Chris Uggen's Blog: April 2010

Thursday, April 29, 2010

bill bielby, wal-mart, and the interstices of public and policy sociology

In Dukes v. Wal-Mart, two million former and current female employees just cleared a major legal hurdle in their employment discrimination lawsuit. According to a 2009 article by Melissa Hart and Paul Secunda, the "social framework" testimony of sociologist Bill Bielby has played a pivotal role in the largest sex discrimination case in U.S. history.

Here's the latest from Workplace Profs:

Looks like a big win for the plaintiffs in the gigantic employment discrimination class action in Dukes v. Wal-Mart (a group of some 2 million former and current female employees have sued over lack of promotion opportunities). The 9th Circuit en banc, 6-5 with four separate opinions and 137 pages, affirmed class certification under Rule 23(b)(2) for some issues and remanded on others.

The expert testimony was especially important in obtaining class certification -- a huge issue in employment discrimination cases -- and clearing the case for trial. The news caught my eye as a friend of Bill, but also because his role in the case was noted in Michael Burawoy's famous 2004 American Sociological Association presidential address -- to illustrate how policy sociology differs from public sociology. From Burawoy:

Barbara Ehrenreich’s (2002) best-selling Nickel and Dimed—an ethnography of low-wage work that indicted, among others, Wal-Mart’s employment practices is an example of public sociology, whereas William Bielby’s (2003) expert testimony in the sexual discrimination suite against the same company would be a case of policy sociology. The approaches of public and policy sociology are neither mutually exclusive nor even antagonistic. As in this case they are often complementary.

In my view, one often blurs the public/policy boundary in practice (not to mention the public/policy/professional/critical lines). However we classify it, Professor Bielby shows how the conceptual and methodological tools of sociology can be put to practical use. Since a lot of our graduating majors are going on to law school, I might even pull a few quotes from Judge Hawkins' opinion in my li'l speech for sociology majors next week. How many sociological concepts can you spot in the following passage?

Plaintiffs presented evidence from Dr. William Bielby, a sociologist, to interpret and explain the facts that suggest that Wal-Mart has and promotes a strong corporate culture — a culture that may include gender stereotyping. Dr. Bielby based his opinion on, among other things, Wal-Mart managers’ deposition testimony; organizational charts; correspondence, memos, reports, and presentations relating to personnel policy and practice, diversity, and equal employment opportunity issues; documents describing the culture and history of the company; and a large body of social science research on the impact of organizational policy and practice on workplace bias.

Dr. Bielby testified that he employed a social framework analysis to examine the distinctive features of Wal-Mart’s policies and practices and evaluated them “against what social science shows to be factors that create and sustain bias and those that minimize bias.” In Dr. Bielby’s opinion, “social science research demonstrates that gender stereotypes are especially likely to influence personnel decisions when they are based on subjective factors, because substantial decisionmaker discretion tends to allow people to seek out and retain stereotyping-confirming information and ignore or minimize information that defies stereotypes.” Dr. Bielby concluded that: (1) Wal-Mart’s centralized coordination, reinforced by a strong organizational culture, sustains uniformity in personnel policy and practice; (2) there are significant deficiencies in Wal-Mart’s equal employment policies and practices; and (3) Wal-Mart’s personnel policies and practices make pay and promotion decisions vulnerable to gender bias.
While a jury may ultimately agree with Wal-Mart that, in the absence of a specific discriminatory policy promulgated by Wal-Mart, it is not more likely than not, based solely on Dr. Bielby’s analysis, that Wal-Mart engaged in actual gender discrimination, that question must be left to the merits stage of the litigation (and presumably will not have to be decided as there will be other evidence). At the class certification stage, it is enough that Dr. Bielby presented scientifically reliable evidence tending to show that a common question of fact — i.e., “Does Wal-Mart’s policy of decentralized, subjective employment decision making operate to discriminate against female employees?”— exists with respect to all members of the class.

Wednesday, April 28, 2010

now blogging at minnpost

Joining an actual syndicate holds special meaning for a criminologist, so I was intrigued by MinnPost's invitation to syndicate some of my writing on their Blog Cabin Network. Since I've long admired MinnPost, I was delighted to sign up when Justin Piehowski reached out. I'm not sure how many posts they'll run, but today they're offering my blurb on higher education and police use of force. Coincidentally, I was just interviewed by MinnPost's Casey Selix for her thoughtful story on the CLA 2015 report and mission this Monday.

Tuesday, April 27, 2010

my voice, my vote

The Minnesota Second Chance Coalition is calling for volunteers to be photographed in their campaign to restore the right to vote for people convicted of felonies in Minnesota. During the 2009 campaign I offered a report on Felon Disenfranchisement in Minnesota report and some brief Senate testimony -- I'm hoping to update both this summer and would welcome any feedback.

VOLUNTEERS NEEDED to participate in our voting rights restoration campaign!
A professional photographer has agreed to take photos of individuals who are currently or have in the past been denied the right to vote based on a felony conviction. Photos will be used in the MY VOICE, MY VOTE campaign. A copy of the photo will be made available to anyone wishing to participate in the campaign. We need your voice to help restore the right to vote for thousands who are currently disenfranchised. Photos will be taken on two dates in two locations:

Tuesday, May 18th, 2010; 5:30 - 7:00PM; Emerge Community Development; 1101 West Broadway Avenue; Minneapolis, MN 55411-2571

Thursday, May 20th, 2010; 5:30 - 7:00PM; Goodwill Easter Seals; 533 Fairview Ave N; St. Paul, MN 55104

 Restoring the right to vote for ex-offenders living in the community maximizes their ability to contribute to society.
 Minnesota denies the right to vote for anyone convicted of a felony and is on probation, supervised release (parole) or is incarcerated.
 Over 70,000 Minnesotans with a felony conviction were unable to vote in 2007, an increase of over 500% since 1982. Over 60,000 Minnesotans would be re-enfranchised by allowing parolees and probationers to vote. Minnesota ranks fourth highest in the nation for number of individuals who are on probation or parole. The result is that 87% of the 70,000 disenfranchised live in the community, hold jobs and pay taxes.

Monday, April 26, 2010

claude's blog

Berkeley sociologist Claude Fischer authors a fine new blog, building on Made in America: A Social History of American Culture and Character, his new book with University of Chicago Press. In the first few posts, Professor Fischer takes on individualism, taxes, baseball, consumerism, Christianity, and health. Characteristically, and consistent with his vision as Contexts' founding editor, both book and blog offer accessible but rigorous social science. To learn a bit more about the book, check out the current cover interview for Rorotoko.

Saturday, April 24, 2010

coolest sri award ever

Yesterday marked my department's twentieth annual Sociological Research Institute. The student research was well-presented, Michael Tonry gave a powerful keynote, and the entertainment was a beguiling mix of Andy Kaufman, Max Weber, and Cats. I was also bestowed the spine-crushingly cool award at left, hand-delivered by ol' Goldy. I can't say whether Warren acted alone, so I thank Rob, Mary, and all conspirators for an especially memorable SRI.

Friday, April 23, 2010

prepare tar, feathers

Every university is commissioning blue-ribbon committees these days to manage through the financial challenges in higher education.

As a sociologist, I recognize the symbolic role of my own CLA 2015 commitee with Gary Oehlert, charged with strengthening and repositioning the College of Liberal Arts. But, as Lauren Edelman taught me, just because an institution serves symbolic functions doesn't mean that it can't do some real good. To take but one example, I've argued (with Lauren and Howie Erlanger) that equal employment grievance procedures can offer both symbolic and functional value to both organizations and workers.

When blue-ribbon university committees are composed of a diverse set of civic-minded participants, I'd like to think they have the potential to develop a broad-based vision, set an agenda, generate a plan to realize it, and make sound recommendations for action -- even while they are also providing political cover, legitimating unpopular changes, and demonstrating symbolic compliance with widely-shared norms and expectations.

Our CLA 2015 committee just released our interim report on the future of liberal arts in Minnesota. Our final report isn't due until October, but we're offering up a document now in the interest of transparency -- and to signal our direction and provoke discussion or feedback. Our intent was to provide a short statement that would be part wake-up call, part unifying call-to-arms, and part vision statement. To the extent we succeed, we'll generate some heated debate and hard-hitting critique. To the extent we fail, well, we'll be run out of town on a rail.

I'm cautiously optimistic, but I wouldn't mind hearing that I could crash on your couch for a few days -- just in case I need to leave town in a hurry.

Sunday, April 18, 2010

higher education and police use of force

Frederick Melo at The Usual Suspects comments on the high rates of advanced degrees among police officers in Minnesota. He cites a bit of the criminological research literature on the effects of higher education, but didn't mention a new paper in Police Quarterly by Jason Rydberg and William Terrill.

I won't belabor the methods or Project on Policing Neighborhoods data source, but I graphed the main finding above: relative to less-educated officers, those with college experience are significantly less likely to use force in police-citizen encounters. About 56 percent of interactions with college-educated officers involved force, while about 68 percent of encounters with non-college-educated officers involved force. This relationship holds up (p < .001) in models that adjust for age, experience, suspect characteristics, and the setting of the encounter. In contrast to the use of force, defined here as "acts that threaten or inflect physical harm on citizens," there appears to be no relationship between education and arrest or search behavior.

Even with a nice set of statistical controls, one could interpret these findings as the result of self-selection processes -- that is, there might be something about the type of people who go to college (rather than the college experience itself) that results in less force by officers. Plus, force is difficult to measure and, if I'm interpreting them correctly, these levels look suspiciously high.

Nevertheless, the basic finding has now been replicated across a number of data sets and research settings. Why haven't we required all officers to hold advanced degrees? The old arguments involve the desirability of recruiting less-educated former military personnel, while the new arguments involve the desirability of recruiting a less-educated but more diverse force. The enduring argument, I suppose, involves costs: if we require all officers to have a college degree, we might have to pay them more.

Saturday, April 17, 2010

visualizing academic jobs

When I checked in with our Minnesota graduate students this spring, their first question concerned market conditions and getting good jobs. I started answering in terms of technical skills and economic conditions, but ended in visualization and bad poetry.

As a long-serving department chair, I've got plenty of advice about high-demand skills and high-impact publication. But most know this stuff already and there are real structural challenges and uncertainties in the markets they'll be entering. So, at the risk of being perceived as (even more) flaky, I doffed my chair hat and shared my own story.

The market was bleak when I attended grad school in the early 1990s -- not brutal like today, of course, but there weren't many jobs out there. Knowing almost nothing about academic life, I spent a lot of time asking what kind of job I wanted. I figured that if I could suss that out, I might be able to chart a course to getting there.

I thought of Minnesota, but I couldn't realistically envision myself landing a perfect job in my hometown. Then I figured another Big-10 (or Big-10-type) school would be great. I knew I preferred to be in a public research university and I truly enjoyed larger lecture classes. I didn't care much about status or pay at the time, but knew I'd need good colleagues and lots of mentoring. And there were a ton of great crime/law/deviance scholars in Big-10 universities, many of whom seemed like good people.

Still, "Big 10" was too vague to help me set course, so I started visualizing myself flying into a small airport to interview at a specific place -- the University of Iowa, where they had a great crim group. Then, on a perfect summer day after my second year of grad school, I looked out my window and could almost see myself readying to leave Madison -- cleaning out the shed, picking through stuff for a yard sale, and listening to an old radio as I slopped blue paint on our li'l east side house and jawed with my neighbor. I couldn't envision my dissertation or job talk at that point, but I could definitely imagine leaving our Second Street house to move to Iowa City. Since, I could see and hear it clear as day, I just wrote down what i saw and heard:

Paint Radio (On Leaving Madison)

Dusty flecks of has-been paint,
in ice-cream white and foggy blue,
thick drips of new stuff stuck fast,
to an outdoor radio.

I dig it from the shed we raised,
and plug into fat orange cords.
Tonight it hides with little-boy treasures,
old timing lights and fishing tackle,
else Friday sells for a quarter.

Brewers losing five to three,
still Molitor, Yount, and the rest
of this team belongs in slow-
pitch city league.
I heard Robin leg out a triple,
could see him rounding second,
weightless on the bases.
And Uke likes this kid Navarro,
up from Double-A El Paso,
another call-up with potential.

Smithereens on M.A.D.
play House we Used to Live In
so i keep it there and puzzle the move,
the longer drive,
the company of things familiar.
what do they get in Iowa,
Twins games?

The tired Ford whistles and creaks,
gently clatters over the driveway and onto the grass.
Rhonda's got paint with clean labels,
brown legs and tin buckets.

Climbing shaky ladders in the sun,
then Jerry yells from his window:
"Djou guys booked for next weekend?"
I laugh and he apologizes for his dog again.

To this day, I'm still much better at imagining house painting than actual house painting. But here's the deal with visualizing something concrete: once I had an actual place in mind, it was suddenly much easier to plan and make decisions about my graduate career (e.g., will taking on this project/class/meeting help move me toward a tenure-track job at Iowa?). I didn't get my hopes up about actually landing that job, but it helped put me on a path toward a similar sort of job.

The market had improved when I went looking for jobs in 1994-1995. Iowa wasn't hiring, but I did land four interviews -- three at big-10 schools and one at a Pac-10 school. So, did the visualization work? This isn't so much a story about the "power of visualization" as about specifying the mechanism linking where I was with where I wanted to be. Visualizing a concrete place and set of role expectations gave me clear directives to make decisions in day-to-day life. Over the course of a few years, with the help of some smart and caring advisors, the effects of these decisions cumulated to the point where I was a realistic candidate for the job I set out to get.

Thursday, April 15, 2010

kara goucher and trusting your stuff

Bruce Barcott's long-form Runner's World profile of Kara Goucher is a good read for marathoners, but a really excellent read for anyone struggling with self-doubt:

“Everyone has their weakness,” she says. “Mine is confidence.” ... her head has always messed with her. For as long as she can recall, it's thrown hammers at her feet. Some runners have trick knees or fragile hamstrings. She has an undermining psyche.

Some will read her admissions as weakness or dismiss Ms. Goucher's work with a sports psychologist as touchy-feely psychobabble. Not me. It takes guts to seek help in overcoming emotional barriers to success. Runner's World pairs the piece with a sidebar offering general advice for anxious runners -- worry early not late; enjoy the motion; define success by your own progress; embrace your competitors; and, employ a keyword.

On the latter point, Ms. Goucher used the word "fighter" during intense training moments and then invoked it at a critical race moment to push her to a strong performance. Even middle-of-the-packers can get a boost from keywords or affirmations. I like the words strong or stronger. I never feel fast or light when the wheels come off at mile 22, but I recall my training, feel my quads and calves tighten and my lungs open up, and know I can finish strong. Then I just tromp along to the finish, usually to the blub-blub-blub rhythm of my heavy-rollin' '71 Chrysler.

As a sociologist, I believe that success is structured, in part, by social relationships and resources. I've never used keywords in my professional life, but before big talks I'll remind myself to trust my stuff -- to believe in my preparation, methodologies, and the quality of work I'll be presenting. If you're well-prepared, you know what you're doing, and you've got good stuff to present, there's really no reason for anxiety.

The profile of Ms. Goucher emphasizes the critical distinction between a 10th-place finish in which she quit and a 9th-place finish in which she ran her heart out. She knew the difference, and I guess that's the point of the article -- confidence comes from performing to our full capabilities, regardless of any external validation for our efforts.

Tuesday, April 13, 2010

national geographic and solitary watch

Tonight's episode of National Geographic's Explorer takes up the "science of solitary confinement." Solitary Watch is skeptical, however, especially about an experiment purporting to offer a live window into the solitary experience.

Holing up for a few days in an 8X10 room might be unpleasant, but it really doesn't approximate solitary confinement when the subjects can get up and leave whenever they want. Solitary Watch also points to a few of the differences between real solitary and faux-solitary, as described by a former prisoner:

1) Being surrounded by other mentally ill inmates howling and banging on doors and walls, resulting in sleep deprivation.
2) Viewing or rather listening to the brutality of prison guards reacting to these outbursts.
3) The uncertainty of when, or if, you will ever be released and the hopelessness that this feeling of loss of control over your own destiny instills.

Monday, April 12, 2010

not drinking but not exactly sober, either

When the financial tsunami hit the University last fall, I agreed to co-chair a big "remaking the college" committee. This brought a few challenges, but working with a wonderful group of college citizens has been its own reward.

I had a time-management problem, though, and a need to think very clearly. Not wanting to cut anything else out of my life, I suspended alcohol use on December 31. This freed up a little time for exercise or correspondence, but it meant no more Surly ale after work, Louis Martini cabs with dinner, or Knob Creek on the deck.

After 100 days, though, I hardly miss 'em. And, I'm feeling just a little harder/better/faster/stronger than before. The committee works through October, but I'm not sure how long I'll abstain. I didn't drink at all in six years of grad school, for pretty much the same time-management and clarity reasons -- I had little kids, little time, and little brain to spare, so I wanted to stay as sharp as possible.

That said, I know that not drinking also raises questions -- especially with spring festivities like our annual Sociological Research Institute coming up next week. I normally just politely decline, but I'm thinking of offering up the following excuses next Friday:

1. I'm training for the London Olympics (said while making javelin-throwing motion)
2. ...just tryin' to stay sexy
3. well, after the seventh DWI...
4. there's a chance I might be pregnant -- fingers crossed!
5. my religion only permits horse tranquilizers; and,
6. I get a little "stabby" when I drink (said while making short stabbing motions)

Perhaps a more effective demurral, in these austere times, is that "I'd like to leave an extra drink or two for the grad students."

Monday, April 05, 2010


A li'l something from andy rehfeldt to touch up those metal roots and brighten another fine spring day:

Friday, April 02, 2010

no minimum wage for civilly committed sex offenders

After they have served their court-ordered prison terms, people convicted of sex crimes are often civilly committed, ostensibly for treatment. When the acting warden at the Wisconsin Resource Center cut the pay of these patients/detainees from the minimum wage of $6.50 per hour to as little as $1.94 per hour, several filed lawsuits.

Since they were not prisoners, the residents argued they should qualify for the minimum wage just like any other employee. According to Business Week, Wisconsin's District 2 Court of Appeals rejected their argument on Wednesday. Judge Daniel Anderson, writing for the court, said the patients "do not need the minimum wage to protect their well being" since they are "cared for by the state."

I've argued in print that the hyperstigma applied to sex offenders approaches caste-like levels of second-class citizenship in the United States (though I never got around to that screenplay). The minimum wage example is just one of many legal and ethical paradoxes of sex offender civil commitment. What rights and liberties obtain for those who are no longer prisoners but will likely die behind bars?

Thursday, April 01, 2010

going green to be seen

They're doing some conversation-provoking social psychology in the Carlson School of Management these days -- and I'm not just saying that because Heather and I are speaking there tomorrow. The latest "talker" is Vladas Griskevicius' Going Green to Be Seen: Status, Reputation, and Conspicuous Conservation, forthcoming in Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. From the abstract:

[W]e examined in three experiments how status motives influenced desire for green products. Activating status motives led people to choose green products over more luxurious non-green products. Supporting the notion that altruism signals one’s willingness and ability to incur costs for others’ benefit, status motives increased desire for green products when shopping in public (but not private), and when green products cost more (but not less) than nongreen products.

So, status motives apparently lead people to forgo luxury for the environment only when such choices can be observed and influence one’s reputation. Hmm. I suppose an unscrupulous operator could profitably apply this research by purchasing replacement hybrid badges -- the very icon of conspicuous conservation -- and reselling them at a nice markup to the guilt-ridden drivers of gas-guzzling luxury vehicles. Sure 'nuff.