“The Sociology of Harry Potter” course about culture

Taking advantage of student’s knowledge of the Harry Potter series, one sociology instructor is using “The Sociology of Harry Potter” to teach about culture:

“The basic idea is to have students use sociology to analyze the society of the wizardly world to be able to understand and compare and contrast between the Muggle world and the witching world,” Vandivier said.

About 30 students are taking the course, which Vandivier said is a large number for an online course, but she is glad for the active participation.

“Many of them are big Harry Potter fans. They get into arguments — not online, but when I’ve talked to some on campus — who’s the good guy and who’s the bad guy and who’s the Hufflepuff, and what that’s got to do with anything. It’s just so fun listening to them, and they are really emotionally invested in the different houses, in the different characters, in the different circumstances that happened and where they think things came from. Just all the ideology; it’s almost like a religion,” she said…

“If I were to teach a class on say, the cultures of India, I would first have to educate them on what the culture of India is. But in this situation, they already know, they already have it down,” she said. “And I’m just facilitating a compare and contrast, what’s the theme, what’s the difference, and what does that mean for each society? So that’s the great thing about Harry Potter.”

Why not use what students already know in order to demonstrate sociological concepts? And with the new Harry Potter play in the works, this might be a good time to capitalize on continued interest.

While the sociological study of pop culture may have been taboo decades ago, it is increasingly common today. The impact of such narratives are hard to deny, even as other traditional institutions (nations, families, race and class structures, education systems, etc.) draw ongoing attention.

Detroit’s art museum raises $800 million, saving its art and helping the city escape bankruptcy

The deal late last week to end Detroit’s bankruptcy also means the city’s art museum didn’t have to sell much of its famous art:

As many outlets are noting, the bankruptcy could have been far lengthier, and even more painful for retirees, had it not been for an unusual deal designed to save the Detroit Institute of Arts while minimizing cuts to pensions. The museum has been owned by the city since 1919, and its collection, appraised at $4.6 billion, includes works by the likes of Rembrandt, Van Gogh, and Matisse, as well as Bruegel the Elder’s masterful The Wedding Dance. In April 2013, the city’s governor-appointed emergency manager, Kevyn Orr, informed the DIA that it would have to contribute at least $500 million to paying off Detroit’s debts, even if meant selling off paintings at auction. Creditors also demanded a sale, because, you know, they’re creditors.

Instead, the museum essentially went on an ambitious fundraising drive, in which it managed to raise more than $800 million, including $330 million from nine different philanthropic foundations. Another $200 million came from the state of Michigan, which, despite Gov. Rick Snyder’s protestations that he wouldn’t bail out Detroit, did apparently feel compelled to preserve some of its cultural heritage.

In return for the money, the deal will essentially “ransom the museum from city ownership,” as the New York Times puts it, placing it in control of an independent charitable trust.

It sounds like foundations and others that gave money to the art museum not just helped preserve the museum’s finer pieces but also raised extra money for the museum. Given that many urban supporters these days laud the positive influence of arts on urban development, perhaps the museum can play a bigger role in helping to revive downtown Detroit with some of that extra money.

At the same time, it is interesting to consider some of the tradeoffs in Detroit leaving bankruptcy: is it better to preserve art (often something passed down from generation to generation) or to cut the pensions of employees and retirees? Save big culture or provide more money for people living in the community? Perhaps this is an overly simplified comparison but raising hundreds of millions for art could have very different outcomes than raising that money to help residents.

Bringing sociology and understanding culture to Wall Street

A sociologist argues for the value of bringing a sociological perspective to Wall Street after noting how the president of the Federal Reserve Bank of New York recently used the term culture repeatedly and defined the term:

“Culture relates to the implicit norms that guide behavior in the absence of regulations or compliance rules—and sometimes despite those explicit restraints. … Culture reflects the prevailing attitudes and behaviors within a firm.  It is how people react not only to black and white, but to all of the shades of grey. Like a gentle breeze, culture may be hard to see, but you can feel it. Culture relates to what “should” I do, and not to what “can” I do.”

Dudley has a doctorate in economics, and spent a decade as chief economist at Goldman Sachs. But in his remarks he sounded more like a sociologist than an economist. His many mentions of “culture” could be significant. I’m hoping they mark the beginning of a change in how regulators think about reining in law-breaking and excessive risk-taking at banks. I’m also hoping that I had something to do with them…

So I studied sociology, and for my doctoral dissertation focused on the organizational culture of Goldman Sachs. The dissertation became a book, titled What Happened to Goldman Sachs: An Insider’s Story of Organizational Drift and Its Unintended Consequences (HBR Press, 2013). One of the changes I document in the book is how Goldman drifted from a focus on ethical standards of behavior to legal ones — from what one “should” do to what one “can” do.

After the book was published, Dudley got in touch. I met with him and his people, and discussed what I had learned in my study of sociology and, in particular, my in-depth study of Goldman. I made recommendations on how to improve regulation. Also, I sent him two pieces I wrote for HBR.org, one on the importance of focusing on organizational behavior and not just individuals, the other asserting that culture had more to do with the financial crisis than leverage ratios did.

One of the key conclusions I drew from my study was that to achieve sustained success and avoid firm-endangering risks, a firm like Goldman has to cultivate financial interdependence among its top employees.

Employees that can make big financial decisions on their own means that many will take big risks and a lot of money could be lost. This reminds me of some of the arguments of Nassim Taleb who suggests losses should not be shared, especially in unpredictable areas like the stock market or with innovative and cutting-edge financial instruments. Instead, there could be organizational cultures that promote more prudent financial decisions that may still be innovative and profitable but limit the possibility of major black swan losses.

How TV presentations of the Olympics differ around the world

Cultural differences and nationalistic pride are on display when watching the Olympics in different countries:

In Sweden, commentators have fun with Norway’s misfortunes. The Dutch can’t get enough of their speedskaters. Japan is so crazy about figure skating they show warmups. Canada is hockey crazy, Russia struggles to stay positive even when things look down and the U.S. salutes its stars with the national anthem as it’s time to go to bed.

There’s only one Winter Olympics. But in reality, for television viewers around the world, the Sochi games are a different experience depending on where you tune in.

Some 464 channels are broadcasting more than 42,000 hours of Sochi competition worldwide, easily outdistancing previous Olympics, according to the International Olympic Commission. Digital platforms push that number past 100,000 hours. Worldwide viewership statistics aren’t available, but the IOC says more than three-quarters of Russians have watched some coverage, two-thirds of South Koreans and 90 percent of Canadians.

Read on for some more details of presentations in six different countries.

While we make much of the idea of globalization these days, it strikes me that we are still far away from being able to watch how other countries present the Olympics. TV deals for the Olympics are locked in country by country. In the United States, NBC paid roughly $775 million for the 2014 Sochi Olympics, about 61.5% of all TV broadcast revenues for this Olympics. That means we are generally stuck with their coverage, either on TV or through their website. What if we could watch any international feed? What if all of these feeds were available online for free? We are probably far from this because there is too much money involved for TV broadcasters who still often follow national boundaries.

You could get a taste of these differences in Olympics coverage through non-TV sources, like websites or newspapers. However, that is still different in watching it in “real-time” and seeing how commentators react in the moment. Plus, it takes extra work (though maybe not much) to track down these different sources and compare.

Reducing time zones in Indonesia to improve business opportunities and unite ethnic groups

Indonesia is currently discussing reducing the country’s time zones from three to one:

The government has been promoting since May a plan that aims to put all parts of the sprawling archipelago nation into the same time zone as many other Asian countries. Under the plan, all of Indonesia—which stretches 6,400 kilometers between India and Australia—would be eight hours ahead of Greenwich Mean Time, meaning the country’s capital city would shift one hour ahead of its current time.

The government says the move is expected to boost business transactions between Indonesia and the regional financial hubs such as Singapore, China, Hong Kong and Malaysia. Airlines could also profit through simpler flight schedules, increasing their productivity, it says…

While the time-zone idea isn’t seen as critical by many investors, it is popular among some who would find it easier to do business in the country. Russia in March reduced its time zones to nine from 11, while Brazil is considering cutting to one from three.

And it isn’t only monetary gains that Jakarta has in mind by abolishing the clock divisions—it also hopes to foster closer ties among the country’s more than 1,128 ethnic groups. With the country split into three zones, the thinking goes, it’s easier for groups to view themselves as part of different regions than as Indonesians first…

The business argument makes more sense to me. (Still: in an era of fast globalization, does a one or two hour time difference really matter?) However, I’m skeptical of the ethnic/cultural argument. Being on the same time zone really brings people together in a meaningful way? Perhaps fixing the time zones is an easier “fix” than other possible measures…

I remember going through a time zone while living in northern Indiana. At the time, our part of the state was on Eastern time half of the year and on Central time the other half of the year. This was somewhat confusing but I think the bigger issue was that a good portion of the northwestern part of the state wanted to be on the same time zone as Chicago for business purposes. But, I don’t recall any debate over whether these people in a different time zone were any less Hoosiers for this choice. (However, I could imagine something similar goes on in Indiana as it does in Illinois: people near Chicago think that is where all the action is…and isn’t downstate all about corn and farming?)

Another note: the 24 time zones match up with the rotation of the earth. So what does it mean when we put multiple time zones together for political, business, and cultural purposes? Is this a prime example of humanity running roughshod over nature?

A few graphs suggest people in wealthier countries spend more on housing, less on food

Look at some graphs of how families in different countries around the world spend their money and a few things stand out:

Two big ideas for the road: Houses and food. Everybody needs somewhere to live and something to eat. But you can learn a lot about a country by looking at housing and food spending. Here’s how the U.S., where middle-class families spend about a third of their income on housing, compare to the developing economies in this survey…
I don’t want to push this point too far, because these sort of surveys have obvious limitations. Tremendous income inequality in developing countries with hundreds of millions of people makes it impossible to tell the story of the frothy middle class *in one graph.* But the bigger picture is clear and uncontroversial. When families earn more income, they can afford to eat more and buy more clothes, but the real shift is from those essentials to bigger better houses, education, and health care.

Interesting. However, I wonder much of this differs by country based on political, economic, and cultural values. Clearly, items like food are necessary for survival. But once citizens reach a certain income threshold, I assume there are differences across countries in how they spend this more discretionary income. For example, in the United States, transportation is a relatively high cost because of a reliance on automobiles. Similarly, people in the US might spend relatively less on food but how much of this is due to policies that help keep food prices low? More broadly, don’t government policies affect whether people have to spend more in certain categories; for example, they might spend less out of their income for health care but if that is due to paying higher taxes which cover more health care costs, then such figures of discretionary spending might be misleading.

Perhaps this situation is ripe for a cross-cultural experiment. Go to different countries and give people a scenario: suppose you are given a decent sum of money (might differ by country) and then ask how people would spend that money. What emerges as a common need or want?

A Costa Rican explains why the country’s #1 ratings in the Happiness Index is due to its culture

The Happy Planet Index puts Costa Rica at number one in the world. A Costa Rican first describes what makes up the index and then how Costa Rican culture led to the top ranking:

Have you ever heard of the Happy Planet Index? As a Costa Rican, I hear about it quite a lot. Both the HPI, a project of the New Economics Foundation, and the lesser-known World Database of Happiness, assembled by a Dutch sociologist, put Costa Rica at the top of the rankings. This officially makes Costa Rica the most content country on the planet. (For once, we’re first in the world at something other than potholes per capita.)

The HPI is calculated from a combination of three factors: life expectancy, self-reported well-being, and ecological footprint. Thus, according to its own website, the HPI measures “how many long and happy lives [countries] produce per unit of environmental input.” That sounds like a mouthful at first, but once you think it through for a bit the concept seems to make sense. Traditional measures of wellbeing, such as GDP per capita, simply measure output. They don’t take into account environmental devastation brought about by industrialization or unhappiness stemming from social or economic inequality. The HPI, on the other hand, rewards countries with healthy, satisfied citizens for living within their ecological means. Thus, the HPI tells developing countries they shouldn’t aspire to the living standards of the United States or France, but rather to the smile production of Costa Rica…

My point here is that, in Costa Rica at least, happiness seems to stem partly from culture. It’s not at all controversial from an economic viewpoint to suggest a link between happiness and culture, and this is somewhat validated by the fact that five of the top ten countries in the latest HPI ranking are located in Central America, a relatively small and homogeneous region. One of those, El Salvador, has the highest murder rate in the world, and another, Nicaragua, displays levels of poverty one would expect from a war-ravaged Sub-Saharan nation. Living in either one of those (and I have for a time, in both) actually sounds like a pretty grim prospect to me, yet the HPI would have us believe that these countries are worth emulating.

Thus, we approach the core problem with the Happy Planet Index: Happiness and wellbeing are inextricably linked, but they cannot be reduced to the same thing. If Costa Rica got its act together and built better infrastructure (even at the expense of causing a little bit of damage to the environment) our wellbeing would be much higher—we would no longer have to endure endless traffic jams brought about by rock slides or sinkholes, for instance. Yet—here’s the key—our happiness wouldn’t change that much, because it’s largely a consequence of who we are as a people. Improved infrastructure is precisely the sort of advancement that shows up in measures like GDP per capita, and which the HPI ignores completely—forms of progress that undoubtedly change us for the better, though we remain as content as ever.

I’ve written about measuring happiness before (see here and here) but I don’t remember seeing this argument before about the Happy Planet Index: it is more dependent on culture than measures of material conditions. If you carry this argument to its conclusion, then great changes for the better or worse in Costa Rica wouldn’t affect people much.

I suspect it doesn’t exactly work this way. There are probably some thresholds that would affect happiness in Costa Rica and a lot of other countries. These would be similar to findings in the US that above a certain point, having more income doesn’t really change people’s happiness or well-being. There is an interplay between culture and material conditions; Marx may have suggested that culture is derived from those who control the means of production but others, including Weber, would argue that there is more of a back and forth. If the conditions changed a lot, the culture would have to respond and might change quite a bit as well.