Summarizing sociological theories in 140 characters or less

A sociology instructor is having his students tweet criminal-justice theories:

“They have all these theories to learn,” Atherton said. “Some of them are very dense, and complex. What I try to get them to do, and I tie some extra credit to it, is see if they can boil the theory down, the essence of it, to 140 characters.”…

In a recent class session, Atherton shared tweets from a lesson on a theory of social disorganization, displaying the tweets under Twitter’s signature bluebird.

“Social disorganization refers to communities as a whole not coming together for common goals, ultimately causing a disruption,” the first tweet stated.

Another tweet on the topic read: “theory suggests criminal activity comes from the neighborhood where someone lives and how it shapes them living there.”

If the American Sociological Association is working on a Wikipedia initiative, why not also start a Twitter push? Since it looks like Karl Marx’s Das Kapital is being tweeted (over 41,000 tweets and counting), there is work to be done.

While I think this could be an interesting pedagogical exercise as it allows students to use a current medium as well as put complex theories into their own terms, I wonder if this doesn’t perfectly illustrate the issues with Twitter. Sociological theories are often messy and complex, taking some time to explain and think through. For a very basic understanding, 140 characters could work but if this is all students know about sociological theories, is this worthwhile in the long run?

A Costa Rican explains why the country’s #1 ratings in the Happiness Index is due to its culture

The Happy Planet Index puts Costa Rica at number one in the world. A Costa Rican first describes what makes up the index and then how Costa Rican culture led to the top ranking:

Have you ever heard of the Happy Planet Index? As a Costa Rican, I hear about it quite a lot. Both the HPI, a project of the New Economics Foundation, and the lesser-known World Database of Happiness, assembled by a Dutch sociologist, put Costa Rica at the top of the rankings. This officially makes Costa Rica the most content country on the planet. (For once, we’re first in the world at something other than potholes per capita.)

The HPI is calculated from a combination of three factors: life expectancy, self-reported well-being, and ecological footprint. Thus, according to its own website, the HPI measures “how many long and happy lives [countries] produce per unit of environmental input.” That sounds like a mouthful at first, but once you think it through for a bit the concept seems to make sense. Traditional measures of wellbeing, such as GDP per capita, simply measure output. They don’t take into account environmental devastation brought about by industrialization or unhappiness stemming from social or economic inequality. The HPI, on the other hand, rewards countries with healthy, satisfied citizens for living within their ecological means. Thus, the HPI tells developing countries they shouldn’t aspire to the living standards of the United States or France, but rather to the smile production of Costa Rica…

My point here is that, in Costa Rica at least, happiness seems to stem partly from culture. It’s not at all controversial from an economic viewpoint to suggest a link between happiness and culture, and this is somewhat validated by the fact that five of the top ten countries in the latest HPI ranking are located in Central America, a relatively small and homogeneous region. One of those, El Salvador, has the highest murder rate in the world, and another, Nicaragua, displays levels of poverty one would expect from a war-ravaged Sub-Saharan nation. Living in either one of those (and I have for a time, in both) actually sounds like a pretty grim prospect to me, yet the HPI would have us believe that these countries are worth emulating.

Thus, we approach the core problem with the Happy Planet Index: Happiness and wellbeing are inextricably linked, but they cannot be reduced to the same thing. If Costa Rica got its act together and built better infrastructure (even at the expense of causing a little bit of damage to the environment) our wellbeing would be much higher—we would no longer have to endure endless traffic jams brought about by rock slides or sinkholes, for instance. Yet—here’s the key—our happiness wouldn’t change that much, because it’s largely a consequence of who we are as a people. Improved infrastructure is precisely the sort of advancement that shows up in measures like GDP per capita, and which the HPI ignores completely—forms of progress that undoubtedly change us for the better, though we remain as content as ever.

I’ve written about measuring happiness before (see here and here) but I don’t remember seeing this argument before about the Happy Planet Index: it is more dependent on culture than measures of material conditions. If you carry this argument to its conclusion, then great changes for the better or worse in Costa Rica wouldn’t affect people much.

I suspect it doesn’t exactly work this way. There are probably some thresholds that would affect happiness in Costa Rica and a lot of other countries. These would be similar to findings in the US that above a certain point, having more income doesn’t really change people’s happiness or well-being. There is an interplay between culture and material conditions; Marx may have suggested that culture is derived from those who control the means of production but others, including Weber, would argue that there is more of a back and forth. If the conditions changed a lot, the culture would have to respond and might change quite a bit as well.

Are McMansions about maximizing exchange value?

A commentator takes a look at a new, oversized condominium building and discusses use value versus exchange value:

The house on this lot was rebuilt into two large condominiums.  Each is about 3,000 s.f. and priced at $849,000.  It’s a way to maximize the return for the property owner.  I can’t say the building is very attractive, but it is one block from the forthcoming Monroe and Market Street development adjacent to the Brookland Metro Station, and is two blocks from the Metro.

It’s too bad buildings such as this are oversized for the lot in a manner that degrades the visual qualities of the rest of the block.  Use values, including aesthetics, are subsidiary to the exchange value of place (maximizing financial return) in this instance.

To complete the circle about use value, one could also look at the experience of the homebuyers. Are these large housing units worth the money? Even if these big homes don’t quite fit in the neighborhood, they could be nice places to live. As noted above, they are spacious, located near desirable mass transit stops, and are probably have some nice interior features (surely granite countertops, stainless steel appliances, and hardwood floors!). Even the New Urbanists that wrote Suburban Nation admit that Americans have superior private realms in our homes. (Of course, there are others, like Sarah Susanka and Winifred Gallagher who suggest these spacious, comfortable homes may not be good fits after all.)

Lurking behind this analysis is Marx’s discussion of use value, exchange value, and capitalism. In a capitalistic system, much can be commodified: Twitter followers, positive online reviews, and houses. Particularly during the 20th century, American homes became more than just shelters: they were expected to increase in value and become investment vehicles. (One could look at some data to see if these oversized housing units are flipped more quickly than other kinds of housing as owners look to make money.) Builders and developers can make even bigger money on houses. One very influential idea in urban sociology in the last few decades is the growth machine model, the idea that boosters, business leaders, politicians, and developers work together to make profits by transforming open land into valuable land. From the early days of the American suburbs when streetcar operators built their lines into the countryside and then offered free rides to the end of the line to show people lots and potential to McMansions today, much development, aesthetically pleasing or not (actually, aesthetics may indeed just help increase the value!), is about making money. Commodifying the home can move the discussion away from other important aspects f purchasing and owning a home like community life, environmental responsibility, and providing affordable housing.

Exploited workers: why Apple and other companies will not move manufacturing jobs back to the US

The New York Times has a long piece examining why Apple, even with the pleas of President Obama, will not likely move manufacturing jobs back to the United States. It sounds like it has a lot to do with what Apple can ask of workers in China. Here are a few examples:

Apple executives say that going overseas, at this point, is their only option. One former executive described how the company relied upon a Chinese factory to revamp iPhone manufacturing just weeks before the device was due on shelves. Apple had redesigned the iPhone’s screen at the last minute, forcing an assembly line overhaul. New screens began arriving at the plant near midnight.

A foreman immediately roused 8,000 workers inside the company’s dormitories, according to the executive. Each employee was given a biscuit and a cup of tea, guided to a workstation and within half an hour started a 12-hour shift fitting glass screens into beveled frames. Within 96 hours, the plant was producing over 10,000 iPhones a day…

The facility has 230,000 employees, many working six days a week, often spending up to 12 hours a day at the plant. Over a quarter of Foxconn’s work force lives in company barracks and many workers earn less than $17 a day. When one Apple executive arrived during a shift change, his car was stuck in a river of employees streaming past. “The scale is unimaginable,” he said…

In mid-2007, after a month of experimentation, Apple’s engineers finally perfected a method for cutting strengthened glass so it could be used in the iPhone’s screen. The first truckloads of cut glass arrived at Foxconn City in the dead of night, according to the former Apple executive. That’s when managers woke thousands of workers, who crawled into their uniforms — white and black shirts for men, red for women — and quickly lined up to assemble, by hand, the phones. Within three months, Apple had sold one million iPhones. Since then, Foxconn has assembled over 200 million more.

This sounds ripe for a Marxist explanation: Apple has its products overseas because it can ask things of workers (possibly interpreted as “exploiting” these workers) that would be very difficult to ask of workers in the United States. American workers would not be happy about multiple things: non-predictable work hours, living in company dormitories, relatively low pay compared to wages in the first-world, consistent twelve hour days.

When I first read these descriptions, it immediately reminded of manufacturing in the United States in the late 1800s and early 1900s. This was a period marked by labor unrest, the rise of unions, and a change in a lot of laws about what companies could ask of employees. We’ve had company towns; think of Pullman on the south side of Chicago. We’ve had bad working conditions; think the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire. We’ve had low wages; now we have a minimum wage (that some would argue is still not enough and should be replaced by a living wage). With the protests of workers plus a growing prosperity, work conditions changed. Is China close to a similar period or does a different governmental approach and different culture make is less feasible? As Marx suggested, will the basics of capitalism help turn these workers against the system, pushing companies to look for workers in other countries?

The article hints at this but I think it could be put more clearly: there are not easy answers to this issue. If manufacturing jobs will not return to the US except in certain circumstances (see the recent battle over Boeing plants being located in right-to-work states), we need a clear discussion of this rather than politicians saying nice things.

Award-winning sociological rapping about Marxism and feminism

Teachers are often looking for new ways to present material so that students will learn the material better. How about this technique: sociology teachers rapping about Marxism and feminism:

TWO teachers have won £60,000 for inventing rhymes to help pupils learn about weighty issues such as Marxism and feminism.

Claire Corrigan and Salim Rahman got students at Oldham Sixth Form College to rap alternative words to songs by stars including Dolly Parton and Shania Twain.

The sociology teachers landed the windfall in a national contest after producing an eight-minute video featuring their tunes…

One song explains Marx’s thoughts with the lines: “Capitalism is a system that keeps you subdued/ Using education as a tool that keeps you fooled/ Making you docile is the ultimate aim/Keeping you obedient for the employment game.”…

Claire added: “We used rap to talk about Marxism because it was associated with working class and the struggle against authority. For another idea, like functionalism, which is quite conservative and middle-class, we set it to the tune of The Snowman, which is quite formal.”

Does this make Marxism sound cooler than functionalism? It sounds like it was set up that way…

I would be interested to see if there was any formal assessment in these classes that showed that these raps improved student performance. When it came down to tests or projects, were these songs helpful for students?

This is a news story that simply requires a link to the original video.

The virtues of Weber’s The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism

A guest blogger at the Christian Science Monitor extols the virtues of Max Weber’s classic The Protestant Work Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism:

Weber’s historical thesis is fascinating in itself, but what really makes the work is that it is a mini-study in how to historically investigate a social-science proposition, complete with asides on method w[h]ere Weber explains what he is doing. He takes two situations that are in most respects the same (that of German Catholics and that of German Protestants) and notes a crucial difference (besides religion): the two populations have significantly different degrees of participation in the capitalist mode of economic organization (as of 1905).Then, he asks whether the first-noted difference (in religion) could be to some extent responsible for the second (in economic circumstances). He systematically rejects alternative explanations as inadequate, and then shows why religion was, indeed, an important factor in the rise of capitalism.

It is interesting to see Weber’s classic as a methodological text.

Since I’ve always heard this book talk about from a sociological perspective, I would have liked to been able to read more in this post about how an economist would view this work. From the sociological end, this book is one of the first to suggest that “ideas matter” or “culture matters” for larger social structures. While Karl Marx argued that culture was the result of the economic base of society and Emile Durkheim was interested in how culture, rituals, and religion held society together, Weber argued that theological ideas could lead to cultural and economic changes.

 

Sadly, Emile Durkheim didn’t make into a video game

All sociology majors learn about the Big Three sociological theorists from the 1800s/early 1900s: Émile Durkheim, Karl Marx, and Max Weber. But while Marx and Weber still get discussed and brought up in public conversations, Durkheim doesn’t seem to get as much attention.

However, some curious gamers thought that they had discovered that Durkheim made it into the video game “Deus Ex: Human Revolution:”

In our first teaser ever released, the cyber-fetus had the name “Emile” written on his skin. The fans thought it had to be directly connected to the story, so they started digging for info and researching the name. They came up with all sorts of very cool theories and possible in-game conspiracies related to it. For example, they found a 19th century French sociologist named Émile Durkheim and came up with some pretty nifty concepts based on their find. The funny thing is though, that the name Emile is nothing more than an inside joke created by the Digital Dimension guys, the studio who produced the teaser for us. During the long nights of overtime working on the teaser, they simply decided to name the cyber-baby and went ahead with Emile. One afternoon, when I walked into their studio for a review session, they asked me if they could leave the name on him. I said yes.

Alas, the Emile in the game is not the intrepid sociologist. And how exactly did these curious gamers link the Emile in the game to Durkheim? If one Googles “Emile,” Durkheim only comes up as a related search in the first few pages of search results.

I wonder if any sociological theorists have ever made it into a video game…