Monthly Archives: November 2016

The evolution of a citation network

Building off my initial work to understand the academic citation network for noncommunicable diseases and global health, I started to wonder: how has this academic knowledge network changed structurally over time? Were the papers that were published earliest in the network the ones that remained dominant in terms of citations? What disciplines / areas of scholarship do the dominant papers tend to come from?

So, I decided to run the same analysis I did for the last post for for the cumulative citation network for each year from 1994 through 2016.










































































A couple of interesting observations:

  1. As was clear in my previous post, there seems to be an important inflection point around 1997. The plot of number of average citations over time and the number of articles published each year shows that the number of articles published each year and the average number of citations per article lines cross each other around then. Also in the network plots, we see that the network, for the first time, expands beyond the initial core of about 5 or 6 papers to a new domain of papers previously outside of the network. A question: what are those papers? What causes the change in the average number of citations and causes the rapid increase in the number of papers published annually?
  2. It appears (though I still need to test this statistically) that the core group of papers that originally made up the center of the network, remain centrally located and develop a primarily core-periphery structure to this citation network. Is this true? Are the papers that are most important early in the network still important later on in the late 2010’s?
  3. I wonder what the “framing” of these papers are? Do they tend towards the dominant 4×4 framing that the WHO has stuck by, despite the fact that it probably misses much of the NCD experience of most of the very poor people around the world?

There is much more to be done, but it’s cool to see these methods yielding an interesting story, and perhaps explanation to why we see NCDs of the poorest continually marginalized in the global health policy debates.

Why we are unionizing at Boston University

bu-grad-students-unionHere’s some exciting, positive news: colleagues at BU and I are launching a campaign to unionize graduate student workers at Boston University with the Service Employees International Union (SEIU)!

This August, the National Labor Relations Board authorized “student workers” (basically everyone from graduate students to teaching and research assistants) the right to collective bargaining and unionization. Although the implications of unionization efforts by graduate students is yet unknown, many graduate students are taking up the cause at universities across the country. So far, I believe, only NYU has actually “won” their union and have negotiated a contract with their university administration. But, there are at least 23 other universities that are also launching campaigns to unionize their graduate student workers as well including Brandeis University, Brown University, Columbia University, Pennsylvania State University, Tufts University, University of Chicago, University of Virginia, and Yale University.

Here is our open letter about forming the union at BU:


I see this as an incredibly important opportunity for a few reasons. First, as I’m beginning to learn firsthand, academic labor is precarious. There is next to zero job security (unless you are able to land a coveted tenure-track job) and the compensation for graduate student employees (who provide the vast majority of teaching labor at a university like BU where tuition can top $50,000 per year) comes to be less than minimum wage (about $22,000 per year). Because we as graduate student teachers and research assistants do provide the academic labor backbone for most universities, we should be able to engage in collective negotiations with our administration. We must be able to work together to demand fairer compensation, health insurance, and other forms of support to make this vocation and commitment to academic life more manageable, especially for those who do not have pre-existing financial means. Collective action is necessary to advance fairness and justice for academic laborers across the U.S.

Second, collective action and unions will be desperately needed to combat the oncoming tidal wave of Trumpism. Action such as the fight for $15 amongst fast food workers and other efforts to advance worker rights are going to be under attack from what is certain to be a kleptocratic regime that will attempt to crush workers rights. Graduate student unions have the potential to be a useful source of ally power. We will have unique sets of resources, relationships, access, etc to bring to bear in working with people struggling for basic social and economic rights.

Finally, as academics, many of us will work in public policy, government, think tanks, non profits, etc. Having a generation of academics, thinkers, policy makers, and NGO leaders with deep experience in collective action, organizing, and unions potentially could bode well for the labor movement in the future. If more people have a personal experience with unions, see the value of this type of collective action, we could imagine a comeback for unions. But, this is also the big danger: it’s reasonable to think that Trump will be hell bent to crushing collective labor. He’s had a long history of harming his own employees workers’ rights. In fact, unions are already bracing for policy shifts.

So, now is the time to act. We’ve got to move quickly at BU and I hope that other schools can make big gains in organizing and unionizing in the coming months. The future of collective bargaining, and social justice for workers across industries and fields, may be at stake.

Citation network analysis and the social production of knowledge

I’m currently enrolled in a social network analysis (SNA) class at BU, and its proving both extremely difficult and very interesting. My primary interest in learning this method and corresponding theories is to, someday, look at the network of global health delivery NGOs and try to map the field of action in a way that could provide some structural explanation of NGO policy, structure, and action.

For now though, I’m working on a project to understand the citation network of academic / scientific papers written about global noncommunicable diseases. This builds off of my previous work with the Lancet Commission on Reframing NCDIs Amongst the Poorest Billion. Specifically, I’m hoping to explore the network of citation connections across different domains of knowledge production and look at which forms, framings, and issues tend to dominate.

I was able to scrape the Web of Science of all papers that had a topic that included one of the noncommunicable diseases (list generated from those included by the IHME) and also included the term “global health”. The search generated 9,809 total articles. I used the the CRAN bibiometrics R script to turn this data set into a sociomatrix and plotted it. Here is the result:


Basically, each node / vertex is a paper and the size of the node is proportional to the number of times it has been cited by another paper in this network.

The top ten cited papers are:

AARONSON NK, 1993, J NATL CANCER I, V85, P365, DOI 10.1093/JNCI/85.5.365
WARE JE, 1992, MED CARE, V30, P473, DOI 10.1097/00005650-199206000-00002
Citations: 351
Citations: 321
Citations: 221
FRIES JF, 1980, ARTHRITIS RHEUM, V23, P137, DOI 10.1002/ART.1780230202
Citations: 204
MURRAY CJL, 2012, LANCET, V380, P2197, DOI 10.1016/S0140-6736(12)61689-4
Citations: 201
LOZANO R, 2012, LANCET, V380, P2095, DOI 10.1016/S0140-6736(12)61728-0
Citations: 192
Citations: 179
MURRAY CJL, 1997, LANCET, V349, P1498, DOI 10.1016/S0140-6736(96)07492-2
Citations: 170
LIM SS, 2012, LANCET, V380, P2224, DOI 10.1016/S0140-6736(12)61766-8
Citations: 157

I was really happy that I was able to make it work and it looks pretty cool in my opinion! But, unfortunately, it doesn’t really tell us much about the true structure of the network. I’ll have to do much more analysis. I’m going to try to do block modeling and perhaps exponential random graph models (ERGM) to see what stands out about this network.

Here are some plots that I was able to easily make with the CRAN package:





Some quick takeaways? Chris Murray is dominant, especially in the modern literature on global NCDs. Similarly, the US is dominant in terms of production of these papers. Finally there has been a stable increase in the number of papers published annually, after a burst in citation of some subset of papers in the network around 1993. It will be interesting to see what those papers are and what might have triggered this sudden citation boom and the subsequent growth in the volume of literature. It will also be very interesting to see in what domain these papers fall (clinical, basic science, social sciences, engineering, etc) and see if we can develop some measure of their “framing” of global NCDs.

Postcolonial thought: the emancipation of social theory?

postcolonial-thought-and-social-theorySome thoughts on: Go, Julian. Postcolonial Thought and Social Theory. New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 2016.

From the beginning, sociology has stylized itself as an emancipatory (or at least, progressive) social science (Burawoy, 2005). What then are we to do with the fact that the roots of sociological thought are built from ideas emanating from (if not outwardly praising) imperialism, colonialism, and domination of much of the world? This is the central question that Prof. Julian Go tries to tackle. He seeks to explore how this imperial context more precisely shaped the content of sociology and social theory— and whether it still does today. Does social theory bear the imprint of its imperial origins? Has social theory extricated itself from this earlier imperial entanglement?

This is a historical and theoretical challenge. Prof. Go spends the better part of the book tracing the classical social theory that underpins modern sociology as well as the countervailing postcolonial thought that emerged in the wake of decolonialization efforts throughout Asia and Africa. This historically grounded analysis of the actors and forces shaping social theory and postcolonial thought is based in conflict and division. Postcolonial thinking emerged as a result of the cultural and epistemological roots of social theory, and in opposition to it. Sociology largely accepts the notion that ideas are shaped by the social environments in which they are formed (Berger & Luckmann, 1966). For this reason, it is not hard to understand why the ways of knowing articulated via social theory and postcolonial thought are so radically different.

For Go, social theory is rooted in an ontology and has developed an epistemological approach that made imperialism understandable and justified. Auguste Comte first used the term “sociology” in 1839 to characterize “the social” distinct from political, economic, and religious realms. In practice though, it was a way of creating a new technical domain of elite social scientific researcher. Privileged classes have been able to use the technical understanding produced through sociology to manage threats to social order from below their ranks. Its foundational concepts were developed during the Enlightenment and rested on three central concepts: humanism, that there is a universal human nature that can be improved based on Reason; universalism, that the world is made up of basic unalterable truths that can be understood independent of space and time; and positivism, the reliance on scientific method as the best approach for understanding the world in general.

This is contrasted with postcolonial thought, which is fundamentally anti-imperial and grew out of English and literature departments at the beginning of the 1980s. Writers such as Edward Said, Gayatri Spivak, and Homi Bhabha; historians including Ranajit Guha or Dipesh Chakrabarty; and anti-colonial theorists Frantz Fanon, Aimé Césaire, Amilcar Cabral, W. E. B. Du Bois, and C. L. R. James were central to these efforts. These writers, and others, sought to articulate a worldview and cultural analysis that rejected the humanist/positivist way of knowing the world. As Go says, “Fanon saw in European humanism little else than a bourgeois narcissism projected onto the entire world— a world teeming, in the view of the Enlightenment, with ignorant hordes awaiting the salvation of European colonialism.” Because of the cultural and epistemological hold that social theory has had in the academy and society at large, postcolonial thought has been relegated to the humanities and literature departments. In fact, popular culture has, at times, paid more attention to postcolonial thinking and literature than has social science. Go writes that, “The New York Times has referred to Homi Bhabha more times than the American Sociological Review.” This enabled these thinkers, however, to direct their critiques to more than simple political domination and economic exploitation—it opened them to possibilities of emancipatory futures.

Is there an opportunity for reconciliation between these two modes of knowing? Or, does social theory need to be repealed and replaced? For Go, the opportunity comes from one other central concept of modern social theory: the notion that we must be reflexive about what we know and that our conceptions of reality are fundamentally socially constructed (Bourdieu & Wacquant, 1992). For this reason, we should be critical of the social, historical roots and political usage of social theory in modernity. If all knowledge is necessarily constructed in a situated time and place by embedded actors with concrete interests and concerns, the antagonistic nature of social theory/postcolonial thought is understandable given their roots within the dominant/dominated.

Go offers a compelling turn in search of reconciliation. By seeing the threads of social theory and postcolonial thinking as bifurcated, we necessarily occlude the nature of empire and the empirical project of understanding history and modernity. A true postcolonial social theory will need to be not solely an empirical project but also an epistemological one. It must be about “finding ways of knowing and thinking that escape the strictures of the imperial episteme.” His solution is relational sociology. Relationalism gives social theory a way of understanding the world in flux and can overcome social science’s tendency toward “analytic bifurcation, which in turn has perpetuated social theory’s persistent Orientalism, its occlusion of empire, and the repression of colonized agency from its accounts.” Field theory and actor network theory are good starting points for this new analytic and theoretic project. Subaltern ways of thinking and “southern theory” rooted in the ontologies and perspectives of people coming from marginalized positions is key.

In summary, Go’s Postcolonial Thought and Social Theory reads as a good review of the roots of two ways of knowing the world: legitimated social theory coming from elite oppressors and marginalized postcolonial thought rooted in an ontology of the “wretched of the earth.” While this book does an excellent job tracing and summarizing the core themes and history linking these two literatures, I wonder what is truly novel about this synthesis? Postcolonial relationalism linked with a subaltern standpoint seems like an important way of dissolving unnecessary bifurcations and occlusions in ways that can allow new insights into social realities, especially of the dominated. Yet, after having read the book, I am still left with the question of how, exactly, postcolonial thinking will be able to emancipate social theory from its problematic history and ontological roots.

Bourdieu, P., & Wacquant, L. J. (1992). An invitation to reflexive sociology. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Berger, P. L., & Luckmann, T. (1966). The social construction of reality: A treatise in the sociology of knowledge. Garden City, NY: Doubleday.

Burawoy, M. (2005). For Public Sociology 2004 Presidential Address. American Sociological Review70(February), 4–28.

My, our arrogance

Unbelievable. I can’t believe that Donald J. Trump will be the chief executive of the most powerful country in the world. My country. Our country. A nation ostensibly based on the rule of law, human rights, justice, equality will be led by someone with no interest in those values. And, with a Congress squarely in the hands of a Republican party that has a center of gravity based in white-nationalism, the potential for harm is terrifying.

Rereading my post from yesterday afternoon is painful. What arrogance!

The extent to which this arrogance was shared across the media, elites, academics — basically everyone in my entire life — is profound. We all got it wrong. The disconnect of framing / narrative / cultural understanding of what this means for the country between Trump supporters and Clinton supporters is so deep. How will we reconcile? What do I do?

Sitting in graduate school at a major university in Boston reading social theory is starting to feel less and less relevant in the world we currently inhabit.

A sociological treatment of Trump


I’m actually surprised to say that I am looking forward to watching the polls come in tonight, finally concluding this brutal and depressing presidential election season. It’s partially because I’m looking forward to drinking and eating with good friends and because I believe that Hillary Clinton is going to with the election (Nate Silver, as of 1:12pm ET today, has her at 71%). But also, it’s because I am fascinated and slightly terrified about what’s going to come next. How will Trump respond to a resounding electoral rebuke of his racist, sexist, demagogic campaign?

Trump is a uniquely terrible, but his popularity and rise to significant power is a fundamentally sociological phenomenon. My guess is that there will be many academic attempts (not just journalist long-form pieces) to try understand the rise of Trump coming from history, sociology, political science, and psychology.

I recently stumbled upon a piece by Arlie Hochschild, “The Ecstatic Edge of Politics: Sociology and Donald Trump” that I thought was enlightening. Hochschild is also the author of the recent book, “Strangers in their Own Land: Anger and Mourning in the American Right”, which is an ethnographic account of the political understanding, culture, and emotional meaning making of Tea Party supporters in the American South. She is well placed to create a sociological take on the rise of Tumpism. 

She says that thinking on Trump to date is insufficient to truly account for his rise and to explain his supporters’ praise. She shows the utility of Hofstadter’s view of paranoia as a source of charismatic leadership, Skocpol and Williams’ institutional approach to understanding the organizational rise of the Tea Party movement, and Lakoff’s politics as metaphor in understanding components of Trump’s rise. But alone, they are still insufficient to understand this phenomenon. Additionally, we need to understand the “deep story” that unites the shared cultural understanding of Trump supporters across the country.

For her, a “deep story” is “a metaphor-based narrative, the details of which corresponded to the emotions experienced by my informants. A deep story is a feels-as-if story—stripped of facts and moral judgment.” A story that the Trump supporters / the far right seem to share:

You are standing in a long line leading up a hill, as in a pilgrimage, patient but weary. You are in the middle of this line, along with others who are also white, older, Christian, native-born, and predominantly male, some with college degrees, some not. At the crest of the hill is the American Dream, the goal of everyone waiting in line, a standard of living higher than that your parents enjoyed. Many behind you in line are people of color—poor, young and old, mainly without college degrees. You wish them well, but your attention is trained on those ahead of you. And now you notice the line isn’t moving. In fact, is it moving backward?

You’ve suffered. You’ve had marriage prob- lems, and you are helping out a troubled sibling and an ill co-worker. Your church has seen you through hard times. You’ve shown strong character, and the American Dream is a badge of moral honor, as you see it, for that.

But look! Some people are coming from behind and cutting in line ahead of you! As they cut in, you are being moved back. How can they just do that? You’re follow- ing the rules. They aren’t. Who are they? They are black. They are brown. They are career-driven women, helped by Affirmative Action programs.

The liberal government wants you to believe they have a right to cut ahead. You’ve heard stories of oppressed blacks, dominated women, weary immigrants, closeted gays, desperate Syrian refugees. But at some point, you say to yourself, we have to build a wall against more sympathy. You feel like a refugee yourself.

You’re a compassionate person. But now you’ve been asked to extend your sympathy to all the people who have cut in line ahead of you. And who’s supervising the line? It’s a black man whose middle name is Hussein.

He’s waving the line cutters on. He’s on their side. He’s their president, not yours. What’s more, all the many things the federal government does to help them don’t help you. Should the government really help anyone? Beyond that, from ahead in line, you hear people calling you insulting names: ‘‘Crazy redneck!’’ ‘‘White trash!’’ ‘‘Ignorant southern Bible-thumper!’’ You don’t recognize yourself in how others see you. You are a stranger in your own land. Who recognizes this?

This feels right to me. Trump’s rise isn’t just about sexism, economics failings, or pure racial resentment — though of course all of these are present. Its really about a narrative / meaning making process that is rooted in shared experiences and built upon a particular understanding of a violated sense of fairness. Trump is unique in the fact that he has found a way, better than anyone else to date, to validate and channel this narrative.

Now, what political action and response is needed? Probably one rooted in trying to listen and understand the pain and struggles of real people. As Hochschild concluded, “Whether Donald Trump rises or falls, we need sociology to take up the task of analyzing the rise of the right. And we need our government and society at large to address all the ways millions of American have been—in real life—left behind.”

On the wagon, off the wagon

It turns out that I’m not very good at blogging. Its been months since my last post… more than seven to be exact. Shit.

Well, a lot has happened over these seven months:

  • My work with the Lancet Commission on Reframing NCDs and Injuries Amongst the Poorest Billion has resulted in some very interesting data and initial findings on how global health practitioners, senior scholars, and the American public frame noncommunicable diseases amongst the poorest people globally. Lots to dig into: we have survey data from nearly 900 respondents, 45 interviews that have been transcribed and initially coded, and data from a public opinion poll as well. I’m hoping to be able to try to write up some of these findings this summer and in the mean time, I may try to post some of my ideas here too over the coming weeks / months.14516472_696939647126689_8417982573106424996_n
  • I had a chance to travel to Rwanda to present my work with the NCDI Poverty Commission, and here are the slides. It was amazing to visit a country that I’ve read so much about and to have the chance to finally visit the PIH’s Butaro Hospital.
  • I started grad school at Boston University! It turns out being a grad student is both really hard and also very fun. Its liberating to have time and energy to focus on thinking about concepts, to read more deeply, to try to write more. I also am looking forward to getting started working on shaping my dissertation research. Right now, my classes are: classical social theory, sociological methods, social network analysis, and quantitative methods.

So now, maybe actually now, I will be able to keep up with some serious blogging about the work that I’m engaging in, the ideas I’m encountering, and can use this as a space to further this critical dialogue. We shall see.