Wednesday, March 12, 2008


For our stratification class this week, we read Barbara Reskin's 2002 presidential address to the American Sociological Association in American Sociological Review. She talks about research on social stratification and inequality and decries the trend that (she says) focuses on "why" without looking at "how." Without knowing "how," though, "why" tends to be just speculation. (There is, naturally, also research focused on "what" - does x happen?) As an example - mine, not hers - consider SAT score differences between black and white students. Observing the "what" is easy; white students on average score higher. But why? Is it innate genetic differences, as the authors of The Bell Curve would argue? Is it culture that discourages black achievement? Is it a biased test? One could consider any of these hypotheses, but to test them we need to think about how bias or genetic differences would result in score differentials. Does the gap exist on other tests? How do black kids raised by white parents perform? Can we detect class or racial bias in the test by doing a textual analysis? Etc.

I was struck by this article, because as far as I'm concerned, "how" is the most fascinating question of all. "Why" is pretty good, too, but "how" is what gets me up in the morning. What, where, when, and who are all incidental. My dissertation is actually a combination of why and how. I want to look at mechanisms up close; even demonstrating a correlation between supposed cause and effect is too remote for me, because the nature of the link itself is still a black box. (A lot of very clever economics boils down to this - testing that y occurs only and always when x happens - but the actual operation of x is unobserved.) How can people be missing out on this great big vat of fun?

I'm realizing that this causes me some difficulty in doing research, especially in a short time frame, as in a class paper. Generally one doesn't have time to collect original data in that situation, and "how" is often best approached by case studies, historical records, or multi-level data that is rarely predigested in the right form. Moreover, there is less data than usual on the particular questions of interest to me - fundraising data is notoriously hit-and-miss. If you want to know how much was donated to College X, you can probably find out, but that doesn't tell you how it was raised.

With that in mind, my topic for my Access to Higher Education class paper has completely fizzled, and now I have to find a new one. It was a historical question, and the data turned out to be harder to find than anticipated. The professor suggested a specific topic there is information on, but it seems to me to be what Boyer would call "the scholarship of integration," and what my CV needs is original questions, if not necessarily original data. Other questions that come to mind bore me - or at least they're not interesting enough to get me through the tremendous amount of time a research paper requires.

The bad news is I need a paper topic fast, I feel like I'm behind, and apparently my projects are always going to be grandiose. The good news is that I know what kind of question I'm looking for.

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