A new world where weak social ties can spread videos like Kony 2012

The Kony 2012 video has been watched over 65 million times on YouTube. While there has been much commentary about how the video lacks nuance, there is another interesting issue to consider: how exactly did it spread so quickly? One columnist suggests the sociological idea of weak ties provides some insights:

Many years ago, the Stanford sociologist Mark Granovetter published a seminal article in the American Journal of Sociology on the special role of “weak ties” in networks – links among people who are not closely bonded – as being critical for spreading ideas and for helping people join together for action.

An examination of the spread of the Kony video suggests that one weak tie in particular may have been critical in launching it to its present eminence. Her name is Oprah Winfrey and she tweeted: “Have watched the film. Had them on show last year” on 6 March, after which the graph of YouTube views of the video switches to the trajectory of a bat out of hell. Winfrey, it turns out, has 9.7 million followers on Twitter…

In this online world of weak ties, famous tweeters like Oprah Winfrey have more influence than they have ever had before. Even though television shows or movies might be larger cultural works, new developments like Twitter and Facebook allow anyone with some influence to reach a large number of people quickly. With Winfrey located closer to the middle of a global cultural network, her suggestion can resound throughout the world.

The same columnist also considers what might happen as the result of these weak ties. In other words, what does it matter that over 65 million people saw this video?

The really interesting question, though, is whether this kind of development will further ratchet up the pressure on democratic politicians. The last two decades have shown how 24/7 media coverage of foreign atrocities can lead western leaders to morally driven interventionism.

We’ll have to see how this plays out. The Kony video itself claims that these sorts of media efforts work as they already pushed the United States to send 100 military advisers to central Africa. Additionally, they say this happened “because the people demanded it.” But they also suggest their viral efforts are not enough: the video talks about targeting a collection of political and cultural leaders, “20 culture-makers and 12 policy-makers.” Take these figures, such as Oprah Winfrey or Condoleezza Rice, out of the campaign and would as many people, in the public or on Capitol Hill, pay attention? Could just the public put enough pressure on governments through social media or viral videos? Also, the video itself is quite a production (a number of people involved in making it, per the credits on the YouTube video) from an established organization. This is a little different from a 10 year making a video in her bedroom.

This is not to take away from the fact that this videos has reached a tremendous amount of people. But if we want to understand why all those people paid attention, the story is much more complicated. Mass numbers can have an influence but powerful people are more centrally located within social networks and have more influential ties. If Kony 2012 is going to have legs and lead to lasting change, weak ties may not be enough.

“Scientists and scientific studies have a minimal effect on public opinion” about global warming

While one might think that scientific data and reports are convincing, a sociologist argues that these matter little in the debate over global warming:

“Scientists and scientific studies have a minimal effect on public opinion,” says Drexel University sociologist Robert Brulle, lead author of a new climate attitude study in the Climatic Change journal. “What really drives public opinion on climate change are the ways that political elites describe the science.”…

In the current Climatic Change journal, Brulle and colleagues looked at 74 public opinion surveys from 2002 to 2010, in a bid to figure out the contradiction in opinions between experts and everyone else…

“The science doesn’t matter because the science isn’t the real issue,” Brulle adds. “It’s about politics and money.” All we have with climate change, he suggests, is politicians taking sides in an economic debate over whether we should spend money to address climate change, or not (with one side very strongly opposed), and hiding behind a smokescreen of debate about settled science to avoid making those issues clear.

Brulle is suggesting that instead of debating how much we should respond to global warming (which seems like an interesting debate to have in itself), the debate has turned to the credibility of the actual science. So if conservatives admit that there is warming, then they would have to admit that money needs to be spent on fighting it and they don’t want to do that? There seem to be two issues here: the actual data and then the value judgments about what should be done.

I’ve been seeing reports on Brulle’s findings for several months now. If he is correct, are politicians taking notes about how to change public debates? At the same time, I imagine it is more difficult to make the case for spending money on environmental concerns with such economic issues (see the Keystone pipeline debate).

I wonder if there are other areas where there is something similar going on and scientific studies have little impact. If there is a common view that science is the province of liberals and elitists, how many people will trust what it has to say?

What happens when Tim Pawlenty comes to your sociology class

Courtesy of modern technology, you could have been following a live Twitter stream chronicling what happens when former Minnesota governor and former Republican presidential candidate Tim Pawlenty visits a sociology class at the University of Kansas:

“23 minutes later and I have no idea what he’s talking about,” tweeted Ray. “Freedom, drugs, a kickass pool, meatpacking, MLK.”

It sounded interesting, so I called Ray for an after-action report. The room, he said, was somewhat full and somewhat interested.

“A few hundred students are enrolled in class,” he said, “but maybe a hundred show up. I figure that a lot of the people in the class are freshmen who are just taking it to take it. They probably know Romney, they know Santorum, but Pawlenty dropped out so early that they might not know him.”

But what did the great man say? “Somebody asked him what he thought about Santorum’s victories yesterday,” remembered Gray. “He congratulated him, but he brought up the fact that John McCain lost 19 states and still won the nomination.” Gray paused. “It sounded like a backhanded compliment. And he referred to Minnesota as one of the smaller states, in terms of political power.”

A few quick thoughts:

1. Should we trust a single student’s report in a large 100-level lecture class where roughly half the students don’t attend? I always find it interesting to hear what students remember or find noteworthy.

2. Politicians are now tracked at almost every turn.

3. What exactly does Tim Pawlenty know about sociology? The class is titled “American Identity”…was Pawlenty talking about what he thinks this identity is? I would be really curious to hear (1) what Pawlenty thinks sociology is and (2) whether he thinks sociology has any value.

4. It sounds like Pawlenty was on campus to talk about how the still-to-be determined candidate for President will run a campaign and govern.

Find the social mobility of the American Dream in Canada

One analysis of social mobility in Canada suggests the American Dream can be found north of the border:

Yes, the U.S. is richer, but it’s also significantly more unequal, and a lot less mobile. Inequality is inherited, much like hair and eye colour.

The conclusion is based partly on the work of University of Ottawa professor Miles Corak, a social policy economist and former director of family and labour research at Statistics Canada…

“What distinguishes the two countries is what’s happening at the tails,” Prof. Corak explained in an interview. “Rich kids grow up to be rich adults and poor kids stay poor. In Canada, that’s not so much the case.”…

But it’s a country of extremes, and life is good if you’re at the top in the United States. A child’s chance of staying at the wealth pinnacle is much greater than in Canada.

While I’m sure people will bring up some important differences between the United States and Canada including a much bigger population in the US plus a different history of immigration, this is still interesting. One of the primary ideas of the American Dream is that anyone can get ahead if they work hard and take advantage of the opportunities in front of them or that they create. Recent research suggests this is not as available to American citizens as the popular image might have people believe. Moving from the bottom to the top is actually rare and a lot of people are simply stuck in place.

It would be interesting to hear politicians talk in more depth about this. One common answer is to help American students go to college as the degree will help compete in the new information economy. But then we get into questions into who should pay for this college education and how schools before college need to be improved so that students are prepared for college. Job training programs are another popular answer though I’m not sure they are helping a large number of Americans. Are there other, better answers or is this a minefield a lot of politicians would try to avoid outside of platitudes about helping people reach the American Dream? Could a politician even cite this recent research about limited mobility without being vilified?

Just asking: is there a “Canadian Dream” that is similar to the “American Dream”?

What will the 2012 election look like if the public is dreading it?

I saw the results of a recent Gallup poll that suggests Americans are not looking forward to the 2012 election:

With the Jan. 3 Iowa caucuses serving as the kickoff of voting in the 2012 presidential election campaign, Americans would likely prefer to fast-forward to the end of the campaign than watch it unfold. Given a choice, 70% of Americans say they can’t wait for the campaign to be over, while 26% can’t wait for it to begin…

Nationally, there is little difference by party in feelings about the upcoming campaign — 67% of Democrats and 66% of Republicans can’t wait for the campaign to be over…

The greatest differences in feelings toward the campaign are by age. Senior citizens, who have seen more presidential elections than younger Americans, are least likely to be looking forward to the campaign, with 16% saying they can’t wait for it to begin. That compares with 27% or more of those in each of the younger age groups…

Importantly, despite their generally negative feelings toward the campaign, Americans are not necessarily going to tune it out completely, or decline to participate. The same poll finds that 57% of Americans have already given “quite a lot” of thought to the upcoming election, and 72% are at least somewhat enthusiastic about voting in next year’s election.

Several thoughts come to mind:

1. Does this make independent voters more important than ever as most people aren’t looking forward to it plus you already have a majority who has spent a lot of time thinking about it (and has made up their minds?)? Walmart moms, be prepared.

2. If you are the manager of a major candidate, what sort of campaign do you run? How do you not anger people or turn them off but also reach them? Might we get some innovative strategies to deal with this? Will people even respond positively to candidates who run against the system/current politicians/as outsiders to Washington?

3. Pundits like to suggest that Americans should be more involved in politics and exercise their right to vote. This poll, and others, suggest a number of Americans are dissatisfied with the actors and/or the system. How will this tension be resolved? More or better civics classes are not the answer.

4. Gallup doesn’t suggest this but could this dread be related to geographic area and wealth? One analysis suggests the majority of big campaign donations are coming from just a few areas around and in big cities.

5. It would be nice to have some context for this story. In recent history (in the post-World War II era), how often have Americans been really excited about upcoming elections?

Contrasting styles: Emanuel vs. Daley in with whom they meet and consult

The Chicago Reader has an interesting piece looking at who Mayor Rahm Emanuel meets with – and how this differs from Mayor Richard M. Daley’s approach:

In many ways, Emanuel’s schedule strikingly contrasts with his predecessor’s. Richard M. Daley is a Chicago guy, born and raised. Except for his college years in Providence, Rhode Island, he’s stayed here all of his life. And it shows in the people who had his ear: in addition to pols and big-shot business leaders, his meeting schedule was packed with the ministers of small churches, local school leaders, and owners of neighborhood businesses like the local sausage shop (see “Daley’s A-List”).

Emanuel, on the other hand, grew up in the north suburbs, went to college in New York, and spent the better part of the last two decades in Washington, first as an aide in the Clinton White House, then as a congressman, and finally, for almost two years, as Obama’s chief of staff.

Much of his mayoral schedule is taken up by meetings and calls with wealthy out-of-towners, many of whom have donated to his campaign. Indeed, it seems Emanuel has learned from his mentor, President Clinton. Under Clinton, the White House was open to big donors who got to spend the night in the Lincoln bedroom. In Emanuel’s case, he either invites them into his City Hall office or makes time to hang out at one of his favorite haunts…

Some days, Emanuel meets with more multimillionaires within an afternoon than most of us will cross paths with during our entire lives. On June 30, for example, after the mayor spent 30 minutes in his City Hall office with U.S. Treasury secretary Timothy Geithner, he took 15 minutes to meet with Marc Lasry, the billionaire CEO of Avenue Capital Group, a hedge fund operation. That was followed by 45 minutes with Stephen Ross, a New York-based real estate mogul and owner of the Miami Dolphins.

There could be two ways to view this:

1. This is good for Chicago. Due to Emanuel’s connections outside of Chicago, the city will benefit. The new mayor may spend a lot of time with out of town millionaires but these people could bring money and jobs into Chicago through this connection.

2. This is bad for Chicago. Emanuel is less involved with the “little people” of Chicago that are important for getting things done and working the patronage machine. Emanuel is more of a corporate mayor (having less time for local leaders) while Daley at least mingled with the commoners and neighborhood leaders knew they could meet with him at certain points.

I wonder how much of this should be chalked up to different styles of leadership, personal history, or simply a shift in what it means to be a politician today where Daley was following the example of his father while Emanuel is operating under the idea that politicians and businesses need to work together (perhaps the Bill Clinton model?).

A reminder that all politics is local (and cultural): avoid the barbecue third rail in North Carolina

National political candidates or officials often have to make sure that they can adapt to many different cultural contexts. Witness this example of Rick Perry and North Carolina barbecue:

And now Perry’s in hot water in North Carolina for a remark he made all the way back in 1992, when he was Texas agriculture commissioner and Houston was hosting the Republican National Convention.

Last week, in the Raleigh News & Observer’s “Under the Dome” politics blog, staffers Rob Christensen and Craig Jarvis wrote:

According to “Holy Smoke: The Big Book of North Carolina Barbecue,” in 1992 when Perry was a promising Texas politician but not yet governor, he tried some Eastern North Carolina barbecue from King’s of Kinston, which was served at the Republican National Convention in Houston.  “I’ve had road kill that tasted better than that,” Perry was quoted as saying…

“Holy Smoke” co-author John Shelton Reed, a retired University of North Carolina sociology professor, said Monday that people in his state do not mess around with this form of cooking. “Barbecue,” he said, “is the third rail of North Carolina politics.”

I don’t envy the task of politicians who have to continually switch gears on the campaign trail to keep up with all of the local cultural quirks. However, I wonder if these politicians have some sort of database or chart that alerts them to these local “third-rail” issues to avoid. What would an outsider have to avoid in coming to Chicago or the Chicago suburbs?

If anything, this story illustrates some basic sociological concepts. Residents of North Carolina rally around barbecue, among other things, and see it as a critical part of their state identity. When an outsider comes along and makes the comment that their prized food tastes worse than roadkill, they band together to defend their barbecue, reassert their group identity, and reestablish the symbolic boundaries that separate the group from other groups. It is not that different from sports fans reacting to perceived attacks from the outside, such as the reaction of a number of Chicago Bears fans to a new biography of Walter Payton that reveals his more human side. Even an outsider who might be telling the truth (though I’m willing to bet the barbecue was better than roadkill) still will have difficulty “attacking” one of the sacred features of the group.

“Zoning bigots” holding Americans back from how they really want to live?

It is not too often that one sees opinion pieces about the current state of zoning in America. But here is some provocative commentary (“zoning bigots”?) based on zoning in the Los Angeles area:

You could make a decent case that the campaign to harass and remove property owners is no less bigoted than Mayor Mahool’s quarantine proposal. Although blacks, whites, and Latinos have all been targeted for nuisance abatement raids, these folks share one characteristic: They don’t meet the standards of respectability set by the political class and large urban landowners. In some cases the county’s lifestyle demands shade into bias on religious grounds. Oscar Castaneda, a mechanic and Seventh Day Adventist minister who was ordered to tear down his entire property, lives in the high desert because his faith impels him to a rural, self-sufficient life.

Los Angeles zoning practice is bigoted in other ways that are often overt. A city (not county) ordinance preventing residents from keeping more than one rooster on a property is clearly aimed at Latino homeowners. A maze of restrictions on convenience stores and fast food joints applies in South L.A. but not in tonier areas. During the jihad against “McMansions” a few years ago, the popular term for large properties was “Persian Palaces”—a swipe at L.A.’s Iranian-American community.

“There’s definitely an attempt to squeeze out of Angelenos the very things that make them Angelenos and not New Yorkers or Bostonians,” says Chapman University urban theorist Joel Kotkin. “There are two forces at work: One is the effort to re-engineer people into wards of the state. The other is urban land interests who want to force people to live in ways they don’t want to live.”

Or to live somewhere else. Many of the Antelope Valley homeowners we spoke with for a recent reason.tv report have given up the struggle and are planning to leave California. What Antonovich (who refused requests for an interview) has in mind for their vacated properties is not clear. Educated guesses include a plan for massive wind-power generation and a scheme to turn the half-horse town of Palmdale into a high-density, smart-growth hub for the California high-speed rail project. If you know Palmdale you know that the notion of turning it into a hipster paradise would be funny—except that this pipe dream is destroying the lives of real people. They’re just not the right sort of people.

A few thoughts while trying to sort out this argument:

1. Good point: zoning can be a tool used by the powerful (politicians, those with money, etc.) to control development. The political economy model in urban sociology is based on this idea: the elite are able to push development that helps make them money.

2. Odd point: this argument about “bigoted zoning” is somewhat different from a more common argument about “exclusionary zoning.” This argument is predicated on the idea that zoning takes away the rights of all individuals, regardless of race/ethnicity or social class. It is simply a tool of the upper classes, interestingly, a Marxist type argument. Exclusionary zoning, the subject of a number of court cases, argues that zoning takes place to exclude certain groups of people, typically minorities and the lower class from suburbs. So all individuals who are not the upper class are being discriminated against in this Marxist/populist argument?

3. Somewhat intriguing argument: these zoning guidelines limit people from doing what they really want to do, like buy McMansions and raise chickens. In this line of thinking, Americans all want the suburban lifestyle where their home is their castle and they have a little bit of land to play around with. The government is a bogeyman, trying to force people into denser developments (like nice New Urbanist developments or high-rises downtown?) and generally trying to squelch suburban life.

This argument misses some of why the suburbs even exist in the United States today. On one hand, there is some cultural impetus to this all: from the beginning, Americans have had debates about urban vs. rural life, the Thomas Jefferson’s who wanted “gentlemen farmers” versus the Alexander Hamilton’s who wanted to live in thriving cities. Americans like open space and retained the British emphasis on property rights. This cultural spirit is still with us today: we love cars and our big homes.

However, this was all made possible and encouraged by some other factors. To start, developing technologies, from the railroad to the electric streetcar to the automobile, opened up areas for development. More importantly, developers and businessmen saw these transportation lines and the adjacent land as opportunities so they sold homes and land to make money. Then, particularly between the 1930s and 1960s, the government made a concerted push to promote the suburban lifestyle, privileging highway construction and longer-term mortgages that helped make the suburban dream possible. Without this profit seeking and government support, would the suburbs have still happened? Perhaps. But not likely to the scale we know now.

To argue now that generally government is opposed to the suburban life is silly. Most of the policies, even during this time of economic crisis, have been about maintaining the suburban middle-class lifestyle: limiting their tax burden, helping them keep their homes, ensuring a quality education and a college degree, etc. Yes, this current administration has suggested some new ideas like high-speed rail but this isn’t a total assault on the suburbs. Indeed, it would be tough for any party right now to assault the suburbs too strongly: they probably can’t win without suburban voters, particularly independents.

4. Flip this around: what might happen if there is no zoning? Does this really empower individual land owners? Zoning helps ensure that certain uses are not next to other uses. For example, zoning for a suburban subdivision typically means that a single-family home will not end up next to a coal power plant. Or a school next to a sewage treatment plant. Yes, zoning can be draconian and it can be used by people in power but it can also be used well.

There are cities that have less or no zoning. Houston is a classic example in urban sociology and as one might suspect, its development patterns look a bit different than other major cities.

Is no zoning really the answer? While homeowners might not like some of the plans in the Los Angeles region, doesn’t it also protect them at other times? In a world with no zoning, wouldn’t the more powerful actors almost always win out over the average homeowner? How would homeowners protect themselves from other homeowners?

One way to retain zoning but turn it toward different ends would be for citizens to get themselves on zoning boards and then starting voting how they like. Zoning boards may not be flashy and it can be difficult to get on them, particularly in places where it is about political connections, but this would be the place to start fighting back if one was inclined to do so.

Considering the humanity of our leaders

Here is a fascinating essay that reveals some of the humanity of a polarizing figure: George W. Bush.

Do we even want to know the more human side of our leaders? It is easy to build them up, as a paragon of virtue and strength, or to tear them down, as an enemy who must be defeated. Even though we are more than two years out from the end of his presidency, how many people can read a piece like this with somewhat objective eyes?

What journalists should know about religion

In the last week, several journalists have addressed the issue of how journalists should talk with politicians about religion. Ross Douthat followed up on his August 29th column with a blog post providing examples of what he is trying to address. And last Friday, Amy Sullivan provided a number of steps journalists could take in order to write intelligently about the religious beliefs of politicians.

This brings several thoughts to mind:
1. What happened to religion writers among major newspapers or magazines? I think most of them have disappeared, even respected ones like Catherine Falsani who used to write for the Chicago Sun-Times. At a time when religion is alive and influential around the world, media sources don’t have dedicated people who can comment on these particular issues. Asking political writers to write about topics they don’t regularly cover seems like a problem. I know media outlets have had to make major cutbacks in certain areas but there are repercussions for this.
2. The burden seems to be on politicians who have “non-mainstream” religious beliefs to explain how they are not dangers to society. Perhaps this is due to the fact that Americans have more unfavorable feelings toward minority religions like Mormons, Muslims, Buddhists, and atheists/non-religious (not quite a minority “religion”). Of course, much of this debate could really be about whether evangelicals are mainstream or not. Their size would suggest they are mainstream as would their political influence since the late 1970s.