“Creativity of the young” and the digital divide in working student play with technology into learning

I recently saw a Letter to the Editor in the Chicago Tribune that highlighted the savvy use of technology by a seven year old:

Kids can access their parents multiple ways today and vice versa. This letter suggests the observer was “captivated” by this technology use, hinting at the resourcefulness of the boy.

This response is interesting to compare to the findings of a sociology book I recently browsed. In Digital Divisions: How Schools Create Inequality in the Tech Era, Matthew Rafalow found that schools differed less on their access to or use of technology in learning but in how they treated the student’s creative use of that technology. From the conclusion:

The students that I profiled in the previous chapter suggest that kids’ potential as budding technologists gets bifurcated as they pass through middle school. Despite the fact that digital play with peers led to the development of digital skills with online communication, media editing and production, and even the basics of programming logic, these eighth-graders reported different conceptions of whether online play was acceptable or even welcome in schools. While students at a school for mostly White and wealthy youth came to see digital play, including social media and video games, as fun and even necessary for achievement, students at schools serving less privileged and mostly students of color were taught that play at school was either irrelevant or threatening to schooling. Schools differently disciplined digital play, and in doing so, they different shaped how young people came to evaluate their own digital self-worth in these settings. (135)

Restating the argument a few pages later:

My takeaway from this project is that cultural resources are not like a currency you can hand to anyone in exchange for rewards. The students in this study varied by race-ethnticity and social class, and each developed a set of digital skills in online communication, collaboration, and digital production from play with friends online. Despite each student’s access to this knowledge, only students at the school serving wealthy and predominantly White children were given the right to treat their digital knowledge as currency to be exchanged for achievement. The school organizational context determines not only what ideal cultural resources are but also who the buyer can be to facilitate the exchange. Working- and middle-class Latinx and Asian American youth at Chávez and Sheldon had the same resources but were not permitted to exchange them for a reward. (154)

As Rafalow notes, this is what class reproduction – intersecting with race and ethnicity – looks like in today’s world. Just as Bourdieu suggested with art and music, digital technology is widely available but who it is for and how it is supposed to be used differs by group. Is digital creativity lauded and celebrated for a kid who people think might be headed for success and a creative class career or is it discouraged or punished because it is distracting from acquiring necessary skills?

Adding social norms and social pressure to seeing lawns as “a window into your soul”

Do lawns say something about a homeowner?

Photo by FOX on Pexels.com

To our neighbors, our lawn was just another suburban expanse of green. But to my dad, like millions of other yard-having homeowners, it was a canvas, a psychologist’s couch, a playpen, a physical manifestation of his deepest fears and greatest joys. Our lawn was one of the few places in my father’s world where he could impose his will. Plus, it was a respite from his three children. It was a miracle he ever came inside.

Watching my dad out there year after year taught me this: A lawn can tell you an awful lot about its owner.

This fits with the American idea that things you own, ranging from a home to a car to your smartphone, say something important about you. They are not just items to use or enjoy; they reflect your personal brand, even as millions of others may have the same things.

People might also do this with lawns. If people keep up their lawn, they assume the homeowner cares about their property and home. Americans generally like this. Those who do not keep up their home and lawn are less trustworthy as are people who do not own homes.

At the same time, lawns are also the product of social norms. What do the neighbors do with the lawn? How might a messy lawn be perceived by neighbors? Are nicer lawns connected to higher property values? How do different brands sell grass seed and other lawn products? I have argued before that a well manicured and clear lawn is connected to social class. Communities have expectations about what lawns should look like and can exercise both formal and informal sanctions, whether mowing lawns for residents and sending them the bill if the grass is too long to dirty looks.

More broadly, the idea of a green and lush lawn is tied to the American suburban dream. The nice single-family home surrounded by an oasis of green hints at private property, nature, and an attentive homeowner. A neighborhood with such lawns is a sign of care and neighbors who value their community.

Brick and mortar success in selling chickens and other farming supplies to new “ruralpolitans”

The shift of Americans from cities to suburbs and rural areas helped boost the fortunes of retailer Tractor Supply:

Photo by Brett Jordan on Pexels.com

Such gangbusters growth is unlikely to continue, with the pandemic easing. But the rush to the country that underpins it is less an anomaly than a speeding up of a long-tern trend, as more people – notably millennials yearning to become homeowners – look to adopt quasi-rural lifestyles. Being priced out of urban living is one driving factor; interest in healthier and more sustainable diets, including homegrown vegetables and home-harvested eggs, is another. Whatever is motivating them, Tractor Supply sees an opportunity in these “ruralpolitans” – and the COVID-driven shift toward remote work will help sustain their numbers.

Lawton, who became CEO in early 2020 after two years as the No. 2 at Macy’s, says millennials’ willingness to move farther from city centers is a “game changer”: “We seeing a new kind of shopper in our stores,” he tells Fortune. Now Tractor Supply is adapting to cater to both its established customer base and these younger space-seekers, following a strategic road map with the folksy title “Life Out Here.”…

The fast-growing cohort that Tractor Supply is cultivating, she says, are “beginning to learn how to garden. They have this passion for poultry.” Call them the “country suburban” customers.

The company is strategic about where it meets these customers. Its stores are almost all located in mid-size or small towns – communities that are often too small to support a Home Depot, Petco, or Walmart.

The economic impact of COVID-19 has hit some businesses very hard while others, like Tractor Supply, have found opportunities. From the sound of this article, they had locations in numerous places that received new residents during COVID-19 and had the right mix of products and service that appealed to them.

I wonder about the class dynamics of all of this. How do the new “ruralpolitans” who want to raise chickens or have a small farm and have moved from the city compare to the other shoppers at Tractor Supply or to long-term residents in the community?

Another question to ask is whether these newer residents with these interests in food and farming are in it for the long haul or not. On one hand, if remote work is more viable than ever, perhaps people will stay in smaller communities outside cities and pursue this. On the other hand, if companies ask more workers to return or if small-scale agriculture and animal husbandry is not appealing in the long run, this may be more of a flash in the pan. Industry-wide shifts in agriculture could have an impact as well.

Finally, the move to a more rural life has implications for private lives and community life. Many Americans say they like the idea of living in a small town but this is different than actually living in one. What is the tipping point where an influx of new residents changes the character of the community (or is change somewhat inevitable)? How involved will these new residents be in local organizations, religious congregations, local government, and in local social affairs?

Out with vacation McMansions but keep going with pricey, exclusive, luxurious homes

An article about a popular new development in Park City, Utah suggests millennials do not want McMansions but the rest of the text suggests they are not giving up on having nice homes:

https://www.benlochranch.com/

What Benloch Ranch represents is a collision of trends in real estate and demographics. Millennials of homebuying age are rejecting the sizes of their parents’ homes, so-called cookie-cutter McMansions. And the second-home market, hastened by COVID and the same millennial-buying population, is booming. The pandemic has forced buyers to value outdoor spaces and activities more than ever before. Benloch Ranch currently has a waitlist of 175 for its single-family lots…

The development’s amenities include more than 20 miles of trails, a ski hill, a skeet shooting range, an ice skating pond and 900 acres of open space…

A lot of millenials don’t want these big houses anymore. We’re redefining the size and scale of the house and altering the price point so it’s more affordable.”

According to data released by the Park City Board of REALTORS, the median price  single-family home rose roughly 26% year-over-year to $2.5 million. Benloch Ranch offers single-family homes starting at $695,000.

The pitch is an attractive one: lean into the terrain and the idea of sustainability, feature interesting architecture, provide amenities, be close to an exciting scene and in at the start of a new development. This is a shift to new preferences of millennial buyers. The vacation homes of today and the future may look different and there is money to be made.

At the same time, this is about vacation homes in a wealthy community. This development has potential because millennials with resources can afford a vacation home starting at $700k. Sure, there are no more McMansions with all of that wasted space and tacky design but this kind of life is only available to those who can buy into it. The price for these homes would be beyond the reach of many residents of the Salt Lake City region, let alone many residents of the United States.

Does this mean the McMansion vacation homes of an older generation will not find buyers? This will be worth watching, both for vacation homes and regular homes. If McMansions go out of style, this could be reflected in lower prices or modifications – imagine multiple units – or even redevelopment.

When two suburban residential developments border each other and have clear differences

A typical suburban single-family home, the symbol of the American Dream, is often in the middle of a subdivision surrounded by similar homes. Yet, some of these homes are on the edges of developments. This boundaries can be interesting: what do the homes back up to? What is nearby? Three local examples that I see regularly highlight how adjacent suburban residential developments can lead to some sharp contrasts.

Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

First, I know of a 1970s neighborhood of primarily raised ranches and split-levels of roughly 1,500-2,000 square feet. One side of this neighborhood borders a late 1980s development of larger homes built more in the style of 3,000 square foot McMansions with brick or Tudor facades. These two sets of homes back up to each other and the line of homes that do this are quite different: there is a significant size difference, the style of the homes – siding versus different materials – varies, and the newer development is slightly uphill so the larger, newer homes loom over the older, smaller homes.

Second, there are numerous single-family home neighborhoods where houses are across a residential street or next to a small apartment building. Or, next to a townhouse development. The scale of the buildings is not that different but the density and size are clearly contrasting.

Third, I know of one location where there are two neighborhoods that could have been constructed separately as they both have outlets to the neighboring arterial roads. But, there is a connecting road between the neighborhoods and there are houses of each neighborhood type, again different size and style side by side, on this connector.

Single-use zoning in the United States is intended to protect single-family homes from other less desirable land uses. But, this zoning system does not necessarily buffer certain residential neighborhoods from each other. Many suburbanites would object to significant changes in their nearby surroundings if the new residences were quite different. I ran into this in my suburban research where new small homes nearby or apartments were not welcomed, particularly if they were replacing open space. Yet, today many suburbs have different developments side by side, sometimes with a buffer – nature, a berm, a walkway, etc. – but sometimes not.

These neighboring dwellings could signal some significant differences. A larger home suggests a different social class. Residents of apartments are not always regarded fondly by homeowners. Densities and lot sizes can be different. The exteriors imply different status.

These boundaries are symbolic and clearly marked in physical space. What are the consequences: are the residences on these boundaries less desirable or go for a reduced price? How many people care about the clear boundaries? Do the people from the two or more sides interact within these boundary zones?

The boundaries between suburbia and other types of communities is often clear to see and experience but the internal boundaries are also fascinating.

Reactions to suburban yards filled with dandelions

Is a mark of a suburbanite who cares about their property values and yard a lawn free of dandelions? In a recent walk, I saw this yard:

On a corner lot, this yard was filled with dandelions all around. And to compound the issue, two of the next three yards adjacent to this home looked similar.

What does this all mean? Is this a set of households devoted to eco-friendly lawn care? Or, is it a sign that the owners do not care about their property and/or their neighbors?

Remarkably, many of the nearby lots have no dandelions whatsoever. Even as these three lots have helped spread thousands of dandelion seeds, the weed killers used nearby have done their job. The whole neighborhood is not overrun with dandelions. The damage – mostly visual? – is contained to three lots.

At the same time, I could imagine some of the neighbors might not be happy about the situation. The optics of yards given over to dandelions might not play well in a middle-class neighborhood where green manicured lawns are an expectation. What kind of neighbors are these to subject others to this blight? What if someone was trying to sell their home nearby?

Soon enough, the most visible signs of these dandelions will be gone. The seeds will have scattered, contributing to windy days where the air is visibly full of plant matter. Will the neighbors forget the dandelions? Will they be back next year? Is all of this a matter of overwrought suburbanites policing their artificial nature known as a lawn? The grass and the weeds may be more than just that; they are markers of social class and social norms in suburbia.

It’s the time of year of suburban pressure to clear leaves

Cleaning up the leaves in a suburban lawn is rarely enforced or legislated. It is just an expected task for the suburban homeowner: thou shall not have many (or any) leaves in your lawn by the end of the fall season. Why is this the case? Here are a few possible reasons:

  1. A well-kept lawn, from green grass neatly kept to an absence of weeds to being cleared of leaves, is a marker of social class. It is part of keeping up the neighborhood and supporting property values. Lack of attention paid to the lawn signals less-invested homeowners, less valuable properties.
  2. Clearing leaves is an unquestioned social norm that simply continues on because people did it before. That leaves could be beneficial for lawns and garden beds may not matter; the inertia is already there for clearing leaves and it could take time for new patterns to emerge.
  3. There are commercial and industrial forces invested in making sure lawns are seeded, treated, and cleared. There are rakes and leaf blowers to sell. It is big business helping Americans remove leaves.
  4. Suburbanites pass along this social norm to each other through conversation and exhibited behavior. Neighbors share words while outside about their lawns. One suburbanite rakes their leaves because they see their neighbors doing it.

Perhaps this practice will pass into history at some point. But, as long as we have a suburban emphasis on single-family homes and their lawns, there will be more years of raking, bagging, mulching, and clearing leaves.

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:

https://www.cbs.com/shows/big_brother/
  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.

Walmart and Crate & Barrel feature the same designer but different products, aesthetics, audiences

Two advertisements, both featuring designer Leanne Ford, recently arrived on the same day in my mailbox. I did not expect that Crate & Barrel and Walmart would both feature the same person:

I wonder about a few things:

  1. What is the overlap of consumers/audience between these two stores? Perhaps there is more overlap than I think.
  2. While each advertisement features the same designer, there are noticeable differences. For Crate & Barrel, Ford is adding to the modernist style. For Walmart, she and her husband are providing tools to tackle home projects. The first is leaning more towards art, the second is leaning toward getting things done. Even how it is presented is clearly different.
  3. Having some familiarity with both retailers, my sense is that both do not often use famous names to sell products. In contrast, a retailer like Target has tried this a number of times. Does this signal a new approach for both retailers? If so, it is interesting that both think Ford will help them appeal to potential customers.
  4. Just thinking out loud about more consonant pairings: Walmart and Ikea? Target and Crate & Barrel?
  5. I cannot help but think about Bourdieu in this context. The idea of home design has grown in recent decades in the United States and the concept and its purveyors – such as HGTV – are broadly available. Yet, how exactly this plays out in different class contexts can vary. Design for middle to upper-class residents means something different than design for lower to middle-class residents.

Suburbanites, backyard fences, and signaling status

I recently saw a request for users of a nearby park to stay on park property and not go into the yards of neighbors when there to attend sporting events. The particular area in question is surrounded on two sides by homes, one subdivision built roughly five decades ago and one roughly three decades ago. The earlier subdivision has more modest suburban dwellings – roughly 2,000 square feet, two car garages, split-levels, colonials, ranches, most homes with siding – and almost all of the yards backing up to the park have fences. See the image below:

Fences

The more recently constructed homes are larger: 3,500 square feet, a mix of two and three car garages, more brick, stone, and gables. Few of these homes have fences facing the park.

Residents, businesses, and communities use parts of the physical environment to demarcate boundaries. This park sits between several different kinds of communities. Even though it is located in a well-off suburb, there are clear gradations of social status in these dwellings.

With the fences, I wonder if this is a kind of conspicuous consumption on the part of the homeowners with more expensive properties: “We don’t need a fence to be separate from the park.” Indeed, multiple homes have nice patios, tables, and outdoor equipment near the park and very visible. In contrast, the older homes have deeper backyards and more cover – even without a fence. Could this simply be a legacy of a past era where fencing was more common or does it signal something about how suburbanites want to interface with a nearby park?

More broadly, suburbanites have multiple ways to signal their status without actively telling anyone anything. This can range from the facade of their home (with McMansions aiming to impress) to the vehicles parked in the driveway to the landscaping to the size of the lot. And near highly trafficked or public areas, the urge to look good may be hard to resist.