Sociology classes are often conversations about the scientific data surrounding controversial subjects. It’s really easy for students to feel challenged or even leave class upset. In this essay Nathan Palmer explains how something called the ecological fallacy can lead students to misinterpret sociological data and get their feelings hurt.
Sociology is great because it challenges us to rethink what we know and learn about things we never knew existed. This is also what makes learning sociology upsetting at times. It can be hard to discover that the things “we know are true” aren’t supported by evidence.
You should expect to occasionally leave class frustrated or maybe even a little angry. This is normal, but getting deeply upset is not. In all my years of teaching, I’ve found that most of my angry students made one simple mistake. They took things personally.
I Bet You Think This Stat Is About You
Sociology is about the social. Meaning sociologists focus on what happens between people or what happens when lots of individuals do similar things. Sociology is rarely, if ever, focused on a specific individual.
However, that doesn’t stop students from taking things personally. It’s really easy to listen to the findings of a research study about a group you are a part of and think the study and/or your instructor is saying something about you personally.
For instance, look at the chart above. This shows that African Americans are incarcerated five times more often than whites are, and Hispanics are nearly twice as likely to be incarcerated as whites. Latino or African American students could easily misinterpret this chart and think that it is suggesting that they personally are more criminal or that their entire racial ethnic group was more criminal than whites. Furthermore, white students might read this chart and feel that they are some how less criminal or that whites as a group are superior to people of color. Either interpretation would be inaccurate for at least two reasons.
First, a rate of incarceration for a racial ethnic subgroup cannot tell us anything about every member of that subgroup. For instance, if I told you that my class has an average grade of a B, it would be wrong for you to assume that means your friend in my class has a B. When we use group level data to make individual level conclusions, this is what’s called the ecological fallacy. An average, a rate, a proportion, or any other collective measure of a group cannot tell us anything about specific individuals.
Second, sociologists are quick to point out that there is no evidence to suggest that people of color use or sell narcotics at significantly higher rates than their white counterparts. Which means that all other things being equal, we should anticipate that all racial ethnic groups would be arrested for drug infractions at roughly the same rate.
However, changes to our laws and policing priorities made 30 years ago (which together were called the “War on Drugs”) led to a 500% increase in our prison population with African American men experiencing the steepest increase in incarceration. The War on Drugs laws were written to punish high income drug users less severely and poor neighborhoods (and especially poor neighborhoods of color) saw police patrols increased which subsequently raises the likelihood of any drug offense being caught (Alexander 2010; Reiman and Leighton 2012).
When we personalize sociological findings, we are misinterpreting them. Averages, medians, rates, proportions, etc. are useful statistical tools for measuring the central tendencies of a group, but they do not tell us anything about particular individuals. Furthermore, sociology is all about finding out what social factors influence individual behavior and life experiences. Group averages do not tell us things about individuals, instead they tell us things about how people in similar social circumstances have similar experiences which lead to similar outcomes.
Anger, frustration, confusion, and exhaustion are all common side effects of learning. However, if you find yourself deeply hurt by a class topic, check to see if you are committing the ecological fallacy by personalizing a social statistic.
- Describe in your own words what the ecological fallacy is and give one example of how it can lead you to misinterpret statistics.
- Practice your social scientist skills and describe two research questions you would like to answer to better understand the racial disparity in incarceration rates.
- Students often find it easier to come up with individual based explanations for social phenomena (i.e. individual characteristics caused it) than to come up with social explanations (i.e. changes in society caused it). For instance, students often attribute the divorce rate in the U.S. to individuals no longer caring about romantic love or family. Describe at least two ways that changes in the divorce rate could be explained by changes in society.
- Why do you think students are quick to personalize social statistics and more likely to use individual explanations rather than social explanations when thinking about what causes social issues?
- Alexander, Michelle 2010. The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness. New York, NY: The New Press.
- Reiman, J., & Leighton, P. (2012). The Rich Get Richer and the Poor Get Prison (10 edition.). Saddle River, NJ: Pearson.
- Obviously students get upset for a wide variety of reasons. Teachers and classmates can say and do offensive things. Students, unfortunately, are mistreated occasionally. This essay isn’t intended to minimize anyone’s negative experience, but rather to offer students a way to avoid the stress that results from a common statistical misinterpretation. ↩