For what ends do sociologists labor?

I recently gave a short presentation in a training seminar regarding introducing first year students to different disciplinary perspectives. For each of the natural sciences, social sciences, arts, and humanities, I described methods and goals. For the goals of the social sciences, I put down “just society” and “social wrongs righted.” One of my colleagues asked me a question about this: “Do the people at the top R1 schools adhere to these goals?” Just having returned from the ASA meetings in Philadelphia and thinking about some of the things I saw there, I said yes.

This is a good question to consider on Labor Day. What are sociologists after when they work? Here are some options:

-just society/social wrong righted: a mindset devoted to improving society, sometimes attributed to an activist approach though American sociology has a deep tradition of this (even if it was shunted into social work and not promoted as much at leading schools)

-knowing more about the social world: this quest for knowledge and a better understanding of whatever phenomena is under study could be at the root of every academic enterprise

-a way to achieve status and power: the field may be limited be compared to others but academic titles and academic merits (published articles, name recognition, grants, school, etc.) still provide a certain status

-the joy of teaching and mentoring students: these expectations likely differ dramatically across institutions (let alone personalities) but there can be both immediate and long-term gratification in making a difference in the life of students

-a satisfying way to occupy one’s mind and fulfill intellectual curiosity

I suppose individual sociologists might be able to pursue unique combinations of these five options within their own experiences and institutional contexts. Yet, on the whole, I’m pretty comfortable asserting sociology and other social sciences want to make the world a better place.

Should new “Buy American” pushes be lauded if they occur because goods are now cheaper to make in the US?

Walmart is purchasing and selling more goods made in America – primarily because making some things in America is now cheaper:

In many cases, Wal-Mart’s suppliers had already decided to produce in the United States, as rising wages in China and other emerging economies, along with increased labor productivity and flexibility back home, eroded the allure of offshore production.

Though wrapped in the stars and stripes, the world’s largest retailer’s push to bring jobs back to the United States also makes business sense both for suppliers and retailers.

Some manufacturers are finding they can profitably produce certain goods at home that they once made offshore. And retailers like Wal-Mart benefit from being able to buy those goods closer to distribution centers and stores with lower shipping costs, while gaining goodwill by selling more U.S.-made products.

“This is not a public relations effort. This is an economic, financial, mathematical-driven effort. The economics are substantially different than they were in the 80s and 90s,” Bill Simon, chief executive of the Walmart U.S. chain, told the Reuters Global Consumer and Retail Summit earlier this month.

To restate, this isn’t because of some commitment to the United States or patriotism or creating American jobs. This is because the goods can be made more cheaply in the US due low-wage workers in other countries now earning more and rising transportation costs. Thus, if items could once again be made and shipped more cheaply overseas, businesses would likely chase that again. Granted, profits of American companies might be good (shareholders, for example, might be happy) but is this the only way to assess manufacturing and sales decisions? Is selling products partly on the fact that they are made in America then somewhat deceptive?

Colbert shines light on U.S. prison labor

A recent segment on the Colbert Report has brought attention to Unicor, a U.S. government entity designed “to employ and provide job skills training to the greatest practicable number of inmates confined within the Federal Bureau of Prisons”:

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Forcing people to work jobs that pay as little as $0.23/hour seems disconcertingly tantamount to slavery.  And it’s probably important to note at this juncture that the 13th Amendment simply does not apply to prisoners:

Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude, except as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted, shall exist within the United States, or any place subject to their jurisdiction [emphasis added].

The U.S. also imprisons more people than any other country on earth, and minorities are disproportionately likely to be incarcerated (see, e.g., this December 2011 DOJ report, see especially Table 3 in the appendix).  Taken together, this state of affairs is alarming.  To put it mildly.

 

The sociological origin of the term “McJob”

With McDonald’s hiring 62,000 employees on April 19, a journalist looks at the sociological origins of the term “McJobs“:

The term McJob first appeared in the summer of 1986, when George Washington University sociology professor Amitai Etzioni wrote a column for the Washington Post decrying the “highly routinized” jobs at fast-food restaurants and their effect on American teens.

“By nature, these jobs undermine school attendance and involvement, impart few skills that will be useful in later life, and simultaneously skew the values of teenagers -especially their ideas about the worth of a dollar,” Etzioni wrote.

He went on to criticize the culture and routine of working at McDonald’s and other fast-food companies, noting that the jobs do not provide opportunity for entrepreneurship like the traditional lemonade stand, or the lessons of self-organization, self-discipline and self-reliance like the traditional paper route.

“True, you still have to have the gumption to get yourself over to the hamburger stand, but once you don the prescribed uniform, your task is spelled out in minute detail,” he argued. “There is no room for initiative creativity or even elementary rearrangements. These are breeding grounds for robots working for yesterday’s assembly lines, not tomorrow’s high-tech posts.”

The article then goes on to describe how McDonald’s has tried to fit back against the term, including a 2007 from “the British arm of the company…to get the Oxford English Dictionary definition changed.”

On one hand, such jobs may not be great and this is what Etzioni was getting at: they generally are low-paying and in many places don’t pay enough to be considered a “living wage.” A work like Nickel and Dimed (a review of the theater version here) portrayed such employees as having difficult lifestyles and little hope for the future. More broadly, we could think of these jobs as emblematic of a larger process of McDonaldization, coined by sociologist George Ritzer, that describes the rationalization of the modern world.

On the other hand, we live in a country that really pays attention to job reports with less interest in what kinds of jobs were actually created. The April jobs figures showed good jobs growth but we could inquire about the quality of these jobs: are they well-paying, sustainable jobs that will pay American workers for decades to come? Or, were the majority of jobs middling to lower-skilled jobs that serve American consumers in the service industry?

In the end, we have a society that is quite dependent on such “McJobs.” The term is unlikely to go away though it clearly applies to a lot more corporations and areas than simply McDonald’s. Just as Walmart tends to get singled out as emblematic of big box stores and suburban sprawl because of its revenue (still at the top of the Fortune 500), McDonald’s size and influence draws attention (Super Size Me, anyone?). But as a society, we could have larger and ongoing discussions about what kind of jobs we wish to hold and to promote. In these discussions, we need corporations like McDonald’s, Walmart, Starbucks, Apple, and others involved to think about the American future.

Quick Review: The Devil in the White City

I’m not sure what took so long for me to read The Devil in the White City: Murder, Magic, and Madness at the Fair that Changed America. I have had it on my shelf for years and it revolves around the 1893 Columbian exposition in Chicago, a topic that is greatly appealing to me. Here are some thoughts about this book that tells the story of both violence and urban history:

1. The setting of the Columbian Exposition is fascinating. The amount of planning and work that had to be carried out in order to transform Jackson Park, then a outlying and relatively unimproved area on the South Side of Chicago, was tremendous. There are certain moments in history that I wish I could have been a part of: attending this fair at its peak (late summer/early fall 1893) would have been fantastic.

2. I’m less certain that the mixing of these two stories, a murderer named Holmes plus the building and holding of this fair, was done well. Early on in the book, we know that Holmes is a murderer and the details trickle out throughout the rest of the text. This is a difficult task to accomplish: it is hard to be a murder story when we already know who did it. But Holmes’ particular story and end is still intriguing. I’m not sure exactly what the contrast between these two stories is supposed to be: the best of human accomplishment (the exposition) plus the darkest part of humanity (Holmes)? The murder illustrates the difficult settings in which the exposition had to be organized? Both events are meant to provide a portrayal of the City of Chicago, a rapidly changing and growing place at this time?

3. Daniel Burnham is a main character in this text as he moves from being a co-chairman of the exposition to the full director/czar. While we learn about his struggles in putting together the fair (and his triumph in having a successful fair), we don’t learn all that much about his architecture, planning, or what makes him tick. Burnham is a renowned figure in Chicago but I wish to have learned more about him.

4. There are a couple of interesting struggles in this book: between New York and Chicago and between the elites/professionals of Chicago and the working/lower classes. Regarding the cities, the book plays up the angle that this exposition was the opportunity for Chicago to show that it could compete with New York. In fact, New Yorkers did not think Chicago could pull it off. Chicago in this time was the upstart, the place with what seemed like unlimited potential. New York was seriously concerned about this and the growth of Chicago prompted New York a few years after this fair to annex more territory and develop its five boroughs system. What is lost in some of this is some of the big Chicago boosters in its early decades were Easterners themselves. In regard to social class, there is some mention here and there about labor struggles. But perhaps this could have been the other story instead of the murder plot line: as the elite of Chicago put together this marvelous fair to showcase their city, the city was roiling with an influx of laborers and labor unrest. The Haymarket event had taken place in 1886. And yet, this fair was intended to bring Chicago together in a way that had not occurred in previous decades. There is an interesting chapter toward the end about the aftermath of the exposition: the impression is that life went back to its bleak normalcy in the big city rather quickly.

5. Did this exposition really change America? I’m skeptical. The Ferris Wheel is an interesting invention, but ultimately a diversion. The buildings were impressive – but similar style and size can be found elsewhere. This exposition was certainly consequential for Chicago, cementing it is a world class city. The exposition also brought together an incredible variety of well-known people. But what is its lasting legacy?

On the whole, I enjoyed reading this book. The setting is interesting and the myriad of storylines is engaging. But it is hard to know what it all means. As a mix of history and story, this book is entertaining but lacks depth and significance.

ASA 2011 Chicago cancellation makes the Chicago Tribune

ASA members received the email earlier this week: the 2011 ASA meetings scheduled for Chicago are going to be moved to a new location. This was the official explanation in the email (and press release):

The contracts between Chicago union hotels and UNITE HERE expired August 31, 2009. Since that time, there have been 11 bargaining sessions but contract negotiations are stalled. We have waited as long as possible to see if the contract situation would be resolved in deference to the importance of Chicago as a venue to the 2011 program. Without any resolution clearly in sight, the ASA Council voted unanimously to move the meeting from Chicago because ASA cannot guarantee that the facilities and environment necessary for our scholarly deliberations will be available.

The Chicago Tribune had a story on this decision on the front page of its business section Friday. While the ASA email was somewhat coy about the reason why the Chicago was not an acceptable site, the newspaper article has the more complete story:

More than 5,000 people were expected to attend the conference at the Hilton Chicago and Palmer House Hilton.

The association’s decision came one day before a one-day strike Thursday by workers at the Palmer House Hilton — members of Unite Here Local 1 whose contracts expired in August 2009.

While the association said the hotels pledged to be able to accommodate the conference, “our members have been concerned that we meet in hotels where workers are treated properly in terms of wages and other working conditions,” Hillsman said.

It sounds like there are some widespread issues between workers and Hilton.

It is too bad this happened as I was looking forward to having the conference be close to home this year. And now the wait is on to see where the conference will actually be held…