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Sociology

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Experimenting in the Humanities and the Social Sciences

Today we are witnessing dramatic changes in the way scientific and scholarly knowledge is created, codified, and communicated. This transformation is connected to the use of digital technologies and the virtualization of knowledge. In this book, scholars from a range of disciplines consider just what, if anything, is new when knowledge is produced in new ways. Does knowledge itself change when the tools of knowledge acquisition, representation, and distribution become digital?

Issues of knowledge creation and dissemination go beyond the development and use of new computational tools. The book, which draws on work from the Virtual Knowledge Studio, brings together research on scientific practice, infrastructure, and technology. Focusing on issues of digital scholarship in the humanities and social sciences, the contributors discuss who can be considered legitimate knowledge creators, the value of “invisible” labor, the role of data visualization in policy making, the visualization of uncertainty, the conceptualization of openness in scholarly communication, data floods in the social sciences, and how expectations about future research shape research practices. The contributors combine an appreciation of the transformative power of the virtual with a commitment to the empirical study of practice and use.

Waste, Material Cultures, Social Justice

Garbage, considered both materially and culturally, elicits mixed responses. Our responsibility toward the objects we love and then discard is entangled with our responsibility toward the systems that make those objects. Histories of the Dustheap uses garbage, waste, and refuse to investigate the relationships between various systems--the local and the global, the economic and the ecological, the historical and the contemporary--and shows how this most democratic reality produces identities, social relations, and policies.

The contributors first consider garbage in subjective terms, examining “toxic autobiography” by residents of Love Canal, the intersection of public health and women’s rights, and enviroblogging. They explore the importance of place, with studies of post-Katrina soil contamination in New Orleans, e-waste disposal in Bloomington, Indiana, and garbage on Mount Everest. And finally, they look at cultural contradictions as objects hover between waste and desirability, examining Milwaukee’s efforts to sell its sludge as fertilizer, the plastics industry’s attempt to wrap plastic bottles and bags in the mantle of freedom of choice, and the idea of obsolescence in the animated film The Brave Little Toaster.

Histories of the Dustheap offers a range of perspectives on a variety of incarnations of garbage, inviting the reader to consider garbage in a way that goes beyond the common “buy green” discourse that empowers individuals while limiting environmental activism to consumerist practices.

Fighting for Social Justice in the Information Age

The idea that technology will pave the road to prosperity has been promoted through both boom and bust. Today we are told that universal broadband access, high-tech jobs, and cutting-edge science will pull us out of our current economic downturn and move us toward social and economic equality. In Digital Dead End, Virginia Eubanks argues that to believe this is to engage in a kind of magical thinking: a technological utopia will come about simply because we want it to. This vision of the miraculous power of high-tech development is driven by flawed assumptions about race, class, and gender. The realities of the information age are more complicated, particularly for poor and working-class women and families. For them, information technology can be both a tool of liberation and a means of oppression.

But despite the inequities of the high-tech global economy, optimism and innovation flourished when Eubanks worked with a community of resourceful women living at her local YWCA. Eubanks describes a new approach to creating a broadly inclusive and empowering “technology for people,” popular technology, which entails shifting the focus from teaching technical skill to nurturing critical technological citizenship, building resources for learning, and fostering social movement.

Social Science in a Virtual World

World of Warcraft is more than a game. There is no ultimate goal, no winning hand, no princess to be rescued. WoW is an immersive virtual world in which characters must cope in a dangerous environment, assume identities, struggle to understand and communicate, learn to use technology, and compete for dwindling resources. Beyond the fantasy and science fiction details, as many have noted, it’s not entirely unlike today’s world. In The Warcraft Civilization, sociologist William Sims Bainbridge goes further, arguing that WoW can be seen not only as an allegory of today but also as a virtual prototype of tomorrow, of a real human future in which tribe-like groups will engage in combat over declining natural resources, build temporary alliances on the basis of mutual self-interest, and seek a set of values that transcend the need for war.

What makes WoW an especially good place to look for insights about Western civilization, Bainbridge says, is that it bridges past and future. It is founded on Western cultural tradition, yet aimed toward the virtual worlds we could create in times to come.

The Front Lines of Toxic Chemical Exposure in the United States

Across the United States, thousands of people, most of them in low-income or minority communities, live next to heavily polluting industrial sites. Many of them reach a point at which they say “Enough is enough.” After living for years with poisoned air and water, contaminated soil, and pollution-related health problems, they start to take action--organizing, speaking up, documenting the effects of pollution on their neighborhoods.

In Sacrifice Zones, Steve Lerner tells the stories of twelve communities, from Brooklyn to Pensacola, that rose up to fight the industries and military bases causing disproportionately high levels of chemical pollution. He calls these low-income neighborhoods “sacrifice zones.” And he argues that residents of these sacrifice zones, tainted with chemical pollutants, need additional regulatory protections.

Sacrifice Zones goes beyond the disheartening statistics and gives us the voices of the residents themselves, offering compelling portraits of accidental activists who have become grassroots leaders in the struggle for environmental justice and details the successful tactics they have used on the fenceline with heavy industry.

Bridging Two Worlds

Game theory models are ubiquitous in economics, common in political science, and increasingly used in psychology and sociology; in evolutionary biology, they offer compelling explanations for competition in nature. But game theory has been only sporadically applied to the humanities; indeed, we almost never associate mathematical calculations of strategic choice with the worlds of literature, history, and philosophy. And yet, as Steven Brams shows, game theory can illuminate the rational choices made by characters in texts ranging from the Bible to Joseph Heller’s Catch-22 and can explicate strategic questions in law, history, and philosophy.

Much of Brams’s analysis is based on the theory of moves (TOM), which is grounded in game theory, and which he develops gradually and applies systematically throughout. TOM illuminates the dynamics of player choices, including their misperceptions, deceptions, and uses of different kinds of power.

Brams examines such topics as the outcome and payoff matrix of Pascal’s wager on the existence of God; the strategic games played by presidents and Supreme Court justices; and how information was slowly uncovered in the game played by Hamlet and Claudius. The reader gains not just new insights into the actions of certain literary and historical characters but also a larger strategic perspective on the choices that make us human.

Edited by Ron Sun

Research in the cognitive sciences has advanced significantly in recent decades. Computational cognitive modeling has profoundly changed the ways in which we understand cognition. Empirical research has progressed as well, offering new insights into many psychological phenomena. This book investigates the possibility of exploiting the successes of the cognitive sciences to establish a better foundation for the social sciences, including the disciplines of sociology, anthropology, economics, and political science. The result may be a new, powerful, integrative intellectual enterprise: the cognitive social sciences.

The book treats a range of topics selected to capture issues that arise across the social sciences, covering computational, empirical, and theoretical approaches. The chapters, by leading scholars in both the cognitive and the social sciences, explore the relationship between cognition and society, including such issues as methodologies of studying cultural differences; the psychological basis of politics (for instance, the role of emotion and the psychology of moral choices); cognitive dimensions of religion; cognitive approaches to economics; meta-theoretical questions on the possibility of the unification of social and cognitive sciences. Combining depth and breadth, the book encourages fruitful interdisciplinary interaction across many fields.

Evidence-Based Social Design

Online communities are among the most popular destinations on the Internet, but not all online communities are equally successful. For every flourishing Facebook, there is a moribund Friendster--not to mention the scores of smaller social networking sites that never attracted enough members to be viable. This book offers lessons from theory and empirical research in the social sciences that can help improve the design of online communities. The social sciences can tell us much about how to make online communities thrive, offering theories of individual motivation and human behavior that, properly interpreted, can inform particular design choices for online communities.
The authors draw on the literature in psychology, economics, and other social sciences, as well as their own research, translating general findings into useful design claims. They explain, for example, how to encourage information contributions based on the theory of public goods, and how to build members’ commitment based on theories of interpersonal bond formation. For each design claim, they offer supporting evidence from theory, experiments, or observational studies.
The book focuses on five high-level design challenges: starting a new community, attracting new members, encouraging commitment, encouraging contribution, and regulating misbehavior and conflict. By organizing their presentation around these fundamental design features, the authors encourage practitioners to consider alternatives rather than simply adapting a feature seen on other sites.

A Critique of Social Sciences

Empirical literature in disciplines ranging from behavioral genetics to economics shows that in virtually every aspect of life the outcomes of children are correlated to a greater or lesser extent with the outcomes of their parents and their siblings. In Heredity, Family, and Inequality, the economist Michael Beenstock offers theoretical, statistical, and methodological tools for understanding these correlations. Beenstock presents a comprehensive survey of intergenerational and sibling correlations for a broad range of outcomes--including fertility and longevity, intelligence and education, income and consumption, and deviancy and religiosity. He then offers a critique of the sometimes conflicting explanations for these correlations proposed by social scientists from such disciplines as developmental psychology, sociology, and economics.

Beenstock also provides an axiomatic framework for thinking about the complex interplay of heredity, family, and environments, drawing on game theory, control theory, and econometrics. Chapters 1-7 discuss such topics as the important contributions of Francis Galton (1822–1911) to the statistical study of heredity, the family as an engine of inequality and diversity, and natural experiments designed to identify how environments, families, peer groups, and neighborhoods affect human outcomes. Chapters 8-10 present technical material on statistical, theoretical, and methodological tools used by the earlier chapters.

Beenstock’s goal is not to argue for either nature or nurture but to suggest more rigorous ways to assess the diverse contributions to this lively debate.

As international trade has expanded dramatically in the postwar period--an expansion accelerated by the opening of China, Russia, India, and Eastern Europe--illicit international trade has grown in tandem with it. This volume uses the economist’s toolkit to examine the economic, political, and social problems resulting from such illicit activities as illegal drug trade, smuggling, and organized crime.
The contributors consider several aspects of the illegal drug market, including the sometimes puzzling relationships among purity, price, and risk; the effect of globalization on the heroin and cocaine markets, examined both through mathematical models and with empirical data from the U.K; the spread of khat, a psychoactive drug imported legally to the U.K. as a vegetable; and the economic effect of the “war on drugs” on producer and consumer countries. Other chapters examine the hidden financial flows of organized crime, patterns of smuggling in international trade, Iran’s illicit trading activity, and the impact of mafia-like crime on foreign direct investment in Italy.

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