Topics in Quantitative Sociology

Fall 2020 ENSAE

Social Mechanisms

Sociologists try to account for the complexity of causality in social phenomena by reconstructing the mechanisms (chains) of action. We examine how this approach explains differences in cultural reproduction.

Background readings

Optional readings

Case-study for reading and commentary

Jaeger & Breen, 2016, AJS, “A Dynamic Model of Cultural Reproduction”

The authors draw on Pierre Bourdieu’s theory of cultural reproduction to develop a formal model of the pathways through which cultural capital acts to enhance children’s educational and socioeconomic success. The authors’ approach brings conceptual and empirical clarity to an important area of study. Their model describes how parents transmit cultural capital to their children and how children convert cultural capital into educational success. It also provides a behavioral framework for interpreting parental investments in cultural capital. The authors review results from existing empirical research on the role of cultural capital in education to demonstrate the usefulness of their model for interpretative purposes, and they use National Longitudinal Survey of Youth 1979—Children and Young Adults survey data to test some of its implications.
Commentaries:  1, 2, 3, 4, 5

Case-studies for presentation

Since 1993, in response to a movement sponsored by the Southern Baptist Church, over 2.5 million adolescents have taken public “virginity” pledges, in which they promise to abstain from sex until marriage. This paper explores the effect of those pledges on the transition to first intercourse. Adolescents who pledge are much less likely to have intercourse than adolescents who do not pledge. The delay effect is substantial. On the other hand, the pledge does not work for adolescents at all ages. Second, pledging delays intercourse only in contexts where there are some, but not too many, pledgers. The pledge works because it is embedded in an identity movement. Consequently, the pledge identity is meaningful only in contexts where it is at least partially nonnormative. Consequences of pledging are explored for those who break their promise. Promise breakers are less likely than others to use contraception at first intercourse.

DellaPosta & al., 2015, AJS, “Why do liberals drink lattes?”

Popular accounts of “lifestyle politics” and “culture wars” suggest that political and ideological divisions extend also to leisure activities, consumption, aesthetic taste, and personal morality. Drawing on a total of 22,572 pairwise correlations from the General Social Survey (1972–2010), the authors provide comprehensive empirical support for the anecdotal accounts. Moreover, most ideological differences in lifestyle cannot be explained by demographic covariates alone. The authors propose a surprisingly simple solution to the puzzle of lifestyle politics. Computational experiments show how the self-reinforcing dynamics of homophily and influence dramatically amplify even very small elective affinities between lifestyle and ideology, producing a stereotypical world of “latte liberals” and “bird-hunting conservatives” much like the one in which we live.
Individuals who engage in deviant behaviors are more likely to be friends with other deviants compared to non-deviants. This pattern has been observed across different types of deviant activities and among different age groups. In question, however, is the mechanism that underlies this pattern. In this article we develop and test a new theory to explain homophily among deviants. Deviance makes one vulnerable to the risk of being caught and sanctioned. This vulnerability imposes a stringent constraint on deviants’ choice of friends. Following Thomas Schelling, we conjecture that a way to establish trust consists of making oneself “blackmailable” by disclosing compromising information on one’s misdeeds, or sharing compromising secrets (SCS). If two individuals share their illicit behaviors with one another, both are made vulnerable and a friendship can be established. We propose a series of hypotheses derived from SCS comparing levels of homophily in deviant and non-deviant behaviors. Using data from the National Longitudinal Study of Adolescent Health we estimate adolescents’ preferences for deviant and non-deviant friends, within and across types of activities, and across different social contexts. Together, these tests allow us to distinguish between the theory we develop, SCS, and alternatives.
The inheritance of social standing from one generation to the next did not occur for most of the time that humans have lived, but became common only once human societies grew beyond a certain size. This paper offers a theory of how social inheritance may have resulted from this change in size, simply through the accompanying decrease in social network density. This decrease brought about differentiation in social network positions, creating structural advantages and disadvantages in group decision processes. As these processes determined social worth and leadership in societies, social network position became integral to social status and political prestige. And because network position tends to be passed from parent to child, social status came to be passed on, not (at first) through the inheritance of power or property, but through the inheritance of social connections. To illustrate the relationship between structural advantage and network density, we use a mathematical model of social influence in an array of small networks, as well as larger random networks to show how network position becomes increasingly determinant of social status as density decreases and network positions become increasingly differentiated. We use these results to further predict the conditions under which “who you know” matters more than “what you know.”