Time of year for HOAs to crack down on holiday decorations

As Halloween decorations emerge, homeowner’s associations are back to patrolling displays. See this example in Naperville:

After neighbors complained to the Ashbury Homeowners Association board about the traffic and noise created by the celebrated house decorations, the group installed rules that thwarted Thomas’ plans.

“I am disappointed,” said Thomas, who has lived in the 1100 block of Conan Doyle Road in south Naperville for 21 years and has decorated his house for the past 18 years. “For a lot of people, the house has become a tradition and it is something people look forward to.”

Thomas’ display has grown over the years, and now includes over 2,000 pieces with lights and synchronized music. Visitors to the cul-de-sac have also grown — he estimates about 8,000 people visited last year alone — which is why neighbors raised concerns about traffic and safety with the Ashbury Homeowners Association board.

The board notified neighbors via its October newsletter that a “Holiday Decorations Rule” was voted on and passed at its Sept. 21 board meeting. The rule limits a person’s decorations to 50 percent of the yard, excluding lights, and restricts the display to 30 days before and after the holiday.

I can see both sides to this story. The homeowner may be asking why the association is now instituting these rules. He has had displays for years; why now? The HOA might say that the displays keep growing and attracting thousands of people disrupts the neighborhood. On the other side, suburban residents tend to prefer quiet streets and neighbors that don’t draw negative attention to themselves (even if they are raising some money for charity). The owner could respond that these are just temporary decorations. The final guidelines may be reasonable: a homeowner could still do a lot with 50 percent of their yard and thirty days before and after provides around 60 days for the displays.

To avoid issues such as these, wouldn’t homeowners associations be better off having such guidelines on their books from the beginning or before such situations arise where single owners feel like they are being singled out? Associations are often pilloried for having silly rules on their books but they can help cut off situations such as these.

The presence of collective rituals even in modern society

We all may be individualists in the modern world but rituals such as Valentine’s Day are still crucial:

Why do we celebrate a holiday dedicated to love?

Let’s start with the idea of rituals. We tend to think that only backward or primitive societies have rituals — people running in circles with painted bodies, drums, and fires. The field of cultural sociology has emerged in the last couple of decades, and one of its premises is that there is a strong continuity between early and modern societies. Rituals continue to be central to us, and are perhaps even more important as societies become larger and more heterogeneous.

Valentine’s Day is a ritual. It’s not as if people wake up and think, “Today’s a good day to celebrate love.” It occurs on the same day each year, and it’s a way to liven up a dark winter.

It’s interesting that we think of Valentine’s Day as something for a couple, because it’s also something that the whole society celebrates. Millions of couples are doing this at the same time. It’s a way for society to say that romantic love is good and coupling is important.

Whether you want to celebrate the appointed holiday or not, our society marks them as important events with evidence visible everywhere from television commercials to grocery stores to activities in public schools. They are not just markers in time – we have to have some sort of holiday in the middle of February – but rather days for society to reassert its priorities and modes of celebration.

What a sociologist learned about giving Christmas gifts from Middletown

Middletown (Muncie, Indiana) holds a special place in American sociology though the findings of two 1970s studies (ASR and AJS) about giving Christmas gifts based on the community are not as well known. Here are a few selections from the two articles:

“The 110 respondents in the sample gave 2,969 gifts and received 1,378 gifts, a mean of 27 given and 13 received. Participants in this gift system should give (individually or jointly) at least one Christmas gift every year to their mothers, fathers, sons, daughters; to the current spouses of these persons; and to their own spouses. By the operation of this rule, participants expect to receive at least one gift in return from each of these persons excepting infants…Gifts to grandparents and grandchildren seem to be equally obligatory if these live in the same community or nearby, but not at greater distances. Christmas gifts to siblings are not required.

Parents expect to give more valuable and more numerous gifts to their minor children and to their adult children living at home than they receive in return. This imbalance is central to the entire ritual. The iconography of Middletown’s secular Christmas emphasizes unreciprocated giving to children by the emblematic figure of Santa Claus, and the theme of unreciprocated giving provides one of the few connections between the secular and religious iconography of the festival-the Three Wise Men coming from a distant land to bring unreciprocated gifts to a child.”…

“Most of Middletown’s gift giving occurs between close kin…the pattern it displays shows up the two principal points of stress in the contemporary American family. The first point of stress is the insecurity of the spousal relationship. Viewed cross-culturally, the contemporary American family is unusual in exhibiting a very high level of interaction between spouses while permitting easy, almost penalty-free divorce at the initiative of either spouse at any point in the life cycle. Since divorce is always more than a remote possibility in a Middletown marriage, the relationship with affinal relatives [in-laws] is always a little uneasy.

The individual message [of a gift] says, “I value you according to the degree of our relationship” and anticipates the response, “I value you in the same way.” But the compound message that emerges from the unwrapping of gifts in the presence of the whole gathering allows more subtle meanings to be conveyed. It permits the husband to say to the wife, “I value you more than my parents” or the mother to say to the daughter-in-law, “I value you as much as my son so long as you are married to him” or the brother to say to the brother, “I value you more than our absent brothers, but less than our parents and much less than my children.” These statements, taken together, would define and sustain a social structure, if only because, by their gift messages, both parties to each dyadic relationship confirm that they have the same understanding of the relationship and the bystanders, who are interested parties, endorse that understanding by tacit approval.”

This is not the first time the media has discussed these studies but I do give credit for actually let the sociological studies speak for themselves. However, there should be a demerit for titling the web page “Christmas gift exchange: The anthropological rules beneath it.” This is based on sociological studies – these disciplines are not the same thing!

I suppose this could be a case where someone would read this and say this is all obvious. Isn’t sociology just common sense? Yet, even these small excerpts reveal some interesting findings. Physical distance matters, particularly when you get beyond the nuclear family. Additionally, Caplow notes that gift-giving between spouses is laden with meaning that can either support or undermine a marriage. While I suspect the kinds of gifts exchanged in the late 1970s might have shifted today, Caplow found money could generally be given one-way from older family members to younger family members, but not in reverse.

Considering all the hoopla surrounding Christmas in the United States and elsewhere around the world, it is a little surprising more sociologists don’t study Christmas behaviors and patterns…

Bringing the McMansion float to the July 4th parade

The July 4th parade in Sudbury, Massachusetts was like many Independence Day parades in that it featured floats. However, this parade included one float about McMansions:

Spectators lined the parade route starting at the corner of Rte. 20 and Union Avenue, with adults waving flags as children scrambled for candy thrown from antique cars, fire engines and military vehicles.

About a dozen groups competed for ribbons awarded for the best floats.

Russell’s Garden Center re-purposed its Santa Claus mannequin into a Father Time display. The Sudbury Savoyards, the local Gilbert and Sullivan group, stuck a mock gondola for its upcoming production of “The Gondoliers” atop a VW bus. And the owners of the old Cutler Farm offered a visual commentary on how town open land has been developed first into “McMansions” and now condos.

For its float, the town chapter of the non-partisan League of Women Voters decorated a trailer with discarded water bottles, taking on a proposed but long-stalled expansion of the state’s bottle bill.

I’d really love to see this float. If I had to guess, I would think this was an anti-McMansion float decrying sprawl and promoting nostalgia for farm land and open land.

Sociological roundup for Super Bowl XLVI

Here are a few stories that highlight sociological takes on the Super Bowl:

1. The Super Bowl as unofficial holiday:

Because it has evolved into so much more than a game, the Super Bowl and all of the pomp and circumstance has become a star-spangled spectacle that may not live up to two weeks of hype or warrant six hours of pre-game coverage, but continues to be must-see TV for the masses…

Dr. Tim Delaney, chairman of the Department of Sociology at SUNY Oswego, said the Super Bowl has become much more than just the NFL’s championship game.

“It’s not only a social event, it’s really an unofficial holiday,” said Delaney, who co-authored “The Sociology of Sports: An Introduction and Sports: Why People Love Them!”

“People are going to watch the Super Bowl, no matter what. It’s part of American culture. It’s tradition. It’s a social phenomenon.”

2. Headline: “Super Bowl non-fans will replace the big game with shopping, sewing, sex.”

Wachs said that football has become so popular that it is like a “secular religion” in America. “It fulfills many of the exact same functions as religion,” said Wachs, an associate professor of sociology at California State Polytechnic University. “It separates the sacred and profane — the rest of the week is profane and on Sunday it is the special time. There are rituals associated with it. There is special clothing and special food associated with it. It really has all the elements of a religious ritual.”

But this fanatical attention to a single game has created another subculture in American society — people who are united against the Super Bowl, the rebels who refuse to watch because they don’t like football or don’t like the hype or don’t like to be told they have to watch something just to fit in.

Wachs said these people “feel resentful, feel put upon and, I would argue, feel persecuted by the importance of something that they just don’t get.”

3. The urban myth of “sewer sociology”:

Maybe you’ve heard the urban legend: An overwhelming number of Super Bowl fans take a potty break during halftime, straining the local sewage system and causing a spike in flows to treatment plants…

While sewage treatment workers do notice a change in “activity” during holidays and the Super Bowl, it doesn’t impact waste treatment facilities, said Kevin Enfinger, a senior project engineer with ADS Environmental Services in Huntsville, Ala…

Enfinger refers to the change in bathroom behavior as “sewer sociology.”

4. UCLA has experts on call ready to help you understand the “sociological and cultural phenomenon.”

Plenty of sociological material to talk about in regard to the Super Bowl and that is before even getting to what the commercials have to say about our society.

I do think I’ve heard more and more public discussion about the Super Bowl being a public holiday. It makes me wonder why sociologists don’t spend more time studying holidays, official and otherwise. The idea of “secular holidays” is particularly interesting – although once you get beyond the Super Bowl and Black Friday (still closely related to Thanksgiving), it might be more difficult to identify such days.

Using “amateur sociology” to have better Christmas conversations

One columnist has some tips in “amateur sociology” in how to deal with all the conversations you might encounter during the Christmas season:

Tis the season for amateur sociology – if we want to share space with one another happily, that is. With parties and family get-togethers, tension and social gaffes lurk behind every pine swag. And so in honour of the holiday spirit – and the need to enjoy each other’s company, even if you have to pretend – I offer some observations about the art of conversation…

That’s the thing about pleasant conversation. It’s a dance of fancy footwork, a minefield of social explosive devices to be avoided, the exact opposite of what the popular culture of confession and narcissistic Facebook commentary suggests is important. A good conversationalist has a feel for nuance; an understanding of grace; an ability to make careful entrees and gentle exits. He is not obsessed with his own status updates. And he’s adept at skilled deflections.

To make for happy party dynamics, you must demure at times, remain silent when necessary, nod, listen, dare to be conventional and find refuse in a discussion about the weather.

Rarely do you need to say exactly how you feel, especially if it’s about Aunt Shirley’s disgraceful behaviour at the last family get-together.

In recent years, I’ve read various people suggesting that the art of good conversation is slowly dying, particularly among younger generations. Common targets for this include Facebook (like above), rougher political discourse, and a growing sense of incivility.

But, it seems to me that if you want people to be good at conversation, they have to be taught and they have to practice. This is true of any social norm or practice. This doesn’t necessarily mean going to finishing school or things like that but there should be commonly-found settings where good conversation can be found. Reading a tips column like this doesn’t help too much because it can’t prepare one for all the twists and turns a human-to-human conversation might take. Perhaps reading more Erving Goffman and other notable symbolic interactionists could help. Or perhaps keeping Mead’s “generalized other” in mind would help.

So who wants to take up this task?

Americans buy a lot of stuff they don’t need

Americans are known for being consumers. In fact, Americans spend quite a bit of money on non-essential goods:

This Easter weekend, Americans will spend a lot of money on items such as marshmallow peeps, plush bunnies and fake hay, begging a question: How much does the U.S. economy depend on purchases of goods and services people don’t absolutely need?

As it turns out, quite a lot. A non-scientific study of Commerce Department data suggests that in February, U.S. consumers spent an annualized $1.2 trillion on non-essential stuff including pleasure boats, jewelry, booze, gambling and candy. That’s 11.2% of total consumer spending, up from 9.3% a decade earlier and only 4% in 1959, adjusted for inflation. In February, spending on non-essential stuff was up an inflation-adjusted 3.3% from a year earlier, compared to 2.4% for essential stuff such as food, housing and medicine.

It would be helpful if this post had more details about the “non-scientific study” and what data is being examined. Nonetheless, it is interesting to see this story at Easter time: isn’t Christmas supposed to be our most commercial holiday? There does seem to be more stories in recent years about the increased spending at Halloween and Easter. Perhaps we just like holidays because they are excuses to spend!

Here are two possible conclusions regarding this data:

The sheer volume of non-essential spending offers fodder for various conclusions. For one, it could be seen as evidence of the triumph of modern capitalism in raising living standards. We enjoy so much leisure and consume so much extra stuff that even a deep depression wouldn’t – in aggregate — cut into the basics.

Alternately, it could be read as a sign that U.S. economic growth relies too heavily on stimulating demand for stuff people don’t really need, to the detriment of public goods such as health and education. By that logic, a consumption tax – like the value-added taxes common throughout Europe—could go a long way toward restoring balance.

Interesting options: we spend so much on these things because we can (conspicuous consumption?) or we frivolously throw our money away at things that don’t really matter while ignoring important issues. Neither sound particularly good. The second one does seem to be at the root of most advertising: make a pitch so that the consumer thinks they “need” a product. Don’t people need iPhones, new cars, and lots of beer?

Ultimately, we might need some more numbers to settle this debate. How does the discretionary spending of the American individual compare to that of other nations? (During this recent recession, we have heard about how Americans had a lower savings rate than past Americans going into this period but how do we compare to other countries?) What are the total costs of living in such an economy (which certainly must help create jobs and generate wealth for someone) vs. one that does put more money into education or infrastructure? How much do average Americans think they should be spending on non-essential items and if given the choice, would they want to spend more?

h/t Instapundit

A sociologist discusses giving money and gift certificates as gifts

The history and social significance of money is more complicated than one might think. One sociologist, Viviana Zelizer, has written a lot about money including pieces about how life insurance came to be seen as “moral” in the 19th century and how women’s earnings were seen as extra money rather than part of a household’s finances. In a recent New York Times op-ed, Zelizer tackled a subject that often comes up at the holidays: is giving money or a gift certificate an acceptable gift?

It turns out that both the economic realists who give money as presents and the traditionalists have history on their side, because this is a debate that began back in the early 20th century. As the consumer society expanded and Americans began giving more Christmas presents to more people, money emerged as an acceptable gift. Christmas money, according to a 1912 issue of Ladies’ Home Journal, “supplies dearly cherished wishes, adds small luxuries, prevents worriment and gives opportunities for helpfulness as no other gift does.”…

We can’t all be as clever as Lou Eleanor Colby, but buying a gift card that restricts what the money can be used for is just another way of distinguishing gift money from regular money, and a way for givers to demonstrate their intimate knowledge of what the recipient likes and cares about.

The key here seems to be the significance behind the money or gift certificate: is it simply a cash payout (and writing a check or withdrawing money from an ATM can be a fairly normal and heartless event) or does it have thought behind it (meaning it is a gift certificate that matches one’s tastes)? I know we have had these discussions in my family with people coming down on various sides.

But as Zelizer points out in this op-ed, this was a particular historical process that had to occur. Businesses, particularly those catering to women, had to create a safe space for a gift of money or a gift certificate. Gift certificates do not have inherent significance – it must be endowed with such by the society, the giver, and the recipient.

Personally, I would accept both cash or gift certificates. But they do have separate meanings: cash tends to go into a larger pot of money and gets lost while a gift certificate, say to a bookstore, helps keep that money destined for books or music or DVDs. I would also expect that the younger generations have less difficulty giving and receiving money or gift certificates.

And Americans vote again for the automobile

Surveys from AAA suggest Americans will be traveling by car in record proportions for Thanksgiving:

Next week, 94 percent of Thanksgiving travelers nationally are expected to drive — up from 86 percent in 2008 and 80 percent in 2000, according surveys conducted by AAA.

The air-travel share is projected at 3.8 percent this Thanksgiving, the lowest figure in a decade. Air travel accounted for 13 percent of Thanksgiving travel in 2000, AAA said.

A quick interpretation might be that people are fed up with airport security. But interestingly, these surveys were conducted before the TSA announced more intrusive search procedures:

AAA officials noted that the data on Thanksgiving travel, which are based on the plans of people surveyed, were collected before the TSA announced it was switching to more intensive pat-downs of airline passengers and increased use of the full-body scanners.

“Those folks who said, ‘I’ve had it with the airport hassle and I’m traveling by auto,’ did so before the TSA’s new rules were put in place,” said Beth Mosher, spokeswoman for AAA Chicago. “We’ve seen a lot of people grousing. It’s hard to say if people will eventually get used to the changes. We’ll know more once we see Christmas travel numbers.”

I haven’t seen these survey figures and whether they ask people specifically why they chose the travel mode they did.

But I’ll quickly offer another take: Americans don’t need much of an excuse to travel by car. Our love affair with the car (or more appropriately for family travels this weekend, the SUV or minivan) is well-established and could be an important factor in this story. Ultimately, travel within a certain radius (roughly 6-14 hours of driving one way) could either be done by airplane or car (or as some hope, by faster trains in the future). Certain factors, such as ticket prices, weather, availability, gas prices, and other odd factors, such as new airport security measures, can push people back to their vehicles which they might have been reluctant to leave behind anyway.