The popular colors coming to your home: green (it’s healthy), blue (it’s comfortable), grey (fits with stainless steel appliances)

The president of the Color Marketing Group discusses what colors are popular for homes today:

A small example: A while back we looked at the emerging interest (in the United States) in herb gardening, as it moved from suburban yards into urban areas. (We thought consumers) would find themselves relating closer and closer to herbal green colors in general. And yes, there has been an uptick in attraction toward this “healthy” green in the past few years. People find themselves saying, that would be a nice hue for my home.

About a year ago, CMG predicted that blue would dominate color movement for the next several years. This can show up in clothing fairly quickly, but in some industries, such as the auto industry, that can take a few years.

We picked blue to grow because people perceive it as stable and comfortable, reflecting how they’re more likely looking at their world these days. However, tastes in blue are moving away from denim and indigo: The actual CMG color of the year was a midrange one we called Re-Blued, which works with lots of colors of the palette, from warm to cool…

Seriously, though, gray is coming because so many of us have stainless-steel appliances in our kitchens. That has led to a gray movement in the kitchen. It’s in paint, but we see it in cabinets in stains over wood or in painted gray finishes. Or it shows up in accent colors — people look at driftwood gray and say, that’s a color I can live with for a long time. Europeans may change their kitchens every two or three years, but Americans live with their kitchens a lot longer.

Plus, gray is new — it’s a color that’s not anything that a generation before has seen in kitchens.

This is a good reminder of how while homeowners might think their furnishings and design choices are an expression of their individual tastes, choices are often shaped by an industry that wants to sell products and what these products mean. Colors and design choices run in cycles – remember those harvest gold appliances? – but consumers may not be behind much of this.

It is interesting to see green pick up steam because it is perceived as healthy. I wonder of how much this is related to it being natural as well: plants, trees, vegetables, healthy walls.

The “rather odd and haphazard set of rules” of the world’s most popular game

A paragraph in a story on soccer’s current place in the world serves as a reminder of the “serendipitous” aspect of the development of games and sports:

If you take a step back from it for a moment, our obsession with the World Cup is truly bizarre, even totally irrational. Soccer is, like all games, made up of a rather odd and haphazard set of rules. Nineteenth century English teachers and students developed them, and eventually the rules of what became known as Association Football were codified with the 1863 Cambridge Rules. (One theory for the origin of the word “soccer” is that it is a deformation of “Association.”) But three very different games — rugby, soccer, and that global oddity American football all came out of roughly the same original soup, which is a reminder of how random the process of rule-making can be.

To fans, the rules of a game seem almost natural, like they have always been that way. But, this paragraph highlights the historical contingency of some of our favorite pastimes: they were created by a particular set of humans in a particular historical and social context and continue to be altered by these changing contexts. While it’s hard to imagine a world without soccer or the World Cup, these are human inventions that might not have happened except for particular actions and conditions.

Another way to think about it is to imagine an alien creature visiting Earth. Without knowing the particulars of how a sport development, they might think the particular set of rules and norms are arbitrary. Why 11 players on a team and not 10 or 12? Why has the offside rule changed numerous times over the years? Why not have two balls in play? Why can’t players use their hands? Some of these questions might be easier to answer than others but they highlight the decision-making that had to happen regarding rules.

“A staggering migration” of hundreds of millions to Chinese cities

A New York Times video highlights the large number of Chinese residents the government intends to resettle to cities in the new two decades. Three quick thoughts on the video:

1. Yes, the scale of urbanization in China is astounding. As the video notes, China’s urbanization rate has approached Western levels in a matter of decades while it took centuries in the West.

2. The video argues that the rapid urbanization in recent years was more natural while the planned urbanization in the next 15 years is more forced by the government. I think this is an odd choice of words: “natural” versus “forced.” This seems to borrow from a typical US/Western explanation that people are free to make choices between urban, suburban, and rural areas. It may feel this way for those with money but it obscures that there are plenty of social forces, such as economic opportunities or race/ethnicity, that “push” and “pull” people away from certain areas. “Forced” seems more correct for official government policy that will require people to move but as a sociologist, I would be very hesitant to suggest social process were inevitable or “natural” or that individuals are complete free agents who can live where they like.

3. The visual in the video is unique. I understand the purpose: to give people the sense of just how large this urban resettlement in China will be. And it is visually more interesting than a graph. At the same time, it is odd to put so many major metropolitan areas in a line. The cities are geographically disparate so why line them up?

Kotkin: “The Triumph of Suburbia”

Joel Kotkin argues the suburbs have clearly won in the United States:

But the simple fact remains that the single-family home has remained the American dream, with sales outpacing those of condominiums  and co-ops despite the downturn.

Florida has suggested that simply stating the numbers makes me a sprawl lover. While he and other urban nostalgists see the city only in its dense urban core, and the city’s role as intimately tied with the amenities that are supposed to attract the relatively wealthy members of the so-called “creative class,” I see the urban form as ever changing, and consider a city’s primary mission not aesthetic or simply economic but to serve the interests and aspirations of all of its residents.

Clearly the data supports a long-term preference for suburbs. Even as some core cities rebounded from the nadir of the 1970s, the suburban share of overall share of growth in America’s 51 major metropolitan areas (those with populations  of at least one million) has accelerated—rising from 85 percent in the ’90s to 91 percent in the ’00s. There’s more than a tinge of elitism animating the urban theorists who think that urban destiny rides mostly with the remaining nine percent matters. Overall, over 70 percent of residents in the major metropolitan areas now live in suburbs…

While they’ve weaved a compelling narrative, the numbers make it clear that the retro-urbanists only chance of prevailing is a disaster, say if the dynamics associated with the Great Recession—a rise in renting, declining home ownership and plunging birthrates—become our new, ongoing normal. Left to their own devices, Americans will continue to make the “wrong” choices about how to live.

Kotkin has been saying this for a quite a while now. On one hand, he appears to be correct: a good number of Americans like suburbs. On the other hand, others would argue there is much more going on than just individual preferences. Perhaps the whole system, from funding for highways versus mass transit, government programs intended to help people purchase homes, to a culture that idealizes autonomy and driving, is rigged in favor of the suburbs. And if this system is rigged, then people aren’t exactly making completely unconstrained choices.

The key here is that one doesn’t have to argue Kotkin’s individual choice argument is necessarily or completely wrong just because the system may be set up in a certain way. Yet, urban sociologists would tend to put the emphasis on the second explanation, that there are a number of larger social forces that promote the suburbs and have helped convince many Americans that the suburbs are the place they want to be.

Argument: Big Data reduces humans to something less than human

One commentator suggests Big Data can’t quite capture what makes humans human:

I have been browsing in the literature on “sentiment analysis,” a branch of digital analytics that—in the words of a scientific paper—“seeks to identify the viewpoint(s) underlying a text span.” This is accomplished by mechanically identifying the words in a proposition that originate in “subjectivity,” and thereby obtaining an accurate understanding of the feelings and the preferences that animate the utterance. This finding can then be tabulated and integrated with similar findings, with millions of them, so that a vast repository of information about inwardness can be created: the Big Data of the Heart. The purpose of this accumulated information is to detect patterns that will enable prediction: a world with uncertainty steadily decreasing to zero, as if that is a dream and not a nightmare. I found a scientific paper that even provided a mathematical model for grief, which it bizarrely defined as “dissatisfaction.” It called its discovery the Good Grief Algorithm.

The mathematization of subjectivity will founder upon the resplendent fact that we are ambiguous beings. We frequently have mixed feelings, and are divided against ourselves. We use different words to communicate similar thoughts, but those words are not synonyms. Though we dream of exactitude and transparency, our meanings are often approximate and obscure. What algorithm will capture “the feel of not to feel it?/?when there is none to heal it,” or “half in love with easeful Death”? How will the sentiment analysis of those words advance the comprehension of bleak emotions? (In my safari into sentiment analysis I found some recognition of the problem of ambiguity, but it was treated as merely a technical obstacle.) We are also self-interpreting beings—that is, we deceive ourselves and each other. We even lie. It is true that we make choices, and translate our feelings into actions; but a choice is often a coarse and inadequate translation of a feeling, and a full picture of our inner states cannot always be inferred from it. I have never voted wholeheartedly in a general election.

For the purpose of the outcome of an election, of course, it does not matter that I vote complicatedly. All that matters is that I vote. The same is true of what I buy. A business does not want my heart; it wants my money. Its interest in my heart is owed to its interest in my money. (For business, dissatisfaction is grief.) It will come as no surprise that the most common application of the datafication of subjectivity is to commerce, in which I include politics. Again and again in the scholarly papers on sentiment analysis the examples given are restaurant reviews and movie reviews. This is fine: the study of the consumer is one of capitalism’s oldest techniques. But it is not fine that the consumer is mistaken for the entirety of the person. Mayer-Schönberger and Cukier exult that “datafication is a mental outlook that may penetrate all areas of life.” This is the revolution: the Rotten Tomatoes view of life. “Datafication represents an essential enrichment in human comprehension.” It is this inflated claim that gives offense. It would be more proper to say that datafication represents an essential enrichment in human marketing. But marketing is hardly the supreme or most consequential human activity. Subjectivity is not most fully achieved in shopping. Or is it, in our wired consumerist satyricon?

“With the help of big data,” Mayer-Schönberger and Cukier continue, “we will no longer regard our world as a string of happenings that we explain as natural and social phenomena, but as a universe comprised essentially of information.” An improvement! Can anyone seriously accept that information is the essence of the world? Of our world, perhaps; but we are making this world, and acquiescing in its making. The religion of information is another superstition, another distorting totalism, another counterfeit deliverance. In some ways the technology is transforming us into brilliant fools. In the riot of words and numbers in which we live so smartly and so articulately, in the comprehensively quantified existence in which we presume to believe that eventually we will know everything, in the expanding universe of prediction in which hope and longing will come to seem obsolete and merely ignorant, we are renouncing some of the primary human experiences. We are certainly renouncing the inexpressible. The other day I was listening to Mahler in my library. When I caught sight of the computer on the table, it looked small.

I think there are a couple of arguments possible about the limitations of big data and Wieseltier is making a particular argument. He does not appear to be saying that big data can’t predict or model human complexity. And fans of big data would probably say the biggest issue is that we simply don’t have enough data yet and we are developing better and better models. In other words, our abilities and data will eventually catch up to the problem of complexity. But I think Wieseltier is arguing something else: he, along with many others, does not want humans to be reduced to information. Even if we had the best models, it is one thing to see people as complex individuals and yet another to say they are simply another piece of information. Doing the latter takes away the dignity of people. Reducing people to data means we stop seeing people as people that can change their minds, be creative, and confound predictions.

It will be interesting to see how this plays out in the coming years. I think this is the same fear many people have about statistics. Particularly in our modern world where we see ourselves as sovereign individuals, describing statistical trends to people strikes them as reducing their own agency and negating their own experiences. Of course, this is not what statistics is about and something more training in statistics could help change. But, how we talk about data and its uses might go a long way to how big data is viewed in the future.

“The moral self of bankers and brokers”

A recent article in American Sociological Review looks at how some bankers and brokers were able to help lead the country toward recession:

Those bankers, stockbrokers, and mortgage lenders whose actions helped cause the recession were able to act as they did, seemingly without shame or guilt, perhaps because their moral identity standard was set at a low level, and the behavior that followed from their personal standard went unchallenged by their colleagues, said Jan E. Stets, a sociologist with the University of California in Riverside.
“To the extent that others verify or confirm the meanings set by a person’s identity standard and expressed in a person’s behavior, the more the person will continue to engage in these behaviors,” said Stets, co-author of “A Theory of the Self for the Sociology of Morality” in the February issue of the American Sociological Review. “If others have a low moral identity and do not challenge the illicit behavior that follows from a person’s identity standard, then the person will continue to do what he or she is doing. This is how immoral practices can emerge.”
Studying the moral self is opportune given the practices of bankers, stockbrokers, and mortgage lenders whose behavior, in some cases, helped facilitate the recent recession in the United States, said Stets and fellow researcher Michael J. Carter of California State University at Northridge.
“The fact that a few greedy actors have the potential to damage the lives of many brings issues of right and wrong, good and bad, and just and unjust to public awareness,” they said. “To understand the illicit behavior of some, we need to study the moral dimension of the self and what makes some individuals more dishonest than others.”

This sounds like a good illustration of some basic sociological principles: personal aspects of the self can be heavily influenced by their context. Humans have agency but their options are constrained and influenced by the social environment in which they find themselves.

Here is what I wonder: can regulations alone successfully promote a higher personal identity standard?

Another question: are Americans angry/distraught/upset about moral lapses from individual actors within the financial industry or with the entire system? In other words, do Americans blame the context or the bad actors? In thinking about this, do most Americans even know who the main individuals involved in the economic recession are (beyond government officials)?

Sociology: the study of constrained choices

I recent saw a blurb about a new online course that explores how sociology explains how we make choices:

In his lecture “If You’re So Free, Why Do You Follow Others? The Sociology and Science Behind Social Networks,” part of Floating University’s Great Big Ideas course, Christakis explains why individual actions are inextricably linked to sociological pressures. Whether you’re absorbing altruism performed by someone you’ll never meet or deciding to jump off the Golden Gate Bridge, collective phenomena affect every aspect of your life.

Christakis is well-known for research in recent years that shows things like obesity and emotions spreading through social networks and affecting friends of friends.

But this larger idea about constrained choices is interesting. When faced with a new Introduction to Sociology class at the beginning of the semester, this is one of the ideas that I present to them: sociology is less interested in how individuals make their individual choices and more interested in how larger social factors, society, culture, institutions, networks, etc., constrain the choices of individuals in certain ways. While we live in a culture that loves to celebrate individual choice, we don’t really have completely free choices to make. Common areas of analysis in sociology, such as race, social class, and gender, can open up or limit possible choices for individuals.

Of course, there are sociologists more interested in individual choice. This has led to a larger debate in the discipline between agency and structure. But overall, sociologists tend to focus more than other disciplines on social factors that often unknowingly affect all of us.

UPDATE 12/21/11: The Washington Post gives more information on this course that will be offered on a few elite college campuses as well as online.

Sociology: helping us move beyond common sense (and individualistic) understandings of the world

This overview of the recent book Everything is Obvious Once You Know the Answer: How Common Sense Fails Us does a decent job in explaining why sociology helps us move beyond common sense understandings of the world:

This thought-provoking book challenges the universal belief that management decisions based on common sense – rooted in best practices, hunches and experiences – often lead to the best outcomes.  According to the book, the reality ends up being quite different.  Relying too much on common sense often leads well-intentioned and intelligent people to make poor strategic and tactical decisions in areas such as capital investments, product introductions, new market entry and advertising decisions.

Watt’s supposition is that people give too much credence to their prior and accumulated experiences, history in general and what they perceive as best practices when making decisions.  According to the research, a person’s common sense is faulty for a number of reasons:  it contains intrinsic bias; it is based on unproven or wrong assumptions and; it is too difficult to deduce clear-cut conclusions and action steps from an environment that is overly complex or unclear…

Relying on common sense for decisions or to make predictions has dangerous implications.  For one thing, reality is usually very different from what was first imagined.  The future is quite complex and rarely reflects the same conditions that earlier decisions were based on.  As a result, it is highly unlikely positive outcomes will repeat themselves if the individual relies solely on history.  In my consulting experience,  the higher degree of uncertainty around a decision or potential outcome, the more likely senior executives will rely on subjective criteria like common sense or best practices as a basis for decision making.

I’ve made a similar argument to students: we tend to operate on a day-to-day basis by seeing things in terms of how we have seen or experienced them before. We make patterns out of things (we are pattern-making creatures) that have happened to us regardless of the amount of information to back up our conclusions. New information is then filtered through these older constructs. When confronted with new information that doesn’t “fit,” we have to ignore it, fit it into our old constructs, or develop new constructs.

Thinking sociologically means that we move beyond this individualistic level in a couple of ways:

1. We try to take a broad overview, recognizing that the world is complicated and many things are related. Instead of just thinking about how something affects us, we look at how systems are connected and social processes take place. The question is more “how does the whole affect the individual” rather than “how does the individual fit within the whole.”

2. Conclusions should be based on data that is collected and analyzed in ways that minimize individual level bias. Though we often are unable to create perfect models or understanding, we can make good estimates.

I may have to try out this description with my students to see what they think.

Meritocracy vs. structures illustrated by a British rapper who chose LSE over Cambridge

I have seen a number of stories in recent days about a 17 year old British rapper from a disadvantaged area, Franklyn Addo, who had a choice to study at five British universities, including Cambridge. In The Guardian, Addo explains why he chose to study sociology at the London School of Economics (LSE):

The real reasons that lead me to my decision – one I did not take lightly – are much more significant than the lack of a “music scene”. Having meticulously assessed the content of the courses offered at LSE and Cambridge, I decided I would be more suited to the course in London. Crucially, studying at LSE also makes more financial sense, as I would not have to pay for accommodation.

Obtaining an offer from Oxbridge is such a rarity, especially for people like me who come from a relatively deprived area. This causes some to believe that the interview process is bound to be extremely scary. Contrary to this, I found the interview was not frightening; the environment was pleasant and the interviewers welcoming. I enjoyed having a formal conversation about concepts within sociology, a field I am passionate about. After being given time to digest a case study, two interviewers quizzed me about the information I was given and assessed my ability to make links between sociological, psychological and political concepts. If you are knowledgeable about the subject you’re applying for, the interview process is likely to be enjoyable, although indubitably challenging.

Indeed, from my personal experience, Cambridge appears to be meritocratic and non-discriminatory, although the demographics of current undergraduate students may suggest differently. Some of my peers view Oxbridge as a desirable goal to which some aspire, but others see it as an elitist institution; perhaps due to the false belief that it is impossible for them to receive offers to study there. People from deprived areas must assess their way of thinking and begin to understand that society is becoming increasingly meritocratic and that anything is possible with hard work.

Furthermore, schools and colleges should encourage people who have the academic ability to apply and help them with the process – as my sociology teacher at Woodhouse College in Barnet, Nazia Rahim, did with me. She provided me with extracurricular help, a mock interview for Cambridge and was pivotal in developing my understanding that I can achieve what I set my mind to. Schools and authority figures should be active in empowering the local community to aim high from a young age and encourage young people to take part in extracurricular activities so they are attractive applicants to whichever university they decide upon, or whatever career they decide to pursue.

What interests me in this account is how he describes reactions to Oxbridge (referring to Cambridge and Oxford): are they elitist or meritocratic? Addo seems to subscribe to the meritocratic argument, suggesting “society is becoming increasingly meritocratic and that anything is possible with hard work.” But would this be the viewpoint of many sociologists and those who study sociology? On the whole, sociologists would talk about the difficulties of social mobility and how class structures, both in wealth and cultural disparities, influence life chances. But here Addo describes his chances as the result of “hard work” and the efforts of his sociology teacher.

If sociologists were asked about their own successes and not about life chances in the abstract, would they suggest it was because of their own hard work and efforts (the meritocratic side) or because they had structural advantages (the elitist side)? When talking with students or their kids, can sociologists teach about broader structures but then suggest to individuals kids that their life chances are highly determined by their own efforts? Perhaps this is taking the agency vs. structure debate to a personal level to ask whether individuals attribute their successes or maybe just their failures to structures.

The difficulty of defining culture

The term “culture” can be tricky to define – as is evidenced in a story from the New York Times about culture and poverty. One writer tries to sum up the definition and the argument:

The important thing is, you can’t isolate culture as one element of a society and change it without changing anything else. You can’t ignore the roles racism, lack of fundamental necessities, and social isolation play in shaping culture, and you can’t use it as a convenient way to blame poverty on the individuals who suffer from it.

While I would agree that it is difficult to separate culture from other areas, sociologists of culture tend to stress that culture is “patterns of meaning-making.” All people do this: develop narratives and ways of understanding their surroundings.

What seems to be the new wave of research is looking at how culture and structures (such as unemployment, isolation, lack of opportunity) interact with and influence each other.