Pride goeth before…

It has become a sort of pop-psychology truism that people who engage in prejudicial behaviour are doing so from a place of insecurity. It makes intuitive sense that if you don’t feel good about yourself, you can bring yourself up by tearing others down. Indeed, there is some evidence that threats to self-concept are likely to result in a preference bias toward the majority group (even among minority group members).

In a study by Ashton-James and Tracy, the authors propose a new hypothesis. They refer to the psychological literature that suggests that pride has two basic forms: hubristic and authentic. Hubristic pride refers to the kind of pride that is directed at one’s innate self-worth and deservedness – a kind of self-congratulatory, self-centred pride that is associated with narcissism and defensive self-esteem. Authentic pride, on the other hand, refers to pride taken in one’s accomplishments based on hard work rather than, for lack of a better term, special snowflakeness – it is associated with secure self-esteem.

The authors posit that hubristic pride will lead to increased prejudicial attitudes and behaviours, whereas authentic pride will lead to more compassionate attitudes and behaviours. They arrive at this hypothesis based on literature that suggests a relationship between self-esteem insecurity and prejudice. They go on to suggest that empathic concern is the mechanism by which this relationship manifests itself, since people who are more secure in their self-esteem are more likely to be able to be outwardly focussed and respond to the needs of others.

In order to test this hypothesis, the authors conducted three experiments, as well as a pilot study. [Read more...]

Academic Blogging

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For those of you who have never visited the excellent sociological blog Family Inequality, I suggest that you stop reading right now, and head on over there for an hour or two. Don’t worry about me, I’ll wait.

Welcome back! I hope you enjoyed your stay there, I know that I spend quite a bit of time there  (often time I don’t have) digging through the blog’s many, many entries. A while back, the blog’s author, Phillip Cohen, wrote a piece called “Should every sociologist blog?” that I shamelessly linked to my own blog. The thesis of the article was simple, is it in the interests of both sociologists and the public to encourage sociologists to blog about their research? Since I’m already doing that (in my own, rather less articulate way), I of course answered in the affirmative. For Cohen’s part there seems to be a bit more reservation about the whole idea, but I’ll leave it to him to make his own points. He’s better at it than I am.

Cohen’s question got me to thinking though: should blogging at the academic level – in all disciplines – be encouraged as a side-project for scholars? As it stands, blogging means precisely nothing on any academic’s CV, and there is therefore no real incentive for any academic to engage in it, outside of maybe their own passion for writing. But aside from filling a line on a CV, could academic blogging serve a purpose?

Hell yes, and here’s why.

Traditionally, academia has had the (fairly exaggerated) reputation as being the guardian of knowledge; a society’s culture, traditions, and memory are gathered, catalogued, and maintained by armies of scholars and researchers; scientists of all stripes, historians, anthropologists, literary theorists, etc. Of course the reputation is bullshit and much of a civilization’s knowledge is contained in the minds of non-academics everywhere; but while academics might not be the sole holders of knowledge, we do certainly hold a lot of it. It’s our job, and many of us are quite good at it.

Part of the disconnect between academia and the broader population rests in the severing of academic knowledge from other, more ‘everyday’ forms of knowing. How often do we hear the expression “oh sure they’re book-smart, but they’re not really street-smart”, or hear academia being described as an ‘ivory tower’, far removed from the affairs of the proles, toiling away far below? But the distinction between these two forms of knowing is largely artificial and it’s largely maintained by the often arcane semiotics of the various dialects of different academic disciplines. We love to make up new words and hurl them at each other, and each time we do – and each time we fail to explain to everyone else what those words mean – we further distance ourselves from our fellow citizens. Some academics, like the infamous Jacques Derrida, almost seemed to revel in their obtuseness, as though being cryptic was synonymous with being profound. And while the navel-gazing and word-play continued, many of our neighbours and friends began to lose interest in what we were talking about in the first place. Our debates take place in closed conferences and behind the paywalls of peer-reviewed journals, and our discoveries and carefully crafted ideas only ever interface with the public as short sound-bites – and only after they’ve been distorted and abridged by others. In short, academics are often dreadfully isolated from society, and it’s our own fault.

Blogging allows us to begin to change that. Blogs are a handy medium for allowing researchers and scholars to speak to the public in their own way, with their own idiosyncrasies, without having to go through someone else. Blogs allow the public to ask us questions or to challenge us directly, and they can be hopeful that we will respond (well, at least some of us). In other words, blogging can help to facilitate the return of academics into the mainstream of public discourse. Granted people like Neil deGrasse Tyson are already doing this, but he and people like him represent only the tiniest fraction of academics who ever take their research and love of educating public. Other venues, like TED talks can also help to make current research available to others, but they’re not the only way.

I’m not photogenic enough for television, and I don’t know that anyone would want to listen to me talk at them for any length of time, but I’m handy with a keyboard, and I can usually convey the substance of my own research to a broad audience fairly easily. As an academic, I feel that I have a moral obligation to take the knowledge and training I’ve received at public institutions and share it with my fellow citizens. Blogging helps me to do that.

So will blogging or some other form of (usually) non-paying, non-peer reviewed public academics be embraced by researchers any time soon? Well, probably not; as universities become increasingly corporatized and professor’s salaries and advancement are increasingly tied to their ability to churn out papers and books, the demands on individual academics’ time grow as well. Many universities now demand that the lion’s share of a professor’s day be dedicated to research and publication; a minority of time is devoted to the actual practice of educating. At the graduate level, fewer universities are even offering their students courses on how to be a good teacher. Instead, graduate students – MA and PhD alike – are indoctrinated into the world of ‘Publish or Perish‘, and if they happen to pick up some skill at teaching while they’re at it, well that’s just a happy bonus. Many current professors learned to teach only by emulating a past favourite professor and few will ever take a formal class about teaching pedagogy. At some universities, a professor’s teaching ability isn’t even a factor when determining tenure, promotion, or salary adjustment. Think about that for a second: your professors – if you’ve attended university – may likely have received zero attention or accolades for their teaching ability, because to the university, teaching ability is not important. It is a grim picture, if you are of the opinion that university professors ought to be responsible for educating their fellow citizens.

And so I’ll continue to blog. These days it seems that it’s the only way I can meet what I see as my obligation to educate.

Well THIS should be interesting

So yeah. Me = HUGE policy dork. I view public policy as an expression of democratic and social values, for good or for ill. The kinds of policy that a group enacts is, generally, reflective of their beliefs and their collective will to solve problems. Do they believe that problems resolve themselves, or do they need specific intervention? Do the needs of minority groups garner more interest than their numbers would suggest, or is it a ‘majority rules’ kind of deal? Do we empower individuals to find their own solutions, or do we envision government as a problem-solving apparatus? I find these questions fascinating.

Another part about public policy that I think is really important (but doesn’t get the level of attention I think it deserves) is this: does the policy work? It is all well and good to spend public funds or pass a law or build a program, but if you fail to measure whether or not you’re actually solving the problem you’ve set out to tackle, it quickly turns from government “expenditure” into government “waste”. It is partially (but primarily) for this reason that I went into the career path I’m in now.

With that in mind, I am really excited to see the outcome of this policy: [Read more...]

Is this racist? You can bank on it.

Part of the challenge of incorporating anti-racism into mainstream skepticism is that skepticism has been primarily focused on developing techniques of inquiry honed in material sciences (by which I mean the study of physical systems like cosmology, biology, and physics – not materials science which is an entirely different thing). Ask most mainstream skeptics, and they’ll display an admirable grasp on at least the basics of astronomy, evolution, mechanics, some quantum physics, and if you’re lucky a bit of biochemistry to go with it. Many questions that atheistic skeptics have had to learn to answer are focussed on the origins of the universe and of life, necessitating this basic ‘toolkit’ of scientific knowledge.

We have not yet, and I mean yet, turned our eye toward the study of human sociopolitical systems (although I am enthused to note that most people have a fair-to-middling grasp on some core psychology, which builds part of the foundation). I am certainly not exempt from these educational blind spots, despite my impression of myself as a skeptic who is more interested in sociology than average. Without the same basic knowledge of methods of sociological inquiry (which surely extend to history, literary analysis, and other things that aren’t, in the strictest sense, ‘sciences’), it becomes very difficult to parse the often labyrinthine mechanisms of cause and effect in human organizations, especially in a way that satisfies the more ‘tactile’ minds among us.

Luckily, every now and then racism expresses itself so clearly and unequivocally that it transcends the need for rigorous study to unravel the mechanism behind the effect: [Read more...]

Here come da judge…

This weekend this blog was visited by a rather unsavoury character who decided to take your humble narrator to school on why passing laws against black people isn’t racist. At first I was amused, much the way I would be watching a dog try to take a stick through the doggy door. It’s cute and entertaining in a pathetic sort of way, watching the poor thing struggle to achieve its goal. Unlike a friendly mutt, however, this particular commenter got progressively more unhinged as I refused to take him seriously, and he began lashing out. I quickly became bored, and left him to rage by himself in the dark.

One of the points that he was sure he had ‘got’ me on was the fact that black people are incarcerated at a much higher rate than white people. This proved, he asserted, that there was something wrong with black people that made them more likely to commit crimes. It’s just statistics, he claimed. The problem with his theory is that it is not supported by the evidence, or at least the evidence is not sufficient to justify the conclusions he draws. We know, for example, that racism often acts as a confounder in what appears to be a straight-line relationship. We also know that race can play an undue role in things like sentencing and presumed innocence, putting the weight of the judicial system disproportionately against defendants of colour.

This phenomenon is not necessarily because judges are ‘racists’ or because they have a grudge against black people or anything quite so simplistic. The issue is complicated, but one of the culprits is our inability to think critically about our own attitudes about race and racism. By making race a taboo subject, we have set up a situation where people would rather ignore it than discuss it. It happens to police, it happens to lawyers, it happens to judges, and it happens the next level up as well: [Read more...]

Black Canadians: outcomes, attitudes, and evidence

This morning I walked you through a crude statistical analysis of labour participation in black Canadians, showing that while the experiences of black Canadians runs parallel to that of African-Americans, it is not directly comparable. However, a more detailed look at the evidence suggests a slightly different picture – black men face a 22% wage gap for identical work when compared to their non-black counterparts, even when controlling for age, education, experience, and other potential explanatory factors.

There is an old truism within the black community (and a similar one among women) that one is expected to work twice as hard as whites to achieve identical success. While 22% is not 50%, it is still a fact that black men do not see the same results for their (our) hard work. Mensah spends a few pages going through two alternate explanations that are offered for this and other kinds of race-based disparities: the class argument and the culture argument, before arriving at his (and my) explanatory model: the race argument.

The class argument – “race is just a function of class”

Some theorists argue that when we measure race-based differences between groups, what we are actually measuring is a function of socioeconomic class. The solutions to these discrepancies, therefore, must be through programs targeted at class mobility rather than anti-racism.  This argument is unsurprisingly popular, as it allows us to maintain our illusion of a ‘post-racial’ society in which racism is the domain of a handful of bad people. However, the evidence (the above statistic included) does not support class as the primary explanatory factor driving inequalities between blacks and whites. [Read more...]

Black Canadians: Making it work

This is the fourth and final instalment in a series of posts I am writing in my annual commemoration of Black History Month. My inspiration, and source of historical material, is a book by Joseph Mensah called Black Canadians: history, experiences, social conditions. As I work my way through the book, I will be blogging my reactions and things that stand out. You can read the first post here, and its follow-up here. The second post is here. The third post is here, and its follow-up is here.

Last week I made reference to the problems inherent in understanding Canadian black culture.The cultural juggernaut that is the United States dominates media expressions of ‘the black experience’, and because of porous cultural borders (and the comparatively small number of black Canadians)  much of black Canadian culture is defined in similar terms as those of African Americans. The problem with this approach, obviously, is that black Canadians and African Americans have very different histories (as I hope the past few weeks worth of posts have demonstrated).

Similarly, much of the racial scholarship around the realities of being black are, in fact, the realities of being African-American. The kinds of systemic racism that we see all to often in the United States may not, in fact, be reflected in the Canadian experience. After all, Canada and the United States have vastly different approaches to immigration, citizenship, and multiculturalism (encapsulated in Canada’s ‘mosaic’ model, vs. America’s ‘melting pot’ model). We know from the vast available stores of data and analysis that anti-black racism is a real economic problem in the United States. The obvious question we must ask is do the experiences of black Canadians reflect those of African Americans?

The answer seems to be “no and yes” [Read more...]