In praise of What Do People Do All Day? by Richard Scarry

I raised the question yesterday regarding why children’s books often address infrastructure and construction but older kids receive little instruction in this. Today, I highlight one children’s book I enjoyed as a kid and enjoy now having kids: Richard Scarry’s What Do People Do All Day?

From my point of view, the book performs multiple important tasks:

  1. Shows a range of jobs and how they intersect. A community needs farmers, plumbers, train operators, people running paper mills, and so on in addition to the typical tales of police, firefighters, and medical personnel.
  2. Shows all sorts of infrastructure including the production of electricity and water as well as building roads, using fire to put out fires, and how to build a house.
  3. Introduces economic principles. For example, the first story traces the path of money as producers sell goods to retailers and then how those producers might use the money they received.
  4. The book has a good balance of instruction and whimsy. There is much for kids to learn here as well as wacky situations such as Huckle ending up in the cockpit for landing an airplane and the various adventures of Lowly Worm.
  5. Children prominently feature in the stories, even if they are not the main characters, which helps give them a sense of contributing to the work going on around them.

Admittedly, the book has its quirks. The architecture is unusual – I usually think it matches French Canadian architecture (and I have little exposure to this outside of a few trips to Montreal). The characters can conform to stereotype. I’m thinking of Mommy Cat who receives a new dress because she works so hard at home. Some of the characters are simply strange – what does Wild Bill Hiccup do outside of serving as town eccentric? There must be some important community roles that are left out – no mention of religious groups? Leisure activities? Garbage collection? Truck drivers?

Yet, the informative stories, depictions of community life, and recurring characters mean that I keep enjoying this book.

The best ASA talk I heard: Hampton and Wellman on moral panics and “persistent-pervasive” community

Internet and community scholars presented a paper on Sunday at the ASA meetings that addressed the widespread social concerns – or moral panic – over the loss of community and relationships due to smartphones, social media, and the Internet. They argue this particular argument is nothing new. For at least a century, Westerners and sociologists have argued various technological and social changes have harmed traditional notions of community. I’ll do my best to summarize the argument and they explained it should be in a published piece soon.

At the beginning of the discipline of sociology, leading figures lamented the loss of close-knit communities. Often based in villages or small cities, these societies were marked by close ties, shared cultural values, and limited interaction with the outside world. Tönnies called this gemeinscahft and Durkheim labeled it mechanical solidarity. The development of capitalism, industrialization, and megacities upended these traditional ways of life with increased mobility, moving away from relatives, and the fragmentation of collective values. Tönnies called this gesellschaft and Durkheim termed this organic solidarity. Marx also responded to these major social changes by arguing workers experienced alienation as they were now cogs in a capitalistic machine rather than free individuals. Writing specifically about cities, Simmel worried that dense population centers would lead to overstimulated minds and cause mental distress.

But, the changes kept coming. Urbanization took off – and is still happening at amazing rates in many parts of the world – and was later supplanted by suburbanization in the United States (and a few other countries). Critics also claimed suburbanization ruined community. Whereas urban residents interacted with numerous neighbors and often lived in ethnic enclaves, suburbs moved people to private single-family homes, encouraged individual interests, and produced conformity. Numerous critics inside and outside sociology argued suburbs limits civil society.

The Internet, smartphones, and social media then disrupted suburban communities with a move away from the limits of proximity and geography. Now, users could interact with other users unconstrained by time and space. Close ties could be abandoned in favor of ties based on common interests. Users had little reason to contribute to civil society based on geography. As Jean Twenge argued in The Atlantic, the introduction of the iPhone marks a turning point toward a host of negative individual and collective outcomes.

Hampton and Wellman make this point: all of these technological and social changes and their effects on communities afforded both new opportunities and limitations. In a shift from close-knit communities to post-industrial community to what they now call “persistent-pervasive community,” people gained things and lost others. The new form of community offers two primary strengths: the ability to engage in long-term relationships that in the past would have disappeared as people moved geographically and socially as well as a new awareness of information, people, and the world around them. Going back to earlier stages of community, a world of closer face-to-face bonds or geographically-bounded relationships, might lead to negative outcomes like repression, conformity, hierarchy, constraints, and a lack of awareness of important causes like social justice and equality.

In the end, should a moral panic push Americans back toward an earlier form of community or should we recognize that the persistent-pervasive community of today contains both opportunities and threats?

(Three reasons why I resonated with this talk. First, it combines two areas of research in which I engage: suburban communities and social network site use. Both are communities and institutions yet they are typically treated as separate spheres. Additionally, both are relatively ignored by mainstream sociology even as more than 50% of Americans live in suburbs and the vast majority of Americans are affected by the Internet and social media. Second, a balanced approach where social change is recognized as having both positive and negative consequences fits my personality as well as my research findings. Sometimes, the negative consequences of social change are easy to identify but often the change happens because groups and institutions believe there is something to be gained by changes. Third, while there is always a danger in simplified explanations of large-scale social change, I think sociologists can contribute much by explaining broad changes over time.)

Did Peyton Manning really lead to the revival of Indianapolis?

Lost within the Vice President’s protest of a protest at the Indianapolis Colts game was the retiring of Peyton Manning’s number. A great NFL quarterback – but also the savior of Indianapolis?

So now Indianapolis, with its compact downtown packed with hotels and restaurants, has had a Super Bowl—and the city performed so well the NFL might go back for a second one day. Indianapolis has won a Super Bowl. Indianapolis has had Final Fours, men’s and women’s. Indianapolis is even hip, with Manhattan-caliber restaurants like Bluebeard. On Saturday, with two big conventions and a Colts game in town, downtown was bursting at the seams; there was a line at St. Elmo’s. And a crowd of 10,000 to 12,000 people came to the city to watch the unveiling of the half-ton bronze statue for the man who, more than anyone, made it possible. GM Bill Polian always maintained Lucas Oil Stadium got built on the back of Peyton Manning, and the former two-term governor, Mitch Daniels, echoed that in remarks to the adoring crowd. Locals were giving Daniels a hard time about the cost of Lucas Oil Stadium early this century, and he said: “Just build it. Peyton will fill it.” Fitting, too, that the shiny upscale JW Marriott—representing boom times in the first 17 years of this century for $320-a-night rooms in ritzy downtown hotels—could be seen through the legs of the bronze number 18.

“He didn’t do it alone,” Letterman said. “But by God, look around us. He changed the skyline. This used to be a small town. This man has changed the skyline.”

Never wonder again about the effect of a winning quarterback on a city, a state, a region. It’s why every team that doesn’t have Aaron Rodgers or Matt Ryan spends so much time and money looking for one. As Browns owner Jimmy Haslam told me this summer: “There’s nothing that compares to it. You need a great starting pitcher, a great closer in baseball. You need a great point guard in basketball. But there’s not one position that comes anywhere close in sports, I don’t think, to quarterback in football. If you ask any one of our football people, they’d all say getting the quarterback right is number one. I can tell you this: It’s on the top of our list daily. Once you get that, the game’s much easier.”…

Manning got emotional talking to the crowd. The crowd—at least via signs from as far west as Hawaii, as far east as New Jersey—ladled love on him for an hour. “WE LOVE YOU MAN,” punctuated the affair three times from the crowd. A friend, Angie Six, was in the middle of it and texted me afterward: “Being a part of the crowd was a truly moving experience, enough to make this fan and those around me a little misty-eyed. Standing shoulder to shoulder in the shadow of Lucas Oil Stadium, I saw a diverse crowd of Colts fans: young, old, black, white, Hispanic, men, women. We are all Hoosiers, proud to claim Peyton as our own. When Peyton left to play for Denver, we watched heartbroken from afar. We never had a chance to say thank you. Today, we were able to express our gratitude in person, and the crowd was giddy. The woman behind me said, ‘What a great day to be a Colts fan.’”

I do not buy these two common arguments made by sportswriters and others:

(1) stars and championships can change the course of major cities and regions and

(2) sports truly bring together communities in ways that other spheres or events cannot.

Development and community-building does not work this way. Cleveland finally winning a championship does not change everything. The Bulls winning six championships in the 1990s followed by the White Sox, Blackhawks, and the Cubs (!) winning in the following decades has not solved the problems facing many poor neighborhoods. J.J. Watt raising a lot of money in response to hurricane relief in Houston is a drop in the bucket compared to what is needed to clean up and more importantly help Houston and other regions develop ways to be resilient in the face of disasters. Peyton Manning becoming the most recognized face of Indianapolis – even though he is from Mississippi and the team dumped him when they thought they could do better without him – is a nice story but there are plenty of players who do similar things (just not at one of the most visible positions in sports).

This does not mean that winning or doing good things in the community are bad. Indeed, following sports is worthwhile in the long run when your team finally wins and team and player efforts to help communities are much appreciated. But, cities and regions are much bigger than this. Cities and regions can recover from major teams moving away. (Does anyone make a serious case that Seattle lost big when losing the Supersonics or that San Diego is going to decline with the Chargers now in Los Angeles?) People will find other ways to spend their money and local officials will continue to use whatever tools they can – including sports – to promote economic development and boost the status of their community.

I would enjoy seeing academic research on the influence of players and teams on local communities. Even in places where the teams are intimately wedded to the common insider perceptions of what a place is – think the Pittsburgh Steelers – what influence does a team really have? Perhaps Indianapolis is a unique case of sports contributing to economic development because Manning’s stardom came alongside a thriving amateur sports scene (from high school basketball to the NCAA). But, can we also imagine an alternate universe Indianapolis where the city changes over several decades with no influence of major sports?

Societal goals: avoiding society through online shopping

The comic Take It From the Tinkersons recently had a strip hinting at a major consequence of online shopping:

While this might be a bit of hyperbole, there is some truth to this. Is one of the appeals of online shopping the ability to avoid society and social interactions? Even shopping at your local big box store requires rubbing shoulders with other shoppers and a brief interaction with a cashier (even with self-checkout, you still have an overseer).

At the least, online shopping provides evidence of the significant shift that happened in Western societies in the last few hundred years. The earliest sociologists were very interested in the switch from tight-knit village or agrarian life to the less connected and varied urban life. Marx saw tremendous consequences for labor and the individual within an economic system rooted in burgeoning cities. Durkheim compared mechanical and organic solidarity, a shift toward a complex division of labor where individuals now depended on others to do essential tasks for their lives. Tonnies contrasted gemeinschaft and gesellschaft, more direct social interactions versus indirect social interactions.

Online shopping of the sorts we have today may only be possible in a highly complex and individualized society such as our own. The process of moving a product from its production point to a warehouse to your home or business through online clicks is quite complicated and amazing. Yet, it really does limit social interactions on the shopping end. As private individuals, we can now make choices and receive our products away from scrutiny. It would be an error to think that this private purchase is now removed from social influence – with the spread of media and influence of social media, we may be influenced by generalized social pressures more than ever – but the direct social experience is gone.

This could have big implications for social life. Will buying habits significantly change now that immediate social interactions and social pressure is removed? Will we become used to such social transactions not involving people that we will be willing to remove social interactions from other areas? There will certainly be consequences of increasing online shopping and public life – even if it is related to individuals consuming products in a capitalistic system – may just suffer for it.

 

Urban high-rises can be “vertical suburbs”

Chicago Tribune architectural critic Blair Kamin suggests again that some new urban high-rises are dull by comparing them to suburbs:

The most forward-looking of the bunch comes from the studio of Mexico City architect Tatiana Bilbao, who designed a model low-cost house for the first biennial. Her tower, done in cooperation with 14 other designers, would house apartments, a market, a workplace and other uses in a plug-in matrix enlivened by cantilevered parts. The design offers a persuasive alternative to the lifeless (and mindless) high-rises that are turning cities from Shanghai to Chicago into vertical suburbs.

Taking aim at the never-ending quest to erect the world’s tallest building, Bilbao asks a far more important question: “How do we create truly vertical communities?”

This comparison does two interesting things. First, it continues the suburban critique of blandness and conformity. While it was often applied to tract homes built on a mass scale, here it is applied to high-rises that are indistinguishable from others. Suburbs and their residents don’t take risks, nor do these new buildings.

Second, the architectural form of suburbs – single-family homes, strip malls and shopping malls, automobile-centric – may be a less important trait compared to its culture. The suggestion here is that a high-rise in the heart of the city can still be a suburb. Spatially, this makes little sense but if the suburbs are more about a particular community life and set of values – an emphasis on privacy, getting ahead, property values, family life – then it may not matter where this lifestyle is found.

It may be worth thinking more about this idea of a “vertical suburb.” Architects and others have spent decades thinking about how to create vertical communities but it often does not work as intended.

Equating problematic McMansions with problematic American suburbs

Amidst other problems with McMansions, one writer connects McMansions to failed suburban hopes for community:

No dream in America was ever been born innocent. Suburbia brought with it all the patriarchal problems one would expect in a glorification of the nuclear family—gestures broadly in the direction of Mad Men. It proved to be a kind of social hell for women. And like everything in American history, racism and class also played huge roles in its conception…

The nearly 200 year old suburban dream was uniquely American in its focus on the utopic vision of private homeownership. We didn’t want a great city, we didn’t want a close-knit township. We wanted tract housing and privacy. Unsurprisingly, communities built to honor these dreams ended up being awful, lonely places to grow up. Crushing ennui aside, kids fell prey to a brutal social Darwinism at home. Currie characterizes it as follows:

The rejection of the idea of mutual responsibility, a righteous distaste for offering help, the acceptance or encouragement of a view of life in which a competitive scramble for individual preeminence and comfort is central, the insistence that even the most vulnerable must learn to handle life’s difficulties by themselves and that if they cannot it is no one’s fault but their own—these were not the idiosyncratic views of a few parents but pervasive themes in American society and culture during the years in which the teens were growing up.

And to put it all together:

Of course, not every suburban community is a benighted hellscape full of cookie cutter McMansion monstrosities where kids OD in the living room beneath 60 ft. vaulted ceilings that take half an oil field to heat. But enough of it is. And it’s hard to imagine a more opulent, well-resourced version of suburbia than the run we had in the Bush Jr. era. When looking at all this, we need to ask ourselves, will the kids be alright? Is this the best choice for the next generation? Will we have to endure nu-metal again?

Several quick thoughts:

  1. I find this last paragraph confusing: what does it mean that “enough of [suburbia] is” McMansions mean? Is there a critical line to cross where there are too many McMansions to separate suburbs as a whole from McMansions? Or, is just having any McMansions at all a problem?
  2. I see McMansions more as a major symptom of the problems of American suburban life rather than large problems in their own right. In other words, if all McMansions could be eliminated, this doesn’t mean that the difficulties of a suburban society go away. Indeed, the critiques leveled here against suburbia existed for decades before McMansions entered the scene in the 1980s and 1990s.
  3. There are hints here of the idea that certain kinds of housing and urban planning leads to certain kinds of community: suburbia filled with large, single-family homes limits community and makes life difficult for teenagers. This may be an easier argument to make when comparing the United States to other countries but is trickier across the gradations of density and population size. Do teenagers in rural areas or cities necessarily do better? Did postwar suburbs full of smaller cookie-cutter homes placed closely together (a formation also roundly criticized) have more community because of the homes or different societal conventions (and the housing and societal norms could definitely influence each other in a feedback loop)?

On the whole, I find a good number of concerns about McMansions are really about suburbia as a whole with McMansions serving as an easy target.

Facebook as a replacement for the community formerly found in church and Little League

In a recent speech in Chicago, Zuckerberg explained his vision for Facebook:

Mark Zuckerberg wants Facebook groups to play an important role that community groups like churches and Little League teams used to perform: Bringing communities together…

“It’s so striking that for decades, membership in all kinds of groups has declined as much as one-quarter,” he said during a rally for Facebook users who’ve built large community-support groups on the site. “That’s a lot of of people who now need to find a sense of purpose and support somewhere else.”

He added, “People who go to church are more likely to volunteer and give to charity — not just because they’re religious, but because they’re part of a community.”…

“A church doesn’t just come together. It has a pastor who cares for the well-being of their congregation, makes sure they have food and shelter. A little league team has a coach who motivates the kids and helps them hit better. Leaders set the culture, inspire us, give us a safety net, and look out for us.”

One of the best things about the Internet and social media is that it allows people with specific interests to find each other in ways that can be difficult offline. Yet, it is less clear that these online groups can be full substitutes for offline social groups. A few specific questions about this based on what Zuckerberg said:

  1. It can be interesting to ask about the purpose of religious groups: how much are they about religious activities versus social activities? The answer might depend on whether one is a person of faith or not or an insider or outsider to such groups.
  2. Religious groups are unique in that they are often focused on a transcendent being. Other social groups often have an external focus but not quite the same kind. Is a Facebook group focusing on the same kind of thing as a religious group?
  3. Zuckerberg is hinting at the need humans have for social and spiritual connection. Can such spiritual connection be filled in an online setting in the ways that it occurs offline?
  4. Zuckerberg is right about the decline in civic membership but can this trend be easily reversed? For example, Robert Putnam in Bowling Alone points to a whole host of factors (from suburbanization to television watching) that led to this. If people are willing to join online communities in large numbers, is this because these communities offer different requirements than civic groups?

A reminder: this is not a new development. Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg has been clear from early on about his goals to use the platform to bring people together. See an earlier post about this here.