It takes time to fight the effects of inequality

A new sociology study suggests that the health effects of inequality in the United States aren’t felt immediately but rather take several years to develop:

Higher levels of U.S. income inequality lead to more deaths in the country long-term, an Ohio State University sociologist suggests.

Study author Hui Zheng said the findings suggested income inequality at any one point doesn’t work instantaneously — it begins to increase mortality rates five years later, and its influence peaks after seven years, before fading after 12 years.

Zheng used data from the U.S. National Health Interview Survey from 1986 to 2004 with mortality follow-up data from 1986 to 2006. His final sample involved more than 700,000 people age 30 and older…

The study, published in the journal Social Science and Medicine, found a 0.01 unit rise in the Gini coefficient increased the cumulative odds of death by 122 percent in the following 12 years.

“This finding is striking and it supports the argument that income inequality is a public health concern,” Zheng said in a statement. “For the first time, we can clearly capture the long-term effect of income inequality on health.”

While I don’t study health outcomes, I like a conceptual path a study like this offers: we need to think about and discuss the longer-term effects of inequality. In other words, decisions made now for better or worse will have extended effects down the road. In terms of all public policy, we don’t want to be at a place where one or several decades have passed and we haven’t thought through where public policies have led us.

On the flip side, it is common for critics of sociology to argue that certain changes can be made in public policy and magically two groups will be on equal footing. For example, housing discrimination was made illegal in the 1960s – doesn’t this mean that everyone is now on equal in the marketplace? Here is how I describe this in class: you have a graph with two upward curves, one with a steeper rise representing a more privileged (income, education, etc.) and one with a slower rise. If after fifty years there is a wide gap between the two groups but a policy is changed to help level the playing field, this does not mean that automatically that gap disappears. In terms of the housing example, there are still plenty of examples of disparities and discrimination even though certain actions are clearly illegal. It takes time to reverse social inequality and the social world is not easy to change. Thus, if inequality today leads to health disparities down the road, it will take more time to reverse that trend and get us back to the same starting point, let alone make things more equal in the long run.

Modern skeuomorphs are touches of the past in a digital age

Clive Thompson discusses skeumorphs, “a derivative object that retains ornamental design cues to a structure that was necessary in the original” (Wikipedia definition), in a digital world:

Now ask yourself: Why does Google Calendar—and nearly every other digital calendar—work that way? It’s a strange waste of space, forcing you to look at three weeks of the past. Those weeks are mostly irrelevant now. A digital calendar could be much more clever: It could reformat on the fly, putting the current week at the top of the screen, so you always see the next three weeks at a glance…

Because they’re governed by skeuomorphs—bits of design that are based on old-fashioned, physical objects. As Google Calendar shows, skeuomorphs are hobbling innovation by lashing designers to metaphors of the past. Unless we start weaning ourselves off them, we’ll fail to produce digital tools that harness what computers do best.

Now, skeuomorphs aren’t always bad. They exist partly to orient us to new technologies. (As literary critic N. Katherine Hayles nicely puts it, they’re “threshold devices, smoothing the transition between one conceptual constellation and another.”) The Kindle is easy to use precisely because it behaves so much like a traditional print book.

But just as often, skeuomorphs kick around long past the point of reason. Early automobiles often included a buggy-whip holder on the dashboard—a useless fillip that designers couldn’t bear to part with.

I’ve noticed the same thing on my Microsoft Outlook calendar: the default is to show the full month of February even today when I don’t really care to look back at February and would much rather see what is coming up in March. I can alter it somewhat in the options by displaying two months at a time but it still shows all the earlier part of February.

What would be interesting to hear Thompson discuss is the half-life of skeuomorphs. If they are indeed useful for helping users make a transition from an old technology to a new one, how long should the old feature stick around? Is this made more complicated when the product has a broader audience? For example, iPhone users could be anyone from a 14 year old to an 80 year old. Presumably, the 14 year old might want the changes to come more quickly and tends to acquire the newer stuff earlier but the device still has to work for the 80 year old who is just getting their first smartphone and is doing partly so because they only recently became so cheap. How do companies make this decision? Could a critical mass of users “force”/prompt a change?

This is also a good reminder that new technologies sometimes get penalized for being too futuristic or too different. If skeu0morphs are used, users will make the necessary steps over time toward new behaviors and ways of seeing the world. Perhaps Facebook falls into this category. The method of having “friends” all in one category is often clunky but if users had to simply open their information to anyone, who would want to participate? However, by gradually changing the structure (remember we once had networks which were a comforting feature because you could easily place/ground people within an existing community), Facebook users can be moved toward a more open environment.

In general, social change takes time, even if the schedule in recent decades has become more compressed.

How the goal of marriage has changed over time

There has been a lot of recent discussion about marriage and its place in American society. Within this, researchers present new insights into how what people expect from marriage and their partners has changed over time:

The notion that the best marriages are those that bring satisfaction to the individual may seem counterintuitive. After all, isn’t marriage supposed to be about putting the relationship first?

Not anymore. For centuries, marriage was viewed as an economic and social institution, and the emotional and intellectual needs of the spouses were secondary to the survival of the marriage itself. But in modern relationships, people are looking for a partnership, and they want partners who make their lives more interesting.

Caryl Rusbult, a researcher at Vrije University in Amsterdam who died last January, called it the “Michelangelo effect,” referring to the manner in which close partners “sculpt” each other in ways that help each of them attain valued goals.

These findings would seem to have consequences for marriage as an institution and for society as a whole. While this particular article doesn’t really discuss these consequences, it is also interesting to be reminded how the institution of marriage has changed.

I would be curious to read work by people who have linked these findings about partnerships and shared goals and reconciled this with religious perspectives on marriage. This article also reminds me of Ann Swidler’s Talk of Love and her discussion about how individuals create new strategies between the cultural poles of romantic love and committed love.