Monthly Archives

March 2018


Race, genetics, and the lure of forbidden knowledge

March 30, 2018

Recently geneticist David Reich published an op-ed in the New York Times entitled “How Genetics Is Changing Our Understanding of ‘Race.’” In it he contends that “differences in genetic ancestry that happen to correlate to many of today’s racial constructs are real”—and what’s more, that “as a geneticist I also know that it is simply no longer possible to ignore average genetic differences among ‘races.’”

The invocation of his status as a natural scientist, the insistence on what is “real,” and the astonishing suggestion that race has been overlooked until now—I’ve seen it all before. Reich is using a rhetorical device that sociologist Reanne Frank has called the “forbidden knowledge” thesis, where academics who identify themselves with “science” (and are usually, though not always, male, white biological scientists) contend that anyone who questions the biological foundations of racial groupings is denying reality, or “sticking their heads in the sand” as Reich puts it. Another recent version of this was New York Times former science reporter Nicholas Wade’s 2014 book A Troublesome Inheritance: Genes, Race and Human History. The Times also published an op-ed by geneticist Armand LeRoi in 2005 making pretty much the same case, so I’m not sure why they felt it was new in 2018. But the conceit is that there has been a cover-up (or “orthodoxy” in Reich’s words) denying the biological truth about race, so we need brave souls like Reich and Wade and LeRoi to reveal the truth (again!) to the public: race is a biological characteristic of the human species.

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Research Findings

“We do software so that you can do education”: The curious case of MOOC platforms

March 27, 2018

edX president Anant Agarwal—with the words “the future of education” displayed prominently behind him—takes questions from the audience

These days, the word “platform” is commonly used to refer to entities like Facebook, Twitter, or YouTube. These portals are sites of public discourse and see their role as connecting various sorts of publics: video producers to viewers, journalists to readers, or advertisers to potential consumers.

YouTube, for instance, started in 2005 as a Friendster-type social network portal that proclaimed, “Show off your favorite videos to the world”; by 2008, it had constructed itself into a “distribution platform for original content creators and advertisers, large and small.”

Recent work, both scholarly and popular, has spoken much to our discomfort that so much of public discourse now occurs on these privately-owned, for-profit, and unregulated platforms that lend themselves all too well to unique forms of harassment, invisible algorithmic manipulations, and sinister forms of corruption.

In a recently published ethnographic study, I found that the platform arrangement does much more than muddy the grounds between public and private, commercial and personal, work and play. It transforms the nature of work, the framing of organizational roles, as well as the construction of substantive expertise. From 2013 to 2015, I followed a non-profit start-up called edX through its stated mission of reinventing education by making Massive Open Online Courses. MOOCs caused a sensation in 2012 as three new start-ups (Udacity, Coursera and edX) leveraged the power of networked computing and collaborated with universities to offer prospective students anywhere in the world an interactive distance learning experience.

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Book review

Book Review: How China Escaped the Poverty Trap by Yuen Yuen Ang

March 24, 2018

The macro-story on China is well-known, but always bears repetition. Emerging from the carnage of the Mao era, China in 1980 had a GDP of $193 per capita, lower than Bangladesh, Chad or Malawi. It’s now the world’s second largest economy, with a 30-fold increase in GDP per capita, based on a textbook-defying combination of one-party Communist state and capitalism – in the words of one tongue-in-cheek official, ‘no capitalist state can match our devotion to the capitalist sector.’

Success on this scale inevitably finds many intellectual forebears claiming parenthood  – China is variously portrayed as a victory for a strong state; free markets; experimentation; and for central planning. How China Escaped the Poverty Trap blows the conventional explanations away, drilling down into what actually happened and reconstructing the history of different cities and provinces through years of diligent research.

This book is a triumph, opening a window onto the political economy of China’s astonishing rise that takes as its starting point systems and complexity. Its lessons apply far beyond China’s borders. The author, Yuen Yuen Ang, starts with a classic developmental chicken and egg problem – which comes first, good institutions or economic prosperity? Different camps within academia and the aid business urge developing countries either to ‘first, get the institutions right’ or ‘first, get growth going’, and then the rest will follow.

Using China as an elephant-sized case study, Ang takes a systems sledgehammer to this kind of linear thinking and argues that development is a ‘coevolutionary process’. Institutions and markets interact with and change each other in context-specific ways that alter over time. The institutions that help to achieve take-off are not the same as the ones that preserve and consolidate markets later on.

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Research Findings

Accidental revitalization: Another path to union renewal?

March 20, 2018

The past couple decades have been challenging for trade unions in North America. The rise of neoliberalism and globalization have sparked a period of aggressive anti-union measures by both governments and employers, forcing unions to re-think existing strategies and approaches if they are to survive.

Unions’ attempts to re-establish their strength and counter their declining role in workplaces and society have taken many forms, but they are a response to a common set of issues facing all unions.

A large body of literature has emerged examining union renewal. While it is a broad-scoped area of research, much of it has focused on the shifting of internal union practices and approaches to organizing and member recruitment. Research has also revealed that most renewal efforts arise from one of two key sources of momentum: decisions from central union leadership to alter approaches across the union; or rank-and-file led reform at the local level.

Renewal is usually an intentional, planned process of attempting new practices and structures.

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Research Findings

Not covered in ivy: The educational backgrounds of American business and political leaders

March 13, 2018

Elite theorists have long argued that pathways into corporate and political leadership run through Ivy League and Ivy League-type colleges – this is known as elite status transmission theory. According to a study I recently published with Sarah R.K. Yoshikawa, it may be time to retire at least the strong forms of this theory.

The theory holds that a well-traveled road led from wealthy families through Ivy League institutions into executive suites. We focused on the nation’s top 39 undergraduate colleges in the United States, as identified by U.S. News and World Report. These colleges included both private research universities like Harvard, Yale, and Stanford, and private liberal arts colleges, like Williams, Amherst, and Pomona.

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Research Findings

Is the EU subsidising autocracies? Hungary and the rise of the ‘illiberal’ model

March 11, 2018

The rise of self-proclaimed illiberal democracies in East Central Europe arguably constitutes one of the most formidable – albeit perhaps still underestimated – challenges the EU is currently facing.

Whether and how the EU should react has been debated. All sides portray the EU’s role in these illiberal regimes as that of an outsider. But a closer look at the political-economic functioning of these nations suggests that the EU – through its structural development funds – is actually part of their illiberal model. That, in turn, suggests that cutting funding from Brussels could be a potentially powerful incentive to bring them back into line.

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Friday Roundup

Vol. 2, No. 3

March 9, 2018

Happy Friday, sociologists! Here are a few of the things we’ve been watching and reading this week.

A Trade War?

Race in America



Research Findings

Product market liberalization and labour market inequality in Social Europe

March 6, 2018

Since the 1990s, policy makers across Europe have promoted product market reforms to reduce costs and improve market efficiency. These reforms most often targeted industries dominated by state monopolies, such as telecommunications, water, and electricity.

Studies have tried to measure how consumers and the wider economy benefit from these reforms, typically comparing their effects on service quality, prices, value added and employment. There has been less attention to their impact in the workplace: How did product market liberalization affect job quality, especially job security and wages? What kinds of jobs were created after the privatization of state monopolies? Were there differences across countries in worker outcomes – and if so, what explains these differences?

We have recently addressed these questions by comparing developments in the telecommunications sector of four European countries: Austria, Denmark, Germany and Sweden. Our findings are based on company publications and 76 interviews with union representatives and employers at the sectoral and at workplace level.

These four countries are often referred to in academic and policy debates as social market economies. They are all thriving capitalist economies that long sustained low wage inequality, thanks in large part to strong traditions of social partnership between well-organized employers’ associations and labor unions. In the telecommunications sector, pay and working conditions were regulated through collective agreements negotiated between these ‘social partners’. They are thus good cases to compare, to ask how industrial relations and labor market institutions filter downward pressure on wages and working conditions from more competitive markets – as well as how those institutions themselves change following product market reforms.

We found substantial variation in the evolution of collective bargaining structures and, as a result, in patterns of wage inequality across our four countries. In Austria and Sweden, unions were able to maintain and extend encompassing collective bargaining agreements across the telecommunications sector. In contrast, telecommunications workers in Germany and Denmark experienced increasingly decentralized and fragmented collective bargaining.

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Research Findings

Is there a chilly climate for women faculty?

March 4, 2018

Picture a professor.  Who comes to mind?  These are the pictures I found in a Google Search for public domain images of a “Professor.”  The first 22 above are a diverse group, at least in terms of their eyewear, neckwear, and hair (facial and otherwise).  They are real and fictional, live and animated.  And they are all white men.

This group of images captures an enduring cultural stereotype about who discovers and possesses scientific knowledge.  It also captures an aspect of reality.  Women are more likely to hold university faculty positions than ever before, yet they remain underrepresented in the highest prestige institutions, the highest paying disciplines and at the highest ranks.  As of the academic year 2013-2014, men were about three times as likely as women to be full professors at degree-granting postsecondary institutions.  As this image suggests, most of these men were white.  Of all full professors, 57% were white men, while men of all other racial and ethnic groups made up 13%.  White women were 25% of all full professors, women of all other racial/ethnic groups, 5%.

To explain gender disparities in the academy, many scholars argue that women faculty face a “chilly climate” in which subtle and overt discrimination accumulate to saturate the atmosphere of their workplaces.  The problem with the metaphor is that it often does not match women’s own understanding of their experiences.  For example, Laura Rhoton (2011) found that the women STEM faculty she interviewed rejected systemic accounts of discrimination, like the chilly climate, and minimized the importance of gender, seeing it as a distraction from their real work as scientists.

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Friday Roundup

Vol. 2, No. 2

March 2, 2018

We’re very happy to be back with the second edition of the Friday News Roundup this year, and we hope you enjoy the things we’ve been reading and watching!

Labor Actions

Environmental Issues


At Work

Policing in America

On Campus