Today’s average individual can rely on experts to complete normal tasks

In today’s world, more and more individuals are willing to offload certain tasks to “experts”:

In other words, there is no job too trivial to warrant not enlisting a professional to do it. The hired help has moved out of the mansion and into more modest homes, too. Across the country, an army of entrepreneurial “experts” have emerged, charging as much or as little as their local market will allow, and promoting their services with old-school flyers, slick websites and persuasive online ads. They are ready and willing to do those tasks we used to do ourselves or with the assistance of a neighbour—be it scooping up dog poop in the backyard or assembling Ikea furniture or changing light bulbs or programming the remote control.

If nothing is too minute to contract out, then no job is too important or personal either. In her new book, The Outsourced Self: Intimate Life in Market Times, famed American sociologist Arlie Russell Hochschild explores the implications of hiring strangers to carry out what has historically been considered sacred labour done solo or with the support of loved ones: finding a mate, planning a wedding, scattering ashes, assembling a photo album, having a baby, naming a baby, raising children, visiting elderly parents…

Adding to the allure of outsourcing is our growing fixation with specialization. While we pursue our career paths with zeal, other people are refining the art and science of baby-proofing a home or choosing the right clothes or teaching dogs not to bark. The thinking goes that it’s wisest to let the pros do what they do best—lest we mess up. “If you’re buying a car you want to do it efficiently, you want a pleasant experience, and you want the best price. That logic is creeping into our personal life,” says Hochschild. In her book, she tells the story of a father who insists on planning his child’s birthday party. “It backfired,” recalls Hochschild. “He tried to be a clown and nobody laughed. And a neighbour says, ‘Leave it to the experts. They know what five-year-olds think is funny.’ ”…

Outsourcing might not be an ideal answer, but many people would say it’s better than the alternative, which is to do nothing except continue to run ourselves ragged. So while we hire retirement home consultants and dog walkers, we might contemplate the future and how it could be better. Duxbury has given it some thought, and she suspects that her own daughter will have learned more than a thing or two about the pursuit of balance from watching her mother all these years. Chances are, Duxbury predicts, the next generation will actually pay for help more often than their parents—but not because of gruelling jobs and domestic duties. Rather, they will work less inside and outside the home in lieu of other, more fulfilling, ways to live life.

This sounds like a combination of two famous ideas from early sociologists. Emile Durkheim argued that modern society was marked by an increased division of labor and specialization. In this setting, individualism would grow even as individuals were more dependent on other specialists to do things like produce food, clothing, and other necessities. He contrasted this to village or small-town society where individuals could perform multiple tasks and there was less specialization. Also analyzing modern society, Max Weber argued that history would eventually lead to an iron cage of bureaucracy where it would be difficult for individuals and social organizations to change course.

If you put these two ideas together, the division of labor and the iron cage, you have what Hochschild is describing: a system where people with means feel like they have to outsource certain tasks so they can be true individuals and do what they want to do but this locks them into certain actions and an increased reliance on other people. In a quest to get more choices, adults have to constrain themselves by outsourcing some of their tasks.

How much of this outsourcing is done by free choice or is there a lot of pressure to outsource? Perhaps there is peer pressure from friends or people at work subtly or explicitly suggest that people need to focus there more.

It would also be interesting to trace the rising status of “experts,” not just traditional experts like scientists or clergy or technocrats, but service industry experts. For example, just how much status does an organizing expert have today?

Can Weber’s concept of charismatic authority predict a decline for Apple?

One analyst suggests that Apple without Steve Jobs will decline because as sociologist Max Weber suggested, organizations change after their charismatic leader is gone:

Weber described three essential business categories: Legal/bureaucratic, traditional, and charismatic, with the latter companies typically helmed by individuals with the “gift of grace.”…
“Followers and disciples have absolute trust in the leader, fed by that leader’s access to nearly magical powers. Charismatic authority repudiates the past, and is in this sense a specifically revolutionary force.”

According to Colony, Apple chose a “proven and competent executive” – Tim Cook – to succeed Jobs. Nevertheless, the analyst believes the new CEO’s “legal/bureaucratic approach” will prove to be a mismatch for an organization that feeds off the gift of grace…

“Apple’s momentum will carry it for 24-48 months. But without the arrival of a new charismatic leader it will move from being a great company to being a good company, with a commensurate step down in revenue growth and product innovation,” the analyst predicted.

I guess we can wait and see if Weber’s ideas apply to this situation. Weber described this transition after the loss of a charismatic leader as a process of routinization where the group bureaucratizes this charisma.

A few things make this process more messy:

1. At one point, Steve Jobs didn’t have this “magic” either such as before he was inventing things or when he stepped down from Apple. This suggests that context matters: certain ideas are produced or take off based on a variety of other circumstances.

2. Judging by the recent stock price, investors don’t seem too worried about Apple’s future. At what point will they and other start publicly suggesting that the loss of Jobs is a really big hurdle to overcome? Is this an “acceptable” reason for a company to plateau?

3. Shouldn’t one measure of a good leader be the ability to empower others to take over and do well (or even better?) in the future when that leader is gone? If so, perhaps we should be asking whether Jobs was equipping others at Apple to succeed after him or not.

4. Is this an inevitable process for groups that lose a charismatic authority?

Thinking about Weber as climate change may be the latest issue to join the culture wars

Michael Gerson discusses why climate change has become one of the hot-button issues in the culture wars:

What explains the recent, bench-clearing climate brawl? A scientific debate has been sucked into a broader national argument about the role of government. Many political liberals have seized on climate disruption as an excuse for policies they supported long before climate science became compelling — greater federal regulation and mandated lifestyle changes. Conservatives have also tended to equate climate science with liberal policies and therefore reject both.

The result is a contest of questioned motives. In the conservative view, the real liberal goal is to undermine free markets and national sovereignty (through international environmental agreements). In the liberal view, the real conservative goal is to conduct a war on science and defend fossil fuel interests. On the margin of each movement, the critique is accurate, supplying partisans with plenty of ammunition.

No cause has been more effectively sabotaged by its political advocates. Climate scientists, in my experience, are generally careful, well-intentioned and confused to be at the center of a global controversy. Investigations of hacked e-mails have revealed evidence of frustration — and perhaps of fudging but not of fraud. It is their political defenders who often discredit their work through hyperbole and arrogance. As environmental writer Michael Shellenberger points out, “The rise in the number of Americans telling pollsters that news of global warming was being exaggerated began virtually concurrently with the release of Al Gore’s movie, ‘An Inconvenient Truth.’”

The resistance of many conservatives to arguments about climate disruption is magnified by class and religion. Tea Party types are predisposed to question self-important elites. Evangelicals have long been suspicious of secular science, which has traditionally been suspicious of religious influence. Among some groups, skepticism about global warming has become a symbol of social identity — the cultural equivalent of a gun rack or an ichthus.

If Gerson is correct, the battle over climate change is simply a proxy battle. In fact, then we could probably assume that other issues will come along that will also become part of the culture wars. The fervor over the climate change issue will lessen at some point and another concern will become a flashpoint.

All of this seems related to what I had one of my classes recently read: Weber’s take on “value-free” or “value-neutral” sociology. This could help explain a few things:

1. Distrust of elites, particularly academics, is part of the issue. One way to fight elites/academics is to simply suggest that they are biased. Weber suggests all scientists have some biases. However, there are ways to do science, such as subjecting your work to others with a scientific mindset, to minimize these biases. As I recently argued, just because one scientist may have committed fraud or because some scientists have clear aims does not mean that all science is suspect.

2. Weber suggests that scientists need to be clear when they are speaking as scientists looking at facts and individuals proposing courses of action. Mixing facts and ideals or policies can lead to issues. In this particular situation, I would guess conservatives think the scientists are not just exploring the scientific facts but are also pushing “an agenda.” Indeed, Gerson ends this piece by suggesting we need to put “some distance between science and ideology.” Of course, plenty of scientists are religious but the (perceived) mixing of facts and goals can be problematic.

3. In writing his piece, Weber was trying to set guidelines for a journal where people of a scientific mindset could debate sociology and facts. It is interesting that Gerson notes that opposition to secular science is now part of the subcultural identity of some religious groups, making it more difficult to have conversations because attacking/defending one’s identity is contentious. If one doesn’t want to debate facts, how can one have a conversation about science?

Using sociological surveys as political weapons

One commentator suggests that sociological surveys were used as political weapons recently in Russia:

Long before the State Duma elections of Dec 4, the ultra-rightist and liberal mass media, collaborating with anti-Russian elements in the West, forecast that the ruling United Russia party would suffer a serious defeat.

They organized all sorts of sociological surveys to support this thoroughly planned campaign and to push their “predictions” on the “crisis” facing Russian leaders and “sharply declining rating” of Prime Minister Vladimir Putin and President Dmitry Medvedev. The anti-Putin campaign became really vociferous when the United Russia congress officially and unanimously approved Putin as its nominee for the presidential election in March 2012.

It is true that the election results showed the correlation of political forces and sentiments in Russia, which is experiencing the difficult strategic consequences of the disintegration of the erstwhile Soviet Union and the impact of the global economic crisis.

I’m less interested in dissecting recent events in Russia (which are very interesting to read about) and more interested in thinking about using sociological findings as political weapons. The argument made here is that these surveys are part of a larger, unfair, ideological campaign waged by pundits and the media. Perhaps more importantly, there is a claim that the surveys were “organized,” suggesting they were only undertaken in order to push a particular viewpoint.

I don’t doubt that sociological findings are used in struggles for power. Indeed, sociologists are not value-neutral as they themselves have their own interests and class position within society. However, I tend to think the primary purpose of sociological data is to explain what is happening in society. If sociological surveys in Russia show dissatisfaction with Putin, is it incorrect to report this? Of course, statistics and facts are open to interpretation and need to be approached carefully.

Where is the line between sociological surveys illuminating social structures, practices, and beliefs and having viewpoints and using sociological data to push these perspectives? Max Weber’s writings on value-neutrality are still useful today as we think about the proper use of sociological data.

Learning from the organizational structure of al-Qaida

Studying organizations is hot today and here is some real-world evidence: US Special Operations forces were aided in their search for terrorists by mimicking al-Qaida’s structure.

One of the greatest ironies of the 9/11 Era: while politicians, generals and journalists lined up to denounce al-Qaida as a brutal band of fanatics, one commander thought its organizational structure was kind of brilliant. He set to work rebuilding an obscure military entity into a lethal, agile, secretive and highly networked command — essentially, the U.S.’ very own al-Qaida. It became the most potent weapon the U.S. has against another terrorist attack.

That was the work of Stanley McChrystal. McChrystal is best known as the general who lost his command in Afghanistan after his staff shit-talked the Obama administration to Rolling Stone. Inescapable as that public profile may be, it doesn’t begin to capture the impact he made on the military. McChrystal’s fingerprints are all over the Joint Special Operations Command, the elite force that eventually killed Osama bin Laden. As the war on terrorism evolves into a series of global shadow wars, JSOC and its partners — the network McChrystal painstakingly constructed — are the ones who wage it.

Very interesting. This story suggests that factors manpower, equipment, and even charismatic leadership can only go so far: an organization’s structure is vital to its outcome.

Several Weberian thoughts that I have:
1. If this course of action is now considered a success, would the rest of the Armed Forces (and even other organizations) be willing to change their organizational structures? Is this the end of bureaucracy in the Armed Forces or could there be other global situations or battlefields where a traditional bureaucratic structure works better?

2. The article places a lot of emphasis on General McChrystal and his finer and lesser moments. Is McChrystal a classic example of a “charismatic authority” and if so, can his work be routinized? In his forthcoming book, will McChrystal put himself at the center of the story? Since it sounds like JSOC has moved on without him with his ideas, was McChrystal’s ultimate role to introduce these ideas and then bow out? And if McChrystal is good at solving such problems, where could he be put to best serve?

A final thought: how would the American public respond to this idea that adopting al-Qaida’s ideas is what can make America (and its military) great? Is this American pragmatism at work?

Hard to imagine the complex, modern world without bureaucracy

It is common these days to hear complaints about bureaucracy, often related to the amount of time it takes to get something done or the waste involved in completing a large project. But it is hard to imagine the world we have today without bureaucracy:

For instance, as a student sociologist, I was taught that bureaucracy was essential to an ordered society. A system of administration, based on a division of labour, designed to undertake a large body of work in a routine manner, was deemed essential to advanced economics.

Yet the term is now used to denote obstruction, complication and sheer bloody-mindedness to produce the opposite outcome.

I guess the modern image is one of an army of pen-pushers, or more accurately, dedicated e-mailers, committed to frustrating the desired outcomes or value for money of any project…

We all need the right skill mix, effective teamwork and the most efficient use of defined resources to serve the public well. In that sense, strategic planning is as essential to the desired outcomes as the obvious contribution made by good service delivery.

So, there is a case for bureaucracy, although it is wise to avoid that term. Demonising particular roles and functions is dangerous. It must be always the quality and quantity of product that counts.

Max Weber wrote about how bureaucracy made modern society possible. It is remarkable to think how large societies are actually able to function. Take the United States: it has its problems but considering that it has over 300 million relatively wealthy people from all around the world, has a large land mass, and has undertaken numerous major projects over recent decades, things still get done and life is decent or good for many residents.

This commentary also hints at what Weber suggested was the possible problem with bureaucracy: a soulless, “iron cage.” The term today has a negative connotation often linked to the reduction of individual freedom. Thus, battles about bureaucracy are all around us: how much should you have to pay for your license plate? Should the government require restaurants to put calorie counts next to the menu? Should you be required to have medical insurance? And so on. It’s not bureaucracy that is really the issue: it is how it runs.

It then becomes a “framing” issue as people seek to avoid the “bureaucracy” label. The trend in recent decades has been to suggest governments, large or local, should be more business-like. Businesses are still bureaucracies – any organization can be a bureaucracy – but they have different goals and different methods of operation. Additionally, they are perceived as being less wasteful and more able to change course (both which are not necessarily true). In the current era of tight budgets, all levels of government are looking for ways to trim costs while maintaining service levels. As the commentator suggests, government needs to be more efficient and cost-effective.

The iPad as magic

Sales of Apple’s iPad have been impressive. Virginia Postrel argues that the appeal of the iPad is in its magic:

When Steve Jobs appeared on stage last week to unveil the iPad 2, which hit stores Friday, he said, “People laughed at us for using the word ‘magical,’ but, you know what, it’s turned out to be magical.”

Apple has long had an aura of trend-setting cool, but magic is a bolder—and more provocative— claim…

With its utterly opaque yet seemingly transparent design, the iPad affirms a little-recognized fact of the supposedly “disenchanted” modern world. We are surrounded by magic…

“Between a wish and its fulfillment there is, in magic, no gap,” wrote the anthropologist Marcel Mauss in “A General Theory of Magic.” Effortlessly, instantly, the magical alters reality with a tap of the finger or wave of the hand. Sound familiar?

This argument reminds me of Max Weber’s claims about the rationalization of the modern world. On a broader scale, Weber argued that bureaucracy, efficient for dealing with large groups of people, would lead to a “iron cage” where everything would be routinized. Postrel argues that even though the iPad is the product of modern bureaucracies (even Apple is a bureaucracy though it positions itself as the anti-bureaucracy, usually referring to Microsoft, with a charismatic leader), it is magic in that the user has little idea of how it all works, is unable to open it up and “look under the hood,” and it is like an extension of oneself.

This could be one explanation for the iPad as magic. There could be some other reasons as well: its size, the vibrant screen, the Apple brand, and its positioning as the most popular (and the first mass-market product?) of the burgeoning tablet market. Another explanation could be this: the iPad brings joy or happiness to its users in a way that many modern products do not. While laptops are often intended for work and new cars are functional transportation options, the iPad is there for enjoyment. In a disenchanted world, this is an re-enchanting product in the same way that the Microsoft Kinect (with its own impressive sales) is magical: it is meant to be used for fun.

Will the magic decline over time as more products offer the same possibilities? Probably. But for now, the iPad may have just cornered the short-lived market on magic and re-enchanting its user’s worlds.

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…

Politics in sociology

A behavioral sciences graduate from Israel describes his experiences in a sociology department and compares sociologists to journalists at YNetNews:

Anyone who ever read a sociological essay immediately realized that to a large extent a sociologist is just like a newspaper columnist.

The sociologist’s columns tend to be longer and more deeply reasoned, yet at their base there will always be an expression of a wholly political view.

While this former student describes a department where only one ideology was allowed, he raises an interesting issue in sociological work. On one hand, research is supposed to be science: rational, logical arguments and theories built upon accurate measurements of what is actually happening in the world. On the other hand, researchers do have opinions and political stances and they tend to do work in areas of their own interest.This was first made clear to me in graduate school when professors quickly switched between their activist and political interests and the research pieces they were working on.

My research methods class starts with a discussion of Max Weber’s essay about “value-free” sociology. Weber suggests sociologists should not make value judgments. Students tend to argue that we all have a bias and this is very difficult to remove from our social science work.

The comparison to journalists is also interesting. In my introduction to sociology class, I suggest sociologists are different than journalists in that sociologists draw upon more comprehensive data and are not just writing opinions or drawing conclusions based on a few interviews. Additionally, journalists often describe trends or events while sociologists are interested in explanations and the mechanisms that lead from Point A to Point B.

It sounds like this former student’s call for ideological pluralism in sociology comes from some personal experiences where his opinions did not line up with those of his professors. Yet his essay is a reminder of the (sometimes thin) line between research and politics.