Looking at the driver next to you who is clearly looking at their phone

How often do you pull near another vehicle and take a quick look over? These days, you will often see a driver looking at their phone. Recognizing phone use while driving is relatively easy to spot: the driver’s head is tilted down, not looking at the road. There is a particular posture, as illustrated in the photo below:

Photo by Hassan OUAJBIR on Pexels.com

This can occur while accelerating in leaving an intersection or driving at high speed down the highway. Many drivers appear unable to keep their eyes off their phone while their vehicle is in motion.

Perhaps this is just a sign of our era? Americans love driving and love smartphones. Even as deaths while driving increase, phone use continues. The acknowledgment of a public problem with phone use while driving from years ago seems to have faded away a bit.

From a driving norms perspective, is there a polite way to signal to another driver that you can see their phone use and request they pay attention to their safety and your safety?

From a social perspective, is the smartphone the new car in that we are willing to reorganize society around using smartphone use rather than fitting smartphones into our existing social order?

Are there boundaries for behavior on social networking sites?

A sociologist argues that social networking sites have all sorts of deviant behaviors because of a lack of boundaries:

“Society’s sometimes obsessive use of social networking sites has led to the development of several long term social affects stemming from the idea that these virtual communities often minimize the importance of face-to-face social interaction, while enabling a tendency for users to be inherently comfortable with isolation,” said Coleman.

Coleman goes on to point out that society’s widespread use of social networking sites has also contributed to the creation of virtual worlds and online communities in which there are no boundaries, and often no regard for truth or the regulation of behavior.

“Offensive and threatening language becomes normalized, while photos of and statements by people engaged in dehumanizing acts are not condemned, but instead encouraged, ‘liked’ and commented on.”

I would agree that this negative and deviant behavior happens online but I would be interested in seeing some data. Some data I’ve seen from emerging adults suggests there are plenty of rules and norms governing SNS behavior. These emerging adults were well aware of these issues and most suggested they didn’t violate the boundaries.

One issue here might be what SNS we are talking about. Facebook, for example, is fairly regulated both by the platform and by users even as users can express a wide range of opinions. Other SNS offer more latitude. Other areas of the Internet, such as comment sections or personal blogs or chat rooms, offer all sorts of opinions and actions. Yet, many of these Internet places are not SNS in the technical sense.

A rising ideology of shareholder value in the United States

How and why corporations make decisions has changed over the decades. Here is a quick argument of what has changed in the US:

Such is the power of the ideology known as shareholder value. This notion that shareholder interests should reign supreme did not always so deeply infuse American business. It became widely accepted only in the 1990s, and since 2000 it has come under increasing fire from business and legal scholars, and from a few others who ought to know (former General Electric CEO Jack Welch declared in 2009, “Shareholder value is the dumbest idea in the world”). But in practice—in the rhetoric of most executives, in how they are paid and evaluated, in the governance reforms that get proposed and occasionally enacted, and in almost every media depiction of corporate conflict—we seem utterly stuck on the idea that serving shareholders better will make companies work better. It’s so simple and intuitive. Simple, intuitive, and most probably wrong—not just for banks but for all corporations.

As Cornell University Law School’s Lynn Stout explains in her 2012 book, The Shareholder Value Myth, maximizing returns to shareholders is not something U.S. corporations are legally required to do. Yes, Congress and regulators have begun pushing the rules in that direction, and a few court rulings have favored shareholder primacy. But on the whole, Stout writes, the law spells out that boards of directors are beholden not to shareholders but to the corporation, meaning that they’re allowed to balance the interests of shareholders against those of stakeholders such as employees, customers, suppliers, debt holders, and society at large…

To be sure, the case against putting shareholders first is not quite the slam dunk for all corporations that it is for highly indebted, too-big-to-fail financial institutions. Outside of banking, the empirical evidence against the doctrine is more suggestive than dispositive. Supporters of shareholder rights can point to studies showing that certain shareholder-friendly changes, such as removing defenses against hostile takeovers, tend to bring higher share prices. Skeptics argue that this says little about long-term impact, and point instead to a more expansive, but impressionistic, set of indicators. The performance of U.S. stock markets since shareholder value became doctrine in the 1990s has been disappointing, and the number of publicly traded companies has declined sharply. The nation in which shareholders have the most power, the United Kingdom, has an anemic corporate sector; on Fortune magazine’s list of the world’s 100 largest companies, it claims only three, compared with nine from France and 11 from Germany, where shareholders hold less sway. Multiple studies of corporations that stay successful over time—most famously the meticulously researched books of the Stanford-professor-turned-freelance-business-guru Jim Collins, such as Good to Great—have found that they tend to be driven by goals and principles other than shareholder returns.

Collins’s books embody the most common criticism of shareholder value: that while delivering big returns to shareholders over time is great (it is, in fact, Collins’s chief measure of “greatness”), focusing on shareholder value won’t get you there. That’s what Jack Welch was getting at, too. In a complex world, you can’t know which actions will maximize returns to shareholders 15 or 20 years hence. What’s more, most shareholders don’t hold on to any stock for long, so focusing on their concerns fosters a counterproductive preoccupation with short-term stock-price swings. And it can be awfully hard to motivate employees or entice customers with the motto “We maximize shareholder value.”

Corporations and what their directors want, what their investors want, and how they operate changes over time based on surrounding economic and social forces. They can also innovate and develop new ways of pursuing profit or contributing to the public good. Thus, to understand them, invest in them, and develop regulations and policies involving them, we need to know their social context and their patterns of development.

One of the more interesting books I’ve read related to this topic is Frank Dobbin’s Forging Industrial Policy: The United States, Britain, and France in the Railway Age. Dobbin shows there was no “right” way to promote and develop railroads. France’s approach was to develop a centralized railroad system based on Paris and highly regulated by technocrats. Britain took the opposite tack: no regulation to start as railroad firms could build and do what they wanted. After a while, Britain had to introduce regulations because corporations were putting profits first over public concerns like railroad safety (an example: a need to regulate railroad brakes to avoid large crashes). The United States took a middle approach: some public-private partnerships with some regulation but also with the ability for corporations to make big money. Looking back from today, the “right” way might seem obvious but this whole process was strongly driven by social and cultural circumstances and norms.

Knowing all of this, perhaps the next question to ask is how might corporations change in 20 or 50 years?

How the Facebook equation 6÷2(1+2)= reveals the social construction of the order of operations

An equation on Facebook that has generated a lot of debate actually illustrates where the mathematical order of operations comes from:

Some of you are already insisting in your head that 6 ÷ 2(1+2) has only one right answer, but hear me out. The problem isn’t the mathematical operations. It’s knowing what operations the author of the problem wants you to do, and in what order. Simple, right? We use an “order of operations” rule we memorized in childhood: “Please excuse my dear Aunt Sally,” or PEMDAS, which stands for Parentheses Exponents Multiplication Division Addition Subtraction.* This handy acronym should settle any debate—except it doesn’t, because it’s not a rule at all. It’s a convention, a customary way of doing things we’ve developed only recently, and like other customs, it has evolved over time. (And even math teachers argue over order of operations.)

“In earlier times, the conventions didn’t seem as rigid and people were supposed to just figure it out if they were mathematically competent,” says Judy Grabiner, a historian of mathematics at Pitzer College in Claremont, Calif. Mathematicians generally began their written work with a list of the conventions they were using, but the rise of mass math education and the textbook industry, as well as the subsequent development of computer programming languages, required something more codified. That codification occurred somewhere around the turn of the last century. The first reference to PEMDAS is hard to pin down. Even a short list of what different early algebra texts taught reveals how inconsistently the order of operations was applied…

The bottom line is that “order of operations” conventions are not universal truths in the same way that the sum of 2 and 2 is always 4. Conventions evolve throughout history in response to cultural and technological shifts. Meanwhile, those ranting online about gaps in U.S. math education and about the “right” answer to these intentionally ambiguous math problems might be, ironically, missing a bigger point.

“To my mind,” says Grabiner, “the major deficit in U.S. math education is that people think math is about calculation and formulas and getting the one right answer, rather than being about exciting ideas that cut across all sorts of intellectual categories, clear and logical thinking, the power of abstraction and a language that lets you solve problems you’ve never seen before.” Even if that language, like any other, can be a bit ambiguous sometimes.

Another way to restate this conclusion from Grabiner is that math is more about problem-solving than calculations.

This reminds me of well-known areas of sociology that deal with the norms of everyday interactions. In order to interpret the actions of others, we need to know about agreed-upon assumptions. When those assumptions are blurry or are not followed, people get nervous. Hence, as this article suggests, many people get anxious when the rules/norms of math are seemingly violated. If these sorts of basic equations can’t be easily figured out, what hope is there to understand the rest of math? But, norms are not always cut and dry and that can be okay…as long as the people participating are aware of this.

Societies may not want women to fight in wars – until they are desparately needed

Here is an interesting piece about women soldiers in history, particularly focusing on their participation in World War II when their countries needed them. Here is part of the argument:

The girls of Stalingrad weren’t the only women to inspire shock and awe in World War II. Great Britain, the United States, and other combatants put hundreds of thousands of females in uniform; the Soviet Union alone recruited roughly a million, sending many into combat as tank commanders, snipers, and pilots. Desperation, not egalitarian ideals, drove these mobilizations; there simply weren’t enough men to fight in history’s largest conflagration…

In many ways, Panetta’s decision is simply a recognition that women are already fighting in combat. The United States has deployed nearly 290,000 in Iraq and Afghanistan over the past decade. More than 140 have died, many killed by insurgents. With the blurry front lines of modern warfare, even women assigned to noncombat roles sometimes wind up in battle. In 2005, assigned to a protection detail for a military convoy, Army National Guard sergeant Leigh Ann Hester landed in a firefight with Afghanistan insurgents. Jumping from her Humvee, she ran to a ditch where several Americans were pinned down and about to be taken hostage. Opening fire with her M-4, she held off the insurgents, killing three and helping to rescue the men. Hester became the first woman to receive a Silver Star for a direct engagement with the enemy.

Still, Panetta’s decision will be fought hard. Citing reports of sexual harassment in the ranks, some officials worry that women will disrupt the cohesion crucial to combat unit. They also argue that females physically can’t handle the duty.

IN THE END, some people will never accept women in battle—at least, that is, until women are needed.

It strikes me that “normal” social roles can change quite a bit under altered circumstances such as war. So how much is this new directive in the United States allowing women in combat is driven by a need at the front lines? Does this tell us more about the larger capabilities of the US military than changing social norms regarding gender?

Sociologist says expectations for marriage are too high

Amidst discussions about the number of adult Americans who are married, a sociologist says part of the problem is that American’s expectations for marriage are too high:

Mary Laner thinks that we expect too much. A professor of sociology at Arizona State University, Laner says that when the marriage or the partner fails to live up to our ideals, we don’t recognize that our expectations were much too high. Instead, we blame our spouse or that particular relationship…

The ASU sociologist studied the marital expectations of unmarried college students. She compared their expectations with those of people who have been married for about 10 years. The significantly higher expectations held by the students, she says, come straight out of the “happily ever after” fantasy…

Laner believes that the only way those expectations will change is through education. But that will be a tough order. Laner teaches a Courtship and Marriage class at ASU. The results of a recent study revealed that even her own class had a minimal effect on lowering expectations in unmarried young adults.

“This college course is a drop in the bucket compared to what students really need,” Laner says. “We don’t adequately prepare anyone for marriage, even though we know that somewhere between 70 and 90 percent of the population is going to be married.

It is interesting to think that college might be the only or last place where students have an opportunity to think more realistically about marriage. I imagine that some people may not like this since it suggests the education system should take on another task that could be left to families or other institutions but if Laner is correct, there is a need for talk about marriage. Laner is suggesting that American society needs more systematic ways to “pull back the curtain” on marriage.

I wonder if part of this has to do with the emphasis on youth today and less interest in learning from older adults in society. There are plenty of people who have been married and have had both positive and negative experiences that others could learn from. However, this knowledge is not getting passed down, perhaps because younger Americans don’t want to hear it or because older Americans don’t want to share it.

Where exactly are younger Americans getting their information about marriage? Are or have there been any popular TV shows or movies that have more realistically portrayed marriage?

The sociological guide to giving Christmas gifts

Here are nine sociological rules for giving gifts at Christmas. Several things to note:

1. This comes out of the long-running study of “Middletown,” otherwise known as Muncie, Indiana. I am still amazed at all of the material uncovered over the decades in this project.

2. These rules were originally published in a 1984 article in the American Journal of Sociology titled “Rule Enforcement Without Visible Means: Christmas Gift Giving in Middletown.” I tend to think of AJS as being austere so I’m not quite sure what to make of the inclusion of this article…

3. I wonder if some of these rules have changed in recent years.

4. One final question: if a sociologist started explaining his or her family’s gift giving practices in this way to the participants, how many families would have a favorable reaction?

Getting married to mark one’s social status

With marriage rates on the decline, especially among younger Americans, one editor asks if marriage is the new status symbol:

It’s clear that the trends TIME noted in its cover story this time last year are not dissipating. But that doesn’t mean the tide has turned against marriage forever. The institution is losing its status as a social obligation, but not necessarily its desirability. Indeed, since marriage is now largely practiced among high-status, college-educated individuals, it may even be becoming more prestigious — the relationship equivalent of owning a luxury car.

With more education and money, marriage becomes a luxury good, desirable for some. If marriage is mainly for people of a certain social class, its effect on society could be more limited.

Two other quick thoughts:

1. Is this the conspicuous consumption of relationships?

2. I wonder how this ties in with a continued push for higher education in the United States. There will still be plenty of people who desire marriage. But this could get particularly interesting with the increased number of women earning college and graduate degrees.

3. How does this fit with the popular image of the defenders of marriage being conservative religious types who also are stereotyped to have less education and lower class standings? Could marriage also become a religious status marker?

Undergraduates discovering positive deviance

While we might typically consider deviance to be negative, an activity in one sociology class illustrates how deviance can also be positive:

“Can I pay for her drink, too?” asked Caitlin Hendricks.

Peterson was pleasantly surprised but still taken aback; she and Hendricks didn’t know each other…

Hendricks’ random act of kindness wasn’t entirely random: She was completing an assignment for sociology professor Michelle Inderbitzin’s deviant behavior and social control class at OSU, which studies the concept of social deviance and how it can vary based on history and context.

Inderbitzin has assigned the “positive deviance” exercise in her social deviance class at OSU for six years. She asks students to simply do something nice for a stranger — bag someone else’s groceries, for example, or hold an umbrella over someone’s head while it’s raining. Students then write a page-long recap of their experience, focusing on the recipient’s reactions as well as their own feelings before and after the act and discuss their experience in class.

This is a good reminder about positive deviance that might lead to the world of Pay It Forward in popular culture but can be examined more closely sociologically. This reminds me of the ideas of Emile Durkheim who thought deviance could help reinforce existing norms. By seeing people break norms and then experience the consequences, others are reminded of the norms. At the same time, it seems that most sociologists have focused on the creation of or breaking of social norms. For example, Robert Merton’s strain theory describes how when people are faced with anomie, they respond in different ways including breaking norms.

It is interesting to think about why we as a society tend to focus on negative deviance more than positive deviance. Perhaps it is tied to findings that show we experience loss more deeply than gain. Perhaps it is because we have media sources that tend to lead with crime (and presumably they do this because it brings an audience). Perhaps it is because some argue we have a violent, individualistic culture. Simply throwing in a few positive stories on the nightly news may not be enough to overcome society’s emphasis on negative deviance.

Majority of young adults “see online slurs as just joking”

A recent survey of teenagers and young adults suggests that they are more tolerant of offensive or pejorative terms in the online realm:

Jaded by the Internet free-for-all, teens and 20-somethings shrug off offensive words and name-calling that would probably appall their parents, teachers or bosses. And an Associated Press-MTV poll shows they don’t worry much about whether the things they tap into their cellphones and laptops could reach a wider audience and get them into trouble.

Seventy-one percent say people are more likely to use slurs online or in text messages than in person, and only about half say they are likely to ask someone using such language online to stop…

But young people who use racist or sexist language are probably offending more people than they realize, even in their own age range. The poll of 14- to 24-year-olds shows a significant minority are upset by some pejoratives, especially when they identify with the group being targeted…

But they mostly write off the slurs as jokes or attempts to act cool. Fifty-seven percent say “trying to be funny” is a big reason people use discriminatory language online. About half that many say a big reason is that people “really hold hateful feelings about the group.”…

It’s OK to use discriminatory language within their own circle of friends, 54 percent of young people say, because “I know we don’t mean it.” But if the question is put in a wider context, they lean the other way, saying 51-46 that such language is always wrong.

This would seem to corroborate ideas that anonymity online or comments sections free people up to say things that they wouldn’t say in real life. Perhaps this happens because there is no face-to-face interaction or it is harder to identify people or there are few repercussions. In the end, the sort of signs, verbal or non-verbal cues, that might stop people from saying these things near other people simply don’t exist online.

I would be interested to see more research about this “joking” and how young adults understand it. Humor can be one of the few areas in life where people can address controversial topics with lesser consequences. Of course, there are limits on what is acceptable but this can often vary by context, particularly in peer-driven settings like high school or college where being “cool” means everything. These young adults likely know this intuitively as they wouldn’t use the same terms around parents or adults. Are these young adults then more polite around authority figures and save it all up for online or are they more uncivil in general as some would argue?

For an important issue like racism, does this mean that many in the next generation think being or acting racist is okay as long as they are among friends but is not okay to exhibit in public settings? Is it okay to be racist as long as it is accompanied by a happy emoticon or a j/k?

Knowing that this is a common issue, what is the next step in cutting down on this offensive humor, like we are already seeing in many media sites’ comments sections? And who gets to do the policing – parents, schools, websites?