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Caveat Emptor

The opinions expressed on this page are mine alone. Any similarities to the views of my employer are completely coincidental.

Wednesday, 26 June 2013

Twenty five years of Work, Employment & Society

The journal Work, Employment & Society is celebrating  its 25th anniversary by, amongst other things, publishing a review symposium on a book published in 1987 - Lash & Urry's The End of Organized Capitalism. Each to their own taste. 

I do though know a funny story about this book, which, since I got it from a horse's mouth, I am going to assume is true. In my copy of the book -  the 1988 reprinting -  the final sentence reads:

 "All that is solid about organized capitalism, class, industry, cities, collectivity, nation state, even the word, melts into air." 

Puzzling as this is, the misprinted version in the 1987 first printing must have produced even more furrowed brows:

"All that is solid about organized capitalism, class, industry, cities, collectivity, nation state, even the world, melts into air." 

Post-modernism or apocalyptic prediction of nuclear holocaust?

Friday, 21 June 2013

RIP Michel Crozier

I really am an ignorant fellow. I'm ashamed to confess that I had simply assumed that Michel Crozier had gone to meet his maker quite some time ago. Apparently not and there is a nice obituary in today's Guardian. I imagine he is little read today (but maybe I'm just compounding my ignorance). What I can say is that reading The Bureaucratic Phenomena almost 30 years ago gave me one of those epiphanies such as one rarely experiences on reading an academic book these days. Suddenly it all made sense. 

We spend most of our lives living in organizations. These organizations have formal rules, but they also have informal conventions. The structure of the organization is not just what is written down in the organization chart. Sometimes the formal structure creates incentives and reinforces behaviour that is highly dysfunctional. The structure is created by the actors and the actors respond to the incentives and opportunities that the structure affords them. For various reasons niches in the structure exist that can give people surprising amounts of power. All the time politics and power are lurking, sometimes underpinning, sometimes subverting both formal and substantive rationality. What comes out of all of this is not necessarily what anyone intended and may have nothing to do with what everyone believes the mission of the organization to be.

I've never picked up The Bureaucratic Phenomena again. I daren't. It's a fond memory, one of those books that are part of a personal foundational myth. I'm frightened that if I read it now it would turn to ashes and dust.

Thursday, 20 June 2013

Pay peanuts, get...well a rather crappy survey

Excellent post by Pat Sturgis on why compromising on survey quality is a very bad idea. 

Terrible old rogue that he was, I have an affection for Kipling's poetry. The Gods of the Copy Book Headings seems relevant in the light of the trendy nonsense purveyed by some under the label of social research methodology.

As it will be in the future, it was at the birth of Man
There are only four things certain since Social Progress began.
That the Dog returns to his Vomit and the Sow returns to her Mire,
And the burnt Fool's bandaged finger goes wobbling back to the Fire;

And that after this is accomplished, and the brave new world begins
When all men are paid for existing and no man must pay for his sins,
As surely as Water will wet us, as surely as Fire will burn,
The Gods of the Copybook Headings with terror and slaughter return!

Ephemeral factoids

Another threat to scholarship: ephemeral factoids. 

I was reading an article which cites a piece of information from the Office for National Statistics (ONS) website (I can already hear the loud groans). Something didn't look right about it, so I wanted to go back to the original source to check how the numbers were actually arrived at, what definitions were used etc. Quite properly the article cites a URL. When I type in the URL I am simply taken to a generic ONS page with lots of links, none of which take me to the document I am interested in. A generic search on the title of the document brings up nothing apart from a couple of other sources that all repeat the same factoid and cite the same, apparently now non-existent, document. 

I probably take an old fashioned view about this, but should we really be citing ephemera in academic papers to support our arguments? Isn't a basic principle of science that what we say should be able to pass the show me test? The article I was reading was just published in the last few months, so we are not talking about ancient broken links. Once we lose the discipline of rigorously only citing as evidence things that can be consulted by others, then we are in danger of basing our scholarship on nothing more substantial than, at worst, an enormous sack of wind and at best an appeal to: trust me, I'm a scientist, a social scientist...

Wednesday, 19 June 2013

IKEA wardrobes as a research method

A couple of posts ago I ventured the opinion that  sociology, as it actually exists, is not a coherent intellectual discipline. This seems obvious to me, but I know that a lot of people think it a provocative  exaggeration. After all universities have things called sociology degrees surely they have something in common?

Well let's consider the case of research methodology. That looks like a pretty codified area. After all there are text books purporting to tell you how to do research. Thought you knew how to do research? Wrong. You are way off the pace.  You need to catch up and retool and become cool. Perhaps participating in the Goldsmiths led Real Time Research network will help you to buck your ideas up. Throw away all your preconceptions and get yourself off to Coventry where you can sit in the middle of the Precinct inside what looks like a very small IKEA wardrobe (or wordrobe - geddit?). 

This was, apparently "...an extraordinary experiment in ways of artfully generating conversation and dialogue in public space...People were drawn to the devices, they provoked interest, curiosity and laughter" especially laughter I imagine. If you are minded to you can watch a 15 minute video of these intrepid "action researchers" in, well, action.

Harmless fun? Épater la bourgeoisie? All brought to you by a generous donation from the public purse via the ESRC's National Centre for Research Methods. And you wonder why sociology has a credibility problem?

Tuesday, 18 June 2013

...hence God exists - reply!

Whiled away a tedious examiner's half-hour in Schools by reading a couple of recent articles from a well known British sociology journal. Should have taken longer, but large parts consisted of tables and figures so they could be efficiently gutted before turning to see what the authors said about them. 

I'm reminded of an apparently apocryphal story told about Euler and Diderot at the court of Catherine the Great. The renowned mathematician was asked to provide a proof of the existence of God in order to discomfit Diderot. Wiki reports the conversation thus: "Sir, \frac{a+b^n}{n}=x, hence God exists—reply!". Diderot, allegedly, was dumfounded - exit of stout party to roars of laughter from the court. Of course it couldn't have happened like that because Diderot actually knew some mathematics and wouldn't have been fooled by this hoary old trick.

Nevertheless, it seems to me that the referees of quantitative articles often  do a good Diderot impression. I can't think how else so much bad quantitative sociology gets into print. Standards are low, very low, and once this stuff reaches the pages of the journals, it's very difficult to stop the rot. Each new absurdity ratchets down the target level of acceptability. It's not uncommon to encounter students who defend what they freely admit is nonsensical  by citing recent published work that commits the same sins (and we are not just talking peccadilloes here). It's a step, but not so big a step, from this view of scientific ethics to the stinking mess that has been uncovered by the Stapel affair.

Monday, 17 June 2013

Obsessed with identification?

Thoughtful piece by Columbia's John Huber about the obsession with the identification of causal effects  tending to drive other equally legitimate questions out of the ball-park. I happen to think he is right. 

On the other hand many sociologists are not clear about the kind of question they are asking in the first place - "effects of causes", "causes of effects" or something else? And, believing that the be all and end all of what we are supposed to be doing is not just discovering the "effects of causes" does not mean that when your question is of the "effect of causes" type you can just ignore identification problems, endogeneity etc and in best hand waving style, hope for the best.  At the other extreme don't get me started on the first find a cool instrument, then think up a question, school of thought.

Wouldn't be surprised though if there was a large group of sociologists out there who believe that the identification problem is a hitherto unrecognized aspect of intersectionality...

Friday, 14 June 2013

Letting go

When I was an undergraduate (I should count how many times I've opened with that phrase) a hot topic was whether the family was  "functionally necessary". It was a question I was completely uninterested in, but you can, just about, see why others found it interesting, despite the clodhopping terminology. After all, alternative living arrangements, communes etc were still hanging on at the end of the seventies for those who hadn't quite got over, or had enough of the sixties.

One of the things we were assigned, but I didn't read, was Bruno Bettleheim's The Children of the Dream, a study of child rearing by the Kibbutzim. I had a copy lying around and a few months ago I got around to reading it. I gather that Bettleheim's intellectual star  waned  rather shortly after his death and that his therapeutic reputation has not recovered from the lurid details that have emerged about the way in which he ran the school he directed. My old LSE colleague Christopher Badcock has some interesting things to say about all of this.

The book is a bit of an  overstuffed turkey. It could have been a third as long and is rather badly written (the blurb writer who claims on the back that it is "beautifully written" must have  read a different book). The psychoanalytic content is not my cup of tea. But it does have one striking and rather moving insight. There is no rational reason to expect our children to have a deeply held love and appreciation of the the things that we have struggled to achieve.

He points out that the founders of the Kibbutz movement explicitly wanted to build something radically new. Many were the children of bourgeois Jewish homes. Papa went to the office, or the surgery and Mama stayed at home and coddled the children. They were expected to reproduce that life. Many never got the opportunity. Some of the lucky ones, radicalised by a form of socialist Zionism, rejected their background completely. They wanted to create a new way of living together, in a new land. This involved tilling the soil, reclaiming land for agriculture (let's not get into a discussion here as to whose land it was - another time) and a trial and process error of coming to terms with the fact of children. 

Children were not part of the original plan, but they came anyway and somehow had to be fitted into the collective way of life. As it happens this was dealt with in a variety of ways - there were important differences of opinion in the various branches of the movement. However it was handled though, all had to face the inevitable fact that what was an achievement for the parents was a given for the children. They were never going to look at what they inherited with quite the same feelings as those that created it in the first place.

Round about the same time and quite by accident I happened to watch the French movie L'Heuere d'ete which has exactly the same theme. A house and it's contents are a totality that have a meaning for the person that built it and collected them. They embody the memories  and dreams of a mother, but these are singular. They were part of the children's lives, an important part, but only a small part. The children have their own lives to build, their own preferences, their own dreams. Once we die what is left are the artefacts, but the creator, the living spirit that gave sense to the whole assemblage, is gone. 

You can put things in a museum but you can't preserve a whole way of life, the manner of being that made sense of the objects. An antique bureau was never meant to sit in a museum and be gazed at. It was meant to be used and sit in a domestic environment where it takes its part in a way of life.

Melancholy, but that's just the way it is.

Why I write (my blog)

Recently people have been asking me why I write a blog and why I write it in the way I do. At one level the answer is simple: because I can. I've reached the stage in my career where I'm not particularly dependent on the patronage or good opinions of others. I have a good job, fine colleagues, excellent students and nowhere else I particularly want to go. In short there is not much I want from anybody. My destiny is, to a large degree, in my own hands.

My intellectual programme, though it contains goals that won't be easy to achieve, doesn't really require enormous amounts of externally funded resources. That's not to say that I won't be applying for research grants, just that if my applications are rejected it's no big deal because I would only be applying for money to do things that I would do  anyway, only more slowly. I'm immensely lucky. I get up every day, and do mostly what I want and enjoy. I'm privileged enough to be able to prioritize self-respect and the things that keep me awake at night have little to do with shabby intellectual compromises.

It wasn't always like that. Those that know me will probably testify that keeping my mouth shut and turning the other cheek have never featured particularly strongly in my behavioural repertoire. I've never been one for kissing ass or suffering fools gladly. On the other hand when I was younger I had enough sense to realize that keeping a certain amount of  my powder dry was a good thing if I wanted my contract renewed until retirement and that it was sometimes wise to ally myself with the lesser of the evils on offer. Sometimes survival means compromise. 

But now I don't have to turn a blind eye to things I don't like or states of affairs that I think are wrong and I don't have to dress up what I say in a lot of weasel words. And by God there is a lot in British sociology to fix. Actually, I'm far from being the only person to think that. There are quite a few who agree in private but, for understandable reasons, don't feel able to take a militant line in public. They don't have tenure, they are dependent on the next research grant, they are seeking promotion, hope to move to a more desirable institution, don't want to damage the REF position of their department. They know that their future might be in the hands of  fools and knaves so they don't reveal their hand. They also often have the noble, but I think misguided, view that airing the dirty linen in public is in some sense disloyal to the discipline.

This is a mistake. The truth is that there is no coherent discipline to feel  loyalty to. We work in a discipline where a poem, a dance based exploration of "performativity", a photography exhibition, an autobiography written by someone barely out of high school and a £15 million  panel survey are all considered to be equally worthy of our attention qua sociology.

Now don't get me wrong. I like poetry, photography and autobiographies. I've nothing against dance per se. I'm very happy for people to spend their time doing these things, thinking about them, writing about them. But we have to be clear that  they are  a very different way of apprehending the world - my old LSE colleague Max Steuer calls it 'social poetry' - from the kind of sociology I do. So different in fact that they are not complementary (this kind of 'compromise' is often the last resort of the wooly minded or the ploy of the scoundrel) but incommensurable. The conversations are so different that people might as well be speaking different languages.

This is not a qualitative versus quantitative thing. It really isn't, though I know there will be those who will nevertheless attempt to portray it in that way. It is a distinction between those of us who, broadly speaking, see our professional lives as operating within a set of rules of the game shared with the natural sciences and those of us who see ourselves as doing something that doesn't conform to those constraints. I don't want the social poets to do anything other than what they are doing now. Good luck to them. I just don't want to share the same institutional space (I can read poetry and go to the ballet in my spare time). I also don't want the social poets involved in decisions that affect my academic welfare or the academic welfare of younger colleagues who share my intellectual orientation and I don't want to be involved in a competition with them for the same pot of resources.

An anecdote to illustrate the radically different worlds we inhabit. A number of years ago I sat on an interview panel for a position in my department. All of the candidates were very well qualified on paper and came from respectable universities. Some already held quite senior positions. There was one candidate that nearly all the departmental representatives would not have short-listed, but an individual further up the feeding chain who had markedly different views about the nature of social science from the modal departmental view, insisted, so rather than have an unseemly fight at the short-listing stage, they were invited for interview. In the interview this candidate was asked a very straightforward question: "If you were going to test your theory, what observations would make you believe that your theory was wrong?" This question obviously threw them. All they could do was answer rather huffily: "In my department we don't ask ourselves that sort of question". What? There exist major British sociology departments where people routinely don't think about the evidence that would disprove what they believe? My intuition is that this is not an exception.

Ford & Goodwin get medieval on Mr Blond

Excellent Guardian piece by Rob Ford and Matthew Goodwin taking on the ludicrous Phillip Blond. In an ideal world they wouldn't have to waste their time dealing with such foolishness. I'm sure they both have better things to be getting on with. But if needs must, they are the boys to give 'im hard knocks.

Thursday, 13 June 2013

Hans Rosling on religion and fertility

Demography.matters.blog has a link to a very entertaining talk by Hans Rosling on the aggregate level relationship between religion and fertility. This guy can make numbers really interesting!

Talking of which...

As a follow up to my last post, here is a piece by Declan Gaffney in the Staggers satirizing the low standards of intellectual integrity that appear to be  SOP at one  British "think-tank".

Alex Marsh on Phillip Blond on social science

Check out this excellent piece by  Alex Marsh on Phillip Blond's clown like pronouncement on the relationship between academic social science and public policy. There are lot's of things wrong in some sections of British social science - I don't need to labour my view here - but Blond has got it all upside down and back to front. It's frightening that someone like this has the ear of significant policy makers.

I think academic social scientists do need to be more aggressive about getting their own house in order and rooting out bullshit wherever it is to be found. They should also though be  focusing  their fire outside the tent, for instance on the  snake-oil market - sorry -  the think-tank industry. Don't get me wrong, I'm not saying there is no legitimate role for think-tanks or that all think-tanks are the same, that would be absurd. However,  academia has allowed itself to be sidelined and ceded significant ground to the "I'll do you one cheaper (evidence free of course)", "real men  have no time for  RCTs"  brigade.

Krugman has relevant things to say about similar tendencies in the US.

Tuesday, 11 June 2013

Equality Street - Ricky Gervais

Time to lighten up (dealing with British sociology is such dispiriting work). Here's Dave Brent on an equality related theme...

Essentially useless - Mills on Byrne on Mills

In the preface to Designing Social Inquiry, King, Keohane and Verba describe the spirit of their collaboration in the following way:

"... our rules of engagement meant that "agreeing to disagree" and compromising were high crimes. If one of us was not truly convinced of a point, we took it as our obligation to continue the debate."

I've always thought this a fine ideal to aspire to. I  want to know exactly why it is that others disagree with me for only then can I hope to persuade them that I am right or, when I am wrong, learn how I ever came to believe such foolish things. 

If the disagreement is about matters of fact, then, once we have agreed on what needs to be established, all we have to do is look and we'll find out who spoke most correctly. Not all disagreements however are about facts. A lot of the time they are about what, for want of a better word, I'll call meta-theory - for instance the claim that X is "more important"  (in some sense)  than Y or that X is "more interesting" than Y.

It turns out that facts are not wholly irrelevant to making judgements about these sorts of things, though they can't be decisive. But it is also not the case that we can't have a certain amount of reasoned argument about them, we can and do. The issue is this: at some point we reach bedrock and if David prefers pushpin to Pushkin  and all that follows from that while Colin prefers the reverse then we've gone  as far as we (and probably our readers) can usefully go.

In what follows I'll try to distinguish as clearly as I can the issues that divide us in terms of matters of fact, belief and value. Faute de mieux I'll take up Byrne's points of contention in roughly the order he raises them.

1. Byrne believes that scholarly journals are an appropriate place for 'think pieces'. First a matter of fact: I didn't use the term 'think piece', what  I said was: "I doubt that refereed journals are an appropriate place for opinion pieces...". Opinions are, well, opinions and may embody more or less thinking. Who gives a damn about the opinions of a bucket load of referees about opinions? What possible scholarly tests could they be applying? Whatever these were they couldn't, in this case, be, in my opinion, rigorous or coherent, but then again, that's just my opinion. People sweat blood to carry out genuine research and it must be galling for them to see the publication of the hard won fruit of their effort delayed by the ceding of a precious journal slot to opinion.

But this is not a particularly important point of disagreement though Byrne continues to express quite illogical views about it.   Try to square these: "... it is better for the argument to be as open and public as possible" whilst at the same time advocating that it is better to have this conversation  in the pages of an academic journal that is locked behind a pay-wall. How "open and public" is that? or is Byrne using "open and public"  in some special sense that the rest of us aren't privy to? I don't know and it doesn't matter, for there are much more important things to disagree about than the forum of the discussion.

2. If we are going to have a rational discussion we have to agree to stick to the point. That means not introducing irrelevancies or attributing to each other views that  haven't been expressed. What my or Byrne's views are about neo-classical economics (or any other sort of economics) or the role of equilibrium in economic analysis are completely irrelevant. Neo-classical economics is, very obviously, not econometrics and neither I, nor Byrne as far as I can see, had anything whatsoever to say about notions of equilibrium, so how I could take exception to his views on it beats me. All I can conclude is that Byrne  seems to have a very active fantasy life. 

For what it's worth, my preference is to let the economists and the econometricians take care of themselves. I'm lucky enough to work in an institution where I regularly rub shoulders with colleagues in these fields and I know for a fact who would come off  the worse if I were foolish enough to attempt to tell the likes of David Hendry, Neil Shepherd, Paul Klemperer or Kevin Roberts (just to pick a few names at random) how to do their business. I don't tell them how to do econometrics/economics and they don't tell me how to do sociology.

 My point was and is very simple. If Byrne wants to tell us that econometrics is fatally flawed,  and now that neo-classical economics is "intellectual rubbish",  I'd be more impressed if he stepped down from the pulpit and stopped preaching to the choir (it would also help if he had a few serious arguments). When he's gone eyeball to eyeball with Hendry, Shepherd, Granger, Pagan, Robinson, Heckman and  Blundell and  routed the whole assembly, then I'll begin to take him seriously and listen, if there is anything left to listen to.

3. Byrne takes seriously Abbott on so called "variable sociology"  and I don't. Anyone who seriously believes that in the human realm variables rove around  the world and do things is either a lunatic or an  idiot.   I don't believe that and neither does anyone else in my neck of the woods. I think I put this pretty clearly in my earlier post and don't see any reason to repeat myself. 

Byrne is also evidently impressed by Ragin's thoughts on cases and I'm unimpressed. I don't deny that sometimes defining what is a case and what it is a case of is not straightforward - think about revolutions for example - (and sometimes it is very straightforward), but personally I don't find Ragin's appercus  rewarding or of much practical help. Neither do I find the rhetoric of "whole cases" in their contexts especially appealing. What, everything, with nothing left out? Regardless of relevance? Or is some selectivity to be smuggled in at the back door? Surely it must be otherwise it is a recipe for turning "whole case" sociologists into a species of Casaubons, always packing their bags but never going on a journey. Though given the lack of startling empirical  insights and revelations from the QCA fad maybe I'm closer to the mark than I thought.

Social science, if you are actually going to do it rather than just talk about it,  requires judgments about  what to include and what to leave out just as it requires judgements about the right amount of context to retain. Sometimes context is important, sometimes it is irrelevant. One can only make sensible judgments about these things by examining specifics and since Byrne never gets down to specifics it is difficult to say anything more constructive.

4) On interaction effects. OK, so now we have to get down to some matters of fact (I'll try to avoid outlandish avian similes). Byrne wants citations of interaction effects. I'll give him  50 metres start and tie my legs together by promising not to cite my own work or the work of anyone personally known to me. I'll also not include papers that use logit models or multinomial logit models even though they are  special cases of the log-linear model. 

First stop, the search function of the online version of the European Sociological Review. I restrict my search to articles published in the last 12 years that report the use of log-linear models and visually inspect the tables for specifications of at least one three-way or higher interaction effect (I further handicap myself by not  permitting myself to include implicit interactions such as when separate models are fitted  for males and females, different time periods, different countries etc). A search taking about 15 minutes came up with 8 papers (if I'd been easier on myself  the number would have been roughly 3 times as large) and that is just in one journal. Given that the fashion for log-linear models was over about 20 years ago and therefore the base-line frequency for articles that use any sort of log-linear models is quite low, I find this impressive (but then I would say that wouldn't I). Most readers probably don't care about the details, but for those that do, I list the papers at the bottom of this post. 

So Professor Byrne is that enough, or do you want to raise the bar higher and introduce some further ad hoc qualifications? Or are you willing now to admit that you are just wrong about the facts of the matter? Or do you, in a Frankfurtian spirit, just not care about the facts?

5) Now we get to the bit that gives me no pleasure at all - the dissection of Byrne's piece de resistance: Getting up - Staying Up? - Exploring Trajectories in Household Incomes Between 1992 and 2006 Sociological Research Online, 17 (2) 8 2012). As my old headmaster used to say, this is going to hurt me far more than it is going to hurt you...
Frankly I don't believe this article contributes anything  to the debate, or indeed to the understanding of income mobility in the UK (but that is another matter). What it does is create a vast smoke screen of irrelevance and trickery. I'll quote Byrne and then put my comments underneath:

"I recently explored the multiple and different ways in which individuals recorded in the British Household Survey moved among income deciles over time."

This is completely misleading. What you actually did was looked at data from the British Household Panel Survey on the movement between 4 arbitrarily chosen partitions of the the household income distribution in 1992 (only one of which was (you claim) a decile, though the label in your excel table seems to suggest that it was actually the top 5%) and 2006 ie two time points.

"I used the truth table which can be generated from QCA software."

That sounds impressive, but actually all you have done (in Table 3) is made an indicator matrix from the dichotomised explanatory variables and then counted the number of rows that fall within each of the categories of the income in 2006 variables and, er..., that's it.

"Jenkins who conducted a similar exploration (JENKINS, S.P. (2011) Changing Fortunes Oxford: Oxford University Press) but used statistical modelling methods noted the limitations of his approach: ' … most descriptions focus on some average experience … They do not reveal the diversity of income trajectories, even among individuals with similar characteristics.' (2011: 15)."

No he didn't (make a similar exploration) and as it happens I'm in a position to know because I served alongside Jenkins throughout 2007 on the National Equality Panel where he presented some preliminary versions of his work. What Jenkins does in fact do is examine longitudinal income trajectories, not movement between two points in time and explicitly reveals the diversity of income trajectories among people with similar characteristics (that's  what random effects models do Professor Byrne, so where exactly is the problem with conventional methods?).

"I found 388 configurations...."

 Big whoop. You claim to have started with   213 =8192 configurations of the attributes, but actually a large number of these are logically impossible (a case can't simultaneously be in the bottom 50% of the 1992 income distribution and in the top 10%, can't simultaneously have no partner and a partner in work, can't not be in the Goldthorpe Service class and have a managerial job). Your calculation, Professor Byrne, is wrong (credit to my colleague Christiaan Monden for drawing this to my attention and shame on SRO referees for not noticing or caring). It would be right if you were working with 13 dichotomies, but you aren't, two of your factors (variables or whatever you want to call them) are polytomous. The appropriate calculation would be 4x3x2x2x2x2x2x2=768. Even this isn't quite right because by definition a manager can only be a member of Goldthorpe's service class. I would have more confidence in your pronouncements about econometrics if you were able to get the basics right.

 768 is still  a lot of possible combinations of values, but so what? We can arbitrarily increase these by chopping each attribute more and more finely, adding more attributes etc etc, but to what end? We can even treat each individual as a case (is that "singular" enough for you?) after all we have multiple observations on each individual and estimate person specific income slopes (with more or less any functional form you care to specify). And what do we learn? That things are very complicated? 213 complicated? Come on, stop trying to pull the wool over our eyes. We knew that already. What we want to extract from data is structure, not  idiosyncrasy or measurement error.

I could go on. I won't. It's embarrassing. 

6) "Let us turn to ‘differences that matter’. I contend that these are differences of kind, even if of ordered kind, rather than of degree." So say you Professor Byrne but what, apart from assertion, lies behind that? Matters for what? Again we can't have a sensible discussion about this without getting down to specifics. As I've said to you before in an offline conversation:

"If I wanted to make a prediction model for weather systems I wouldn't use the mathematics of the GLM and if I did it wouldn't work. But that says nothing  significant about the  usefulness of the GLM. To judge the usefulness of  a tool you have to specify what the nature of the task is and if you don't then it is just cheap talk. If I want to cut a piece of wood I  use a saw not a hammer.

If all you meant to say was that you can't do the equivalent of weather science with the GLM then who are you arguing against? I doubt though that the average  Sociology reader will take your assertions in that way. "

If  you want to get serious and start talking about systems of differential equations with feedback loops, tipping points and all the rest of it then let's get down to brass tacks. I've got good friends whose intellects I respect who do system dynamics. I've nothing against thinking in terms of systems and I've  seen some interesting sociological applications (for example this site on church growth modelling) but we need to do this at the level of specifics in the context of particular applications, not at the level of rhetoric and windy generalization. It would also help if you managed to get clear some basic distinctions - like the difference between linearity and continuity but perhaps we'll save that for another time.

7) It would also help if you managed to read what I actually wrote correctly and desisted from attributing to me things that I clearly have not done or said. Take for instance this gem:

"Just because we can count a thing in a continuous way does not mean that the valid measurement for our purposes is continuous. Frankly I was surprised that Mills, whose empirical work is largely in relation to social mobility, took exception to this specification. After all the whole point of social mobility studies is to explore trajectories which result in either similarity or difference, ordered categories but categories nonetheless."

Counting is by the way discrete (sorry to be pedantic) -  the give away is the convention that we count things using integers-  and we measure things continuously  using numbers on the real line, but let's not get bogged down in terminology. The more important point is: where, exactly, have I taken "exception to this specification"? I don't even know what "this specification" is let alone taken exception to it. Maybe this sort of rhetorical BS goes down well with the BSA home crowd, but it doesn't cut the mustard in my patch and I doubt if it will fool many of my readers. There are lots of people who can give me lessons about how to do research on social mobility, but somehow, on this showing,  I doubt that David Byrne is one of them.

8) And finally, RCTs. This has nothing to do with  my original post, but since  Byrne brought it up...The blanket dismissal of RCTs is ridiculous. There are plenty of serious and thoughtful people who write about the limitations of RCTs - Cartwright, Worrall and from a rather different perspective Heckman, but none of these  are remotely as dismissive as Byrne. If your intellectual project is to estimate the effect of a cause, then an RCT is one of the major ways of achieving that aim (another is to use observational data and an appropriate instrument). It, of course, assumes that you have already identified the causal variable of interest, can randomize (or simulate randomization) and/or condition on any exogenous confounders. For some problems this is exactly what you want regardless of whether you are interested in estimating the average causal effect or (where the action is these days) examining the heterogeneity of causal effects. Everyone who is a serious user of RCTs knows about  SUTVA and what that implies for the generalizability of a causal estimate beyond the limits of changes at the margin.

Not all problems in the social sciences and certainly not all sociological problems can be addressed by  RCTs and nobody has ever said they can be. If your intellectual problem is to figure out the causes of an effect then an RCT isn't going to help you. There are smart people thinking about these things, for example: Dyson, Tim and Bhrolcháin, M (2007) On causation in demography Population and development review, 33 (1). 1-36 and there is a long epidemiological tradition (think smoking and lung cancer) to draw on. What seems to be becoming clear is that Mackie's INUS conditions aren't all that helpful in practice. I'd be delighted to discuss all of this with Professor Byrne if he can manage to come down to this level of specificity and stick to the point.

 Where does this leave us? Well I'll let the readers  judge. To my eye Byrne comes over all tame at the end of his response and wants us to see him as a friend of quantification in sociology. If we are on the same side I'm left with a feeling akin to that of the Duke of Wellington when inspecting the riff-raff that comprised his army before Waterloo: "I don't know what they do to the enemy, but by God they frighten me!".

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