Skip to content
 

Why do sociologists (and bloggers) focus on the negative? 5 possible explanations. (A post in the style of Fabio Rojas)

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!

21 Comments

  1. Great comments Andrew. Cynicism has prevailed for as long as I have associated with academics. We should try to highlight what has gone well. The list is perceived to be shorter. The one thing that has fascinated me is that cliques form on the Internet expert blogs and on social media like Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram.

    Maybe its really a matter of disposition. Some naturally/relatively are more cynical than others. I try my humor on Twitter particularly b/c some people actually appreciate it.

  2. I think this is a wonderful post, Andrew. It highlights the triumphs of the past, and points the way to a glorious future. Onward!

    • > the only people more negative than bloggers, are blog commenters!
      OK, let me prove it ;-)

      Peirce had a line of argument that every individual is unique in how they particularly misconstrue the world. Given that, in science we need to come together to learn from others how we are wrong. That is never? learning how we are right but only how we are wrong. Hence, being negative, is just part of being profitably scientific.

      On the other hand, giving references is way to be positively negative – only if and when they read the paper will they discover what they were being wrong about.

      • Martha (Smith) says:

        My thoughts on the post are somewhat similar: You can’t improve it if you do n’t know what’s wrong with it — so criticism is important for the progress of science and knowledge in general.

        PS: Students I’ve had in courses (aimed at future and current teachers) on problem solving in math have tended to prefer the word “critique” to “criticize” for this “constructive criticism”

  3. Manoel Galdino says:

    I don’t buy it. What’s the definition of negativity? Talk about racism may be perceived as negativity by a white guy, and positive for an african-american, for instance.

  4. irongoldfish says:

    Reason 0, Sturgeon’s law?
    (recursively applied)

  5. Sean Mackinnon says:

    I would say a variation of the “division of labour” answer is probably the best one. I’ve actually kind of thought about this a bit, so since it’s end of term, time to waste some time on a blog response.

    Keeping in mind that I’m a psychologist, with a comparatively cursory background in sociology (I minored back in undergrad, but do retain some interest and reading in the area still), I think a LOT of sociology primarily focuses on inequality. For example, some of the more popular approaches are Conflict Theory (Marxism), Critical Theory, and Feminism. These approaches are inherently focused on inequality in society and trying to rectify it: And there’s not a lot of “positive” stuff to say from these perspectives! They are inherently critical of the status quo, and focus on how life is pretty unfair for a lot of folks in society.

    Epistemologically, sociologists are also unusal in the sense that they (often) endorse strong forms of social constructivism, rather than post-positivist or empiricist approaches. Strong social constructivist approaches can be at odds with classical test theory (i.e., is there really a true score that can be measured?), and are thus naturally antagonistic to a lot of established science that relies on statistics. Qualitative methods and social constructivist approaches are generally useful for deconstruction, which is inherently critical (and thus might be seen as “negative”).

    Regarding the blog and linking this to sociology and negativity …there are power dynamics here and in the blog that are broader in society. That is, if the broader scientific community wasn’t publishing articles on himmicanes, fat arms, and prolific math errors you wouldn’t need a blog to point that out. But the current state of affairs is honestly that there really ISN’T anywhere else to publish this kind of stuff (e.g., “methodological terrorism”). I think when the established publication outlets refuse to publish criticisms of their existing publications, then people still want to say stuff about this. It spills over to social media, precisely because there’s nowhere else “official” to publish these kinds of criticisms, but we still care enough to try and fix stuff that’s broken.

    If you had a paper about how the world was getting better all the time, well … guess it’s time to bust out the TED talk / news interviews, and start raking in the cash (see: Stephen Pinker). Experts get paid TONS of money to tell folks the status quo is working. Why would you post it for free on a blog?

  6. Yuling says:

    If people learn heuristics from past experiences, I would argue any number larger than 0.234 is inefficient for the proportion of positives.

  7. Thanatos Savehn says:

    I blame the media. A year or so ago I got interested in the Equal Justice Institute’s project and read through their webpages and followed up with contemporaneous historical accounts. Among the many things I found appalling was an ugly habit of the media: firing up mobs (and newspaper sales) with manipulative, sensational, and sensationally evidence-free, stories. Even on non-racial matters two-newspaper towns kept sales volume up with relentless Us vs. Them narratives. Such narratives cannot be maintained unless whatever “Them” is up to is wicked, harmful, deranged or preferably all three.

    I suspect that if the first news we got in the morning was not from someone peddling clicks in the guise of news but rather was from our neighbor (of whom we too seldom inquire “How’s it goin’ Joe?”) we’d all be a lot happier.

  8. Steve says:

    I have a simpler explanation, namely, complexity. Social scientists are studying phenomena that are so complex that it may just being impossible to answer the question how human society works. But, it is easier to identity failures and suggest what went wrong. I don’t have to understand how a combustion engine works to figure out that when the fuel gauge says empty the car doesn’t work. We are all part of this vast mechanism that we are trying to understand. But, we can’t dissect it without tearing ourselves apart. In the absence of the ability to use true experiments to study social phenomena, failures present a kind of natural experiment where we can sometimes reasonably identify what changed right before the breakdown or what is different in one community where things are screwed up from other communities where they aren’t. So focusing on the negative offers a more promising path to learning about social phenomena than trying to figure out how society really works. Negativity may be a feature not a bug.

    • I take your points. Nevertheless I just wonder why the quality of insights that SOME prominent academics come up can be so corny. I think a good many are cloistered today to a much greater extent. Out of touch as Paul Rozin has suggested. If one wants to understand the complexity of society, it can’t simply be remotely perceived. I find more life in some poorer neighborhoods in Washington, DC than in wealthier ones. Admittedly, there is huge inequality in urban communities. But that’s why we need some sparkling leadership.

  9. With sociology, I agree that it’s mostly division of labor–criticism became sociology’s niche. With blogs, I think that there’s another reason: it’s easier to expound on criticism than on praise. If something is flawed, you can discuss what’s wrong with it. If you found something convincing or insightful, you can say that, but what comes next? It’s hard to explain why something is good, or at least I find it hard. It’s certainly not something we are taught to do in academia.

    • Martha (Smith) says:

      “It’s hard to explain why something is good, or at least I find it hard. It’s certainly not something we are taught to do in academia.”

      +1

      Hmm– I’ve just said that what I quoted is good — but I don’t know how to explain why it’s good. :~)
      (OK, here’s a try: Because it’s something I hadn’t thought of, but wish I had thought of?)

      • Martha (Smith) says:

        “Because it’s something I hadn’t thought of, but wish I had thought of?”

        On second thought, that’s circular reasoning: I wish I had thought of it because I think it’s good.
        Yup, it’s hard!

    • Specialization [and now hyperspecialization] accounts for why it’s more difficult to have influence in a broad and sustainable way. Thanatos mentioned the media earlier. Drive for sensationalistic content trumps drive for compelling evidence. And God forbid mentioning the need to explore ‘base rates’ and ‘context’. This is what was absent in some international relations issues I came across. I think this is a consequence of the fact that for the longest time, we relied on small sample opinions. They were given preferential treatment. We didn’t question their assumptions to the degree that we do now. Even though we question assumptions, we don’t follow through with any edifying conclusions. Why should we? To have a longer career, we have to generate more and more conversations, controversies, and debates. And here I think the sociology of expertise is a fascinating subject.

  10. Thank you for this post, Andrew. Two thoughts:

    I would add something like “Counter-Hype.” When all you hear about Idea X is that it’s great and amazing and will change everyone’s life, and you express some misgivings, they will automatically be perceived as negative, even if you frame them in a constructive and hopeful way. This may be related to the division of labor–that is, someone has to point out the problems with the idea.

    Along these lines, it can be difficult in general to convey “neither X nor anti-X.” People will quickly assume that if you don’t adore X, you must support its opposite. In some situations where I criticized an aspect of a practice of policy, people assumed I was entirely against it (and in favor of the most obvious alternative). So sometimes “negativity” comes not from the speaker, but from the audience.

  11. Trivellore Raghunathan says:

    Great post, Andy. Made me think a bit more philosophically.

    Self-development at the individual level happens when a self-critical introspection is performed to detect the problems, develop efforts to negate those problems and then find proper substitutions or answers for those problems. A society is a macrocosm of individuals and, thus, its own self development has to take the same path. At the individual level, self-congratulatory thinking, though may be useful for a short while, may in the long run boost ones ego, and detract from the introspection, detection, negation and substitution of real issues. This applies to the society as well. May be we are not doing enough of self-congratulatory stuff but that is not as important as focusing on the societal problems to be solved.

  12. Wonks Anonymous says:

    #5 sounds plausible (“no news is good news”, as the saying goes), but in the specific case of Theranos, they actually got a lot of press before the cracks started to appear.

  13. Terry says:

    I’m not sure what is meant by negativity.

    In one sense, medicine is very “negative” because it deals with bad things like cancer. But it in another sense, it is very “positive” because it seeks to make the bad things go away and thereby make life better.

    Engineering and physics are primarily “positive” because they seek to make the world a better place by making good things possible and understanding the world better. Economics is kind of similar because it seeks to understand and improve economic entities, which is a good thing.

    So is sociology really “negative”? By trying to solve perceived problems, aren’t they trying to make the world a better place by eliminating bad things?

    I suspect the reason sociology is perceived as “negative” is because it implies hatred of other people and their social organizations. Fighting racism implies hating racist people. This is different from the other fields because medicine “hates” disease, engineering and physics “hate” ignorance, and economics “hates” inefficiency, so they don’t sound nasty.

    (Another possible difference is that disease, ignorance, and inefficiency are, for the most part, real.)

    (Hat tip to Manoel Galdino for bringing this issue up earlier.)

Leave a Reply