Love – the Swiss way: sociologists want to "optimize the marriage market"
Cao, N., Fragnière, E., Gauthier, J., Sapin, M., & Widmer, E. (2010). Optimizing the marriage market: An application of the linear assignment model European Journal of Operational Research, 202 (2), 547-553 DOI: 10.1016/j.ejor.2009.06.009

A lifetime ago – when I was still a university student in Italy – I bumped into an old article discussing marital matters in what for me was a very unusual way: modelling the utility functions of two partners getting intimate in bed (an occupation evocatively referred to as “activity X”…hummm!). “When love exists”, the author maintained, “each spouse’s marginal utility from x depends on both one’s own and one’s spouse’s consumption of hours in bed” (Hoffman, 1977).

Utility functions doing the nasty

Utility functions doin' the nasty (circa 1977)

If I indulge in reminescence here, it’s only to suggest that, after having spent my formative years dealing with such weirdness, the article I deal with today, published by the European Journal of Operational Research, shouldn’t come as a surprise. And yet, I’m still a little startled when I read of someone adopting a mathematical approach to marriage. Don’t get me wrong. I’m not saying that all mathematical approaches to social phenomena should be rebuked. I’m not that kind of person. Please allow me to develop on this.

Eric D. Widmer, a professor at the department of Sociology of the University of Geneva, and his team have produced an interesting research about optimizing the chances of finding the right partner. Based on a representative and longitudinal sample of 1074 Swiss couples (cohabiting and married), they estimated various objective functions corresponding to age, education, ethnicity, and previous divorce experience.

To be more precise:

  1. Evidence suggests that the soundest couples are those where the husband is 5 years older than his wife – the appeal of a mature man, I suppose. Or maybe, the charms of a younger woman to an older man, who knows…
  2. Successful couples show also another feature: wives have a higher level of education than their husbands. Definitely the charms of a young and smart Swiss woman play a role there… Or maybe some rigidities of the Swiss labour market which doesn’t seem to encourage women’s labour force participation to the same level as other developed countries. Or at least, didn’t seem back in 1999, when the family survey data started to be collected.
  3. Moreover, the couples less prone to divorce are those where both partners haven’t been through divorce before. The hypothesis is that those who never experienced divorce don’t know their ways around lawyers and paperwork, thus displaying a higher level of aversion for this uncertain course of action.
  4. Last but not least, the most successful couples are those where both partners are of Swiss nationality. Cultural homogamy triumphs! In your face, neighbour who married a hot Brazilian woman that left you after two years of love and torrid sex because she could not stand eat fondue with your friends in a ski resort every goddamn weekend! (This last bit, might or might not actually be in the article…).


Revue espagnole d'analyse des réseaux prend s'oppose au "réductionnisme relationnel"

L’essor des méthodologies et des programmes de recherche centrés sur l’analyse des réseaux sociaux entraînerait « un certain réductionnisme relationnel » qui se manifeste à travers une mise entre parenthèses de la nature substantielle des relations humaines à la faveur d’une approche « métrique » des macro-structures des réseaux. A partir de ce constat initial, le vol. 16 de la revue savante REDES Revista hispana para el análisis de redes sociales (coordonné par Claire Bidart, Johanne Charbonneau et Michel Grossetti) se donne pour but de réintroduire la question des relations dans l’étude des réseaux sociaux. (Pour les non-hispanophones : la quasi-totalité des articles qui composent le dossier central sont disponibles aussi en version française).



Three CfP on CMC (fr) (eng)

Persistence and Change in Social Media

Call for papers for the Bulletin of Science, Technology and Society

Deadline: November 1, 2009


Interactivité et lien social

Appel à articles pour un numéro de la revue tic&société

Date limite : 1er novembre 2009


Technologies (et usages) de l’anonymat à l’heure de l’Internet

Appel à articles pour un dossier thématique de la revue Terminal

Date limite : 1er novembre 2009


Google et au-delà : numéro spécial de la revue "Multitudes"

“Si Google nous oppresse, il s’agit d’une oppression douce et séduisante, que nous acceptons volontiers pour notre confort sur le Net. Dans son ADN comme dans sa réalité sociale et économique, Google a quelque chose d’hégémonique, mais il n’est pas et ne sera jamais dictatorial. Bref, sa puissance de contrôle, si contrôle il y a, ne se décline plus sur le mode disciplinaire, mais selon les règles de nos désirs et de notre soif d’informations pertinentes et impertinentes. Google ne nous demande pas de l’utiliser, comme il n’exige pas des développeurs qu’ils adoptent sa plate-forme en open-source Android pour les terminaux mobiles. Il nous suggère et, finalement, nous convainc de le faire, par paresse peut-être, comme pour mieux nous renvoyer à notre propre image”. (Beyond Google, par Ariel Kyrou et Yann Moulier Boutang)

Publish. Or Perish. Or falsify.

In his pamphlet Enemies of Promise (2004) Lindsay Waters blamed present-day “eclipse of scholarship” on the academic rat-race called “Publish or Perish” (POP) – the pressure to publish more and more articles in more and more prestigious journals. The book was largely dismissed as the archetypal humanist rant. Waters was just an old fart with too many books in his living room, quixotically attacking a well-established scientific mechanism for assessing scientific merits of scientists. Run by scientists.

Sorry, did I repeat that word too much?

Today, an interesting figure seems to support Waters’s argument: the “publish or perish” mecanism is accused of being the main reason why the number of scientific frauds has skyrocketed in the last 20 years. According to the Times Higher Education, since 1990, the number of articles published in journals has doubled. Concomitantly the number of fraudulent articles retracted by their authors has increased 20 times. Apparently researchers, pressured by academic institutions and funding bodies, increasingly publish results that are (at best) inaccurate and (at worst) counterfeit.

And if you don’t agree with these conclusions, here’s a scientific article which features those same results. Published in a scientific journal. By a scientist.

Fanelli, D. (2009) How Many Scientists Fabricate and Falsify Research? A Systematic Review and Meta-Analysis of Survey Data. PLoS ONE, 4(5): e5738

A crazy idea everybody's having: using Wikipedia for health information
Laurent, M., & Vickers, T. (2009). Seeking Health Information Online: Does Wikipedia Matter? Journal of the American Medical Informatics Association, 16 (4), 471-479 DOI: 10.1197/jamia.M3059

Back in the day, patients used to show up at doctors’ practices with a set of symptoms. Since the advent of the Internet, though, they show up with a set of symptoms and a diagnosis of their own design. Now, this diagnosis is often concocted using whatever health information they run into while googling their scared asses around the web after the appearance of that skin rush or of that nasty lump. Traditionally, health professionals have expressed their disapproval towards these web-savvy patients who challenge medical diagnosis, multiply clinically-inappropriate requests [1], disrupt physician-patients relationship [2] and ultimately create a widespread climate of “cybercondria” [3].

A recent article published in the Journal of the American Medical Informatics Association deals with this situation in a different way.  The basic assumption here is that people do use Wikipedia to find relevant medical information, and that doctors should simply deal with it by contributing to the online encyclopedia. (more…)

Internet use among the poor: it's not funny and it doesn't mitigate inequalities
Robinson, L. (2009). A taste for the necessary. A Bourdieuian approach to digital inequality Information, Communication & Society, 12 (4), 488-507 DOI: 10.1080/13691180902857678

The “Diversity” issue of the journal Information, Communication and Society is out and it’s entirely devoted to the Communication and Information Technologies section of the American Sociological Association (CITASA). Laura Robinson’s remarkable article explores digital inequality among economically disadvantaged US youth. Her study focuses on everyday technological processes, by situating information seeking and media use within respondents’ larger social networks and access to resources. Unsurprisingly socioeconomic status does matter: it turns out rich kids use the Web for fun and recreation, poor kids are less autonomous and less playful. The empowering effect that is customarily ascribed to the Web has thus to be weighed with respect to class origin and “information habitus” – that differ from advantaged to less advantaged groups.

Common sense tends to see American teenagers as uniformly “wired”. That is because Internet penetration rate in North America is among the highest in the world (73.1% in Dec 2008 according to Internet World Stats). In reality, Robinson maintains, segments of the youth population lack high quality, high autonomy Internet access. She adopts a “holistic” (read: both qualitative and quantitative) approach to data collection in order to situate new media use within respondents’ (who are economically disadvantaged teenagers from a California high school) larger lifeworlds and examine the effects of digital inequality. (more…)

New paper shows social connectivity is not declining (not because of Internet, anyway)

Hua (Helen) Wang, & Barry Wellman (2009). Social Connectivity in America. Changes in Adult Friendship Network Size from 2002 to 2007 American Behavioral Scientist

The story so far, can be summarized as follows: since the beginning of the Web, a significant amount of researches has being focusing on the inverse correlation between online connectivity and face-to-face interactions. In social sciences, this is known as “the Internet Paradox”, after the title of an influential article published by Robert Kraut (1998). In a nutshell,  Internet can be regarded as a “social technology that reduces social involvement”. Consequently user’s well-being and social ties could be negatively affected by computer-mediated communication.

This argument was so compelling – and so remenescent of the common sense claim that “since computers are around, people don’t talk anymore” – that the Internet paradox long outlived its scientific credibility. Some years later, Kraut himself made amends for it in a follow-up article, admitting that his argument had to be “rivisited”.  He went back to observe the very same families of the previous study and found the negative effect of online communication on social life had disappeared. Not only, but he even detected positive effects of using the Internet on communication, social involvement, and well-being. A hell of a retraction, if you ask me.

Now, as epistemologists know, bad theories are difficult to flush out. Especially when you have people who can exploit them to serve their political agenda – or to spin themselves a cheap media story, as recently a certain British fellow of the Royal Society of Medicine did.

Luckily for us, Canadian sociologist Barry Wellman has been fighting against this research trend since its first apperence. And luckily for us, these days he seems to be prevailing. (more…)

Wisconsin student twitters his way to PhD in biomedical engineering

First off this video:

What is it all about? Just another day in the Twitter-crazed US media landscape: a high-profiled news report on Adam Wilson, a biomedical engineer at the University of Wisconsin–Madison who, according to Wired, managed to send a tweet using only his brain. Quite self-referentially, the first telepathic microblogging message in the history of humankind simply read: “USING EEG TO SEND TWEET”. I cannot help but wonder if Antonio Meucci’s first telephone call went something like that, too – with him shouting “I’M USING MY MOUTH TO SPEAK ON THE PHONE!!!”


New discovery: actually Internet CURES cancer!!!

By Antonio A. Casilli (Centre Edgar-Morin, EHESS, Paris)

After putting online a post that satirized an article claiming that electronic media give cancer recently published by Aric Sigman in The Biologist (2009), I’ve undergone a phase of serious self-criticism. Sure, I was in fierce disagreement with the author. But the general tone of my post was un-academic and rude. Ad hominem attacks really don’t belong in science. Turns out I am a dismissive prick. What do you know? 😀

So I decided to make it right by you folks, and to hone my argument by providing evidence – hard fact-based scientific evidence. I did it like any other scientist would, by collecting a bunch of data, tinkering with them a little, cherry-picking something, hiding something else, and wrapping everything up in fancy graphics! What did I get at the end of the day? A revolutionary discovery: not only Internet does not give cancer, it actually cures it!

How did I come up with such a sensational breakthrough? First, I took a random data set from the United Nations Statistics Division. Then I arbitrarily decided that Internet access would be an accurate proxy for actual Internet use. So I asked myself the following question: do countries that are more connected (in terms of percentage of people having Internet access) have a higher number of deaths for two common types of cancer – breast for the ladies, prostate for the gents? For the sake of completeness, I focused on 2002 (because data were not available for several countries before that year). I put everything in my statistical blender, and this is what I obtained:

Correlation Internet access and prostate cancer deaths - via

Correlation bw Internet access and prostate cancer mortality - via