Book Review: Ghost Work

I have planned to read Ghost Work by Mary Gray and Siddharth Suri for a long time. I bought the book when I visited a talk by Mary Gray at Data and Society about a year ago. Since then the book still sits on my bookshelf. The general theme of the book is about the necessary unseen human labor behind the seamless automated systems. The core concept of the book is the idea “paradox of automation’s last mile.” It refers to the phenomenon whereby when Artificial Intelligence becomes more advanced, it would create “temporary labor markets” to solve “unforeseen and unpredictable tasks.” Furthermore, the grater paradox of automation is that “the desire to eliminate human labor always generate new tasks for humans.” In other words, automation cannot and would not in a foreseeable future, rather automation reconfigures work, and reorganizes human input in the production process.

In the authors’ own words, on-demand service work is necessary because we do not know when machines need human input:

“As machines get more powerful and algorithms take over more and more problems, we know from past advances in natural language processing and image recognition that industries will continue to identify new problems to tackle. Thus, there is an ever moving frontier between what machines can and cannot solve. We call this the paradox of automation’s last mile: as machine progress, the opportunity to automate something else appears on the horizon. This process constantly repeats, resulting in the expansion of automation through the perpetual creation and destruction of labor markets for new types of human labor. In other words, as machines solve more and more problems, we continue to identify needs for augmenting rather than replacing human effort. This paradox explains why on-demand services – commercial ventures that combine humans and APIs to source, schedule, and deliver access to goods and services – are more likely to dominate the future of work than AI and bots alone (p.176).

The authors interview workers in the United States and India, and bring them to us. They go behind the API curtain, and reveal to us who the workers are, what are their aspirations, and why they work for on demand platforms. This book is comparative on many levels. First, it compares workers in different countries: The US. and India. Second it compares experiences of workers who work for multiple platforms: Amazon Mechanical Turk, Microsoft Internal On-Demand platform, Amara translation service, and LeadGenius. The diversity of platforms, and countries allow us to see a picture of an emerging global on-demand labor market, which performs million of tasks, which vary in complexity. This book therefore enables us to see what is often hidden and abstract.

The authors then provide institutional background on why the on-demand labor market has become necessary in the digital revolution. They also show us how on-demand labor market is not a new system. Before the industrial revolution, many women and households took on the job of sewing the last buttons to clothes before the textile industry figured out how to automate the process, and confined the work within the walls of garment companies. This inclusion of non-institutional labor is important in the process of automation.

As they walk us through lived experiences of their interview subjects, the reader recognizes heterogeneity of human labors in this on-demand market. What becomes apparent is that since the market does not have a clear requirement of educational background, training level, etc, it allows for a diverse labor force with different levels of training, different levels of education, and coming from diverse racial, ethic, and religious backgrounds. However, this heterogeneity of labor supply, and diverse forms of tasks also create inefficiency, and friction because workers have different levels of skills, and that requesters/ employers have to define the tasks themselves. The authors show that this system involves a lot of transaction costs for both workers and employers. The two sides have to put in the time to find the right match, and to explain to each side how to do the task as intended. Workers avoid the problem of looking for tasks by creating social networks outside of the platform. They rely on social media, online forums to find the right tasks. As the author outlines this problem of transaction costs, I wonder whether building a well thought-out communication platforms for on-demand workers and employers would be a potential solution for the various transaction cost problem in this market. This is a technical solution for the current inefficiencies in this market.

One theme that I observe in this book with other Gig economy books that I have read in the past year is that workers in this economy are subject to algorithmic arbitrariness. Workers are suspended, and kicked out of the platforms sometimes randomly, and sometimes according to rules that are not taking their real life situations into account, while workers have no recourse, no where to complain. This shows the power of platforms over workers, and that workers though important to platforms’ profitability are not treated as assets but expandable number that could be eliminated at will.

Gray and Suri explain:

“The worst expression of algorithmic cruelty is disenfranchisement. Under the guise of safety, systems designers make it easy to block or remove an account in case a bad actor tries to cheat the system. This adversarial stance means that good workers are sometimes misinterpreted as shady players. Inevitably, mistakes are made. A worker changes an address, loses her internet connection, or shares an IP address with another worker. Each one of these things is potential red flag. The algorithmic system sees the flag as a possible security threat and, with no one at the helm to distinguish friend from foe, the worker is penalized. The penalty may look like being blocked or suspended, or having an account deactivated. Again, in an ecosystem in which workers are seen as interchangeable, the system automatically eliminates what it deems bad apples. The sad irony is that even the best – intentioned and most seasoned workers can get caught in the dragnet.” 86

Workers are dehumanized through the process of de-identification. Mturkers become lists of numbers. This reminds me of how Jewish prisoners given a number during the Holocaust. Giving a working human being a code to interact with is so dehumanizing for both sides: the requesters, and the Mturkers. The authors though qualify this statement by saying that in case of workers who come from discriminated classes (gender, religion, etc), not being identified by names and gender sometimes giving them advantage.

At the end, I feel that the book presents a good narrative of what is going on in the tech economy. However, as a sociologist of work, one question remains unanswered is the question of “work process” among on-demand gig workers: Why do they work so hard for very little paid, and why don’t they quit? What is the average tenure of an on-demand gig worker working for an on-demand platform? The authors point out the 80/20 Pareto rule to create a typology of three group of workers. However, I want to know among those who make on-demand work their full time career, why do they work so hard for little pay? Another question is why they not call them gig workers? What is then the difference between gig work and on-demand work? Aren’t they the same?

To answer the question what keeps they in the game, the authors provide a partial answer: many of them are in the game for the cognitive benefit of it. They learn new things, keep up their skills (most of these answers come from Indian subjects). However, my sense is that because the book is not an ethnographic research, they can never quite get at the process that workers rationalize the decision to remain in an exploitative labor scheme.

Besides, How about their American counterparts? Why are they working so hard for little pay? The answers are either implicit or not satisfactory. Implicit in the sense that they work for various reasons. One, the workers population are so heterogeneous, they should have different reasons why they work in this sector. Thus, they should also have different reasons why they stay. Is there anything about the on-demand aspect of this that keeps them stay? Is there anything about the brandname (Amazon.com, or Microsoft) that make them stay? These questions remain open.

Finally, as a methodology enthusiast, I feel the book to be not transparent in its methodology. Who were involved in the interviewing process, who was contacted, who was doing the interview, etc. These pieces of information is absent. As mentioned earlier, because the book is not explicit in whether ethnography was involved at all, readers cannot really picture the embodiment aspect of online/on-demand work.

Because I care so much about reproducibility of research, the book does not have a methodological appendix that makes me cringe. I know that it is produced for popular audience, but as a scholar, a researcher, a scientist, I want to know how many people they have interviewed, how did they interview them, how many in person, how many remote. How did they avoid positionality biases being MSR employers, privileged, and at times employers of those ghost workers.

Overall, I agree with the authors that there’s a global ghost work sector that is increasing in size because of the increase in demand for human in the loop tasks from various tech companies. They are working outside of the formal employment structure, and they are subject to the whim of the platforms, and being exploited by requesters because of the platform design. However, I think the book has not answered many questions, and one of which is methodological, and another is theoretical.

Despite many questions that I have, the book is a starting point of a long over-due conversation: who are the human workers who power machines. How can we as society protect them, and enable their creativity for our better future. The book is both practical, and hopeful that we actually will continue to need humans in the loop. The book also provides one practical solution for job training program at the city level that I really like: supporting public education, and letting residents to take college classes that they would want to take in order to benefit their work. This similar program enabled me to audit courses at Humboldt University, Free University and Goettingen University during my stay in Germany. It plugged me into the intellectual environments of those excellent public universities, and through those courses I had also made long lasting friendships. I’m all for investing in public universities and making their courses available to those who pay their taxes to support such excellent public education.

Deep Listening: Engaging with Respect

When I first started college in the United States, I struggled. I struggled with English because as a non-native speaker, the first year was very difficult. Every student had to take English 101, first year seminar, major, and minor required classes. Even before school started, the incoming freshmen were asked to read a non-fiction book, and created original and innovative responses to it. I was overwhelmed. Nobody had ever taught me how to react to a non-fiction book. What was expected of me? How would the deliverable look like? I performed well if there’s a clear guideline of what deliverable I should provide. But when the deliverable is anything possible, I became paralyzed.

I arrived in college with the feeling that I was insufficient because I could not produce a creative response to a non-fiction book. Then in the first orientation week, I saw my peer products displayed at the fine arts department, I felt both awed by what they were able to create, and felt inadequate because I was not creative, and that I failed to bring with me any artifact. I was trying to figure out the American college system, and American higher education culture.

Then English 101, a required class, started. I was both excited, but nervous, and sometimes dreaded that I had to go to English classes. As a high school student, I never excelled in English, or Vietnamese. I never got good grades in these subjects, or felt the urge to write any poem, or wrote a good literary analysis. My high school writing was mediocre but logical. I often got away with writing a very dry essay that hit all the points instead of writing a flowery essay that makes the reader feel good. I kept the same attitude toward English, or maybe the fear of humanities subjects when college started. My English professor also looked very strict, and the readings were very foreign to me! We read Othello, old English poems, and Tony Morrison’s Beloved. I had virtually no cultural background to be able to comprehend the texts. My only tool was to pretend that literature speaks to all humanity regardless of the reader’s race, ethnicity, cultural background and lived experiences. Later on, I learned that this assumption was very wrong.

English 101 was the class that took most of my time, yet I felt really inadequate in it most of the time. Until one day, I had to make a presentation about a reading in class. I don’t remember what the presentation about any more. The only thing I remember now is that it was a 10-minute presentation about an author, and their work. My job was to summarize the author’s life, and their literary works. The only and the most important thing I remember though is the feeling that I had during and after the presentation. My peers were listening to me very attentively, and asked questions after I presented. I was of course nervous, but they were all paying attention to me, my powerpoint, and did not care much about my broken English. I felt empowered. I felt respected. I felt engaged. It was definitely the first time that I recognized the power of being listened to. My expectation was that nobody would listen to my presentation because I did not really know what I was doing. I also never took English seriously. Yet the fact that my peers and my professor took me, the topic and the subject matter seriously, I felt elated.

That moment of feeling respected, recognized, and centered was decidedly a turning point in my approach toward higher learning. It was also the moment when I recognized how empowering it could be for a speaker to be able to summon his/her audience’s attention.

In this blog post, I am arguing that when one engages in deep listening, or paying attention to the interlocutor with empathy and appreciation, one gives agency to one’s interlocutor by giving them respect.

As human beings, we all want to be treated with respect. It’s an instinctive desire. I had such a low expectation of how my peers would treat me in an English class, thus when I was treated with respect, I felt elated, happy, and empowered. What if we use the same practice for doing research? What if deep listening as a way to show respect to a research subject is a principle in doing qualitative research?

During the Covid-19 Pandemic, everything has been moved online. Now everyone knows what Zoom is, and conducting research interviews has become so much easier than before because teleconferencing has become normalized as a social practice. My argument is that in the 21st century, where more activities are conducted online, sociologists should also conduct their research online. I think that conducting interviews online should become a part of interviewing methods. It should be in one’s research repertoire, in one’s tool box. This research environment is not ideal for a lot of projects. However, as researchers we should make do with what we have.

In the current situation, when researchers interview participants online, we need to practice deep listening, and pay attention to it more than ever. What does it mean? It means letting subjects sufficient time and care to elaborate on their points, and giving them virtual space to feel comfortable. I think psychologists have done this very well when we all transitioned online. Now all psychotherapists are offering online therapy. They use virtual spaces very well. They use virtual platforms to elicit deep emotions, deep connections, and deep openness with their subjects. Sociologists should learn this deep virtual listening practice from them.

What constitutes deep listening then? There are three basic components of virtual deep listening: (1) establishing virtual rapport, (2) maintaining eye contact and attention, (3) asking follow-up questions.

Establishing virtual rapport: Establishing quick rapport to any person is an art. A great field worker often incorporates humor, and the ability to relate to the interlocutor in the first five minutes of interaction with a new interview subject. Establishing a virtual rapport presents a challenge because the interviewer is no longer being physically in the same place as their interviewee. This physical distance creates a challenge because relating to somebody virtually is a very different skill than relating to someone in the same physical space. It seems that podcasters have figured out how to establish quick rapport with their interlocutors very quickly. I would love to know how they do this. What are some tips, and what should one pay attention to?

Maintaining eye contact and attention: this is true when a researcher interview some one physically. It is even more true when an interview is done virtually. Maintaining eye contact via Zoom is very difficult. Sometime we do not know whether we are looking directly at the other person in the eye. This act of staring at a screen for too long might lead to Zoom fatique, the feeling of tiredness, anxiousness or worry with yet another video call. Yet in order to get the best interaction, and that to help the interviewee to come forth with their life stories, paying attention to what being said, and how they say it is utmost important. Paying attention to details is always the best working guideline.

Asking follow-up questions: As I interviewed podcasters for a research on the podcasting industry, I learned that not everyone is a good podcaster because they do not know how to ask follow-up questions. This point relates to the previous point about paying attention to details. I have the habit of taking detailed notes when people talk. It’s a very good practice to get things visually in front of you when you want to know what is being said. Many a times, I used my notes to come back to points that the interviewee said, and I needed more elaboration. A superb fieldworker does not take detailed notes. They only need to take mental notes, and write down very short notes. Then when they go home, they will fill in the blank what is missing from their notes. This is a great mental exercise. I strongly believe that a good fieldworker has very good memory. I am often afraid of losing track of the conversation, thus I take notes of everything. Remember asking follow-up questions for further elaboration is always helpful when the interviewee talks about a social concept using their own words, and to construct their social life through their own lens.

In conclusion, deep listening is an important practice for everyone in this busy world where technology makes us more isolated than ever. For a researcher, deep listening helps us connect with research subjects because it is a way for us to give our interviewees respect. In the context of virtualizing research, deep listening is even more needed because it can help us to bring down the physical distance of a Zoom call. All in all, I would encourage everyone to think about different ways in which deep listening could be practiced, and how it is being applied in different contexts.

Community Gardens in NYC

This week, I attended a presentation about community gardens in New York City. From a sociological point of view, it turns out that community gardens can be considered an extremely interesting social phenomena. For example, community gardens could be points of ethnic and racial conflicts (see research by Sofya Aptekar). During the talk, I figured out that there are two community gardens on my block. This is wild. I have walked by them many times, and have seen people hanging out in them. But I have never walked in the gardens, or started planting any trees. And my digging into the community garden data available on NYC OpenData reveals extremely interesting patterns.
6clusters
The dataset provides 536 data points for data analysis. This is indeed an incomplete dataset because I learned that there should be about 600 community gardens in New York City.
Then I did a k-means clustering analysis to create different clusters. I simply went on Github  and got some off-the-shelf python code that do spatial clustering.  Then I altered the code such that it works with my computer, and my data. After trying 3, 4,5 and 6 models, I concluded that 6 clusters look like a reasonable model for this dataset. The above figure is the final result of the cluster analysis. One can do more fancy GIS visualizations. I think that this figure is already very telling about spatial clustering of community gardens in New York City.
The common wisdom is that community gardens are located in the low-land value areas.  This figure certainly supports the sentiment, but it also shows a more complicated picture. The dense clustering areas are black dots or those community gardens in the Bronx. Then there is a dense area in between Brooklyn and Queens. The rests are pretty sparse. Looking at the map, one sees that Upper Manhattan is grouped with the Bronx (black dots), some parts of Queens, Brooklyn, and lower Manhattan, and the Upper West Side are grouped together. Then the middle part of Queens is its own cluster. And outer part of Queens is another cluster. Staten Island is another world in and of it self.
I showed this map immediately to a colleague and she confirmed that the map captures what the literature says. The literature says that community gardens are mostly located in low land-value areas, relatively low land values, with ethnic and racial minority populations, and all on city-owned land that the city took control of because the building owner did not pay property taxes for three years.
So that’s my attempt at getting a handle of k-means clustering. I’ll be working more on k-means clustering for other projects. The more I use this technique, the more I think that there are lot of ways that I can use it in different projects. Over the summer, I’ll improve my python skills to write my own k-means clustering code. As of now, I am happy learning and working with other people’s codes.

Notes on Michaela DeSoucey’s Contested Taste

Last week, I made the decision to change one of my orals lists into sociology of consumption. This means that I will need to read a completely new list of literature than the one that I had proposed. The two weeks before finalizing the decision, I suffered headaches and stress about the change. Yet, after making a new list of literature, all my anxiety somehow disappeared, and I started enjoying the venture into the new terrain of scholarly debates.

What is sociology of consumption? I asked myself constantly. Wikipedia outlines the history of the field:

Theories of consumption have been a part of the field of sociology since its earliest days, dating back, at least implicitly, to the work of Karl Marx in the mid-to-late nineteenth century. Sociologists view consumption as central to everyday life, identity and social order. Many sociologists associate it with social class, identity, group membership, age and stratification as it plays a huge part in modernity.

What is apparent is that sociologists have always been studying consumption. And consumption is dependent on an individual’s various identities such as class, gender, ethnicity, and nationality. Disputes over some consumer products are linked to all other social factors that regulate our social lives.

Among the first books that I read for the new list is Contested Tastes Foie Gras and the Politics of Food by Michaela DeSoucey. This book is about Foie Gras, a luxury food product made of the liver of a duck or goose that has been especially fattened. It is a popular and well known delicacy in French cuisine. I heard of the book a couple of years ago, when I took the class sociology of consumption as a graduate student. The term “foie gras” [pronounced /fwah grah/] really triggered my culinary imagination. Then I had the first taste of foie gras a few months later when I visited a friend in Boston, whose friend just smuggled some French foie gras to Boston. My curiosity was satisfied. I had a slice of foie gras pâté. It tasted similar to some pork pâté that I had as a kid in Vietnam, but it was less fatty, and more “refine.” I did not venture into the topic of foie gras any further until when I had to compose the new list of literature to read. Triggered by the experience of tasting this delicacy, and also curious to how foie gras became a contested food, I decided to read about it.

The book is about foie gras, who supports, and who opposes the production, distribution and consumption of it on both sides of the Atlantic. It starts out describing the heated debates between different chefs in Chicago about their use of foie gras in their menus. Then the author talks about the fact that the city of Chicago created a law that bans the distribution (selling) of foie gras. Other states in the United States also banned the production of foie gras based on the idea that the ducks or geese were inhumanely fattened. This luxury product is a highly contested food item in the culinary scene in the United States. Animal rights activists tried various tactics to stop the production and consumption of it. On the other side of the Atlantic, in France, foie gras is a tradition. It is also a contested political topic, but its politics is operating differently because it is such a ubiquitous item.

In order to explain the different politics around foie gras in both the United States, and France, DeSoucey proposed the concept “gastropolitics” to understand this phenomenon. This politics refers to “conflicts over food that are located at the intersections  of social movements, cultural markets, and state regulation.” They are “conflicts over food and culinary practices that are branded as social problems.” Everything around foie gras in both countries is framed as social problem. Many groups are involved in the production, distribution, and consumption of this specialty. There are also anti-foie-gras groups, whose claims over the mal-treatment of the birds are not less convincing than artisanal farmers in Southern France who tried to preserve the traditional ways of producing ducks.

In many ways, all groups are participating in gastropolitics, which “are everyday politics where people and groups actively engage to keep or change what is eaten, and they are also formal politics related to laws and governmental regulations that shape the food system.” Actors try to change the way foods are eaten, prepared, and produced. They also influence formal politics, and change formal laws that dictate what is distributed, and how something should be distributed.

DeSoucey’s writing is superb. Her book  reads like a page turner. I devoured the book in two days. She leads the reader on an ethnographic tour from urban consumption scene in Chicago to the production sites in southern France. Her comparative project makes clear that

Foie gras has struck a resonant chord for many – it has often (and polemically) been called America’s most controversial food. Its politics reveal how ideas and concerns about morality intersect with markets, social movements, and state systems of law and regulation. The very topic of foie gras’s existence, as well as its presence on the menus, has galvanized some people – animal rights activitists, chefs, industry members, consumers and legislators – to action in ways that other issues have not. These politics involve deep, identity-laden concerns, and they illuminate the various ways in which institutions and organizations, as makers and mediators of morally grounded cultural meanings, are critical to contested tastes.

Theoretically speaking, DeSoucey follows in the footsteps of Viviana Zelizer to investigate markets for “morally questionable goods and services that elicit questions of consumer and business ethics.” Different foie gras markets invoke different moral and ethical questions from animal rights questions to questions about national identity.

In the chapter about the origin myth of foie gras, DeSoucey argues:

The origin myth marries foie gras’s production and consumption to the idea of French nationhood. It meshes selected bits of cultural history and nostalgic reflections on foie gras’s connections to the greatness of past civilizations, the grand narrative of French cuisine, and family belonging. This works to propagate national taste as moral taste, marking who belongs to the nation (and who does not). It gives foie gras and its producers legitimacy. …. I argue that gastronationalism appeals not just to collective identity that is shaped through cultural scripts and is contingent on actual and embodied consumption.

In France, foie gras is associated with  the French nationhood. It is a national product. It sets France apart from other European nations. It is about a collective identity that takes years to form. In the age of Europeanization, and globalization, foie gras is a contested product that shows case French superior culinary traditions.

In the American side, “being a good citizen and being a good consumer became intertwined ideas over the course of the 20th century, in large part via the aegis of government programs and policymakers interested in safeguarding the American economy.” Citizens and government work together to pass certain laws to prohibit certain food items. Banning foie gras is a symbolic act where the government sided with the animal rights groups, while punishing a small group of duck farmers that produce a product that most Americans (including myself) don’t know what it is, and have never tasted it.

This following table summarizes the different gastropolitics in relations to foie gras:

 

Dimensions France US
History Origin myth that is associated with specific regions in France No origin myth
Class Ubiquitous Elite, luxury product
Nationalism France vs. Europe vs globalization imported and having no national impact
Tourism Fostering nationalism and a recognition about traditional way of producing foie gras Touring farms gives a sense of transparency in how animals are being treated
Social movements Not strong anti-foie-gras production, but some animal rights groups do exist Anti-inhumae treatment of ducks

Trying to promote laws that prohibit production, distribution and consumption of foie gras

Production Huge Small farms, and negligible in comparisons to other animal products
State Promoting foie gras as a national symbol, and cultural identity

National level

Banning the production/distribution at the city and state level
Markets Large Small

After finishing the book, I was left wanting. Is there anyway I can get some affordable foie gras in New York? Is the concept gastropolitics applicable to other cases? Is foie gras such as a big deal? Why is it that Americans do not eat more ducks like Europeans do? Even though the book tells such a good tale about foie gras, it is not clear to me how many people DeSoucey interviewed. In general, I love reading the methods section of a sociological monograph. In this book, I could not find it. However, I am very impressed that DeSoucey does not de-identify her interviewees. All of their names are real. This is some new and interesting development for sociological research in terms of methodological transparency.

 

 

Book Review: Bad Blood by John Carreyrou

About two months ago, all news media talked about the Theranos scandal, where the once unicorn startup had to shut down and liquidated because its founder, Elizabeth Holmes was indicted for wire fraud and conspiracy. Theranos was a health technology company that tried to “disrupt” the health care industry by designing a blood test device that used only a small amount of blood. This failure challenged many promises that Silicon Valley tech startups have been making all along: technology can solve many things fast. It raised many questions about Sillicon’s fake-it-till-you-make it and play-fast-and-loose culture. A couple of weeks ago while I was attempting to learn about AI technology, and its social, political implications. A social scientist mentioned to me that she was listening to an audiobook, whose name is Bad Blood to get a more nuanced understanding of the scandal. The book piqued my interest. I immediately requested it, gave it a read, and now feel that I have a better understanding of how Silicon Valley works.

What is Bad Blood about?

Originally, I thought that the nonfiction followed a traditional path of an investigative journalistic work where it would ask the questions such as who is Elizabeth Holmes, how did she come up with her startup idea, how did she make it a unicorn, why and how did it fail? In a lot of ways, it is a case study of how Silicon Valley created one of the sickest unicorn that was meddling with the health care industry. In a closer read, I found that my original thought was naïve. The book is more than just how Elizabeth Holmes rose to stardom and descended rapidly. It is a detective work where the author himself was involved in bringing down a tech darling from her unrealistic dream by exposing her lies and delusions. The book portrayed Elizabeth Holmes to be the charming, intelligent female antagonist, and the journalist at the WSJ, John Carreyrou, the author of the book to be the male protagonist, the detective who did not appear until very late in the story. Yet his journalistic instinct helped him paint an accurate picture of Theranos, its embarrassingly mediocre technology, sloppy management, and delusional culture of Silicon Valley. The shift in narrative from Elizabeth Holmes and people around her to how the journalist put the case together made the story much more convincing.

The female villain of the book is Elizabeth Holmes, the charming blond startup founder of Theranos. She dropped out of Stanford University  in 2003 to found a company that promised to test blood with a small device that could perform an array of blood tests using only one drop of blood. This promise was tempting to many investors, and corporate partners including a large swath of respectable venture capitalists, Wal-Greens, and at some point even the United States Defense Department. The book  structured chronologically.  In many ways it is a biography of a company. It has less to do with Elizabeth Holmes even though she’s a big part of it, who gave shape, form, and contour, and character to her startup. Therefore a significant amount of space in the book is dedicated to the complex character of Elizabeth Holmes. The underlying question around Holmes is why did shecreate what she created and why did she lie the way she lied to everyone?

In the process to answer this question, the author portrays other characters around her, and use the words of these characters to portray Holmes. He is like a sculpturist who creates contours and dimension to each character, and also shows the nature of relationship between different characters. What is the most striking feature of this person? How can one bring to the reader’s mind a 3-D portrayal of this character in this story?  He paints a picture of Elizabeth to be a horrible person, yet she’s very smart. She’s ruthless, controlling. Here’s Holmes from an ex-employee, a friend’s point of view, how Elizabeth was getting bad influence from her boyfriend:

In her relentless drive to be a successful startup founder, she had built a bubble around herself that was cutting her off from reality. And the only person she was letting inside was a terrible influence (her boyfriend). How could her friend [Elizabeth] not see that? (p.80)

Why did Theranos fail? The company was glutted with sloppy corporate governance, bad management, and despotism. Holmes hired her college roommate, boyfriend, and her incompetent brother to work as her closest people. She valued loyalty more than competency, and expertise. That’s not a way to go for a high-tech company. She might have over compensate because she’s young and tried to assert her authority over her well-trained brilliant employees. Her smartness could not really cover for her lack of training in the medical field. This insecurity manifested in making each department a silo. It translated in her obsession with leaking trade secrets out by surveilling her employees.

She had a vision that she genuinely believed in and threw herself into realizing. But in her all-consuming quest to be the second coming of Steve Jobs amid the gold rush of the “unicorn” boom, there came a point when she stopped listening to sound advice and began to cut corners. Her ambition was voracious and it brooked no interference. If there was a collateral damage on her way to riches and fame, so be it (p. 299).

The book really made the character Elizabeth Holmes appear like some body that one could spot in street of Silicon Valley. She was loved by the press. She was the woman engineer that everybody wanted to have in the male-dominated world of the tech industry. On her rise to stardom, the author writes:

Her journal interview had gotten some notice and there had also been a piece in Wired, but there was nothing like a magazine cover to grab people’s attention. Especially when that cover featured an attractive young woman wearing a black turtleneck, dark mascara around her piercing blue eyes, and bright red lipstick next to the catchy headline “THIS CEO IS OUT FOR BLOOD” (p. 208).

John Carreyrou was not afraid to criticize the press, including his own employer, the Wall Street Journal for having buy into Holmes’s promises early, and brought her from the periphery  to the center of national attention. This increasing publicity helped her raise money, and bring political and elite powerful people closer to her. Her company got valued a lot higher because of all those PR articles. This story makes clear the process, whereby a startup gets more funding via its inflated images portrayed by the presses. Then the press would give it even more attention for its successful rounds of funding. The startup is then swelling with funding, and flowery media images of itself. It’s a vicious circle.

One great thing about the book is that the author makes chemical and engineering processes read-able to the wider audience. What is high-tech is suddenly within grasp. For example, when talking about how a commercial blood analyzer might introduce errors, Carreyrou writes:

Alan had reservations about the dilution part. The Siemens analyzer already diluted blood samples when it performed its assays. The protocol Daniel and Sam had come up with meant that the blood would be diluted twice, once before it went into the machine and a second time inside it. Any lab director worth his salt knew that the more you tampered with a blood sample, the more room you introduced for error. 170

My favorite aspect of the book is its language: very matter-of-factly. There is no over flowery language. Everything is straight to the point. It is a long form of investigative journalism. It’s about the truth. There are great sentences for sure, but these great and stylistic sentences are not the main focus of the book. Now I understand my obsession with non-fictions when I was a teenager. When my English was not great, I preferred reading for information, and that I didnt have to guess what each symbolism meant.

Even though Carreyrou writes with a matter-of-factly tone, his superb writing skill really makes the book read like a movie. Each chapter rolls like a movie sequence. He zooms his camera at some characters, their stories, and then zooms out, and re-introduces them again later. Every character is presented to show the progression of the rise and downfall of Theranos. The book also reads like an urgent detective work. The sense of urgency is seeping throughout the book. Sometimes, it feels like one is watching a thriller movie.

As a sociologist, I must say that the book is very sociological. The author paints a  complex social network around Holmes, and how it influences Holmes’s decision making process. Theranos’s downfall is a social failure, not necessarily just the failure of a female startup founder. Carreyrou argues that it’s the fake-it-till-you-make it culture in Silicon Valley that contributed to this failure. Theranos was engaging in practices what other tech giants was doing with their products. For example, Apple, MS, and Oracle were accused of “vaporware,” a term to describe:

A new computer software or hardware that was announced with great fanfare only to take years to materialize, if it did at all. It was a reflection of the computer industry’s tendency to play it fast and loose when it came to marketing… Such over promising became a defining feature of Silicon Valley. The harm done to consumers was minor, measured in frustration and deflated expectations (p.296).

Holmes was just following the footsteps of those who she admired:

By positioning Theranos as a tech company in the heart of the Valley, Holmes channeled this fake-it-until-you-make-it culture, and she went to extreme lengths to hide the fakery  (p. 296).

However, she’s wrong. She’s working in the intersection between the tech industry, and the healthcare industry, where no “vaporware” is tolerated because it messes with human life. Computers and human beings are not the same. Legislation is still trying to catch up with computers, but human kind has had thousands of years dealing with illnesses. Life is invaluable, not disposable like an Apple computer.

When I first read Chapter 19: The Tip,  I thought well it looked like an Appendix in a sociological monograph, the end was coming. However, I was wrong. Instead, the chapter was the plot twist. And the I-character entered the story out. Carreyrou started narrating how he became involved in the project to bring down the unicorn. From then the story shifted to how the WSJ  published important investigative articles that showed the truth. This in effect alarmed regulators. They made regulators aware of all the wrongdoings that Theranos.  This is where the hero, the protagonist of the book was introduced.

While the book does a great job at telling the story of Theranos, and how journalists can work with regulators, and public policy makers to bring to light harmful practices, its main focus on Theranos, Elizabeth Holmes leaves many questions unanswered. For one, what is the fate of various early skeptics of Theranos? For example, the Fuisz’s, who was sued by Theranos early on because of a patent. Theranos really destroyed their family wealth in an expensive  legal battle. John Fuisz left his law firm because of reputational damage caused by Elizabeth Holmes’s accusations. Carreyrou seems to leave them out of the picture all together when his mission is accomplished: to reveal Holmes’s ruthless character.  It seems that the author deploys lawyer’s practice: to discredit the character of the defendant by showing the court how she has been treating people really badly all along.Yet, what others think, feel after Theranos was liquidated is not at all discussed. The battle is won. There’s no point of following up with other witnesses.

Dropping characters aside, why did Theranos failed? It’s the delusion and bad practices of Theranos, the author asserts:

Hyping your product to get funding while concealing your true progress and hoping that reality will eventually catch up to the hype continues to be tolerated in the tech industry. But it’s crucial to bear in mind that Theranos wasn’t a tech company in the traditional sense. It was first and foremost a health-care company. Its product wasn’t software but a medical device that analyzed people’s blood. As Holmes herself liked to point out in media interviews and public appearances at the height of her fame, doctors base 70 percent of their treatment decisions on lab results. They rely on lab equipment to work as advertised. Otherwise, patient health is jeopardized (p.297).

However, is this failure solely Holme’s responsibility? As a sociologist I see it to be the problem of the tech industry when it tries to disrupt a more established industry: healthcare, where a patent’s life is at risk. This is a more systematic failure of the Silicon culture, and business practices.  The line between faking it and lying about it is oftentimes blurred. All companies exploit legal loopholes to disrupt various industries. Holmes lived within the Silicon Valley universe, and had exercise her agency as what she was supposed to do. She was just following the herd, but she picked the wrong battle. The healthcare industry is not the same as the taxi industry or mass media.  One can lie about a hardware that has not existed, but one cannot lie about how a technology will not harm a patient.

My take-away after reading the book is that running a startup or any business is like running a marathon, not a sprint. One cannot force the race to be faster. It is a long training process where prior preparation is required to ensure a successful race. Another insight that I learned is that the quest to accelerate automation could bring potential harmful effects. Of course, automation can help with production, and various aspects of life. In healthcare, one must admit that human workers, particularly doctors, and lab technicians are magically accurate because their long-time training. They have hunches, and intuition which a machine does not have. Yes, humans make mistakes, but they also work wonder.

 

Masculinity & Organization: Hidden Truth vs. On the Fireline

I recently wrote a review of Adam Reich’s book, Working for Respect (2018). I was enchanted by its research design, methods, content and conclusions. Adam Reich often asks big picture questions, and writes about social phenomena that everyone should care about. After that book review, I picked up some of his earlier works when he was in the first few years of graduate school. The book is called Hidden Truth(2010). While other graduate student fellows were trying to figure out how to get over imposter syndrome, and figured out how to write book reviews, he published his bachelor thesis as an academic book. The book looks at young men who were trapped in a youth detention center in Rhode Island. It is one of the early scholarly contribution to the phenomenon of school to prison pipeline. Adam Reich focuses on how young men form their masculine identity inside and outside of the detention center, and finds out that the two modes of masculinities are different. There are outsider masculinity, and insider masculinity, which might contradict one another.

Simultaneously, I was also reading another book that looks at the topic of masculinity among wildland firefighters. This one was also written by a graduate student, who has now become a rock star in sociology: Matthew Desmond.

Why not reviewing the two books that deal more or less with the same theme together? I asked myself. Then I placed the two books side by side, and looked at their commonalities and differences. My first year advisor not only advised students to write 1000 words a day, he also suggested us to write a review essay often. Writing a critical review of at least two books is a part of the graduate school training. Here I am giving it a try.

As mentioned above the two books were written by two graduate students who were still trying to figure out what their dissertation projects would  be. While their cohort friends might not even publish anything by the end of their graduate school years, these two authors just breezed through with their impressive publishing records. Adam Reich turned his undergraduate honor thesis into a medium-size academic book. Matthew Desmond published his master thesis into a full-length ethnography of more than 250 pages.

Both books look at how men form their identity in an organization. Hidden Truth (2010) looks at identity formation among young men in a juvenile detention center. It argues that incarcerated youth understand their masculine identity differently inside and outside of prison. They simultaneously play the Game of Law and the Game of Outlaw, whose logics are opposite of each other. The youth criticize various aspects of mainstream masculinities, yet sometimes are a part of it. While the main protagonists of Adam Reich’s book are urban young men of color, Mathew Desmond focuses on the lived experience of rural working-class men. He argues that these men possess a rural masculine habitus, which is a precondition for them to work in a risky, working-class profession as firefighters. The social group that Matthew Desmond conversed with were exclusively white.

In class terms, Adam Reich’s youth come from highly disadvantaged background in urban areas. William Julius Wilson once called such people “the truly disadvantaged.” They are from the “underclass.” Sociologists have showed that neighborhood effect is a big factor determining one’s life outcome. The idea is that the residential area, in which one’s born in pretty much determines one’s life outcome later on in life. In many ways, Hidden Truth shows that if one’s born into a neighborhood, full of crime, and drugs, then one’s likely to end up in a prison. And in prison, one’s conception of masculinity would change because what they are told before did not work. That’s upsetting! Meanwhile, Matthew Desmond follows Paul Willis’s logic “working class kids get working class jobs.” They are stuck in their area of the socio-economic ladder. There’s little social mobility. Specifically, rural masculine habitus preconditions Desmond’s subjects to take “risky” jobs.

In terms of methodology, Desmond demonstrates superb ethnography skills. He embedded himself into a wildland firefighter group for only a summer, yet the amount of materials that he got out of it is beyond impressive. He follows the traditional way of doing ethnography for an occupation: learning all the skills, embedding in a location, and observing how people do their job. The approach here is called “an ethnography of habitus.” It reminds the reader of Loic Waquant’s Body & Soul, where Waquant learns how to become a boxer by embedding himself into a boxing club, and working toward a championship. By doing this type of ethnography, social scientists could reveal all the assumptions about what is being learned on the job, and what are the various kinds of capital that the worker brings to the table. Desmond shows that the training on the job, and even the skills learned on the job cannot fully explain how professional wildland firefighters handle their job. That means, the extra explanans for the fact that they do what they do is of their rural masculine habitus.

Theoretically speaking, each author engages with some very important concepts in the field. Desmond challenges Erving Goffman’s conception of risk, and uses Bourdieu’s habitus to expand and complicate Goffman’s theory of risk. Mostly, I think Bourdieu’s habitus is the main theoretical and methodological framework that Desmond uses. Adam Reich considers the juvenile detention center as a total institution, another concept coined by Goffman. And his main theoretical framework is Game of outlaw, and Game of Law, which alludes to Michael Burawoy’s famous book Manufacturing Consent. Both authors are able to show how their subjects criticize or reproduce the mainstream conception of masculinity. They are social groups who are on the periphery of society, yet make the fiercest criticisms of the mainstream. One group is completely living outside of the mainstream: they are locked up. The other group is living in remote area to fight against nature.

Finally, what I like the most about both books is that at the end they have contributions to the social organizations that they did research in. Adam Reich suggests that in order to reform the criminal justice system, the young men and women who were locked up there should be consulted. They should be the experts to be sought after. Desmond looks at how risk is individualized, and suggests to the Fire Service Department that risk is social. Therefore, training materials should be changed accordingly. These suggestions are not ground-breaking, yet necessary. The policy recommendations show that social scientists could contribute to public policy, and that social science research is a worthy endeavor.

 

 

Soziopod: Sociology Podcast from Germany

In the past, I have reviewed two sociology podcasts from the United States and the United Kingdom, namely The Annex Sociology, and Thinking Allowed (Than 2017). Still an avid listener of both channels, I am constantly learning about new ideas and the development in my field on the two sides of the Atlantic. Yet, the previous blog post reveals that my consumption of sociological knowledge is very Anglo-American centric. That is, outside of what is available in the English language, I almost never tried to read sociological knowledge written in another language. While in Berlin, I discussed this issue with a good friend, Herrmann Königs, a sociologist in training at Humboldt University in Berlin. He suggested that I should listen to a sociology podcast in German. It’s called Soziopod. I took a listen, and was pleasantly surprised by its content, the quality of the debates, and the number of episodes available. This blog post summarizes my overall evaluation of the podcast.

Soziopod

One can find more information about the podcast here. According to Wikipedia, it is dedicated to sociological and philosophical topics, and started in 2011. The podcast is unfortunately in German, which means that it is non-accessible to many. Unlike the two podcasts mentioned above, which focus mainly on sociology and other related social sciences, this podcast brings philosophy to the center of all social debates. This element in itself is very refreshing.

The podcast is hosted by Dr. Nils Köbel and Patrick Breitenbach. Dr. Köbel is a trained sociologist of children, youth, and religion, and Patrick Breitenbach is an expert in digital media. They make a good pair of hosts because both of them are invested in various topics. Since one of them is a media expert, he could translate abstract concepts into layman’s language. Many a times, the podcast avoids sociological jargon, which only insiders could understand.  The purpose of the podcast is to make sociological knowledge accessible to everyone. Dr. Köbel stated that they try present the topics in a manner of general understanding to “bring Sociology to the streets, where it belongs.”

A typical episode lasts around one hour. It is structured around a topic such as social inequality, migration, power, right-wing extremism, religion, or the Frankfurt School of social theory. That means, it’s a wealth of knowledge for anybody who is interested in social debates in Germany. Every once in a while, they also air a special episode where the hosts discuss an issue with a body of audience, and interact with them. Sometimes they invite experts to comment on certain topics. That means listeners could directly raise a question to the hosts/moderators, and sometimes debate with the two hosts as well. Since its inception in 2011, the program has produced more than 70 episodes, a few public forums for an audience to interact with the hosts, and they have published one book. This is quite impressive!

After the topic is being introduced, the hosts would define an important concept or concepts. Then they introduce the different social theorists who have written about the topic, and elaborate more on how these theorists are in conversation with one another. More importantly the discussions are situated in the context of contemporary Germany, which makes abstract scholarly debates relatable to daily life experience.

The discussions have a lot of pedagogical values. During the course of one hour, one can learn many important social theory concepts, and could look for appropriate examples to make sense a particular concept.  Each episode contains lots of knowledge about social theory.  The hosts often highlight theoretical concepts which have been invented by German theorists such as Jürgen Harbamas,  Thomas Luhmann,  or Theodor Adorno. I found these discussions fascinating because I have never really read these authors closely, nor used any of their works before. What is even more intriguing is that the hosts would relate sociological concepts to philosophical concepts. In other words, they acknowledge the foundation of sociology: philosophy. When unearthing the genealogy of a particular term, one could trace it back to some philosopher who wrote about similar topics. This is a contrast to my current sociological training in the United States, which as a field has developed into something that has been moved quite far from philosophy, or social theory.

Even though the podcast is a great pedagogical channel, as an American trained student of sociology, I cannot help but point out some of its shortcomings. First, its main topics would be categorized under the umbrellas of social theory or political sociology in American sociology terms. According to the recent sections that are listed on the American Sociological Association’s website, social theory and political sociology are two among its 52 official sections. In other words, the podcast covers a very small fraction of all possible sociological topics that one can study.

Given the nature of its leaning toward social theory, and philosophy,  most discussions stay on the abstract level. The discussions are centered around a topic, relevant sociological concepts, and different possible directions that could be taken to deal with the topic. What is barely discussed is empirical evidence to test whether the theory actually works on the grounds. The general structure of one episode is organized as follows:

  1. Definition of a concept
  2. How to operationalize the concept?
  3. Can one use the concept in a particular context in relation to the given topic?
  4. Who else has talked about the concept and this phenomenon since ancient philosophy?
  5. What else can we learn about the phenomenon?
  6. Is there any unresolved contradiction?

The hosts barely cite new research conducted in contemporary Germany. They often talk about big thinkers, who came up with concepts that could be applied universally. There are almost no discussions about methodology and data, which in my opinion are the strength of sociology. We are a pluralistic bunch of scientists who employ a variety of methods, theories, and data to study the social world. The podcast’s main focuses are concepts, and argumentation. As a student of immigration, work, and the urban, I find the podcast lacking because those fields are by definition not the main focus of the podcast. Because of its emphasis on theory, the podcast is also not paying enough attention to the lived experience of a particular group, which quintessentially showcases how a person inhabits their living environment, and reveals their social world.

When I brought up my observation about the lack of empirical research discussions in the podcast, my friend, Herrmann Königs, commented that this illustrates what is valued and emphasized in sociological research and pedagogy in Germany. In his words: “German sociology emphasizes intellectual history of a concept, and whether the concept could be applied universally.” We then went on to debate the question: Is it necessary to learn about the historical context, through which the concept arose in order to understand a contemporary social phenomenon? We couldn’t come up with a consensus whether it is productive to learn about intellectual history of a concept, or whether it is more productive to learn how to apply it in a contemporary situation. However, our discussion highlights the differences in our training on the two sides of the Atlantic. American sociological training tends to emphasize the empirical; the German, the theoretical.

Due to their training, my German counterparts impress me with their expertise in close reading of original texts, and the logic of their argumentation. However, I find their main interests on formal institutions such as the church, the school, and the state to be limiting. Sociologists can also study sub-cultures such as that of the urban squatters, Punk Rock culture, the Fusion (the equivalent of the Burning Man), the proliferation of Yoga, and the immigrants. All of those marginal groups might one day become mainstream, and by studying these subgroups, sociologists could reveal social transformations.

One could criticize that I am too American-centric, and that I cannot impose an agenda set by my profession on one side of the Atlantic to the other. I agree that I am an American trained sociologist, but I also think that as a profession, scholars on both sides of the Atlantic have much to learn from each other. German sociology provides rigorous theoretical training that I wish American graduate programs could provide. I would like to see students from day one to engage more with theoretical texts, and learn how to do it properly rather than seeing people like myself scared of social theory, and opt to do empirical research from day one. Thus, many a times sociology papers read a-theoretical to me. However, American pragmatism is much to be praised. With this pragmatic orientation in mind, we are looking for mechanism of why something is the case, and using our sociological imagination to reveal it. The two papers that I have read lately that showcase how a mechanism-focused researcher could be done are “When two bodies are (not) a problem” by Lauren Rivera (2017), and “All that is Solid” by David Peterson (2015). They exemplify some of the best contemporary sociological research that American academia has to offer.

Another aspect that I find not satisfactory is that the main (if not only) geographical focus of the podcast is Germany. It doesn’t give any air time other German speaking countries such as Switzerland, Austria, and Lichtenstein. If the social concepts are so universally applicable, why are they not applied in other cultural, sociopolitical contexts? According to Jaeeum Kim(2017), the field of sociology is openly anti-area studies. In other words, American sociologists tend to study American society; Germans study German one. Despite all odds, many sociologists travel across nation-state boundaries to study a particular social phenomenon. A few great books that I have read in the past two years include Jaeeun Kim (2016)’s Contested Embrace, where the author examined immigration from the Korean Peninsula, and their diasporic politics in the 20th century. Another example is Kimberly Hoang (2015)’s Dealing in Desire, which is an excellent ethnography that looks at the co-production of gender and capital in the sex market place in the context of globalizing Vietnam. Two growing subfields of sociological research are China Studies and Asian Studies. The 21st century has been dubbed as the Asian Century. It would be a mistake to not pay any attention to this important geographical area. In other words, only paying attention to social phenomena that occur within the geographical boundary of the German nation is a disadvantage for German sociologists in the context of increasing interdependence and interconnections of different areas of the world.

In conclusion, Sociopod has provided me with a substantial vocabulary to talk with my sociology colleagues on this side of the Atlantic. If you’re comfortable with social theory, political sociology, or pedagogy, you should give it a try. It is packed with bite-size discussions of theoretical knowledge. Its ability to reach a popular audience is aspiring. Bringing sociology to the street is such an inspiring goal, and it ought to be supported. In the context of the increasing emphasis of public sociology, I wish that all academics could use some of the hosts’ techniques to mainstream sociological knowledge to the wider audience. Sociology indeed belongs to the street, and that the knowledge of the profession should not be contained within the walls of the academe.

 

 

 

Creativity and Criticality – Productivity Function for a Knowledge Producer

In the climate of a tough job market, graduate students are encouraged to publish more and earlier. One hears publication pressure stories from friends, colleagues, and reads on the Chronicle of Higher Education. They are staying in graduate school longer to maximize the number of publications before going on to the job market. Everyone tells you that publications are the key to the job.

However, the saying “publish or perish” in academia does not show what it takes to be a prolific researcher. In order to answer that question, I look to another field, namely creative writing, for inspiration. Viet Thanh Nguyen, a scholar and a Pulitzer prize winner, in an Op-Ed on the LATimes, entitled “In praise of doubt and uselessness” intimates his struggle as an early scholar, and an aspiring writer. The essence of his struggle is to walk a balance between being critical as a scholar, and being creative as a writer. He praises “slow thinking”  which would eventually lead to higher productivity as scholar and writer. The article got me thinking about two sides of the same coin of being prolific scholar/writer. My biggest take-away is that the two aspects: CRITICALITY and CREATIVITY are intertwined all the time in one’s intellectual development.

In a grant writing workshop, one of the senior students in my program commented that in graduate students’ training, we learn how to be critical first, then learn how to be creative later. This comment keeps coming back to me when I hear that students are encouraged to publish more now. If the goal is to publish more, it means that one should pay more attention to creativity, and that creativity should be encouraged, and valued more. In other words, there is a mismatch between what the labor market tells students, and what the graduate program is typically structured. The model of training students to be critical first, and be creative later has become obsolete in the highly competitive academic market. I would argue that in order for graduate students to get more out of their graduate training, they should be encouraged to be creative from day one. In order to make the case for encouraging creativity, I delineate scholarly productivity into two constitutive elements: criticality and creativity. I assume that productivity is a sum of criticality and creativity, whose slopes and whose graphs might not complement each other, rather they could hinder each other at points. My hypothesis could be captured by the following function:

Productivity = Criticality + Creativity

Criticality Function

Why criticality? As my friend stated, students are trained to be critical first, and then creative later. As a new student to professional sociology, one is supposed to learn the various aspects of the field. This is the foundation building phase. During this time, students often accumulate preexisting knowledge, and think critically about extant theories, research designs, and findings. In other words, one is in the process of becoming a critical consumer of knowledge. Many people have learned what it takes to become a critical consumer of knowledge even before graduate school. They accumulate these skills during their secondary school, college, and even master’s programs. In other words, one’s criticality at a graduate school level  does not really start at point 0. In graduate school, the more one reads, and engages with the texts, and conversation with other scholars, one becomes more critical. The following graph demonstrates how one’s criticality grows during the training period.

 

criticality

 

The horizontal axis shows the number of years in graduate school, and the criticality is measured by papers published. It is reasonable to assume that a first year student has not published any critical review of literature yet. Therefore they all start at point 0.

But criticality is not the only element that one cultivates during one’s graduate school training. Assuming that one is very good at this aspect, maybe one could write very good literature reviews, book reviews, or close reading of the existing texts or research. However, this aspect doesn’t totally guarantee the originality of one’s scholarly outputs. How many graduate students only write book reviews and critical reviews of literature in a given field? How many scholars have become important in their fields because they have written very critical, and well-informed reviews of literature? Possibly very few. That said, one needs to acquire more than just critical skills in one’s graduate career.

 

Creativity Function

 

The second element that one subconsciously cultivates during one’s graduate student life is creativity. At the end of the day, crafting one sentence at a time is what knowledge producers do to make their research known to the scientific community. One of the most important requirement for any scientific endeavor is originality. That is to say, one has to be creative in order to create something original. However, creativity is not often being emphasized  and encouraged in graduate training. In the black box of scientific knowledge production, the idea of being creative is not valued enough. Creativity and criticality are interrelated, but yet one ought to cultivate creativity in order to be a creator of knowledge instead of merely being a consumer of knowledge. In many ways, graduate school turns one from being a consumer of knowledge to be the creator of knowledge. The underlying assumption is that during the training period one would turn from a pure consumer of knowledge to become a critical consumer of knowledge to an innovative creator of knowledge. Yet this process is not linear.

creativity

The above graph shows the kind of function of creativity of a graduate student that I have in mind. I assume that at the beginning as graduate students especially in social sciences get to know the field, they are not scientifically creative yet because they have not acquired enough knowledge, tools, and haven’t learned the tricks of the trade. If left to himself/herself, the graduate student would take a few years to figure out how to produce the first paper. Somewhere between year 3 to year 4 would be a reasonable time period when they produce the first researched paper of publishable quality. My assumption is that creativity is a convex function because after one figures out how to write the first couple of papers, one would be able to produce more in term of quantity, and in a more efficient fashion. As creative writers often say: “ideas beget ideas.” The first few original ideas are the most crucial ones because they get the creative engine started. After a point, the number of papers (output) would grows very fast, because one is already familiar with the knowledge production process.

 

Productivity Function

 

When bringing the two elements together,  one would get a graph like the following, with productivity to be measured as a function of creativity and criticality. Theoretically, because the two creativity and criticality functions have different shapes: one is convex, and the other concave; the sum of them would be a function whose slope is a lot less steep. It looks more like following:

add_productivity

The slope of this graph is positive, which shows that the more time one spends in one’s graduate program, the more productive one becomes. However, the productivity function does not rise as fast as the other two, as the absolute value of its slope is smaller than that of the other two. I would argue because graduate students currently are trained to be critical before they are encouraged to be creative, their criticality hinders their creativity, and the original ideas that they could potentially come up with. Sometimes being ignorant of what has already been produced in the field gives one more room to explore ideas. Ultimately, as a graduate student, one ought to walk a fine balance between the two elements.

In the book The Professor is in, Karen Kelsky argues that the first paper is the most important  in one’s scholarly development. She even calls it the “power of one.” In other words, her conception of a graduate student’s scholarly productivity looks more like the following graph:

real_productivity

As stated above, a graduate student in social sciences in general publishes their first solo-author paper between their third year and fourth year. In the highly competitive academic job market as what a Chronicle of Higher Education article shows, students are encouraged to publish paper as early, and as many as possible. That means, the point at which they start to publish has been pushed to the left on the horizontal axis. Students have to start to publish at day one. Sometimes they come in with publications already.

Above is a linear common story of how a graduate student could navigate their scholarly development. I have delineated one’s productivity into two elements: creativity and criticality. What is missing in the picture is the advisor who plays an important role in one’s academic well beings as a scholar in training. In an ideal world, the advisor could help ease the student out of the publication process. The ideal invention is to flatten the steep slope of the creativity curve through helping the student to turn a nascent idea into a publication. In this way, the advisor and the student implicitly agree that they value creativity more than criticality in the early stage. If the advisor and the student agree that the student must accumulate a certain amount of knowledge before the student can enter any knowledge-producing project, then they follow the old training model. If the professor helps the student all along the way by coauthoring with the student at every point during her graduate education, then the resulting productivity function would have a steeper slope because she can produce more.

With all possible combinations of creativity and criticality considered, I argue that as students enter graduate school, the program should inform them what productivity model they prefer their students to follow. Does the program emphasize a lot of productivity? Does the program train a diverse body of students, who want jobs both within and outside of academia? Again graduate students come in with certain critical skills already, which they got from their previous training. However, in order for them to be able to become a producer of knowledge, they should know from day one that their creativity is very important as well.

Back to Viet Thanh Nguyen’s thesis that it’s a struggle to balance being a creative writer, and being a rigorous scholar. I agree that each identity emphasizes different skills, but both encourage originality and knowledge production. Therefore, the scholar should also be creative, and learn to be creative from day one in their training as any creative writer would.

 

Acknowledgements: I would like to thank Dipendra Misra for having spent significant time discussing different productivity models with me, and for providing all the graphs. All graphs were created using Python.

May book reviews: Trans, Contemporary Theory, Mixed Methodology, and Professionalization

At the beginning of the academic year, I asked Larry Liu, a blogger, and a sociology graduate student  about how he chose books to read. From the discussion, I realized that as a social scientist in training, one is often overwhelmed with the amount of books one ought to read. In addition, one ought to walk a fine balance between depth and breadth. Depth means that one ought to read works within one’s sub-field to make sure that he/she is indeed becoming an expert in certain topics. Breadth refers to the fact that more sub-fields are created, which means that one needs to read some of the most cutting edge research from other sub-disciplines to get a feel of what is going on from other corners of the sociology research world. My friend, Larry Liu, suggested that one also needs to remain as humanistic, and intellectual as possible. That is to say, one should also read writings from literature, and other related disciplines. At the end of the day, a sociologist is an intellectual, not just a researcher of some social inequality phenomenon.

In generally, I read eclectically. My three sub-fields of concentration are immigration, urban sociology, and organizations/work. I often pick up books from those sub-disciplines within sociology. This month, I read books that mostly deal with social categories (theory), a book that provides an overview of contemporary sociological theories, and a book that shows how to do mixed methods for a qualitative research project, and a book that deals with how to get a job in an increasingly difficult academic labor market. In short, the readings focused on theory, method and things grad students need to know other than books. I will go through each one of them in this blog post.

The first book is Rogers Brubaker (2016)’s Trans: Gender and race in an Age of Unsettled Identities, published by Princeton University Press. It is a sociological take of a popular debate of two different “trans” phenomena: transgender and transracial. Brubaker takes the two trans affairs one about Rachel Dolezal, and the other is about Caitlyn Jenner both in the summer of 2015. Whereas the former was criticized because of her inauthentic identity as a white person claiming black identity. Her claims were perceived to be not genuine. The latter, an athlete, and celebrity was approved by the public as a trans-woman. Rogers interrogates these public discussions, and use them as a lens to examine different social categories in American society. The book is about systems of categorization, and how they are being changed, challenged, altered, or reinforced. From the outcomes of the two cases, one could see that the American public is less militant in policing the gender boundaries than it is to racial boundaries. One important take-away from reading this book is the three different ways that one can think about individuals who transgress social categories: the trans migration, the trans of between, and the trans of beyond. These three distinct analytical frameworks help us to understand how each case is being evaluated.  Brubaker is a great writer, and a great theorist. He shows how one could think about social categories in a systematic way. In a lot of ways, the discussions mentioned in the book have underpinned American social life for decades. Increasingly they have become daily discussions at a dinner table. Though full of theoretical arguments, typology, and critiques of social categorization, the book is relatively accessible because of Brubaker’s clear writing. Unlike other heavily theoretical books, this is one of the books from Brubaker that I would recommend to my undergraduate students who want to engage in thinking categorically.

The second book that makes me feel equipped with teaching, and using sociological theory in the classroom is Rojas’s Theory for the Working Sociologist (2017). I officially became a fan of Rojas after having read his guide through graduate school for a sociology student, Grad Skool Rulz. I like how Rojas writes his books: he’s really honest! He doesn’t try to frame everything beautifully. Instead he frames everything logically and pragmatically. Maybe I’m biased in assessing the book Theory for the Working Sociologist because I like the other book. Maybe it’s the halo effect whereby I mistakenly judge Rojas’s academic writing based on some un-academic publication written a long time ago. In terms of the target audience, it is very suitable for early graduate students.  Because of its theoretical pluralism, sociology tends to attract students coming from different academic backgrounds, who might not take any sociology class until graduate school. I myself am an example of this type. I came to sociology from economics. And oh god! I was confused, lost, and couldn’t understand a single word that my Marxist classmates were arguing back and forth in my entire first year.  Classical and contemporary sociological theory texts barely make sense on the first read, and they don’t seem to be in conversation with one another. Rojas point out that the problem of graduate school teaching pertaining to theory is that students often read original texts, apply a theory to maybe their lived experience, or a social phenomenon without learning how the same theory is related the general contemporary research agenda of the entire field. That is to say, there is a disconnect between theory and contemporary research in graduate training. His book does precisely just that: connecting theory with contemporary research. This is the missing link that I had during my first year graduate study. I wished the book was published two years ago before my theory exam. It would help me make sense of jargons, so I could apply them correctly. Furthermore the book provides an nice list of references on contemporary research in education, racial and gender inequalities. My particular take away is that one could group classical and contemporary theories into five main groups: Theories of power and domination (Marxism); Strategic action (Weber); Values and social structures (Durkheim); Social constructionism (Goffman). Rojas shows how contemporary research could elaborate, challenge or expand those theories. At the end of the book, I became more appreciative of my field: an accepting field that has different foundations. In a lot of ways it helps consolidate my professional identity as a working sociologist albeit still in training. I’d highly recommend this book to early graduate students in sociology, who are struggling with making sense of theories that they are reading, and asking how the field has used them. In many ways, becoming a sociologist means one is forming one’s habitus in a professional field.

Unlike the first accessible book from Brubaker, I read a challenging book co-authored by him and his colleagues. It is Nationalist politics and everyday ethnicity in a Transylvanian town (2006). Again I’m such a big fan of Rogers when it comes to discussions on social categories. This book is not about sex and race categories, but about national and ethnic categories. I was motivated to read this book not for the subject matter: nationalism, and ethnicity. I was looking for an answer to the question: how can one combine two different methodologies: ethnography and comparative historical analysis? These two methodologies are very different in terms of how they are being done, and what objects of analysis should be. When one reads comparative historical analysis, one feels like reading documents written by great men to show how great they are. It oftentimes talks about institutions such as the state, religion, or school. Most of the texts don’t show individual agency because individual agency is often lost in historical archival materials. Sometimes I wonder how historians can attribute agency to individuals when they uncover some documents in an obscure archive somewhere. They must use their “historical imagination” to fill in the juicy details of social life based on some dispassionate administrative documents. Historians are known for their story-telling; sociologists are not. I bet we’re not trained in the tradition of making people believe in our stories. We make people believe in “our concepts.” The other methodology, ethnography, gets at social interactions. Among five categories that Rojas in Theory for the Working Sociologist (2017) came up with to group sociological theoretical traditions, ethnography is very good at conducting project that uses theories coming from the “social constructionism” tradition.  This method captures agency real well because the researcher meticulously documents what is being done in the field by the subjects. They could therefore show how the subjects defy or conform with the police enforcement officers or not. In other words, this book shows how one can combine the two very different methodologies together: ethnography, and comparative historical sociology. However, one word of warning is that it reads like an encyclopedia of Cluj, the Transylvanian town that the book studies. I got lost very often in the discussion of Hungarian/Romanian history, and various techniques whereby a Hungarian could recognize who’s Hungarian or not. It takes a lot of effort to get through.

Last and not least, I read the book The Professor is in: The Essential Guide to Turning your Ph. D. into a Job (2015) by Karen Kelsky. It’s a must-have book for all graduate students from day one because it outlines what one has to do in order to get a job in a job-scarce society for professors. The book is full of actionable items that every graduate student like myself can start working on such as applying for fellowships, grants, have a professionally looking CV, and start thinking about having a website, attending conferences, etc. It makes me hyper aware of the fact that in the prestige economy of academia, “branding” oneself has become increasingly important. Her advice has become so popular now, Kelsky now has her own advice column on The Chronicle of Higher Ed:

Those are the books that I have finished this month. From now one, I’ll try to summarize the books that I’ll read each month.

 

Learning to Listen: Acquiring a New Language vs. Doing Sociology with One’s Ears

I have mentioned in various blog posts that Hindi is the language that I am learning this year (Than 2017a, Than 2017b). My current level is A1 according to the Common European Framework of Reference for Languages. My goal is to move to the next level by the end of April. Before starting my Hindi language learning journey I messaged a couple of polyglot friends, and they sent me materials to self-learn the language. Yet to be honest, I am nowhere at the level where I can teach myself a language that I have had very little contact with. Therefore, looking for a language teacher online was my solution. I found one from Mumbai. Rachna Singh is her name. She is very patient, and positive all the time.  We have had regular lessons for almost two months.

My Hindi learning routine goes as follows: 5 minutes of learning new vocabulary in the morning with the app Drops , then 1 minute of a voice blog. Rachna would sporadically listen to my voice blogs, correct pronunciation, and grammar, where appropriate. During my commute to school,  I would listen to Hindi popular songs, which I have learned that they are often official sound tracks from Bollywood movies. For my listening practice purposes, the lyrics, and the underlying meanings are not yet important to me. Yet sometimes, I can detect familiar sounds, and would sing along, which is quite a bizarre experience especially if I sing aloud on a crowded train. Having seen my speaking and listening skills improve relatively fast, Rachna asked me to read a children’s story in Hindi, which looks like this:Screen Shot 2018-03-30 at 22.25.13

The one-hour reading lesson wrecked my brain because I am completely illiterate in Hindi. I needed to piece together how each letter is pronounced, and how they are spoken when put together. Instead of breezing through an A1-level conversation, I was held back by not being able to articulate the simplest words. It was laborious. It was painful. Being forced to slow down my progress, I was upset. Yet, now having had enough time to reflect on what it means to have any progress at all  in language learning, I realized that slowing down is not a bad thing after all. When one has little knowledge about the subject matter, any step forward counts. Despite the fact that my brain was partially impaired for half a day, I got a challenge to look forward to.

Besides learning languages, I am a full-time sociologist in training. My day job is to read books in social sciences, and sometimes I interview entrepreneurs for a side project.  The project concerns with new entrepreneurs who have only established their businesses in the past 1-2 years. During those interviews, I recognize that the way that I ask my informants questions is not so different from how I ask Rachna during my language lessons. In both situations, I assume the position of not knowing anything about their language or their social world, and ask the most mundane, and obvious questions. There are a lot of clarifying questions. In both situations, I aim to understand the underlying logic: one has to with linguistic logic, while the other has to do with social logic. Sometimes I feel that I must appear really dumb to my interlocutors.

When interviewing a New Yorker, one is often amazed by the various facts about the city that one is absolutely not aware of. It seems that New Yorkers are very cosmopolitan; they are also very parochial. They could tell you where a building is located. Yes buildings here have names! This level of nuance is challenging for me. Before becoming a researcher, I thought one has to be all-knowing in order to be an academic. But now I recognize that one knows very little about this world.

In doing qualitative sociology, there is a debate whether interviewing or doing ethnography is better at studying a social phenomenon. Shamus Khan and Colin Jeromack (2014) argue that interviewing alone is not enough, and that ethnography is superior to get at some truth. The other camp, Michele Lamont and Ann Swindler (2014) maintain that the trick of the trade is to interview people, and that sociologists should embrace “methodological pluralism,” instead of pitting one method against another. As of now, I am a serial interviewer, I have been doing some participant observation. But that is about it. I have not done any serious ethnography because I do not have enough patience to write field notes. One hour of observation could potentially lead to 10 pages of field notes. Then if I observe something for 8 hours a day, I would probably produce up to 50 pages of field notes for that day only. And doing ethnography is often joked as doing “deep hangout.” Erving Goffman(1974) in an address to the American Sociological Association suggested that one should stay in the field for at least a year.  Just think about it. There will be a lot of notes for sure. Writing is exhausting. It is a physical activity, like a sport!!! It’s mental gymnastics. I could barely fathom that I would be able to write up to 5 hours a day. Therefore, I prefer to interview people, and corroborate what they say with other materials that I can get my hands at such as archival materials, newspaper, audios, and videos. In a sense, I fall under Lamont & Swindler’s camp: embracing methodological pluralism, and pragmatism.

In those two camps, my layman’s feeling is that the biggest difference is between observing and listening. Ethnographers are very attentive at what they experience, and what they see, while serial interviewers like me are attentive at what the other person says. I ask follow-up and clarifying questions all the time. I find the answers to those questions to be revealing of how they think about themselves, and how they experience their own social world. Their claims can be exaggerated. Yet how they understand their role in their social world is important for me.

Before going to an interview, I know that I need to follow an interview schedule with a long list of questions. However, during the interview, I am learning the language that the other person is using, and I couldn’t find anything more interesting than listening to the sound of their voice, and entering their lingual world. It is like Alice entering the Wonderland. I am fascinated by the small differences. Sometimes things jump at me. People don’t need to say something radical or extraordinary. I only want to know how one thing is slightly different from another thing. That is enough to keep me engaged for an hour or more. I don’t disagree with them. I just want to them to let me into their wonderland, where the trees might look different from what I thought they should look like.

Gradually, I get addicted to interviewing strangers. Sometimes when I am not supposed to interview anybody, then I would call up one of my former informants and ask how they are doing, and ask to  see if we could get a coffee together so I could catch up with them!

Back to my Hindi lesson, listening has become more of a fun activity, and I enjoy it very much. Yet in order to go to the A2 level, I ought to not only acquire more vocabulary. I think my listening strategy has been working. So I’ll stick to it. My illiteracy problem will be solved slower because it needs more deliberate practices.
References:

Jerolmack, C., & Khan, S. (2014). Talk is cheap: Ethnography and the attitudinal fallacy. Sociological Methods & Research, 43(2), 178-209.

Lamont, M., & Swidler, A. (2014). Methodological pluralism and the possibilities and limits of interviewing. Qualitative Sociology, 37(2), 153-171.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Sociology Podcasts: Thinking Allowed vs. The Annex Sociology

The first blog entry I wrote is about the increasing listenership of podcasts. Since then I have received many recommendations from friends, and those who read and commented on my post. Among the suggestions, a few stand out to be excellent entertainment, and intellectual channels for my commute. One of them is Imaginary Worlds, which is a podcast about science fictions. It is a delicious show with many bite-size science fiction audibles. Alternatively, I listen to New York standup comedy shows such as Sleepyhead. Another weird one that has to do with insect and the science of Entomophagy is the Ento. It seems that anything you want to listen to, there is a podcast for it. The choices are endless. One faces with the paradox of choice in one’s consumption of audible, which is at the end of the day a quintessential American consumption problem.

The phrase “have a listen” now becomes a part of my daily language, which is in and of itself an interesting development. Sometimes a friend recommends a new show; other times I just follow suggestions on the podcast-sphere.

A few weeks ago, I discovered a podcast which targets sociology nerds. What a great find! It is the Annex Sociology, a podcast solely dedicated to sociology. It is, however, not the first sociology podcast that I ever listened to. I have been a big fan of Thinking Allowed, hosted by Laurie Taylor, a British sociologist. The Annex Sociology, however, is different. It is co-hosted by three sociologists: Joseph Cohen (CUNY Queens College), Leslie Hinkson (Georgetown), and Gabriel Rossman (UCLA). That means it is made on the American soil, and dedicated to American sociology!

This blog post is about good bits and can-be-improved parts that the Annex Sociology has in comparison to its British counterpart. Overall, it is a great podcast for sociology graduate students. I do not recommend it to undergraduate students, or popular audience mainly because of the amount of inside jokes, and jargons that the hosts throw out.

Thinking Allowed

For starters, Thinking Allowed is a British show, a BBC Radio 4 series discussing social science. The earliest episode available online is dated back to November 2007. That means it has been in existence for at least 10 years, and bas been consistently hosted by the sociologist, Laurie Taylor, now a retired professor of sociology. Each episode lasts only 28 minutes. The number of minutes is very strict, and has been kept 28 minutes for the past decade. Within the limited amount of time, Laurie Taylor manages to be very compact, includes various debates, and invites a wide range of speakers in only one episode. Take for example one of my favorite episode: The Subway.  The main guest of the show is William Kornblum, whose new book is about the 7 train in New York. Kornblum basically uses the train as a social lab to study social interactions of different immigrant and ethnic groups. Laurie Taylor invited two other guests including Iain Sinclair, writer and film maker, and Melissa Butcher, a reader in social and cultural sociology. That is to say, in 30 minutes, he is able to entertain listeners with three experts from completely different fields on the topic of the subway as a social laboratory. Sometimes Taylor cut the guest speakers off  when they  try to make a long-winded argument. In other contexts, it might sound rude, but it is totally understandable in a limited air-time show. He uses the phrase “in the interest of time” almost every episode to suggest that the speaker should put their thoughts in a more succinct manner.

By the virtue of being aired from the UK, a lot of research on the UK soil is featured. It is important because sociologists tend to do research where they live. To paraphrase Les Back: sociologists are like social scientists like anthropologists, but we like to study a local bus station rather than a village in Southeast Asia. That means by listening to Thinking Allowed, I get a sense of what a good sociological research from the UK sounds like. At times Taylor would invite German, Italian, French and Russian researchers to share their works. Put differently, his podcast is European in nature. As the example above demonstrated, he also invites American scholars to speak in his show. The kind of transatlantic, transcontinental scholarly exchange in Laurie Taylor’s show is very impressive.

On the artistic and performative side, the show makes one feel that sociology is not a science but a true art form. Whenever an ethnographer is invited to speak, Laurie would skillfully inject an excerpt from the speaker’s newest book. A voice actor/actress would read something that an informant says about his/her social world, or what he/she thinks about certain phenomenon/practice. This form of spoken ethnography transports the listener immediately into that person’s social world, and helps the listener to be able to make sense of the informant’s worldview. This is qualitative sociology at its best: being performed.

All of the artistic, story-telling, and impactful that Thinking Allowed has to provide keeps me a loyal listener for the past 5 years. I discovered it when I was not even aware of what a typical sociologist does. I just listened to it for the sheer amount of interesting information, and knowledge that I learned from the show. The show has a popular appeal. Now let me turn to the younger American podcast, the Annex Sociology, and compares it with its British friend.

The Annex Sociology  

It is a weekly podcast. A new episode is uploaded every Monday. The hosts, Joseph Cohen, Leslie Hinkson, and Gabriel Rossman provide readers with the state of the art updates on what is going on in American Sociology. Each episode is a feast of discussion of theoretical and methodological innovations. Besides, the three hosts are really funny. They make me feel as if I was listening to The Simpson sometimes.

The three hosts, even though are based at different universities across the country have a few things in common. For one, they all got their PhD from Princeton University. For another, they are all quantitative researchers. Yet speakers come from a diverse methodological background including ethnography, interview, etc.

According to Leslie Hickson, “Annex” means something outside, beyond the main premises of a property, so they talk about things that are often not discussed in a classroom context for example. For a sociology enthusiast like me, the content of all episodes is great, especially when all hosts agree that “we should purge STATA out of sociology.” This statement was a brutal attack for my current training because I have not even learned much of STATA skill yet, and already feel like my skills are no longer needed. Why wasting my time acquiring something that will go extinct? It is similar my other debate: why I should get a driver’s license in the era of driverless cars.

In the first few episodes, I was lost most of the times because the hosts use vocabulary that is inherent to quantitative research to make their points cross. Currently focusing on honing my qualitative research skills, I pay very little attention to quantitative research language. In other words, even being trained as a sociologist, I still need some cultural translation to understand various points. Unlike its social science kin disciplines such as anthropology and economics, sociology suffers from methodological tribalism. It is both an advantage and a curse of the field. Within qualitative method, there are at least four different sub-methods: ethnography, interview, media/content analysis, and comparative historical analysis. Certainly the process of sub-tribalization is even more intense in quantitative research. In total, one has a lot to choose from, or one suffers again from “a paradox of choice.”

However, listening to these young and enthusiastic researchers/ professors, who are full of energy, and willing to put their words, opinions out there about the field is exciting. They create a very good space to invite young academics to share their research. That means sociologists are engaging more in public dissemination of knowledge. This is a great improvement.

Furthermore, they are all hilarious, and I could not stop laughing at their various jokes on popular culture. In one episode, Leslie Hickson talks about Taylor Swift and her brand, and how Taylor Swift has outgrown her brand, but she does not know how to make the adjustment. For a person who does not listen to American pop music, and follow tabloid news. Their tuning in to scandals gives me a secondary source to talk with my undergraduate students.

In comparison to Laurie’s Thinking allowed episodes in general the American counterparts are a lot longer generally around 70 minutes. That means it takes me maybe 1.5 days to finish an episode because my commute is in generally less than 30 minutes. When I pick up the episode again, I have already forgotten what was discussed the day before.

There are a lot of methodology discussions more than Laurie’s channel. This is what I see as a strength of American sociology in comparison to its European counterpart. Social scientists in this country constantly come up with methodological innovation. Sociologists borrow techniques from various fields such as biostatistics, computer science, physics to better measure and model social world. This borrowing is a double edge sword because it makes the podcast so much out of reach to the majority of lay people. Even at a graduate level, I still find a discussion of Python and object-oriented R language to be exoteric. Sometimes these discussions increase my professional anxiety. I keep asking myself whether I have been receiving the wrong kind of training, and obsolete training already. I am already becoming a dinosaur before I am even born a baby. What’s the matter with my education? I know it’s not the state-of-the-art kind of research education, but it seems that what I am studying now should have gone extinct long time ago. So instead of enlightening me in terms of providing me vocabulary to articulate some social problems, the podcast re-enforces the existing pressure in academia: there are very few jobs; it’s very competitive now; and one has to publish [peer-reviewed articles].

At the end of the day, the three well-meaning academics bring their professional stress, and spread it to their audience. Whether I should take this stress as something real or not, it is still a question. Whether I should convert my methodological inclination to quantitative or not, it depends on my research question.

One needs to acknowledge that they are doing needed work here by making information more transparent in the field. In comparison to the British one, they probably do not receive any governmental or institutional funding. That means they have been using their “free” time to create public knowledge. The fact that they do not receive funding for their project sadly highlights the neoliberal nature of higher education, and knowledge production in this country.

If they received funding, I am sure that they could shorten the episodes by writing very structured script before airing anything. The episodes would be less in conversational style, but more in structural form. They would be able to invite speakers from outside the US, etc. Being inclusive is a big thing here. Sociologists are very diverse in terms of their theoretical and methodological approach. I am looking forward to more interesting talks, and also more innovation from the Podcast. I hope that the learning curve is not steep, and that these three brilliant sociologists will soon figure out that their production of knowledge can be improved really fast.