Associate Professor of Sociology at the University of Washington, Director of the Center for Statistics in the Social Sciences, and North American Editor of the British Journal of Sociology, Katherine Stovel had a pioneering role in the development of methodologies that have become essential in the life course perspective. The Swiss National Centre of Competence in Research LIVES will be very pleased to welcome her on Friday 5 June during the 2015 Congress of the Swiss Sociological Association in Lausanne, and asked her a few questions in advance.
How do you link the general topic of the congress, which is “Collective Dynamics, Social (De) Regulation and Public Spheres” with your lecture on “The Social Structures of Curiosity”?
The 2015 congress has an important and broad theme that touches on many areas of active sociological research. My lecture will focus on how social structures impact curiosity, a topic that at first glance appears to be rather far removed from the general theme of the Congress. However, two clear and related consequences of the deregulation of institutions, and social life more generally, provide the backdrop for my interest in how social conditions shape curiosity. First, many social forces have contributed to a profound individualization of the life-course, and this individualization means that social psychological characteristics and processes – including openness to others and exploratory learning – are more important than ever in shaping individuals' experiences, and ultimately, the human capital embodied in a society. Second, the deterioration of collective values means that educational settings are increasingly oriented toward individual achievement, a trend that may have deleterious impacts on curiosity (as well as other forms of creative and expressive behavior). Finally, coupled with the social transformations that will be addressed at this congress, we have experienced massive changes in technology and access to information in the last decades. To date, much of the academic interest on the rise of virtual social networks and informationally-rich technologies has focused on their prospects for coordinating collective action, and for reducing the impact of geographical proximity on communication and interaction. Regrettably, in my opinion, far less attention has been paid to understanding the social and behavioral consequences of new information technologies on institutionally organized and self-directed exploration and discovery, and innovation.
In your abstract you say that “many observers have noted an apparent lack of curiosity in the contemporary world.” Could you mention a few examples? Where and how did you empirically observe curiosity?
In my roles as professor and social observer, I have long been struck by instances of both astonishing curiosity, and surprising lack of curiosity. My academic interest in curiosity was first piqued by repeated experiences with undergraduate students who all too often appear profoundly un-curious about the world around them. Rather than expressing wonder or excitement about digging deeper, many students restrict their queries to a singularity: 'Is this going to be on the test?' As have many of my colleagues, I began to suspect that contemporary students were experiencing an educational environment filled with discrete and floating bits of information, and that they had a weakly constructed ‘knowledge scaffold’ upon which to hang new information. Coupled with an intense emphasis on objective academic performance, this seemed to stunt their curiosity. My impression that curiosity was on the wane is echoed in the popular press, which frequently laments the diminished curiosity in successive generations.
According to your observations, what are the network and information structures that stimulate what you call “curiosity cascades”?
Formal investigations into the social structures that stimulate and sustain curiosity are still in the early phases. My own preliminary forays into this field are shaped by my intuition that curiosity cascades are related to both the level of clustering in a network, and the nature of hierarchy. Curiosity cascades should peak when networks (and knowledge structures) reflect a blend of density and sparseness. That is, when people interact primarily in dense networks, there is little cognitive space for exploration, and likely minimal social support for doing so. As networks become somewhat more expansive, individuals encounter unfamiliar situations and become more likely to initiate curiosity cascades in order to integrate new information into existing knowledge or experience. As a corollary, the connectivity of such blended networks should stimulate curiosity cascades in network partners. However, if networks are too expansive, the world may appear so unstructured that it is hard to make sense of at all. If they occur at all, curiosity cascades in sparse networks are likely to be deep rather than broad. In addition, because curiosity rests on acknowledging that one does not know something, ceteris paribus, curiosity declines with position in a hierarchy, as the relational imperatives of authority and prestige are frequently at odds with admitting ignorance.
You’ve studied social networks, labor market, adolescent sexuality, residential mobility, lynching in the Deep South, bank careers... What research line do you follow through all these issues?
While my research has addressed a number of seemingly disparate topics, my work is unified by a fundamental interest in how structures of relations shape individual behavior. Following in the well-developed tradition of relational network analysis, my work aims to take seriously both network structures and the relational imperatives associated with them (hence my interest in how hierarchy impacts curiosity, for instance). More broadly, I seek to understand how particular historical moments produce individuals who are embedded in sets of relations, how these relations structure actors’ understandings of the world, and, ultimately, the salience of the characteristics they may posses.
Network and sequence analysis seem to be your favorite methods. What do they respectively bring to the social sciences and how do you combine them?
I view network analysis as distinctly sociological, as it puts relations among actors at the forefront of inquiry. Rather than presuming that individuals are simply endowed with socially salient characteristics, a relational approach to sociology allows us to consider how structures of interactions – and the cultural meanings and cognitive processes associated with these relations – shape which characteristics matter, as well as how individuals navigate their social environments. Until recently, both data and methods limited network scholars' analyses to snapshots, even though most of us realized that networks are not static and that the dynamics of networks are as important as their structure. During this period of methodological stasis, I embraced sequence analysis, a method that promised to help identify both patterns in life course trajectories as well as the presence of institutionally sustained scripts. Such scripts are of particular interest to me, since in addition to directly guiding individuals' behavior they also play a role in generating observed network structures.
You give a lot of importance to the notion of temporality, which is also an important principle in the life course approach that inspires us at LIVES. Could you give an example, drawn from your findings, of the way temporality impacts the social reality?
One of the key questions that has motivated my research over the past decades –and my original motivation for becoming a sociologist – is the thorny problem of how organizational and institutional dynamics affect different types of workers over the course of their careers. Whereas it has long been recognized that organizational constraints limit career outcomes for workers, modeling the precise nature of these relationships has proven difficult in part because of the intersection of multiple temporal processes across a variety of relevant structures. And yet understanding the relationship between organizational change and the prospective prospects of workers is of great importance, especially as economic restructuring disrupts career ladders. My work on this topic emphasizes the multi-level nature of these dynamic interactions, and has yielded considerable insight into how competing incentives at the micro-level may produce unexpected, and sometimes durable, macro-level structures. I have addressed these issues explicitly within three research projects: a study of historical employment patterns at Lloyds Bank that exposed the dual emergence of modern institutions and modern career structures, an NSF-funded study of information asymmetries and the dynamics of labor market segregation and in a current project on economic restructuring and geographic mobility among young adults. In this most recent project, we revisit themes I addressed in earlier work on geographic migration and on how macro-changes affect career structures by asking the question: How do young people navigate the transition to adulthood in the wake of the 2008 “Great Recession”? While pundits and parents alike have noted the renewed tendency for young people to reside with their parents, large numbers of young adults continue to strike out on their own. In this project, we use a life course perspective and data derived from the NLYS-97 cohort to investigate the relationship between searching for a job and geographic mobility in the periods before, during, and after the Great Recession. The project is particularly innovative in that we combine a sequence analysis that allows us to precisely measure the temporal ordering of job searching, employment, and migration with event history models of migration. Our most surprising finding to date is that among this sample of young adults, there is no discernable temporal coupling of job search and migration. That is, geographic moves neither directly precede, nor directly follow, job searches. While we are continuing to refine both our analysis and our thinking about this result, we suspect that this cohort of young adults may engage in migration – especially to urban areas – as a lifestyle choice more than an employment strategy.
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