SSHA: See you in Vancouver!

Shameless self-promotion alert! I will be in Vancouver this week for the annual meeting of the Social Science History Association. I’m presenting the first working paper to come out of my dissertation research. The paper is tentatively titled “An Economy Free of Inequality: How Economics Rediscovered Income Distribution.” The paper asks how it was possible for us to be collectively surprised in the early 2000s by the dramatic growth in top incomes (the “top 1%”), given that the trend seems to have started in the late 1970s to mid 1980s. In other words, why was no one paying attention to the overall distribution of income? The answer involves the complex histories of economic subfields, the limitations of survey-based measures of income, and the way we defined the economy around three primary variables (national income/GNP/GDP, inflation, and unemployment) and in turn paid less attention to other thing. It’s a bit different than the talk as listed in the program, but hopefully no one will notice.

The paper is part of an awesome pair of sessions organized by Elizabeth Popp Berman on “Experts and Policy.” Both panels are Saturday morning (in “Oak 1”, 8-10am for my panel, 10:15-12:15 for the follow-up).

If you’re going to be there and want to meet up, please come to our session, leave a comment, or send me an email!

Hirschman, Berrey, and Rose-Greenland: “Dequantifying Diversity”

After months of hard work, I am proud to announce the birth of a new working paper. The paper, written with co-authors Ellen Berrey (SUNY-Buffalo) and Fiona Rose-Greenland (Michigan), is titled “Dequantifying Diversity: Affirmative Action and Admissions at the University of Michigan.” It is available here (link opens a pdf). Here’s the abstract:

To refine existing theories of quantification, we examine a rare case in which the practice of quantification reverses: affirmative action in undergraduate admissions at the University of Michigan. Michigan adopted a policy of holistically reviewing undergraduate applications in 2003, after the U.S. Supreme Court ruled unconstitutional its points-based admissions policy. Using archival and ethnographic data, we examine the adoption, evolution, and undoing of Michigan’s quantified system of admissions decision-making between 1964 and 2004. We show that the University quantified admissions with the objectives of efficiency, selectivity, and increased racial minority representation. By the 1990s, the policy assigned a simple numeric weight to particular racial groups. Drawing on this transparency, the Court read the policy as a mechanical calculation that unlawfully gave a decisive advantage to applicants based solely on their race. Michigan’s new holistic policy did not completely abandon numbers, but rather dequantified race and thus ceased the treatment of racial categories as uniform for admissions purposes. Our theoretical analysis clarifies the process of quantification by identifying its components: categorization, classification, and valuation. Our empirical analysis suggests two conditions under which systems of quantification may be undone: when they are transparent to non-experts and when they quantify contested social statuses.

We think the paper will be of interest to scholars of organizations, affirmative action, and of course quantification. We would love your feedback. Feel free to distribute widely, but note that the paper is subject to changes both large and small as it moves through the review process, so let us know if you’d like to quote it.


ASA is coming and I am very excited. In addition to the guaranteed-awesome blogger party, hosted by Jenn Lena and Gina Neff in honor of their respective book publications, there are tons of other exciting social and academic events.

If you’re trying to find me in particular, drop me a line in the comments or send me an email! Also, I’ll be attending (at least some of) the Junior Theorists Symposium the day before ASA. On Friday, I’ll be at the ever-scintillating Economic Sociology Business Meeting followed closely by the much more important Econ Soc reception. And if you want to hear about my recent work with Ellen Berrey and Fiona Rose Greenland on the dequantification of affirmative action at Michigan, come to our presentation at 12:30pm on Monday, at the session on Knowledge Institutions: Disciplines and Universities. The whole panel looks excellent!

See you in Denver!

Midwest STS Conference! “… I would take the Northwest Passage…”

Dear Readers,

This weekend I’ll be taking the Northwest Passage.. er.. headed to Northwestern University for the Midwest Science and Technology Studies conference, Facts, Artifacts, and the Politics of Consensus. The program looks fantastic, and you should check it out if you are in the area and interested in STS (it’s even free!).

If you happen to be attending the conference, keep an eye out for me and say hello!

See you in Evanston,

“Accounts” Interview with Elizabeth Popp Berman

Dear Readers!

The new issue of Accounts, the newsletter of the Economic Sociology section of the ASA, is out. In it, you will find a host of interesting content, including an interview by my co-author Russ Funk with Balázs Vedres (co-winner of the best paper award last year), and a Q&A between myself and Elizabeth Berman, author of the excellent new book Creating the Market University: How Academic Science Became an Economic Engine. You can get the new issue here and check out the nicely re-designed section website here.

ASA Page Limits: What Jeremy Said!

Jeremy Freese has a post up at ScatterPlot about an issue on a lot of people’s minds right now: do you actually have to obey the 20 page limit for ASA submissions? My short answer is: No. Here’s Jeremy’s more elaborated version:

I have never in my life paid any attention to this rule. I didn’t even know it existed until I was well into assistant professorhood, and only awhile after that did I come to appreciate the other people attend to it. Seems crazy to me to go to any amount of extra work for the benefit of one person who probably won’t read the whole thing anyway. But I’ve known people who have spent days of their life making careful abridgments to reach exactly 20 pages. So, I have a view for myself, which is basically “Eh, I’m not doing that and it’s perfectly okay if somebody doesn’t accept my paper as a result; it’s not like whether or not I get to present at ASA will make any tangible difference whatsoever in my life at this point.” Yet, I recognize, that this is a fine answer for myself does not mean that it is the right answer to give to students or other folks who ask what they should do. So I’m never sure what to say. Any thoughts?

I would be really interested to hear someone defend the 20p rule, or to hear stories of anyone who has been negatively affected by violating it. So far, I’ve submitted several papers in the high 30s. This year, I submitted a whopper – something on the order of 16,000 words, a full, lengthy article draft. Even though my career is nowhere near as secure as Jeremy’s – and by that, I mean I will be on the job market in about two years, please let it improve by then – I still feel that the time spent cutting down a paper is not well-spent, and that if the person skimming the paper to determine its inclusion in a panel likes it from the first few pages they will probably include it, whether or not there are 15 pages or 40 following it. I guess one legitimate concern would be the session organizer worrying that a lengthy paper will not be sufficiently cut down for the presentation version. But given the 7 month gap between submission and presentation, I imagine most short ASA submissions are much longer papers by the time the presentation comes along anyway.

Thoughts? Leave your comments over at ScatterPlot!

On Being an Academic: Playing with Ideas, Playing with Words

My high school English teacher Mary Kay was very influential on myself and many of my classmates. She was a fiery teacher with strong opinions on topics both practical and arcane. In a class on poetry, she once advised, “Don’t become a poet because you want to express your feelings. Everyone has feelings. Become a poet because you want to play with words.”* Her point was simple: great poets aren’t great because they somehow have deeper emotions than the rest of us, they’re great because they are better at stringing words together in novel ways to express those emotions.

I was thinking about her advice this morning and I came up with a few similarly phrased thoughts on academia and blogging.

First, don’t become an academic if you want to solve problems. Everyone has problems they want to solve. Became an academic because you want to play with ideas. The principle is similar to the above for poetry: great academics aren’t great because they somehow are more concerned with important problems than other people. They are great because they invent new ideas or combine old ones in novel ways. More practically, the work of academia and the reward structures focus heavily on cleverness: idea-play rather than word-play (though there is some connection, see below). If you want to solve problems in the world but don’t want to spend all day playing with ideas, there’s almost always a better, faster, more practical way. Note that in some fields, you still might want or need to get a PhD (perhaps engineering or economics) even if you don’t want to become an academic (although sometimes you have to pretend for a bit to get through comps and keep your faculty interested, which is a separate problem). That’s great, and hopefully a PhD will be helpful for doing so. But wanting to be an academic goes best with an eagerness to play with ideas, not just a drive to solve problems.

Second, say you become an academic (hopefully because you want to play with ideas). Make sure to spend some time playing with words. As academics, we spend an awful lot of time writing and speaking. In principle, we care more about the ideas underlying our work than the manner of presentation, but everyone know that these two are connected. A great idea can get lost in a pound of jargon, and our own bad ideas are easier to spot and improve when expressed clearly. There are a lot of easy ways to play with words as an academic. You can edit your friends’ work with a focus on improving their writing (to help reflect on your own). You can read good writing, most of which is not produced by academics. I realized that my writing got better when I spent more time reading well-written novels and less time reading journal articles. You can write a blog, which has the dual-role of giving you a great place to play with little ideas not ready for primetime, but also to experiment with language and get immediate feedback as to whether or not your words are compelling or clear.

So, to summarize my totally impressionistic and data-free advice: Become an academic if you want to play with ideas. Once you do, devote some time to playing with words.

*Quote approximate, it was more than a few years ago and I didn’t take good field notes in 11th grade.

The Most Inspiring Thing I Saw in DC

Washington DC is chock full of inspiring things. Memorials, monuments, museums, and functioning governmental buildings of tremendous importance pop up on every corner. On this short trip, I went to just a couple of these sites (the new MLK statue, the FDR memorial, a couple museums), including the quite expensive and highly regarded Newseum, a museum devoted to the media. I recommend it, though I’d say budget at least 4 hours to see most of the exhibits as they are very well done, and otherwise the $20 ticket price seems too steep.

One of the exhibits, devoted to freedom of the press around the world, contained the most inspiring thing I saw in DC. I think we all get moved by somewhat different things. There are obviously commonalities – it’s hard not to find the Capitol building or the White House a bit impressive. But then there are the smaller bits of social life, the relics of fleeting moments. In the wake of the massive earthquake and tsunami that struck Japan in March, 2011, newspapers lost power and the ability to publish. Newspaper staffers got together and produced daily hand-written bulletins to post in public places to update people on what happened. Here’s an edition published on March 12, just a day after the earthquake.

Perhaps it’s because I grew up in a newspaper household, and I can remember my mother working late nights whenever a major story broke, but this record of a small act of human perseverance moved me as much as anything else I saw in DC.

Blog Redesign, Domain Switch

Dear Readers,

The blog has undergone a bit of a redesign/update. I’ve also finally purchased my own domain name, Old links and RSS feeds should still function properly, but please let me know if there are any problems. Last, I’d love feedback on the redesign and especially suggestions for a good header image.


Best Accounts of the 2008 Financial Crisis and Ensuing Recession

Dear Readers,

I realized today that my last financial crisis bibliography post is about 3 years old. Since then, as the explosive crisis settled down into a burbling recession, I’ve not kept systematic track of good accounts of the crisis at different levels of complexity (from NYT magazine style summaries to This American Life hour-long episodes to journal articles to long books). As a favor, I’d love to know what you all have been finding most helpful. What are your favorite accounts of the crisis to come out in the past couple years? What are the best summaries? What about accounts of the move from the crisis to the recession? Anything goes in terms of media: documentaries, blog posts, academic books and papers, etc.

Some of my favorites include Gary Gorton’s work on the shadow banking system and repo markets as an explanation of what actually happened, and Mike Konczal’s topological accounts of different theories of the recession and policy responses.