Living through history or sociological processes

With rapid changes in the world, it can be easy to see how this might be a notable historical moment that people in the future will look back on.

But, I cannot help think of the sociological processes that we are seeing at play right now. Pandemics and diseases have come before yet not in the era of such globalization, Internet and smartphones, and particular political, economic, and social conditions. There will be history about this all but here are just a few of the sociological processes we are truly seeing in action:

-Globalization. The travel and interconnectedness that is normal now has particular implications for diseases as well as the consequences.

-The shift toward the Internet and smartphones enables new methods for work as well as the possibility of information and knowledge to go all sorts of directions.

-Political and economic consequences of social actions. As just one example, social distancing can help combat the pandemic but it threatens many taken-for-granted interactions and settings. Small talk and being around other people should not be taken for granted; they are part of the social order.

-Health is a social issue, from its definition to how it plays out in individual lives and societies.

And this is just a start. There is already a lot of opinions out there about how the pandemic will change society once the disease disappears. We will have to wait and see. Sure, this will all be history at some point but for now there are a lot of sociological material to think through.

Changing the Y-axis scale across graphs – to good effect

In a look at COVID-19 cases across countries, the New York Times changed the Y-axis on the different graphs:

COVID19CurvesAcrossCountries

Typically, readers of graphs should beware when someone changes the scale on the Y-axis; this leads to issues when interpreting the data and can make it look like trends are present when they are not. See two earlier posts – misleading charts of 2015, State of the Union data presented in 2013 – for examples.

But, in this case, adjusting the scale makes some sense. The goal is to show exponential curves, the type of change when a disease spreads throughout a population, and then hopefully a peak and decline on the right side. Some countries have very few cases – such as toward the bottom like in Morocco or Hungary or Mexico – and some have many more – like Italy or South Korea – but the general shape can be similar. Once the rise starts, it is expected to continue until something stops it. And the pattern can look similar across countries.

Also, it is helpful that the creators of this point out at the top that “Scales are adjusted in each country to make the curve more readable.” It is not always reported when Y-axes are altered – and this lack of communication could be intentional – and then readers might not pick up on the issue.

Studying elite/townspeople relations in wealthy Teton County, Wyoming

Elites have made Teton County, Wyoming a home and they have complicated relationships with local residents:

When he visits the downtown bars, “I don’t tell people that I live in a gated community. They accept me as a local,” he tells author Justin Farrell in his new book, “Billionaire Wilderness: The Ultra-Wealthy and the Remaking of the American West” (Princeton University Press), out now…

According to a 2018 report from the Economic Policy Institute, the wealthiest 1 percent in Teton County bring in an annual income that’s approximately 142 times more than the other 99 percent of families in the county. The “average” per-capita income in Teton County is just over $251,000, the highest in the country, according to the US Department of Commerce, and the rest of Wyoming doesn’t even come close, with most counties ranging between $40,000 and $50,000 per year, and none going above $70,000. Coming second to Teton is Manhattan, where the average income is $194,000…

But it goes deeper than taxes. Over the last few decades, the wealthy “feel like they’ve been unfairly criticized and targeted,” Farrell says. “Because of the Occupy Wall Street movement and politicians like Bernie Sanders, attacking the rich has become part of the dominant discourse. I actually had a few people tell me that they’ve come to Teton County to escape the socialist revolution. Wyoming feels like a safe haven for them.”…

Stewart considered this relationship, and others he had with lower-income locals, to be authentic and equitable, but as Farrell points out, “his friendships are often based on economic exchange and uneven power dynamics.”…

Claire Drury, who lives in Teton County but is far from rich, has a thinly veiled disgust for her wealthy neighbors. “Yeah, yeah, yeah, the ultra-wealthy are befriending us savages while drinking a really nice 1976 Bordeaux,” she told Farrell. “It is reminiscent of all the Buffalo Bill Wild West shows, [with] the noble savages sitting there stiff as a board while their photos are being taken in some sort of sepia-toned thing.”

It is rare to find studies of the elite that includes more direct data including interviews. For a variety of reasons, sociologists tend to focus with elites in an aggregate or from a distance. And one advantage of having money and/or power is that people can exert some control of who has access to them.

And yet, this also sounds like a neighborhood or community study (albeit in a more rural area), a common feature of American sociology for over one hundred years. Even the wealthiest members of Chicago’s Gold Coast could not easily ignore the more difficult conditions just down the street from them (from the classic study The Gold Coast and the Slum). Elites do not exist outside of communities and interactions with people around them. How they get along with others – or not – is worth considering as is how these interactions affect broader communities and could affect the influential ways that elites can act.

 

 

The scale of warehouse and intermodal facilities in Will County, Illinois

As residents and local officials in Joliet and Will County debated a proposal for a new 1,300 acre office park, WBEZ put the size of the issue at hand in perspective:

The county is home to the largest inland port in North America and 3.5% of the nation’s GDP passes through here…

And $65 billion worth of products moves through Will County annually, according to the Will County Center for Economic Development.

In other words, this an important area for the current economy and the land use case has local, regional, and global implications. A few thoughts:

  1. Joliet and neighboring communities might not want the additional facilities and trucks but having these facilities in this part of the metropolitan region might be good for 9+ million residents. Balancing local interests and metropolitan interests is not easy. And the Chicago region has a lot of railroad and shipping bottlenecks.
  2. This is a symptom of larger economic changes as the economy became globalized, shipping goods across the country and on-time delivery became common, and Internet sales picked up. The effects may be local but Will County is part of a larger system.
  3. The changes in Joliet over time are striking, The news story hinted at how the community, what social worker Graham Romeyn Taylor in Satellite Cities: A Study of Industrial Suburbs in 1915 would have called an “industrial suburb,” has changed:

“Three steel mills closed. Caterpillar went from 8,000 people to a little over a thousand. We had numerous manufacturing plants shuttered,” said John Grueling, president and CEO of the Will County Center for Economic Development.

No other county in Illinois has seen job growth like Will County. It’s the epicenter of transportation for goods that move across the region and country with North America’s largest inland port. Now another real estate company wants to expand in the area by developing a logistics business park, and its raising concerns about the future of the county.

In summary: local land use decisions can have big impacts.

(See an earlier post about how the Will County community of Elwood responded to a large intermodal facility.)

Americans like their private single-family homes – but maybe less if forced to be there

The 2000 book Suburban Nation is a New Urbanist declaration. It includes this argument regarding the public and private realms in the United States:

Americans may have the finest private realm in the developed world, but our public realm is brutal. (41)

This comes amidst a discussion of the suburban single-family home, one of the most attractive features of suburbia for Americans. American homes are large, providing plenty of space for occupants, a range of activities, and vehicles. They can be filled with all sorts of consumer goods, from electronics to clothes to media to equipment for hobbies. Through the Internet and other connected devices, occupants can access all sorts of information, videos, music, and other parts of the world. The homes can be the single largest investment for many. They are often separated from other dwellings (or at most share a wall or two). For decades, Americans have promoted, built, and purchased such homes.

All of this may be good for many Americans but what do these private realms feel like when the occupants cannot leave? It is one thing to choose these private spaces; it is another to be pushed by outside forces to stay in them. With the spread of COVID-19, people are being encouraged to stay home. Does “the finest private realm” become confining when one cannot easily leave?

We are about to find out. Even if Americans might prefer their private realms, some might miss the public realm or the easy opportunities to visit other private realms (such as stores and shopping malls). This may not lead to a revival of public spaces but it might remind some homeowners that the private realm has limitations.

Infectious diseases in urban and suburban life

Americans already have a predilection for suburban life; might a global pandemic push even more people out of cities and to the edges of metropolitan regions? One take regarding safety in suburban life:

As maps like this show, major metropolitan areas are bearing the brunt of the Covid-19 infections spreading across North America. And that makes sense: Though there’s no way to know for sure how the virus arrived, it almost certainly came by way of an international flight to a major airport (or several of them). But while infectious disease spreads faster where people are more densely clustered — hence the strategy of social distancing to contain the coronavirus — that doesn’t necessarily make suburban or rural areas safer, health experts say…

That is not to say that cities aren’t Petri dishes — they are. Relative to rural areas, urban centers do provide stronger chains of viral transmission, with higher rates of contact and larger numbers of infection-prone people. And historically, urbanites paid a price for this vulnerability…

Modern transportation networks have made the population shield that rural areas once provided much more porous. Now that humans and freight can travel from, say, Hong Kong to Los Angeles in less than 13 hours — and arrive by vehicle to somewhere sparsely populated hours after that — outbreaks can happen just about anywhere. New pathogens tend to arrive sooner in global hubs, but that doesn’t mean they can’t quickly reach rural locales and proliferate from there, says Benjamin Dalziel, a professor of mathematics at Oregon State University who studies population dynamics…

But while the CDC recommends decreasing social contact to limit the spread of the virus, that’s just as doable in a downtown apartment as a countryside manor. Says Viboud: “If you’re staying at home and limiting outside contact, you’d achieve the same purpose.”

Three thoughts come to mind:

  1. This highlights the connectedness of cities and suburbs today, even if there is significant physical distance separating communities. The rate at which people travel around the world, to other regions, and throughout regions is high compared to all of human history and is relatively easy to do. Cities and suburbs are not separate places; they are parts of interdependent regions that are highly connected to other places.
  2. Safety and health was a part of creating the suburbs in the United States but it is hard to know how this might matter in the future. Given all the reasons people now settle in the suburbs, would avoiding communicable diseases be a top factor? I would think not, particularly compared to factors like housing prices or amenities (schools, quality of life, etc.), or demographics.
  3. If particular places are not that much safer, does the sprawl of American life then limit the response to any illness? Imagine the Chicago region with dozens of hospitals that need to be equipped spread throughout the region as opposed to that same number of people packed into a smaller area where it is easier to get supplies and people to medical facilities. Or, the need to supply grocery stores throughout a huge region.

The advantages McMansions may offer for working from home

With coronavirus pushing more people to work from home, I have seen more advice about setting up a home workspace. I found one example that suggests workers in all kinds of homes face similar challenges:

First things first: As we’re learning, there’s no “normal” with the coronavirus. But that also applies to where you live. “Home workers” now include apartment dwellers, Millennials who share a house, Midwesterners with basements, suburbanites in McMansions, and more. You’ll have to figure out what works for you, within your own unique environment. Still, some rules apply to just about everyone.

Is this true? Do McMansion-dwellers have any advantages in working out of their large homes? A few ideas:

  1. All that space means McMansion occupants have plenty of options to choose from regarding where to work. They could even rotate (though these articles tend to emphasize making one space a clearly delineated work space).
  2. All that space also means they can keep their distance from all other occupants.
  3. Although the McMansion might have a lot of open common space, there are likely parts of the house that can be pretty quiet and separate from other activities.
  4. Related to #1-3, who likes open office plans?
  5. If a worker needs to bring lots of materials home, the McMansion likely has a lot of storage space. A temporary home office might barely be noticed.
  6. Because of the size of the home, the walk from the office space to the kitchen or bathroom could be a sufficient break or help the worker acquire their needed steps.
  7. The McMansion home worker pressed for cash could rent out a room or create a coworking space (while attending to local zoning codes, of course).
  8. There could be enough space to recreate the spaces in a large office building, ranging from a workout room to a large eating area to spacious bathroom to room to spread out one’s work.

Americans like their private spaces but being confined to one’s home for a few weeks may just reinforce the desire of some to have plenty of space.