Intro to sociology as cartoon

Daniel Burnier and colleagues have just published a cartoon to introduce sociology as a discipline using a cartoon. The cartoon is available in French.

The cartoon is both a personal account of the main author, and a general introduction to the discipline. Contrary to PhD Comics, this book isn’t about academia, but much more a reflection about what sociology can contribute to the world — the usefulness of the discipline. This introspective focus on what the discipline can do for society more broadly may be something sociologists like doing, but the book doesn’t stop there.

We get an introduction to several (male) key thinkers and many sociological topics like gender roles, social movements, or poverty. I was happy to see the key thinkers banished to the appendix because I’m still struggling with any presentation of a discipline by individuals rather than their thoughts.

Given that the story is told by a male protagonist, I was glad to see an explicit section on female sociologists — but honestly it felt a bit like an afterthought. Perhaps the (personal) storyline made it difficult to do otherwise?

The kind of sociology presented is sociological theory and qualitative research. While this is certainly part of sociology, many of us use experimental and quantitative approaches — and do not struggle that much to see usefulness in what we do (perhaps the occasional reflexivity would do no harm in those quarters…).

Despite these comments, I did enjoy this cartoon and honestly, there’s potential for an English version…

PhD opportunity in gender and migration

Dr Sirijit Sunanta is looking for a  motivated and talented prospective student to be funded a full scholarship to study in the PhD Program in Multicultural Studies at RILCA, Mahidol University, in the areas of gender studies, migration, mobilities and cultural diversity, ethnicity and multiculturalism. The scholarship, based at Mahidol University, covers tuition and educational fee, monthly allowance (15K THB), research fees, and international research/exchange visit at an overseas institution.

Deadline for applications, October 15th, 2022.

School book knowledge…

School books can be gems… here’s a timeline of important events, apparently. Quite a particular perspective on the world, and a particular perspective on science and inventions, where the typical case is one person (usually a man) single-handedly achieved something.

Young World 4, Activity Book, © 2015 Klett und Balmer Verlag

Like “James Watt invented the steam engine.” James Watt shares the honour with Matthew Boulton on the £50 note. For inventing the steam engine? Nope, for making “revolutionary changes to the efficiency of the steam engine”, and Boulton to “market steam engines”.

Wikipedia knows of historical precedents from the first century AD, and Thomas Savery as the first to use a steam engine commercially.


I recognize that school books need to simplify and leave out details, but we can also simplify in a way that doesn’t pretend that history is the act of “great men”. A language book is maybe not the place to nitpick about stuff like whether a railway line in 1845 that ended in Switzerland should be counted, rather than the first internal line in 1847 which is mentioned, or discuss that there are other ways to count the length of World War II.

But why is there Ferdinand Magellan all on his own, who didn’t actually complete the circumnavigation, and none of the 200+ staff (some of whom actually did sail around the world)?

Hopefully, I need not say much about “1492 Christopher Columbus discovered America.” But it struck me how Columbus is greatly under-credited in history: Not only did he “discover” America (never mind indigenous peoples, never mind Norse colonization), but he can obviously see into the future (I’ve never seen him credited for that…!): when he discovered those lands, he already knew that 15 years later two German cartographers would name those lands after Amerigo Vespucci and the name will stick. ⸮⸮⸮

OK, we’ll probably want to leave irony out of school books in primary school, but can we try harder? I’m all for simplification, but perhaps a less Eurocentric one where we don’t celebrate individuals and ignore everyone else who contributed…?!

Problems measuring “other” in gender identity questions, and a possible solution

When asking questions about gender identity in surveys in Switzerland, I often faced the problem that a tiny fraction of respondents did not answer the question seriously. Normally, we can live with this, but it’s a real hindrance when trying to capture relatively small sections of the population.

Here’s a typical case from Switzerland in 2015:

Male (blue), female (red), other (green)

We offered “female”, “male”, and “other” as response categories with the option to specify which “other” identity applies. If we go by estimates elsewhere, we should expect between 0.1% and 2% of the respondents picking “other”. At first sight, we seem to be at the lower end, but there’s likely serious under-reporting because more than half of these “other” responses are not referring to other gender identities. We get responses like “cat”, or “there are only two genders” — definitely not on the useful side of open questions (beyond noting that some people are probably frustrated about the fact that we do talk about non-binary identities, I guess).

Offering more choices for gender identity seems to discourage nonsense and protest answers, leaving us with a better measure of non-binary gender identity

I’ve had this in several surveys, but recently we tried something else: we offered more choice! Yes, rather than “female”, “male”, and “other” we spelled out a few of the “other” category: “female”, “male”, “non-binary”, “transgender female”, “transgender male”, “other”. From a conventional survey design point of view, this was bordering the ridiculous because we only expected some 500 respondents in this survey, which would yield between 1 and 10 respondents in those categories combined (going by existing estimates). We’re still at the lower end of this range, but we had none of these nonsense and protest answers.

Given that we’ve run an almost identical survey just months earlier with the three category format (“female”, “male”, “other”) and had more than half of the “other” answers that did not refer to gender identity, we might be onto a solution…