Seeking out internal and external relationships in small towns

A long-term look at rural life concludes that some of the features that enhance life there also might hold it back:

The Rural Development Initiative Project team, led by sociology professor Terry Besser, has spent the past 20 years studying changes in the quality of life for 15,000 residents in 99 small towns in Iowa…

“Small towns often don’t have much in the way of financial resources,” Besser said. “If they’re able to marshal their social capital, they have a network of people they can call on who trust each other to get things done.” High social capital can mean better economic prosperity, cultural amenities, and high-quality public services.

The researchers have already found certain traits, that seem like they should be positive attributes, can actually be a potential weakness for small towns.

Besser says the feeling of belonging to a tight-knit community could result in excluding newer residents, thus closing off some outside ideas and resources and potentially stunting community growth and development.

Narrow leadership channels, through one person or family or organization, might help in the short term but also can discourage other residents from getting involved. Leaders who can work separately – and as a team – provide more effective, sustainable leadership according to the early study results.

While this comes from studying small towns, it could apply to many in-groups: they often face issues about how many resources should be devoted to building and maintaining internal solidarity versus engaging with outside groups and institutions. Being completely insular may not be ideal but neither might low levels of group togetherness where there is little cohesion. I suspect there is no “ideal level” of balance between these two purposes but rather a range of possible positive outcomes where communities could engage the outside world while also building themselves up.

Sociologist argues every society has jokes about outsiders – including lawyer jokes in the US

Studying humor across societies reveals the pattern that groups are singled out as simpletons or emblems of stupidity:

For the past several decades, British sociologist and preeminent humor scholar Christie Davies has been collecting examples of an odd phenomenon: Nearly every culture has its own version of the Polish joke. That is, every country likes to make fun of people who’ve been labeled as simpletons and, often, outsiders.

In this country, we mock the poor, put-upon Poles: “How many Polish guys does it take to screw in a light bulb? Five: One to hold the bulb and four to turn the chair.” (Polish-Americans became the butt of jokes after millions fled persecution in their own country in the 18th and 19th centuries, often taking up menial jobs in their new American home.) But that’s just one example of what Davies calls the “stupidity joke.” People all over the world and throughout history have differentiated themselves from those they see as inferior and foreign by making fun of them. Take the oldest-known joke book in the world: Philogelos, Greek for “The Laughter Lover,” compiled from several manuscripts dating from the 11th to 15th centuries but believed to have been penned in the 4th century A.D. by the otherwise unknown scribes Hierokles and Philagrios. Of the 265 jokes in the book, nearly a quarter concern people from cities renowned for their idiocy, like Cyme in modern-day Turkey and Abdera in Thrace. Later, in medieval England, people cracked jokes about the dunces who lived in the village of Gotham. (New York’s nickname, “Gotham,” doesn’t sound so impressive when you learn that author Washington Irving coined it to suggest the place was a city of fools.)

The phenomenon is truly global. According to Davies’ research, Uzbeks get made fun of in Tajikistan while in France, it’s the French-speaking Swiss. Israelis rib Kurdish Jews; Finns knock the Karelians, an ethnic group residing in northwestern Russia and eastern Finland. The Irish, it turns out, have a particularly bad lot. Dumb-Irish jokes are equally common in England, Wales, Scotland, and Australia. Although it could be worse: If you happen to be an Irishman from County Kerry, you even get made fun of by your fellow Irishmen as well. The model even extends to the work world: Orthopedic surgery might be a highly competitive field, but other surgeons deride such rough-and-tumble musculoskeletal work as inferior. (“What’s the difference between an orthopedic surgeon and a carpenter? The carpenter knows more than one antibiotic.”)…

Each country’s particular brand of comedy is so intertwined with its social and cultural baggage, in fact, that enterprising academics are using the birth and spread of specific kinds of jokes to uncover hidden quirks of various societies’ cultural DNA. Davies has proven especially proficient at this. He traced the spread of dumb-blonde jokes, for example, from their origins in the United States in the mid-20th century to Croatia, France, Germany, Hungary, Poland, and Brazil, deducing the zingers emerged as women shook up gender roles by entering high-skilled professions. When the so-called Great American Lawyer Joke Cycle of the 1980s didn’t spread anywhere beyond the United States, Davies concluded the jokes were a uniquely American phenomenon because no other country is so rooted in the sanctity of law—and in no other country are those who practice it so reviled.

I wonder if these patterns don’t reveal two common sociological ideas as pertaining to some humor:

1. In-groups and out-groups. We tend to consider our close friends/family/ethnic or cultural group as the in-group while people in other groups are outsiders. Jokes help establish the symbolic boundaries between who is in our group (and who we like) and who is not (and who we don’t know about). This may help build solidarity within groups but probably doesn’t do much to build weaker ties across groups.

2. Threats other people might present – whether they are competitors for similar resources or immigrants – can be revealed in humor. While a group might write off another group and make them the butt of the joke, it could indicate the group making the joke feels threatened.

How might this fit with the rise of lawyer jokes? Perhaps it has to do with a more visible presence of lawsuits, particularly ones deemed more frivolous by the public. Or perhaps it has to do with more visible lawyers who started showing up more on TV and were perceived as grandstanding.

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?