Lots of sociological themes in Time’s “10 ideas that are changing your life”

I enjoy reading magazines and other media sources that are willing to consider the world of ideas and what new thinking we all need to know about. Thus, Time’s “10 ideas that are changing your life” are not only interesting – there is a lot of sociological material in these ten ideas. Here are a few sociological musings about four of these ideas:

1. “Living Alone is the New Norm.” I’ve highlighted some of the recent reviews of the new research from sociologist Eric Klinenberg (see here and here) that shows that Americans living alone “make up 28% of all U.S. households, which means they are now tied with childless couples as the most prominent residential type, more common than the nuclear family, the multigenerational family and roommate or group home.” Another interesting line: “Living alone helps us pursue sacred modern values – individual freedom, personal control and self-realization.” That is an interesting trio of values to mull over.

3. “The Rise of the Nones.” Sixteen percent of Americans claim to be non-religious but this group is particularly interesting because 4% claim to be agnostic or atheist. Thus, many of the “nones” are spiritual or religious but dissatisfied with organized religion. This group can be examined as part of a larger debate about whether American religion is declining or not. This also presents a challenge for organized religion: how do you get these religious or spiritual “nones” to buy into established houses of worship?

7. “High-Status Stress.” New findings suggest that people in charge or in the higher classes experience more stress: “In fact, research indicates that as you near the top, life stress increases so dramatically that its toxic effects essentially cancel out many positive aspects of succeeding.” It may not be easy to be at the top even if you have the power and ability to do more of what you want. I’m not sure how this would affect the class struggles between the upper and lower classes but it is interesting information nonetheless.

9. “Nature is Over.” Humans have altered the earth in many ways, doing so much so that our conception of nature might need to change: “The reality is that in the Anthropocene, there may simply be no room for nature, at least not nature as we’ve known and celebrated it – something separate from human beings – something pristine. There’s no getting back to the Garden [of Eden], assuming it ever existed.” This reminds me of the romanticism of nature in the mid 1800s that influenced how early American suburbs were created (designing winding streets to preserve pastoral views) and how Central Park was created (meant to preserve a piece of nature in the midst of the big city). More realistically, neither city parks or most suburbs really present much of nature – based on an idea in James Howard Kunstler’s TED talk about suburbs, these are more elaborate “nature band-aids.”

Several of the other ideas have sociological implications as well.

Reading through this list, it reminds me of how much I enjoy reading and talking about new ideas and where society might be going. If I could get all of my students to share this enthusiasm and develop a capacity to seek out and interact with ideas on their own (using the critical thinking skills and other tools they have picked up in college), it would make me happy.

Revealing a child’s gender at age 5

This genre of news story pops up every now and then: parents decide not to reveal the gender of their child to the public for several years. I have used a 2009 story about a Swedish kid named “Pop” as an example in class. Here is a more recent example from a few days ago:

Laxton, a UK-based web editor, and her partner, Cooper, decided to keep Sasha’s sex a secret when he was still in the womb. The birth announcement stated the gender-neutral name of their child, but skipped the big reveal. Up until recently, the couple only told a few close friends and family members that Sasha was a boy and managed to keep the rest of the world in the dark. But now that he’s starting school the secret’s out…

But the sandbox is just a precursor to the classroom. When Sasha turned five and headed to school, Laxton was forced to make her son’s sex public. That meant Sasha would have to get used to being a boy in the eyes of his peers. Still, his mom is intervening. While the school requires different uniforms for boys and girls, Sasha wears a girl’s blouse with his pants…

Last year another couple, Kathy Witterick, 38, and David Stocker, 39, of Toronto made a similar decision when they had their baby, Storm. At the time, certain psychiatric experts voiced concern over their decision. “To have a sense of self and personal identity is a critical part of normal healthy development,” Dr. Eugene Beresin, director of training in child and adolescent psychiatry at Massachusetts General Hospital, told ABC News. “This blocks that and sets the child up for bullying, scapegoating and marginalization.”…

As for Laxton, she says she’s open to her son pursing any career or sexual preference he chooses as he matures. “As long as he has good relationships and good friends,” she says, “then nothing else matters, does it?”

When I present a story like this to students, they tend to think that the child will be harmed because they will be confused about their identity and will end up enduring taunts from classmates. This seems to line up with the experts cited in this story. Now that I think about it, I can’t say that I have seen any cited experts saying the child would be just fine but perhaps I missed it.

At the same time, these are great examples to talk about the boundaries of the nature vs. nurture debate. Could a child even be treated neutrally? At some point will society “force” the children to pick a side?

By this point in time, do we have any studies of kids who have grown up in these settings? It might also be interesting to see if there are patterns in the parents who follow this path.

George Will on the Arizona shooting, sociology, and social engineering

The opinions are flying regarding the Arizona shooting over the weekend. Conservative commentator George Will enters the fray with some thoughts about sociology:

It would be merciful if, when tragedies such as Tucson’s occur, there were a moratorium on sociology. But respites from half-baked explanations, often serving political opportunism, are impossible because of a timeless human craving and a characteristic of many modern minds. The craving is for banishing randomness and the inexplicable from human experience.

The craving is for banishing randomness and the inexplicable from human experience.

This does seem to be a common human desire: to establish order within the chaos of life. But I would make a distinction between his quick thought here that sociology and half-baked explanations are related. As a discipline, sociology seeks to observe and measure reality. Bad sociology leaps to half-baked conclusions while good sociology follows the scientific process, looking for evidence of causation. Bad sociology is really “pop sociology” or “armchair sociology” where commentators leap to certain conclusions without carefully considering the evidence or attempting to be objective.

Will then goes on to talk about what he thinks is behind the desire of the Left to blame the Right for the shootings:

A characteristic of many contemporary minds is susceptibility to the superstition that all behavior can be traced to some diagnosable frame of mind that is a product of promptings from the social environment. From which flows a political doctrine: Given clever social engineering, society and people can be perfected. This supposedly is the path to progress. It actually is the crux of progressivism. And it is why there is a reflex to blame conservatives first.

Using the term “social engineering” is an interesting choice. It implies images of 1984 or A Brave New World where a powerful government dictates what people should do in order to fulfill their own ideas of human perfection. Of course, there is a lot that could be discussed on the subject of human perfection (can humankind bring about its own redemption?), what kind of perfection is desirable (individualism or a Marxist collective?), and how to reach this point (and whether it has to be “clever” or not). And if we have some tools and knowledge that could help improve the social environment, available through disciplines like sociology, shouldn’t we pursue some of these options?

But by linking sociology and social engineering, Will is obscuring the fact that the social environment does play some role in influencing human behavior. It does not completely determine human behavior but there would be few social scientists who would claim this. Figuring out why humans do what they do is a complicated story involving both nature and nurture.

From Will’s point of view, do conservatives deny that the social environment affects human behavior? Do conservatives not try some social engineering of their own to advance particular ideas and policies?