and call it “Fuck Nuance” and be done with it. “OK then”, said Steve, “I’ll put that down as the title”.

Having inadvertently bound myself to that mast like some accident-prone Ulysses, I presented the paper last week in Chicago. Here’s the draft.


Politics and the English Landscape

by Kieran Healy on May 10, 2015

I’m still playing around with the UK Election data I mapped yesterday, which ended up at the Monkey Cage blog over at the Washington Post. On Twitter, Vaughn Roderick posted a nice comparison showing the proximity of many Labour seats to coalfields. That got me thinking about how much the landscape of England is embedded in its political life. In particular, what do the names of places tell you about their political leanings? I looked at English constituencies only, and searched constituency names for some common toponyms like “-ham”, “-shire”, “-wood” and -field”. Then I looked to see what proportion of seats with these features in their names were won by the Conservatives and Labour. For simplicity of presentation, I omitted the Liberal Democrats and UKIP who won a very small percentage of some of these seats. Here’s the result.

Constituencies by toponym and winning party.

I think that’s rather nice. The Tories are the party of shires and fords, and to a slightly lesser extent of woodland clearings (-ley, -leigh) and woods. Labour meanwhile are the party of -hams (as in, a farm or homestead), of -tons (or towns), and of fields.

Note that some double-counting occurs, because the naming categories are not necessarily exclusive. I did focus on suffixes, so for example “Northampton” would be counted as a -ton but not a -ham, and constituencies with ‘ton’ in their name but not at the end of a word would not be counted in that category.

Who came second in the UK election?

by Kieran Healy on May 9, 2015

The UK’s election results are being digested by the chattering classes. So, yesterday afternoon I thought I’d see if I could grab the election data to make some pictures. Because the BBC has sane HTML structure, this proved a lot more straightforward than I feared—thanks in no small part to Hadley Wickham‘s rvest scraping library together with ggplot and dplyr and all the other tools he’s contributed to the R-using public.

So I grabbed the data and made two maps. The first is a version of the one you’ve seen showing the winning party in every constituency in Great Britain (sic: excluding Northern Ireland). The other shows who came in second.

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California Vaccination Exemptions by Type of School

by Kieran Healy on February 5, 2015

Update, Feb. 5th: Figure and Table updated to identify Catholic Private schools. And again later the same day, finding more Catholic schools.

I took another look at the vaccination exemption data I discussed the other day. This time I was interested in getting a closer look at the range of variation between different sorts of schools. My goal was to extract a bit more information about the different sorts of elementary schools in the state, just using the data from the Health Department spreadsheet. As we saw before, the smaller the unit of observation the more variability we are likely to uncover. So, looking at the rate of Personal Belief Exemptions (PBEs) in public vs private schools shows less variation than looking at the rates across counties, which in turn show less variation than what we observe at the district and school level. At the same time, the larger the number of observations within any particular category, the more variability there is likely to be as well. There are far more public schools than any other sort of school in California, so even if most public schools have very low rates of PBEs, the fact that there are thousands of them makes some outliers more likely.

To get a more fine-grained sense of the different sorts of schools there are, I used their names as a guide. How many private schools have the word “Christ” or “Christian” in their names, for example? How many have “Waldorf” or “Montessori”? This is an imperfect measure because it’s not guaranteed that, say, a private Christian academy will have the words “Christ” or “Christian” in its name. But it’s imperfect in a generally conservative direction—though not uniformly, as if you don’t search carefully you might mistake Christa McAuliffe Elementary, a public school, for a private Christian school. So you take care not to write regular expressions that aren’t too greedy, and double check against their public/private status, which is also given in the CDPH data. With this in mind we can produce a table of different types of schools ordered by mean PBE rate.

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Vaccination Exemptions in California Kindergartens

by Kieran Healy on January 30, 2015

I came across a report yesterday, via Eric, about high rates of vaccination exemption in Sacramento schools. As you are surely aware, this is a serious political and public health problem at the moment. Like Eric, I was struck by just how high some of the rates were. So I went and got the data from the California Department of Public Health, just wanting to take a quick look at it. If you want to follow along, I put up a github repository with the data and R code for the plots.

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Fly Air Gini

by Kieran Healy on December 1, 2014

The other day at OrgTheory, Beth Berman had a very nice discussion on “inequality in the skies” about how much of space on planes is given over to different classes of passenger. Using seating charts, she calculated some rough Gini coefficients of inequality on board. For example, on a transatlantic flight in a three-class configuration with fancy lie-flat beds up front,

if we look again at how the space is distributed, we now have 21% of the people using about 40% of the plane, 27% using another 20%, and the final 52% using the last 40%. The Gini index has now increased, to 25.

She also noted in passing that, as unequal as that is, it’s “still nowhere near the inequality of the U.S., or the world.” I found myself wondering what a plane with seating laid out on the basis of the U.S. income distribution would look like. So, following Beth’s lead, I decided to get into the aviation business and launch Air Gini, America’s most American airline.

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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.


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.