Sociologist Claude Fischer to begin new column shedding sociological light on popular debates

Sociologist Claude Fischer will soon begin a new column in the Boston Review that “will take on the fashionable ideas about American social life reported in the mainstream media and expose them to scientific scrutiny.” Here is why Fischer says the public needs the sociological perspective applied to popular debates:

DJ: The “culture of poverty” debate has been reignited recently by Charles Murray, whose cultural analysis, you write, is “not serious.” He is one among many “thought leaders” to gain a wide audience for unserious views. How much blame do you think academic experts bear for ceding the public sphere to these modern-day sophists?

CF: “Sophist” (defined—I had to look it up—as one skilled in devious argumentation) is not quite the term I would use. While Murray’s particular argument about the origins of white, working-class culture cannot be taken seriously, much of what he has argued, in The Bell Curve, for example, is serious, even if, as colleagues and I have argued (in Inequality by Design), it is wrong. On the broader point: Yes, mainstream social scientists have been under-represented in public debates (not economists, however; they seem omnipresent). For many years, I have pressed my colleagues to tell more of what we know to the wider public. In the early 2000s, I was the founding editor of Contexts, a magazine of the American Sociological Association for general readers, a sort of poor man’s Social Scientific American. For various reasons, it did not find a place on airport magazine racks and, although it thrives (see contexts.org), the magazine mostly reaches sociologists and our students. Among the reasons we sociologists have been largely absent in the public dialogue include chronically abysmal writing, too-frequent PC-ness, and not trying enough. But the failure is also on the media’s side—for example, the taste for the sensational (see above), a short attention span, and a desperation for content. (In the latter regard, social science findings are rarely discovered by journalists; they are usually delivered by publicists and often large p.r. campaigns—see Murray, above.) Both sides share some responsibility for the vacuum.

DJ: Do you think American ignorance of sociological facts is akin to our ignorance of scientific facts, or is there something more to the story?

CF: Of course, most Americans are too busy to recall much of the science—or the history, for that matter—that they learned in school (many were too busy during school to learn it, too). While we academics put a weirdly high value on knowing bookish facts, social scientific knowledge is consequential for both society and individuals—say, understanding how schools’ organizational structures might affect learning. Social science in particular has some properties that make public awareness especially difficult. For one, people generally think they already know all that stuff. After all, they live in society; they don’t need to be told about it by some egghead. Such confidence, by the way, is one reason why people often respond to a piece of social science research by saying it is obvious—after hearing what the finding is. (Pick one: money makes people happier; money doesn’t make people happier. Either way the research comes out, many will say the result is obvious. Duncan Watts also discusses this phenomenon in his new book, Everything Is Obvious: *Once You Know the Answer.) Second, people tend to believe comfortable facts. This is true in the natural sciences, too. (My Berkeley colleague, Robb Willer, has found that people are more likely to dismiss global warming as real if they are first told that it would cost a lot to mitigate it.) This shaping of empirical belief is multiplied in the social sciences. For example, the well-off are especially likely to believe that good fortune has nothing to do with success; it is all the result of talent and effort.

I’m looking forward to a good defense of sociology as well as insights into American life and culture.

Why don’t we collect data to see whether we have become more rude or uncivil rather than rely on anecdotes?

NPR ran a story the other day about how American culture is becoming more casual and less polite. This is not an uncommon story: every so often, different news organizations will run something similar, often focusing on the decreasing use of manners like saying “please” and “you’re welcome.” Here is the main problem I have with these articles: what kind of data could we look at to evaluate this argument? These stories tend to rely on experts who provide anecdotal evidence or their own interpretation. In this piece, these are the three experts: “a psychiatrist and blogger,” “a sophomore at the College of Charleston — in the South Carolina city that is often cited as one of the most courteous in the country,” and “etiquette maven Cindy Post Senning, a director of the Emily Post Institute in Burlington, Vt.”

There is one data point cited in this story:

Research backs up Smith’s anecdotal observations. In 2011, some 76 percent of people surveyed by Rasmussen Reports said Americans are becoming more rude and less civil.

Interestingly, this statistic is about perceptions. Perceptions may be more important than reality in many social situations. But I could imagine another scenario about these perceptions: older generations tend to think that younger generations (often their children and grandchildren?) are less mannered and don’t care as much about social etiquette. As this story suggests, perhaps the manners are simply changing – instead of saying “you’re welcome,” younger people give the dreaded “sure.”

There has to be some way to measure this. It would be nice to do this online or in social media but the problem is that face-to-face rules don’t apply there. Perhaps someone has recorded interactions at McDonald’s or Walmart registers? In whatever setting a researcher chooses, you would want to observe a broad range of people to look for patterns by age, occupation, gender, race, education level (though some of this would have to come through survey or interview data with the people being observed).

In my call for data, I am not disagreeing with the idea that traditional manners and civility have decreased. I just want to see data that suggests this rather than anecdotes and observations from a few people.

“Print journalism has never strayed from a narrative that insists sociology is the answer”

I was not aware that “print journalism has never strayed from a narrative that insists sociology is the answer.” This opinion piece also suggests that finding explanations for the drop in crime in Dallas and elsewhere in the United States is difficult.

Argument: “The SportsCenter-ization of Politics”

This is a fascinating claim: political journalism today has adopted the genre of sports reporting/entertainment from ESPN. It all comes down to the entertainment of an emotional argument and who is “winning.”

Did this sharing of genres simply come about because ESPN has been successful? Or have ESPN staffers made a name with sports and then branched out into other areas?

Sociologist talks about the downside of choosing your own news

A sociologist suggests you may be missing something by only choosing what news you want to read:

It’s in no sense odd to find American academe wrangling over journalism. Dean Starkman of the Columbia Journalism Review and Clay Shirky of New York University have recently been hammering away at each other, seeking to determine whether investigative journalism can only be conducted by highly resourced news machines (like the Guardian’s) or by a more individual, digital-first approach (like… um… the Guardian’s). But what’s sociology got to contribute here?

Plenty, Klinenberg says, outlining the fundamental bargain that underpins newspaper life. You, the reader, want crosswords and cartoons, recipes and TV programme guides. You want all the stuff that journalists serve up with a sigh (because, well, it’s not exactly journalism, is it?). And, in return, as part of the deal, journalism is allowed to have a civic purpose – to report and analyse the workings and frailties of democracy – beyond quick ways to whip up a cottage pie.

That bargain, sealed in print, means you can’t have one without the other. Put your cash on the newsagent’s counter and you get some things you desire and other things, from Cardiff or Chad, that you didn’t know had happened until you turned to page five.

Of course, like any other neat thesis, there are readers and editors who don’t quite fit. But the nature of print – flipping from column to column, noticing stories that intrigue you, naturally expanding your spheres of interest – isn’t “versioning” at all – it’s more eclectic. An iPad or Kindle version works within narrower bounds. A Facebook version is even more selective, tailored to your most immediate demands. And the logical version at the end of this line is utterly simple: no deals, no bargains – just what you want, electronically provided on the basis of past predilection.

This is part of a larger question about the consequences of people only being exposed to certain points of view. Only selecting news that we want to read can be self-reinforcing as then we only seek out certain kinds of stories, limiting our view of the world.

I wonder, though, about blaming this issue on the medium. How much does having a newspaper in hand really increase the odds that someone will read something that didn’t plan to? Can’t people simply pick out parts of the newspaper that they want to read as well? Further, was there ever really a “golden age” where average citizens always tried to engage with alternative points of view? I would guess not though that doesn’t mean it isn’t a worthwhile ideal. We need citizens (and journalists) who can understand our complex world which transcends simply “left” or “right” understandings. Perhaps the Internet makes this easier in some ways but I would guess the Internet could be changed to meet these challenges or people’s behaviors could be altered.

This reminds of an argument I was reading last night. People could argue, rightly, that all media viewpoints are biased in some way. However, this doesn’t mean that we can just throw out all news sources and say they don’t have something of value. What should be consistent across different sources are facts and then there can be disagreement about the interpretation of these facts. Of course, what is considered “fact” may be up for grabs as well – see the recent debate over Politifact’s “Lie of the Year.”

Untangling the effects of TV watching on mortality

Interpreting the results of studies can be difficult, particularly if one confuses a correlation (indicating some relationship between two variables) and a direct causal relationship (where one variable causes another). This usually is translated into the common phrase “correlation, not causation” which is illustrated in this example from Entertainment Weekly:

Researchers in Australia are reporting that, on average, every hour spent watching television after the age of 25 decreases the amount you live by 22 minutes.

“As a rule, the more time we spend watching TV, the more time we spend eating mindlessly in front of the TV, and the less time we spend being physically active,” explained Dr. David L. Katz, director of the Prevention Research Center at Yale University School of Medicine to HealthDay.com. “More eating and less physical activity, in turn, mean greater risk for obesity, and the chronic diseases it tends to anticipate, notably diabetes, heart disease and cancer.”

Before you throw your soul-sucking flat screen out the window, here’s a key thing to remember:

TVs are not like the year-draining torture machine in The Princess Bride. This study measures a casual lifestyle correlation — people who watch a lot of TV, on average, die younger than those who do not.

This seems to make sense – it is not TV watching that is the real issue but rather sitting around a lot, which is related to TV watching. This was echoed in the HealthDay story the EW post refers to:

But other experts cautioned that the study did not show that TV watching caused people to die sooner, only that there was an association between watching lots of TV and a shorter lifespan.

But I wonder if this is more of a conceptual issue that an analysis issue on the part of the original researchers. While I can’t access the original article, here is part of the abstract that sheds light on the issue:

Methods The authors constructed a life table model that incorporates a previously reported mortality risk associated with TV time. Data were from the Australian Bureau of Statistics and the Australian Diabetes, Obesity and Lifestyle Study, a national population-based observational survey that started in 1999–2000. The authors modelled impacts of changes in population average TV viewing time on life expectancy at birth.

Results The amount of TV viewed in Australia in 2008 reduced life expectancy at birth by 1.8 years (95% uncertainty interval (UI): 8.4 days to 3.7 years) for men and 1.5 years (95% UI: 6.8 days to 3.1 years) for women. Compared with persons who watch no TV, those who spend a lifetime average of 6 h/day watching TV can expect to live 4.8 years (95% UI: 11 days to 10.4 years) less. On average, every single hour of TV viewed after the age of 25 reduces the viewer’s life expectancy by 21.8 (95% UI: 0.3–44.7) min. This study is limited by the low precision with which the relationship between TV viewing time and mortality is currently known.

Conclusions TV viewing time may be associated with a loss of life that is comparable to other major chronic disease risk factors such as physical inactivity and obesity.

Some key parts of this:

1. This was done using life table models, not correlations. Without seeing the full article, it is hard to know exactly what the researchers did. Did they simply calculate a life table (see an example in 7.2 here) or did they run a model that included other independent variables?

2. Their confidence intervals are really wide. For example, the amount of TV watched in 2008 could only shorten someone’s life by 8.7 days, hardly a substantively significant amount over the course of a lifetime. Watching 6 hours a day on average (compared to those who watch no TV), could live just 11 minute shorter lives.

3. The abstract suggests there is “low precision” because this link hasn’t been studied before. If this is true, then we need a lot more science on the topic and more data. This article, then, becomes an opening or early study on the topic and is not the “definitive” study.

4. The conclusion section says “may be associated with a loss of life that is comparable to other major chronic disease risk factors such as physical inactivity and obesity.” The key word here is “may.” This might simply be an academic qualification but it is an important distinction between saying “proved” (how the public might want to interpret it).

Here is my guess at what happened: media reports (or perhaps even a press release) about the study were a lot more strident about these results than the researchers themselves. In fact, here is a piece from the HealthDay piece that suggests this may be the case:

Researchers in Australia found that people who averaged six hours a day of TV lived, on average, nearly five years less than people who watched no TV.

The emphasis here is on the average, not necessarily the confidence interval. This would be like reporting poll results that say a candidate leads by 6 over an opponent but forgetting to mention that the margin of error (a confidence interval) is 5.9.

What the HealthDay report should include: comments from the researchers themselves explaining the work. Interestingly, the story quickly suggests that other researchers say there are other factors at work but we never hear from the original researchers outside of a few pieces lifted from the study. Without the proper context, a study can become a “shock headline” used by media sites to drive traffic.

I do have to ask: does Entertainment Weekly have a vested interest in debunking a study like this since they are in the business of reviewing television shows and channels?

Nice guy political leaders don’t live in McMansions?

As a New Zealand journalist paints a nice guy image of the leader of the opposition party, there is an interesting bit about the leader’s home:

The Goffs’ home is spacious and comfortable – it’s not a McMansion, those sorts of architect-designed, three-level monuments to money that have sprung up in the more fashionable rural suburbs of Auckland, although there is a small kidney-shaped swimming pool. You can tell a family has been raised here and that the family will always be welcome home.

This description contains some of the common complaints about McMansions: they are excessive homes built by social strivers in the suburbs. At the same time, there is a contrast to typical complaints: these are designed by architects? Also, are McMansions not capable of being welcoming places or having the traits that show kids were raised there?

But one does have to wonder whether this particular home might just be labeled a McMansion if the leader wasn’t such a nice guy or the journalist didn’t have a positive experience. By saying his home is not a McMansion, the journalist is painting a down-to-earth, positive image.

Washington Post gets to reporting new Jay-Z sociology class at Georgetown

Earlier this week, I linked to a report from MTV about a new sociology class at Georgetown on Jay-Z. More mainstream media sources are now getting to this story including the Washington Post. Here is what was  reported on their Celebritology blog:

As noted by MTV’s Rapfix blog, Georgetown — otherwise known as the institute of higher learning unofficially endorsed by Justin Bieber — is offering a fall-semester-only class called “Sociology of Hip-Hop: Jay-Z.” The three-credit, twice-weekly lecture is taught by professor, author and Jay-Z proponent Michael Eric Dyson, who tells MTV about the course: “We look at his incredible body of work, we look at his own understanding of his work, we look at others who reflect upon him, and then we ask the students to engage in critical analysis of Jay-Z himself.”

Presumably that critical analysis does not involve speculation regarding ridiculous rumors involving Jay-Z’s wife Beyonce and their baby, aka Sasha Fetus.

Hip-hop has frequently been the subject of university classes; Duke University offers an African American studies class called “Sampling Soul,” which focuses on hip-hop, black cinema, social movements and other topics. And last spring, Bun B of the Underground Kingz served as a distinguished lecturer at Rice University, where he taught a religion and hip-hop course.

But focusing so intensely on a single rapper is somewhat rare. And it presents the unique opportunity to write a killer paper titled “Get That Dirt Off Your Shoulder: Obama, Politics and the Social Implications of ‘The Black Album.’?”

I’m sure someone could come up with a more comprehensive list of college courses on the subject. This might be much more interesting than this particular sociology course which focuses on a hot celebrity.

But this got me thinking about several articles about the news industry I’ve seen in recent years: just how much must traditional news sources write and emphasize the celebrity stories that seem to drive web traffic? A couple of things matter in this Jay-Z story: it involves a well-known celebrity (and the mentioning of the crazy rumors including Beyonce probably doesn’t hurt) and the course is being held not just at any college but at prestigious Georgetown. Beyond those two features, does it really matter which celebrity, which department, and which prestigious college this involves? To some degree, newspapers have always reported on prominent people though it probably involves a lot more celebrity news today.

A second question: does anyone go to the Washington Post exclusively or first for celebrity news or is it like a bonus after one consumes the political and business news? Are there people who don’t trust celebrity news unless it comes from more reputable sources? How does the Post decide what celebrity news to publish – I assume they don’t want it to be too scurrilous ?

Also, I would like to note that this blog reported on this story before the Washington Post.

Drop in US homeownership rate the greatest since the Great Depression

The title of this post is what the headline for this AP story should say – instead, the AP headline is “Census: Housing bust worst since Great Depression.” The problem with the headline is this: do people know what a “housing bust” is? Does this mean that the American housing market is in the worst shape that it has been since the Great Depression? Is the homeownership rate or are housing values at the same level as the Great Depression? Not necessarily. Here is what the story really is:

The American dream of homeownership has felt its biggest drop since the Great Depression, according to new 2010 census figures released Thursday.

The analysis by the Census Bureau found the homeownership rate fell to 65.1 percent last year. While that level remains the second highest decennial rate, analysts say the U.S. may never return to its mid-decade housing boom peak in which nearly 70 percent of occupied households were owned by their residents…

Nationwide, the homeownership rate fell to 65.1 percent – or 76 million occupied housing units that were owned by their residents – from 66.2 percent in 2000. That drop-off of 1.1 percentage points is the largest since 1940, when homeownership plummeted 4.2 percentage points during the Great Depression to a low of 43.6 percent.

So the percentage drop is what is important here: it fell from nearly 70 percent in the mid-2000s to 65.1 percent today. This is similar to the 4.2% drop during the Great Depression. But notice: the homeownership rate in 1940 was 43.6 percent while it is still above 65% today. Overall, we are ahead of the 1940 figures even though the homeownership drop suggests that this recent period has had a similar effect on homeownership as the Great Depression.

Another interesting piece of news from this Census data on homeownership:

Measured by race, the homeownership gap between whites and blacks is now at its widest since 1960, wiping out more than 40 years of gains.

This is not good. The homeownership rate for blacks and Latinos increased small amounts from 2000 to 2010 but the gap has widened. Perhaps the American Dream, at least the homeownership part, has never truly really been available to everyone.

Chicago couple moves into trendy West Loop area, mad when it attracts new developments and changes

This could be the cynical alternative headline one might apply to the front-page story of Friday’s Chicago Tribune Business section. Here is a quick overview of this story titled “West Loop project building discontent“:

In recent years, the West Loop has become a magnet for young professionals like Dore who like a balance between urban convenience and peaceful suburbs. But as Dore reached an empty parking lot on the southeast corner of Madison and Green streets, he glared at what he and his neighbors fear will be the end of their peaceful lifestyle — a parking lot that soon could be the site of a 22-story hotel.

“I’m just disappointed,” said Dore, who earlier this year became the reluctant leader of a group of neighbors who fought a losing battle against the high-rise. The first phase of the project, a three-story retail building anchored by a Mariano’s Fresh Market grocery store, is expected to break ground next month.

Their arguments that the project will block views, increase traffic and change the neighborhood’s dynamic have been made by residents in up-and-coming locations for years. As neighborhoods like the West Loop, the South Loop or the Near North Side grow, residents can be at odds with business owners, developers and city officials over the kind of development they want in their communities…

Dore and his wife, who moved to their three-bedroom condo in May 2009, say they are disappointed. Two years ago, they thought they had found a neighborhood close to the Loop that was also an ideal place to raise a family. Five weeks ago, their daughter, Anna, was born. But they are not sure they will stay in the West Loop.

The general argument here is not unusual: residents move into a neighborhood, whether in the city or suburb, the neighborhood starts changing, and residents are unhappy and start making NIMBY arguments. But several things struck me about this article:

1. I’m always somewhat surprised when residents act like the neighborhood can’t change. Particularly in this case, they moved into a trendy West Loop area. They like what this gentrified area has become. But other people and businesses want to move there as well. City neighborhoods often change rapidly and not only is this one trendy, it is relatively close to the Loop. Proponents of the new development suggest that the retail stores are needed and could be profitable. Did the residents really think that the neighborhood was going to be frozen in time?

1a. The site in question was formerly a parking lot. This unattractive use is preferable in a neighborhood? In many cities, parking lots are simply holding spaces until the owners can find a more profitable use. The money in parking lots is not the daily parking but rather waiting for the land to become really valuable and then selling the lot for big money.

2. The residents followed a typical path: form a community group, show up at public hearings, and let your local politicians know about your opinions. Just because their opinions were not followed doesn’t mean the system is broken.

3. At the same time, the article sounds like a classic example of the political economy model of growth. The neighborhood has succeeded to the point where bigger businesses now want to make money in the neighborhood. Politicians like these projects because they bring in more money in terms of jobs and property and sales tax revenues. I don’t know that there is much that the residents could have done to slow this down.

4. This really is written more as a human interest story rather than an overview of the development process. The perspective the newspaper readers get is that these residents have a legitimate grievance. Only later in the story do we hear the reasons why some want the new development to happen. Are we supposed to think that these city residents should be pitied because their West Loop paradise has been lost? The story could have been told in a completely different way that wouldn’t have made this one couple out to be victims. I’m kind of surprised this leads off the Business section because it really is a negative story when it could have highlighted how this neighborhood continues to thrive and attract development.