Unique Week

February 20, 2008
Posted by Jay Livingston

I guess social scientists have a preference for generalization, for relationships among variables that travel well, that obtain in several settings. We’re puzzled by the unique. So I was struck by two blog posts this week.

Chris Uggen cites a column in Runner’s World magazine to the effect that when you take up long-distance running, your times improve steadily for the first seven to ten years; after that, it’s all downhill. Or is it uphill? Whatever, your times get slower. But – and here’s the interesting part– the curve applies no matter how old you are when you start. The forty-year-old who started running at age twenty is long past his peak, while the sexagenarian who started at fifty is in his prime.

Chris, who himself runs respectable marathons, speculates that this age-invariant pattern may be unique to running. (Well, not quite. He implies that the curve of frequency of sex in a relationship may also be age-invariant.)

Meanwhile, over at The Monkey Cage, Jennifer Hochschild has an interesting finding on skin tone among African Americans and Hispanics. It’s a variable that correlates with just about everything social, economic, and psychological But Jennifer is a political scientist, and she was interested in political correlates. And she couldn’t find them. She held the data upside-down and shook it vigorously, threatening worse if it didn’t give her what she wanted, all to no avail. “Perceptions of discrimination against oneself or one’s racial or ethnic group, strength of group identification, partisanship or ideology, organizational membership”– nothing correlated.

“We finally realized that it was the very lack of pattern that was the interesting finding.”

Her finding of no finding didn’t just violate the academic preference for pattern. It was also politically incorrect – so much so that one audience member at a conference called it “bullshit research.” Not nice, but it’s refreshing to know that academic conferences have hecklers. It makes us seem a shade less stodgy.

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