Social Justice in Ferguson: Addressing Racial Bias in Policing

Over 1,400 sociologists have signed an open letter protesting police brutality in Ferguson, USA. The letter includes practical measures to address the killing of Michael Brown and mistreatment of protesters in Ferguson. Coordinated by Sociologists for Justice, the letter shows that systemic racism needs to be addressed as well as wider socio-economic and political issues to ensure effective change is enacted.

The book The New Jim Crow outlines how the criminal justice system in America is affected by systemic racism. Additionally, decades of sociological research shows that police officers’ decision-making is affected by racial stereotypes and that better training can address this bias (more links below). Effective change in community policing begins by understanding the effects of the victimisation of people of colour and by addressing the institutional practices that lead to excessive policing of people of colour.

Below are the suggestions outlined in the open letter, but I urge you to read the letter in full as it summarises sociological research on race bias in policing. You can also add your name to the open letter, as I have done.

Social Justice for Michael Brown and Ferguson

We are troubled by the killing of Michael Brown. We are troubled by the excessive show of force and militarised response to protesters who rightfully seek justice and demand a change in the treatment of people of colour by law enforcement. – Sociologists for Justice.

Continue reading

The K-Index: Gender Morality and Social Media Use by Scientists

 

Note: This blog post was first published on Google+ on the 31st of July

A new, already highly controversial, article by Professor of Chemistry, Neil Hall, proposes a “satiric” measure that maps the popularity of scientists on Twitter versus their impact factor (the number of publications in prestigious academic journals). He calls this the “K-Index,” named after a woman celebrity, Kim Kardashian. Why Kardashian? This index is meant to show that social media is as shallow as Hall deems this woman celebrity. Published in the renowned peer-reviewed journal Genome Biology, and unsurprisingly given his premise, Hall finds that scientists with a high impact factor score have a low value on the K-Index. This is mean to be a good thing, according to Hall, who sees scientific communication as being too important to be left to social media.

My post is inspired by Dr Buddhini Samarasinge who critiqued Hall’s conclusions. She discusses how and why scientists use social media, as well as age dynamics. Scientists who have a high publication record have had longer careers, established under a different, and better funded system. They have published more by virtue of the longevity of their careers and the opportunities that come with tenure (long-term and secure academic employment). They are often older and, as I will show, more reticent to use social media. The fact that they have a low K-factor should be a surprise to no one. Early career academics are more likely to be using social media because it is part of their everyday lives. They do not neglect publishing in peer reviewed journals; they do both, but, being more likely to still be studying, or being employed in the early stages, they will not have racked up as many publications. Buddhini argues that scientific publishing and social media do not have to be discreet activities. One does not invalidate the other. Instead they are complimentary to the public communication of science.

It is clear that Hall’s K-Index attempts to demean the outreach work of scientists by pitting academic publishing against social media. I want to focus on the hidden narrative of gender and science morality in Hall’s article.

Science should never be an old boy's club. Diversity matters

Science should never be an old boy’s club. Diversity matters. Photo adapted from Flickr

Continue reading

How Media Hype Hurts Public Knowledge of Science

Photo: Astronomers by vastateparksstaff via Flickr, CC 2.0

Photo: Astronomers by vastateparksstaff via Flickr, CC 2.0

Remember that news article that was going around saying that a high proportion of Americans can’t tell astrology from astronomy? We tackled this news on the Science on Google+ Community, by going to an analysis of the original source. I’m republishing my comments and parts of our Community discussion.* I expand my argument to make two points: 1) Media hyperbole on science needs careful critique by scientists. 2) Scientific literacy requires our sustained engagement. I include some of interesting figures from the USA National Science Foundation (NSF) Science and Engineers Indicators report for 2014, focusing on Public Attitudes and Understanding of science and technology. This information speaks to the public’s lack of understanding about what scientists do, how funding works, and how trust in scientists influences the public’s assessment of the output of our research. I’d like to start a conversation about how to move forward in dispelling the hype and myths surrounding science.

Continue reading

Beyond Arm Chair Social Science: Diabetes and Food Insecurity

“Exhaustion of food budgets might be an important driver of health inequities” – Hilary Seligman and colleagues

By Zuleyka Zevallos, PhD
The internet is filled with many science blogs and websites holding themselves up as experts on all sorts of research topics. It’s frustrating to see the high volume of articles where non-experts feel qualified to dismiss social science research. The damage is worse when it’s journalists and scientists without social science training, because the public doesn’t always know that these people aren’t qualified to write about social science. I will demonstrate this through a case study of the sociology of diabetes.

With increased media attention on diabetes, the public has come to expect certain behaviours from people who have this condition. While some people understand that there are some differences between the two broad types of Diabetes (Type 1 and Type 2), there are many misconceptions about what causes diabetes and how this condition should be treated. With these misconceptions comes judgements about the people who get diabetes, and why this may be the case.

I am not an expert on the biology of diabetes. I can however speak to the sociological aspects of this disease. As an applied researcher, I have worked on projects in the sociology of health, such as examining the influence of organisational practices on health outcomes. I’ve also researched socio-economic disadvantage amongst minority and vulnerable groups and the impact this has on social integration, help-seeking behaviour and wellbeing. Social disadvantage will be the focus of my analysis here. I use my discussion on the socio-economics of diabetes to explore the problems that arise when non-experts wade into social science issues using individual explanations (such as personal experience and opinion) rather than scientific evidence about societal processes. I call this “arm chair” social science because it does not adhere to the social theories and methods for analysing social issues.

My post begins with the social science research on diabetes, centred on the research of Hilary Seligman. Her team’s work was refuted by a science blogger who is not a social scientist, and who subsequently posted this critique to Science on Google+, a large multidisciplinary Community that I help moderate. Below I discuss Seligman’s longitudinal research on how poverty affects the experience and management of diabetes. Seligman uses the concept of “food insecurity” to situate her research. I draw on other studies that lend further support to this concept. I discuss the influence of social location on the management of diabetes. That is, I will examine the socio-economics of where people live as a key factor in diabetes care. I end with a discussion of the exchange on the Science on Google+ Community and the problems of viewing diabetes from an individual perspective. Continue reading

The Sociology of Why People Don’t Believe Science

This the story of how sociology can improve public science. I discuss the social science research explaining why some sections of the general public resist research evidence. As some of you know, I’m one of around 20 Moderators who run Science on Google+. Our Community is managed by practising scientists and our membership includes researchers as well as members of the public who are interested in science. I run the Social Science stream (along with Chris Robinson who created the Community). Our Community aims to improve the quality of science posts and public outreach, by connecting the public to real scientists. This week, we celebrated the fact that our Community has grown to 200,000 members. The Community receives numerous posts each day. We want to move discussion away from people sharing their personal opinions on “fluff” science pieces that often end up distorted in the news, and instead we’d like to focus on the relevance, validity and reliability of peer reviewed science. Invariably, we get people coming to the Community specifically looking to argue about how all science is wrong (usually with regards to social science), corrupt (often regarding life sciences), or “just a theory” (creationist arguments against the physical sciences).

These critics do not focus on the scientific content of a study. They focus on moral and cultural arguments, which to them are scientific. For example, when discussing research on gender inequality in science, there’s a variation of: “In my engineering class there’s only two women. I think that most women just aren’t interested in science. That’s not sexism to point out the truth.” (Yes, it is sexist.) When discussing research on climate change: “There’s inconclusive evidence on this!” (No, the evidence is compelling.)

Most of these people do not use credible scientific research to back up their claims, but they evoke some general statistics (“everyone knows…” and “countless studies show”).We ask for links to peer reviewed science, which never come.  Sometimes they post links to conspiracy videos that have no scholarly merit. Despite their lack of evidence, these people are thoroughly convinced that they are scientists or that they are very well informed on a topic. They cite ideas of science from popular culture (“science is about questioning everything!”). Otherwise they draw on something they heard in the news or they revert to personal anecdotes and subjective observations.

These critics are the exception, as most of our Community members are genuinely curious in science and learning. The problem is that these anti-scientist “scientists” take up a lot of time and they derail discussions. So what motives them?

Chad Haney, one of our colleagues and a Curator for the excellent Science Sunday, wrote a fantastic post about how social psychology concepts might explain why people refuse to engage with scientific evidence. Chad invited me to comment on his post, and this has led me to crystallise thoughts that I’ve had circling my head since I started blogging seven years a go. Other than a sheer love of the social sciences, why bother with public science? Who is our audience? Does it “work” and how do we measure its success? How can we improve it?

My post will discuss the sociology of beliefs, values and attitudes to describe the cultural, institutional and historical ways in which the public has engaged with science. I present two case studies of “hot topics” that usually draw anti-science comments to our Community regarding gender inequality and genetically modified foods. I show how cultural beliefs about trust and risk influence the extent to which people accept scientific evidence. I go on to discuss how sociology can help improve public science outreach. Continue reading

It’s Time to Bring Academic, Applied and Public Sociology Together

Art by John Haggerty via 2HeadedSnake.

Art by Jason Haggerty via 2HeadedSnake.

By Zuleyka Zevallos, PhD

Below is a great interview with sociologist Dr. Tina Uys, who talks about the urgent need for sociology in South Africa (where she lives). Inequality is shifting rapidly in many ways, for example in education, but it does so without adequate institutional support. Uys discusses the problems facing South African sociology, such as funding cuts. Uys then talks about her journey through her sociological career, one which did not begin with sociology in mind. I see that Uys’s story may be common. It certainly echoes my own career.

Today’s post is about the pressing need to better market a unified vision of sociology to our students. Academic, applied and public sociologies serve different interests: one is about theoretical development, the other about serving government and community services, and the latter is about engaging the public’s imagination. Elsewhere, I’ve shown that applied sociology is poorly understood by academics. It’s like we’re a collective of practitioners working adjacent to one another, without a broader external view of how we fit together. It’s time to bring our various sociological approaches together.

Continue reading

Sociology for What, Who, Where and How? Situating Applied Sociology in Action

Photo by mapgirl271 via Flickr. Text: The Other Sociologist

By Zuleyka Zevallos

The discipline of sociology has grappled with several overlapping issues regarding the purpose and utility of our profession beyond its intellectual pursuit. Debates about the social impact of sociology have been historically centred on three questions relevant to applied sociology – which I define here as sociology conducted outside universities for particular clients. These questions are: sociology for what?sociology for whom?; and sociology for where? In today’s post, I will discuss the who, what and where of sociology, before introducing a fourth question that is so taken-for-granted we don’t spend much time talking about it in any concrete way. That is: how do we actually do sociology outside traditional academic research? We assume sociologists can go out into the world and apply their training to different problems. But what kind of problems do we work on and how do we actually carry out the work in different places? I argue  that applied sociology is set up as the “other” of academic sociology because of the context in which we practice our craft. This stops sociologists from engaging with one another effectively, and hinders the transformational work we do separately with our respective audiences.

I seek to build upon the framework discussed in this post for a series exploring the practicalities of doing sociology outside academia. I hope that the ideas explored here and in future posts can open up dialogue about how to better address collaboration  between academic and applied sociologists.

Continue reading