Category Archives: Sociological method

As Usual, The Devil’s in the Details; or, Why Ethnography Matters for Everything

A new study reports that pre-kindergarten programs in Tennessee fail to achieve any long-term gains. Republican lawmakers are already seizing on the news as evidence that pre-K programs don’t work in general, and should no longer be funded.

By contrast, the same study reports that pre-kindergarten programs in Boston are achieving significant long-term gains. Democratic lawmakers will no doubt seize on the news as evidence that pre-K programs do work in general, and should be further funded.

As usual, the devil’s in the details.

The Tennessee program emphasizes passive classroom strategies that are dull even for college students, let alone three-year-olds: children sit and listen while a teacher talks.

Students Sleep in Lecture
The Boston program emphasizes active learning strategies that are tried-and-true even for college students, let alone three-year-olds: children learn to measure distance by measuring the shadows their bodies cast on the ground, and brainstorm about making their city a better place by using skills they learn in reading, math, art and science to present a proposal to City Hall.

Boy Measures Own Shadow
My conclusions:

1. Conclusions are only as good as the data they draw from.

2. “Think global, study local” should be the official Congressional mantra.

3. Everything is better with ethnography.

Digital Deities?

A new study by economist Seth Stephens-Davidowitz tells us that Internet searches for “God” are way down. He notes that this is true even in cases of catastrophe:

Stephens-Davidowitz “looked at the war in Ukraine, the civil war in Syria, the tsunami in Japan, and the 2014 Israel-Gaza conflict. In every instance, in the affected country, searches for news increased by between 90 and 280 percent. The top religious searches, be they the ‘Bible,’ ‘Quran,’ ‘God,’ ‘Allah’ or ‘prayer,’ tended to drop or stay about the same.”

I’m pleased to see that his search term for “God” wasn’t limited to English, and the “Bible” wasn’t the only sacred text he Googled. Of course, the world has many more religious traditions than Christianity and Islam, and many more gods than the postulated monotheistic one, so the cultural biases embedded in the relatively narrow search terms he sought remain a methodological restriction.

But Stephens-Davidowitz himself recognizes another methodological restriction that is even more interesting, and far less correct-able:

“Does this mean that when tragedies strike, people focus on getting information and spend little time praying? I have to believe this is a limitation of search data, that actual prayers rise during tragedies, and that searches just do not capture this behavior. If nothing else, it is a puzzle, as everything I thought I knew about the world and search data led me to expect the opposite.”

Clearly, Internet browsing doesn’t reveal everything. Facebook and Instagram may have cajoled us to put a lot more of our inner lives and previously private thoughts into a public space, but they haven’t cajoled us to publicize ALL those thoughts. Until engineers create a way to probe our silent ruminations and blast them onto a (digital?) billboard, some things still remain sacred–and only we may still know what those are.

We may have produced a visual way to represent a quiet thought in the form of a “thought bubble.” But we still don’t know the contents of anyone’s “thought bubble” but our own.
Thought Bubble
Still, the sociology of Internet browsing histories offers a fascinating source of data for what it DOES reveal.