Social Psychology Conference

Glen Elder Life Course Theory
Glen Elder Life Course Theory

Tape-delayed blogging of the social psychology centennial conference held at Wisconsin Sept 26-7 including talks by Glen Elder, Shelley Correll, Mitch Duneier, Yuri Miyamoto, Terri Orbuch, and Jim House.  This conference was  honor of the first publication of books with the title Social Psychology, one of them by E.A. Ross, a founder of the  Wisconsin sociology department.  This conference is held in the room that is not named after E.A. Ross; the not-naming occurred after a two-hour debate in the early 1980s about whether the racism of Ross’s “race suicide” Social Darwinist work outweighed his support for working people and his belief that sociology should address social problems.  I arrived late, after the administrative welcomes and most of the way through John DeLamater’s summary of the history of social psychology.

Glen Elder talked about doing longitudinal life course research.  A lot of the talk was anecdote about his research career.  The point where many of us started taking notes was this graphic.  Although there were questions about what he means by “theory,” to which Elder replied that he means “orienting concepts” or “framework,” I was struck by how apt this graphic was as a representation of what I feel I’ve learned about living life.

Friday evening we had a fancy dinner and then watched the presidential debate on the big screen.  The social psychologists yelled and booed like they were at a wrestling match, and I would have felt pretty uncomfortable  if I’d been a Republican.  We were in the Business School’s conference center, and there were business folks watching the debates on TVs in other rooms; I wondered if the atmosphere would be different if we’d mingled with other groups.  The other highlight of the evening for me occurred earlier: after I described the troubles we were having finding a place to hold my daughter’s wedding reception in December, a prominent psychologist had me about falling on the floor laughing as she advocated renting the zoo for the reception.  As she said, the zoo really needs the business, it would probably be cold enough for the pond to freeze so you could dance on it, and if it was really cold you could go into the lion house to get warm.

Saturday morning there was a little flurry around miscommunication.  People were carrying in their cups of Starbucks and bags of Einstein Bagels, only to discover that there was enough coffee and bagels in the conference room for about twice as many of us as were there.  So at the end of the day, everyone was urged to take bagels home for the freezer.

Shelley Correll led off the Saturday events, talking about the value of experiments with an emphasis on gender research.  I was particularly struck by the “motherhood penalty” research  (Correll, Shelley J, Stephen Benard, and In Paik. 2007. “Getting a job: Is there a motherhood penalty?” American Journal of Sociology 112: 1297-1338.)  I guess I wasn’t paying attention last year when this article came out: experimental results that show that people with exactly the same credentials are more negatively evaluated if there is one line on the c.v. that she is a mother, and that taking time off work for going to the gym is viewed more positively than taking time to have lunch with a child.   (Fathers experience no penalty – this is coming back to me.)  She also cited experimental results by someone whose name I missed that men harassed more by sending pornography to women if their masculinity was threatened.

Mitch Duneier began by making laudatory remarks about a lot of people (many of them in the room) and Wisconsin sociology and stressing that he is not a social psychologist although he appreciates and learns from social psychology.  His main talk was a discussion of the danger in qualitative methods of cherry-picking, that is, of finding the quotations or incidents that support your point.   He also talked about ethics and the danger of treating IRB approval as the end rather than the beginning of ethical behavior, and worrying about the problem of using other people for our purposes and befitting at their expense.  Good talk, but a safe talk, nothing to disagree with, the only overt target of critique is himself.

Yuri Miyamoto is a psychologist who presented a variety of experimental results contrasting the modal response of Easterners (Japanese or Chinese) with Westerners (Anglo-Americans), where Easterners tend to think more about context, locate causes in relations, and favor aphorisms stressing change and contradiction, while Westerners prefer analytic thinking & laws of non-contradiction and locate causality in objects.  The details are interesting.  When describing a picture do you start with the fish – the focal objects – or do you start with context e.g. “this is a lake bottom.”  When told an essay was written by a student who was required to argue for a given side, do you attribute its opinion more to the writer if it is long, complex and passionate versus short and perfunctory?  (Westerns don’t distinguish, Easterners do.)  Which two of “chicken, cow, grass” go together?  Westerners tend to say chicken & cow (both animals), Easterners say cow & grass (cow eats grass).  She suggests that these differences arise from settlement patterns, the longer history of dense settlement and highly interdependent agricultural life in Asia vs. frontier individualism in the US.  Research in Hokkaido, the northernmost island of Japan not settled until the 19th Century, finds that ethnic Japanese there give answers more like Americans.   Sociologists in Q&A and conversation during break comment critically on how all difference is packed together as under-theorized “culture” and the importance of looking at variation within groups.  Good points, but I still found the main axis of the story to be worthy of contemplation.  I’ve thought before about how the US is fundamentally the place dominated by people who left their families and roots behind.

Terri Orbuch AKA “The Love Doctor” gives a fact-filled summary of the research on how people come to have happy marriages versus unhappy marriages or divorces, organizing her talk around the three main strands of social psychology: symbolic interaction, the dynamics of group interaction, and the social construction of meaning.  Most of the talk summarizes results from the longitudinal study of newly-married couples.  If you are just starting out on the coupled life, the best predictor of long-term stability for everyone is “affective affirmation” – the overt communication of loving attitudes.  Interestingly, “cognitive collaboration,” developing a joint narrative of your life, is a secondary positive predictor of stability for Whites but negative (although non-significant) for Blacks.  Divorce rates are higher for Blacks than Whites, controlling for everything they could control for.  Another big racial difference: Black men do much more housework, feel less threatened by involvement at home,  and have much more egalitarian gender ideologies than White men; Black women’s marital happiness depends on how much work at home their husbands do, while White women’s does not.  Men’s work at home is a predictor of divorce for Whites but of non-divorce for Blacks.  These racial differences in the gender attitudes of Black people are consistent with other research I’ve seen years ago, and tend to go unnoticed by Whites, except perhaps for feeding into stereotypes of Black women as emasculating.

Jim House gave a shorter re-presentation of his 2007 Cooley-Mead lecture.  The first part of the talk is the history of social psychology, showing how central and important it was through the first two-thirds of the 20th century, and then how it has declined since 1970 in terms of section memberships and proportion of top departments with a specialty in social psychology.  (Social psychology has also declined within psychology.)  He argues that microeconomics filled that space.  This is due both to ideological factors, the rise in neolibral individualism and the valorization of business firms, and (relatedly) to deep cuts in the governmental funding support for social science in the 1980s, and the relative insulation of economics from these cuts.  Tversky/Kahneman’s social psychological work was translated into and published in economics journals, and won the Nobel prize in economics.  Economics has replaced social psychology in public policy.  In addition to the ideological context argument, House argues that the expansion of sociology and the proliferation of sections paradoxically weakened sociology as compared to economics, which has no sections in the AEA and rather rigidly enforces ideological hegemony.  All academic fields rose 1940-1970, then generally flattened out.  But after 1970, total number of economists declined somewhat, while the number of sociologists grew modestly.

To save social psychology from decline, House stresses path dependence and the role of human agency.  He says social psychologists need to act, to deal publicly and aggressively with the problems & limitations of economic models.  In light of economic crises, he talks about how social psychologists have a lot of knowledge they should share about how and why people fail to fit economistic decision-theory models.  There is a need to balance rational choice with understandings of structural constraint and non-rational motivation/values.  And social psychologists need to link with social, biomedical, and natural sciences.  He also says we should reduce hyper-specialization, reduce the number of new PhDs who know only about their own applied interests.  He contrasts this with the sciences in which everyone has to have a background in physics, chemistry, biology at least at basic level.  I found the specialization argument misspecified, and talked to him about it afterwards.  In his accounts, economists are even more ignorant of other fields than sociologists are, and the interdisciplinary training he lauded about the physical and biological sciences happens in the undergraduate curriculum.

Vigorous discussion ensued and was halted 45 minutes after the announced ending time by the growing trickle of people leaving to catch their planes.  Good event.


Author: olderwoman

I'm a sociology professor but not only a sociology professor. I keep my name out of this blog because I don't want my name associated with it in a Google search. Although I never write anything in a public forum like a blog that I'd be ashamed to have associated with my name (and you shouldn't either), it is illegal for me to use my position as a public employee to advance my religious or political views, and the pseudonym helps to preserve the distinction between my public and private identities. The pseudonym also helps to protect the people I may write about in describing public or semi-public events I've been involved with. You can read about my academic work on my academic blog --Pam Oliver

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