In this assignment, I have to critically evaluate a sociological research paper from a theoretical perspective. The goal is to apply the tools for theory building and reconstruction from my course to an actual sociological theory (I will send you my notes). My paper is Extremely Disadvantaged Neighborhoods and Urban Clime (Krivo & Peterson, 1996).
The topic of the assignment is “cumulative advantage”: a family of sociological mechanisms through which actors who, for whatever reason, already enjoy advantages in a certain domain, acquire further advantages because of their initial advantage, which leads to a self-reinforcing dynamic and an increase of inequality. For instance, do books by famous authors become popular (and thus the author even more famous) because the books are really that good, or because the authors were already famous in the first place? This phenomenon is also known as the “Matthew effect” (coined as such by Merton (1968) after a statement in the gospel of Matthew [25:29] in the New Testament).
This is the assignment:
Part 1: Summarize the article (400-500 words)
Carefully read the article, focusing on the theory. You don’t need to study the empirical parts of the article in detail, but make sure that you understand the overall research design and how it answers the research questions. Don’t worry if you do not understand the statistical technicalities; that is not the point of this assignment. Then, summarize the article, from a theoretical point of view. In this step, you can “stay close” to the article: rather than presenting your own opinion or critique, faithfully reproduce the main points as presented by the authors (but in your own words!). Make sure that you answer the following questions:
• What is the overall sociological problem or theme that the article is concerned with?
• What is the more specific question or research problem of the article? Why is this an important question, according to the authors, in the light of the broader theme? (That is, why do we need to answer this question in order to further our understanding of the broader problem?).
• What is the main goal of the article? For instance, do the authors want to present a new theory, test an existing theory, or compare theories?
• What theory does the article develop to answer the research question? Summarize the core argumentation and hypotheses.
• What is the empirical research design? Why is this specific design suitable for the research question, according to the authors?
• What are the main results? Which hypotheses are confirmed or rejected?
• What are the most important conclusions? That is: how do the authors answer the main research question and what are (according to the authors) the implications for the broader research problem?
Part 2: Reconstruct the article’s theory (500-600 words)
Now reconstruct the article’s theoretical argumentation, using Coleman’s scheme as a guide. Try to identify the elements of Coleman’s scheme in the article’s theory (or theories). Make sure that you clarify the article’s assumptions as much as possible. Are all elements of Coleman’s scheme present, or are there missing elements or links missing? Are there implicit assumptions? How exactly are the hypotheses derived from the assumptions? In this step, you move beyond the perspective of the authors by “picking apart” the theory using your own interpretation (using Coleman’s scheme as a guide), but still refrain from giving a value judgement on the article.
Part 3: Critically evaluate the article (400-500 words)
This part consists of two interrelated steps.
First, critically evaluate the article, focusing on the theory used. To what degree are the assumptions realistic or justified? Which assumptions do you find particularly problematic, and what are the implications of that for the theory as a whole? Base your critique on the reconstruction from step two. Note: the point here is not to be as critical as possible (although you may be very critical), but to provide your own balanced and honest evaluation of the article’s (theoretical) contribution.
Second, suggest improvements to the theory for the aspects that you criticized in the previous step. For instance, if you find a particular assumption problematic, come up with a better assumption, argue why it is better, and how the implications of the theory change (does it lead to new hypotheses)? Try to use the tools for theory construction offered in this course for your improvements.
• The maximum number of words for your assignment, excluding references, is 1600 words. Please provide a word count at the top of your assignment.
• Please stick to the general outline of the assignment and use the corresponding headings: “Summary”, “Reconstruction,” and “Critical evaluation.”
• Please include references in APA style.
Some of my notes
Coleman’s diagram. Connect macro-level conditions to macro-level outcomes through the underlying micro-level processes.
We are interested in macro change, but the way we explain it is through the micro-level. The arrows are not necessarily causal relationships, it is a thinking framework.
Essence of Coleman’s diagram. Causes of social conditions lead to change in individual situations (bridge assumptions). This individual change of situation change individual behaviour (behavioural theory). Collectively, this leads to a new social outcome at the macro-level (transformation rules).
Five important aspects of theory building
(1) Be precise. Make things less ambiguous, like definitions, but also language in general. Make it precise, formalization helps to be precise.
(2) Avoid black boxes. Many arguments are related, but how exactly it works is unknown. Thinking about plausible mechanisms often open black boxes.
Try to open up what you want to open up, but at a certain point it is the end of the discipline.
(3) Include micro level. Way to open the black box: to find mechanisms how things work. Make sure to start thinking about what individuals do (from a to b, and understanding b).
(4) Model the micro-macro link. The transformation rule is often ignored. This is about the relationship between individual effects and collective effects: how behaviour of individuals influences each other’s behaviour.
How does the individual choice affect the minds of other people?
(5) Search for the appropriate micro-model. Behavioural theory: as simple as possible, as complex as necessary. Rationality assumptions at micro-level, abstract a little bit.