“Why Parents Can’t Resist Buying…the Hottest Gifts”

A sociologist discusses the compulsion parents across social classes feel to purchase the season’s hottest gifts:

After observing and interviewing children and parents from a range of socioeconomic backgrounds, Pugh published “Longing and Belonging: Parents, Children, and Consumer Culture” in 2009, which explored commercial culture and how it relates to economic inequality and community. Since then, the spending trend hasn’t let up – even through the recession – and she typically fields media calls around this time of year on the topic.

Parents often have trouble deciding what to do in response to their children’s “I want’s,” Pugh found when she studied a range of families in Oakland, California. She found that both affluent and low-income parents disliked the pressure they felt to buy the most popular gifts for their kids; affluent parents were worried about giving in to materialism, while low-income parents knew that popular items cost money they would prefer to spend on household essentials…

Affluent parents often said they were uncomfortable about buying the latest popular items and they didn’t want their children to be so materialistic. Nevertheless, even if they decided to forego a certain product – which Pugh calls “symbolic deprivation” – they bought a lot of other things for their children that they thought added to what’s perceived as a good childhood.At the other end of the spectrum, lower-income parents were willing to forego some basic needs at times to buy products for their children, to show that they were capable of fully caring for their children – which Pugh called “symbolic indulgence.”

Wanting to belong – or on the flip side, not to be left out – is a powerful human motivator. And what American parent wants to be held responsible for their kid not fitting in? Arguably, this sort of logic drives much consumerism: as a number of scholars have shown, companies decades ago shifted advertising from emphasizing what products could do to what lifestyles were associated with having the product. Do you need the latest smartphone because it has such revolutionary technology or you do you want to be seen as part of a certain group? Do you need the clothing with the brand label to signal your status or to cover yourself?

It would be interesting to follow some of these same families to see how these choices about buying the hottest gifts influences children. Does it lead to more materialistic attitudes and behaviors? Do families who do not purchase such items encourage different kinds of behaviors?

Buy friends and families barrels of oil for Christmas

I’ve thought about this before…

Oil prices continued to fall today, with two different measures of the commodity’s price hitting five-year lows. Oil can currently be had for $64.10 a barrel in some circumstances.

A barrel of oil is 42 gallons.

Who do you know that could use 42 gallons of freshly drilled oil? Everyone! Oil is important for producing energy, which powers cars and flat-screen televisions through a scientific process known as “pushing the button on the remote control or turning the key in the ignition.”

And what season is it? Christmas season! The season for giving things to people. Do you see where I’m going with this? Oil is this year’s hottest and most affordable Christmas gift.

The practical issues are immense – how would an individual refine the oil? how many people could easily store the barrels? These barrels can’t exactly be bought and sold at Walmart – but it is hard to argue with giving people something they need. Why give superfluous gifts when every driver could use cheap oil?

What a sociologist learned about giving Christmas gifts from Middletown

Middletown (Muncie, Indiana) holds a special place in American sociology though the findings of two 1970s studies (ASR and AJS) about giving Christmas gifts based on the community are not as well known. Here are a few selections from the two articles:

“The 110 respondents in the sample gave 2,969 gifts and received 1,378 gifts, a mean of 27 given and 13 received. Participants in this gift system should give (individually or jointly) at least one Christmas gift every year to their mothers, fathers, sons, daughters; to the current spouses of these persons; and to their own spouses. By the operation of this rule, participants expect to receive at least one gift in return from each of these persons excepting infants…Gifts to grandparents and grandchildren seem to be equally obligatory if these live in the same community or nearby, but not at greater distances. Christmas gifts to siblings are not required.

Parents expect to give more valuable and more numerous gifts to their minor children and to their adult children living at home than they receive in return. This imbalance is central to the entire ritual. The iconography of Middletown’s secular Christmas emphasizes unreciprocated giving to children by the emblematic figure of Santa Claus, and the theme of unreciprocated giving provides one of the few connections between the secular and religious iconography of the festival-the Three Wise Men coming from a distant land to bring unreciprocated gifts to a child.”…

“Most of Middletown’s gift giving occurs between close kin…the pattern it displays shows up the two principal points of stress in the contemporary American family. The first point of stress is the insecurity of the spousal relationship. Viewed cross-culturally, the contemporary American family is unusual in exhibiting a very high level of interaction between spouses while permitting easy, almost penalty-free divorce at the initiative of either spouse at any point in the life cycle. Since divorce is always more than a remote possibility in a Middletown marriage, the relationship with affinal relatives [in-laws] is always a little uneasy.

The individual message [of a gift] says, “I value you according to the degree of our relationship” and anticipates the response, “I value you in the same way.” But the compound message that emerges from the unwrapping of gifts in the presence of the whole gathering allows more subtle meanings to be conveyed. It permits the husband to say to the wife, “I value you more than my parents” or the mother to say to the daughter-in-law, “I value you as much as my son so long as you are married to him” or the brother to say to the brother, “I value you more than our absent brothers, but less than our parents and much less than my children.” These statements, taken together, would define and sustain a social structure, if only because, by their gift messages, both parties to each dyadic relationship confirm that they have the same understanding of the relationship and the bystanders, who are interested parties, endorse that understanding by tacit approval.”

This is not the first time the media has discussed these studies but I do give credit for actually let the sociological studies speak for themselves. However, there should be a demerit for titling the web page “Christmas gift exchange: The anthropological rules beneath it.” This is based on sociological studies – these disciplines are not the same thing!

I suppose this could be a case where someone would read this and say this is all obvious. Isn’t sociology just common sense? Yet, even these small excerpts reveal some interesting findings. Physical distance matters, particularly when you get beyond the nuclear family. Additionally, Caplow notes that gift-giving between spouses is laden with meaning that can either support or undermine a marriage. While I suspect the kinds of gifts exchanged in the late 1970s might have shifted today, Caplow found money could generally be given one-way from older family members to younger family members, but not in reverse.

Considering all the hoopla surrounding Christmas in the United States and elsewhere around the world, it is a little surprising more sociologists don’t study Christmas behaviors and patterns…

Pope: modern society doesn’t leave much room for God

Pope Benedict’s Christmas Eve mass included this commentary about the role of religion in modern society:

“Do we have time and space for him? Do we not actually turn away God himself? We begin to do so when we have no time for him,” said the pope, wearing gold and white vestments.

“The faster we can move, the more efficient our time-saving appliances become, the less time we have. And God? The question of God never seems urgent. Our time is already completely full,” he said.

The leader of the world’s some 1.2 billion Roman Catholics said societies had reached the point where many people’s thinking processes did not leave any room even for the existence of God.

“Even if he seems to knock at the door of our thinking, he has to be explained away. If thinking is to be taken seriously, it must be structured in such a way that the ‘God hypothesis’ becomes superfluous,” he said.

“There is no room for him. Not even in our feelings and desires is there any room for him. We want ourselves. We want what we can seize hold of, we want happiness that is within our reach, we want our plans and purposes to succeed. We are so ‘full’ of ourselves that there is no room left for God.”

This sounds like a secularization argument to me: the rational thinking that began off several centuries ago before and during the Enlightenment has squeezed out God. It also reminds me of the 2004 book Sacred and Secular by Norris and Inglehart that suggested the modern welfare state has met more people’s daily needs so there is less need for God.

Additionally, the Pope also suggests modern technologies that offered to help make our lives more efficient now just take up more of our time. Is the Pope simply a crank from an older generation or is this prescient commentary about the downsides of technology millions the world over have adopted?

Live video feed of a 100 house gingerbread community

If you are looking for holiday architecture, check out this live feed of a 100 house gingerbread community. Curbed provides a brief description of the community:

Design-y Japanese retailer Muji has taken the whole genre up another notch, this time with a tiny gingerbread town, complete with 100 houses created from 15,000 Muji snacks. There’s a commuter train; hay bales; tiny residents shoveling snow, heading to work, and chatting with neighbors; and even mini video projections. The burg is on display in Toyko until Christmas Day, but the company has also installed a 24-hour live feed for virtual visitors. And yet again, Muji has enlisted children to help build stuff—watch the video and see some close-up shots below.

I checked the live feed last night and it looked like the gingerbread village was asleep. The music is also catchy but I imagine it could get annoying really quickly. I’ll have to check back today to see if the town is more lively today…

Two other notes:

1. Does gingerbread architecture differ across cultures? While this community was put together by a Japanese corporation, it looks like it is made up of fairly traditional and Western architecture.

2. Since this is put together by a retailer, I assume this is supposed to lead me to buy something. Gingerbread house kits? Model train sets?

Christmas shopping for sociology majors and for those want to sociologically disrupt some Christmas rituals

Connecting sociology and Christmas gifts is not an easy task. But here are two web pages that aim to do just that: selecting a gift for a sociology major and selecting gifts that help disrupt typical Christmas rituals in the United States.

1. A “college student gift guide” suggests sociology majors should be given a white sweatshirt with the message “I heart Sociology.” I don’t understand this gift as the suggestions for the other majors involve gifts that actually have to do with the major. Why a sweatshirt? But, if you start to think about it, what could you give a sociology major that is uniquely about social structures and society? Perhaps a coupon or cash to go toward extra-special people-watching? (One of my students recently mentioned the rich possibilities of Venice Beach, California.) Perhaps the latest version of their favorite data software like Stata or Atlas.ti so they can feverishly work some analyses over the holiday? Perhaps a box set of their favorite sociological monographs? A copy of The Sims or SimCity to do a little pop culture simulation?

2. The “Sociology of Style’s Holiday Gift Guide” has five Week One suggestions regarding “Gifts that Give Back.” Of the five options, four of them feature the same logic: if you have to consume (is this what the ritual of Christmas has become?), you can do so in more responsible ways that can benefit other people as well. Is Product Red out of style?

I think we are a long way away before Amazon.com has dedicated gift lists for the sociologist in your life. At the same time, the American Sociological Association could get on this and perhaps raise some funds that could lower dues and pay for other expenses…