Apple iPad mini launch similar to a “religious revival meeting”?

An anthropologist discusses how the recent iPad mini launch has some religious dimensions:

She [anthropologist Kirsten Bell] came to some of the same conclusions as her predecessors, including Eastern Washington University sociologist Pui-Yan Lam, who published an academic paper more than a decade ago that called Mac fandom an “implicit religion.”…

Apple’s product launches take place in a building “littered with sacred symbols, especially the iconic Apple sign itself,” she said. During keynote speeches, an Apple leader “addresses the audience to reawaken and renew their faith in the core message and tenets of the brand/religion.”

Even Apple’s tradition of not broadcasting launches in real time is akin to a religious event, Bell said. (Today’s event was available live on Apple’s website.) “Like many Sacred Ceremonies, the Apple Product Launch cannot be broadcast live,” she wrote. “The Scribes/tech journalists act as Witness, testifying to the wonders they behold via live blog feeds.”…

Yet there are strong reasons people have long compared Apple culture to religion, Bell said. “They are selling something more than a product,” she said. “When you look at the way they advertise their product, it’s really about a more connected life.” A better life is something many faiths promise, she said.

I wrote about this earlier when a commentator made a similar argument after the passing of Steve Jobs.  Comparisons like this, whether it be a product launch or a big sporting event or a rock concert, tend to draw on similar Durkheimian ideas: these are rituals; they can generate feelings of collective effervescence and emotional energy; they can strengthen group bonds; they involve a lot of important symbols that often require some inside knowledge to fully understand; there are clear lines demarcating what is sacred and what is profane. It may not be religion as the public typically thinks of it as involving some real or perceived spiritual or supernatural forces but its actions and consequences could be similar.


Latinos and the “religion” of the American Dream

A new poll suggests Latinos are optimistic about the American Dream:

The poll, which surveyed 887 likely Latino voters, found that 73 percent believe that their families will achieve the American Dream, compared to only 7 percent who don’t think they’ll attain the American Dream.

“When they come to this country, they are like someone who has converted to another religion,” said Vincent Parrillo, a professor of sociology at William Paterson University, about the immigrant experience in the U.S. “They are a little more devout than those who are born here.”…

The Fox News Latino poll also found that Latinos believe the next generation of Latinos in the United States will be better off than they are today.

About 74 percent of those surveyed said that life will be better than today, while only 13 percent believe it will be worse and 3 percent said it will be the same, the poll states.

I’m intrigued by the link between the American Dream and religion. Does the American Dream really function like a religion in Durkheimian terms, as an ideology about ourselves that helps bring us together and helps provide social cohesion? There may even be rituals associated with it such as buying a home, going to college, and seeing your children get ahead. If we look at the words used at the recent Republican and Democratic National Conventions, both invoked the phrase “American Dream” with Republicans doing so at a slightly higher rate. Since we have freedom of religion and thus a variety of different beliefs and unbeliefs plus a fairly multicultural society with many subcultures and backgrounds, is the American Dream what truly unites Americans?

Today’s average individual can rely on experts to complete normal tasks

In today’s world, more and more individuals are willing to offload certain tasks to “experts”:

In other words, there is no job too trivial to warrant not enlisting a professional to do it. The hired help has moved out of the mansion and into more modest homes, too. Across the country, an army of entrepreneurial “experts” have emerged, charging as much or as little as their local market will allow, and promoting their services with old-school flyers, slick websites and persuasive online ads. They are ready and willing to do those tasks we used to do ourselves or with the assistance of a neighbour—be it scooping up dog poop in the backyard or assembling Ikea furniture or changing light bulbs or programming the remote control.

If nothing is too minute to contract out, then no job is too important or personal either. In her new book, The Outsourced Self: Intimate Life in Market Times, famed American sociologist Arlie Russell Hochschild explores the implications of hiring strangers to carry out what has historically been considered sacred labour done solo or with the support of loved ones: finding a mate, planning a wedding, scattering ashes, assembling a photo album, having a baby, naming a baby, raising children, visiting elderly parents…

Adding to the allure of outsourcing is our growing fixation with specialization. While we pursue our career paths with zeal, other people are refining the art and science of baby-proofing a home or choosing the right clothes or teaching dogs not to bark. The thinking goes that it’s wisest to let the pros do what they do best—lest we mess up. “If you’re buying a car you want to do it efficiently, you want a pleasant experience, and you want the best price. That logic is creeping into our personal life,” says Hochschild. In her book, she tells the story of a father who insists on planning his child’s birthday party. “It backfired,” recalls Hochschild. “He tried to be a clown and nobody laughed. And a neighbour says, ‘Leave it to the experts. They know what five-year-olds think is funny.’ ”…

Outsourcing might not be an ideal answer, but many people would say it’s better than the alternative, which is to do nothing except continue to run ourselves ragged. So while we hire retirement home consultants and dog walkers, we might contemplate the future and how it could be better. Duxbury has given it some thought, and she suspects that her own daughter will have learned more than a thing or two about the pursuit of balance from watching her mother all these years. Chances are, Duxbury predicts, the next generation will actually pay for help more often than their parents—but not because of gruelling jobs and domestic duties. Rather, they will work less inside and outside the home in lieu of other, more fulfilling, ways to live life.

This sounds like a combination of two famous ideas from early sociologists. Emile Durkheim argued that modern society was marked by an increased division of labor and specialization. In this setting, individualism would grow even as individuals were more dependent on other specialists to do things like produce food, clothing, and other necessities. He contrasted this to village or small-town society where individuals could perform multiple tasks and there was less specialization. Also analyzing modern society, Max Weber argued that history would eventually lead to an iron cage of bureaucracy where it would be difficult for individuals and social organizations to change course.

If you put these two ideas together, the division of labor and the iron cage, you have what Hochschild is describing: a system where people with means feel like they have to outsource certain tasks so they can be true individuals and do what they want to do but this locks them into certain actions and an increased reliance on other people. In a quest to get more choices, adults have to constrain themselves by outsourcing some of their tasks.

How much of this outsourcing is done by free choice or is there a lot of pressure to outsource? Perhaps there is peer pressure from friends or people at work subtly or explicitly suggest that people need to focus there more.

It would also be interesting to trace the rising status of “experts,” not just traditional experts like scientists or clergy or technocrats, but service industry experts. For example, just how much status does an organizing expert have today?

Collective effervesence: from Man U. vs. Man City to voting

An editorial in The Guardian suggests we seek out more moments of collective effervescence:

As every Mancunian football fan will tell you, tomorrow evening sees the most hotly awaited derby in Premier League history when Manchester City and Manchester United square up for the last time this season. Whatever the outcome, what we will witness in abundance – at least while the ball is in play – is what the father of sociology, Emile Durkheim, called “collective effervescence”, a ritually induced passion or ecstasy that cements social bonds.

Given the current Europe-wide epidemic of melancholia induced by various crises, financial and political, and not helped in the UK by an April deluge, predicted to last through May, the good news is that we are all about to experience opportunities for a veritable season of effervescence. We report on these pages how three giant puppets walking the streets of Liverpool as part of the 100th anniversary of the sinking of the Titanic have attracted 250,000 people on to the streets and raised the spirits of the city hugely. Over coming months, even arch cynics – those allergic to red, white and blue, republicans and lifelong couch potatoes – may find themselves succumbing, just a little, to communal and classless pleasures as, for instance, the celebrations connected to the Queen’s diamond jubilee gather traction. The Olympics become ever more imminent and the prospect of a gold medal or two potentially binds stranger to stranger regardless of income, ethnicity and background, in the alchemic way that victory in sport can…

Any festivity, inevitably in this day and age, comes saturated in commercialism. It will be difficult over the next several months to find a china cup and tea towel that isn’t festooned with crowns, coronets or concentric rings. Nevertheless, there will be events and occasions – many of them free –which will proof themselves again commodification and remain beyond the reach of the marketplace simply because they require only our time and interest….

This week sees London mayoral and local elections in addition to a referendum on elected mayors in 10 English cities. Inertia, rather than effervescence, is likely to mark the experience. But while dancing in the streets strengthens our collective sense of solidarity, we improve its health still further by exercising our hard-won right to vote. As Professor Michael Sandel pointed out in his Reith lectures on BBC’s Radio 4 in 2009: “The virtues in democratic life – community, solidarity, trust, civic friendship – these virtues are not like commodities that are depleted with use. They are, rather, like muscles that develop and grow stronger with exercise.”

Translation: while the world may look like it is in bad shape, there are still moments in which we can come together, advance the common good, strengthen relationships, and be part of something bigger than ourselves. It is interesting, however, to note that some of these examples require choosing one side or another. For example, will fans of Manchester United or Manchester City be celebrating the game of football together or hoping the other side loses disastrously? In voting, is everyone pursuing the common good or hoping their side gets enough political power to force the other side to kowtow to its interests? Perhaps there are still moments where people can come together in larger settings, such as at the Olympics (national pride? celebrating humanity?) or at large rock concerts or a few other places.

Also, I’m having a hard time imagining an American newspaper editorial invoking Emile Durkheim. Would many newspaper editors in the United States know who this is?

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.

General Motor’s “Parade of Progress” bus tour

General Motors has had difficulty in recent years but at one point, GM was important and big enough to cast a vision for America’s future. In addition to the “Futurama” exhibit which featured an impressive highway system, GM also had a bus tour that gave Americans a glimpse of the future:

General Motors’ research Vice President Charles Kettering (Boss Ket) decided to take GM’s show on the road. Between 1936 and 1956, the company’s “Parade of Progress” toured the U.S., Canada, Mexico and Cuba, visiting hundreds of towns and showing millions how working examples of modern technology would transform their everyday lives.

Eight 30-foot, streamlined buses led the parade, six with walk-through exhibits, one with a stage and one carrying equipment, while nine tractor-trailers carried the remaining gear, and new models of GM cars followed. The red-and-white buses would pull into a small town, circle the wagons at the football field, and the buses would open like clams while electric floodlights rose on poles. A crew accompanied the parade and erected a tent that could accommodate up to 1,500 people for a free technology show.

The show was such a success that GM built 12 Futurliner buses in 1940, after the New York World’s Fair. The parade continued to tour until Pearl Harbor, after which it was disbanded and the buses stored in Ohio. They wouldn’t see the light of day for 12 years, until the “Parade of Progress” was revived in 1953, with 12 buses. But the world had changed. TV had stolen the parade’s thunder, and even though the show included new exhibits — Highways of Tomorrow, How a Jet Engine Works, Wonders of Stereo, Kitchen of Tomorrow and What is the Atom? — it was over by 1956.

It really does seem like a bygone era: a bus tour of America that would pull into a community and residents would come out to see the technology of the future. It is interesting that the article notes that the television was part of the demise of these bus tours. With the information the television provided plus the information available to anyone today through the Internet, who needs to check out a bus tour? At the same time, these experiences are quite different in that they are solitary and more passive. Additionally, I imagine there could be quite a crowd or energy that would build at these exhibitions. This would be a Durkheimian “collective effervescence” experience. What would be the equivalent today: people showing up at the Apple store to see the latest technological wizardry? But this sort of experience would be about a single or just a few digital devices and less about an exciting vision of the future. Is there any place these days that offers a comprehensive and positive view of the future?

I also wonder how much these GM exhibits helped push the narrative of scientific and technological progress that seemed to develop in the post-World War II United States.

Highlighting the isolation and independence of McMansions

A feature of McMansions that sometimes draws criticism is the possible isolation they offer their inhabitants. Neighborhoods of these homes are sometimes envisioned as wastelands where neighbors don’t know each other and really don’t want to have any interaction. Here is an illustration of this idea within an article about the “peer-to-peer economy”:

The mentality peaked during the ’90s and first half of the last decade. Heaven was a safe job, a McMansion, a Target (TGT) in your city, a Starbucks (SBUX) down the road, a credit card with no limit, and a seven-figure bank account. No need to ever interact with strangers! The perfect bliss of isolation, err, “financial independence.”

The general idea here is that the goal of life during this time period was to have so much money that people don’t have to interact with others that they don’t want to interact with. While this may be in the name of being “financially independent,” it is really about becoming self-sufficient and not having to depend on anybody.

Several thoughts about this:

1. Even with this so-called “financial independence,” it is hard to escape the need for other people. I’m reminded of Durkheim’s idea of organic solidarity where people are more interdependent on others than ever due to the division of labor but also feel more independent. This seems related to American cultural ideas of individualism: the goal is to become a self-made man/woman who can do it all on their own. Can we then interpret advice from people like Dave Ramsey as promulgating American individualism more than fighting debt?

1a. This fear of strangers is an interesting idea. It is often invoked when talking about the formation of American suburbs (white flight out of cities) or gated communities (trying to keep certain people out). I wonder if there is survey data that would suggests Americans are more afraid of strangers than citizens of other countries.

2. Is a single-family house more of a place to avoid people or to build up the individual and the family unit?

3. I understand the idea of a McMansion and a large bank account fitting the theme of isolation but what do a safe job, Target, and Starbucks have to do with it? In all three of these settings, people interact with others, particularly on the job. With money, one can purchase a customizable experience at Target and Starbucks but this would be true in a lot of commercial settings.

Durkheim discussed “suicide viruses”?

I was reading a recent edition of Newsweek at the gym and ran across a story about a Russian model who committed suicide. Toward the end of the article, the writer tries to explain higher suicide rates in Russia and invokes Emile Durkheim:

Young women from the former Soviet bloc are particularly fragile. Six of the top seven countries worldwide for suicide rates among young females are former Soviet republics: Russia is sixth in the list, Kazakhstan second. The sociologist Emile Durkheim argued that suicide viruses occur at civilizational breaks, when the parents have no traditions, no value systems to pass on to their children. Thus there is no deep-lying ideology to support them when they are under emotional stress. Ruslana’s and Anastasia’s parents were brought up in the Soviet Union; their children lived in a completely different world.

I find this idea of  “suicide viruses” to be somewhat strange as it makes suicide sound like a contagion or a disease. Durkheim himself suggested in Suicide that suicides were the result of anomie, the idea that individuals in a society need to be integrated into the surrounding or they may feel disconnected and take drastic action. Imitation was not much of a social cause (see this summary here); rather, suicides are driven by a normlessness that one can experience if not properly integrated into society.

I think this paragraph referring to Durkheim could be better executed by talking about how young women in these former Soviet Republics have a difficult time finding their place in society. In this particular story, it sounds like the model was destabilized by this particular group/cult and didn’t know where to turn. The socialization process between parents and children might play a role in this but there could be other factors as well. The suggestion in the story is that parents have little ideology to pass on to their children and this is more of a society-wide concern than simply the responsibility of individual families.

The virtues of Weber’s The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism

A guest blogger at the Christian Science Monitor extols the virtues of Max Weber’s classic The Protestant Work Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism:

Weber’s historical thesis is fascinating in itself, but what really makes the work is that it is a mini-study in how to historically investigate a social-science proposition, complete with asides on method w[h]ere Weber explains what he is doing. He takes two situations that are in most respects the same (that of German Catholics and that of German Protestants) and notes a crucial difference (besides religion): the two populations have significantly different degrees of participation in the capitalist mode of economic organization (as of 1905).Then, he asks whether the first-noted difference (in religion) could be to some extent responsible for the second (in economic circumstances). He systematically rejects alternative explanations as inadequate, and then shows why religion was, indeed, an important factor in the rise of capitalism.

It is interesting to see Weber’s classic as a methodological text.

Since I’ve always heard this book talk about from a sociological perspective, I would have liked to been able to read more in this post about how an economist would view this work. From the sociological end, this book is one of the first to suggest that “ideas matter” or “culture matters” for larger social structures. While Karl Marx argued that culture was the result of the economic base of society and Emile Durkheim was interested in how culture, rituals, and religion held society together, Weber argued that theological ideas could lead to cultural and economic changes.


Sadly, Emile Durkheim didn’t make into a video game

All sociology majors learn about the Big Three sociological theorists from the 1800s/early 1900s: Émile Durkheim, Karl Marx, and Max Weber. But while Marx and Weber still get discussed and brought up in public conversations, Durkheim doesn’t seem to get as much attention.

However, some curious gamers thought that they had discovered that Durkheim made it into the video game “Deus Ex: Human Revolution:”

In our first teaser ever released, the cyber-fetus had the name “Emile” written on his skin. The fans thought it had to be directly connected to the story, so they started digging for info and researching the name. They came up with all sorts of very cool theories and possible in-game conspiracies related to it. For example, they found a 19th century French sociologist named Émile Durkheim and came up with some pretty nifty concepts based on their find. The funny thing is though, that the name Emile is nothing more than an inside joke created by the Digital Dimension guys, the studio who produced the teaser for us. During the long nights of overtime working on the teaser, they simply decided to name the cyber-baby and went ahead with Emile. One afternoon, when I walked into their studio for a review session, they asked me if they could leave the name on him. I said yes.

Alas, the Emile in the game is not the intrepid sociologist. And how exactly did these curious gamers link the Emile in the game to Durkheim? If one Googles “Emile,” Durkheim only comes up as a related search in the first few pages of search results.

I wonder if any sociological theorists have ever made it into a video game…