November-December 2009 Issue • Volume 37 • Issue 8

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Tim Futing Liao to Edit
Sociological Methodology

by David B. Grusky, Stanford University

liao

Tim Liao

After a very successful run at the University of Michigan under the editorship of Yu Xie, Sociological Methodology has now relocated to the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, where Tim Liao will serve as editor. The discipline should be immensely grateful to anyone who undertakes the largely thankless task of editing a major journal. Indeed, it’s rather a puzzle that major scholars, like Yu Xie and Tim Liao, have made themselves available to edit Sociological Methodology, even though it’s surely a time sink.

Why has Tim agreed to serve? When we view behavior that by all accounts seems irrational, or at least nonrational, for many the instinctive approach is to attempt to salvage the rational model, to postulate some further condition that renders rational the seemingly nonrational. The classic fallback here is that Tim may lack complete information: Could it possibly be, in other words, that Tim doesn’t know what he is getting into? Is it possible that he never called Yu Xie for the low down, that Yu Xie didn’t regale him with stories about how hard it is to maintain the extraordinarily high standards for which Sociological Methodology is justly famous, standards that have to be maintained even though the cadre of regular contributors can be dispiritingly thin? Is it possible that Tim didn’t realize that, however difficult it is to edit any major journal, the task of editing a methods journal is even harder because the papers require a much closer read? Indeed, because Sociological Methodology reviewers are themselves stressed and can’t always be counted upon to complete the time-consuming, careful review that virtually all methods papers require, the editor serves importantly as that last line of defense against any embarrassing mistake.

The foregoing account, however tempting it may be to weave, is exceedingly difficult to push in Tim Liao’s case. Indeed, for anyone who has followed Tim’s career, the idea that he didn’t know what he was getting into is ludicrous, as surely no one in sociology knows more than Tim about editing methods pieces. His list of accomplishments on the editing front is simply awe inspiring: He has co-edited with Michael Lewis-Beck and Alan Bryman the three-volume Sage Encyclopedia of Social Science Research Methods; he is on the editorial board of Sociological Research & Methods and earlier served on the board of Sociological Methodology; and he was editor (until mid-2009) of the Sage Quantitative Applications in the Social Sciences series. In the latter capacity, he oversaw the production of some 22 manuscripts, many of them already classics.

Salvaging Rational Choice

If we are forced, then, to reject the incomplete information account, how do we explain Tim’s decision? The crux of the puzzle, it may be recalled, is that (a) every hour of editing squeezes out an hour of research production, and (b) the scholarly rewards to an hour spent on research swamps the scholarly rewards to an hour spent on editing. Why, so the logic goes, does the rational actor engage in any editing at all? It is possible that Tim is willing to forego research because in fact he can’t get much of it done and hence the cost of an hour of research production foregone isn’t, in his case, all that great. Alas, such an account can’t explain why some of the most productive scholars in the field (e.g., Yu Xie) have served as Sociological Methodology editor, nor can it explain why Tim has likewise chosen to serve.

Again, anyone who knows Tim has to be awe struck by his scholarly record, comprising as it does major contributions on such topics as missing data analysis, latent class analysis, methods for making predictions, rate comparisons, and the general methodology of cross-group comparison. In his more recent work, Tim is developing methods for analyzing collective memories, and he is also developing a new latent class framework for characterizing the multidimensional shape of inequality. The signature of all this work is an inveterate refusal to skim the top and an insistence instead to probe the very foundations of a model or approach. This is a formidable body of work. The clear implication: In deciding to edit Sociological Methodology, Tim is indeed foregoing much important research, thereby losing the rewards that such work would likely bring.

An Altruist?

Are we left then to conclude that Tim is irrational? An altruist who gives to his discipline at much personal cost? Is he the loyal dog who jumps into the storm-swollen stream (i.e., the editorship of Sociological Methodology) to save his master (i.e., the larger disciplinary good), risking his own life (i.e., research production) as a result? Again, anyone who knows Tim couldn’t reject such an account, as he is indeed a kind man, precisely the type one might think prone to raw altruism. Even so, and despite the current ("behavioral") fashion to cede the rational model and conflate humans with dogs, it’s perhaps not time to throw in the towel. The rational model may yet be salvaged if we allow for the possibility that Tim, accomplished editor that he is, is more productive per hour of editing time than most would be, with the implication that he hasn’t foregone as much research by virtue of accepting the editing job as one might imagine. To wit, he’s a fast editor, and what takes most of us many editing hours takes him but few. If one allows that there’s some reward to editing, then there’s also some level of editing efficiency at which the total reward accruing to an hour of editing exceeds the total reward accruing to an hour of research.

We arrive at the conclusion that Tim is either (a) an altruistic dog, or (b) an editing maniac. The former possibility we call non-rational; the latter we call rational. Is there any way to adjudicate? The answer is simple: We need merely do our duty and flood Tim with manuscripts. In his well-crafted proposal to edit Sociological Methodology, Tim stakes out the view that the journal should move beyond its conventional focus on statistical analysis, opening up to a broader interpretation of methods that also encompasses issues of conceptualization, measurement, research design, and data collection. I suggest that you take him up on this broadening not just because it would indeed make for a better journal but also because it provides the test we so desperately need. If Tim’s an altruist, he will be happy with the onslaught and take pleasure in the better journal it creates for all of us. If, however, he’s an editing maniac, such an onslaught makes the research-editing tradeoff a less favorable one, and Tim eventually grows irritable and wonders if it’s all worth it. The upshot: It’s your duty to submit and allow Tim’s true colors to show. logo

 

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