East Asia themed sessions at the SSHA 2012

There are three sessions focused on East Asia at SSHA this November organized under the auspices of the Family/Demography network.  There is a fourth session organized under the auspices of the Macro-historical Dynamics. I have listed them below as a convenience for anyone looking for sessions focused on East Asia.

I am just listing the ones I helped organize, or am otherwise aware.  I didn’t comb through the program to look through other sessions.

The presence of four sessions devoted to East Asia reflects how new sources and new methods have energized the study of the social science history of that region.  Databases constructed from historical household registers and genealogies allow for ambitious new studies of population and family history.  In China, newly-accessible archival sources, primarily qualitative, allow for the study of questions of longstanding interest in other societies.

Family and Life Course in East Asia

A7 Thursday, 8:00 – 10:00am Chairman


Chair: Hyunjoon Park, University of Pennsylvania (Sociology)

Adoption, Family Succession, and Demographic Behaviors in the Pre-industrial Korea
Byung-giu Son, Sungkyunkwan University (East Asian Studies)
Sangkuk Lee, Ajou University (History)

Adoption and Uxorilocal Marriage in Northeastern Tokugawa Villages
Satomi Kurosu, Reitaku University (Foreign Studies)

Uxorilocal marriage in three peasant communities in Northwestern Taiwan, 1906-1945
Wen-shan Yang, Academia Sinica (Sociology)
Meng-zhu Zhang, National Central University, Taiwan (Humanities)
Shih-Hsiu Chen, Academia Sinica, Taiwan (Sociology)

Migration, Population Change and the Life Course in Late Tokugawa Kyoto, 1842-1869
Mary Louise Nagata, Francis Marion University / EHESS (History / CRH)
Kiyoshi Hamano, Kansai University (Economics)

Discussant: Wiebke Schulz, Utrecht University (Sociology)

Stratification and Inequality in East Asia

J4 Friday, 4:30 – 6:30pm Coquitlam


Chair: Satomi Kurosu, Reitaku University (Foreign Studies)

Long-Term Trends in Intergenerational Status Mobility in Jeju, Korea: 1765-1894
Hyunjoon Park, University of Pennsylvania (Sociology)
Kuentae Kim, Seoul National University (Korean History)

The Social Status Change of Korean Women and the Change of Their Titles in 17th – 19th Centuries
Naehyun Kwon, Korea University (History Education)
Cha Jaeeun, Kyonggi University (History)

Upward Mobility of Status in 19th Century Korea: Analysis of the Seosang- myŏn Household Registers
Youjin Lee, Seoul National University (Korean History)

Social Determinants of Descent Line Growth and Extinction in Historical China
Xi Song, University of California, Los Angeles (Sociology)
Cameron Campbell, University of California, Los Angeles (Sociology)
James Lee, Hong Kong University of Science and Technology (Humanities and Social Science)

Discussant: Joseph Ferrie, Northwestern University (Economics)

Migration in East Asia

 L7 Saturday, 10:15am – 12:15pm CapilanoFAMILY/DEMOGRAPHY

Chair: Sangkuk Lee, Ajou University (History)

Social Class and Migration in Two Northeast Japanese Villages, 1716-1870
Norkio Tsuya, Keio University, Tokyo (Economics)
Satomi Kurosu, Reitaku University (The Collge of Foreign Studies)

Age patterns of Migration among Korean Adults in the Early 20th Century
Bongoh Kye, Cornell University (Cornell Population Center)
Heejin Park, Kyungpook National University (Economics)

Similarities and Differences: A Comparison on Migration Behaviors of Chinese and Korean Historical Populations in 18th and 19th century
Hao Dong, Hong Kong University of Science and Technology (Social Sciences)
James Lee, Hong Kong University of Science and Technology (Humanities and Social Science)
Cameron Campbell, University of California, Los Angeles (Sociology)

To Move or Not To Move: Seasonal Migration in a Taiwanese Fishing Village, 1895-1945
Hsieh Ying-hui, Tzu-chi University (Human Development)
Wen-shan Yang, Academia Sinica (Sociology)
Ying-chang Chuang, National Chiao Tung University (Anthropology)
Discussant: Martin Dribe, Lund University (Economic History)

State Categories and Their Social Consequences in Chinese History
N4 Saturday, 3:15 – 5:15pm Thompson 

Chair: James Lee, Hong Kong University of Science and Technology (Humanities and Social Science)

State Categories and Durable Inequality: Wealth Stratification in Northeast China, 1815-1913
Shuang Chen, University of Iowa (History)

Staying in Touch: State Recording and State Making in Northeast China, 1900-1949
Matthew Noellert, Hong Kong University of Science and Technology (Humanities)

The Formation of the “Urban” and “Rural” Categories in the People’s Republic of China in the 1950s
Jie Deng, Queen’s University (History)

Imagined Boundaries: Ethnic Boundary-Making and State-Building
Byungho Lee, University of Michigan (Sociology)

Discussant: Andreas Wimmer, University of California, Los Angeles (Sociology)

Relocated my blog

I relocated my blog from Google’s Blogger to WordPress.  The transition was pretty smooth.  However, I didn’t see an easy way to have WordPress Permalinks for blog entries match the ones at Blogger.  Blogger caps URL length, thus truncates the title of the blog entry in the URL if it is too long.  Wordpress doesn’t, so the URL includes the entire title of the blog entry.  This means that links to specific posts are now broken.  If you arrived here by following a link to a specific post, you can probably find it by entering some of the words from the URL into the search box.

I relocated my blog to ensure that it was accessible in China.  In China, access to my Blogger hosted blog was erratic.  Some people could access it in its entirety, some couldn’t access it at all, and some people could access it, but the posts were broken up and missing content.  I decided to relocate it to a hosted website at GoDaddy that has its own unique and stable IP address.

At the same time, I also moved over my personal website.  Previously I had it hosted at Google Sites.  It was inaccessible, or only occasionally accessible, in China.  Now it is also at my GoDaddy hosted site.  In case anyone it is interested, I am using Joomla.  So far I like Jooma.

How much do we learn about public opinion in China from Weibo posts?

It seems like every piece of reporting on China these days cites as evidence of the import of some event some kind of reference to a particular Weibo post, usually one that included a photo or video of an incident, and then a count of how many times it was forwarded or commented on.  And for evidence on the public reaction to said event, it now seems de rigeur to translate observations and comments made by Weibo users.

As much as I like finding out what is on Weibo, I can’t help wonder whether we really learn much about public opinion from counts of the number of times a post was forwarded, or translations of comments made by occasional users.

I’ve been thinking about this for the last couple years as I have spent more time in China, and had more opportunity to talk to people who aren’t academics.  People certainly have lots of concerns, and strong general opinions about issues like pollution, food safety, corruption, and so forth, but what I find striking is the disconnect between the level of intensity of reactions to specific events suggested by reliance on evidence from Weibo and other social media sources, and what I see in day to day conversation.  Whereas over the last few years we have had one incident after another presented to us as transfixing the Chinese public and having tremendous import and significance, always with Weibo or social media traffic as evidence, in my own experience people are aware of these incidents, and may even be somewhat interested, but don’t seem to obsess about any one them the way that studying social media traffic would suggest.

One issue is whether Weibo users who post on current events are representative of China’s population, or even Weibo users overall.  From Weibo traffic, I suppose we learn something about the opinions of Weibo users who are active and who like to post about current events, but I don’t know if they are any more representative of the population at large in China than the people who comment anonymously on news articles at the New York Times are representative of the U.S. population.

Weibo users may be better off, or at least better educated, than China’s population.  I actually wonder if that gives the appearance of more bifurcation in the population than there actually is.  In my experience in China, my experience is that the better off or at least better educated articulate more views on most subjects that are more extreme in one direction or another than the people I run into who are not doing as well.  Perhaps the fact that they are doing well and in some extreme cases completely disconnected from the realities of day to day life allows them more opportunity to think abstractly and see the world in black and white.  Such abstraction isn’t unique to China, of course.  Here in the United States, my own observation is that the people who tend to spout the nuttiest and unrealistic political views, whether on the  left or right, tend to be people whose situation insulates from contact with people who think differently form themselves, and presents the fewest challenges to a neat and tidy view of the world as a Manichean struggle between the forces of dark and light.

Weibo users who post on current events may not be representative of Weibo users overall.  They may be braver, more engaged, or simply more rash and foolhardy, than most Weibo users.  Of the Weibo posts I see, the overwhelming majority seem to cover the same territory as Facebook status updates: complaints about how busy or tiring their day was, reposts of quotes, links to odd bits of news, commentaries on celebrities, cars and gadgets, and of course, pictures of cats, flowers, sunsets, people at tourist sites smiling and flashing V signs, and so forth.  The people who routinely post on serious subjects seem to be a distinct minority.

A specific concern I have about counts of Weibo reposts as evidence of the attention paid to an event is the lack of a basis for comparison.  When I see a statement that a post about some misbehaving official was reposted 500 times, I don’t know if 500 is a lot, or a few.  Recitation of counts of the number of times a post was reposted are almost never accompanied by any background on how many posts each day are forwarded even more times.  Nothing I have posted on Weibo, has ever been posted more than a few times, so at first glance 500 seems like a lot to me, but then again I don’t have many followers, and most of what I post is mind-numbingly boring.  If pictures of unusually fat, fluffy cats sprawled on their backs are routinely forwarded 50,000 times, then 500 seems like a very small number for something that is being presented as being of social significance.  One of these days, I’d actually like to see a distribution of counts of reposts that would tell me if 500, 5000 or even 50,000 is really an unusually large number of reposts.  Maybe such a tabulation exists somewhere, but I haven’t seen it yet.

I find the presentation of translations of posts by specific users as evidence even more questionable.  I don’t know what the views of a single user tell us, even if whatever they say is presented as being ‘typical’ of Weibo users.  I certainly wouldn’t rely on comments on articles at the New York Times or Washington Post as evidence about public opinion in the United States, unless I thought the United States was made up of ungrammatical, tin-foil hat wearing nuts who have their CAP LOCK key glued down.

Where does this leave me?  I actually do enjoy following Weibo, and I like hearing about what happens to be trending there.  The counts of reposts are interesting, and I like to see examples of what people are posting.  But I am wary of inferring much about Chinese society in general from Weibo or other social media.

I guess I wish we applied the same level of skepticism to interpreting trends on Weibo that we apply to trends on Twitter, Google+ Facebook.  It certainly is fun to see what is trending in social media, and always entertaining to see clever posts that individuals have come up with, but I don’t think we learn much that is deep or profound about the United States from whatever happens to be a popular topic of discussion on social media.  Media here generally don’t bother summarizing trends in Twitter or Facebook traffic when they’re reporting on public reaction to major events.  If they do, they present the results as more of a curiosity than anything else.

I’m not suggesting that Weibo and social media be ignored.  They’re fun and interesting.  And given the difficulties of reporting in China, and the probable impossibility of carrying out surveys on reactions to sensitive subjects, it is certainly true that there aren’t many alternatives for gauging public opinion.  But I’d like to see presentations of evidence from Weibo or other social media accompanied by some caveats about possible problems with representativeness.

Hurray for the ENCODE project

I can’t help but thinking that the results of ENCODE and perhaps the recent analysis of the human biome in the long run will turn out to be much, much more significant than the sequencing of the human genome a few years back, because it will shed light on the processes downstream from the genes themselves like gene regulation that actually lead to disease, and differences between humans more generally. 

I wonder if the following analogy between the body and a computer would be appropriate: the genes that code for proteins are sort of like a microprocessor that provides fundamental capabilities, but the rest of the DNA that control when genes are expressed and also manage RNA, are like the operating system and software on top that actually govern the body’s operations on a day to day basis, and are responsible when things go badly wrong. I wish ENCODE and the biome sequencing had received as much attention as the original sequencing of the geno

me. Perhaps the leaders of ENCODE and the biome analysis are simply not as flamboyant as the key personalities in the sequencing of the genome.

I also can’t help but wonder if as evidence on gene regulation, RNA activity, the biome, and other processes downstream from genes piles up, it may finally drive a nail in the coffin of the naively reductionist genetic determinism that was so popular a decade or two ago in the run-up to the sequencing of the human genome. Since the completion of the sequencing, it seems like the mutations that have been located that have clinical significance either tend to be very low frequency with very strong effects, or in some cases, higher frequency but with relatively weak effects. We certainly haven’t seen the explosion in understanding of complex outcomes like personality, cancer or chronic disease that glib optimists predicted a decade or two ago. I suspect that this is simply because most of what ails us isn’t in the genes that code for proteins, but rather in other sections of DNA that control gene expression and RNA activity, whose activities may be subject to environmental influences.

Here’s the Los Angeles Times article that inspired this meditation

Slides introducing use of STATA to organize and analyze CMGPD-LN data


UPDATE: This post is out of date. The most recent CMGPD-LN Documentation is available at the ICPSR study site: http://www.icpsr.umich.edu/icpsrweb/DSDR/studies/27063. The slides referred to here have been added to the Training Guide available there (2016 October 18).

I have posted the slides from my methodological lectures at the CMGPD short course that I taught in July at Shanghai Jiaotong University.  These slides introduce many of the STATA operations necessary to carry out advanced operations with the data, most importantly using bysort, merge and certain other commands to construct complex household, life course and kinship variables.  The slides also introduce the basic ‘pre-packaged’ outcome variables and the social status variables.  They also provide examples of using STATA to produce descriptive tables and figures using the data.


Please let me know if you have any comments or suggestions.  The slides are in essence a draft of the Training Guide that we will release soon.

Online education and higher education

I recently attended a meeting at which the subject of online education came up.  Indeed, over the past few months, the possible impact of online education on higher education has come up a number of times in conversation.  There seems to be a widespread feeling that as the technology for online education improves, it will have an enormous impact.  As is usually the case with disruptive technologies, no one knows what form that impact will take.

I seem to remember reading predictions in the last few weeks that online education augured the end of the university as we know it.  Somehow, the availability of free online courses available from a small number of elite universities like Stanford and MIT would lead to a collapse in demand for attendance at brick-and-mortar universities.  To some, this is a wonderful prospect.  To others, it is horrifying.

To me, the wild speculation over the implications of online education sounds like the same schizophrenic combination of undue optimism and pessimism that greeted television.  To optimists, television would be a civilizing influence because it would universalize access to lectures, concerts, and plays.  People would no longer need to be well-off residents of a large city to see lectures given by distinguished scholars and statesmen, plays performed by the greatest actors and actresses, and concerts performed by the best musicians.  All of this would be piped into living rooms across the country, drowning the population in endless flood of high culture and elevating the tone of civic discourse.

Of course, we just have to turn on the television to know how misplaced this optimism was.  To put it mildly, television content is diverse in terms of its high-mindedness.  For every educational and uplifting nature show or documentary, there are ten Jersey Shores.  And television has done an especially poor job of presenting reasoned debate on key issues.

To pessimists, especially in the movie studios, television was a threat.  Given the opportunity to stay home and watch in the comfort of their living room, why would families visit the cinema?  Of course, this pessimism turned out to be misplaced.  Cinema not only survived the television, but the video recorder, as well as most other advances in recording formats.

To me, the example of television, and other disruptive advances in technology for interaction and delivery of content, suggests that online education is unlikely to obliterate brick-and-mortar universities.  So I’m not ready to bail out on my teaching career yet.  In general, I don’t think we should be throwing up our hands in panic and running for the exits.

Some might go so far as to claim that universities offer a special and unique experience that can’t be replicated online, and might even argue that no one should even try.   The most absurd claim would be that whatever we do is so mysterious and special that it it can’t be bottled and sold by anyone except our own wonderful selves:  its effects can’t be measured objectively, and there is no way of distilling the process into something that can be replicated by someone else.  Such claims resemble the ones made by long line of disreputable professions that includes alchemists, faith healers, psychics, temple priests, charlatans, quacks, and management consultants.  The common element is an objection to competition, evaluation or external scrutiny on the grounds that they have some kind of special knowledge deriving from their unique personal experience that cannot be quantified or described, replicated, or even understood by others.  I don’t know that anyone has made such extreme claims about the special role of universities and the skills of professors, but I’m sure someone will.

A more plausible claim is that higher education will be hard to move online because it is about branding, and is that what parents and students really seek and are willing to pay for is the diploma from a famous university that allows students to access to jobs at prestigious employers, and allows parents to brag to the members of their social circle.  This may hold for elite institutions.  For certain families, and certain employers, the name of the institution on the diploma is more important than the content of the education provided by the university.  If Harvard or the other Ivies gave diplomas to monkeys, management consulting firms and investment banks would still hire them because they don’t really care what they know or what they can do.  They are more interested in being able to tell a new client that the team of new hires they are dealing with are all Ivy League graduates.

I doubt that branding or credentialing will insulate non-elite institutions from the effects of .  Employers that are more reality-based than management consultancies and investment banks might very well come to the conclusion that someone who performed well in a series of well-designed online courses that taught specific skills needed by the employer is just as qualified as someone who has a diploma from a second- or third-tier school.

Overall, I don’t think complacency on our part would be wise.  Online education may not destroy universities, but it will have powerful effects that universities need to address.  If we stick our heads in the sand and claim that the university experience is so unique and special that nothing could possibly augment or replace it, we’re doomed.  And if we stand in the way and actively seek to block inevitable change through clumsy, ham-handed efforts to take advantage of our current status and limit competition, we’ll be run over, much like the music labels have been run over as the result of their bungled response to the rise of the internet as a medium for distributing content, and studios and cable companies are about to be run over.

Assuming that online education will have powerful, perhaps transformative effects on higher education, but will probably still leave universities standing, what is to be done?

The response of musicians to changes in the music business may be instructive.  As I understand it, revenues from traditional sources such as royalties are declining or disappearing.  The old model in which a band or musician struggled in obscurity until they landed a contract with a label and then made money off of royalties seems to be dead.  Instead, musicians are generating much of their income from other sources where they have a comparative advantage and which involve direct human interaction.  Such activities are by definition almost impossible to replicate online.  The most important of these are ticket and merchandise sales at their live performances.  Obviously this has been a struggle, but it does seem like a new model is evolving.

Higher education needs to evolve in a similar fashion.  We need to transform the higher education experience so that faculty spend most of their time engaged in activities in which they have a comparative advantage, and less of their time in activities where online education is more effective, or at least more efficient.

Faculty have a clear comparative advantage in activities that require substantial and substantive interaction with students: responding to student questions, engaging small groups of well-prepared students in discussion, providing conceptual feedback on written work, and mentoring individual students or groups of students on projects.  The common thread here is that the teaching is high-level, and focused more on training students to think independently and carry out research and less on the transmission of basic facts and concepts.  Conversely, I believe online approaches may eventually turn out to have a comparative advantage in tasks currently served by large lecture courses: communication of basic theories and facts, and explication of basic methods.  It wouldn’t surprise me that almost anything in which mastery can be assessed via a multiple choice or short answer test could be taught online.

I propose we replace adapt a new model that recognizes the potential contributions of online education and the comparative advantage of faculty.  We should replace the current model of teaching introductory material in giant lower division courses and advanced material in smaller upper division classes and seminars with a model in which  basic facts, concepts, theories, and methods currently taught in large lecture courses are taught in modular fashion in online courses common to many or all universities, faculty and teaching assistants focus on seminars and small classes that emphasized projects, open-ended discussion, and other activities that make best use of the opportunity for interaction.  The college experience would change fundamentally from the current one in which students enroll in large and probably alienating lecture courses for two years, then take smaller lecture courses in their last years, to one in which students in all four years combined online learning of the basic concepts now taught in large lecture courses and enrollment in small seminars, labs and courses.   What is probably the least rewarding feature of the college experience for everyone involved, the large lecture course, could become a thing of the past, and students and faculty could spend more of their time interacting directly in a more rewarding and productive fashion.

Introductory science and math classes that focus on method and basic theory would be especially good candidates to be outsourced to online courses shared by multiple universities.  Certain introductory courses in the social sciences, especially economics, might also be good candidates for outsourcing.  The fact that these introductory courses are already taught as enormous lecture courses and look very similar across different universities suggests that they should be amenable to automation and outsourcing.  At some point, for the entire country we might end up with a fairly small number of online introductory science and math courses that vary mainly in terms of intensity and rigor and to which universities could ‘outsource’ at least some of the lower division teaching that is now done in large lectures.

Remaining introductory courses in the social sciences and humanities will likely require a hybrid approach.  Lower division social sciences and humanities courses differ more from one campus to another, and even from one instructor to another.  The major exception, of course, is economics.  It might be that we could never settle on the content of a small number of introductory sociology courses that every university in the county would refer its freshmen to.  While basic exposition of key facts, ideas and concepts might be moved from the lecture hall to the internet, introductory courses might still remain university specific, and taught as hybrids, in which students still gathered in small groups with faculty or teaching assistants to engage in open-ended discussion of readings, or work together on projects.

Colleges could also increase access to experiences that are available now but not yet widespread, and for which an online substitute is inherently unfeasible.  These could include time more spent abroad, either in travel study courses taught by their own faculty, or as an exchange student.  Hopefully this could be integrated with online coursework.  For example, a boring lecture course about Chinese society like the one I teach could be replaced with an experience that begins with an online course that teaches basic facts and introduces important scholarly research, and then concludes with a visit to China and perhaps a short seminar or project there.

More speculatively, perhaps we should revisit the whole notion of the standard academic calendar, in which the year is divided into semesters or quarters, and courses have fixed lengths, and in which the same material is taught in roughly the same week of the course every time it is taught.  Perhaps we will transition to a more flexible system in which basic material that is now taught in well-defined lecture courses of fixed length are instead taught as a series of online modules that students complete at their own pace, and in which students enroll in a series of short seminars or labs organized around very specific topics, or work over long periods of time on individual or collaborative projects mentored by faculty or teaching assistants.

Going even further out on a limb, I wonder if online education could alter the relationship between secondary and tertiary education by increasing the preparation and qualification of applicants.  In an ideal world, more of the material that is now being taught in freshmen year at college would be taught in secondary school.  This is especially the case for basic math and science, which seem to require a great deal of what amounts to remedial teaching in these subjects.  If online education makes it possible to offer more rigorous and advanced teaching to students at high schools that are not currently capable of delivering it, that would certainly be a good thing.  This could be especially important for talented students who are not fortunate enough to attend a school that can offer honors or Advanced Placement courses, or even rigorous instruction in basic subjects.

Overall, I am pretty sure universities will survive online education, but may end up looking very different.  Hopefully they will take advantage of the opportunities offered by online education to offer a much better and more rewarding experience to students.

Apparently I’m a member of the California School (加州学派)

In a fit of narcissism, I was searching for my name in Chinese. I was pleased to find a few recent scholarly pieces in China that list me as a member of the ‘California school’ (加州学派) of economic and social historians who work on China.  I guess if I am to be listed as the member of a faction or school, better to be listed as a member of the California School than a member of the Saskatchewan, Rhode Island, or Wyoming School.  If you’re part of a named school or faction, hopefully it is named after a place that is exotic and evocative.  If you hear ‘California school’, you imagine a band of open-minded, edgy and perhaps hip professors dressed in khaki pants and white linen shirts hashing out their differences down by the beach.

That said, I’m not sure those of us who are so listed would all agree that we have enough in common to be considered a ‘school’ or academic faction.

I guess the idea on the part of those who have lumped us all together into the ‘California school’ is that we are distinguished by pursuing new approaches to the study of Chinese social and economic history, including use of new methods and data, and a perspective that is less beholden to the influence of traditional thinking associated with European or North American scholars.  The origin of the label appears to be that almost everyone involved either teaches at a university in California, or used to.

Oddly almost everyone who disagrees with the various views espoused by members of the ‘California school’ also has some kind of California connection: they either teach somewhere in California, used to teach in California, or earned their degrees.  I guess this speaks to the dominance of California universities in the English-language scholarly literature on the social and economic history of China.  Even if you violently disagree with the ‘California school’, you’re probably still connected to California.  Unfortunately within California, affiliations don’t line up neatly, so we can’t really speak of opposing ‘Northern California’ and ‘Southern California’ schools.

Anyway, here are a few of the academic essays that discuss the ‘California school’, and list me as one of its members…




Social Mobility and Demographic Behaviour: A Long-Term Perspective

The complete collection of papers from the December 2008 IUSSP Scientific Panel on Historical Demography seminar “Social Mobility and Demographic Behaviour: A Long-term Perspective” that Martin Dribe, Jan Van Bavel, and I organized at the UCLA California Center for Population Research (CCPR) is now available as a special collection at Demographic Research: http://www.demographic-research.org/special/10/  The meeting received generous support not only from the IUSSP, but also from a number of UCLA units, including CCPR the International Institute, the Dean of Social Sciences, and the Department of Sociology.  Participating scholars came from Asia, Europe, and the Americas, and represented a variety of disciplines, including sociology, economics, and history.

The papers had already appeared individually as they completed the review and production process, and with the addition of our introduction, the collection is now complete.

These papers all address the interaction of demographic behavior with social mobility.  Most of them apply advanced quantitative techniques to longitudinal historical population databases such as the Historical Sample of the Netherlands, but some used contemporary data.  Specific of the many questions that the papers addressed included changes over time in the influence of family size of origin on socioeconomic attainment, and interactions between social mobility and  assortative mating.  A detailed introduction to the papers is available here: http://www.demographic-research.org/Volumes/Vol26/8/default.htm

A modest proposal for facilitating data-driven choices of college and majorent choice of colleges and majors to be data-driven

I recently came across this article about a study at Georgetown looking at the employment prospects and average incomes associated with various majors.  Here is the page at Georgetown devoted to the study itself.

My own specialty isn’t higher education, but I’ve been thinking about it much more recently for a variety of reasons.  One is my involvement in a study of long term trends in the social class origins of students at elite Chinese universities led by my longtime collaborator James Lee, and which includes a large number of outstanding collaborators, of whom I am but one.  For that study, we have been looking for comparison points internationally.  I have been struck by the fact that with the remarkable exception of the University of California, which offers student data in aggregate form at its Statfinder website, there is very little in the way of systematic and comparable aggregated data on student characteristics and outcomes from institutions of higher education, reflecting what I increasingly see as a troubling and probably deliberate lack of transparency.  More importantly, we have been talking about how to follow up this initial study by looking at outcomes for graduates, inspired by the Harvard and Beyond study.  I should add that my outrageous proposal below for a nationwide data collection system on student characteristics and outcomes is but a pipe dream, and has little to do with anything we are hoping to do in our own studies.  Another reason for my interest is simply a recent uptick in the numbers of conversations with colleagues here and elsewhere about what we can do to improve undergraduate education to make it more engaging and rewarding for students.

The conclusions summarized in the Georgetown study article about the differences between the various majors are pretty much as I would expect.  I haven’t looked at the study in enough detail to comment on its methodology or its data, but I applaud the general idea of collecting and analyzing the data on the socioeconomic outcomes of different majors, and for that matter, different types of colleges.  In this day and age, there is really little excuse for the choice of college and major not to be more data driven.

Right now, too many students fly blind when they choose a college and a major.  They make choices about college based on somewhat relevant criteria like the overall academic reputation of the school, as well as largely irrelevant criteria like the physical appearance of the campus, its geographic location, the success of its sports teams, what they’ve heard from friends, or reviews at various websites.  While the choice of major may be very personal, it may also be based on very limited information that students may have acquired in high school or in their first year in college, and may also reflect undue optimism about the prospects after graduation.

Choosing a college and major based on such limited and sometimes uninformative information reflects the general lack of easily accessible data on the outcomes of students from different colleges and majors.  Studies like the one done at Georgetown are relatively uncommon, and typically have limitations that limit their usefulness for planning.  For example, as comprehensive as the Georgetown study is, its reliance on the American Community Survey precludes comparisons of salaries and employment according to the types of institutions that students attended, or their own academic qualifications.

Other published studies by economists have sought to quantify the rewards associated with different majors after accounting for the prestige of the institution and the qualifications of the students, these are also limited in terms of their usefulness for student planning because they typically don’t identify specific institutions, or specific majors.  Such studies typically rely on data from panel surveys that don’t have enough respondents to drill down to specific combinations of institution and major.  Even if such detail were available, the surveys haven’t been in place long enough to look at earnings and employment over the entire career.  Usually they will only have information on outcomes a few years out of college.

In an ideal world, high school seniors deciding which schools to apply to, or which school to attend, would be able to visit a website that would let them see what employment and earning outcomes were like for students with academic qualifications like theirs who graduated of a specified institution and major.  They would be able to enter their SAT or other standardized test scores, their GPA, perhaps some information about their high school, and the name of prospective institution and major, and see how students who resembled them were doing 1, 5, 10, and 20 years after graduation.

At least in principle, this should be possible by linkage of various administrative databases and creation of a student tracking system similar to the ones that many states or school districts are already putting in place for K-12 education.  The federal government to make use of the power it has as the key source of funds for student grants and loans, and faculty research, to demand that academic institutions that receive federal funds comply with participation in a national tracking system that would follow students from senior year in high school through college and into the labor market.  Compliance would involve providing detailed data on applicants, acceptances, and matriculating students, including their academic qualifications as applicants and their subsequent performance in college.  These data would be collected and held in a secure site such as already exist for various forms of administrative data, and could be linked to administrative data on subsequent earnings of graduates from Social Security or various state agencies.

The resulting linked database would allow for a student contemplating a particular combination of college and major to see what prospects were like for someone like themselves.  In many cases, it would help clarify the potential consequences of different choices.  By providing an empirical basis for making important choices, it would probably decrease the influence of less relevant and useful information such as the overall reputation of institutions and majors.  In many cases, I suspect it would help level the playing field between public and private schools and between elite and non-elite schools by confirming in a very convincing way that students who seek to maximize income are generally better off pursuing engineering at a state school than pursuing a liberal arts major at a private university.  There are already academic studies that suggest this, but students need to see results for specific institutions and majors.

What I have in mind is something like the Consumer Reports Used Car Guide where different makes of car from different model years are rated on a variety of criteria based on surveys of owners.  Except in this case, a student could type in their SAT score, their high school GPA, and some other information, and a list of institutions and majors, and get back out some kind of assessment of the average incomes and employment rates of students like themselves at different points in time after graduation.

The suggestion that students should explicitly consider employment prospects and income when choosing institutions and majors may sound cold-blooded and crass, but I would argue that the information should at least be available, and considered alongside whatever information students have available to them.  While many very admirable students have the combination of passion and financial wherewithal to pursue an esoteric major at an expensive private university without worrying about going into debt, the reality is that right now too many students go deeply into debt pursuing degrees that will do nothing for them after they graduate, at expensive institutions of dubious quality.  If they had made their choice based on complete information about the likely prospects of someone with their qualifications who attended that institution and pursued that major, it would be their fault. But too often students choose institutions and majors that do nothing for them because they don’t really have enough useful information available to them, and they have to rely on fundamentally uninformative or irrelevant factors like the reputation of the institution, or some very limited exposure to a particular field in high school or early in their college career.

To go even further out on a limb, I would to see such information about institutions and majors used in making decisions about student grants and loans.  Perhaps it is already, but I don’t know enough about how the system works.  A student who wants to study engineering at a state school should receive more support in the form of grants and loans than a student who wants to study something less practical at an expensive private institution.  If they do receive loans, the limits should be much higher and the interest rates much lower.  Essentially, public investments in individual education in the form of grants or loans should be made according to the same principles as loans in general are made, in the sense that the loan amount and interest rate should be based on the likelihood of it being paid back.  The recent efforts to reign in student loans at for-profit colleges seem like a step in the right direction, in terms of making the allocations data driven, but there is no reason that this principle shouldn’t be extended.

I suspect that making the choice of college and major more data-driven and focused on results for graduates would pressure colleges to redirect their attention away from investments in fancy buildings, star faculty, and sports facilities and emphasize investments that increase the ‘value-added’ of undergraduate majors.  In an ideal world, it would lead to a reorganization of the undergraduate experience where there was more emphasis on the overall design of a major and thought given to the intended ‘product’ and less of the unsavory horse trading that seeks to ensure that the courses that faculty enjoyed teaching were listed as requirements.

Personally, I would like to see a much smaller number of majors, each focused on a recognized discipline, and each with its own distinct theoretical framework, evidentiary basis, and set of methods.  I’m not arguing for turning college into vocational training, rather that majors have more internal consistency and coherence in terms of theory, substance, and method so that graduates are ‘branded’.  This already is the case in engineering and the natural and life sciences, where the content of a physics, chemistry, engineering or biology major is broadly similar across different institutions, but not at all the case in the behavioral or social sciences, or the humanities.  I’ll get into this issue with specific reference to the social sciences in another blog post, but the point remains that as far as I can tell, many humanities and social sciences do not reflect much evidence of a guiding intellect in their design, and at any given institution seem to reflect a path dependent process of addition or deletion of requirements and electives according to the configuration of faculty interests.

Of course, I realize this proposal for large scale collection of longitudinal data on all college bound students from senior year in high school into middle adulthood is wildly unrealistic, most importantly because colleges would object to it.  One thing I have noticed is that colleges don’t seem to like transparency with respect to the characteristics or outcomes of their students that would facilitate comparison shopping based on overall outcomes.  They prefer to control information and report on positive outcomes like successful alumni, and then compete with other institutions on intangibles like reputation.  To the extent that they provide information, it is for the increasingly common and silly college ranking exercises, and that information is generally provided in aggregate form that is easy to manipulate.

With regard to transparency, I would like to give a shout out to my employer, the University of California, which at least provides detailed tabular data on the characteristics of students at their remarkable website: http://statfinder.ucop.edu/.  This is where we should be headed in terms of provision of information to support decision-making.  Visitors at this amazing site can tabulate students according to the socioeconomic profile of their families, ethnicity, geographic origin, and any number of other variables.  They can also look up persistence rates, GPA, and graduation rates by class.  Basically, what we need is something like the University of California Statfinder for ALL institutions of higher education combined, and with additional information about student outcomes after graduation.

Our paper on trends in the social origins of students at elite Chinese universities

Our paper on the long-term social origins of students at Peking University and Suzhou University has appeared in China Social Science (中国社会科学). The paper’s title is “无声的革命:北京大学与苏州大学学生社会来源研究 1952-2002 (Silent Revolution: Research on the Social Origins of Peking University and Suzhou University Students, 1952-2002).” The lead authors were James Lee/李中清 (HKUST) and LIANG Chen/梁晨 (Nanjing University) and there were six additional co-authors, including myself.

My own role was fairly small, and limited largely on advising on the statistical analysis, and participating in discussions of the implications of the results. But it is an important paper, and I would rather make a minor contribution to an important paper than make a major contribution to an unimportant one. I already do a lot of the latter.

Here is the announcement of the issue that includes the paper at the China Social Science website: http://www.csstoday.net/Item/10020.aspx

Here is a place at the China Social Science website where you can view a complete abstract and download the article:

The paper presents many novel empirical findings on trends in the social origins of the students at these two universities. In my mind, the most important is the demonstration that during the period covered by the analysis, the percentage of students from farming and working class origins was much higher than at national and regional elite universities in the US.

Perhaps the only elite schools in the US in which students from modest socioeconomic origins are so well represented are the University of California campuses, including UCLA. I was just at a meeting yesterday where some basic tabulations were presented on the socioeconomic characteristics of entering freshmen at UCLA and I was pleased to see that we continue to admit and enroll large numbers of students who are first-generation college students, or from families of relatively low socioeconomic status. Based on what I have seen in tabulations from the annual Freshman Survey carried out by the Higher Education Research Institute here at UCLA, in the United States the most selective privates admit a large share of their students from high income families. Only a small portion come from modest origins.

If you can lay your hands on a copy of 中国社会科学, the full reference is

梁晨 (LIANG Chen), 张浩 (ZHANG Hao), 李兰 (LI Lan), 阮丹青 (RUAN Danching), 康文林 (Cameron Campbell), 杨善华 (YANG Shanhua), 李中清 (James Lee). 2012. “无声的革命:北京大学与苏州大学学生社会来源研究 (1952-2002) (Silent Revolution: Research on the Social Origins of Students at Peking University and Suzhou University, 1952-2002).” 中国社会科学 (Chinese Social Science). 2012(1):98-118.
For those of you who can read Chinese, here is the abstract:

1949 年以来, 中国高等教育领域出现了一场革命。高等精英教育生 源开始多样化, 以往为社会上层子女所垄断的状况被打破, 工农等社会较低阶层子 女逐渐在其中占据相当比重, 并成功地将这一比重保持到20 世纪末。基础教育的 推广、统一高考招生制度的建立以及重点中学的设置等制度安排共同推动了无声革 命的出现。这场革命虽然不及社会政治革命那样引人瞩目, 却同样意义深远。本研 究利用1952 — 2002 年间北京大学和苏州大学学生学籍卡片的翔实材料, 力图将这 一革命及其成就呈现出来, 为中国高等教育改革与发展提供借鉴.

Because much of the online discussion of our article has focused on what appears to be an increase in the share of students whose father and/or mother are cadres, James Lee and Liang Chen have provided some additional details on this trend to help clarify some key underlying features.  Below, I have added this material to this blog entry, on 3/26/2012.  We are preparing additional materials to help ‘unpack’ the findings in the article and clarify some of the key trends.
Additional points re the increase in the proportion of students whose father and mother was a cadre (from James Lee and LIANG Chen) 

Recently there has been considerable interest in our research finding that the proportion of cadre children at PKU increased during the last quarter of the twentieth century from 11 percent in 1976 to 38 percent in 1999.

This finding which was published in《无声的革命:北京大学与苏州大学学生社会来源研究(1952-2002)》中国社会科学杂志 2012 年 1 期 is based on an analysis of the social origins of some 150,000 undergraduate students who entered Peking University and Suzhou University in the last half of the twentieth century.

The article also shows several other important discoveries.

1. Based on the analysis of Suzhou University undergraduates, while the overall proportion of cadre children similarly increased, the proportion of cadre children who are from explicitly political cadre families in fact declines from 85 percent in 1965 to fewer than 45 percent in 1999

2. The proportion of Suzhou University cadre children who are from commercial enterprise cadre families, however, increases from 3.4 percent in 1976 to over 43 percent in 2001.

3. At the same time, the proportion of children of factory workers also increases from 13 percent in 1992 to 22.4 percent in 1999 at Peking University and from 11.4 percent in 1989 to 24.4 percent in 2001 at Suzhou

In fact, overall the proportion of children from blue collar families remains roughly stable at Peking University during the last quarter of the twentieth century and increases during this period at Suzhou University.

Overall by international standards, Chinese elite university admissions as demonstrated by these two universities were and continue to be remarkably open to children from non-elite families.


最近,我们的一项研究发现,北大学生中干部子女的比例从1976年接近11%增加到了1999年的近38%,这引发了社会各界地广泛关注和持续讨论。实际上,这是我们对上世纪后半叶北京大学和苏州大学招收的共约15万名本科生社会来源研究的发现之一,该研究名为《无声的革命:北京大学与苏州大学学生社会来源研究(1952-2002)》,发表在《中国社会科学》杂志 2012 年第1期上。 其实,我们的研究至少还有其他三个重要发现值得注意:

1.              同北大类似,苏大学生中的干部子女在改革开放以后也有持续的增长,但在干部群体内部,党政干部的比例已经从1965年的85%下降到了2001年的40%
2.              与此相反,苏大干部子女中的企业干部子女比例却从最低谷1976年的3.4%增加到了2001年的43%,超越党政干部成为干部子女的最大来源。
3.              同时,两校的工人子女比例也都有明显增长。其中,北大的工人子女比例从1987年的13%增加到了1998年的22.4%;苏大的工人子女比例从1989年的11.4%增加到了2001年的24.4%