The social norm of calling the authorities regarding the mothering of others

Mothering is not an activity just left to individuals or families; it is a communal activity that occasionally veers into differences of opinions and the actions of authorities:

I was beginning to understand that it didn’t matter if what I’d done was dangerous; it only mattered if other parents felt it was dangerous. When it comes to kids’ safety, feelings are facts…

This has actually been confirmed by researchers. Barbara W. Sarnecka, a cognitive scientist at the University of California, Irvine, and her colleagues presented subjects with vignettes in which a parent left a child unattended, and participants estimated how much danger the child was in. Sometimes the subjects were told the child was left unintentionally (for example, the parent was hit by a car). In other instances, they were told the child was left unsupervised so the parent could work, volunteer, relax or meet a lover. The researchers found that the participants’ assessment of the child’s risk of harm varied depending on how morally offensive they found the parent’s reason for leaving…

It’s not about safety,” Dr. Sarnecka told me. “It’s about enforcing a social norm.”…

These women’s critics insist that it’s not mothers they hate; it’s just that kind of mother, the one who, because of affluence or poverty, education or ignorance, ambition or unemployment, allows her own needs to compromise (or appear to compromise) the needs of her child. We’re contemptuous of “lazy” poor mothers. We’re contemptuous of “distracted” working mothers. We’re contemptuous of “selfish” rich mothers. We’re contemptuous of mothers who have no choice but to work, but also of mothers who don’t need to work and still fail to fulfill an impossible ideal of selfless motherhood. You don’t have to look very hard to see the common denominator.

Social norms and expectations about roles are powerful parts of social life. Everyone has social guidelines to follow but the expectations can differ dramatically across groups. As the piece goes on to note, what individuals and society expect from fathers in similar situations differs.

This leads me to a few other thoughts:

  1. The appeal to third-party authorities rather than talking to the mother or just keeping an eye on the kids for a few minutes without alerting anyone reminds me of Baumgartner’s The Moral Order of a Suburb. She argues suburbanites help keep the peace by not interacting with each other. When they have problems, they may call the police or the city or some other party who can mediate in the situation. The same seems to be happening here.
  2. Part of the issue here is that these laws were enacted because there are situations where children can be helped. So, how exactly can the public be shaped to react when it is truly needed and ignore the situation when children are not really in danger? This is a big task and goes beyond the ability of laws and regulations to shape society. At the same time, I would not say that there is some zeitgeist that will just change. How people view mothering and the safety of children is dependent on numerous concrete actions and values.

Studying suburban, middle-class drug dealers

A new book from two sociologists details the lives of suburban drug dealers in Georgia:

But drug users and sellers are busy in city suburbs, too. And many of the sellers are teenagers. That’s according to a newly published sociological study focusing on why middle-class, suburban youth get involved in the drug business.

The study was conducted in a wealthy metro Atlanta suburb.

Authors Scott Jacques and Richard Wright wrote the resulting book called “Code of the Suburb:  Inside the World of Young Middle-Class Drug Dealers.”…

Jacques interviewed some 30 young drug dealers for the book – many of them high school friends of his.

Even with plenty of evidence that drug use is a regular feature of suburban life (illustrated by the heroin outbreak in the Chicago suburbs in the last year or two), such deviance is often associated with cities and lower-class residents. This reminds me of the classic study “The Saints and the Roughnecks.” Two groups of delinquent boys in a town are treated differently by social class: despite similar rates of delinquency, the higher class boys were not arrested and it was expected that they would grow out of the behavior and contribute positively to society as adults. In contrast, the lower class boys were punished more harshly and took on the expectations the community had for them as delinquents.

Sociologist Howard Becker takes on deviance, Bourdieu

The New Yorker profiles sociologist Howard Becker’s insights into how deviance is learned as well as worlds (as compared to Bourdieu’s fields):

Becker’s work set out to show that out-groups weren’t made up of people who couldn’t keep the rules; they were made up of people who kept other kinds of rules. Marijuana smoking, too, was a set of crips, a learned activity and a social game. At a time when the general assumption was that drug use was private and compulsive, Becker argued that you had to learn how to get high. Smoking weed, he showed, was most often strange or unpleasant at first. One of his informants (a fellow band member) reported, “I walked around the room, walking around the room trying to get off, you know; it just scared me at first, you know. I wasn’t used to that kind of feeling.” Another musician explained, “You have to just talk them out of being afraid. Keep talking to them, reassuring, telling them it’s all right. And come on with your own story, you know: ‘The same thing happened to me. You’ll get to like that after a while.’ ” In the sociologese that Becker had not yet entirely discarded, he wrote, “Given these typically frightening and unpleasant first experiences, the beginner will not continue use unless he learns to redefine the sensations as pleasurable.” He went on, “This redefinition occurs, typically, in interaction with more experienced users, who, in a number of ways, teach the novice to find pleasure in this experience, which is at first so frightening.” What looked like a deviant act by an escape-seeking individual was simply a communal practice shaped by a common enterprise: it takes a strip club to smoke a reefer.

The lessons learned in the night clubs remain present even today. In his new Mozart/Murder book, Becker points out the continuities between the middle-class housewives of the early twentieth century who became addicted to the opium products then sold over the counter for “women’s troubles” and black youths who now take essentially the same kinds of drug, in a different world: “When middle-class women could buy opium, they did, and they got addicted. When they couldn’t, they didn’t. When poor black boys could buy it, they did, and they got addicted, too.” In Becker’s work, a small realism of social scenes replaces the melodrama of personal pathology…

“Bourdieu’ s big idea was the champs, field, and mine was monde, world—what’s the difference?” Becker asks rhetorically. “Bourdieu’s idea of field is kind of mystical. It’s a metaphor from physics. I always imagined it as a zero-sum game being played in a box. The box is full of little things that zing around. And he doesn’t speak about people. He just speaks about forces. There aren’t any people doing anything.” People in Bourdieu’s field are merely atom-like entities. (It was Bourdieu’s vision that helped inspire Michel Houellebecq’s nihilistic novel of the meaningless collisions of modern life, “The Elementary Particles.”)

“Mine is a view that—well, it takes a village to write a symphony and get it performed,” Becker goes on. “It’s not just the composer. The great case for me is in film, because nobody ever figured out who the real artist is: the screenwriter or the director or who? Or, rather, everybody figured it out, but never figured out the same thing. Early on when I was reading about art, I read a book by Aljean Harmetz on the making of ‘The Wizard of Oz.’ She was the daughter of someone in the wardrobe department of M-G-M, and she explains that there were four directors of that film, and the guys who thought of the crucial thing, the change from black-and-white to color when the characters enter Oz, were the composer and the lyricist! In an important way, I took the list of credits at the end of a Hollywood film as my model of how artistic creation really happens.”

Pretty interesting story of a sociologist who has written a number of influential works. For example, I just ran into two references (one in Sarah Thornton’s new book and the other in a paper I was reviewing) to Becker’s classic Art Worlds which discusses the collaborative and collective nature of producing art and other cultural products. I wonder how many academics today get pull off such influence with such an unconventional career?

Canadian PM says 1,100 cases of missing or murdered aboriginal women “crime,” not “sociological phenomenon”

Canadian Prime Minster Stephen Harper makes a distinction between “crime” and “sociological phenomenon”:

Rejecting a formal inquiry into the more than 1,100 cases of missing or murdered aboriginal women in Canada, Harper said the issues are “first and foremost” crimes and should be dealt with by police.

“I think we should not view this as sociological phenomenon. We should view it as crime,” Harper told a crowd at Yukon College in Whitehorse on Thursday.

“It is crime, against innocent people, and it needs to be addressed as such. We brought in laws across this country that I think are having more effect, in terms of crimes of violence against not just aboriginal women, but women and persons more generally. And we remain committed to that course of action.”

Harper was responding to a question about renewed calls for a formal federal inquiry in the wake of the tragic death of 15-year old Tina Fontaine in Winnipeg. Fontaine had been missing since Aug. 9, after running away from her foster home.

Harper made similar comments involving sociology regarding terrorism last year. He seems to have two general purposes by invoking sociology negatively. He want to look tough on crime. This is a matter that should remain with the police and larger discussions about the implications of these missing and murdered women aren’t welcome. Cracking down on crime is a positive point for conservatives and even more liberal politicians usually can’t afford to be seen as soft on crime. But, this also seems like odd shorthand for trying to cut off concerns of political liberals who see larger forces at work here, perhaps broader patterns including violence against women as well as a against native populations. Sociology here represents liberal concerns. Is there any sort of deviant behavior that Harper thinks would benefit from a sociological perspective? It doesn’t sound like it and this inability to see the larger picture surrounding sets of events may just prove to be shortsighted in the long run.

Common narrative: bucolic suburbs surprised by deviance

A recent revelation in the Baltimore suburbs is a common story across media platforms: idyllic suburban communities are shocked by hidden deviance and crime that is suddenly exposed.

The hills in Clarks Glen are gently rolling, the homes McMansions. And the lawns are mowed to the near-perfection a country club groundskeeper might envy.

It’s the very model of affluent suburbia, hardly a place where anyone thinks the man next door would be stopped by customs agents on his way to China with the makings of missile detectors in his bags.

But appearances can be deceiving.

Zhenchun “Ted” Huang, a longtime resident of the Clarksville subdivision in Howard County, pleaded guilty this month to federal charges that he tried tofraudulently obtain electronic devices that can be used in fabricating missile detectors and other high-grade military equipment…

In Clarks Glen, the development where he lived for at least eight years, former neighbors were astonished to hear the news. They saw Huang, an electrical engineer, as anything but the cloak-and-dagger type.

Instead, they said, he was a taciturn man who mowed his lawn once a week, whether it was needed or not, and rarely socialized.

On one hand, people in the suburbs are genuinely shocked by such stories. They often move to nice suburbs to escape such issues like crime and international espionage. Nobody wants to think that a sex offender is lurking down the street where they let their kids play. These sorts of things are problems more often associated with cities or less affluent locales.

On the other hand, reactions like this sound like a TV show. Oh wait, is this an episode of The Americans or a Hollywood movie or a John Keats novel about the hidden problems of suburbia? One shouldn’t be completely naive about what can be lurking in any community, let alone suburbs. I’m not advocating for paranoia or hypervigilance – this isn’t the best way to promote social ties or community life – but people everywhere are capable of dastardly deeds. The reactions of neighbors like those quoted above might say more about how well suburban neighbors know each other (often not very well) than the overall actions of suburbanites.

Perhaps the issue here is the overselling of suburban life over the decades. If suburbs were and are often marketed as escapes from social problems (there is a long history of suburban developers suggesting such things as well as suburban residents and leaders), places that are perfect for children and offer private space, the American Dream, then any actions in contrast to that are viewed quite negatively.

Are there boundaries for behavior on social networking sites?

A sociologist argues that social networking sites have all sorts of deviant behaviors because of a lack of boundaries:

“Society’s sometimes obsessive use of social networking sites has led to the development of several long term social affects stemming from the idea that these virtual communities often minimize the importance of face-to-face social interaction, while enabling a tendency for users to be inherently comfortable with isolation,” said Coleman.

Coleman goes on to point out that society’s widespread use of social networking sites has also contributed to the creation of virtual worlds and online communities in which there are no boundaries, and often no regard for truth or the regulation of behavior.

“Offensive and threatening language becomes normalized, while photos of and statements by people engaged in dehumanizing acts are not condemned, but instead encouraged, ‘liked’ and commented on.”

I would agree that this negative and deviant behavior happens online but I would be interested in seeing some data. Some data I’ve seen from emerging adults suggests there are plenty of rules and norms governing SNS behavior. These emerging adults were well aware of these issues and most suggested they didn’t violate the boundaries.

One issue here might be what SNS we are talking about. Facebook, for example, is fairly regulated both by the platform and by users even as users can express a wide range of opinions. Other SNS offer more latitude. Other areas of the Internet, such as comment sections or personal blogs or chat rooms, offer all sorts of opinions and actions. Yet, many of these Internet places are not SNS in the technical sense.

Durkheim, deviance, and “Why Baseball Still Needs Steroids”

A sociology PhD student argues that punishing the occasional steroid use in baseball might be more effective for fighting steroids than getting rid of PED use all together:

Societies need deviance to reinforce what behaviors are acceptable. Deviance affirms what behavior is right and wrong, reinforces social order, and deters future deviant behavior. I believe the steroid era combined with Major League Baseball’s weak attempts at curbing behavior blurred the lines of acceptable and prohibited conduct…

The public frowns upon steroids in professional sports, but we need to be constantly reminded that they are bad. Deviant behavior such as doping serves as a reminder of society’s norms regarding sport and fairness, more broadly. So every time the league suspends a player for drug use, it jogs our memory and prompts us to denunciate a rule-breaker.

I am not endorsing athletes to use PEDs. What I am advocating for is keeping the specter of steroids in the background. If we don’t, we may forget about a period in baseball history where we must second-guess whether a player’s impressive statistics were the result of hard work or pure athleticism. It took 20 years, government intervention, and public outcries to curb steroids in baseball, and I fear that not having a constant reminder will dismantle the work that has been done.

While I am happy to see that Major League Baseball is committed to cleaning up the sport, I hope they do a good but an imperfect job. It is the Ryan Braun’s and A-Rod’s of the world that we need to keep the integrity of the sport as we know it.

This sounds like a Durkheimian argument. Rather than seeing deviance and lawbreaking as fully negative, Durkheim argued punishing deviant acts helps remind society of the lines between deviant and non-deviant activity. To translate this into other terms Durkheim used, this helps remind people of the difference between the sacred and profane.

There may be some merit to this argument. Baseball went over a decade with widespread steroid use happening beneath the surface. I even heard someone argue recently (somewhat facetiously) that players who weren’t using steroids were the fools because their counterparts were reaping all the benefits. And there is a longer history of amphetamine use stretching back decades. So now you have a perfect opportunity to enforce the rules with some great players: a recent MVP, Ryan Braun, and one of the best players of all-time, Alex Rodriguez. Add these names to known PED users like record-setters Barry Bonds and Mark McGwire as well as MVP Ken Caminiti. While it is sad to see great players implicated, imagine that it was only minor league players who were caught. Imagine baseball could sweep all of this under the rug and claim that the problem didn’t extend to the major leagues or it was only limited to players with few skills. Wouldn’t that be a worse situation overall?

Undergraduates discovering positive deviance

While we might typically consider deviance to be negative, an activity in one sociology class illustrates how deviance can also be positive:

“Can I pay for her drink, too?” asked Caitlin Hendricks.

Peterson was pleasantly surprised but still taken aback; she and Hendricks didn’t know each other…

Hendricks’ random act of kindness wasn’t entirely random: She was completing an assignment for sociology professor Michelle Inderbitzin’s deviant behavior and social control class at OSU, which studies the concept of social deviance and how it can vary based on history and context.

Inderbitzin has assigned the “positive deviance” exercise in her social deviance class at OSU for six years. She asks students to simply do something nice for a stranger — bag someone else’s groceries, for example, or hold an umbrella over someone’s head while it’s raining. Students then write a page-long recap of their experience, focusing on the recipient’s reactions as well as their own feelings before and after the act and discuss their experience in class.

This is a good reminder about positive deviance that might lead to the world of Pay It Forward in popular culture but can be examined more closely sociologically. This reminds me of the ideas of Emile Durkheim who thought deviance could help reinforce existing norms. By seeing people break norms and then experience the consequences, others are reminded of the norms. At the same time, it seems that most sociologists have focused on the creation of or breaking of social norms. For example, Robert Merton’s strain theory describes how when people are faced with anomie, they respond in different ways including breaking norms.

It is interesting to think about why we as a society tend to focus on negative deviance more than positive deviance. Perhaps it is tied to findings that show we experience loss more deeply than gain. Perhaps it is because we have media sources that tend to lead with crime (and presumably they do this because it brings an audience). Perhaps it is because some argue we have a violent, individualistic culture. Simply throwing in a few positive stories on the nightly news may not be enough to overcome society’s emphasis on negative deviance.

How sociology can “unravel the [London] riots”

The president and vice-chair of the British Sociological Association explain how sociology can help explain the London riots:

One of the first things that disappears when considering disturbances such as these is perspective. One loses sight of the fact that nine out of 10 local residents aren’t rioting, that nine out of 10 who are rioting aren’t local to the area, and that nine out of 10 of these non-locals aren’t doing it to commit crime. That is to say, it is a tiny minority who are participating and, of those that are, it’s a tiny minority who are doing so solely to commit crime. Crime is a motive, but crowd behaviour is a more complex process, and it is sociology as a discipline that best understands crowd behaviour.

Crowds are irrational. Crowds don’t have motives – that’s far too calculating and rational. Crowd behaviour is dynamic in unpredictable ways, and reason and motive disappear when crowds move unpredictably. But has anyone made a connection with the two media events that dominated media coverage on the same day – the irrationality of crowds on the streets and of traders on the stock market? Both sorts of behaviour are moved by emotion not reason, passions not predictability, and reason disappears. Economists are lauded for their accounts of the irrationality of the market traders, but sociologists get criticised for suggesting that allegations of criminality are a poor account of the irrationality of crowds.

Sociologists seek to explain – not explain away – these events. An understanding of the impact of social inequalities and deprivation, youth unemployment, racism and ethnic conflict, and crime and policing forms a large part of the concerns of UK sociology. Since most politicians and the police seem to have been taken unawares by the events of the past few days, it seems we need more understanding and explanation, not less, if we are to be able to draw lessons from the current events and prevent their recurrence. The British Sociological Association would be happy to put London’s mayor and his staff in touch with sociologists who could add real understanding to the all-too-easy condemnations of these disturbing events.

Several things stand out to me:
1. I like the opening suggestion and make a similar argument to my Introduction to Sociology class: instead of asking why a few people commit crimes or are deviant, why not ask why most people are so willing to follow social rules and norms?

2. I like the comparison of the role of emotions in stock trading and crowd behavior on the streets. Arguably, emotions may a large role in social actions but generally get short shrift from commentators and researchers.

3. But, why suggest that sociologists are bitter because economists “are lauded” for their explanations?

4. I like the distinction between explaining and explaining away. I’ve seen some commentators suggest that we shouldn’t talk about the class status or alienation of the rioters because this may suggest that their actions are justified. But, at the same time, there is something that set off these riots and sociologists are often looking to understanding why something happened and not something else (to paraphrase Weber). We should not be afraid of explanations though determining how one should respond once the explanation is known is another matter.

The unwritten rules of social life as illustrated by a baseball interchange

Our daily social lives contain a number of interchanges that follow unwritten social rules. (Here is one that I recently wrote about: saying “thanks for your service” to military personnel.) The same thing happens in sports, as illustrated by this well-reported interchange between the Los Angeles Angels and Detroit Tigers:

In his obviously genius book, “Everything Is Obvious: Once You Know the Answer,” sociologist Duncan J. Watts explains the notion that our lives are dictated by thousands of unwritten rules that we rarely, if ever, stop to examine…

The problem with the sport’s unwritten rules is that …

“They’re unwritten,” Tigers ace Justin Verlander said with a laugh.

Exactly. And Verlander and the Tigers were involved in a game with the Angels here at Comerica Park the other day that showcased the silliness of living by an unwritten rulebook very much open to interpretation. It was a game so steeped in indecipherable, unwritten language that it ought to have been sponsored by Rosetta Stone.

This interchange led to a lot of debate among sports pundits: was it justified or not?

I think there are two better, and more sociological, questions to ask: where exactly do players learn to follow this code and how could the whole process be stopped? The first question refers to the socialization process. At some point, players must be instructed or at least observe this code. They also learn how they might be punished by other players if they do not follow it. It would be interesting to ask individual players whether they really feel that this is acceptable behavior or if they follow along because of peer pressure.

The second question refers to how baseball could make this behavior deviant. One way would be to increase the sanctions so that the code becomes very unattractive. Such sanctions could include punishments for managers and perhaps even teams. To this point, baseball has instituted some punishments but they clearly aren’t enough to stop such incidents. Another way would be to start teaching a new code at the lower levels of baseball, minor leagues or even below. In response, players might say that they still need ways to deal with showboating (done by Carlos Guillen in this incident) but I think baseball would find it hard to determine what exactly counts and what doesn’t.

This may just be a good example of social norms to use in an Introduction to Sociology class.