The case of Graceland: McMansion or not?

The term McMansion can sometimes be applied retroactively to eras where the moniker did not exist. For example, a description of Graceland in Memphis uses the term:

Graceland and the nearby newly opened tourist centre – clumsily titled Elvis Presley’s Memphis at Graceland – gets fans close to the King, but don’t dare touch anything. In bricks and mortar, the Georgian-inspired mansion is not really that big. These days, it’s more McMansion in scale than, well, a proper mansion.

According to Wikipedia, Graceland is over 17,000 square feet. The original part of the home was built in 1939 and only later did development encompass the large property (still over 13 acres).

This is still a very big house, even by today’s terms. I tend to apply the term McMansion when the size of the home is roughly between 3,000 and 10,000 square feet. Even then, homes of this size may not meet other traits of McMansions such as being too big for their lot (not a problem with Graceland), architecturally garish or poor quality (not a problem with Graceland), and associated with sprawl and luxury (maybe a bit applicable here). Perhaps Graceland might be McMansion in an interior related to pop culture and kitsch – but that is more likely a function of the home once belonging to a music superstar than it being a typical suburban McMansion.

Today, Graceland is still a mansion. Is it really that different than the large homes of entertainment stars and celebrities today?

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 evolving definition and usage of “selfie”

The word “selfie” was the Oxford Dictionary’s word of the year in 2013 but its usage and meaning continues to evolve:

A selfie isn’t just “a photograph that one has taken of oneself,” but also tends to be “taken with a smartphone or webcam and uploaded to a social media website,” as the editors at Oxford Dictionaries put it. That part is key because it reinforces the reason why we needed to come up with a new name for this kind of self-portraiture in the first place.

Think of it this way: A selfie isn’t fundamentally about the photographer’s relationship with the camera, it’s about the photographer’s relationship with an audience. In other words, selfies are more parts communication than self-admiration (though there’s a healthy dose of that, too).

The vantage point isn’t new; the form of publishing is.

This explains why we call the photo from the Oscars “Ellen’s selfie” — because she was the one who published it. Selfies tether the photographer to the subject of the photo and to its distribution. What better way to visually represent the larger shift from observation to interaction in publishing power?

Ultimately, selfies are a way of communicating narrative autonomy. They demonstrate the agency of the person behind the lens, by simultaneously putting that person in front of it.

The key to the selfie is not that people are talking photos of themselves for the first time in history; rather, they are doing it with new purposes, to tell their own stories to their online public. This is what social media and Web 2.0 are all about: putting the power into the hands of users to create their own narratives. The user now gets to decide what they want to broadcast to others. One scholar described it giving average people the ability to be a celebrity within their online social sphere. The selfie is also part of a shift toward telling these narratives through images rather than words – think about the relative shift in updating Facebook statuses years ago to now posting interesting pictures on Instagram.

Sociology professor who taught class on Lady Gaga becomes “Gaga sensei” and celebrity himself

Read about the fame a sociology professor who taught a class titled “Lady Gaga and the Sociology of Fame” has himself found:

Deflem’s entry into the world of celebrity began quietly enough. He had an idea for a course looking at Lady Gaga’s rise to fame – and examining it from a sociological point of view – in the summer of 2010 and got the go-ahead to design it. In October, 2010, the course was announced to the university newspaper. From there – to the astonishment of many – the course suddenly became news across the globe.

In the weeks that followed, Deflem was swamped by interview requests and media appearances to discuss the course. They came from the New York Times, the BBC, the Washington Post, MTV, Billboard, Elle and USA Today. Media from countries including Italy, Germany, Ireland, Slovenia, India, Vietnam, Lebanon, Oman and even Zambia ran pieces about it. He fended off accusations that he had cynically designed the course and its title just to get such attention. “There is no way I could have planned this. I am not that smart,” he said.

But that was just the beginning. Soon he got an avalanche of criticism from figures like conservative firebrand Ann Coulter as well as Christian fundamentalists. His course even became an answer on the game show Who Wants To Be A Millionaire.

Lady Gaga herself noticed the course and talked about it on radio interviews and a chat with broadcast journalist Anderson Cooper on the flagship news programme 60 Minutes. Saturday Night Live did a skit about Lady Gaga featuring a fan of the star who was dressed to look like Deflem…

He was also amazed at the lack of agency he had over his own fate and image as it spiralled out of control in the hands of hundreds of journalists. “You kind of undergo it. You experience it. You do not really have any control,” he said.

Does this then count as participant observation?

The course did indeed get a lot of attention, see an earlier post here, but it sounds like it has been worthwhile in the end: it allowed a sociology professor to take a current topic and use it to teach sociology as well as learn on the inside about the nature of celebrity.

I still think it would be interesting to hear sociologists discuss their opinions about courses like this or Michael Eric Dyson’s courses on hip-hop. The names and subject matter of the course can stir up controversy but it helps draw attention to a discipline that doesn’t generally receive much. Plus, what is the difference between giving a course a provocative name and then using it to teach sociology well versus the current events and examples lots of sociology professors use in the classroom?

Study shows 15 minutes of fame isn’t the case; once someone is famous, they tend to stay famous

A new study in the American Sociological Review contradicts folk wisdom regarding people having 15 minutes of fame:

Researchers led by Eran Shor from McGill University’s department of Sociology and Arnout van de Rijt of Stony Brook University studied all the names mentioned in over 2,000 English-language newspapers from the US, Canada and the UK over a period of several decades…

Temporary celebrity is highly unusual and is to be found primarily in the bottom tiers of the fame hierarchy, such as when people like whistle blowers become famous for a limited time for participating in particular events.

This is even true of entertainment, where it might appear that fame is likely to be most ephemeral.

For example, in a random sample of 100,000 names appearing in the entertainment sections of newspapers during the period 2004-2009, the ten names that appeared most frequently were Jamie Foxx, Bill Murray, Natalie Portman, Tommy Lee Jones, Naomi Watts, Howard Hughes, Phil Spector, John Malkovich, Adrien Brody, and Steve Buscemi…

Indeed, the annual turnover in the group of famous names is very low. Ninety-six per cent of those whose names were mentioned over 100 times in the newspapers in a given year were already in the news at least three years before.

The key here seems to be the status hierarchy. There is a lot of turnover at the bottom of celebrity circles, people who pop into the news for things like winning the lottery or being involved with a particular court case. But, once you get to the top of the status hierarchy, you tend to stay there. So perhaps it is true that most people can only have 15 minutes of fame while a certain number of people each year can break through to the top levels.

Another key appears to be the media scrum regarding fame and celebrity. Aren’t they generally the ones telling Americans who is famous and who they should pay attention to? How does one break into this media world of fame? In other words, there is a whole industry built around famous people and it pays off to have recognizable celebrities as well as the occasional new people who change things up a bit.

Sudhir Venkatesh helps make sociology appear “less stodgy” yet generates controversy

A profile of sociologist Sudhir Venkatesh in the New York Times suggests he has “succeeded against long odds in making sociology seem less stodgy.” Here is how the article suggests he has done this and the controversy that has developed:

[B]y writing in magazines, being featured in the book “Freakonomics,” and even appearing on late-night television, he has succeeded in bringing that research out of the academy and into the public realm…

And at Columbia, where he briefly led the university’s largest social science research center, he was the subject last year of a grueling investigation into a quarter-million dollars of spending that Columbia auditors said was insufficiently documented, misappropriated or outright fabricated…

Beyond the content of the book, its basic style raised eyebrows. “Gang Leader” includes the kind of satisfying narrative arcs and dramatic characters (like the street hustler who reveals that he not only went to college, but also studied sociology) that have more in common with Hollywood films than with most dry academic discourse…

Camille Z. Charles, a sociologist who runs the Department of Africana Studies at the University of Pennsylvania, said she was even more disturbed by the “thrill” he described at being around drug dealers — like his fantasy that one meeting he attended would involve “half-naked women sitting poolside and rubbing the bosses with sunscreen.” In an essay in the journal Sociological Forum, Professor Venkatesh responded to such criticism by saying he “hoped that my readership would understand urban poverty as they followed my own self-discovery of these conditions — specifically, as I discovered my own stereotypes to be faulty. In a memoir, one has to admit one’s own failings.”

Such situations have always interested me. In this genre of situation, a sociologist does things that many sociologists could only dream of: reach a broad public audience with their work. Despite all the talk about public sociology in recent years, how many sociologists have truly accomplished this? Yet, those who are able to do this tend to run into arguments like those outlined in the article: they are accused of taking liberties with their narratives and making it more appealing for the public and they are accused of not respecting their subjects by opening up the stories to public interest and entertainment.

Of course, such arguments happen with lesser known works as well. I’m reminded of a very public exchange between several ethnographers, Loic Wacquant, Elijah Anderson, Mitchell Duneier, and Katherine Newman, in the early 2000s about how ethnography about marginalized groups should be undertaken. And there are plenty of conversations in the field about writing and how it can be done better or worse. Because of its broadness of topics and a variety of research methods, sociology as a discipline tends to have these kinds of lively debates.

To sum up, when the New York Times discusses debates among sociologists, does this display how science really works (scholars trying to come to a consensus with a dose of personalities) or does it suggest that sociologists can’t agree and this torpedoes attempts at public sociology?

(A later note: how many sociologists really disagree with what Venkatesh did in Gang Leader for a Day? Anywhere even close to a majority? I wonder if this article is highlighting some vocal/well-placed dissenters.)

TV programmer: Real Housewives series is “sociology of the rich”

The programmer behind the Real Housewives shows suggests they might have some sociological value:

Andy Cohen should know as the programmer behind “Top Chef,” the various “Real Housewives” series and his own “Watch What Happens Live.” Cohen, a former producer at CBS News, weighed in on the Bravo success story in an interview with Howard Kurtz on CNN’s “Reliable Sources” Sunday morning.

In picking programs, Cohen said he looks for “something that hasn’t been done before” and a personality different from what viewers have seen…

“In the case of ‘The Housewives,’ I call the ‘Housewives’ sociology of the rich,” Cohen told Kurtz. “I think it’s just fun to watch. It’s guilt-free gossiping that you can have. It’s like the modern-day soap opera, in my mind.”

I would be interested to have a sociologist chime in about whether shows like these reflect an increased interest in the lives of the wealthy and famous say compared to thirty, fifty, or one hundred years ago. When sociological studies like The Gold Coast and the Slum were written in the late 1920s, lower- or working-class residents may have known about the rich or run into them occasionally (and part of the intrigue of this study is that the wealthiest and poorest residents of Chicago lived within blocks of each other) but did they have the kind of vicarious interest in the rich that TV shows today try to promote?

Also: I imagine there are plenty of wealthy people who would argue that these shows only display a small segment of the wealthy lifestyle. What about shows about the millionaires next door or about people who scrimp and save to get their money? These shows seem to encourage people to live a more “wealthy lifestyle,” combining spending (conspicuous consumption, anyone?) and celebrity status.

A second note: it is hard to argue that an edited show about the wealth, a modern-day soap opera, can impart a whole lot about reality or a sociological understanding of the world. It can tell you something…but perhaps more about what Americans like in entertainment than about how people really live.