Three Soc 101 concepts illustrated on Big Brother

Many television shows could (and have) been mined for sociological content. Big Brother is no different. Here are three concepts:
  1. Houseguests talk about having “a social game.” This roughly means having good interactions with everyone. A more sociological term for this might be looking to accrue social capital. With so many players at the beginning, this might be hard: simply making connections, talking to a variety of people, discussing strategy, contribute positively to house life. But, this social capital can pay off as the numbers dwindle, people show their different capabilities, and the competition heats up. It could also be described as the ability to manipulate or coerce people without others hating you, particularly when it comes down to the jury selecting the winner among the final two.
  2. Connected to the importance of social capital are the numerous social networks that develop quickly and can carry players to the end. The social networks can be larger or smaller (ranging from two people up to 6 or more), some people are in multiple networks (more central) while others may be in just one or none (less central), and the ties within networks can be very strong or relatively weak. At some point in a season, the overlapping or competing networks come into conflict and houseguests have to make decisions about which network commitments to honor – or reject.
  3. There are plenty of instances where race, class, and gender and other social markers matter. A typical season has a mix of people. Relationships and alliances/networks can be built along certain lines. Competitions can highlight differences between people. The everyday interactions – or lack of interaction between certain people – can lead to harmony or tension. Some people may be more open about their backgrounds outside the house, others are quieter. With viewers selecting America’s Favorite Houseguest, there is also an opportunity to appeal to the public.

There is more that could be said here and in more depth. Indeed, a quick search of Google Scholar suggests a number of academics have studied the show. Yet, television shows are accessible to many and applying sociological concepts can be a good exercise for building up a sociological perspective. Even if the world does not operate like “Big Brother,” this does not mean that aspects of the show do not mirror social realities.

Seeking out internal and external relationships in small towns

A long-term look at rural life concludes that some of the features that enhance life there also might hold it back:

The Rural Development Initiative Project team, led by sociology professor Terry Besser, has spent the past 20 years studying changes in the quality of life for 15,000 residents in 99 small towns in Iowa…

“Small towns often don’t have much in the way of financial resources,” Besser said. “If they’re able to marshal their social capital, they have a network of people they can call on who trust each other to get things done.” High social capital can mean better economic prosperity, cultural amenities, and high-quality public services.

The researchers have already found certain traits, that seem like they should be positive attributes, can actually be a potential weakness for small towns.

Besser says the feeling of belonging to a tight-knit community could result in excluding newer residents, thus closing off some outside ideas and resources and potentially stunting community growth and development.

Narrow leadership channels, through one person or family or organization, might help in the short term but also can discourage other residents from getting involved. Leaders who can work separately – and as a team – provide more effective, sustainable leadership according to the early study results.

While this comes from studying small towns, it could apply to many in-groups: they often face issues about how many resources should be devoted to building and maintaining internal solidarity versus engaging with outside groups and institutions. Being completely insular may not be ideal but neither might low levels of group togetherness where there is little cohesion. I suspect there is no “ideal level” of balance between these two purposes but rather a range of possible positive outcomes where communities could engage the outside world while also building themselves up.

Inequality reproduced in new NYC bike sharing program?

An early report from the new bike sharing program in New York City suggests it might be reproducing existing inequalities:

And yet this was hardly the most dispiriting aspect of the whole adventure. The line for helmets was very long, and yet few of the people I spoke to were actually residents of the Rutgers Houses or any of the neighboring public housing. I did, however, meet a svelte Argentine woman in running clothes who had come from the Upper East Side. There were also two young women who taught at Bard High School Early College and lived in brownstone Brooklyn, and a woman named Barbara Becker in the company of two sons who, she said when I inquired, attend Friends Seminary in Manhattan, where annual tuition is roughly 296 times the price of an expensive bike helmet (and 1,850 times the price of a helmet you can buy at Han’s Market, a convenience store next to the Clark Street kiosk that has quickly expanded its business from milk, soda and frozen foods to biking gear).

Raulo Jeffers did live in the Rutgers Houses, as he has for 38 years. He was waiting to get a helmet for a bike he already owned. The price of annual membership to Citi Bike is $95, but the city was giving a $35 discount to residents of public housing and other low-income New Yorkers. Even with the reduction, the price was too high, he believed. “People here don’t have a lot of money,” he said. Although more than 400,000 people live in the city’s public housing, only 200 people have signed up for the discounted membership, out of a total enrollment of more than 33,000, according to the Transportation Department. A spokesman for the department said that some public housing residents may have joined at the full price.

Another man in line, Alejandro Brown, a student from the South Bronx, said he was dismayed that the bike share program had not made it “above what I call the 96th Street border.”

It is still early in the program so these issues may still be ironed out. But, should we be too surprised when those who already have more social and economic capital are more in position to take advantage of a new program that also plays into middle- and upper-class sensibilities such as being green and getting exercise? For all of the talk of bike sharing in European cities, I haven’t seen much comment about how it interacts there with social inequalities. Perhaps this is a bigger issue all around…

A new kind of capital: “erotic capital”

Sociologists have written a lot about “economic, social, and cultural capital.” One sociologist suggests adding a new category: “erotic capital“:

Even some academics are waxing poetic about the hidden value of sexual prowess. Sociologist and London School of Economics professor Catherine Hakim, author of Erotic Capital: The Power of Attraction in the Boardroom and the Bedroom, believes that “erotic capital” is the fourth human asset, in addition to economic, social and cultural capital.

She defines it broadly as physical and social attractiveness, and says that flirting is one manifestation. “Charisma often includes flirting, when appropriate,” Hakim says, “and these days even CEOs are expected to display charisma.”

While the rest of this post is about “flirting gone wrong,” I wonder how other sociologists would view the idea of “erotic capital.” People have some control over their looks, particularly if they have money (which often enables better health care), but it is also predetermined. Additionally, there is pressure to conform to culturally-specific standards of beauty. All of us are socialized into particular patterns of attractiveness which could range from being well-mannered to flirtatious and dressy to roguish.

There are quite a few studies that discuss the effects of being attractive. I don’t recall Goffman’s dramaturgical work mentioning much about “physical or social attractiveness.” While such studies did account for power dynamics, certainly attractiveness plays some role in interaction. Can attractiveness be enough to overcome deficits in other areas of capital or would it be in fourth place in terms of importance about the types of capital?

How living in the city affects social behavior

Recent research and commentators have suggested that cities are greener and more innovative. This post from The Infrastructurist summarizes recent research on another possible outcome of interest for city residents: prosocial behavior.

Using census data, Samuel Arbesman and Nicholas A. Christakis of Harvard Medical School examined urban populations for their tendencies to display several prosocial behaviors, including voting, organ donation, and political contribution. As they report in the journal Physica A (in press), Arbesman and Christakis believed this positive social behavior would indeed be superlinear, in part to offset the less desirable elements of a city, such as crime:

If larger networks … fostered increases in violence more rapidly than, say, increases in kindness, city growth would be constrained in a fundamental way.

What they found, however, was that prosocial behaviors “do not obey a clear pattern.” People in cities aren’t more likely to vote or to donate a living organ, though they’re much more likely to give a deceased organ or a political contribution. Taken together, these positive behaviors do not scale the same way that innovation and economic growth typically scale within cities. In short, conclude Arbesman and Christakis, “prosocial behavior is not a single category when it comes to understanding urban scaling with respect to population.”

The mixed results harmonize with previous findings. Some studies have found that people in cities are more likely to return a lost letter than those in both suburbs and small towns. Others have found that willingness to trust strangers declines as a region’s population grows.

The unexpected findings might be explained, in part, by which behaviors the researchers chose to define as “prosocial.” Political contributions, particularly the sizable sort found in cities, could rightfully be considered a selfish endeavor, as opposed to a positive social one. (At the same time, it seems likely that Arbesman and Christakis were limited by available data sets.)

These results are interesting for several reasons. First, there are methodological questions: do we have data in which researchers in the city were specifically looking at prosocial behaviors? A common approach to looking at social behavior and networks these days asks respondents to name their five closest friends and then how closely their personal beliefs, behaviors, and attitudes align with the respondent. But if this study is based on Census data, these social network questions are not present. I’m not quite sure why political contributions would not be considered prosocial – participating in the civic process would seem to be part of being prosocial.

Second, these questions about prosocial behavior are not new. Some of the earliest sociologists developed the discipline for exactly these reasons: what would happen to relationships and society with more and more people moving from small, rural communities to large, anonymous cities? Durkheim and Tönnies developed typologies to explain this: mechanical and organic solidarity and gemeinschaft and gesellschaft, respectively. Simmel, in particular, seemed worried about the effect that the city would have on individuals. He talked about how urban individuals would need to develop blasé attitudes in order to cope with all of the commotion and people they would meet. Simmel continued on to ask whether the individual could maintain their individuality amidst the life of the big city.

It would be interesting to look at data over the years about American perceptions about whether city or suburban dwellers are more prosocial (if such data is available). On one hand, the suburbs are supposed to be the place where kids run free and families know each other yet we talk about how people just drive in and out of their garages without ever knowing their neighbors. On the other hand, we see reports all the time about crime and disorder in the city even as we occasionally hear stories of vibrant neighborhood and storefront life. My guess would be that the suburbs win out easily in this battle of perceptions – even as the research data is mixed on whether city or suburban residents actually exhibit more prosocial behavior.

Quick Review: In the Neighborhood

Earlier this year, various media outlets discussed a book where the adult author decides to ask his neighbors if he can sleep over. I recently read this book, In the Neighborhood: The Search for Community, One Sleepover at a Time by Peter Lovenheim, and have some thoughts about it.

1. First, a quick summary. Lovenheim, a journalist, lives on a wealthy street in a suburb of Rochester, New York. After a murder-suicide in the neighborhood, he realizes that he doesn’t know any of his neighbors, even after growing up on the street and having moved back to the street as an adult. To rectify this, he decides to ask his neighbors if he can sleep over in order to build relationships.

2. There is a lot of pop sociology in this book as it includes short discussions about suburban houses and whether they encourage neighborliness, the book Bowling Alone by Robert Putnam, and social capital. These short segments give his actions some context but they do not go into much depth.

3. Even with his persistent actions, he still doesn’t build strong relationships with too many people. A number of neighbors turn him down including one guy who keeps repeating that he “is a very private person.” Overall, he seems to build relationships with people who tend to agree with him that it is unfortunate that people don’t know their neighbors.

4. Two factors lead me to wonder whether the outcomes of the book could be found elsewhere:

a. Lovenheim admits briefly that he might have been motivated to do this because of a recent separation with his wife. Would he act differently if still married? Would people react to him differently if he were married or seen as a family man compared to being a single father?

b. He lives on a wealthy street: his neighbors tend to be doctors, lawyers, and motivated professionals. A constant theme is that people on the street don’t want their privacy to be invaded; would other places be more open or friendly?

5. In the end, this is another book that laments the loss of community in America. The difference here is the author attempts to do something (however small) about it and his life is enriched. Towards the end of the book, Lovenheim tries to add some stories of others reaching out to their neighbors but this felt contrived compared to his personal narrative.

Overall, I would say this was an interesting, yet light, read. Those looking for large solutions to community life in America are likely to be disappointed but Lovenheim’s interactions with a variety of people in the neighborhood is entertaining.