A reminder that all politics is local (and cultural): avoid the barbecue third rail in North Carolina

National political candidates or officials often have to make sure that they can adapt to many different cultural contexts. Witness this example of Rick Perry and North Carolina barbecue:

And now Perry’s in hot water in North Carolina for a remark he made all the way back in 1992, when he was Texas agriculture commissioner and Houston was hosting the Republican National Convention.

Last week, in the Raleigh News & Observer’s “Under the Dome” politics blog, staffers Rob Christensen and Craig Jarvis wrote:

According to “Holy Smoke: The Big Book of North Carolina Barbecue,” in 1992 when Perry was a promising Texas politician but not yet governor, he tried some Eastern North Carolina barbecue from King’s of Kinston, which was served at the Republican National Convention in Houston.  “I’ve had road kill that tasted better than that,” Perry was quoted as saying…

“Holy Smoke” co-author John Shelton Reed, a retired University of North Carolina sociology professor, said Monday that people in his state do not mess around with this form of cooking. “Barbecue,” he said, “is the third rail of North Carolina politics.”

I don’t envy the task of politicians who have to continually switch gears on the campaign trail to keep up with all of the local cultural quirks. However, I wonder if these politicians have some sort of database or chart that alerts them to these local “third-rail” issues to avoid. What would an outsider have to avoid in coming to Chicago or the Chicago suburbs?

If anything, this story illustrates some basic sociological concepts. Residents of North Carolina rally around barbecue, among other things, and see it as a critical part of their state identity. When an outsider comes along and makes the comment that their prized food tastes worse than roadkill, they band together to defend their barbecue, reassert their group identity, and reestablish the symbolic boundaries that separate the group from other groups. It is not that different from sports fans reacting to perceived attacks from the outside, such as the reaction of a number of Chicago Bears fans to a new biography of Walter Payton that reveals his more human side. Even an outsider who might be telling the truth (though I’m willing to bet the barbecue was better than roadkill) still will have difficulty “attacking” one of the sacred features of the group.

On the hidden or out of the way yet sometimes thriving web forums

This is something I have noticed recently in several sites I visit frequently: there is a little community of consistent posters who have been drawn together and slowly get to know each other. While one of these sites, the Ask Amy column posted on the site of the Chicago Tribune, is not exactly hidden, The Economist discusses some web groups that have formed in really hard to find or unlikely places:

The programming crew had accidentally created a community of the sort that crop up all over the internet. Most online discussions take place in discussion forums designed to allow people to create an identity and interact in threaded, chronological conversations. But the hidden recesses of the web provide enough soil to root entire worlds, too. Wherever one person may post words which more than one other may read and respond to, a world is born.

Read the article to hear how devoted fans of Douglas Adams founded a group in a forum that was an afterthought and how some people unhappy with Sonic Drive-In’s service found each other.

Sounds like a start to a very interesting research study: what exactly motivates people to (1) seek out these spaces and (2) then continue with discussions and getting to know each other. The description of what happens in these settings in out of way parts of the Internet is hilarious:

It’s been thirteen years of hosting an accidental community. It’s somewhat like ignoring the vegetable drawer of your fridge for a year, then opening it to find a bunch of very grateful sentient tomatoes busily working on their third opera.

I would guess that the people who participate in groups like this are a limited number of total web users. I wouldn’t tend to be drawn to such forums: read a comment section of any blog or news story and you would likely find the conversation to be quite tedious or inflammatory. But I can remember the heady early days of AOL when chat rooms were the exciting feature of the Internet (and content took forever to load).

And these groups can be like real-life groups, meaning that they become territorial and protective:

Another surprise is that they will treat growth as a perturbation as well, and they will spontaneously erect barriers to that growth if they feel threatened by it. They will flame and troll and otherwise make it difficult for potential new members to join, and they will invent in-jokes and jargon that makes the conversation unintelligible to outsiders, as a way of raising the bar for membership.

It sounds like there is a starting period when the group might be somewhat fluid as people stumble unto such forums. But once the group coalesces and becomes a collective entity, others are not welcome and sharp boundaries are drawn to limit the influence of outsiders. So if one wants to become part of such a group, does one simply have to be lucky or have good timing?

Another question: what do the users get out of participating in such long digressions?

David Brooks makes a pitch for sociology?

David Brooks jumped into the recent debate over Amy Chua’s “tiger mother” theory with a piece suggesting that Chua is ignoring what is really cognitively difficult. In describing this, Brooks makes a pretty good pitch for sociology as a discipline:

I have the opposite problem with Chua. I believe she’s coddling her children. She’s protecting them from the most intellectually demanding activities because she doesn’t understand what’s cognitively difficult and what isn’t.

Practicing a piece of music for four hours requires focused attention, but it is nowhere near as cognitively demanding as a sleepover with 14-year-old girls. Managing status rivalries, negotiating group dynamics, understanding social norms, navigating the distinction between self and group — these and other social tests impose cognitive demands that blow away any intense tutoring session or a class at Yale.

Yet mastering these arduous skills is at the very essence of achievement. Most people work in groups. We do this because groups are much more efficient at solving problems than individuals (swimmers are often motivated to have their best times as part of relay teams, not in individual events). Moreover, the performance of a group does not correlate well with the average I.Q. of the group or even with the I.Q.’s of the smartest members…

Participating in a well-functioning group is really hard. It requires the ability to trust people outside your kinship circle, read intonations and moods, understand how the psychological pieces each person brings to the room can and cannot fit together.

This skill set is not taught formally, but it is imparted through arduous experiences. These are exactly the kinds of difficult experiences Chua shelters her children from by making them rush home to hit the homework table.

Sounds like a good reason to take a sociology course. Interacting with other human beings can indeed be difficult and sociology both teaches particular ways of thinking about interaction that would be helpful.

These sorts of skills, such as working within a group, often get labeled something like “soft skills.” Brooks seems to be suggesting that perhaps these really are the “hard skills” that people need to be productive employees, neighbors, and citizens. Employers seem to want these skills and yet we have relatively few college courses that explicitly teach them.

I wonder if there is available data or studies that show that sociology students are better prepared to work in group settings than those of other majors.

And would people in other disciplines read this pitch of Brooks?

Watching social interaction in the bouncy castle/moon bounce

A New York Times parenting blog explores how children interact with each other in a bouncy castle/moon bounce. Within a short period of time, the interaction moves from pure mayhem to the forming of powerful tribes:

Initially, the children bounced in random joy. They screamed and flailed about. It was pure mayhem, only rarely interrupted by a call for a parent to “watch this” and “look at this.” There was little collaboration among the children at this stage…

For as the first wave of youthful energy burned off, the children settled down and started to recognize the other. They tentatively reached out, jumping together as they held hands. It was simple collaboration accompanied by squeals of delight…

Then came the teams. Neanderdad was surprised to see kids in his children’s age group start build alliances. Three or four tikes would bounce together and exclude the other kids from their area. Those kids would, in turn, form their own factions and stake out territory as well…

After the small teams came the bouncy tribes. As all the territory inside the Bouncy Castle became claimed, conflicts between teams developed.  As a result, smaller groups merged to make themselves stronger. This co-opting processing progressed until only two large tribes remained…

When things seemed be getting a bit too heated, Neanderdad and other fathers were forced to step in and break up the door monopoly and disband the teams. Interestingly, once the conflict was defused, the children on both sides suddenly seemed to lose interest in the Bouncy Castle.

What is most interesting to me is that these are young kids working through patterns of interaction. Very quickly, they band together and stake out territory. Is this a real life version of Lord of the Flies? Would this sort of behavior hold true across cultures? Where exactly do children develop this process?

Next time I see one of these moon bounces in action, I may just have to look more closely.

(An odd side note: the title of the blog post is “the sociology of the Bouncy Castle” while the second paragraph suggests the author is turning “an anthropological eye on child’s play.” Sociology or anthropology? Perhaps both – but this doesn’t help the perception among some that the disciplines are the same.)

Unselfish people not liked by fellow group members

When working in small groups, each person plays certain roles. If someone is unselfish, recent research suggests this does not lead to popularity among other group members:

Unselfish workers who are the first to offer to help with projects are among those that co-workers like the least, according to four separate social psychology studies.

In the most recent study, entitled “The Desire to Expel Unselfish Members from the Group,” psychologists found that unselfish colleagues come to be resented because they “raise the bar” for what’s expected of everyone. As a result, workers feel the new standard will make everyone else look bad.

“It doesn’t matter that the overall welfare of the group or the task at hand is better served by someone’s unselfish behavior. What is objectively good, you see as subjectively bad,” said study co-author Craig Parks of Washington State University. The paper was published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology.

This is an interesting finding. The article goes on to say that some of the other participants thought the unselfish person had ulterior motives. The unselfishness was unsettling for other participants who sounded like they expected each person to play for themselves rather than think about the greater good.
I wonder if these findings would be any different if the participants were not all undergraduate students. And what would it take for groups to accept the unselfish behavior – repeated offers to help from the unselfish member, time, failure on the part of other members?