In putting together material for the upcoming semester, I found myself summarizing my work on studying the character of particular suburbs. Here is the slide that explains the process:
A quick explanation of the (simplified) process depicted on the slide:
- Every community or neighborhood has characteristics and circumstances at its founding. These starting traits can prove influential down the road.
- Once started, the community continues through inertia. People live their lives.
- There are points in time – which I call “character moments” in a 2013 article – where the inertia of communities are disrupted. This often comes in the form of external forces that place pressure on a community. For example, my 2013 article looked at what happened when three suburbs felt suburbanization pressure in the Chicago region after World War II. This led to internal discussions in each suburb about how they wanted to respond and what they viewed as their future. One of the suburbs, Naperville, decided to lean into the growth: they annexed a lot of land, developed guidelines for growth, and experienced multiple decades of explosive growth (read more in my 2016 article on the difficulties explaining these changes in Naperville).
- Different decisions in communities will lead to different future paths.
- Then, the inertia, external forces, and internal discussions and decisions repeat as circumstances arise. These key decisions build on each other over time which leads communities to be different places and feel different. This is an iterative process and communities can change course.
The ways this plays out in unique communities can differ greatly even as the process looks similar.
(To read more of what helped me think about this starting in graduate school as I looked to enact my interests in urban sociology and the sociology of culture, see this 2000 article titled “History Repeats Itself, But How? City Character, Urban Tradition, and the Accomplishment of Place.”)
With rapid changes in the world, it can be easy to see how this might be a notable historical moment that people in the future will look back on.
But, I cannot help think of the sociological processes that we are seeing at play right now. Pandemics and diseases have come before yet not in the era of such globalization, Internet and smartphones, and particular political, economic, and social conditions. There will be history about this all but here are just a few of the sociological processes we are truly seeing in action:
-Globalization. The travel and interconnectedness that is normal now has particular implications for diseases as well as the consequences.
-The shift toward the Internet and smartphones enables new methods for work as well as the possibility of information and knowledge to go all sorts of directions.
-Political and economic consequences of social actions. As just one example, social distancing can help combat the pandemic but it threatens many taken-for-granted interactions and settings. Small talk and being around other people should not be taken for granted; they are part of the social order.
-Health is a social issue, from its definition to how it plays out in individual lives and societies.
And this is just a start. There is already a lot of opinions out there about how the pandemic will change society once the disease disappears. We will have to wait and see. Sure, this will all be history at some point but for now there are a lot of sociological material to think through.
A longer look at state differences in history textbooks includes this bit about suburban growth:
We cannot fully understand places and communities without knowing about how race and ethnicity plays a part in the story. It is clear that the past included a whole host of legal and informal structures existed from the beginning of suburbs to keep non-whites out. This included: redlining, sundown towns, refusing potential homeowners in Levittown, government policies that helped whites move from cities, and exclusionary zoning. I argue this is one of the reasons suburbanites like suburbs so much: they were able to exclude those they did not want to live near. Some of these techniques, and more recent ones, still work to help keep some suburbs more homogeneous even as more immigrants and non-white residents moved to suburbia and residential segregation has decreased.
Without widespread knowledge of how the American suburbs developed, perhaps this is why exist videos like “The Disturbing History of the Suburbs” exist. The suburbs may not be only about race – I list six other factors that matter as well though the seven factors are all intertwined – but suburbs are not simply the result of neutral free-market forces. Understanding what helped create the suburbs and gives social life in suburbs today its shape will help give future suburbanites, perhaps a majority of Americans, better operate within their context and potentially shape new kinds of suburbs.
Media discourse about political parties as well as the public pronouncements of politicians tend to reify that certain policy positions are fixed between the two political parties. “Republicans always want to help the wealthy with their tax cuts.” “Democrats always fight for non-white residents.” And so on.
Yet, political parties change positions fairly regularly and often do so for political, rather than ideological, considerations. Here are two examples I found while reading American Sociology: From Pre-Disciplinary to Post-Normal by Stephen Turner.
Nixon proposed such things as minimum income rights and a national health care policy: both were rejected by the Democrats on the grounds that they should be more generous, and in the hope that they would be able to gain power and enact policies more to their liking. In any event, they got neither minimum incomes nor health care guarantees. Ted kennedy, the principal obstacle to the health care compromise offered by Nixon, later regretted his failure to accept it. (p. 55)
And an earlier example:
Race was a problem for reformers: on the one hand they were sympathetic to uplifting the Black masses; on the other they were inclined to regard them as in need of civilizing. The Progressive Party platform makers, including Jane Addams, were persuaded by their presidential candidate Theodore Roosevelt to omit any references to improving the conditions of Blacks, on the ground that this would cost the party politically – this was at a time win which the Republican Party, from which Roosevelt was splitting, was the party of Blacks. (p.24)
It might be easy to write this off as being in the past – anything past even just a few years ago is very difficult to discuss in media settings – but these two examples provide a reminder that political parties can indeed change dramatically. What Democrats and Republicans look like today is not the same as they were decades ago nor will they necessarily be the same ten or twenty years from now.
The term McMansion can sometimes be applied retroactively to eras where the moniker did not exist. For example, a description of Graceland in Memphis uses the term:
Graceland and the nearby newly opened tourist centre – clumsily titled Elvis Presley’s Memphis at Graceland – gets fans close to the King, but don’t dare touch anything. In bricks and mortar, the Georgian-inspired mansion is not really that big. These days, it’s more McMansion in scale than, well, a proper mansion.
According to Wikipedia, Graceland is over 17,000 square feet. The original part of the home was built in 1939 and only later did development encompass the large property (still over 13 acres).
This is still a very big house, even by today’s terms. I tend to apply the term McMansion when the size of the home is roughly between 3,000 and 10,000 square feet. Even then, homes of this size may not meet other traits of McMansions such as being too big for their lot (not a problem with Graceland), architecturally garish or poor quality (not a problem with Graceland), and associated with sprawl and luxury (maybe a bit applicable here). Perhaps Graceland might be McMansion in an interior related to pop culture and kitsch – but that is more likely a function of the home once belonging to a music superstar than it being a typical suburban McMansion.
Today, Graceland is still a mansion. Is it really that different than the large homes of entertainment stars and celebrities today?
The original northern border of the state of Illinois was the southern tip of Lake Michigan but Nathaniel Pope helped change this:
[T]he shrewd move in 1818 by Nathaniel Pope, the Illinois Territory’s delegate in Congress, to relocate the original proposed boundary from the southern tip of Lake Michigan is regarded as a decisive event in Illinois history…
Pope’s move provided the groundwork for Chicago to become Illinois’ economic juggernaut and literally turned state politics upside-down as the area grew. But it also had the national implication of ensuring Illinois would be a free state at a time of percolating political unrest over slavery…
Congress “wanted to have a water route between the Great Lakes and the Mississippi River for shipping supplies and soldiers if needed, since the Ohio River route could become contested,” said Olson, co-author of a new book “Managing Mississippi and Ohio River Landscapes” that includes a chapter on the northern border.
Along with giving Illinois access to Lake Michigan, Pope’s border modification raised the population nearly to the 40,000 required for statehood, Olson said in an article he co-authored for the Journal of Earth Science and Engineering.
This is interesting history given Illinois’ later connection to Abraham Lincoln and fighting slavery as well as the rapid spread of the Republican Party and its abolitionist priorities when the party was first founded in Wisconsin in the 1850s.
It might even be more intriguing to see how Pope and others thought about the southwestern edge of Lake Michigan. This was not the only point by which people and supplies could be transferred between the Great Lakes and the Mississippi. Indeed, it was not until several treaties, including a few after statehood (see the Treaty of Chicago), and the construction of the Illinois and Michigan Canal (begun in the 1830s and completed in the late 1840s) that Chicago became a candidate for explosive growth. (And grow it did and quickly encompassed an entire region including significant portions of Wisconsin – see Cronon’s Nature’s Metropolis).
Archiving the Internet so that it can understood and studied by later researchers and scholars may be a big problem:
In a new paper, “Stewardship in the ‘Age of Algorithms,’” Clifford Lynch, the director of the Coalition for Networked Information, argues that the paradigm for preserving digital artifacts is not up to the challenge of preserving what happens on social networks.
Over the last 40 years, archivists have begun to gather more digital objects—web pages, PDFs, databases, kinds of software. There is more data about more people than ever before, however, the cultural institutions dedicated to preserving the memory of what it was to be alive in our time, including our hours on the internet, may actually be capturing less usable information than in previous eras…
Nick Seaver of Tufts University, a researcher in the emerging field of “algorithm studies,” wrote a broader summary of the issues with trying to figure out what is happening on the internet. He ticks off the problems of trying to pin down—or in our case, archive—how these web services work. One, they’re always testing out new versions. So there isn’t one Google or one Bing, but “10 million different permutations of Bing.” Two, as a result of that testing and their own internal decision-making, “You can’t log into the same Facebook twice.” It’s constantly changing in big and small ways. Three, the number of inputs and complex interactions between them simply makes these large-scale systems very difficult to understand, even if we have access to outputs and some knowledge of inputs.
In order to study something, you have measure and document it well. This is an essential first step for many research projects.
But, I wonder if even it can all be documented well, what exactly would it tell us about behaviors and aspirations? Like any “text,” it may be difficult to make causal arguments based on the artifacts of our Internet or social media. They are controlled by a relatively small number of people. Social media is dominated by a relatively small number of users. Many people in society interact with both but how exactly are their lives changed? The history of the Internet and social media and the forces behind it is one thing; it could be fascinating to see how the birth of the World Wide Web in the early 1990s or AOL or Facebook or Google are all viewed several decades into the future. But, it will be much harder to clearly show how all these forces affected the average person. Did it change personalities? Did day-to-day life change in substantial ways? Did political opinions change? Did it disrupt or enhance relationships? What if Twitter dominates the media and the lives of 10% of the American population but little impact on most lives?
There is a lot here to sort out and a lot of opportunities for good research. At the same time, there are a lot of chances for people to make vague claims and arguments based on correlations and broad patterns that cannot be explicitly linked.
After reading several positive reviews of Jennifer Egan’s newest book, I decided to read her earlier work. Here are my thoughts after reading three of her first four novels:
1. One of the more consistent themes is tying together the past with the present and future, both in the personal stories of the characters as well as broader social forces that are always swirling around and threatening to sweep them along. For example, one of the main characters in Look at Me is trying to connect the past of Rockford, Illinois to a vision of the future. He is convinced that the decline of this Rust Belt city will illuminate important paths forward. Or, the characters in The Invisible Circus are trying to figure out what their actions as teenagers mean for their barely-formed adult lives.
2. All of the characters are flawed – sometimes by their own actions and other times through their family – and they are searching for answers. Rarely do they find them. Dreams are remembered yet lost as the characters can’t quite figure out how they got to this point of adult existence. Relationships burst with intensity and then fade. Success is fleeting. A Visit From the Goon Squad does a lot with this: even as the story lines come together to suggest that our future lives may not be very desirable, we are shown intriguing yet short glimpses of characters and relationships spanning several decades.
3. Across the three books, there are a number of settings ranging from San Francisco to Rockford to New York City to European locations big and small. The communities are present but also not present. They come and go in broad strokes. To illustrate, New York City is featured and the characters stagger around and big landmarks and ideas are mentioned but there is little tangible connection to places. Perhaps this is how people truly do live their lives these days as they focus on their private selves.
4. Much of the time I was reading these three books, I could not shake the idea that these works are heavily influenced by Tom Wolfe. The characters are caught between the cosmos and their day-to-day concerns. The language is loose and evocative. There seem to be larger messages and commentary about societal change though perhaps the clearest message is that modern individuals have no idea of how to figure any of this out.
All in all, I found the stories engaging and thought-provoking. However, they also had an ephemeral quality. Do they provide some deep insights into who we are today and where we are headed? Or, are they a cleverly-constructed yet ultimately common story of human frailty? It may take some time for me to answer these queries in my own mind even as literary critics seem to think Egan is asking the right questions.
I attended and presented at the Urban History Association biennial meetings this weekend and I made some observations during my foray. Some thoughts:
- In the last five years or so, I’ve been to both specialist conferences – usually involving the sociology of religion – and general conferences – the American Sociological Association. They each have their perks. I particularly enjoyed two things about the specialty aspect of the UHA meetings: (1) it was nice to be with a group of scholars who shared a common set of readings and understandings of a particular social phenomena and (2) the smaller size seemed to allow for more conversations during and after sessions. Even though the conference drew attendees largely from R1 schools – and people from liberal arts colleges like myself were in short supply and tended to be from the Chicago area – it felt pretty inviting.
- Several quick observations on the discipline of history as I saw it practiced:
-There was a tension between particular cases – micro history – and broad sweeping generalizations about social patterns. The micro history could be quite minute, perhaps focusing on a particular influential figure (or arguing why that figure should be viewed as influential) or brief time period while other papers and sessions focused on 50+ years or emphasized broader movements like modernism. Individual papers tended toward the micro while panels could think more broadly. I would guess that at least a few of the papers are part of larger works – dissertations, manuscripts – that touch on broader periods or forces.
-There was an informal dress code for male attendees: dress shirt and jacket. Not everyone followed this but there were more sports coats and blazers than at the typical sociological gathering.
-Race, class, and gender popped up now and then but this trinity of analysis wasn’t as present as at sociological meetings.
-There were some interesting instances of trying to connect historical events to current events, particularly in a panel on Silicon Valley. But, often the papers stuck to their particular historical moment.
-Almost every paper began with a story or anecdote from history. This is more acceptable with qualitative sociological work but rarer in sociology as a whole.
-Every introduction I saw included a short bio of the scholar’s education and work. Sociologists rarely give this information. Does this suggest that pedigree is more important for the audience or do they benefit from having more information regarding the speaker?
- I realize that now eight years into my post-graduate school career, I feel much more comfortable at conferences. I had met only two of the conference attendees prior to the meetings but it was easier to introduce myself to others and participate when I had questions. During graduate school, I remember this being more difficult: who wants to talk to a lowly graduate student? My enjoyment of conferences has gone up as I feel like I have a leg to stand on (I have published works that people can read) and I feel like I can contribute (I’ve wrestled with a number of issues in my own work and in the classroom). These two factors work in another way: even as I do some urban history work, I likely would not have attended this meeting without receiving an invitation from the organizer of a session to submit a paper.
Tomorrow, I’ll present the three most intriguing ideas I heard at the conference from my one day of attending sessions.
A recent analysis of the top assigned sociology texts in the Open Syllabus Project has a number of interesting findings including a large number of texts from the mid-1970s to the mid-2000s:
Sociology is a dynamic discipline, so the inclusion of many texts published in the past 30 years is not surprising. Nor is the continued importance of the foundational sociology texts published between 1850 and 1950. But perhaps we can see another kind of generational dynamic at work here. Most of the OSP collection comes from courses taught between 2006 and 2014. Perhaps the emphasis on works published from the mid 1980s to the mid 1990s reflects a process of canonization that takes roughly 10 or 15 years, as faculty in their 40s become senior faculty in their 50s or 60s, balanced by the need to assign material that is still feels relevant to the analysis of contemporary problems, which may have a roughly similar temporal horizon. Again, the OSP offers only some data points, at present, toward an understanding of contemporary sociological knowledge. But they are suggestive ones and worth further exploration as the data set matures.
This argument makes sense: sociology faculty will tend to assign texts they are familiar with and that is likely material they know from graduate school as well work that informs their own.
But, it does raise some interesting larger questions:
- Certainly, it takes some time to put together good research that involves theory, data collection and analysis, and thinking about the implications. Yet, this lag in texts and current events means that individual faculty have to find ways to bridge the gap. I’m not sure the answer is to significantly speed up the publication process with journal articles and books – as it can often take years – as this limits the times needed to develop good analysis. It does suggest that other outlets – like blogs or op-eds or more popular books – might offer a solution and this may mean such work should count for something in the discipline.
- How much does the knowledge of faculty “freeze” in what they learned in their training or from their early career? I remember hearing that sociologists may know the most when they were doing their comprehensive exams. How well can people keep up with all the literature that arises, particularly if they have heavy teaching loads?
- This suggests that a lot of sociological classwork involves historical analysis as the texts used as typically from enough years ago that students don’t know all of the details of the context. How good are sociologists at doing historical analysis with undergraduates?