For a time, it all seemed to work. From 1950 to 1965, divorce rates dropped, fertility rates rose, and the American nuclear family seemed to be in wonderful shape. And most people seemed prosperous and happy. In these years, a kind of cult formed around this type of family—what McCall’s, the leading women’s magazine of the day, called “togetherness.” Healthy people lived in two-parent families. In a 1957 survey, more than half of the respondents said that unmarried people were “sick,” “immoral,” or “neurotic.”
During this period, a certain family ideal became engraved in our minds: a married couple with 2.5 kids. When we think of the American family, many of us still revert to this ideal. When we have debates about how to strengthen the family, we are thinking of the two-parent nuclear family, with one or two kids, probably living in some detached family home on some suburban street. We take it as the norm, even though this wasn’t the way most humans lived during the tens of thousands of years before 1950, and it isn’t the way most humans have lived during the 55 years since 1965.
Today, only a minority of American households are traditional two-parent nuclear families and only one-third of American individuals live in this kind of family. That 1950–65 window was not normal. It was a freakish historical moment when all of society conspired, wittingly and not, to obscure the essential fragility of the nuclear family.
I’ve been living in and visiting New York for almost a half-century now. One thought occurs as I walk around these days: The city has never been better.
There has never been a time when there were so many interesting places to visit, shop and eat, when the rivers and the parks were so beautiful, when there were so many vibrant neighborhoods across all boroughs, with immigrants and hipsters and new businesses and experimental schools. I suppose New York isn’t as artistically or intellectually rich as it was in the 1940s and 1950s, but daily life is immeasurably better.
And when I think about the 15 or 20 largest American cities, the same thought applies. Compared with all past periods, American cities and suburbs are sweeter and more interesting places. Of course there are the problems of inequality and poverty that we all know about, but there hasn’t been a time in American history when so many global cultures percolated in the mainstream, when there was so much tolerance for diverse ethnicities, lifestyles and the complex directions of the heart, when there was so little tolerance for disorder, domestic violence and prejudice.
Widening the lens, we’re living in an era with the greatest reduction in global poverty ever — across Asia and Africa. We’re seeing a decline in civil wars and warfare generally.
The scope of the problems we face are way below historic averages. We face nothing like the slavery fights of the 1860s, the brutality of child labor and industrialization of the 1880s, or a civilization-threatening crisis like World War I, the Great Depression, World War II or the Cold War. Even next to the 1970s — which witnessed Watergate, stagflation, social decay and rising crime — we are living in a golden age.
Brooks isn’t the only person to make such a general suggestion about our world. For example, Stephen Pinker notes the reduction in violence and war in The Better Angels of Our Nature. Gregg Easterbrook wrote The Progress Paradox. Yet, Brooks is one of the few public figures who have applied these ideas to American cities and suburbs. The public perceptions about cities are usually pretty bad even as the nicer parts of these communities are perhaps nicer than they have ever been. Critics argue suburbs may look nice but are lacking in genuine community as well as diversity.
Perhaps this is one of those situations where Brooks may just be right but perceptions matter as well. As W. I. Thomas famously said, “If men define situations as real, they are real in their consequences.” The number of murders in big cities may be down over 50%, shopping districts are booming, numerous gleaming condo buildings are going up, and still the average person might be worried.
You can’t trace a precisely parallel line charting Best Buy’s decline alongside exurbia’s economic cratering. Technology and consumer preference have also taken a toll. Sales of physical media like DVDs and the players to play them have dropped as consumers stream more and more movies and music. Apple stores have seduced customers with a boutique approach that Best Buy plans to copy in some locations. Amazon and other online retailers have likely siphoned even more.
Despite these factors, the twilight gathering around Best Buy feels more than anything like part of the darkness that snuffed out the exurban dream. These signature outposts of [David] Brooks’ new world [described in his 2004 book On Paradise Drive] filled new homes with flatscreens bought with home equity loans that have since left victims of the crash drowning in debt. Like so many exurban homeowners, Best Buy banked on false promises of perpetual prosperity as contrary economic realities lurked.
I would also add that Best Buy has has to contend with expanded (and cheaper) electronics offerings at other big box stores, notably Walmart and Target. Given the number of factors involved, is it really fair to characterize this as a “exurban problem”?
I like David Brooks’ pop sociology analysis of the suburbs in Bobos in Paradise but a piece in Philadelphia suggests Brooks got some of his facts wrong:
Brooks, an agile and engaging writer, was doing what he does best, bringing sweeping social movements to life by zeroing in on what Tom Wolfe called “status detail,” those telling symbols — the Weber Grill, the open-toed sandals with advanced polymer soles — that immediately fix a person in place, time and class. Through his articles, a best-selling book, and now a twice-a-week column in what is arguably journalism’s most prized locale, the New York Times op-ed page, Brooks has become a must-read, charming us into seeing events in the news through his worldview.
There’s just one problem: Many of his generalizations are false. According to Amazon.com sales data, one of Goodwin’s strongest markets has been deep-Red McAllen, Texas. That’s probably not, however, QVC country. “I would guess our audience would skew toward Blue areas of the country,” says Doug Rose, the network’s vice president of merchandising and brand development. “Generally our audience is female suburban baby boomers, and our business skews towards affluent areas.” Rose’s standard PowerPoint presentation of the QVC brand includes a map of one zip code — Beverly Hills, 90210 — covered in little red dots that each represent one QVC customer address, to debunk “the myth that they’re all little old ladies in trailer parks eating bonbons all day.”
But this isn’t the main complaint of this arguement: rather, the main problem is that Brooks is considered a public intellectual and his words have a lot of weight:
On the publication of Bobos, New York Times critic Walter Goodman lumped Brooks with William H. Whyte Jr., author of The Organization Man, and David Riesman, who wrote The Lonely Crowd, as a practitioner of “sociological journalism.” (In the introduction to Bobos, Brooks invoked Whyte — plus Jane Jacobs and John Kenneth Galbraith — as predecessors.) In 2001, the New School for Social Research, in Manhattan, held a panel discussion in which real-life scholars pondered the bobo. When, in 2001, Richard Posner ranked the 100 highest-profile public intellectuals, Brooks came in 85th, just behind Marshall McLuhan at 82nd, and ahead of Garry Wills, Isaiah Berlin and Margaret Mead.
Ironically, Richard Florida is granted the final academic say regarding needing more serious public intellectuals:
Richard Florida, a Carnegie Mellon demographer whose 2002 book The Rise of the Creative Class earned Bobos-like mainstream cachet, nostalgizes an era when readers looked to academia for such insights:
“You had Holly Whyte, who got Jane Jacobs started, Daniel Bell, David Riesman, Galbraith. This is what we’re missing; this is a gap,” Florida says. “Now you have David Brooks as your sociologist, and Al Franken and Michael Moore as your political scientists. Where is the serious public intellectualism of a previous era? It’s the failure of social science to be relevant enough to do it.”
Here is what I take away from this: this writer is worried that Brooks (and other New Journalists) are influencing public opinion and possibly public policy more through impressionistic writing than facts and correctly interpreting data.
This could make for an interesting discussion involving things like the role of columnists and opinion-makers (facts or zeitgeists?), why social scientists and sociologists aren’t seen as public intellectuals, and who should guide public policy anyway. It is interesting to note that the American Sociological Association (ASA) gave David Brooks the Excellence in Reporting of Social Issues Award in 2011. I assume the ASA didn’t just give the award because Brooks discusses sociological research or is of the same political/social persuasion as sociologists.
By the way, having read a lot of David Brooks and Tom Wolfe, I wonder how many commentators would suggest these two are engaging in similar techniques.
David Brooks approaches inequality in America a little differently than the 1% vs. 99% of Occupy Wall Street. He suggests that there are two big kinds of inequality and the suburban/smaller city kind is more important:
In the first place, there is what you might call Blue Inequality. This is the kind experienced in New York City, Los Angeles, Boston, San Francisco, Seattle, Dallas, Houston and the District of Columbia. In these places, you see the top 1 percent of earners zooming upward, amassing more income and wealth…
Then there is what you might call Red Inequality. This is the kind experienced in Scranton, Des Moines, Naperville, Macon, Fresno, and almost everywhere else. In these places, the crucial inequality is not between the top 1 percent and the bottom 99 percent. It’s between those with a college degree and those without. Over the past several decades, the economic benefits of education have steadily risen. In 1979, the average college graduate made 38 percent more than the average high school graduate, according to the Fed chairman, Ben Bernanke. Now the average college graduate makes more than 75 percent more.
Moreover, college graduates have become good at passing down advantages to their children. If you are born with parents who are college graduates, your odds of getting through college are excellent. If you are born to high school grads, your odds are terrible…
[Compared to the attention paid to the wealthiest 1%], the fact is that Red Inequality is much more important. The zooming wealth of the top 1 percent is a problem, but it’s not nearly as big a problem as the tens of millions of Americans who have dropped out of high school or college. It’s not nearly as big a problem as the 40 percent of children who are born out of wedlock. It’s not nearly as big a problem as the nation’s stagnant human capital, its stagnant social mobility and the disorganized social fabric for the bottom 50 percent.
Interesting analysis. Some quick thoughts:
1. Though I didn’t quote it above, Brooks argues further that getting mad at the 1% is easier than dealing with issues like family and education that affect so many people. Brooks is probably right here. This doesn’t necessarily mean that people shouldn’t be upset about the top 1% but Brooks is suggesting they could do much more good focusing on the bigger, yet more difficult to deal with, issues.
2. Is Brooks dealing with the same kind of concerns expressed in the Moynihan Report that was vilified for years?
3. If Brooks thinks that college is the answer, I’d be interested to see his plan of action in order to pay for all of this and provide the educations necessary to getting to a college experience. Brooks is not alone in suggesting college is the answer but this is not an easy plan to accomplish either.
4. It is interesting that Naperville is mentioned among other Red State cities. Naperville is located in a clearly Republican county (though the Republican lead isn’t what it used to be) but is also in a state that consistently has gone Democratic in recent years. Additionally, Naperville is wealthier than the other cities Brooks lumps it in with: the median household income is just over $100,00o in a city of over 140,000 people . Within these red states, Naperville would be a good example of a place that has thrived with college educated residents with many of them working in professional or high-tech positions either in Naperville or nearby suburbs.
The Wire has been used in a number of college courses (one example here) and now David Simon, co-creator of the HBO series, will be awarded the William Julius Wilson award from Washington State University:
David Simon, co-creator of the HBO television series “The Wire,” has been named recipient of the Washington State University William Julius Wilson Award for the Advancement of Social Justice…
Wilson received his doctoral degree in sociology from WSU and is one of the nation’s leading scholars in the fields of African American studies, race, civil rights, poverty and social and public policy issues. He was the first person to receive the award named in his honor in 2009. He is scheduled to attend this symposium…
“We are honoring David Simon with this award because of his significant and innovative contributions to promote social policy, in particular by raising the public’s awareness of systemic social inequality, poverty and the complex way that social surroundings affect individual-level decisions,” said Julie Kmec, associate professor of sociology and chair of the committee organizing the event…
Three Harvard scholars, including Wilson, recently pointed out that the series has “done more to enhance both the popular and the scholarly understanding of the challenges of urban life and the problems of urban inequality than any other program in the media or academic publication.”
1. I wonder if this award for Simon, also a former journalist, is part of a larger trend (the ASA has been doing this for a few years now – David Brooks was the latest to be recognized) of sociologists recognizing journalists as key people/gatekeepers for spreading sociological ideas.
2. What other television shows accomplish similar things to The Wire?
3. I had forgotten that William Julius Wilson received his PhD from Washington State since he is more commonly associated with the University of Chicago or Harvard. Of prominent sociologists, how many have received degrees from places like Washington State versus the typical top-ranked programs (Harvard, Chicago, Berkeley, Wisconsin-Madison, etc.)?
As the summer ended and school started, I was able to get through a backlog of intriguing books. Here are quick thoughts on this varied collection:
1. The Social Animal: The Hidden Sources of Love, Character, and Achievement by David Brooks. I thought I might not like the “story” that Brooks uses to convey research findings but I found it a helpful way to think about the growing body of research about how our brains and emotions affect our lives. Overall, I like Brook’s argument that we should pay more attention to the British Enlightenment than the French Enlightenment emphasis because of how much humans are truly influenced by their emotions and subconscious and not just reason and rationality. I’m not quite sure what Brooks wants us to do with this information in the end (and why use the term “the big shaggy” to describe our subconcious?) but I do enjoy Brooks skewering certain groups in hilarious paragraphs that mirror some of his commentary in earlier books like Bobos in Paradise. And perhaps I’m required to say this as a sociologist but I think Brooks gives short shrift to the role of culture plays in shaping the subconscious. (See a preview post about the book here.)
2. Love Wins: A Book About Heaven, Hell, and the Fate of Every Person Who Ever Lived by Rob Bell. This book created quite a stir in evangelical circles earlier this year as some, like John Piper, essentially kicked Bell out of their circles. On the whole, I would say the book is uneven: some chapters are quite orthodox in their understanding of God, love, and evangelism while other chapters stray and Bell is not as careful with his words as he pushes boundaries. Also, the book seems aimed less at the general population and more at disaffected evangelicals, an interesting group to address, who can’t come to grips about their beliefs about hell rather. Taking a broader view, the book and the debate around it illustrates several interesting sociological issues: subcultures and drawing symbolic boundaries about who is in and out as well as the how theology and culture influence each other. As a follow-up, I ran into these two videos: MSNBC’s Martin Bashir asks Bell some tough questions (considering the issue of media types asking people about religion, Bashir’s Wikipedia profile includes a quote saying he is a “committed Christian”) in contrast to a fluffier interview with George Stephanopoulos on Good Morning America.
3. Connected: The Surprising Power of Our Social Networks and How They Shape Our Lives by Nicholas Christakis and James H. Fowler. This text could serve as a general audience introduction to the study of social networks. Many of the examples in the book are physiological as these researchers are known for their work on how things like obesity, emotions, and diseases are spread throughout social networks. The takeaway of the book: three degrees of separation is what connects us (those are your friends of friends of friends) and the actions and emotions of those people trickle down to us. I like the emphasis on how people seemingly beyond our immediate control have an influence on us.
4. In the Garden of Beasts: Love, Terror, and An American Family in Hitler’s Berlin by Erik Larson. This book provides a look at Hitler’s Germany in the 1930s through the eyes of American ambassador William Dodd and his daughter Martha. The story of Germany is of course fascinating: Hitler consolidates power while hardly anyone inside or outside the country challenges him. However, Dodd and his daughter figure it out but they are marginalized, Dodd because he won’t live the opulent lifestyle most US ambassadors were accustomed to and Martha because of her romantic forays and developing ties to the USSR. Even though you know the outcome of the larger story, the story is still interesting as an American academic tries to sound the alarm about the rising tide of Nazism.
5. Heat Wave: A Social Autopsy of Disaster in Chicago by Eric Klinenberg. I’ve been meaning to read this for some time as it concerns the 500+ deaths that occurred as the result of a heat wave in Chicago in 1995. Klinenberg performs a “social autopsy,” looking at the various factors and institution involved in the situation. The elderly who were alone were susceptible, particularly in neighborhoods without much street life, the morgues were unprepared, the media was behind in covering the story, and the City of Chicago and Mayor Daley tried to pass the blame. A lot went wrong in this situation, leading to one of the most deadly natural disasters in American history. (Perhaps this book was ahead of its time in looking at the sociology of disasters.)
6. Travels with Charley in Search of America by John Steinbeck. I like Steinbeck and regard The Winter of Our Discontent and East of Eden as two of the best books I have read. However, this travelogue seems the opposite of his best novels: Steinbeck rambles around the country and offers some disconnected commentary. It seemed like he was trying to not do what he does in his novel: offer sweeping stories with big points about American life and culture. The only part that really grabbed my attention: Steinbeck passed through New Orleans during protests against the integration of New Orleans’ schools in 1960 (immortalized in a Norman Rockwell painting President Obama recent selected to hang in the Oval Office) and talked with some of the residents.
Last Thursday, David Brooks made a case for retaining government money for social science research:
Fortunately, today we are in the middle of a golden age of behavioral research. Thousands of researchers are studying the way actual behavior differs from the way we assume people behave. They are coming up with more accurate theories of who we are, and scores of real-world applications. Here’s one simple example:
When you renew your driver’s license, you have a chance to enroll in an organ donation program. In countries like Germany and the U.S., you have to check a box if you want to opt in. Roughly 14 percent of people do. But behavioral scientists have discovered that how you set the defaults is really important. So in other countries, like Poland or France, you have to check a box if you want to opt out. In these countries, more than 90 percent of people participate.
This is a gigantic behavior difference cued by one tiny and costless change in procedure.
Yet in the middle of this golden age of behavioral research, there is a bill working through Congress that would eliminate the National Science Foundation’s Directorate for Social, Behavioral and Economic Sciences. This is exactly how budgets should not be balanced — by cutting cheap things that produce enormous future benefits.
Here is what I think works in this column:
1. The examples are interesting and address important issues. I wish there were more people highlighting interesting research in such large venues.
2. The idea that a small research investment can have large results.
3. The reminder in the last paragraph: “People are complicated.”
Here is where I think this column could use some more work: why exactly should the government, as opposed to other organizations or sources, provide this money? (See a counterargument here.) Brooks could have made this case more clearly: there are a lot of social problems that affect our country and the government has the resources and clout to promote research. In certain areas, like poverty or public health, the government has a compelling interest in tackling these concerns as there are few other bodies that could handle the scope of these issues. Of course, many of these issues are politicized but that doesn’t necessarily mean that the government shouldn’t address these issues at all.
While considering David Brook’s new book The Social Animal (some earlier thoughts here), a reviewer provides some context by explaining why books invoking social science, including sociology, have been more popular recently:
The public appetite for books on social science was weak for decades. In the 1980s, particle physicists and cosmologists like Stephen Hawking learned to cut out the equations and reached a big audience. But in the 1990s, interest shifted to sociology and psychology. Steven Pinker wrote about the evolution of the mind, and Malcolm Gladwell’s “The Tipping Point” signaled a tipping point itself by scaling the best-seller lists and staying there for 10 years (and counting).
Mr. Gladwell’s ability to create page-turners out of material from the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology cast a long shadow over the genre. “Gladwellian” would not have been listed on the Word Exchange in 1986, but if you had invested at its IPO in the early 2000s you would have earned a tidy sum by now. Authors in this genre now labor to find Gladwellian stories and characters to vivify the theories and studies that support their counterintuitive insights. Sometimes they focus on the stories to the exclusion of the studies, a practice that makes it easy to reach pleasing but unsound conclusions.
Gladwell’s use of sociological ideas and themes earned him the first award for “Excellence in the Reporting of Social Issues” in 2007 from the American Sociological Association.
While Gladwell certainly wasn’t the first to write such books, he certainly seems to have spawned a number of (often inferior) imitators. The “Gladwellian” genre goes something like this: take a common facet of life, explain why it matters, and then winsomely weave together both established bodies of scientific research with compelling stories. Since David Brooks seems to be taking a slightly different approach by developing two characters to carry his narrative, does this mean Brooks is trying to deliberately break out of this genre by returning to “the 18th-century didactic narrative”? Just how many “Gladwellian” books or articles can the market bear?
But someone could do a much deeper analysis of this. While Gladwell may have a good presentation, what changed in American society such that his books would find a receptive audience? If physics ruled the day in the 1980s, why the shift to the social sciences in the 1990s? Was this some response to a booming economy or the end of the Cold War or a number of new discoveries and exciting theories in the social sciences around this time?