The best ASA talk I heard: Hampton and Wellman on moral panics and “persistent-pervasive” community

Internet and community scholars presented a paper on Sunday at the ASA meetings that addressed the widespread social concerns – or moral panic – over the loss of community and relationships due to smartphones, social media, and the Internet. They argue this particular argument is nothing new. For at least a century, Westerners and sociologists have argued various technological and social changes have harmed traditional notions of community. I’ll do my best to summarize the argument and they explained it should be in a published piece soon.

At the beginning of the discipline of sociology, leading figures lamented the loss of close-knit communities. Often based in villages or small cities, these societies were marked by close ties, shared cultural values, and limited interaction with the outside world. Tönnies called this gemeinscahft and Durkheim labeled it mechanical solidarity. The development of capitalism, industrialization, and megacities upended these traditional ways of life with increased mobility, moving away from relatives, and the fragmentation of collective values. Tönnies called this gesellschaft and Durkheim termed this organic solidarity. Marx also responded to these major social changes by arguing workers experienced alienation as they were now cogs in a capitalistic machine rather than free individuals. Writing specifically about cities, Simmel worried that dense population centers would lead to overstimulated minds and cause mental distress.

But, the changes kept coming. Urbanization took off – and is still happening at amazing rates in many parts of the world – and was later supplanted by suburbanization in the United States (and a few other countries). Critics also claimed suburbanization ruined community. Whereas urban residents interacted with numerous neighbors and often lived in ethnic enclaves, suburbs moved people to private single-family homes, encouraged individual interests, and produced conformity. Numerous critics inside and outside sociology argued suburbs limits civil society.

The Internet, smartphones, and social media then disrupted suburban communities with a move away from the limits of proximity and geography. Now, users could interact with other users unconstrained by time and space. Close ties could be abandoned in favor of ties based on common interests. Users had little reason to contribute to civil society based on geography. As Jean Twenge argued in The Atlantic, the introduction of the iPhone marks a turning point toward a host of negative individual and collective outcomes.

Hampton and Wellman make this point: all of these technological and social changes and their effects on communities afforded both new opportunities and limitations. In a shift from close-knit communities to post-industrial community to what they now call “persistent-pervasive community,” people gained things and lost others. The new form of community offers two primary strengths: the ability to engage in long-term relationships that in the past would have disappeared as people moved geographically and socially as well as a new awareness of information, people, and the world around them. Going back to earlier stages of community, a world of closer face-to-face bonds or geographically-bounded relationships, might lead to negative outcomes like repression, conformity, hierarchy, constraints, and a lack of awareness of important causes like social justice and equality.

In the end, should a moral panic push Americans back toward an earlier form of community or should we recognize that the persistent-pervasive community of today contains both opportunities and threats?

(Three reasons why I resonated with this talk. First, it combines two areas of research in which I engage: suburban communities and social network site use. Both are communities and institutions yet they are typically treated as separate spheres. Additionally, both are relatively ignored by mainstream sociology even as more than 50% of Americans live in suburbs and the vast majority of Americans are affected by the Internet and social media. Second, a balanced approach where social change is recognized as having both positive and negative consequences fits my personality as well as my research findings. Sometimes, the negative consequences of social change are easy to identify but often the change happens because groups and institutions believe there is something to be gained by changes. Third, while there is always a danger in simplified explanations of large-scale social change, I think sociologists can contribute much by explaining broad changes over time.)

“One Naperville” sticker, more diverse suburb

While recently at a rest stop in Indiana, I saw a minivan with an Illinois license plate and this sticker on the back:

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Given the uniqueness of the sticker and my scholarly interest in Naperville, I almost snapped a picture of the vehicle but did not feel so inclined with its passengers standing not too far away. Instead, I found the image on the Internet. I do not know if there are ongoing “One Naperville” efforts but I found an event from September 11, 2016 commemorating 9/11 put on by the Naperville Interfaith Leadership Alliance. The similarities in style to the “Coexist” bumper stickers are due to the makers of this sticker (see bottom right). The peacemonger.org people are the same ones behind the original “Coexist” design.

Naperville is known for a number of features including its wealth, its high ranking in a number of listings of quality places (examples here, here, and here), its fast-growing population at the end of the twentieth century, its vibrant downtown, its office space along I-88, and, more recently, its diversity. According to QuickFacts from the U.S. Census Bureau:

NapervilleQuickFacts

That this large and wealthy suburb is only 68.1% white alone is notable. The diversity is noticeable in different retail establishments, those using the city’s Riverwalk, the local government naming liaisons to minority groups, and the presence of different religious groups (including mosques).

However, Naperville was not always this way.

CREATE plan slowly moves to address Chicago area railroad congestion

An expensive and sizable project aims to solve the train congestion in the Chicago region:

CREATE takes an incremental approach to fixing rail gridlock in the suburbs and Chicago, the nation’s busiest rail hub.

One overpass here, two extra tracks there, and eventually freight trains will be chugging along instead of noisily idling in your neighborhood while emitting diesel fumes.

The downside is the cost — a staggering $4.4 billion to fix the region’s outdated rail infrastructure.

Despite funding challenges, 29 out of 70 CREATE projects in the region have been completed with $1 billion spent, Association of American Railroads Chief Engineer for CREATE William Thompson explained during a recent tour…

The Chicago region handles a whopping 25 percent of freight traffic in the U.S. That means almost 500 freight trains and 760 Metra and Amtrak trains pass through the region daily. Completing the Chicago Region Environmental and Transportation Efficiency Program that builds bridges and new track will mean the metro area can host 50,000 more freight trains a year by 2051.

The Chicago area is a critical railroad hub for the entire nation. Yet, given the amount of development in the region, making significant changes is difficult. For example, construction at O’Hare Airport is held up by a dispute over railroad land adjacent to the busy facility. Or, suburban residents and communities do not like it when freight traffic is increased near them even if benefits the region as a whole. Or, getting rid of the many at-grade crossings is a slow process. This is another good illustration of how foresight – addressing these issues decades ago as the region was growing at a face pace – could have cut off numerous later issues.

Also, I am intrigued by the last line from the article quoted above. I assume most of the region’s residents would assume that the amount of time and money poured into this project would eventually mean that they would encounter fewer trains. And this might be the case if more bridges, underpasses, and routes around the outskirts of the region limit the vehicular contact with trains. Yet, increasing the number of freight trains by 50,000 means more noise and possibly more traffic issues at the points in the transportation grid where trains and vehicles still come in contact. Would the majority of residents want 50,000 new trains? I would guess no even if it is essential to their day-to-day lives (delivering goods and food, etc.).

 

What it costs to maintain dozens of pieces of public art in Naperville

Naperville’s Riverwalk and downtown features dozens of works of art. However, it takes resources to keep that art nice and to keep adding new pieces:

In 2016, the city started to set aside about $50,000 a year for maintenance of public art from its food and beverage tax revenue, which is pooled into a fund named for the activities it supports — Special Events and Cultural Amenities.

Since its founding in 1996, Century Walk has installed works at 48 locations, some of which involve several pieces by large numbers of artists, and others that involve intricate or large-scale works by individual talents…

Others on the council agree, but some say there should be a stronger focus on planning for the future of Naperville’s outdoor art, setting aside money for maintenance or requiring future projects to come with some sort of endowment for their long-term care. Century Walk Chairman Brand Bobosky, for his part, wants the city’s maintenance fund increased and coupled with money for new art creation, to the tune of $200,000 a year…

In the past three years, Mondero has repaired the broken tiles on the bench damaged by skateboards, rebuilt a wall called “Man’s Search for Knowledge Through the Ages” that was damaged by a vehicle, repainted two murals, bolted the arm of a sculpted man to hold it in place and cleaned several plaques.

Not all suburbs would be willing to (1) initiate public art in the first place and then (2) invest city resources into it. Yet, Naperville clearly sees it as part of the package it offers to residents and visitors: come to the Riverwalk, enjoy the vibrant suburban downtown, and take in the public art that often commemorates the suburb’s past. The art is not exactly edgy; Naperville is not going after street art or modern art (see the example of the Bart Simpson image that popped up a few years ago). The art that Naperville does have is intended to help tell the community’s story and present interesting visual displays for visitors.

Whether the public art can come first and help create a vibrant suburban area is debatable. Plenty of suburban communities want mixed-use areas that bring in visitors and generate revenue and art is often viewed as part of that package. But, it is unlikely that public art alone could create such a setting. The suburb would already need a confluence of enough residents, resources to apply to such an area, and a good plan for development or redevelopment.

Multiple factors behind why younger Americans may fewer homes in their lifetime

A report on the real estate market in the Chicago region hints at a possible trend to watch: Americans will buy fewer homes in their lifetime.

Many first-time buyers share the Joshis’ perspective that it’s smarter to find the right house to grow into than to get a toehold in the market with a starter house, only to see much of that early equity sapped by transaction costs a few years later when moving up to a larger house.

“When we started looking, I had in mind a starter house, but it was so exhausting to look that we thought, no, one and done,” says Vrushank Joshi.

There are numerous societal changes that contribute to this:

  1. People are getting married later and going to school longer. This means they are not buying a home in early adulthood as often and are waiting longer to purchase their first place.
  2. With more education, increasing student loans means it takes longer for potential owners to save money for a down payment.
  3. Fewer starter homes have been constructed in recent years.
  4. Mobility is down in recent years as Americans seem interested in staying in places for longer.
  5. The specter of the late 2000s housing bubble haunts possible buyers.

A system that used to rely on people starting with a smaller product and then working their way up over a lifetime may have to make some major adjustments if Americans buy fewer and different homes compared to before.

Building and buying larger homes leads to “McMansion envy”?

Here is the full Bankrate.com headline of the story I discussed yesterday about Americans buying larger homes:

McMansion envy spreads as Americans demand more bedrooms, baths

What is “McMansion envy”? The common sense interpretation seems clear: people see and desire McMansions. Yet, this gets complicated fairly quickly for a number of reasons.

  1. The data then presented in the story does indeed tell a tale of Americans buying larger homes. But, not all large homes are McMansions.
  2. There is no other mention of the term McMansion. While the term seems to be a stand-in for large homes in general, there are also references in the story to homes with more and flashier features (including more bedrooms and bathrooms as well as higher-end finishes, though this last part is difficult to defend with Census data).
  3. McMansion is a pejorative term and few real estate listings or homeowners proudly use the term to describe their homes. Instead, the term typically refers to tacky or garish large homes (see McMansion Hell for an example).
  4. Indeed, the exact definition of a McMansion is more complicated than just a big home or a poorly-designed home. I argue McMansions have four possible traits.

I do not expect this concept of “McMansion envy” to spread except for critics of larger homes and McMansions who want to describe some sort of sickness from which Americans suffer.

 

Suburban culture and voters summed up by Furbys, soccer moms, and two minivans

Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez made recent comments about who Democratic House members are and who are they are trying to appeal to. Her argument about these leaders being stuck in “90s politics” included this bit:

Their heyday was in the ’90s when kids had, like, Furbys, and soccer moms had, like, two vans. That’s not America anymore!

While a number of suburbanites and right-wing commentators have suggested her comments are off-base and are attacking a suburban way of life, she is both right and wrong:

  1. The American suburbs have changed. They are more non-white and poorer than they were in the 1990s. Ocasio-Cortez’s own life story is a testament to these changes. The suburbs today are much more diverse.
  2. She cites several material markers of suburban culture from the 1990s: Furbys and minivans. These were indeed real and to some degree are not as popular today. However, replace the minivan with the hipper SUV and there is little difference. (Additionally, she could have strengthened her case by adding McMansions to the 1990s mix since they arose as a term in this decade.)
  3. The “soccer moms” claim is the most interesting one to me. On one hand, it was political shorthand from the 1990s to describe a group that both parties wanted to target: women in the suburbs who drove their kids to soccer games and other activities. Those people still exist and, if anything, the number of suburban activities kids normally pursue has probably only increased. On the other hand, rarely do political candidates or prognosticators talk about soccer moms even as the current battleground is the middle suburbs. While Ocasio-Cortez has to think about her own potential constituents, there are still plenty of suburbanites who would be turned off by talk claiming that their time is over. Even if soccer moms is not a valid category (nor is NASCAR dads), suburban voters in their multiple strata are still worth courting.

To sum up, the majority of Americans still live in suburbs. Suburban communities and culture may have changed but the interests of suburbanites still matter in local, state, and national races.