Pursuing repetition in a world of novelty and spectacle

When I assign full books for my classes to read, one complaint I hear consistently from students is this: the book is too repetitive – the author keeps making the same point over and over. I admit to having similar thoughts at times where I wonder if a book could have been ten pages long and effectively made the same argument.

Yet, one of the jobs of an author is to remind their reader of their argument. Readers should not easily get lost. I distinctly remember my eighth grade Language Arts teacher telling us that we need to keep restating our argument. Granted, the author should do this in new ways each time.

Is the problem then that the book authors are indeed too repetitive or are we today less interested in repetition? A Foreward of a recent book I read included these lines:

But the best books aren’t the ones that have all brand new information. We don’t have context for that. Instead, we need new voices telling us old things…

Many of the questions that vex humans are not new ones, even if their form might change. The quote above is from a book about living in the suburbs. Even though suburbs in the current American form have been around about 100 years (thinking about suburbs based around driving and featuring mass-produced housing), the questions are similar: how does one find fulfillment? What leads to lasting success? What is the good life?

But, how do you answer such questions if modern life is about new experiences and novelty? Perhaps this is supposed to be an answer to those questions: the good life involves new adventures and change.

Or, perhaps repetition helps answer these big questions. Patterns. Habits. Consistent behaviors. Rituals. In a religious setting, liturgies. Novelty can be good but what is it anchored in? Can humans truly go from topic to topic or experience to experience without anchoring beliefs?

Repetition can be hard to get excited about yet it is a regular feature of our lives. Washing the dishes. Regular interactions with people. Doing the laundry. Making food. The activities may not be exciting and novel but they do help form us.

Going back to the book example, repetition is good. Having read many books and written pieces, I am not sure exactly when an author crosses a line between good repetition and annoying repetition. However, maybe we all need a little more repetition of good arguments, experiences, and patterns.

The Internet and social media can help us see more small things but the bigger picture is still fuzzy

On one hand, the Internet and what comes along with it allows us unprecedented access to what is going on in the world. Information galore. Bypassing the traditional gatekeepers of the media. Access to millions of stories we might not have otherwise seen or heard.

On the other hand, it is a glut of stories and information. The social media feeds just keep going. The 24 hour news cycle of cable TV news is now an up to the second compendium of events big and small. There is a lot to take in. Some of the research I’ve done with the social media use of emerging adults suggests some have a hard time keeping up with it all. What should we pay attention to?

Going forward, I fear the extra information we now have – an unprecedented amount in human history – isn’t helping as much as it might. This is the case for at least four reasons. First, even though we have more information, we still don’t have all the information. As Max Weber once said, social life is so complex that it is difficult to imagine even social scientists understanding all aspects of social phenomena. Second, we’re not necessarily good as humans or trained well in how to process all the information. Certain things catch our eye – for example, such as information that agrees with what we already think (confirmation bias) – while we see others but they don’t register at all. Third, there is simply too much. Perhaps humans were not made to think at this scale; for much of human history, we lived in relatively small settings and had close relationships with people who were pretty similar to us. See Dunbar’s Number as an example of how the limits of humans comes up against friends and followers on social media.

Fourth, and this is where my sociological perspective particularly comes in, it is difficult work to connect individual level data – what we might call microsociology – with larger societal trends – macrosociology. Take this example: we see a post of involving a person with particular traits leaving no tip for a waitperson which they have posted on social media. Unfortunately, such negative interactions happen frequently. But, are we to take this single example as just an attempt to point out a wrong done by a single customer or does this one event reflect on an entire people group? Or, is a serious weather event on the other side of the world (one we would have had little knowledge about even a few decades ago) evidence for climate change or for deniers? When we are immersed in so many small events and their immediate interpretations, how are we to form big picture understandings of patterns? It requires us to step back and try to make sense of it all rather than simply slotting each small event into our existing heuristics.

Our capacities to deal with all of this information may improve in coming years as it becomes the new normal. Or, some may go another direction – though it is hard to imagine – where they retreat from this information overload. Either way, we’ll need to figure out ways to help everyone see the broader patterns so we all don’t lose the forest for the tees.

Richard Florida: we lack systematic data to compare cities

As he considers Jane Jacobs’ impact, Richard Florida suggests we need more data about cities:

MCP: Some of the research around the built environment is pretty skimpy and not very scientific, in a lot of cases.

RF: Right. And it’s done by architects who are terrific, but are basically looking at it from the building level. We need a whole research agenda. A century or so ago John Hopkins University invented the teaching hospital, modern medicine. They said, medicine could be advanced by underpinning the way doctors treat people and develop clinical methodologies, with a solid, scientific research base. Think of it as a system that runs from laboratory to bed-side. We don’t have that for cities and urbanism.  But at the same time we know that the city is the key economic and social unit of our time. Billions of people across the world are pouring into cities and we are spending trillions upon trillions of dollars building new cities and rebuilding, expanding and upgrading existing ones. We’re doing it with little in the way of systematic research. We lack even the most basic data we need to compare and assess cities around the world. There’s no comparable grand challenge that we have so terribly under funded as cities and urbanism. We need to develop everything from the underlying science to better understand cities and their evolution, the systematic data to assess them and the educational and clinical protocols for building better, more prosperous and inclusive cities. Right now, mayors are out there winging it. Economic developers are out there winging it. There’s no clinical training program. There are some, actually, but they’re scattered about and they’re not having much impact. It’s going to take a big commitment. But we need to build the equivalent of the medical research infrastructure, with the equivalent of “teaching hospitals” for our cities.  When you think of it cities are our greatest laboratories for advancing our understanding the intersection of natural, physical, social and human environments—they’re our most complex organisms. This is going to be my next big research project: I’m calling it the Urban Genome Project. It’s what I hope to devote the rest of my career doing.

The cities as laboratories language echoes that of the Chicago School. But, much of the sociological literature suggests a basic tension in this area: how much are cities alike compared to how much are they different? Are there common processes across most or all cities that we can highlight and work with or does their unique contexts limit how much generalizing can be done? Hence, we have a range of studies with everything from examining large sets of cities at once or processes across all cities (like Florida would argue in The Rise of the Creative Class) versus studies of particular neighborhoods and cities to discover their idiosyncratic patterns.

Of course, we could just look at cities like a physicist might and argue there are power laws underlying cities…

Social science assumes “human living is not random”

Noted sociologist of religion Grace Davie gives a brief description of her work:

My work, like that of all social scientists, rests on the assumption that human living is not random. Why is it, for example, that Christian churches in the West are disproportionately attended by women? That requires an explanation.

This is a good starting point for describing the social sciences. There are patterns to human social life and we can’t rely on anecdotes or interpretations of whether there are patterns or how to understand them. We want to apply a scientific perspective to these patterns and explain why those patterns, and not others, exist. Then, we might delve deeper into level of analysis, theoretical assumptions, and techniques of data collection and analysis – three areas where the various social science disciplines differ.

Perceptions of extreme weather affected by social context

A new study in Environmental Sociology finds that people view extreme weather differently depending on their context:

“Odds were higher among younger, female, more educated, and Democratic respondents to perceive effects from extreme weather than older, male, less educated, and Republican respondents,” said the study’s author, Matthew Cutler of the University of New Hampshire.

There were other correlations, too. For example, people with lower incomes had higher perceptions of extreme weather than people who earned more. Those who live in more vulnerable areas, as might be expected, interpret the effects of weather differently when the costs to their homes and communities are highest.

Causes of extreme weather and the frequency of extreme weather events is an under-explored area from a sociological perspective. Better understanding is important to building more resilient and adaptive communities. After all, why prepare or take safety precautions if you believe the weather isn’t going to be all that bad or occur all that often?…

“The patterns found in this research provide evidence that individuals experience extreme weather in the context of their social circumstances and thus perceive the impacts of extreme weather through the lens of cultural and social influences. In other words, it is not simply a matter of seeing to believe, but rather an emergent process of both seeing and believing — individuals experiencing extreme weather and interpreting the impacts against the backdrop of social and economic circumstances central to and surrounding their lives,” Cutler concludes.

Context matters! (Many sociology studies could be summed up this way.) Weather may have some objective features – it can be measured, quantified, examined, and predicted (to a small degree). Yet we all experience slightly differently based on what shapes us. While it sounds like this study focuses more on demographic factors, I wonder if there would also be big differences based on general attitudes about nature: is it something that is bigger than humans/has a life of its own vs. it is something that humans can control or not be affected by because of our increasing knowledge? Plus, humans are often not the best at detecting patterns; we perceive things to be related when they are not or vice versa.

Perhaps this helps explain why so many people can make small talk about the weather. It isn’t just that it affects us; rather, we all view it in slightly different ways. One person’s big storm that requires changing their behavior might be just an inconvenience to someone else.

Fun with statistics: people flock to stores that sold winning lottery tickets in the past

Ahead of the recent large Powerball jackpot, stores that sold winning tickets in the past experienced an increase in business:

When word got out that a southeast Pennsylvania 7-Eleven sold a $1 million Powerball ticket on Saturday, customers hoping to experience some luck of their own flocked to the store…

At a Casey’s General Store in Bondurant, Iowa, everyone knows it’s the place where a $202.1 million Powerball jackpot ticket was sold to a local woman in September. Asked what types of questions the store gets when the jackpots get huge, assistant manager Debra Fetters said: “Does lightning strike twice here?”…

“When you get those stores where they’ve actually seen someone win, they’re very enthusiastic about it. They know about the game, they have regular customers. A lot of it really does come down to great retailers that support the lottery, understand that there are winners on both sides.”

Linda Hamlin, also of the New Mexico Lottery, noted the story of “Millionaire Mary” Torres of Albuquerque. After she sold a $1 million winning Powerball ticket to an Albuquerque man in May 2011, she became known as a good luck charm. Her customers followed her to another store a few miles away.

And the article ends with this quote:

“Humans tend to be superstitious about things,” said Strutt of the Multi-State Lottery Association. “We all have our ways to ensure our best luck. But every ticket has the exact same chance of winning.”

What would happen if this argument, that their odds of winning do not increase, was presented to these purchasers who go back to the place of past winners? Would they say the numbers aren’t right or say it doesn’t matter? Perhaps this is a sort of Pascal’s Wager for Powerball: it doesn’t increase my odds of winning to shop at this particular location, but it can’t hurt!

This could be chalked up to superstition but it is also the result of humans looking for patterns where there aren’t any. Two things make where the winning person bought the ticket stand out: (1) there are few big winners and (2) the big prizes are noteworthy. Put these two together and all of the sudden people start seeing trends even though there is little data to work with. But, then you have news coverage a few years ago about a woman in Texas who won the lottery four times – four data points make a much better pattern than a one-time winner!

Social inertia in time use between the 1960s and today

A sociologist who has examined recent time use surveys suggests not much has changed since the 1960s:

John Robinson, a sociology professor from the University of Maryland whose research has focused heavily on Americans’ time use, said the most striking aspect of the latest American Time Use Survey is how closely it resembles similar information from before the 2008 recession — and from as early as the 1960s when time-use surveys first came into being.

The annual Bureau of Labor Statistics publication documents how Americans spend their time. In 2012, employed people worked for about 7.7 hours each day, spent two hours on household chores and took between five and six hours on leisure activities, with close to three of those hours spent plopped in front of the television…

Although today’s Americans spend their time similarly to their counterparts in the decade of discontent, Mr. Robinson noted some important changes in the by-the-minute breakdown. Men and women spend much more equal amounts of time at work, on housework and on leisure activities than they did in the 1960s.

Time spent watching TV has inched upward with every passing year, and although Mr. Robinson expected Internet use to slowly eat into TV time, the Web has yet to take up a large chunk of Americans’ time. The latest survey found men and women both spend less than 30 minutes of leisure time per workday on the computer.

Regardless, both Internet and TV use fall into the same category of activity: sedentary behavior.

This sounds like a good example of persistent social patterns. Without any official guidelines or norms about how people should spend their time, people are living fairly similarly to how they did in the 1960s. If daily life hasn’t changed much, perhaps it is more important to ask people’s perceptions about their time use. Do they feel better today about how they spend their days compared to fifty years ago? These perceptions are shaped by a number of factors, including generational changes where the younger adults of the 1960s are now the older adults of today.

The easier target for analysis: did people in the past expect that the people of the future would spend their time watching TV? I doubt it. At the same time, it suggests television has some staying power as a form of entertainment and information.

Correlation and not causation: Redskins games predict results of presidential election

Big events like presidential elections tend to bring out some crazy data patterns. Here is my nomination for the oddest one of this election season: how the Washington Redskins do in their final game before the election predicts the presidential election.

Since 1940 — when the Redskins moved to D.C. — the team’s outcome in its final game before the presidential election has predicted which party would win the White House each time but once.

When the Redskins win their game before the election, the incumbent party wins the presidential vote. If the Redskins lose, the non-incumbent wins.

The only exception was in 2004, when Washington fell to Green Bay, but George W. Bush still went on to win the election over John Kerry.

This is simply a quirk of data: how the Redskins do should have little to no effect on voting in other states. This is exactly what correlation without causation is about; there may be a clear pattern ut it doesn’t necessarily mean the two related facts cause each other. There may be some spurious association here, some variable that predicts both outcomes, but even that is hard to imagine. Yet, the Redskins Rule has garnered a lot of attention in recent days. Why? A few possible reasons:

1. It connects two American obsessions: presidential elections and the NFL. A sidelight: both may involve a lot of betting.

2. So much reporting has been done on the 2012 elections that this adds a more whimsical and mysterious element.

3. Humans like to find patterns, even if these patterns don’t make much sense.

What’s next, an American octopus who can predict presidential elections?

PhD comics tackles sociology and Comic-Con

PhD Comics spent three days this past weekend exploring Comic-Con. On day three, Jorge Cham followed sociologist Dan Perkel as he conducted ethnographic interviews with comic artists. According to the comic strip, here is Perkel’s explanation of what sociology is:

Sociology is not about defining what’s “normal.” It’s about getting different people’s perspective. You listen to them, and you find patterns. We each live in a different social world. And each of our experiences are different.

A reasonable explanation for three panels of a comic strip, particularly the part about finding patterns.

Also, I wonder about the initial responses to Perkel’s greeting: “Hi, I’m a sociologist. Can I ask you a few questions?”