McMansions are too costly in terms of money and relationships

In another article about McMansions in Australia (and I have been seeing more and more of these  – perhaps due to the recent news that the country has the largest new homes on average), one writer suggests McMansions cost too much and have a negative impact on relationships:

Australians live in the world’s biggest homes but new research shows our trend to upsize our living space is reversing. The average size of new houses being built in this country is getting smaller as people start to realise that living in a McMansion does not make sense. While the financial implications of owning a large home have surely been considered, there are other costs that are not as obvious…

The reasons are obvious- it costs too much. Far from being energy efficient, the financial burden that comes with a bigger pad can weigh too heavily on a household already struggling to keep up with the rising cost of living. There are bigger gas and power bills and mortgage repayments not to mention the hassle of having to spend time and money maintaining and keeping the whole thing clean … no wonder we are thinking again.

Another problem of the larger, have-it-all home is that we have less need to leave it to meet our daily needs. Social interaction is being replaced by home-based activity for our convenience. It is easier to get on the treadmill, ‘chat’ to someone on Facebook, play tennis on the wii and shop online instead of getting out into our communities.

There is no substitute for real communication and the lack of it can affect our sense of well-being. Mental health issues such as depression and the feeling of isolation that many people experience is the reason some programs are being developed, specifically aiming to get people out of the house, talking to others and active in their communities. ‘The Shed’ for men and ‘R U OK’ Day are a couple of examples.

The financial costs of McMansions are clear, particularly if you include costs beyond the price of the home and consider the impact on other areas like cars, roads, infrastructure, and filling/furnishing a larger home.

The relational impact of McMansions has also been covered by others, particularly since they seem to encourage more private lives. But, my mind jumped to the next step in the argument illustrated in this article: how small would houses need to be in order to encourage interaction even among family members? If a McMansion is roughly 3,000-6,000 square feet, it seems like it would be fairly easy for family members to avoid each other. But, if a home is 2,000 square feet, would families necessarily interact more? Perhaps if we went back to the era of Levittown sized homes, around 900 square feet, this could induce some interaction.

But even in smaller homes, there are other factors at work. At the end of the article, the writer suggests that perhaps the real problem isn’t the size of the home:

I am conscious of creating an environment where communication is encouraged and valued so we know what’s going on in each other’s lives. There are no computers, TVs or other electronic entertainment in the bedrooms. Our living space is used for meals, games, entertainment, homework and handstands. It’s a bit cluttered but it’s homely and there’s always someone to talk to.

Technology could play a role as could cultural ideas about the need for “time alone.”

In the end, a smaller home probably increases the number of times people have to run into each other but it doesn’t necessarily mean that they will have deeper, more meaningful relationships. There are larger issues at work here beyond the number of square feet a home has or whether the home has a porch close to the street.

Redistricting with “sociological integrity”

Redistricting can often a contentious activity. But what if it is done with “sociological integrity”?

“Districts are ordered generally to maintain sociological integrity. Seward was happy paired with Homer and Seldovia as having the only outside deep water ports for the Kenai Peninsula,” Seaton said. “Now Seward is with Nikiski and Sterling – Homer with no other ports; Seldovia with Kodiak.”

A well-ordered voting district is one that generally has an amiable sociological mix that share economic and cultural ties to work toward common legislative goals. Nonetheless, Homer fares well with other Lower Kenai Peninsula communities like Ninilchik and Kasilof, and now the Russian village of Nikolaevsk, which formerly was represented in an entirely different district. The residents of Funny River Road may lack common issues and it “could take a while to develop that cohesiveness,” Seaton said. “It’s just different issues because they are looking at a main economic structure that is inland and revolves around the river. Not that there’s anything wrong with their new alignment, it’s just people will need to feel their way through and acclimate to working with different areas and different interests.”…

Since Alaska is one of the few states once found guilty of gerrymandering districts to favor issues or candidates, Alaska elections are overseen by the Federal Election Commission to ensure a strong voice for electing a minority candidate.

I like this term, “sociological integrity,” and think it has potential if it generally referred to positive social outcomes and plans drawn up from sociological principles.

Perhaps this is unique to Alaska, but this sounds like a different way of drawing up legislative districts: they should have a “amiable sociological mix that share economic and cultural ties to work toward common legislative goals.” What sounds different about this is that districts in other states are often drawn to collect a certain number of votes for a particular party. Those in charge of redistricting want to solidfy their own positions and reduce the ability of their competition to compete in districts. The definition from this article refers not to votes but rather a shared cultural and economic history as uniting voters. Perhaps party affiliations are tied to this (an example from the article above: perhaps deep water port communities are all on one side) but cultural and economic ties are also important as this is how residents and community leaders connect with each other more frequently.

Does any other state consider cultural ties when drawing up legislative boundaries or is it all just a naked grab for votes?

Big cities promote new ideas

Big cities are generally thought of centers of innovation for both business and culture. This article suggests this effect is particularly pronounced in developing Asian countries:

“Cities are the first to embrace many concepts that are a taboo in towns and villages,” says Sandhya Patnaik, a sociology professor at Delhi University, referring to pre-marital sex, live-in relationships or divorces.

“Anything new or modern touches cities first. Trends percolate to smaller towns at a very slow pace.”

Occasionally in India, the battle between village tradition and liberal city culture can have deadly consequences, such as the “honour killings” seen in Delhi’s migrant areas…

But experts say cities across the world generally serve as a positive melting pot, where different cultures intermingle, encouraging tolerance and the interchange of ideas.

“The freedom in a big city comes from diversity,” Jirapa Worasiangsuk, a sociologist at Thammasat University in Bangkok, told AFP. “It’s the choices and the opportunity to choose that make Bangkok or other big cities a better place.

“People have more choices to choose how to live, to choose their career, to do whatever they want.”…

Sociologists say the freedom of cities often stems from a feeling of anonymity — but this can often tip over into loneliness.

This article seems to suggest that modern, Western ideas are found in the city. I assume most Westerners would look at news like this and think that these changes are long overdue but the article suggests these new ideas are not always met favorably. Such changes are not easy (and some places could argue whether they are desired) as the early sociologists recognized when looking at the changes urbanization was bringing to Western Europe in the 1800s.

It would be interesting to read diffusion studies from these countries that track how new cultural and social ideas leak out of cities and come to dominate social interaction.

Thinking more about this, are there major cities in modern times that have been business centers but also that remained culturally conservative? Or does being open to business tend to correlate with more liberal ideas? This would be interesting as neoliberalism is often thought of as being conservative since it is capitalistic.

Lakoff on Obama: a progressive moral vision plus systems thinking

George Lakoff has an interesting take on President Obama’s April 13th speech. While the speech was ostensibly about the budget, Lakoff argues that Obama was making two larger points:

1. President Obama was laying out a progressive vision of democracy. Here is how Lakoff sums it up:

The basic idea is this: Democracy is based on empathy, that is, on citizens caring about each other and acting on that care, taking responsibility not just for themselves but for their families, communities, and their nation. The role of government is to carry out this principle in two ways: protection and empowerment.

Obama quotes Lincoln: “to do together what we cannot do as well for ourselves.” That is what he calls patriotism. He spotlights “the American belief… that each one of us deserves some basic measure of security… that no matter how responsibly we live our lives, hard time or bad luck, crippling illness or a layoff, may strike any one of us.” He cites the religious version of this moral vision: “There but for the grace of God go I.” The greatness of America comes from carrying out such moral commitments as Medicare, Social Security, and Medicaid.

It would be an interesting public discussion to have over whether these three programs are a moral commitment. I suspect that a good number of Americans would see it this way but this is not the typical angle taken in public discourse.

2. President Obama highlighted the role of systems and how a budget cannot be isolated from other important needs and goals in society:

President Obama, in the same speech, laid the groundwork for another crucial national discussion: systems thinking, which has shown up in public discourse mainly in the form of “systemic risk” of the sort that led to the global economic meltdown. The president brought up systems thinking implicitly, at the center of his budget proposal. He observed repeatedly that budget deficits and “spending” do not occur in isolation. The choice of what to cut and what to keep is a matter of factors external to the budget per se.

Long-term prosperity, economic recovery, and job creation, he argued, depend up maintaining “investments” — investments in infrastructure (roads, bridges, long-distance rail), education, scientific research, renewable energy, and so on. The maintenance of American values, he argued, is outside of the budget in itself, but is at the heart of the argument about what to cut. The fact is that the rich have gotten rich because of the government — direct corporate subsidies, access to publicly-owned resources, access to government research, favorable trade agreements, roads and other means of transportation, education that provides educated workers, tax loopholes, and innumerable government resources taken advantage of by the rich, but paid for by all of us. What is called a “tax break” for the rich is actually a redistribution of wealth from the poor and middle class whose incomes have gone down to those who have considerably more money than they need, money they have made because of tax investments by the rest of America…

Progressives tend to think more readily in terms of systems than conservatives. We see this in the answers to a question like, “What causes crime?” Progressives tend to give answers like economic hardship, or lack of education, or crime-ridden neighborhoods. Conservatives tend more to give an answer like “bad people — lock ’em up, punish ’em.” This is a consequence of a lifetime of thinking in terms of social connection (for progressives) and individual responsibility (for conservatives). Thus conservatives did not see the president’s plan, which relied on systemic causation, as a plan at all for directly addressing the deficit.

This sort of systems thinking sounds like sociological approaches to the world: the complex social realm can be difficult to understand and predict but settling on simple (often individualistic) explanations leaves much to desired.

I can imagine that conservatives might find holes with Lakoff’s argument, not the least that all of this explanation still doesn’t say much about how the United States could deal with its budget issues. But Lakoff highlights the cultural ideas and values surrounding political debate: speeches and political activities may be about budgets and practical matters but there are underlying values that guide such actions.

Exploring the messages embedded in “The Battle Hymn of the Republic”

Political scientist Dominic Tierney explores the cultural and religious meanings and values behind the familiar American song “The Battle Hymn of the Republic.” Some of his thoughts on the song:

But most of all, the “Battle Hymn” is a warrior’s cry and a call to arms. Its vivid portrait of sacred violence captures how Americans fight wars, from the minié balls of the Civil War to the shock and awe of Iraq. Based on ideas from my new book, How We Fight: Crusades, Quagmires, and the American Way of War, we can see how the nation’s experience is intimately connected to this crusader’s cry…

The totemic poem has guided the United States through many military trials. The “Battle Hymn” epitomizes the strengths of this nation: its optimism, and its moral courage. It’s a song of agency, of action, a call to sacrifice together for the cause. The soldiers who march to the “Battle Hymn” have helped to liberate millions.

But there is a dark side to the “Battle Hymn” and the American way of war. The righteous zeal of America’s war effort can excuse almost any sins—like killing hundreds of thousands of enemy civilians. When Americans loose the fateful lightning, they have no moral guilt, for they are the tools of God.

This is a fascinating topic, particularly considering that the song came out of the Northern side of the Civil War but seems to have later been adopted by a majority of Americans. A song like this does reflect the American narrative, the story that we tell about ourselves over the years and also helps interpret our current situation.

And yet, I feel like I have rarely heard this song in recent years – the more common American hymn is “America, the Beautiful” which seems to adopt a very different tone, particularly in its first verse which opens with images of nature though its later verses pick up on some of the same themes. What explains a shift away from “The Battle Hymn,” if this has indeed happened? What happens or changes when “The Battle Hymn” is used in settings that have less to do with war – would other songs be preferred then or are there causes today that could or would utilize this song and its messages?

Displaying human remains at museums

Museums typically want to display historical items – but certain objects raise more concerns than others. One sociologist has highlighted how museums have reconsidered displaying human remains:

In a book published yesterday, Tiffany Jenkins, a sociologist, highlighted how uneasy museums are becoming when it comes to displaying human remains. Jenkins gave examples including the Museum of London, which removed bones showing the effects of rickets, and Manchester University Museum, which took the head of an iron-age human, Worsley Man, off display; in 2008, it briefly covered its mummies with sheets.

This can be a complicated issue. But I would guess that feelings regarding the display of human remains are a cultural phenomenon which differs from culture to culture. Typical American practices of dealing with remains (burial or cremation) differ from other cultures, both now and historically. And what is valid as museum material also is affected by cultural values and history.

Making art out of sprawl

The Infrastructurist comments on a story about an artist who uses sprawl and suburbia as his subject. The Infrastructurist and the story commentator suggest these images are alienating and ultimately, tragic:

The suburbs are totally self-contained, labyrinthine, and generally terrifying. The Times describes them as “static, crystalline and inorganic. Indeed, some of these streets frame retirement communities: places to move to once you’ve already been what you’ve set out to be.” We couldn’t have said it better ourselves.

I don’t think one has to see these images as tragic. A couple of possible defenses of such images (and the one The Infrastructurist has on the story is a good one):

1. These can be seen as very ordered places. Not ordered in the sense of traditional city grid ordered but they still have a logic. The streets may be more winding but these communities seem to be centered around retail centers or parks. They may even have their own kind of beauty.

2. If one already thinks sprawl is bad, then viewing these overhead shots may just be throwing fuel on the fire. However, these images can be read as the American manifestation of particular social and cultural values: individualism and privacy as built in single-family homes and suburban streets for our cars. In America, the particular expression of these values may be best exhibited in suburbs. There are other ways suburbs/sprawl could be structured to still support those values – or perhaps these commentators would suggest these values themselves should just be done away with. But that is not a problem with these images; it is an underlying issue with sprawl and suburbs.

Thinking about a culture of homeownership

The recent cover of Time featured a story about homeownership. While the story emphasized the idea that homeownership is not an unquestionable good (particularly economically), it also argued something else: homeownership is an important part of American culture that should be examined.

For generations, Americans believed that owning a home was an axiomatic good. Our political leaders hammered home the point. Franklin Roosevelt held that a country of homeowners was “unconquerable.” Homeownership could even, in the words of George H.W. Bush’s Secretary of Housing and Urban Development (HUD), Jack Kemp, “save babies, save children, save families and save America.” A house with a front lawn and a picket fence wasn’t just a nice place to live or a risk-free investment; it was a way to transform a nation. No wonder leaders of all political stripes wanted to spend more than $100 billion a year on subsidies and tax breaks to encourage people to buy.
With the economic crisis surrounding homes (and the foreclosure issue is going to be around for a while), some are beginning to question the role of housing within the American dream. From the early days of American life, the single-family home was a special place that dovetailed with American emphases on individualism, the nuclear family, and an anti-urban bias.
Of course, this cultural ideal was pushed along and aided by government and economic policies that emphasized homeownership. So, now faced with economic troubles, the country could either support or move away from this value:
1. Support this value by making houses a safer investment and tightening up the mortgage markets so that lenders and borrowers are working together rather than simply trying to profit.
2. Change or work against this value by supporting other kinds of housing tenure, primarily renting. But this could include moves toward more co-operative housing or other options.
Thus far, I would say Option #1 has been chosen: try to shore up the housing market without questioning whether homeownership should be the ideal or if other options are possible.
I’m not suggesting homeownership is necessarily good or bad. What this housing crisis does offer is an opportunity to ask how homeownership fits into our future vision of America.

Thinking about economics: science or ideology?

Barbara Kiviat discusses whether economics is a science or an ideology. Part of her conclusion:

And when you think about it, it is a little odd that we think economics would be able to do these things. After all, the economy is as much a product of sociology and policy as it is pure-form economics. Yet we’d not expect a sociologist or a political scientist to be able to write a computer model to accurately capture system-wide decision-making. The conclusion I’ve come to: while economists may have an important perspective on whether it’s time for stimulus or austerity, maybe we should stop looking to them as if they are people who are in the ultimate position to know.

Sociologists have been arguing for some time now that sociology has a lot to say about economics, including about how cultural values and ideology guide economic decision-making and actions.