Count sociologists among the most liberal Americans – at least for one humorist

Imagining the exodus of Americans for Canada, here is who one humorist depicted as most distraught over the recent presidential election results:

Canadian border farmers say it’s not uncommon to see dozens of sociology professors, global warming activists, and “green” energy proponents crossing their fields at night.

“I went out to milk the cows the other day, and there was a Hollywood producer huddled in the barn,” said Southern Manitoba farmer Red Greenfield, whose acreage borders North Dakota . “The producer was cold, exhausted and hungry.  He asked me if I could spare a latte and some free-range chicken. When I said I didn’t have any, he left before I even got a chance to show him my screenplay, eh?”

Given all the academic content the 2016 election is likely to generate in the years to come, someone has to examine which groups had the strongest negative emotions about the results as well as which groups felt this pain the longest. Would sociologists rank up there?

Ongoing political debates about sociology in Canada’s House of Commons

A collection of sayings from a recent debate in Canada’s House of Commons on the country’s involvement in fighting ISIS includes some thoughts on sociology:

Sociology, bad: “We must remind ourselves that the root cause of terrorism is the terrorist himself. He, and he alone, has chosen his path,” said Democratic Reform Minister Pierre Poilievre.

Sociology, good: “I am saying to the prime minister that it is time for him to consider sociology, social sciences and political sciences, indeed all our world knowledge, both in Canada and elsewhere in the West, and think about effective ways of intervening so that we never have to go through this experience again…,” said NDP MP Denis Blanchette.

On the first quote: individuals do indeed make choices, both good and bad. Yet, to completely pin a decision on a person without any recognition of the broader social forces around them is odd. Think of the typical admonition from parents to their kids to watch out who they hang out with because they don’t want their kids to get in with a bad crowd. People are affected by those around them, even as the vast majority of people around the world in tough situations don’t choose terrorism or crime.

On the second quote: this refers back to comments from Stephen Harper who has suggested several times that sociology provides excuses for criminal and terrorist behavior. Again, explaining why things happen doesn’t necessarily mean saying that people don’t have any agency and that they shouldn’t be held responsible for their actions.

Canadian PM says 1,100 cases of missing or murdered aboriginal women “crime,” not “sociological phenomenon”

Canadian Prime Minster Stephen Harper makes a distinction between “crime” and “sociological phenomenon”:

Rejecting a formal inquiry into the more than 1,100 cases of missing or murdered aboriginal women in Canada, Harper said the issues are “first and foremost” crimes and should be dealt with by police.

“I think we should not view this as sociological phenomenon. We should view it as crime,” Harper told a crowd at Yukon College in Whitehorse on Thursday.

“It is crime, against innocent people, and it needs to be addressed as such. We brought in laws across this country that I think are having more effect, in terms of crimes of violence against not just aboriginal women, but women and persons more generally. And we remain committed to that course of action.”

Harper was responding to a question about renewed calls for a formal federal inquiry in the wake of the tragic death of 15-year old Tina Fontaine in Winnipeg. Fontaine had been missing since Aug. 9, after running away from her foster home.

Harper made similar comments involving sociology regarding terrorism last year. He seems to have two general purposes by invoking sociology negatively. He want to look tough on crime. This is a matter that should remain with the police and larger discussions about the implications of these missing and murdered women aren’t welcome. Cracking down on crime is a positive point for conservatives and even more liberal politicians usually can’t afford to be seen as soft on crime. But, this also seems like odd shorthand for trying to cut off concerns of political liberals who see larger forces at work here, perhaps broader patterns including violence against women as well as a against native populations. Sociology here represents liberal concerns. Is there any sort of deviant behavior that Harper thinks would benefit from a sociological perspective? It doesn’t sound like it and this inability to see the larger picture surrounding sets of events may just prove to be shortsighted in the long run.

Canada’s rising middle class the result of a housing bubble?

In eclipsing the American middle-class as the world’s richest, is the increasing wealth of the Canadian middle-class largely due to a housing bubble?

One word that doesn’t appear in the article, however, is housing. The U.S. is emerging from a catastrophic collapse of the housing market that obliterated household wealth for millions of middle-class families. Canada, however, is in the midst of a delirious housing boom and a personal debt craze that reminds some economists of the U.S. market exactly a decade ago (before you-know-what happened)…

One year ago, Matt O’Brien calculated that Canada’s price-to-rent ratio was the highest among advanced economies, making it the “biggest housing bubble” in the world. Canada’s historic housing boom (and our historic bust) comes at the precise moment in history that they pass us to grab the title of World’s Richest Middle Class. Just a coincidence?

Maybe. As the LIS data in the Upshot article shows, Canada’s median earner has been gaining on America for decades, powered by a strong service economy, supported by a disproportionately large energy industry. Remarkably, U.S. GDP-per-capita has been more than 15 percent richer than Canada’s for the last 25 years (see graph below), even as the median American worker has fallen behind the median Canadian earner. That’s a pretty clear indictment of U.S. income inequality…

Still, as many economists like Atif Mian and Amir Sufi have have argued, strong housing markets support middle-class income growth just as housing busts wreck middle-class income growth. The effect can be direct (more houses means more construction jobs*) and indirect (when families feel richer from rising housing prices, they spend more across lots of industries, raising incomes). As Reihan Salam writes, “the central driver of the decline in employment levels between 2007 and 2009  was the drop in demand caused by shocks to household balance sheets.”

Housing is an important factor in a middle-class lifestyle from being able to own a house (more important in certain places like the United States as a sign that “we’ve made it” as well as providing for one’s family) to affording a good neighborhood (which is often associated with lots of other good outcomes like better schools, less crime, more local resources) to paying relatively less for housing than those with lower incomes.

All that said, there is no guarantee that housing will be a significantly positive financial investment in the long run. And what happens in Canada if such a housing bubble does burst?

Just how different is Canadian society from American society?

I don’t know about the validity of this argument but two sociologists argued a while back that Canada and the United States could be better understand through breaking them into four total regions:

Our research, covering almost 30 years of contemporary and historical analysis, shows the four-regions model fits the evidence much better than a simple two-nations model, in which Canada and the US in general are portrayed as very different. There certainly are other internal differences that could be considered, like those between the US west coast and New England, or between British Columbia and Canada’s Atlantic region.However, we found clear and consistent evidence that the strongest lines of demarcation separate Québec and the rest of Canada, on the one hand, and the American South and non-South, on the other, with national differences usually far less prominent.

In Regions Apart, and in other studies that we and others have conducted, Québec is clearly the most left-liberal region of North America on topics like gay rights, same-sex marriage, common-law marriage, adolescent sexuality, capital punishment, taxation, government spending, unionization, military intervention and so on. The US South is the most conservative or traditional on these same issues. The rest of Canada and the US are usually quite similar on these and other cultural, social, political and economic questions…

What Jim and I called the four “deep structural” principles of the two nations are still intact, though more as ideals to strive for, and not as perfectly achieved realities in either country. These include liberty, individual freedom to pursue one’s goals, while also accepting the rights of others to pursue their goals; equality, the same rights and opportunities for all citizens, though not necessarily the same life outcomes; popular sovereignty, government of the people, by the people and for the people, as Abraham Lincoln so eloquently put it; and pluralism, the belief that all individuals have the fundamental right to be different, even if other people don’t always like or agree with their differences.

As for divergences, I think we have long been divergent in the area of criminal justice, where we see consistently much higher US incarceration and homicide rates, for example. However, even here some differences are exaggerated, for, as shown in Regions Apart, Canada actually has somewhat higher rates for some non-violent crimes, like auto thefts and break-and-entry.

Another area of substantial difference or divergence over the years concerns our roles in the world. The US is far more powerful politically, economically and culturally than Canada, and such differences inevitably give rise to occasionally different views about how to address some of the world’s problems. But we have also been close political allies and economic partners for many decades, so even here our divergent positions can be overstated in many instances, and can regularly change toward more convergence again at a later time.

I don’t know how accurate such an analysis is without looking further at the methodology of how these regions were developed. Why four regions? How was the cluster analysis undertaken? How much variation is within these categories?

At the same time, this made me think: just how much do Americans know about Canada? Could they even identify these two broad regions or some of the key tensions in Canadian life today? On the other hand, I suspect Canadians know more about American life. This could be due to a variety of factors yet it seems odd that we wouldn’t know much about Canada given some of our overlapping background and interests as well as geographic proximity.

Toronto mayor Rob Ford’s problems include living in a “American-style suburban McMansion”?

The mayor of Toronto is getting all kinds of attention – and at least one person thinks one of his problems is “American-style suburban McMansion”:

Also from the Gawkerverse: this Ken Layne piece about Rob Ford’s essential un-Canadianness, which wrongly asserts that “when he sits around his American-style suburban McMansion, he literally sits around his American-style suburban McMansion.” Rob Ford’s house is suburban, but it’s actually a pretty modest place.

Americans are known for their big houses. It shouldn’t be a surprise that this is something Canadians pick up on since most Canadians live quite close to the U.S.-Canada border. Indeed, there are plenty of stories regarding McMansions in the Chicago metropolitan region and Chicago and Toronto are often compared to each other. But, which part of the insinuation is worse:

1. That a Canadian acts like an American?

2. That owning a McMansion is a bad thing anyway (whether one lives in Canada, the United States, Australia, and other places with McMansions)?

3. That sprawl/suburbs are bad?

This also reminds me of the documentary Radiant City that involves Canadian suburbanites outside of Calgary but utilizes a number of American opponents to McMansions and seems to be most interested in tackling American-style sprawl. A side note: it is a film that includes a mock musical about mowing lawns.

Canadian PM says we shouldn’t “commit sociology” and try to explain terrorism

When asked about a recently uncovered train terrorism plot, the Canadian Prime Minister said we should not “commit sociology”:

Prime Minister Stephen Harper said this is not the time to “commit sociology” when asked about the arrests of two men this week who are accused of conspiring to carry out a terrorist attack on a Via train.

Harper was asked during a news conference with Trinidad and Tobago’s prime minister about concerns with the timing of the arrests. He was also asked about when it’s appropriate to talk about the root causes of involvement with terrorism.

The Conservatives had taken Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau to task when he suggested last week it was important to look at the root causes of the Boston Marathon bombings after offering condolences and support to the victims. They said he was trying to rationalize the bombings or make excuses when the Liberal leader said the bombings happened because someone felt excluded from society.

“I think, though, this is not a time to commit sociology, if I can use an expression,” Harper said. “These things are serious threats, global terrorist attacks, people who have agendas of violence that are deep and abiding threats to all the values our society stands for.

“I don’t think we want to convey any view to the Canadian public other than our utter condemnation of this kind of violence, contemplation of this violence and our utter determination through our laws and our activities to do everything we can to prevent it and counter it,” Harper said.

This echoes some conversations in recent years:

George Will warned against committing sociology after the shooting in Aurora, Colorado.

-After the riots in London, some said we should not try to explain why some people would riot (which is a relatively rare event in Western society).

Is this a new conservative talking point?

Just because we want to try to understand why some people commit terrorist acts (and most others do not) does not mean the explanations excuse or condone the actions. It also does not necessarily imply that society is entirely at fault. But, we do know that social forces can affect people even as individuals have some agency. In the end, thinking about causes of terrorism (and rioting) can help us develop ways to stop it in the future.