Missing the collective effervescence of Christmas shopping this year

Americans like shopping. And this year, even amid COVID-19, the shopping will go on. But, it will take a different form for many as the busy stores and shopping malls will be replaced by online shopping and shopping trips intended to avoid contact with people.

There are two components to shopping at Christmas time. First, Americans generally favor consumerism and can make commodities out of lots of things. Second, shopping can involve being around other people. In a large society where private lives are the norm, shopping near people in an excited holiday atmosphere feels like being part of something bigger. Even if you have no interactions with anyone else outside of your shopping group, simply being in the same time and place can be exciting.

Just as religious rituals can produce collective effervescence according to sociologist Emile Durkheim, so too can Christmas shopping. It may be based on consumerism, have no touch of the transcendent, and involve no direct social interaction with other people. Yet, shopping at Christmas is a different kind of experience than shopping for different kinds of items at different times of the year.

Shopping online produces no such collective effervescence. A person and a screen. The social energy is limited. Of course, one could head to social media to share their online shopping exploits. But, it is not the same as being physically near to other people in a space designed to push you toward Christmas cheer and more spending.

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 presence of collective rituals even in modern society

We all may be individualists in the modern world but rituals such as Valentine’s Day are still crucial:

Why do we celebrate a holiday dedicated to love?

Let’s start with the idea of rituals. We tend to think that only backward or primitive societies have rituals — people running in circles with painted bodies, drums, and fires. The field of cultural sociology has emerged in the last couple of decades, and one of its premises is that there is a strong continuity between early and modern societies. Rituals continue to be central to us, and are perhaps even more important as societies become larger and more heterogeneous.

Valentine’s Day is a ritual. It’s not as if people wake up and think, “Today’s a good day to celebrate love.” It occurs on the same day each year, and it’s a way to liven up a dark winter.

It’s interesting that we think of Valentine’s Day as something for a couple, because it’s also something that the whole society celebrates. Millions of couples are doing this at the same time. It’s a way for society to say that romantic love is good and coupling is important.

Whether you want to celebrate the appointed holiday or not, our society marks them as important events with evidence visible everywhere from television commercials to grocery stores to activities in public schools. They are not just markers in time – we have to have some sort of holiday in the middle of February – but rather days for society to reassert its priorities and modes of celebration.

Christmas shopping for sociology majors and for those want to sociologically disrupt some Christmas rituals

Connecting sociology and Christmas gifts is not an easy task. But here are two web pages that aim to do just that: selecting a gift for a sociology major and selecting gifts that help disrupt typical Christmas rituals in the United States.

1. A “college student gift guide” suggests sociology majors should be given a white sweatshirt with the message “I heart Sociology.” I don’t understand this gift as the suggestions for the other majors involve gifts that actually have to do with the major. Why a sweatshirt? But, if you start to think about it, what could you give a sociology major that is uniquely about social structures and society? Perhaps a coupon or cash to go toward extra-special people-watching? (One of my students recently mentioned the rich possibilities of Venice Beach, California.) Perhaps the latest version of their favorite data software like Stata or Atlas.ti so they can feverishly work some analyses over the holiday? Perhaps a box set of their favorite sociological monographs? A copy of The Sims or SimCity to do a little pop culture simulation?

2. The “Sociology of Style’s Holiday Gift Guide” has five Week One suggestions regarding “Gifts that Give Back.” Of the five options, four of them feature the same logic: if you have to consume (is this what the ritual of Christmas has become?), you can do so in more responsible ways that can benefit other people as well. Is Product Red out of style?

I think we are a long way away before Amazon.com has dedicated gift lists for the sociologist in your life. At the same time, the American Sociological Association could get on this and perhaps raise some funds that could lower dues and pay for other expenses…

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?

The “functional religion” of Steve Jobs, Apple

After seeing the response to Steve Jobs’ death, a commentator at the Washington Post looks at some sociological research on Apple and concludes that Jobs was the leader of a religion-like movement:

In a secular age, Apple has become a religion, and Steve Jobs was its high priest.

Apple introduced the iPod in 2001, and that same year, an Eastern Washington University sociologist, Pui-Yan Lam, published a paper titled “May the Force of the Operating System Be With You: Macintosh Devotion as Implicit Religion.” Lam’s research struck close to home, quite literally — her husband has a mini-museum of Apple products in the basement…

And what it stands for, apparently, is more than just gleaming products and easy-to-use operating systems. Lam interviewed Mac fans, studied letters they wrote to trade magazines and scrutinized Mac-related Web sites. She concluded that Mac enthusiasts “adopted from both Eastern and Western religions a social form that emphasized personal spirituality as well as communal experience. The faith of Mac devotees is reflected and strengthened by their efforts in promoting their computer of choice.”…

If that sounds like academic gobbledygook, consider how Apple devotees see the world. Back when Lam’s paper was published, there was a palpable sense of a battle between good and evil. Apple: good. Bill Gates: evil. Apple followers, Lam wrote, pined for a world where “people are judged purely on the basis of their intelligence and their contribution to humanity.” They saw Gates representing a more “profane” world where financial gain was priorities one, two and three.

This is an argument based on the work of Emile Durkheim. The argument is one that can be applied to many things that take on the functions of religion such as providing meaning (Apple vs. other corporations, beauty vs. functionality), participating in common rituals (buying new products), and uniting people around common symbols (talking with other Mac users). For example, some have suggested that the Super Bowl also is a “functional religion”: Americans come together to watch football, united in their patriotic and competitive beliefs while holding parties to watch the game and the commercials. Or baseball can be viewed as a “primitive religious ritual.”

While the comments beneath this story suggest some people think otherwise, this is not necessarily a slam against Apple or Steve Jobs. Durkheim argued that individuals need communal ties and we can find this in a number of places: the relationships formed in religious congregations, team-building activities in the office, and at bars and coffee shops where we try to connect with others during our daily routines. This does not mean Apple was necessarily a “false religion”: of course, we could talk about whether people could or should find ultimate meaning in a brand or products but we could also acknowledge that the social aspects of Apple made it more than just a set of technological product.

The new ritual of civilians saying “thank you for your service” to military personnel

A West Point faculty members discusses a ritual performed by civilians when they encounter members of the American armed services:

These meetings between soldier and civilian turn quickly into street theater. The soldier is recognized with a handshake. There’s often a request for a photograph or the tracing of a six-degrees-of-separation genealogy: “My wife’s second cousin is married to a guy in the 82nd Airborne.” Each encounter concludes with a ritual utterance: “Thank you for your service.”…

The successful reincorporation of veterans into civil society entails a complex, evolving process. Today, the soldier’s homecoming has been further complicated by the absence of a draft, which removes soldiers from the cultural mainstream, and by the fact that the current wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have little perceptible impact on the rhythms of daily life at home.

Whether anyone ever spat on an American soldier returning from Vietnam is a matter of debate. The sociologist and veteran Jerry Lembcke disputed such tales in “The Spitting Image: Myth, Memory, and the Legacy of Vietnam.” Apocryphal or not, this image has become emblematic of an era’s shame, and of the failure of civilians to respond appropriately to the people they had sent to fight a bankrupt war.

The specter of this guilt — this perdurable archetype of the hostile homecoming — animates today’s encounters, which seem to have swung to the other unthinking extreme. “Thank you for your service” has become a mantra of atonement. But, as is all too often the case with gestures of atonement, substance has been eclipsed by mechanical ritual. After the engagement, both parties retreat to separate camps, without a significant exchange of ideas or perspectives having passed between them.

The writer goes on to suggest that this ritual is better than some alternatives but is ultimately a “poor substitute” for needed larger discussions about how war affects individuals who fight in them and how society should respond.

I wonder if anyone could uncover when this ritual began and then became the norm. The article contains the opinions of several soldiers regarding the ritual and it would also be interesting to hear comments from citizens who have said this. Rituals don’t develop because they are pointless: I suspect civilians feel they are doing something good on their end, even if they may be unaware of how it is received on the other end. What percentage of civilians would approach a uniformed soldier if presented the opportunity? Does the usage of the phrase differ by political background and/or support for certain military actions?

In the end, is there anything that a civilian could say in a casual interaction that would adequately address all the complicated issues involved? And is this ritual evidence of what some have suggested is a growing gap between those in those who are in the military versus those who pursue other opportunities?

The slow death of Christmas cards?

One of the traditional objects of the Christmas season, the Christmas card, is on the decline:

After experiencing slowing growth since 2005, Christmas card sales declined in 2009. While the drop was slight, 0.4 percent, according to research firm Mintel International Group, evidence is building that the next generation of correspondents is unlikely to carry on the tradition with the same devotion as their parents.

The rise of social networking, smart phones and Apple iPads is changing the way friends and family stay in touch, diminishing the Christmas card’s long-standing role as the annual social bulletin…

Americans sent more than 1.8 billion Christmas cards through the mail last year, according to greeting card industry statistics. That figure is expected to drop to 1.5 billion this holiday season.

This shouldn’t be too surprising. Compared to other forms of communication, the Christmas card takes time and money. Interestingly, the same story says the Christmas card was born out of an interest in saving time:

A British businessman is credited with creating the Christmas card in 1843 — as a way to save time. Too busy to write a personal holiday greeting, Henry Cole hired a well-known London artist to design a card he could send to all his acquaintances, according to a version of the story recounted by greeting card maker Hallmark Cards Inc. Louis Prang, a German immigrant, is said to have brought the Christmas card tradition to America in 1875, printing a card depicting Killarney roses and the words Merry Christmas.

Some of my thoughts about this tradition that may die a slow death:

1. I’ve always enjoyed getting and reading Christmas cards (and the letters within). It is the one time a year you can count on getting mail and updates about people’s lives.

2. Many of the letters that are included in the cards are just fascinating. The typical one reads something like this: “We all had a great year, Son #1 did amazing things, Son #2 was comparable, and Daughter #1 is only 7 years old but is setting the world on fire!” On the whole, the letters are upbeat and tend to produce the image of “the perfect family.” And if they are Christians, there might be a paragraph or two at the end (or perhaps a verse printed in the card or at the top or bottom of the letter) about bringing the focus back around from their wonderful family to “the real reason for the season.”

2a. Perhaps I am too cynical about these cards. But on the whole, it seems like an exercise in taking a few moments to paint a particular image of one’s family.

2b. Perhaps this is exemplified best by the picture card, the one that puts the family in some sort of Christmas pose.

3. Even with the general tone of such letters, it does suggest someone has put some time into it. The idea that a card or letter (even though most of these letters are typed) is more meaningful than a Facebook post makes sense to me. But maybe this is just nostalgia talking and if the original cards were just a quest for efficiency, perhaps Christmas cards are just another symbol of the efficient modern culture.