Sullivan Kicks Off New Interdisciplinary Initiative in Social Sciences

February 10, 2011

February 10, 2011 — President Teresa A. Sullivan on Monday kicked off a spring lecture series sponsored by the Quantitative Collaborative, a new initiative of the University of Virginia's College of Arts & Sciences that aims to marry quantitative research and the social sciences and use the data to shape public policy at the highest levels.

The interdisciplinary QC, as it is known, has the potential to distinguish the College, Dean Meredith Jung-En Woo said.

"We have strength in humanistically oriented social sciences, and now we need to bolster our strength in the quantitative areas," she said. "There is great potential in bringing together faculty who take humanistic and quantitative approaches to develop data-driven solutions to some of our nation's most pressing issues."

Woo has made the QC one of her top priorities. "I am gratified to see it launched with this first lecture by President Sullivan," she said.

Sullivan – a sociologist by training – agreed that the QC model shows promise. She emphasized that she'd been involved throughout most of her academic career with interdisciplinary social science organizations that transcend departments. "They can take on bigger projects and can often make a big difference, not only in the academic world, but politically as well," she said.

Her talk, "The Plural of Anecdote is Not Data," described her own research in consumer debt and bankruptcy. "In sharing an account of her own quantitative work on the sociology of debt in America, President Sullivan set an example not only of how first-rate quantitative social science research is done but also how one goes about being a first-rate quantitative social scientist," said Karen Parshall, associate dean for social sciences in the College. "Hers is precisely the kind of example that the College hopes to replicate through the Quantitative Collaborative."

Though the subject matter was serious, Sullivan often had the audience laughing about the misperceptions she encountered in her research. Her favorite flawed study was done in Rhode Island, the most Catholic state in the United States, according to census data.

"It concluded most debtors were Catholic," she said. "And it went on to build a superstructure about how the existence of confession made Catholics more ready to declare bankruptcy."

Her research in the field began over lunch in Austin, Texas, with two University of Texas law professors: Jay Lawrence Westbrook, a distinguished scholar in the field of bankruptcy, and Elizabeth Warren, who was recently appointed by President Obama to head the new consumer protection agency. The law professors were discouraged that there was no way to know if the Bankruptcy Reform Act of 1978 had any effect on people's bankruptcy behaviors.

Sullivan, then a sociology professor at Texas, told them that they simply needed to go to the courthouse, pull a systematic sample of bankruptcies and study them. This began 20 years of research that has resulted in two books, numerous articles, and perhaps most important of all, hard data that has been presented to Congress.

Their first study was a quantitative analysis of 150 bankruptcy cases in 10 federal districts and three states. One state, Texas, had high exemptions for bankrupt debtors, allowing people to keep their homes, some land and cars. The second state, Illinois, had extremely low exemptions, allowing debtors to keep only $3,000, children's photos, a Bible and clothes. The third state, Pennsylvania, had medium exemptions.

"So, the belief at the time by Congress and others was that in a state like Texas, you'd find lots of people who would 'frivolously' go into bankruptcy," Sullivan said. "You wouldn't go into bankruptcy in the state of Illinois until you were at the absolute worst extreme, and those in Pennsylvania would be someplace in between."

But the results didn't bear out that hypothesis. Their data showed that "you went into bankruptcy at the same level of economic distress, and that was extreme distress," Sullivan said. "Basically bankruptcy was the last resort in every state, no matter what the exemptions were. Most people are not sitting back coolly calculating how much they can make out of their bankruptcy."

In their second study, they actually interviewed debtors. The image of the bankrupt debtor in sociological literature at the time was a young high-school dropout, blue-collar worker. Sullivan, Warren and Westbrook's second book showed that none of these things were true.

"I mention all of this light of the Quantitative Collaborative here," Sullivan said. "I think that it shows that quantitative work in the social sciences offers the prospect for taking a really difficult problem and attacking it with more resources than any individual scholar can muster."

Good social science research, she said, opens up vistas and avenues of intellectual inquiry. "And I would like to see us do it here," she said. "Good ideas come from you."

To jumpstart some of those ideas among U.Va. faculty, the QC recently awarded seed funding to several social scientists in the College of Arts & Sciences:

•    John Pepper (economics): "The Effects of Food Stamps on the Nutritional Health of Children"
•    John James (economics): "U.S. Payments Networks and Monetary Union before the Federal Reserve System"
•    Dan Gingerich (politics): "Can Institutions Cure Clientelism? Assessing the Impact of the Australian Ballot in Brazil"
•    Jeff Jenkins (politics): "The Flip Side of Delegation: Examining Congressional Reassertion Efforts"
•    Sonal Pandya (politics): "Occupational Licensing in a Globalized World"
•    Todd Sechser (politics): "Strategic Bargaining in Wartime: A Quantitative Approach"

"The seed grants are aimed at providing just that bit of extra something needed to get a grant ready for a federal agency," Parshall said.
The QC lecture series resumes Feb. 28. Brown-bag lunches are held from noon to 1 p.m. and lectures from 4 to 5 p.m. in locations to be announced. Check the University calendar for details.

Feb. 28: Leonard Wantchekon, professor of politics and economics at New York University, "The Slave Trade and The Origins of Mistrust" (brown bag lunch); "Can Informed Deliberation Overcome Clientelism? Experimental Evidence from Benin" (lecture).

March 14: Maxim Engers, U.Va. economics professor: "Some Models of Private Information in Economics" (lecture).

April 11: Mick Couper, research professor, Survey Research Center, Institute for Social Research, University of Michigan: "Using Paradata to Understand Measurement Error in Surveys" (brown bag lunch); "The Convergence of Quantitative Methods in the Social Sciences" (lecture).

April 25: David Leblang, U.Va. politics professor: "Harnessing the Diaspora: The Political Economy of Expatriate Dual Citizenship" (lecture).

May 6: Myron Gutmann. assistant director of the National Science Foundation's Social, Behavioral and Economics Program and research professor in the Population Studies Center and history professor, University of Michigan. Title of lecture to be announced. 

May 13: Workshop and poster session

— By Molly Minturn

Media Contact