Derek Jeter as an example of the kind of world MLK envisioned

A sociologist argues that Yankees star Derek Jeter is an example of the kind of world Martin Luther King, Jr. envisioned:

The son of a white mother and a black father, Jeter experienced racial prejudice from both groups as a boy growing up in Kalamazoo, Mich., and playing in the minor leagues down south. Even as recently as 2006, according to O’Connor, Jeter received a “racially-tinged threat” in his mail at Yankee Stadium, a threat the NYPD’s Hate Crimes Unit considered serious enough to investigate…

But Dr. Harry Edwards, a sociologist and black activist of the 1960s who has spoken and written extensively on the subject of race and professional athletics, explained Jeter’s appeal as a combination both of his unique attributes as an athlete and individual, and as a sign that the United States, throughout its history often bitterly divided along racial, ethnic and territorial lines, is moving toward an era of diversity and inclusion.

“I think it’s absolutely appropriate in the 21st century that a Derek Jeter should be the face of the premier baseball team in this country,” Edwards said. “When you talk about leadership and production and consistency and durability over the years, what he has achieved and what he has accomplished, and more than that, the way that he has done it is just absolutely phenomenal. He is one of our real athletic heroes and role models to the point that his race or ethnicity does not matter.”…

Derek Jeter’s way, the way of hard work, discipline and exemplary behavior, would have made Dr. King proud.

Tiger Woods, pre-scandal, may be another good example.

At the same time, this analysis makes me a little nervous. As some examples from Jeter’s own life suggest, we still have a ways to go. While it is notable that we now have visible multiracial leaders who appeal to a broad swath of America, at the same time, Jeter is a role model because he is successful at what does, going to multiple All-Star games and winning multiple World Series championships. Would Jeter be revered in the same way if he was from the Dominican Republic or from the south side of Chicago or from a farming community in North Dakota? What if he spoke about racial issues or wasn’t such a classy figure and “acted out”? In the end, does his celebrity make it easier for the average multiracial American? Are Americans only willing to look past Jeter’s background because he is a classy winner?

My thoughts about Tim Tebow in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

As Tim Tebow and the Denver Broncos get set to play the Pittsburgh Steelers later today, I’m cited in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette discussing why Tebow has gotten so much attention:

The faith of most players and coaches doesn’t get the attention that Mr. Tebow’s has, however. What is it about him that has drawn so much attention and controversy?

One thing may be how visible Mr. Tebow is, said Brian Miller, an assistant professor of sociology at Wheaton College, a well-known evangelical school in Illinois. His practice of singing gospel songs while on the sidelines, taking a knee in prayer at the conclusion of the game, thanking Jesus Christ in postgame interviews and telling reporters “God bless,” before leaving all are hard to ignore.

“I think that ties to his outspokenness,” Mr. Miller said. “Any time someone talks about religion that strongly, people will react strongly.”

By contrast, players like Mr. Polamalu are quieter in the way they signal their faith or discuss it.

“When he crosses himself, he isn’t really talking to anybody, he’s not necessarily on camera,” said Mr. Miller.

The concept of “civil religion” helps explain the reaction to Mr. Tebow, Mr. Miller said. Civil religion is a term used in the sociology of religion field, he said, in which “you can invoke God sort of vaguely in American life” without spurring many objections. Examples would be a politician saying “God bless America” at the end of the speech or the phrase “one nation under God” in the Pledge of Allegiance.

But “when you get to specifics, like mentioning Jesus,” you have crossed a boundary from the socially acceptable “generic Christian culture” and into the realm where people become uncomfortable, or angry, Mr. Miller said.

Here are several additional thoughts about why Tebow has gotten so much attention:

1. Tebow is a young player and no one quite knows what to make of him: is he legit NFL quarterback? Can he win consistently? Can he replicate or even come close to the success he had in college at Florida? Do the Denver Broncos even want him to start next year or two years down the road? I would guess that since he is young and unproven, other players and some fans might take offense at his outspokenness because he hasn’t earned the right to do this yet. The social norms in professional sports are that younger players have to earn respect. He is not the first to be outspoken about his faith: Kurt Warner said some similar things and yet, while people did complain about him as well, Warner was a Super Bowl MVP and Super Bowl winner.

2. He is the star of the moment. Sports today are driven by stars and in particularly by quarterbacks in the NFL. Since Tebow was winning at one point, he got a lot of attention just as any new quarterback might. The fact that ESPN wanted to dedicate an entire Sportscenter to him says something about Tebow but also indicative of how sports journalism works these days.

Put it all together and it is a perfect storm of sports celebrity. And depending on the outcome of today’s game, the Tebow craze will either intensify (meaning the Broncos win) or slowly fade away (as other teams get more attention moving forward in the playoffs).

Two issues with Most Admired poll: a large gap between #1 and others, low numbers for #1

While it is interesting to note that sitting presidents tend to lead in Gallup’s “Most Admired Lists,” two other things immediately struck me when looking at the tables:

1. There is a relatively big gap between #1 for most admired man and woman and everyone else. This year, President Obama is at 17% and his next closest competitor is at 3% while Hillary Clinton is also at 17% and her next competitor is at 7%. Since Gallup asks this as an open-ended question (exact phrasing: “What man that you have heard or read about, living today in any part of the world, do you admire most? And who is your second choice?”), it suggests that people name famous people, particularly types who are likely to be in the news a lot and whose positions are notable. If this is the case, is this really a survey about who is most admired or more about who is most well-known?

2. The leaders in each category are only at 17% and their competitors are quite a ways back. This could lead to several suggestions. Perhaps Americans don’t think in these terms much. For men, 32% said none or had no opinion and for women, 29% said none or had no opinion. Additionally, when asked about men 9% said a friend or relative and 12% said the same when asked about women. Even the current President is only most admired by 17%, suggesting that Americans are not necessarily looking to admire their political leaders. Another possible explanation might be that there is a wide range of admirable famous people in the United States. For men, the top 10 only account for 31% of responses though the top 10 females account for 47% of responses. This might reflect the lesser number of women in positions of power or leadership so more attention is focused on a select few.

This leads me to think that this poll may not really not tell us much about anything. Those selected as admired have relatively low figures, certain positions in society lead to being selected, and there are clear leaders but then also a mass of closely-admired figures.

UPDATE 12/28/11 10:11 PM – There seems to be similar variability in a recent poll that asked Americans which celebrity they most wanted to live next door. Also:

The majority of surveyed adults (42 percent) said they did not want to live next to any celebrities. “As a voyeuristic culture that breathlessly tracks every celebrity movement, it’s extremely surprising to see so many Americans saying they wouldn’t like to live next to any celebrity at all,” said Zillow Chief Marketing Officer Amy Bohutinsky. “In fact, more people opted out of a celebrity neighbor in 2012 than in any of the past years we’ve run this poll.”

Perhaps Americans are more tired of famous people this year?

Twentysomething: “What people in the past might have gotten from church, I get from the Internet and Facebook”

In a small segment of a larger interesting article about “twentysomethings” (known in some academic circles as “emerging adults”), one twentysomething blogger talks about the role the Internet plays in her generation’s lives:

Thorman suffered the post-college blues. She worked in an entry-level job, was in a so-so relationship, and wondered if this was all there was to life. Her existence, she says, felt inconsequential: “You graduate from college and you want to matter and be a part of something bigger.”

Then she launched her blog, and all of a sudden she was engaging hundreds of people from around the world in a discussion. The Internet gave her a place for connection and community much like neighborhood bars and churches did for previous generations.

Thorman is part of the 25 percent of twentysomethings today who say they have no religious affiliation. “What people in the past might have gotten from church, I get from the Internet and Facebook,” she says. “That is our religion.”

I have read a number of articles about SNS and Facebook use among emerging adults but I’ve never quite seen this idea before: religion has been replaced by Internet communities.

Additionally, the motivation for being part of these communities is different:

But blogging isn’t just about community and connectivity. It’s fundamentally about the individual. “I like blogging because I feel like a mini-celebrity,” Thorman says.

She’s not the only one to express that sentiment. “Attention is my drug,” Julia Allison told a New York Times writer. Allison is a Georgetown grad who became an Internet celebrity in her twenties and whose photo landed on the cover of Wired magazine with the headline GET INTERNET FAMOUS! EVEN IF YOU’RE NOBODY—JULIA ALLISON AND THE SECRETS OF SELF-PROMOTION. A Pew Research poll asked 18-to-25-year-olds about their generation’s top goals, and 51 percent responded with “to be famous.”

But Thorman doesn’t want fame in the Paris Hilton way—famous for being famous. She wants to be recognized, on the Internet, for her insights and ideas.

These online communities are different than traditional religion then in that the focus is on the individual users and their accomplishments rather than a transcendent power or a totem (in Durkheimian terms).

Where will this all end up? Some options you will hear in the popular discourse:

1. Disillusionment. This article talks a lot about twentysomethings looking for fulfillment and the Internet helps provide this. But is this ultimately satisfying? What if one can’t find a fulfilling long-term career? What if the other choices that were not taken always look more attractive? This argument tends to come from older generations – is there a way that twentysomethings can avoid this?

2. This is just another sign of secularization as organized religion drops in influence among younger generations.

3. The America celebrity culture, literally at everyone’s fingertips both as consumers and producers, will continue to grow. This celebrity culture will make it difficult to have intellectual discussion and debates in an online realm where even the most traditional news organizations have to cater to celebrity-hungry web surfers.

4. If these are the goals of this generation, who will tackle the big issues like dealing with poverty in the world, paying for Social Security and Medicare, etc?

It will be fascinating to watch how this all shakes out.

Facebook moving toward users being able to “treat their life as a 24/7 reality show”

Wired looks at some of Facebook’s recent changes and future plans and summarizes their intentions:

Combined with other Facebook recent announcements — “friend lists” that help you classify your contacts into groups, a Ticker that gives updates from your cohorts as they happen,  and changes in the newsfeed to make it more reflective of what your close friends are doing — Facebook is not so subtly doubling down on its ambitions to enable people to shed the pre-digital cloak of isolation and treat their life as a 24/7 reality show, broadcast to those in their social spheres.

Remember when Time named “you” as the person of the year for 2006, before Facebook had swept across the planet? Here is how the story described the effect of the Internet:

It’s a story about community and collaboration on a scale never seen before. It’s about the cosmic compendium of knowledge Wikipedia and the million-channel people’s network YouTube and the online metropolis MySpace. It’s about the many wresting power from the few and helping one another for nothing and how that will not only change the world, but also change the way the world changes.

This is a more hopeful vision than what Wired offers where individuals can produce and star in their own reality show.

The fulcrum on which Facebook’s future might hinge is whether it is able to help people forge new connections  or whether people continue to hunker down in their existing social groups. The desire that Facebook users would forge new connections is not surprising if you have read sources like The Facebook Effect that highlighted the company’s goals of opening up the world. While research studies still suggest that the majority of Facebook contact and relationships exist between people who already know each other prior to Facebook, perhaps this will change due to Facebook’s interface changes as well as the growing cultural acceptance of conducting our social lives through this online realm. Or perhaps we are destined to live in a world where our highest goal is to become individual celebrities.

Americans are coolest nationality according to poll

A new poll from finds that Americans are the coolest nationality:

Social networking site asked 30,000 people across 15 countries to name the coolest nationality and also found that the Spanish were considered the coolest Europeans, Brazilians the coolest Latin Americans and Belgians the globe’s least cool nationality.

“We hear a lot in the media about anti-Americanism,” says Lloyd Price, Badoo’s Director of Marketing. “But we sometimes forget how many people across the world consider Americans seriously cool.”…

“America,” says Price, “boasts the world’s coolest leader, Obama; the coolest rappers, Jay-Z and Snoop Dogg; and the coolest man in technology, Steve Jobs of Apple, the man who even made geeks cool.”

Brazilians are ranked the second coolest nationality in the Badoo poll and the coolest Latin Americans, ahead of Mexicans and Argentinians. The Spanish, in third place, are the coolest Europeans.

At least one marketer is happy.

Two thoughts:

1. I would be very hesitant about accepting the results of this poll. If this is a web survey of social network site users, it is probably not very representative of people within these countries. Serious news organizations should report on the methodology and discuss the downsides (and advantages) of this approach when reporting this information. But, if it is an accurate take on social network site users, generally younger, plugged-in populations, perhaps this is exactly what American companies would want to hear.

2. America has military, political, and economic power but this hints at another, less-recognized dimension: cultural power and influence. For better or worse, American values, celebrities, products, and ideas have spread throughout the world. Even if our economic and political power goes into a relative decline, this cultural influence will live on for some time. (A bonus: a Badoo poll from earlier this summer also said Americans are the funniest nationality!)

3. Is being “cool” really something to aspire to as a nation? In an America dominated by celebrity, media, and consumption, it may be hard to know that this is not the primary objective.

(Some background on

Lady Gaga comments on the University of South Carolina course about her

When the University of South Carolina announced it was going to have a sociology course titled “Lady Gaga and the Sociology of Fame,” it was a big story (as far as stories about sociology courses go). Lady Gaga herself recent commented on the course:

Lady Gaga’s attention to cultural detail has inspired a sociology course at the University of South Carolina called “Lady Gaga And The Sociology Of Fame,” which Gaga describes as a “wonderfully interesting art.”

“When you look back, movie stars sort of created their own sense of fame. Andy Warhol appropriated the fame of others in order to appropriate his own.”

“Especially in today’s media with social networking and cameras, everyone can take that same picture that the paparazzi used to take…It’s not so much about doing it as it is about embracing the art of it. And I think that’s what the course is about.”

I wonder if she has actually looked at what is going on in the course but she still makes an interesting point: “fame” and “celebrity” seems to be more concentrated in the hands of people seeking it now rather than requiring certain gatekeepers like the media. In the case of people like Andy Warhol or Lady Gaga, they can retain their celebrity by turning their own fame and the fame of others on its head to create and reinvent their own image.

This reminds me a discussion I occasionally run into: does creativity or originality today require creating something new or remixing older themes or piecess?

Another thought: will anyone really consider Lady Gaga an “artist” or is she more of a blip in the world of pop culture?

I will be curious to hear what Lady Gaga says or does when her popularity wanes. Will she just keep going over the top to try to attract fans or will she gracefully fade away knowing that her time is up?

Sociologist says Oprah has been in front of media trends

Oprah has been moving her operations to her own television network, OWN (the Oprah Winfrey Network). A sociologist discusses this move:

I see OWN as a smart move for two reasons. First, Oprah is only one person. She has been working nonstop in front of the camera for nearly 30 years. It may be time to think about how to develop her brand in a way that is not completely dependent on her as a frontwoman. Second, the move to cable may be a good choice in a media context where the center of gravity is shifting away from network television premised on the existence of large mass audiences.

In further comments, it is suggested that Oprah’s popularity is partly due to her positioning within the media landscape:

Oprah is an icon for many reasons, but surely one is that her career trajectory has closely mapped changes in the larger media landscape. Beginning in the daytime television talk show format, pioneered by Phil Donahue, Oprah fully realized the potential of the genre as she leveraged her fame on multiple media platforms including, radio, television, film, Broadway, books, magazines, and the Internet. In addition to her work in daytime talk, some of her most recognizable products are her highly successful lifestyle magazine O, her roles in high-end dramatic works for film and stage, like The Color Purple and Beloved, and her ill-conceived philanthropic project for girls in South Africa (also a documentary). Although these projects did not all succeed equally well, they have cemented Oprah’s cultural prominence and sheer ubiquity. They also demonstrate Oprah’s ability to take risks.

I would also note that Oprah is a global media phenomenon. Unlike other big celebrities in the United States, Oprah has taken advantage of the increasingly expansive syndication of the digital era to build a mass international audience.

This sort of perspective is a broader one, moving beyond Oprah’s personality or the atmosphere of her show and emphasizing how Winfrey has been very effective at working at the forefront of the changing media. Particularly in expanding to newer platforms, Winfrey has built her brand beyond just a talk-show.

I wonder how much of this is post-hoc analysis. When Oprah was building her show and audience, just how risky was she? Looking back, we can see that she has been successful. But there must have been other personalities and celebrities that attempted to follow similar paths. How exactly did Oprah get ahead or leverage these particular technologies? How risky were her decisions compared to others? Was she a first-adopter or just in the opening waves of certain changes?

Quick Review: Exit Through the Gift Shop

In recent years, I’ve read about the exploits of Banksy, Britain’s most famous street artist. Therefore, I couldn’t pass up watching Exit Through the Gift Shop, a 2010 documentary about Banksy and street art. Here are a few thoughts about the film:

1. The main character of the film is not Banksy but a Frenchman living in Los Angeles named Thierry Guetta. Guetta ends up filming a lot of street artists, eventually meets Banksy, and then sets out himself to be an artist.

2. One of the most dramatic scenes of the film involves Disneyland where Banksy and Guetta stage an “art installation.” While the reaction of Disneyland is not a surprise, it is still interesting to hear how quickly and how seriously their security responded to the situation. The hidden world of happy Disneyworld and Disneyland is a fascinating subject.

3. The images and symbols of the street art world are interesting. Based on what is in this film, one could surmise that it is generally involves ironic or snarky takes on common images and ideas. Part of the allure is simply placing these pictures in prominent places – the artists have a fairly persistent threat of being caught. The other part of the allure is that the art is often “cheeky,” particularly Banksy’s work that challenges the status quo (see the paintings on the wall separating Palestine and Israel). Some of the images are new but many of them are repackaged or remixed.

4. The film also spends some time following how street art became lucrative art as collectors and the general public rushed to buy it. What began on the streets became institutionalized art that museums had to have in their galleries and wealthy people had to have on their walls. I would be curious to know if the value of these art pieces has risen in the last few years (particularly compared to more “traditional” art). The film doesn’t quite display an outright sneer toward this popularity, perhaps more of a wry and bemused grin.

5. I read something recently that suggested it is hard to know whether this is truly a documentary or not, particularly since it is a documentary that tracks the life of an amateur documentarian. Is this all smoke and mirrors or an authentic film about a burgeoning art movement? Have stories in the form of mock documentaries, such as The Office, ruined “truth” caught on camera forever? Ultimately, I’m not sure it matters – the real question about most films is whether they are entertaining or not. And this film is pretty entertaining.

I found this film, on the whole, to be fun. The art is interesting, particularly watching the street artists working hard to put slightly subversive images in interesting places, and the characters even more so, particularly Guetta and his created alter ego (and the questions regarding the truth of his alter).

(Critics loved this film: the film is 98% fresh, 96 fresh reviews out of 98 total, at

Lady Gaga mentions that she studies “the sociology of fame”

A recent course at the University of South Carolina titled “Lady Gaga and the Sociology of Fame” drew a lot of attention. But it appears that Lady Gaga herself has an interest in the sociology of fame. Here is part of the conversation Lady Gaga had with Anderson Cooper on 60 Minutes:

“You’ve studied the fame of other people, how they got it, how they kept it and how they lost it,” Cooper remarked.

“The sociology of fame and how to maintain a certain privacy without, feeling like you’re withholding anything from your fans. My philosophy is that if I am open with them about everything, and yet I art direct every moment of my life, I can maintain a sort of privacy in a way. I maintain a certain soulfulness that I have yet to give,” Lady Gaga said.

The pressures of maintaining fame and the deadly price other superstars have paid for it are frequent themes in Lady Gaga’s performances. At the MTV Video Music Awards she shocked the audience by the ending of her song “Paparazzi.” Drenched in blood and hanging above the stage, she resembled a blond icon dying before our eyes.

“That’s what everyone wants to know, right? ‘What’s she gonna look like when she dies? What’s she gonna look like when she’s overdosed?’ on whatever they think I’m overdosing on? Everybody wants to see the decay of the superstar,” Lady Gaga said.

“Do you think people wanna see your decay?” Cooper asked.

“What? Of course they do! They wanna see me fail, they wanna see me fall on stage, they wanna see me vomiting out of a nightclub. I mean, isn’t that the age that we live in? That we wanna see people who have it all lose it all? I mean, it’s dramatic,” she replied.

“And then climb their way back,” Cooper remarked.

“Right. It’s a movie. And yet I just am not like that on my own time. I’m not a vomit-in-the-club kind of girl,” she said.

A few questions come to mind:

1. Would sociologists agree that the cycle that celebrities go through (rise to stardom, decline, comeback attempt) is “the sociology of fame?”

2. Does this mean that Lady Gaga is simply playing a role for her fans and for others? If she is so aware of how the script goes, is she doing anything original or authentic? She suggests she “art direct[s] every moment of [her] life” but also claims she is still able to maintain a private side. A classic front-stage/back-stage Erving Goffman explanation.

2a. If she knows that the decay is coming, will she choose to initiate it herself or at least push in a certain direction to maintain some control over it?

2b. There could be some interesting material in thinking about the entertainment or spectacle that Lady Gaga offers and why this is attractive to people.

3. What did Lady Gaga think of having a sociology class named after her (even though the class was about popular music in general)? Is this when she started thinking about “the sociology of fame”?