The decline of sociological interest in rural areas

While addressing rural poverty, this article discusses why sociologists pay more attention to cities:

American disinterest in the poverty of its own pastoral lands can be traced across the Atlantic Ocean and back several hundred years to the origins of social sciences in academia. The rise of these disciplines coincided with the Industrial Revolution and the mass migration of peasants from the country into cities. As an effect of these circumstances, the leading theorists of the era—Karl Marx, Emile Durkheim and Max Weber—were primarily concerned with living conditions in cities and industrializing societies, setting the foundation for the metro-centrism that continues to characterize the social sciences.

“In academia, there’s an urban bias throughout all research, not just poverty research. It starts with where these disciplines origins—they came out of the 1800’s—[when] theorists were preoccupied with the movement from a rural sort of feudal society to a modern, industrial society,” Linda Lobao, a professor of rural sociology at Ohio State University, tells Rural America In These Times. “The old was rural and the feudal and the agricultural and the new was the industry and the city.”

Similarly, the advent of the study of poverty in sociology departments across the United States during the Progressive Era centered nearly exclusively on the metropolis. In the 1920s and 1930s, the University of Chicago’s influential School of Sociology utilized the city of Chicago as a laboratory for the development of the discipline. According to an article published in Annual Review of Sociology by sociologists Ann Tickamyer and Silvia Duncan, poverty in the city was “one of the many social pathologies associated with urbanization, mass immigration, and industrialization”—issues that were at the heart of the Progressive movement.

Lobao explains that around the same time there arose a “small,” but “vibrant” contingent of rural sociologists at Penn State, University of Wisconsin Madison, Cornell, Ohio State and University of Illinois Champaign-Urbana. But the role of rural sociology, she says, has remained perpetually marginalized, a “residual category” outside of the mainstream discourse. Today, it is not uncommon to see rural sociologists placed into colleges of agriculture, where corporations like Monsanto rule, rather than sociology departments—pushing them further into the recesses of the social sciences.

American sociologists have a number of blind spots and this one is when I’m aware of as an urban sociologist. While the founders of sociology were not primarily focused on cities, many of the changes they observed were based on urbanization. Marx, Durkheim, and Weber wrestled with the changes from agrarian societies to city-based industrialized systems. The first major sociology programs in the United States – places like Chicago, Columbia, and Harvard – tended to be in or near large cities and this still holds true today. This all happened as the United States rapidly transitioned in 100 years from a rural country in the early 1900s to a society where more than 80% of the population lives in metropolitan areas. What’s left behind? Those places further away from the major research schools – which I would argue also includes suburbs – that sociologists find less exciting and tend to generalize about.

There are occasional counterexamples to the urban focus of American sociology. For example, see Robert Wuthnow’s 2013 book on rural America.

Soccer and the World Cup as the upcoming functional religion

Soccer may be just a game but some academics see it having the properties of a global religion:

A growing body of scholars see football playing an under-appreciated role as keeper of society’s well-being – providing a sense of identity with an almost religious role…”It provides you with an opportunity to side with your country without being violent to another. So in that way it does replace war,” said David Ranc, a French sociologist who specialises in group identity in football.

“It is a non-violent way of resolving conflict … and taking sides where there is not that much at stake.”…

“Identification with a sports team can provide people with an important identity prop, … a sense of belonging in what would otherwise be an isolated existence,” according to Eric Dunning, a sports sociologist with the University of Leicester…

“The fans of a football team form a community of believers that is characterised by distinctively religious forms of behaviour,” sports sociologist Gunter Gebauer of the Free University of Berlin told AFP…

Football allows people from different social and economic spheres to meet and bond around a common passion, experts said.

 

 

Paging all sociologists of sport – the World Cup is nearly underway. This is a classic “functional religion” argument (a la Durkheim). If you set aside the supernatural aspect of religion, it has several components: rituals (pomp of the World Cup every four years, going to or watching a game), building solidarity (based on a club or national team, gathering with other fans), what is sacred versus profane (the importance of the games versus other aspects of life, elevating certain players). Given the number of people who will be paying attention to the World Cup, this argument makes sense: even religions would have a hard time rallying this many people with such fervor for 32 days.

Durkheim, modern American hyper-individualism, and moral consensus today

One commentator links Durkheim’s ideas about suicide, anomie, and society to individualism in America today:

Here in the West, we take individualism and freedom to be foundational to the good life. But Durkheim’s research revealed a more complicated picture. He concluded that people kill themselves more when they are alienated from their communities and community institutions. “Men don’t thrive as rugged individualists making their mark on the frontier,” the University of Virginia sociologist W. Bradford Wilcox pointed out recently: “In fact, men seem to be much more likely to end up killing themselves if they don’t have traditional support systems.” Places where individualism is the supreme value; places where people are excessively self-sufficient; places that look a lot like twenty-first century America—individuals don’t flourish in these environments, but suicide does.

Durkheim’s work emphasizes the importance of community life. Without the constraints, traditions, and shared values of the community, society enters into a state of what Durkheim called anomie, or normlessness. This freedom, far from leading to happiness, often leads to depression and social decay (as the “twerking” Miley Cyrus perfectly exemplified recently at the Video Music Awards). Durkheim thought that the constraints—if not excessive—imposed on individuals by the community ultimately helped people lead good lives.

But we live in a culture where communitarian ideals, like duty and tradition, are withering away. Even conservatives, who should be the natural allies of these virtues, have in large part become the champions of an individualism that seems to value freedom, the market, and material prosperity above all else, leaving little room for the more traditional values that well known thinkers like Russell Kirk and Richard Weaver cherished. “Man is constantly being assured today that he has more power than ever before in history,” wrote Weaver in Ideas Have Consequences (1948), “but his daily experience is one of powerlessness. . . . If he is with a business organization, the odds are great that he has sacrificed every other kind of independence in return for that dubious one known as financial.”…

Let’s return to the Google Books Ngram Viewer to illustrate the point. When Twenge, Campbell, and their colleague Brittany Gentile analyzed books published between 1960 and 2008, they found that the use of words and phrases like “unique,” “personalize,” “self,” “all about me,” “I am special,” and “I’m the best” significantly increased over time. Of course, it is not just in our books where this narcissism appears. It is also throughout the popular culture, not least in pop music. When a group of researchers, including Campbell and Twenge, looked at the lyrics of the most popular songs from 1980 to 2007, they found that the songs became much more narcissistic and self-centered over time. In the past three decades, the researchers write, the “use of words related to self-focus and antisocial behavior increased, whereas words related to other-focus, social interactions, and positive emotion decreased.”

Durkheim was very much about social cohesion, moral consensus, and the interdependence of individuals in modern society. Individuals may think that they are self-sufficient or able to do a lot on their own but much of their lives are built on the efforts of others.

Another aspect of this might be the declining participation of Americans in civic groups as outlined by Robert Putnam in Bowling Alone. This doesn’t mean Americans are completely withdrawn but it does suggest they might be more wary of collectives or only choose to participate when it suits them. This is how you can view online social networks like Facebook and Twitter: they enable social interaction but it is at the demand of individual users as they get to decide when and how they interact.

You could flip this this around and ask a different question: what are Americans all committed to? Where do we still have moral consensus? Perhaps in declining trust in institutions. Perhaps in celebrating Super Bowl Sunday. Perhaps the idea that homeownership is a key part of the American Dream. Perhaps in religiosity (even with the rise of the “religious nones,” some of whom still believe in God). Here are a few other things 90% of Americans can agree on:

Yet there are some opinions that 90% of the public, or close to it, shares — including a belief that citizens have a duty to vote, an admiration for those who get rich through hard work, a strong sense of patriotism and a belief that society should give everyone an equal opportunity to succeed. Pew Research’s political values surveys have shown that these attitudes have remained remarkably consistent over time.

The proportion saying they are very patriotic has varied by just four percentage points (between 87% to 91%) across 13 surveys conducted over 22 years. Similarly, in May 1987, 90% agreed with the statement: “Our society should do what is necessary to make sure everyone has an equal opportunity to succeed.” This percentage has remained at about 90% ever since (87% in the most recent political values survey).

It is not that we don’t have zero social cohesion these days. The argument here could be two-fold: (1) social cohesion has declined from the past; (2) social cohesion today has changed – it might be more “alone together” than everything else where we can be around others at times and share some common values but we generally want to follow our own paths, as long as they aren’t impeded too much by the paths of others.

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?

Equating religion and being a sports fan

A communication professor makes a Durkheimian argument that equates being a sports fan and religion:

Almost precisely a century ago, Emile Durkheim pondered along similar lines. Durkheim, a pioneering sociologist, began digging through accounts of “primitive” cultures like the Arunta tribe of Australia, hoping to excavate the ancient source of ties that bind. His conclusion—as revealed in The Elementary Forms of the Religious Life—remains as profound and relevant today as it is elegantly simple: Whenever a society (or, here, sports subculture) worships a divine form, it is, in fact, also simultaneously worshipping itself.

For Durkheim, this all hinged on what he called “the totem.” As he wrote, “On the one hand, [the totem] is the external and tangible form of what we have called the… god. But on the other, it is the symbol of that particular society we call the clan. It is its flag; it is the sign by which each clan distinguishes itself from others, the visible mark of its personality.”…

What totems, therefore, still survive in this culture of ours? The Red Sox. The Packers. The Lakers. And so on. The notion that sports remain our civic religion is truer than we often let on: In fandom, as in religious worship, our social connections are brought to life, in the stands as in the pews. It serves as a reminder of our interconnectedness and dependency; it materially indexes belonging. Like others, I indulge the royal “we” when speaking of my team, though there is little evidence they need me much beyond ticket sales, merchandise, and advertising impressions. Nonetheless, as Durkheim long ago noticed, “Members of each clan try to give themselves the external appearance of their totem … When the totem is a bird, the individuals wear feathers on their heads.” Ravens fans surely understand this.

In short, if you look hard at sports, you can’t help but see contours of religion.

It looks like this researcher recently published a piece in Communication & Sport that involved analyzing some of the Durkheimian features of the behavior of Philadelphia Phillies fans during their 2008 World Series run. However, this is not a new argument. Indeed, from a Durkheimian perspective, lots of social phenomena could take on the functional role of religion in providing people an energy-giving experience, common totems or rituals to rally around, and a sense of cohesion and purpose beyond their individual roles in society. Going back to sports, take, for example, the upcoming spectacle of the Super Bowl. Few other annual events in the United States draw such attention for a short period of time. My undergraduate sociology adviser discussed this back in the 1980s:

The answer, brothers and sisters, appears to be a resounding yes, by the reckoning of James A. Mathisen, a sociologist at Wheaton (Ill.) College. Mathisen, in a scholarly paper presented in Washington at the annual meeting of the Society for the Scientific Study of Religion, argued that the Super Bowl has become “the American spectacle of folk religion . . .the festival of the folk, (celebrating] their faith, their practice and their history.”…

That shift has been accomplished in great measure by the miracle-working power of television and technology, sustaining and spreading the words and deeds of sports figures, Mathisen added. Televised extravaganzas such as the Super Bowl and World Series take on the characteristics of “collective cultic observances,” he said…

“As an American, I simply am expected to be a ‘generic’ sports fan and possibly also have a favorite team or alma mater which becomes a community with which I identify and a clan whose symbols and totems bind me to it,” Mathisen observed. “Being a sports fan is comparable to being religious – it’s a taken-for-granted, American thing to do.”

The attachment or loyalty to a particular team is similar to choosing allegiance to a religious denomination, he continued. Sports also take on the qualities and characteristics of religion in the evocation of tradition and history, Mathisen said.

The halls of fame, for example, “preserve the sacred symbols and memorabilia which encourage us to rehearse the contributions of the saints who have moved on.” Moreover, Mathisen continued, the copiously kept records of sports function in the same manner as the “sacred writings and the historical accounts of any religious group, providing a timeless, normative guide by which later disciples’ accomplishments are judged.”

Also see this piece from the Los Angeles Times from January 2, 1987.

From modest homes in a Canadian prairie town to McMansions

R.J. Snell returned to the Canadian prairie town of his youth and was surprised to find that its modest homes had been replaced with McMansions:

Having just returned from a two-week visit, I’m struck by the visible demise of modest restraint, particularly in the homes. Driving about the countryside, for this is what one does there, I saw many new homes of a preposterous scale, many thousands of square feet (one even had an outbuilding to house all the mechanicals), with multiple garrets and turrets, all jutting conspicuously from the fields and into my purview. They could not be hidden, nor were they meant to, and on the treeless flatness were visible for great distances.

Right beside them, sometimes just across the road, stood the old farmhouse, diminutive, overshadowed. In the towns, a kind of segregation had taken place, with the older neighborhoods a mix of homes smaller or larger (but of a kind), but new developments on the far side of town housing looming monstrosities dwarfing the older places.

This was not neighborly. This was not modest. This was a thumbing of the nose at those with less, a demand to be noticed, seen.  Roger Scruton writes of the bad manners of much contemporary architecture compared with older patterns, saying:

The principal concern of the architects was to fit in to an existing urban fabric, to achieve local symmetry within the context of a historically given settlement. No greater aesthetic catastrophe has struck our cities—European just as much as American—than the modernist idea that a building should stand out from its surroundings, to become a declaration of its own originality. As much as the home, cities depend upon good manners; and good manners require the modest accommodation to neighbors rather than the arrogant assertion of apartness.

Rod Dreher follows up with an interesting question:

The question is, did money cause this cultural revolution in domestic architecture, or did the arrival of wealth happen to coincide with a cultural revolution in the way people thought about themselves and their desires, causing them to build their houses in a certain way now as opposed to then?

Which comes first: the cultural values or the material conditions? If looking at this from the production perspective in the sociology of culture, changes in material conditions like how architects are viewed, how single-family homes are viewed (as Snell suggests, should homes fit into the neighborhood or stick out?), how houses are constructed, how the real estate business operate, how zoning laws and local regulation encourage or discourage larger homes, etc. In other words, architectural styles or consumer desires don’t just change because individuals desire this. Rather, they change in conjunction with material and cultural change.

I also wonder about larger factors affecting this community. Where did residents get this money to spend on bigger houses? I ask this after lecturing this week about the Ferdinand Tonnies’ ideas about gemeinschaft and gesellschaft as well as Emile Durkheim’s concepts of mechanical and organic solidarity. Both theorists were interested in the shift from small town life to more urban life. Both suggested urban life contained fewer strong interpersonal relationships and systems where people were joined together by interdependence and external constraints rather than tradition, family ties, and shared values. Is a similar process taking place in this prairie town, perhaps through suburbanization or the rise of a good nearby job source or the Internet which opens up more possibilities for residents to connect to the outside world?

Shopping the real favorite sport of Americans?

At the bottom of yet another article about Black Friday, I found this interesting quote from a Sears executive about how Americans view shopping:

Sears, like many retailers, will make many Black Friday deals available online. At Sears, they’re available to the store’s Shop Your Way members (there’s no fee to join, and it can be done online).

“Shopping is a sport to many people, and this is the Super Bowl,” Hanover added.

Americans tend to like their sports so could shopping really supplant football, baseball, basketball, hockey, and other activities? Here are some reasons this could happen:

1. The average American probably gets a lot more opportunities to shop than to play sports. It is different to observe a sport versus participating in shopping.

2. Shopping can now take place in many different places. As brick and mortar retailers have noticed, online shopping makes it possible to look at, think through, and make purchases from virtually anywhere.

3. Shopping is a fairly frequent activity. Even if someone spends very little disposable income, that person still has to shop for groceries and essentials.

4. Shopping incorporates some of the same features as watching sports or cheering for sports teams. Shoppers are fans of particular brands. Shopping can be done with other people, building and cementing group bonds. Shopping can be ritualistic. In other words, the same sort of social benefits of group activity suggested by Durkheim that could apply to sports could also apply to shopping.

5. Shopping is a critical part of our economy. While people do need to purchase certain goods regularly, new products like the latest smartphones, cars, video games, and other things are important for corporations, the stock market, and thus, stockholders which includes a wide range of Americans.

6. Shopping in America is often tied to holidays like Christmas, Thankgiving, and Halloween. Spending can be easier to justify because it is for the holidays plus it is related to social interactions that take place those days.

7. Compared to most of human history, more people now have the time and income to devote to shopping beyond subsistence.

Shopping itself deserves more attention from sociologists. While plenty of sociologists in recent decades have looked at consumption patterns (often focused on the products or objects acquired through consumption), this isn’t quite the same as looking at the process of shopping. I have enjoyed reading Sharon Zukin’s work on shopping; for example, see Chapter 6 “While the City Shops” in The Cultures of Cities.