Saturday, March 17, 2007

so, how was the conference?

me, at easterns
(me, presenting at the Eastern Sociological Society meetings)

The most common problem with giving talks at conferences is that one doesn't actually get an audience, and one is left talking almost or entirely only to the other panelists.* This leads one to feel like presenting is pointless, that one is producing a good no one else is actually interested in consuming, and various related issues that cause existential and morale crises in academics. Alternatively, one can sometimes get good attendance at a talk, but then one is dealing with this stochastic process where each additional person at a talk increases the probability that someone in the audience will be a crank or twit that provides some kind of irksome distraction that is then does much to decrease the value of the session.**

At the Eastern meetings, I gave two presentations: one fell into the first category above, and one--the panel on Freakonomics--fell into the second. The main session vandal for the second was this guy who was apparently the spouse of a sociologist, but I somehow missed this and spent much of the time when he would talk thinking, "How can this guy be a sociologist and know so little about social science?" Anyway, fellow sociologists: if you want to bring your spouse (or child, or pet) along to a presentation, that's fine, but just like if you were going to a restaurant or movie theater, try to have them behave. If he is doing things like interrupting other audience member's points with asides where everyone is supposed to raise their hand if they've read Freaknonomics, that's not behaving.

Another person in the audience wanted the panel to discuss whether Freakonomics was "the son of the Bell Curve," which I regarded as being too beyond ridiculous to know how to address and yet seemed to resonate with some other people in the audience. I suppose maybe I should consider it a victory that no analogies to the Nazis were drawn.

* I haven't had this problem with any panels I've been on, but one consequence of the rise of internet in hotels is that one can't necessarily even count on the attention of fellow panelists.

** One may be more likely at ill attended talks to be on a panel with someone who is a crank or twit and does much to compromise the panel for everyone, especially if they go on for twice their allotted time with a presider who just lets them.


Anonymous said...

Re the Freakonomics session: Oh, come on. Yes, the guy was a twit, and it would have been nice for his spouse to have kept him out of the room if she could have anticipated how he would behave (as I suspect she could). But I scarcely think that the bozo ruined the session, even though he misunderstood most of what you said. (Basic math?) The more disappointing thing for me was the predictable devolution into the low status of sociology as a discipline relative to economics, and the impoverished accounts of the intellectual contributions that sociology has to offer.

Anonymous said...

A Marxist sociology professor of mine once quipped, "The discipline of Economics is the methodological wing of the Capitalist Party." By this, I believed him to mean that economics is based on assumptions and produces findings which are essentially consistent with and supportive of the current political economy (capitalism) and culture (individualism). This makes some sense, and goes a long way toward explaining why Sociology (with different assumptions and findings) would enjoy lower status in modern societies. Legitimating rationales, anyone?

jeremy said...

Anon 11:23am: I didn't mean to imply that the bozo/twit "ruined" the session. While I had wanted my own remarks to be more upbeat than I think how they came across (my fault), I am probably not the best ambassador for the discipline in terms of providing broad "they have their fancy methods, but we're right!" validation that I think some people in the room were looking for. To use Anon 11:40's phrase in a different context, I'm not that interested in providing "legitimating rationales" for practices or ways of thinking that I don't believe in, which is not to say that there couldn't have been better discussion of the genuine intellectual contributions that sociology has to offer.

Anonymous said...

But isn't the real issue "right about what?" What I view as the genius of Freakonomics (and I probably ought to read the book before saying this) is similar to your argument -- it's an imaginative use of data and methods to make causal inferences in the absence of randomized field trials. The economists in my substantive field are doing the same thing, and I'm having to learn new tools to keep up. That's okay, but even if we limit our purview to the methodological toolkit, I think there's more to social science than causal inference; and I don't think the session illuminated sociology's contributions to problem identification and framing (which take place before one gets to the stage of cause-and-effect claims) and to external validity (i.e., the extent to which claims made about one case might apply to other cases, and why).
Anon 11:23

jeremy said...

Sure, Anon 11:23am, I think that's a good observation and would have made a good topic of discussion during the panel.

Anonymous said...

ie blah blah blah

Anonymous said...

"Another person in the audience wanted the panel to discuss whether Freakonomics was "the son of the Bell Curve...""

This is pure genius. I hope the panel took up the suggestion! Exactly why I avoid regional meetings...

Corey said...

The bell-curve analogy was tied to discussion of the abortion & crime chapter (which was the focus of panelist Leslie Paik's comments). Either Jermey or Kiernan pointed out that this particular line of research had already been thoroughly critiqued in multiple places. But this became the focus of the balance of the Q & A period.

What struck me about this part of the conversation was how insecure we sociologists are. Jerry Jacob's suggestion that sociologists take this opportunity to rebut each of Levitt's chapters (let's not attribute these ideas as Dubner's) strikes me as sorely misguided... a point made clear by another panelist (perhaps D. Conley?).

Here's what I took from the Freakonomics panel discussion. In order to successfully sell a book to the general public, it must contain a simple idea. This will attract criticism from other serious scholars concerning that issue because: (a) the social world is not simple; and (b) we get a little jealous. But if the simple idea was marketed well, the criticism simply bounces around an echo chamber of like minded critics.

So I'm not sure what the implication is for sociologists. We can either try to produce a best-seller a'la freakonomics, but know that it, by necessity, will overly simplify; or we can continue to be the cranky school marm (hat tip to someone on the pannel... Jim Jeffers?). Neither seems to me to be terribly satisfying.

Re: Anon 9:44's avoidance of regional meetings. I find attending the Eastern Soc meetings to be a far better use of my time than the main ASA meeting. (Which is not to say that ASA is a waste of my time). Perhaps the Easterns are unique among the regional meetings... but in my three trips, I've not been disappointed... I find people are more accessible and willing to talk informally at these meetings than the national. On Friday, I attended an author meets critic session where Evitar Zerubavel sparred with Jeffery Alexander; a second panel session where Elijah Anderson and Randal Collins presented some of their unfolding ethnographic work in Philadelphia (no, I didn't know Collins did ethnography either); and a third where Jeremy Freese showed off his fancy tablet P.C. while riffing on Freakonomics (and apparently admitted that his woeful mathematical abilities are an impediment to doing serious work; brush up on that calculus, won't you Jeremy?).

Yeah, some of the commentary was bizarre; but no more bizarre than what pops up in the Q & A's at a well attended ASA sessions.

Corey said...

In my last comment I absentmindedly suggested that a former Senator (Jim Jeffords) was on the panel. I meant to say Jim Jasper... once again demonstrating my confusion.

Anonymous said...

Um, I like that Freakonomics/Bell Curve line too. That would be an awake discussion, no?