Living through history or sociological processes

With rapid changes in the world, it can be easy to see how this might be a notable historical moment that people in the future will look back on.

But, I cannot help think of the sociological processes that we are seeing at play right now. Pandemics and diseases have come before yet not in the era of such globalization, Internet and smartphones, and particular political, economic, and social conditions. There will be history about this all but here are just a few of the sociological processes we are truly seeing in action:

-Globalization. The travel and interconnectedness that is normal now has particular implications for diseases as well as the consequences.

-The shift toward the Internet and smartphones enables new methods for work as well as the possibility of information and knowledge to go all sorts of directions.

-Political and economic consequences of social actions. As just one example, social distancing can help combat the pandemic but it threatens many taken-for-granted interactions and settings. Small talk and being around other people should not be taken for granted; they are part of the social order.

-Health is a social issue, from its definition to how it plays out in individual lives and societies.

And this is just a start. There is already a lot of opinions out there about how the pandemic will change society once the disease disappears. We will have to wait and see. Sure, this will all be history at some point but for now there are a lot of sociological material to think through.

Seeing the nuclear family in a suburban single-family home as a historical blip

David Brooks argues the idealized American family in the suburbs is a historical anomaly:

For a time, it all seemed to work. From 1950 to 1965, divorce rates dropped, fertility rates rose, and the American nuclear family seemed to be in wonderful shape. And most people seemed prosperous and happy. In these years, a kind of cult formed around this type of family—what McCall’s, the leading women’s magazine of the day, called “togetherness.” Healthy people lived in two-parent families. In a 1957 survey, more than half of the respondents said that unmarried people were “sick,” “immoral,” or “neurotic.”

During this period, a certain family ideal became engraved in our minds: a married couple with 2.5 kids. When we think of the American family, many of us still revert to this ideal. When we have debates about how to strengthen the family, we are thinking of the two-parent nuclear family, with one or two kids, probably living in some detached family home on some suburban street. We take it as the norm, even though this wasn’t the way most humans lived during the tens of thousands of years before 1950, and it isn’t the way most humans have lived during the 55 years since 1965.

Today, only a minority of American households are traditional two-parent nuclear families and only one-third of American individuals live in this kind of family. That 1950–65 window was not normal. It was a freakish historical moment when all of society conspired, wittingly and not, to obscure the essential fragility of the nuclear family.

In a sweeping historical perspective, Brooks is right (nor is he the first to make this argument): the American arrangement of small nuclear families in large private homes is unusual. It is even relatively unusual among contemporary living arrangements throughout the world. Fifty years from now, will this period look even more like a historical blip?
And yet, the idea has a strong hold on American life. This particular lifestyle became a significant part of the American Dream, supported by the federal government, promoted by films and television, and defining much of popular twentieth century sprawling suburbs. To move away from this ideal will take some work, even if there are reasons pushing Americans away from this life. Brooks proposes some different alternatives, from multigenerational dwellings to cohousing, but each will take time to develop. It is hard enough to get politicians to talk about housing, let alone discuss all the social arrangements and family life attached to it.
At the least, this is a reminder of how social arrangements can come together through a  confluence of forces and come to seem like normal – until things have changed.

Seeing changes in suburbs through the presence of religious congregations

Suburban diversity, such as through having more non-white residents and more less wealthy residents, can be seen through what religious congregations are present in a community (and which are not). Three quick examples of congregations near the college campus where I work. Example #1:

It’s a poignant time for Sublett, who grew up in the church and today runs its deacon ministry. His grandfather, Carl Lewis Sublett, was one of the workers on the old Aurora, Elgin and Chicago Railway who helped start the church.

After meeting in the home of Charles Lucas, the church’s founders bought a $150 lot just south of the train tracks at 412 Crescent St. — today the location of St. Joseph’s Christian Orthodox — to build a church of their own.

It went up in an area referred to as “the Bottom,” a patch of lower ground along Crescent and Washington Streets. That, along with a neighborhood to the east of higher ground near Avery Avenue and Prospect Street called “the Hill,” were the two neighborhoods where it was acceptable at the time for African-Americans to live…

Eventually, the church outgrew the building, and on March 17, 1975, members dedicated the new, white-steepled church by walking about a mile east to where it stands at 1520 Avery Ave., according to church records. Sublett has pictures from that day and recalls the work church members put into erecting the church.

Example #2:

St. Joseph’s Orthodox Christian Church was established by a small group of faithful in March 1989. After meeting for five years in rented facilities, the present site was purchased from the DuPage AME Church. The present church was built in 1999. The community, which today serves well over 600 adults and children throughout the Chicago suburbs, is dedicated to proclaiming the Good News of Jesus Christ through worship, fellowship, stewardship, and discipleship.

Example #3:

In late August, the Islamic Center of Wheaton bought and moved into the 26,193-square-foot former First Assembly of God Church at 900 E. Geneva Road, at the southwest corner of Geneva Road and President Street. Records show that, through a bank trust, the Islamic Center of Wheaton paid $3.15 million for the church and its 7.08-acre property.

Mosque spokesman Abraham Antar said he and his fellow congregants are excited about their new home, which he said is Wheaton’s first Muslim community.

“Wheaton is a city of faith, and we’re very privileged to be able to establish an Islamic community for Wheaton and especially for the western suburbs,” he said. “There are a lot of Muslims in Wheaton and the surrounding towns. It’s unfortunate for the (First Assembly of God) church that they lost their opportunity to stay there.”

That these three congregations meet and worship in a community known for its wealth, political conservatism, and concentration of evangelical residents and organizations says something. And these changes in religious groups are happening across many American suburbs; religious groups that even a few decades ago would not have been present now have thriving congregations.

The best scholarly text I know on the subject is the 2015 book Religion and Community in the New Urban America. The authors draw upon decades of research in religious change in the Chicago region, examine patterns across different religious traditions in suburbs, and look at different ways new congregations engage with the communities in which they are located.

(At the same time, the presence of new religious groups does not necessarily guarantee significant other changes in communities. Indeed, attempts by new religious groups to construct, purchase, or renovate buildings can invite concern and backlash.)

Cities and societies always at risk of declining?

I feel that I regularly run into these narratives: cities are in decline and American society is in decline. After seeing a recent example of the cities-will-fall-apart argument, I thought it could be worthwhile to briefly think about where these narratives come from and what they are trying to do.

In terms of cities, Americans on the whole have an anti-urban bias. Data suggests Americans would prefer to live in small towns and even President Obama (resident of numerous big cities) noted the importance of small-town values for the development of the United States. Stephen Conn details anti-urban bias in the twentieth century when the United States experienced a significant population shift to the suburbs, locations where many Americans claim they can find their best life. Population loss is a public rebuke to an entire community. The decline of Detroit is held up as a tragedy and/or lesson.

Added to this is a political edge: cities are seen as strongholds for Democrats while Republicans rule in more rural areas and are against cities. Conservatives link Democratic leadership in these cities to all sorts of problems. Some conservatives see liberal plots to urbanize Americans against their will. Declining cities would then weaken one political party and their values.

In terms of societies, I have heard arguments from evangelical religious groups that society is declining, falling into a moral abyss, and headed toward ruin. Some of this is linked to particular theological views: some Christians believe the decline of society at large will hasten the end times. Others make these claims in order to try to spur believers into action and engagement with society. Still others might argue this is a reason for retreat from society in order to conserve or protect particular religious traditions.

This is also a common tactic of groups looking to address social problems: without tackling this important issue, society is in trouble in the long-term. Additionally, such arguments can also be part of political debates. Which party is in charge when these decline starts or accelerates? Which events are interpreted as harbingers of the end? Who exactly is trying to ruin the American experiment or distort American values? Is every presidential election the potential end for the other half of Americans because yet again it is the most important election we have ever seen?The possibilities are endless.

All of this apocalyptic thinking could have some serious consequences. Do such regular narratives discourage or encourage participation and trust in communities and institutions? Do they lead to long-term optimism or pessimism about individual lives and communities? Does it all distract from good news also taking place as well as small steps that could be taken toward positive change or community building?

It is true that cities and societies can decline and have indeed done so in the past. Just because a particular city or community or country is doing well now does not mean that this is guaranteed for the future. I read a thought-provoking book on this a few years ago from a scholar who studied numerous societies that had collapsed and concluded they reached a level of complexity where an issue in the system meant that all of the social machinery could come crashing down. But, predicting decline as it is happening might be difficult just as predicting trends is difficult.

Decline may happenbut with all the competing claims of decline of this or that (plus differing views on the same phenomena) makes it very difficult to know what to do with any of the claims.

 

Sociology experiment shows how parties can flip positions

Cass Sunstein describes a sociology study that could help explain how attachment to a political party can lead to divergent political positions:

Here’s how the experiment worked. All participants (consisting of thousands of people) were initially asked whether they identified with Republicans or Democrats. They were then divided into 10 groups. In two of them, participants were asked what they thought about 20 separate issues — without seeing the views of either political party on those issues. This was the “independence condition.” In the eight other groups, participants could see whether Republicans or Democrats were more likely to agree with a position. This was the “influence condition.”

In the influence condition, each participant was asked his own view, which was used to update the relative level of support of each party. That updated level was displayed, in turn, to the next participant in the same group.

The authors carefully selected issues on which people would not be likely to begin with strong convictions along party lines. For example: “Companies should be taxed in the countries where they are headquartered rather than in the countries where their revenues are generated.” And, “The exchange of cryptocurrencies (such as Bitcoin, Ethereum, or Litecoin) should be banned in the United States.” Or this: “Artificial intelligence software should be used to detect online blackmailing on email systems.”

The authors hypothesized that in the influence condition, it would be especially hard to predict where Republicans and Democrats would end up. If the early Republican participants in one group ended up endorsing a position, other Republicans would be more likely to endorse it as well — and Democrats would be more likely to reject it. But if the early Republicans rejected it, other Republicans would reject it as well — and Democrats would endorse it.

And the findings:

Across groups, Democrats and Republicans often flipped positions, depending on what the early voters did. On most of the 20 issues, Democrats supported a position in at least one group but rejected it in at least one other, and the same was true of Republicans. As the researchers put it, “Chance variation in a small number of early movers” can have major effects in tipping large populations — and in getting both Republicans and Democrats to embrace a cluster of views that actually have nothing to do with each other.

This seems like a good reminder regarding humans: attachments to groups are very important. When faced with taking in information, what the groups we identify with matters. This is the case even in an age where we would claim to be individuals.

Studying social change more broadly is a difficult task. It is perhaps easiest to see large-scale change after it has already happened and observers can look back and pick out a path by which society changed. It can be quite hard to see social change as it is occurring when it is unclear what exactly is happening or in which direction a trend line will go. It can also be difficult to see changes that did not take off or trends that did not go very far.

Why the study of social media and the study of suburbs goes together

Two days ago, I presented a talk titled “Screens, Social Media, and Spirituality: Technology and Religiosity Among Emerging Adults.” In this particular talk, I drew upon my work work with co-authors analyzing social media. While this is one of my research areas of interest, I am also a scholar of suburbs. How do these two areas go together?

To start, the sociological study of the Internet and social media has connections to the study of communities and places. Barry Wellman is a good example of a scholar who studied communities and then the Internet. Both social spheres have logics that connect people: communities tend to rely on geographic proximity while Internet and social media networks rely more on choosing connections and common interests. (There are other lenses sociologists could use to join the two topics: materiality – think smartphones and single-family homes; narratives about science and progress; consumption.)

Both social media and suburban areas rely on narratives of choice made by users or residents while both ave deeper forces pushing people toward those choices. In social media, people do not pick platforms at random nor are the platform’s development and popularity random. What people users connect to is not random; existing social ties matter as do factors like fame, influence, and power. Similarly, Americans may often argue they made it to the suburbs through their own efforts but decades of government policy as well as cultural ideology has privileged the suburban way of life.

One might argue that social media is relatively placeless. Users can communicate with any connected friend or follower from any place and at any time. Compared to social interaction bounded by proximity, technology offers unprecedented access without a need for a tie to a place (outside of a need for some sort of Internet connection). But, this placelessness is also a critique regularly leveled at American suburbs where the regularly repeating of features can make it appear all to be similar. See an example of this argument. (I tend to disagree as suburban communities can have very different characters, just as different social media platforms and interactions can feel different even if they all all fall into the same broad categories of social life.)

Finally, the profound implications for communities and broader society by both phenomena – particularly mass suburbanization after World War II and social media after the founding of Facebook plus the quick popularity of smartphones – are hard to ignore. It isn’t just that more Americans moved to suburbs; this had ripple effects on many places (including every major city), industries (think cars, fast food, big box stores, etc.), and government policy. It isn’t just that people now spend some time on social media; the shift to different kinds of relationships means we have to think afresh about how community works.

Will millennials kill McMansions?

Millennials get blamed for a lot of things and here is another possible area where their choices may have consequences: the selling and buying of McMansions.

The end of so-called “McMansions” has been predicted several times over the years, but those large, mass-produced houses that the baby boomer generation (born 1946-1964) favored as a status symbol kept coming back. Now, baby boomers are entering their 70s and 80s and many are looking to downsize, but they are finding it hard to offload these large homes, facing a paucity of buyers among the millennial generation (born 1982-2000), who are unable to pay the prices they want.

For anxious sellers, however, respite could be around the corner as mortgage interest rates ease, and the millennial generation becomes qualified for more and bigger loans, experts say…

A big problem for the McMansion market is the mismatch between where millennials prefer to live and where those large houses have been built. The younger generation gravitates to cities – where their jobs are — whereas baby boomers have built their homes in suburban locations…

Keys wondered if the housing preferences of the younger generation have truly changed or if there is only a “delay” in the demand for McMansions. Those homes may not be desirable to people in their late 20s but instead to people in their late 30s or 40s, he noted.

This is not the first time I have seen the suggestion that millennials have less interest in McMansions: Builder had a piece on this a few years back. And the baby boomers may have a problem bigger than just McMansions: who will buy all their homes, McMansions and otherwise? When housing becomes a primary investment for so many Americans, not having enough future buyers can become problematic.

More broadly, this discussion follows a typical pattern for stories and studies about millennials: will they act like previous generations (and have not done so thus far for a variety of reasons including an economic crisis and student loan debt) or do they truly have different tastes and want to lead different lives? In the realm of those who care about cities and suburbs, this is an ongoing discussion spanning years: will millennials be suburbanites or city-dwellers? Will they reject lives built around single-family homes and driving and prefer denser, diverse, culturally-rich communities (or a mix of both in “surban” places)?

If I had to guess, this group will exhibit some change from previous groups but probably not drastic change (based on the idea that social change tends to happen more slowly over time). Reversing suburban culture, ingrained among many American institutions and residents, would like take decades and not just one generation. The McMansions of older residents may not all sell at their preferred prices but barring another housing bubble (which could happen), they will be worth some money.