Fabio Rojas asks why the academic field of sociology seems so focused on the negative. As he puts it, why doesn’t the semester begin with the statement, “Hi, everyone, this is soc 101, the scientific study of society. In this class, I’ll tell you about how American society is moving in some great directions as well as some lingering problems”?

Rojas writes:

If sociology is truly a broad social science, and not just the study “social problems,” then we might encourage more research into the undeniably positive improvements in human well being.

This suggestion interests me, in part because on this blog we are often negative. We sometimes write about cool new methods or findings in statistical modeling, causal inference, and social science, but we also spend a lot of time on the negative. And it’s not just us; it’s my impression that blogs in general have a lot of negativity, in the same way that movie reviews are often negative. Even if a reviewer likes a movie, he or she will often take some space to point out possible areas of improvements. And many of the most-remembered reviews are slams.

Rather than getting into a discussion of whether blogs, or academic sociology, or movie reviews, should be more positive or negative, let’s get into the more interesting question of Why.

Why is negativity such a standard response? Let me try to answer in Rojas style:

1. Division of labor. Within social science, sociology’s “job” is to confront us with the bad news, to push us to study inconvenient truths. If you want to hear good news, you can go listen to the economists. Similarly, blogs took the “job” of criticizing the mainstream media (and, later, the scientific establishment); it was a niche that needed filling. If you want to be a sociologist or blogger and focus on the good things, that’s fine, but you’ll be atypical. Explanation 1 suggests that sociologists (and bloggers, and movie reviewers) have adapted to their niches in the intellectual ecosystem, and that each field has the choice of continuing to specialize or to broaden by trying to occupy some of the “positivity” space occupied by other institutions.

2. Efficient allocation of resources. Where can we do the most good? Reporting positive news is fine, but we can do more good by focusing on areas of improvement. I think this is somewhat true, but not always. Yes, it’s good to point out where people can do better, but we can also do good by understanding how good things happen. This is related to the division-of-labor idea above, or it could be considered an example of comparative advantage.

3. Status. Sociology doesn’t have the prestige of economics (more generally, social science doesn’t have the prestige of the natural sciences); blogs have only a fraction of the audience of the mass media (and we get paid even less for blogging then they get paid for their writing); and movie reviewers, of course, are nothing but parasites on the movie industry. So maybe we are negative for emotional reasons—to kick back at our social superiors—or for strategic reasons, to justify our existence. Either way, these are actions of insecure people in the middle, trying to tear down the social structure and replace it with a new one where they’re at the top. This is kind of harsh and it can’t fully be true—how, for example, would it explain that even the sociologists who are tenured professors at top universities still (presumably) focus on the bad news, or that even star movie reviewers can be negative—but maybe it’s part of the way that roles and expectations are established and maintained.

4. Urgency. Psychiatrists work with generally-healthy people as well as the severely mentally ill. But caring for the sickest is the most urgent: these are people who are living miserable lives, or who pose danger to themselves and others. Similarly (if on a lesser scale of importance), we as social scientists might feel that progress will continue on its own, while there’s no time to wait to fix serious social ills. Similarly, as a blogger, I might not bother saying much about a news article that was well reported, because the article itself did a good job of sending its message. But it might seem more urgent to correct an error. Again, this is not always good reasoning—it could be that understanding a positive trend and keeping it going is more urgent than alerting people to a problem—but I think this may be one reason for a seeming focus on negativity. As Auden put it,

To-morrow, perhaps the future. The research on fatigue
And the movements of packers; the gradual exploring of all the
Octaves of radiation;
To-morrow the enlarging of consciousness by diet and breathing.

To-morrow the rediscovery of romantic love,
the photographing of ravens; all the fun under
Liberty’s masterful shadow;
To-morrow the hour of the pageant-master and the musician,

The beautiful roar of the chorus under the dome;
To-morrow the exchanging of tips on the breeding of terriers,
The eager election of chairmen
By the sudden forest of hands. But to-day the struggle.

5. Man bites dog. Failures are just more interesting to write about, and to read about, than successes. We’d rather hear the story of “secrets and lies in a Silicon Valley startup,” than hear the boring story of a medical device built by experienced engineers and sold at a reasonable price. Hence the popularity within social science (not just sociology!) of stories of the form, Everything looks like X but not Y; the popularity among bloggers of Emperor’s New Clothes narratives; and the popularity among movie reviewers of, This big movie isn’t all that. You will occasionally get it the other way—This seemingly bad thing is really good—but it’s generally in the nature of contrarian takes to be negative, because they’re reacting to some previous positive message coming from public relations and the news media.

Finally, some potential explanations that I don’t think really work: Laziness. Maybe it’s less effort to pick out things to complain about then to point out good news. I don’t think so. When it comes to society, as Rojas notes in his post, there are lots of positive trends to point out. Similar, science is full of interesting papers—open up just about any journal and look for the best, most interesting ideas—and there are lots of good movies too. Rewards. You get more credit, pay, and glory for being negative than positive. Again, I don’t think so. Sure, there are the occasional examples such as H. L. Mencken, but I think the smoother path to career success is to say positive things. Pauline Kael, for example, had some memorable pans but I’d say her characteristic stance was enthusiasm. For every Thomas Frank there are three Malcolm Gladwells (or so I say based on my unscientific guess), and it’s the Gladwells who get more of the fame and fortune. Personality. Sociologists, bloggers, and reviewers are, by and large, malcontents. They grumble about things cos that’s what they do, and whiny people are more likely to gravitate to these activities. OK, maybe so, but this doesn’t really explain why negativity is concentrated in these fields and media rather than others. The “personality” explanation just takes us back to our first explanation, “division of labor.”

And, yes, I see the irony that this post, which is all about why sociologists and bloggers are so negative, has been sparked by a negative remark made by a sociologist on a blog. And I’m sure you will have some negative things to say in the comments. After all, the only people more negative than bloggers, are blog commenters!

The post Why do sociologists (and bloggers) focus on the negative? 5 possible explanations. (A post in the style of Fabio Rojas) appeared first on Statistical Modeling, Causal Inference, and Social Science.

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