Demystifying Sociology

Economics can be baffling, especially to students who learn it in only the theoretical sense. If, for example, your worldview is formed by going through micro/macro classes alone, reality can often be confusing.

Does identity—one’s concept of self—influence economic behavior in the labor market? I investigate this question in rural India, focusing on the effect of caste identity on labor supply. In a field experiment, casual laborers belonging to different castes choose whether to take up various real job offers. All offers involve working on a default manufacturing task and an additional task. The additional task changes across offers, is performed in private, and differs in its association with specific castes. Workers’ average take-up rate of offers is 23 percentage points lower if offers involve working on tasks that are associated with castes that rank higher than their own. This gap increases to 47 pp if the castes associated with the relevant offers rank lower than workers’ own in the caste hierarchy. Responses to job offers are invariant to whether or not workers’ choices are publicized, suggesting that the role of identity itself—rather than social image—is paramount. Using a supplementary experiment, I show that 43% of workers refuse to spend ten minutes working on tasks associated with other castes, even when offered ten times their daily wage. This paper’s findings indicate that identity may be an important constraint on labor supply, contributing to misallocation of talent in the economy.

Oh, S. (2019). Does Identity Affect Labor Supply?. Job Marker Paper, Columbia University.

To make the point clearer: microeconomics teaches you that if you are offered ten times your daily wage to do a task for ten minutes, well, duh, you should take it. Reality (well, ok, this paper) teaches you you’d be wrong 43% of the time. At which point, you should begin to ask why.

Sociology gets a bad rap for being an ultra boring field, and there is, one has to admit, some truth to the charge. There are many Dave Barry columns that deserve multiple readings, but this particular one is particularly funny (and relevant):

For sheer lack of intelligibility, sociology is far and away the number one subject. I sat through hundreds of hours of sociology courses, and read gobs of sociology writing, and I never once heard or read a coherent statement. This is because sociologists want to be considered scientists, so they spend most of their time translating simple, obvious observations into scientific-sounding code. If you plan to major in sociology, you’ll have to learn to do the same thing. For example, suppose you have observed that children cry when they fall down. You should write: “Methodological observation of the sociometrical behavior tendencies of prematurated isolates indicates that a casual relationship exists between groundward tropism and lachrimatory, or ‘crying,’ behavior forms.” If you can keep this up for fifty or sixty pages, you will get a large government grant.

The column is particularly funny because it is particularly true – not just about sociology, but about college in general. Please read the whole thing.

Anyways, back to sociology: yes, boring af, but also helps us economists get a better grip on reality, by pointing out that the world often doesn’t work the way our models would like it to. Thaler* puts this maddening behavior on part of the world down to what he calls Supposedly Irrelevant Factors (SIF’s) (slide 6, if you can’t be bothered to go through the whole thing, although you really should.)

So what is sociology? Here’s the English definition:

Sociology is the study of human behavior. Sociology refers to social behavior, society, patterns of social relationships, social interaction, and culture that surrounds everyday life.

… and click here if you want the definition of sociology by a sociologist (consider yourself warned). It is, in essence, a field of enquiry that asks what explains the behavior of people in a society, and also if living in society itself influences how people will behave.

Economic sociology, a subset of sociology, is “the sociological perspective applied to economic phenomena”**. And the reason it is a field of study worth exploring in its own right is because it helps us make sense of potentially baffling results such as the one Suanna Oh came up with.

Read the paper, please (section 6.3 for those of you who are curious about whether the author has really thought things through) – and while you’re at it, learn more about economic sociology. I’m trying to learn more myself, and will keep you guys updated as we go along.

*Yes, that’s from behavioral economics, but the point holds over here too, and is more than mildly relted.

** Smelser, N. J., & Swedberg, R. (Eds.). (2010). The handbook of economic sociology. Princeton university press.

Large classes, small groups

You might want to read my previous posts about online education and learning before reading this. See this essay about the state of higher education in India, this about signaling and bundling in higher education, this about unbundling college and this about measuring efficiency in education.

In addition, Aadisht had a great comment about optionality and higher education, which really deserves a post in its own right – but you can click on the link in this paragraph and scroll to the bottom to read it for now.

All that being said, today’s post ties together the thoughts and deeds of three people whose thinking I try to follow very carefully when it comes to online education.

The role of community in education

Let’s begin with this tweet from one of them, David Perell.

Both the thread of which 4. is a part, and the Twitter thread referenced in 4. are worth reading.

But today, I wanted to focus on the community bit.

A quick reminder: my thesis is that college sells you three things. The education itself, the access to peer networks and the credentialing. If there is to be an online model that will work for colleges, it must successfully provide all three (and more) at the same price (or less) as college does today.

When it comes to peer networks, can they ever be as successful online as they have been offline?

That begs the question: have they been successful offline? And that is really two separate questions.

About Peer Groups

  1. Are peer groups worth the effort in the first place?
  2. Is there something special about peer groups you form in college?

With regard to the first, I’m going to take a pass on answering it in depth for at least two reasons. First, I know nowhere near enough sociology to be able to speak about this sensibly for any length of time. And second, isn’t the answer obvious?

About the second question, you might want to read this essay – a part of which is excerpted below:

As external conditions change, it becomes tougher to meet the three conditions that sociologists since the 1950s have considered crucial to making close friends: proximity; repeated, unplanned interactions; and a setting that encourages people to let their guard down and confide in each other, said Rebecca G. Adams, a professor of sociology and gerontology at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro. This is why so many people meet their lifelong friends in college, she added.

The entire essay is worth your time, but the crux of it is those three points above: proximity; repeated, unplanned interactions; and college life.

Anecdote Time

Two of the best years of my life were spent while studying for my Masters degree at the Gokhale Institute in Pune. There was a fair bit of reading/learning involved, but most of those two years were spent in just hanging out with a group of people I am still close friends with.

And of the three things that Gokhale Institute gave me when I purchased a Masters degree from it, it is this group of friends that I value the most. Then comes the degree, and the least important – as it turns out – was the learning itself.

Don’t misunderstand me – learning was and is important! It’s just that for me, sitting in a class and listening to professors talk wasn’t the best way to learn. I have learnt much more by speaking one-on-one with some professors, arguing heatedly and passionately about random topics with friends, and by reading/listening/viewing to stuff on my own time.

But therein lies a dilemma.

How to reconcile online education with forming your college gang?

Random bike rides, conversations at three in the morning sitting on a ledge on the hostel terrace, giggling at a joke while sitting towards the back of a classroom is not just an important part of college. In my personal experience, this pretty much was college.

And not just during the pandemic, but even beyond, the key challenge is to figure out ways and means to achieve something approaching the same experience in this brave new online world of ours.

What might be an answer to this conundrum? That brings me to the second person whose thoughts about online education matter to me, Tyler Cowen

Small Group Theory, via Tyler Cowen

If you are seeking to foment change, take care to bring together people who have a relatively good chance of forming a small group together. Perhaps small groups of this kind are the fundamental units of social change, noting that often the small groups will be found within larger organizations. The returns to “person A meeting person B” arguably are underrated, and perhaps more philanthropy should be aimed toward this end.

Small groups (potentially) have the speed and power to learn from members and to iterate quickly and improve their ideas and base all of those processes upon trust. These groups also have low overhead and low communications overhead. Small groups also insulate their members sufficiently from a possibly stifling mainstream consensus, while the multiplicity of group members simultaneously boosts the chances of drawing in potential ideas and corrections from the broader social milieu.

If you are going to run an online course, or are going to be a student enrolled in an online course, the most important thing you can do is think long and hard about forming groups.

If you are the person running the course, you need to make the process of forming a group as friction-less as you possibly can. Without these groups, not only are drop-outs more likely, but the groups themselves are perhaps the bigger point!

Here’s Tyler Cowen again, in a separate post:

Remember Lancastrian methods of education from 19th century England? Part of the idea was to keep small group size, and economize on labor, by having the students teach each other, typically with the older students instructing the younger.

The post I quoted from is about how college might reinvent itself in the era of the pandemic, but the larger point he is making – or at any rate, the point I choose to take away – is about how learning in small groups is better than classrooms.

And on a related note, the third person whose thoughts on online education I choose to take very seriously, Seth Godin:

Great guy. Chip and I went to business school together. He was the third youngest person in the class and I was the second youngest person in the class. He got five of us together and every Tuesday night, we met in the Anthropology Department for four hours. We brainstormed more than 5,000 business ideas over the course of the first year of business school. It was magnificent. It wasn’t official, it wasn’t sanctioned. It was just Chip said let’s do this, and we did. And he picked the Anthropology Department because he knew someone there and could get the conference room.

That is from an episode from Tim Ferriss’ podcast, in which he interviewed Seth (the whole episode is well worth your time), but the point that I remembered was about small groups.

Anybody who is going to try and do education online is going to have to get small groups going. Without it – in my opinion – it simply will not work.

But how do you form these groups?

I’m still thinking about the how, and the more I think about it, the more it seems as if there is never going to be a perfect answer. Forming groups is hard, and I think we need to make peace with the fact that groups may not always work out.

People won’t get along, people will drop out, quarrels will take place even among groups that develop close bonds – there are many, many things that can go wrong. But it doesn’t matter how long it takes and how many times groups have to be formed and re-formed – it is unlikely that you’ll get an education worth the name without the formation of a group, or community.

And what do these groups do?

… will be the topic of tomorrow’s essay, for I was part of an experiment that tried to answer this question – and I really liked the answer!

Tech: Links for 6th August, 2019

Smart Cities is a phrase that has been bandied about in India for a while now, but nobody who actually lives in any city in India can claim in good conscience to actually live in one.

What exactly is a smart city? What does it entail? What are the minimum qualifications to be thought of as one, what are the costs involved? Are all costs economic – as in, might it be rather lonely to be a part of a smart city? Rather than spend time defining each of these things, today’s links are about a city in South Korea that very few of you have likely heard of: Songdo.

  1. “Built on 600 hectares (1,500 acres) of land reclaimed from the Yellow Sea off Incheon, about 56 kilometres (35 mi) from the South’s capital Seoul, Songdo district is the largest private real estate development in history. By its completion date in 2015, the district was planned to contain 80,000 apartments, 5,000,000 square metres (50,000,000 sq ft) of office space and 900,000 square metres (10,000,000 sq ft) of retail space. The 65-floor Northeast Asia Trade Tower became South Korea’s tallest building. Computers have been built into the houses, streets, and offices as part of a wide area network.”
    From Wikipedia. Reading this article also informs us that while a lot of us may not have heard of Songdo, we certainly have seen it.
  2. A link (Business Insider) that has lots of pcitures, and information about Songdo’s urban density, transport, remoteness, trash collection and much more.
  3. “This was all pretty slick, but where were the levitating buildings and flying cars we had envisioned? The city’s futurism was incremental, as it turned out, coexisting with the familiar and mundane. We had expected a city 25 or even 50 years ahead of the rest of the world; instead, Songdo felt like 2017—still the future, perhaps, but not the promised land of science fiction. There were mostly just subtle, somewhat odd differences from the cities of the present—for example, in Central Park, a small island filled with rabbits, a cordoned-off section with captive deer, and the occasional hidden speaker playing relaxing classical music.”
    From a while ago… an article from the Atlantic talking about how Songdo was in 2014, and how it might turn out.
  4. “The streets, footpaths and cycle lanes and racks are strangely empty for such a large city, there’s no presence of culture – no museums, theatres and just one cinema. On weekends, the cycle racks are empty and the area is desolate. One critic said it had a “Chernobyl-like emptiness” to it.
    Now it’s trying to entice US citizens to save the US$40 billion project from failure with the construction of a colossal “American Town”.”
    People, it would seem, make cities what they are. Doing it the other way around seems to have not worked. Exercise: would you say this is good news for India?
  5. And another article from CityLab that says more or less the same thing.