Thursday, June 29, 2006

The Sociology of the Sociology of Science

Before I dove into the startup life in '96, I was a PhD student at UC Berkeley in the history of science program. I overlapped there for a year or two with a smart guy named Alex Pang, who now works at the Institute for the Future and writes a blog called Relevant History.

As opposed to his regular interesting posts, Alex recently made a [thankfully rare] comment on academic sociology of science, which caused him to quote this passage:

[C]onstructivist sociology of science offers case-based analysis celebrating contingency and locality, favors archival and ethnographic methods, emphasizes agency over structure, and often focuses on issues related to epistemology and knowledge. Neo-institutionalism, on the other hand, searches for patterns over time and space, is more enthusiastic about using statistical and quantitative methods, emphasizes how structure can constrain actors, and returns in part to a sociology of scientists and organizations that was more characteristic of the pre-constructivist, Mertonian era.

Ye Gods. That's just painful to read. I don't know who wrote that, but they're never, ever going to be able to communicate with normal human beings unless they start speaking English. I thought it would be interesting to do a quantitative comparison between that ...stuff... and actual prose. Alex is a fully trained SoS practitioner who's broken free from his chains to rejoin the human race, so I compared the academic passage to one of his recent posts that I consider a favorite:

As an historian interested in Silicon Valley, I'm fascinated by Castilleja. More than any other place, it's given me a sense of just how tightly-knit the area's elites are: for all its global reach and influence, the Valley is still a bunch of small towns, knit together by schools, churches, volunteer organizations, and all the things that turn groups of people into communities. I come to events here, and the parents include people who were recently on the cover of Business Week or Wired. The real power scene isn't Stanford or Sand Hill Road; it's the line of parents waiting to pick up their kids from Menlo or St. Joseph's or Casti.

The students are in their dress whites this morning. Since they're normally in dress blue, it actually isn't that much of a step up in sartorial splendor, but it's a nice gesture. It's hard to raise a bar that's already high. Friedman is pretty high-profile, but the school has a constant parade of Macarthur genius prize-winners, Nobel laureates, people who used to have Secret Service details, and other generally fascinating people who come and speak to the students. (It's hard to raise the bar....) If, as I've sometimes heard, middle school here is like high school in most other schools, the speaker series rivals that of many colleges.

Introduction.... actually being done by one of the students. That's cool. She started an NGO that does relief work in Africa. Okay, that beats my vice presidency of my high school chess club (two years in a row). Would my high school record even get me into community college today?

Friedman's up now. Some anecdotes... why the world is flat... some more anecdotes... references to Lexus and the Olive Tree... I've posted the rest of the talk on Future Now.

Q&A is restricted to students. Love it: I recognize half a dozen CEOs and VCs, people who normally are the center of attention, and they're sitting in the back, listening. And not grumbling. Here, they're just parents.

I don't have to tell you which is better by any rational measure. But here's a numeric measure:

* Passage 1: 509 characters, 77 words, average word length 6.6 letters.
* Passage 2: 1625 characters, 337 words, average word length 4.8 letters.

Winner: Alex.

Social science grad school: Add 37% to your word length and remove 99% from your prospective audience. And it only takes away four, er, six years of your life.

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