“McAnger” over new big homes in New York City suburbs

Some new large homes in Westchester County have drawn some “McAnger”:

“This is really stupid,” wrote Laura Kerns. “No one needs this much house.”…”It’s sad, really,” David Raguso wrote. “This county just doesn’t care about the average person.”

Said Dana Doyle, “Bye bye, middle-class! The rich folk are taking over!”…

Like others, Daphne Philipson questioned the need for so much square footage. “The Gilded Age is back – and we know how well that went for everyone.”…

“Wretched excess,” he wrote. “There is nothing wrong with being financially successful, but why then not be reserved about it? How much house does a man need? Find meaning in meaningful things.”…Some were not so much annoyed but still critical of the new homes, critiquing the exterior appearance specifically as a hodgepodge of conflicting architectural styles. “Looks like it was thrown together at different times by different moods,” wrote Erika Kislaki-Bauer.

Eileen Healy Rehill lamented the addition of “more overly priced McMansions” in Westchester rather than “nice yet affordable housing for the middle class.” She was far from the only one, with housing for seniors and the disabled also mentioned.

Some familiar comments when McMansions are involved. Three quick thoughts, with the first two mentioned briefly in this summary of feedback:

1. Westchester County already is a wealthy county. It was known as the home to many wealthy estates as New York City was growing. A number of high-profile companies moved there post-World War II, including IBM. It is home to “Hipsterurbia.” In other words, McMansions are just symptomatic of a wealthy county where many communities would not welcome affordable housing and builders see ongoing opportunities for wealthy buyers.

2. These new homes are indeed large and luxurious. But, the conversation about “who needs this” can get sticky. How much do Westchester County residents consume? How many suburbanites buy a home that is too small for them? How many people don’t seek through the exterior of their home or the things inside to provide some markers of their social status? On one hand, Americans have historically tended to frown upon opulent wealth (hence, everyone wants to be middle class) yet consumption is rampant and the American middle class is very well off by American standards (though there may be a big gap between them and many Westchester County residents).

3. The critique of the architecture might seem class neutral. After all, people could build both big and small houses that match the local styles or are done in good taste. Yet, architectural styles and design are likely class-based tastes, a la Bourdieu.

Sociologists help Catholic Church understand itself but the data is not always welcome

Here is an interesting look at the reactions to the findings of the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate:

Sociology wasn’t always viewed kindly when applied to church matters. Cardinal Roger Mahony (now retired) of Los Angeles once assessed as “nonsense” research done in the early 1990s by Richard Schoenherr of the University of Wisconsin predicting an impending priest shortage. Mahony said the work did the church a “disservice and “presumes that the only factors at work are sociology and statistical research. … We live by God’s grace, and our future is shaped by God’s design for his church — not by sociologists.” The predictions of the priest shortage, by the way, were remarkably accurate and decades ahead of the reality.

Not all church leaders feel that way, of course, and it was a prominent archbishop, Boston Cardinal Richard Cushing, who gathered other bishops and superiors of religious communities and donated $50,000 to start CARA…

Even the most convincing data can be upsetting when it gets in the way of a favorite narrative. Gaunt cautions that CARA’s inquiries can lead to rather pedestrian conclusions. For instance, he said, the center began to notice a drop in baptisms. The major theories being advanced in some quarters to explain the phenomenon blamed secularization and an anti-religious U.S. culture.

What didn’t fit, however, was CARA’s understanding that the decline was occurring in areas with lots of new Catholics. “This is in Dallas or Houston or Phoenix,” said Gaunt. “There are no parishes you can walk to. They all drive. And they’re overwhelmed. And this is where we’re beginning to find the drop in the number of baptisms. The data would suggest it’s not secularization — it’s parking. If you’re there with a baby, and you’re going to have to show up an hour early to try to get a parking spot and get in,” he said, that could cut into attendance and those early sacraments.

Some good discussion of how data can be used used by religious organizations: sometimes it goes well and sometimes the data is not welcome. I would think large organizations would want as much information as they could get but there are several issues when social scientists get involved. One, data doesn’t interpret itself – it simply provides more information that has to be acted upon. Second, interpretations of the data data can contradict folk theories and threaten those who hold such ideas.  Third, sociology can be viewed as antithetical to God’s work, either through its emphasis on society and humans or its tendencies toward liberal theories. Yet, hopefully good things can come from this marriage of sociological findings and church work.

Sociologist: “Celebrity is a self-defeating construct”

With a new Amy Winehouse documentary out, several sociologists weigh in on the nature of celebrity:

“Celebrity is a self-defeating construct,” says Dustin Kidd, a sociologist at Temple University and the author of Pop Culture Freaks: Identity, Mass Media, and Society. “Celebrities are seen as geniuses whose creativity comes out of [personal narrative]. Working artists, more common but more boring, develop their creative work through a daily grind of creative discipline, practice, and revision that is balanced with a full, multi-dimensional life. Tabloid culture turns the artist into the story themselves.”…

In other words, though this might be obvious, the attention Winehouse got as she rose to superstardom, like Marilyn Monroe or Ernest Hemingway before her, actually changed what society expected of her as an artist: the public was obsessed with how her image as an iconic trainwreck was reflected in her music, not with the music itself…

“There’s no boundaries to who can weigh in on what you’ve done and what you are doing,” says Joshua Gamson, a sociologist at the University of San Francisco and author of “Claims to Fame: Celebrity in Contemporary America.” “Your story is a commodity, so people are actually competing for the profit from that commodity … [Celebrities] try to stay in control of their story — that’s why they hire publicists, why they hide out — but that’s part of the deal with celebrity. It’s what keeps you successful.”

“The working artists who survive and thrive,” Kidd adds, “seem to consistently either avoid the tabloid spotlight entirely, or they present the media only with a contrived performance, like Lady Gaga.”

And as noted later in the article, we all get a little taste of this today as we can project what we want through social media and receive attention from both those who know us as well as join a viral realm where what we say and do might be picked apart by millions.

Yet, to me this seems to beg some basic questions about celebrity:

1. Do the people who were or are celebrities actually enjoy it? To be turned into a commodity sounds exactly like Marx’s idea of alienation.

2. What are the long-lasting consequences of being positively or negatively famous?

3. Since we have some indications that humans can only have about 150 stable relationships (Dunbar’s number), does having so much social exposure from celebrity inevitably lead to social and psychological problems?

4. So much of this celebrity push seems to come from the mass media – indeed, you couldn’t really have celebrity in the way we know it today before the mass media of the 20th century. Are people who consume less media less interested in or influenced by celebrity?

The Pope as urban critic

The latest encyclical from Pope Francis includes commentary on large cities in the third world:

One of the most intriguing aspects of the pope’s new encyclical on climate change is its commentary on the rapid growth of cities in the developing world, a phenomenon the pontiff lacerates as dehumanizing.

Early in the document, the pope observes: “Neighborhoods, even those recently built, are congested, chaotic and lacking in sufficient green space. We were not meant to be inundated by cement, asphalt, glass and metal, and deprived of physical contact with nature.”

He blasts “green” neighborhoods that are open to the privileged, not the poor. “Frequently,” he writes, “we find beautiful and carefully manicured green spaces in so-called ‘safer’ areas of cities, but not in the more hidden areas where the disposable of society live.”…

As if offering an alternative to the vapid isolation of the trophy skyscrapers of China and Dubai, the pope’s encyclical springs from the idea of “integral ecology,” which argues that care for the environment and the welfare of human beings are inseparable.

“When we speak of the ‘environment,'” the pope states, “what we really mean is a relationship existing between nature and the society which lives in it. Nature cannot be regarded as something separate from ourselves or as a mere setting in which we live. We are part of nature, included in it and thus in constant interaction with it.”

Megacities in the developing world often do have huge environmental problems – see Planet of Slums for an evocative look at the use of land and where waste goes. The Pope’s comments regarding nature and cities seem to be rooted in economic inequality. If you are wealthy, you can purchase small pieces of nature, escape harmful environmental effects (like living new power plants or polluting uses in American cities), and afford a life of consumerism where the waste you produce in a “throwaway culture” (a phrase Pope Francis has used before) is sent somewhere else. Yet, does this speak to a broader lack of interest in big cities where people are “deprived of physical contact with nature”? A more sprawling city that provides more space for nature may exacerbate economic inequalities (it can be more expensive to live near the core) as well as reduce the economics of scale that modern big cities might provide (using less land and energy per person with higher densities).

California argument that new pools save water over lawns

A painted lawn or desert yard may not be necessaryinstalling a pool can save water over the years.

The industry took a huge hit during the recession, but business is back. Industry tracking firm Construction Monitor says there were 11,000 pools installed in California last year, the highest since 2007. The state is on track for 13,000 this year in a drought…

“It certainly concerns people. and I think our business would be much better without the drought, but that’s due to some misperceptions about pools and water use,” he said. “Even in the first year, when we replace lawn, you experience water savings by putting in a swimming pool and in the subsequent years after that, the savings just add up.”

The numbers vary depending on what you calculate. And Orange County Water Agency found it takes a couple of years to begin saving water by installing a pool, but Harbeck crunched the numbers for the Larsen’s pool and says it will save more than 6,600 gallons in the first year and more than 17,000 gallons each year when compared to watering the lawn it’s replacing…

The pool industry says owners have to do their part too by using pool covers and maintaining low water levels to preserve every drop in the drought.

I imagine there may be skepticism that this could be such a win-win-win: water saved, happy residents sitting by their new pools, and the pool industry with lots of new orders. But, if the numbers really do indicate that pools save money over time compared to lawns, would the facts/science win out? Still, it sounds like replacing the lawn with no pool would save even more water.

Obama bypasses Congress and talks to mayors about economic policies

President Obama talked to big city mayors yesterday in efforts to work outside of Congress:

White House aides say the U.S. Conference of Mayors meeting was an ideal opportunity to press the president’s agenda with a more sympathetic audience. White House spokesman Eric Schultz told reporters before the speech that it was a chance to move “forward on priorities helping the middle class despite inaction in Congress.”

The president urged mayors to raise the minimum wage, guarantee paid sick leave, and expand childcare and pre-kindergarten education — all issues with little traction among congressional Republicans…

Since Obama called for an increase to the minimum wage in 2013, 17 states and the District of Columbia have passed raises. Large retailers, including Wal-Mart Stores Inc, IKEA, and Gap Inc. have also pledged to increase the lowest hourly wage for their employees.

This could be viewed as a political ploy to shame Congress or subvert the typical process by which Washington works. In contrast, Obama’s strategy works with one of the standard lines about big-city mayors: they can’t be as partisan as legislators or those in the executive branch because they have to attend to more practical details on a regular basis. In other words, they have to make sure their cities work and can’t afford to get bogged down in ideological standoffs. (Interestingly, I heard this again recently at a conference in Chicago and there was some open laughter.)

That said, economic issues would certainly matter to many mayors as they need jobs for citizens as well as the economic benefits that come with jobs and economic growth (increased population, more tax revenues, increased prestige, etc.). Of course, there is disagreement about how to best do this. Chicago mayor Rahm Emanuel presents some of these contrasts. Is he pro-Walmart? He certainly seems to like attracting big corporations and tech start-ups. Is he truly interested in economic development in poorer neighborhoods? How much influence do wealthy businesspeople have in Chicago? He was behind raising the minimum wage in Chicago. Can he be considered non-partisan?

Whether Congress acts or not, cities and metropolitan regions are large economic engines and their leaders do have some latitude in policies that could encourage or discourage economic growth.

Naperville appoints first mayor emeritus

A new Pradel-less era is underway in Naperville – or not, considering he was just named mayor emeritus

All city council members said they agreed with the sentiment of recognizing Pradel and giving him a title from which to continue volunteering to represent the city at ceremonial events, as he has done so frequently for the past two decades…

The resolution creates the honorary position of “mayor emeritus” specifically for Pradel and only for as long as Steve Chirico, who proposed the position, is mayor. As mayor rmeritus, Pradel, 77, is envisioned to act as a “goodwill ambassador” for the city at ceremonial functions, and to do so without a salary or a budget…

But council member Becky Anderson said she thinks Pradel’s is a special case. He’s the city’s longest-serving mayor who also worked nearly 30 years as a police officer and became known as “Officer Friendly.” Anderson called Pradel Naperville’s “favored son.”

An interesting move that allows Pradel to do what many said was the thing he did best: be a cheerleader for Naperville. Yet, this raises two additional issues for me:

1. This could be viewed either as trying to maintain some continuity with the past (not necessarily a bad thing in a community that has been pretty successful in recent decades) or an inability to move on from the past and seize the new era.

2. Why don’t more local governments have such cheerleader/figurehead positions? This may be written into the jobs for certain people – say, mayors in certain forms of government who don’t have much power or economic development directors – but not everyone has the skills to do this. If countries have these sorts of positions – a president or prime minister who shows the public face but the real work is done elsewhere by other people – why not local governments? My first guess would be that they wouldn’t want another salary to pay.

“So what are the rules of ethnography, and who enforces them?”

A journalist looking into the Goffman affair discusses the ethics of ethnography:

To find out, I called several sociologists and anthropologists who had either done ethnographic research of their own or had thought about the methodology from an outside perspective. Ethnography, they explained, is a way of doing research on groups of people that typically involves an extended immersion in their world. If you’re an ethnographer, they said, standard operating procedure requires you to take whatever steps you need to in order to conceal the identities of everyone in your sample population. Unless you formally agree to fulfill this obligation, I was told, your research proposal will likely be blocked by the institutional review board at your university…

The frustration is not merely a matter of academics resenting oversight out of principle. Many researchers think the uncompromising demand for total privacy has a detrimental effect on the quality of scholarship that comes out of the social sciences—in part because anonymization makes it impossible to fact-check the work…

According to Goffman, her book is no less true than Leovy’s or LeBlanc’s. That’s because, as she sees it, what sociologists set out to capture in their research isn’t truths about specific individuals but general truths that tell us how the world works. In her view, On the Run is a true account because the general picture it paints of what it’s like to live in a poor, overpoliced community in America is accurate.

“Sociology is trying to document and make sense of the major changes afoot in society—that’s long been the goal,” Goffman told me. Her job, she said, as a sociologist who is interested in the conditions of life in poor black urban America, is to identify “things that recur”—to observe systemic realities that are replicated in similar neighborhoods all over the country. “If something only happens once, [sociologists are] less interested in it than if it repeats,” she wrote to me in an email. “Or we’re interested in that one time thing because of what it reveals about what usually happens.” This philosophy goes back to the so-called Chicago school of sociology, Goffman added, which represented an attempt by observers of human behavior to make their work into a science “by finding general patterns in social life, principles that hold across many cases or across time.”…

Goffman herself is the first to admit that she wasn’t treating her “study subjects” as a mere sample population—she was getting to know them as human beings and rendering the conditions of their lives from up close. Her book makes for great reading precisely because it is concerned with specifics—it is vivid, tense, and evocative. At times, it reads less like an academic study of an urban environment and more like a memoir, a personal account of six years living under extraordinary circumstances. Memoirists often take certain liberties in reconstructing their lives, relying on memory more than field notes and privileging compelling narrative over strict adherence to the facts. Indeed, in a memoir I’m publishing next month, there are several moments I chose to present out of order in order to achieve a less convoluted timeline, a fact I flag for the reader in a disclaimer at the front of the book.

Not surprisingly, there is disagreement within the discipline of sociology as well as across disciplines about how ethnography could and should work. It is a research method that requires so much time and personal effort that it can be easy to tie to a particular researcher and their laudable steps or mistakes. This might miss the forest for the trees; I’ve thought for a while that we need more discussion across ethnographies rather than seeing them as either the singular work on the subject. In other words, does Goffman’s data line up with what others have found in studying race, poor neighborhoods, and the criminal justice system? And if there are not comparisons to make with Goffman’s work, why aren’t more researchers wrestling with the same topic?

Additionally, this particular discussion highlights longstanding tensions in sociology: qualitative vs. quantitative data (with one often assumed to be more “fact”); “facts” versus “interpretation”; writing academic texts versus books for more general audiences; emphasizing individual stories (which often appeals to the public) versus the big picture; dealing with outside regulations such as IRBs that may or may not be accustomed to dealing with ethnographic methods in sociology; and how to best do research to help disadvantaged communities. Some might see these tensions as more evidence that sociology (and other social sciences) simply can’t tell us much of anything. I would suggest the opposite: the realities of the social world are so complex that these tensions are necessary in gathering and interpreting comprehensive data.

Possibly dropping the word “race” from Census 2020

The Census Bureau is considering whether to use the term “race” in future surveys:

The U.S. Census Bureau is experimenting with eliminating the word “race” altogether in its 2020 survey, according to a report from the Pew Research Center on Thursday.

As part of its final research push before finalizing its 2020 wording, test-census forms will be sent to 1.2 million households later this fall in without any references to “race” or “origin.” Instead, the forms will ask: “Which categories describe person 1?” Respondents will then be able to choose from the usual list of racial and ethnic categories.

According to Pew, Census officials want to be clearer with their questions so that officials can gather more accurate data as required by law. Past testing and focus-group research has indicated confusion among found that the terms “race,” “ethnicity” and “origin” can mislead or confuse respondents, they can mean different things depending on the person answering.

“We recognize that race and ethnicity are not quantifiable values. Rather, identity is a complex mix of one’s family and social environment, historical or socio-political constructs, personal experience, context, and many other immeasurable factors,” the Census Bureau noted in a 2013 report on past testing efforts in the 2010 census. The report also recommended continued research on optimizing the use of examples for each racial and ethnic category, among other strategies…

The Bureau is also testing the use of a “Middle Eastern or North African” category within the current lineup.

It is not surprising to see such changes as the societal and Census definitions of race and ethnicity have changed quite a bit over time. Additionally, social researchers have to keep up with the changing societal definitions and understandings.

If major changes are coming in future Census surveys, how easy will it be to compare this data with past data?

Data mining for red flags indicating corruption

Two sociologists have developed a method for finding red flags of corruption in public databases:

Researchers at the University of Cambridge has developed a series of algorithms than mine public procurement data for “red flags” — signs of the abuse of public finances. Scientists interviewed experts on public corruption to identify the kinds of anomalies that might indicate something fishy.

Their research allowed them to hone in on a series of red flags, like an unusually short tender period. If a request for proposal is issued by the government on a Friday and a contract is awarded on Monday — red flag…

Some of the other red flags identified by the researchers includes tender modifications that result in larger contracts, few bidders in a typically competitive industry, and inaccessible or unusually complex tender documents…

“Imagine a mobile app containing local CRI data, and a street that’s in bad need of repair. You can find out when public funds were allocated, who to, how the contract was awarded, how the company ranks for corruption,” explained Fazekas. “Then you can take a photo of the damaged street and add it to the database, tagging contracts and companies.”

This is a good use of data mining as it doesn’t require theoretical explanations after the fact. Why not make use of such public information?

At the same time, simply finding these red flags may not be enough. I could imagine websites that track all of these findings and dog officials and candidates. Yet, are these red flags proof of corruption or just indicative that more digging needs to be done? There could be situations where officials would justify these anomalies. It could still take persistent effort and media attention to push from just noting these anomalies to suggesting a response is required.