Tuesday, August 9, 2011

Take Andrew Abbott's "Taxi driver test"

This is the first of several posts based on Andrew Abbott's (2004) book, Methods of Discovery. This is one of the best books I've read on the social sciences: how arguments work, what are the major debates, how can they be combined or exploited, where do good ideas come from, etc. It is intended as a manual for students, undergraduate and graduate, but I found it fascinating, exciting, and informative. Any archaeology student who is interested in social-science kinds of issues will learn much from this book.

So, here is the "taxi driver test":

If you are on your way somewhere to present your idea and you cannot in five minutes explain what you are talking about well enough so that your taxi driver or the person in the adjacent aircraft seat can understand it and see why it’s interesting, you don’t really understand your idea yet. You aren’t ready to present it. This holds no matter how complex your idea is. If you can’t state it in everyday terms for an average person with no special interest in it, you don’t understand it yet. Even for those working in the most abstruse formalisms, this is the absolute test of understanding.”

Think about it. Can you explain YOUR research, including its importance and why it is interesting, to the taxi driver? I would like to think that I can do this, but in reality I think that I would be more successful with some of my ideas and less successful with others. This feature reminds me of some of the work of sociologist Robert Sampson. Sampson, who holds an endowed chair at Harvard and is a member of the National Academy of Sciences,  is a very productive and influential sociologist who works on modern U.S. urban neighborhoods, crime, poverty, and their interrelations. We had him out to ASU as a consultant and speaker on our urban neighborhoods project. Out of many things that I find important in Sampson's work, one of his most impressive attributes is the way he explains and organizes knowledge about his basic research. He identifies three basic ideas, shows why they are important, what we need to know, and how his research contributes to each theme.

Briefly, Sampson's three themes are:
  1. Things go together. That is, a variety of typically negative social patterns have strong spatial and causal clustering. These include poverty, crime, racial segregation, and neighborhood deterioration.
  2. Durability and poverty traps. Neighborhood differences in poverty, crime, etc, are remarkably stable and persistent over time, reinforced by violence and disorder.
  3. Structural intervention. It is exceedingly difficult to fix these urban problems (and they certainly are not going to go away by themselves). Structural intervention is needed in the form of specifically targeted programs and actions.
These three ideas provide the structure for a very clear and fascinating paper summarizing much of Sampson's research (Sampson 2009). When he gave a public lecture at ASU, he used these 3 themes to organize the talk, and as a result it was a model of clarity for a diverse audience (professors to undergrads, many discplines). I'm sure that if the taxi driver asked Rob Sampson about his research, he could rattle off these 3 ideas and pass Andrew Abbott's test with flying colors. Ever since hearing his lecture, I have been mulling over this device, trying to find three (or 2 or 4) basic ideas that tie together my own research. I am still mulling......

Anyway, back to Andrew Abbott. Don't just take my word about how great this book is. Check out what Randall Collins (one of the premier social scientists today) has to say in a review. This taxi driver test is just one minor point in the book; I will probably have later posts on Abbott's list of major social science debates, his discussion of the five fundamental social science methods, and perhaps some of his cracks about high-level social theory (e.g., "the vast majority of social theory consists of relabeling", p.218).

Go buy this book and read it. It is better than any archaeological book on social methods or theory, although I doubt the "social archaeology" crowd will agree with me here. Actually, reading Abbott has helped clarify my disagreements with that approach. Compared with postmodern or social archaeology, I happen to line up on the opposite side of about half of his major social science debates. Stay tuned.....

Abbott, Andrew
2004    Methods of Discovery: Heuristics for the Social Sciences. Norton, New York.

Sampson, Robert J.
2009    Racial Stratification and the Durable Tangle of Neighborhood Inequality. Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science 621:260-280.


Mark Collard said...

Okay, you've got me intrigued. I'm going to order a copy.

Chris said...

This was a good post to read as I just went through my first experience meeting with school deans, chairs, provost, and prez (as well as a ton of new faculty who aren't all that interested in anything other than how to be a new prof and get tenure). Harder than one thinks. One of my former profs used to call the taxi driver test the cocktail hour spiel.