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The Executive Officer’s Column

The Power of IDA—The Place of Data

One of my reasons for coming to ASA was to return to a focus on the centrality of education and educational institutions. I had been seasoned already in the functioning of non-profits through my work in criminal justice research institutions whose focus was on improving access to the legal system and increasing efficiencies in the administration of justice.

One of the greatest challenges of this work was convincing law-trained policy leaders, even very forward-thinking ones, that the social sciences have a vital—indeed indispensable—role in helping conceptualize and quantify current practices and their progress toward goals that are critically important to a democracy. I was astounded by how many police officers moving into leadership roles; probation, parole and correction leaders; and even law-trained professionals in the judiciary, prosecution and defense bar had studied the social sciences (and sociology in particular) in college and sometimes graduate school. And yet, given their professional tendency to focus on the individual case rather than patterns among cases or within organizational processes, most apparently, had never absorbed in their education the type of critical thinking—analytical thinking—that is fundamental to the sciences.

After years of working with very talented and educated practitioners and policy leaders at the local and national levels, it is very clear that they absorb logic as part of their education (the traditional A = B, B = C, therefore, A = C, as well as much more complex logic). Those who have studied more recently in colleges and universities are also more comfortable with the idea of counting and measuring important social phenomena, especially when they are in positions of public accountability.

What most do not fully grasp, however, is how to think analytically and how to use numbers to go more deeply beyond a bi-variate relationship, such as the finding that violent crime is higher in neighborhoods that are poor and those that are heavily minority than in neighborhoods that are not. From this relationship the more progressive policy maker might conclude that creating jobs would lower crime in such neighborhoods; more typically, however, the policy that gets implemented is to intensify the arresting of the poor and the young people of color in those neighborhoods. But what about the growing sociological research that indicates we can measure characteristics of communities themselves that reduce or eliminate the correlation between violent crime rates and the poverty and race of neighborhoods? What does this social complexity have to say to policy makers about potentially more effective avenues than arrest or even employment for reducing violent crime victimization in all communities?

Such research is very difficult for practitioners, policy makers, and even the general educated public to whom they are accountable, to grasp because most of have an underdeveloped level of quantitative literacy. They are too easily seduced by “obvious” data and statistical relationships reported in the press and in policy documents. They tend not to be sensitive to, or know how to assess, the type and strength of evidence presented as the documentation of such findings and their policy interpretation. When it comes to thinking about social facts, therefore, they are not “sociological.” That is, they are not thinking analytically and critically in the sense of challenging conventional data and analysis behind widely accepted “facts” and exploring the policy challenges of more complex data reflecting more complex realities.

ASA Past-President Burawoy has suggested that students are sociologists’ “first publics.” Whether this observation is viewed as part of our on-going consideration of what “public sociologies” mean or whether it is viewed as an obvious requirement of academic employment, sociologists spend considerable energy working with this public. And they are, or will become, the police officers, judges, prosecutors, and other societal leaders who make many of the important decisions for us as members of our civic communities. As undergraduate educators, sociologists have a strategic opportunity to strengthen the preparation we give them for these important roles by expanding their understanding of the need for empirical analysis and their ability to seek, find, and evaluate relevant data.

Who is this powerful IDA? The ASA and the Social Science Data Analysis Network have collaborated over the last two years on a National Science Foundation-funded project called Integrating Data Analysis (see article on p. 11 in this issue of Footnotes). IDA’s goal is to help sociologists and their departments close this quantitative literacy gap. ASA has been blessed to have Carla Howery leading our efforts in teaching and learning for more than two decades; in IDA she is working with other stars among ASA’s membership such as William Frey, Kerry Strand, and Havidán Rodríguez. These colleagues have led the IDA project, which will formally come to a close in April 2005, in conjunction with the faculty of 12 undergraduate sociology departments whose goal has been to change courses and curricula to infuse more research and hands-on data experience into the cumulative process of learning sociology.

IDA is not only an important creative innovation in teaching and curriculum development. It is essential if sociology is going to do the job it must do to ensure that the educational pipeline contains both well-trained future social scientists and civic leaders with a high level of scientific literacy. These are the groups who together will ultimately craft policy decisions in our democracy. Science is not democratic: all knowledge is not equal—science focuses only on empirically plausible explanations for measurable events. But the use of science, especially social science, is democratic; it takes place in a democratic marketplace of ideas. A more scientifically informed public and more publicly sensitive scientists have the opportunity to make wiser choices.

Sally T. Hillsman, Executive Officer