The best ASA talk I heard: Hampton and Wellman on moral panics and “persistent-pervasive” community

Internet and community scholars presented a paper on Sunday at the ASA meetings that addressed the widespread social concerns – or moral panic – over the loss of community and relationships due to smartphones, social media, and the Internet. They argue this particular argument is nothing new. For at least a century, Westerners and sociologists have argued various technological and social changes have harmed traditional notions of community. I’ll do my best to summarize the argument and they explained it should be in a published piece soon.

At the beginning of the discipline of sociology, leading figures lamented the loss of close-knit communities. Often based in villages or small cities, these societies were marked by close ties, shared cultural values, and limited interaction with the outside world. Tönnies called this gemeinscahft and Durkheim labeled it mechanical solidarity. The development of capitalism, industrialization, and megacities upended these traditional ways of life with increased mobility, moving away from relatives, and the fragmentation of collective values. Tönnies called this gesellschaft and Durkheim termed this organic solidarity. Marx also responded to these major social changes by arguing workers experienced alienation as they were now cogs in a capitalistic machine rather than free individuals. Writing specifically about cities, Simmel worried that dense population centers would lead to overstimulated minds and cause mental distress.

But, the changes kept coming. Urbanization took off – and is still happening at amazing rates in many parts of the world – and was later supplanted by suburbanization in the United States (and a few other countries). Critics also claimed suburbanization ruined community. Whereas urban residents interacted with numerous neighbors and often lived in ethnic enclaves, suburbs moved people to private single-family homes, encouraged individual interests, and produced conformity. Numerous critics inside and outside sociology argued suburbs limits civil society.

The Internet, smartphones, and social media then disrupted suburban communities with a move away from the limits of proximity and geography. Now, users could interact with other users unconstrained by time and space. Close ties could be abandoned in favor of ties based on common interests. Users had little reason to contribute to civil society based on geography. As Jean Twenge argued in The Atlantic, the introduction of the iPhone marks a turning point toward a host of negative individual and collective outcomes.

Hampton and Wellman make this point: all of these technological and social changes and their effects on communities afforded both new opportunities and limitations. In a shift from close-knit communities to post-industrial community to what they now call “persistent-pervasive community,” people gained things and lost others. The new form of community offers two primary strengths: the ability to engage in long-term relationships that in the past would have disappeared as people moved geographically and socially as well as a new awareness of information, people, and the world around them. Going back to earlier stages of community, a world of closer face-to-face bonds or geographically-bounded relationships, might lead to negative outcomes like repression, conformity, hierarchy, constraints, and a lack of awareness of important causes like social justice and equality.

In the end, should a moral panic push Americans back toward an earlier form of community or should we recognize that the persistent-pervasive community of today contains both opportunities and threats?

(Three reasons why I resonated with this talk. First, it combines two areas of research in which I engage: suburban communities and social network site use. Both are communities and institutions yet they are typically treated as separate spheres. Additionally, both are relatively ignored by mainstream sociology even as more than 50% of Americans live in suburbs and the vast majority of Americans are affected by the Internet and social media. Second, a balanced approach where social change is recognized as having both positive and negative consequences fits my personality as well as my research findings. Sometimes, the negative consequences of social change are easy to identify but often the change happens because groups and institutions believe there is something to be gained by changes. Third, while there is always a danger in simplified explanations of large-scale social change, I think sociologists can contribute much by explaining broad changes over time.)

Possibly dropping the word “race” from Census 2020

The Census Bureau is considering whether to use the term “race” in future surveys:

The U.S. Census Bureau is experimenting with eliminating the word “race” altogether in its 2020 survey, according to a report from the Pew Research Center on Thursday.

As part of its final research push before finalizing its 2020 wording, test-census forms will be sent to 1.2 million households later this fall in without any references to “race” or “origin.” Instead, the forms will ask: “Which categories describe person 1?” Respondents will then be able to choose from the usual list of racial and ethnic categories.

According to Pew, Census officials want to be clearer with their questions so that officials can gather more accurate data as required by law. Past testing and focus-group research has indicated confusion among found that the terms “race,” “ethnicity” and “origin” can mislead or confuse respondents, they can mean different things depending on the person answering.

“We recognize that race and ethnicity are not quantifiable values. Rather, identity is a complex mix of one’s family and social environment, historical or socio-political constructs, personal experience, context, and many other immeasurable factors,” the Census Bureau noted in a 2013 report on past testing efforts in the 2010 census. The report also recommended continued research on optimizing the use of examples for each racial and ethnic category, among other strategies…

The Bureau is also testing the use of a “Middle Eastern or North African” category within the current lineup.

It is not surprising to see such changes as the societal and Census definitions of race and ethnicity have changed quite a bit over time. Additionally, social researchers have to keep up with the changing societal definitions and understandings.

If major changes are coming in future Census surveys, how easy will it be to compare this data with past data?

The artificial constructs of the French Republican Calendar and the metric system

The first French Republic introduced two new ideas – a new calendar and the metric system – but only one of them stuck.

The Republican Calendar lasted a meager twelve years before Napoleon reinstated the Gregorian on January 1, 1805. It was, in a way, perhaps a victim of its own success, as Eviatar Zerubavel suggests. “One of the most remarkable accomplishments of the calendar reformers was exposing people to the naked truth, that their traditional calendar, whose absolute validity they had probably taken for granted, was a mere social artifact and by no means unalterable,” Zerubavel writes. However, this truth works both ways, and what the French reformers found was that “it was impossible to expose the conventionality and artificiality of the traditional calendar without exposing those of any other calendar, including the new one, at the same time.” While the Earth’s orbit is not a fiction, any attempt to organize that orbit’s movement into a rigid order is as arbitrary as any other.

It’s not entirely a fluke that the Republican Calendar failed while another of the Revolutionaries’ great projects — the Metric system — was a wild success. Unlike Metric-standard conversions, or, for that matter, Gregorian-Julian conversions, there was no way to translate the days of the Republican Calendar to the Gregorian calendar, which meant that France found itself isolated from other nations. But more importantly, the Metric system did not, in itself, threaten social order, and the natural diurnal rhythms of human lived experience that have evolved over millennia. By suddenly asserting a ten-day work week, with one day of rest for nine days’ work, the Republicans completely up-ended the ergonomics of the day, and this — more so than the religious function of the old calendar — was what was irreplaceable. The Metric system of weights and measurements marks a triumph of sense over tradition — it’s just plain easier to work with multiples of tens than the odd figures of the Standard measurement system. But in the case of calendars and time, convention wins out over sense.

Pretty fascinating to think how parts of social life that we often take for granted – the calendar and time, measurement – have complicated social histories. It didn’t necessarily have to turn out this way, as the rest of the discussion of the calendar demonstrates. Yet, once we are socialized into a particular system and may even passionately defend the way it is constructed without really knowing the reasons behind it, it can be very hard to conceive of a different way of doing things.

Sociologist on who gets to define ISIS as a terrorist group

How did ISIS come to be defined as a terrorist group? A sociologist explains:

While there are a number of militant groups in Syria that foreign governments could focus on, ISIS has three things that makes it appear as a pressing threat. First, ISIS’s sudden advances in Iraq were an unanticipated event, and consequently created a media spectacle. No one really expected the Iraqi central government or Kurdish authorities to lose control of major cities and sites so quickly. Once they did, there was a major story there. Second, and related, the group has territorial control. While ISIS had controlled territory in Syria and Iraq previously, the declaration of an Islamic State in late June creates a clear target. There is little evidence that the Islamic State intends to directly attack outside of Iraq and Syria, but territorial control signals capability and threat, in the same way that aviation attacks do, as Miner and I argued in our study. Finally, ISIS engages in classically “terrorist” behavior—beheadings of captives and attacks on civilian populations. In essence, it’s the combination of sudden success, territorial control, and markers of terrorism that bring attention to the Islamic State.

None of these are sufficient explanations by themselves…

Even before the video-taped beheadings, the attacks on Yezidis and other religious minorities seemed to signify international terrorism to the American public. There’s a seemingly odd confusion here in public opinion. While the Taliban in Afghanistan never carried out international terrorism, they were the target of the American response to September 11th just as much as Al-Qaeda was. Similarly, in Iraq, various militant groups were seen as international terrorists even without action beyond the context of the Iraqi Insurgency. Americans have thus learned to think of any militant Islamic group as terrorists; all the group needs to do is reveal its Islamicness. Attacks on religious minorities certainly do that. In this environment, beheading hostages is just another marker, especially as it echoes the acts of previously militants defined as terrorists—Al Qaeda’s beheading of Daniel Pearl in 2002 or the frequent beheadings of captives by Al Qaeda in Iraq during the Insurgency…

ISIS really demonstrates the large amount of variation there is among “terrorist” groups. There are lots of different ideologies, lots of different goals, and lots of different types of groups among militants. While policymakers and the public tend to view certain forms, such as transnational networks of Islamists, as threatening, organizational forms might be best seen as different ways of solving resource dilemmas and meeting goals.

While there are a number of militant groups in Syria that foreign governments could focus on, ISIS has three things that makes it appear as a pressing threat. First, ISIS’s sudden advances in Iraq were an unanticipated event, and consequently created a media spectacle. No one really expected the Iraqi central government or Kurdish authorities to lose control of major cities and sites so quickly. Once they did, there was a major story there. Second, and related, the group has territorial control. While ISIS had controlled territory in Syria and Iraq previously, the declaration of an Islamic State in late June creates a clear target. There is little evidence that the Islamic State intends to directly attack outside of Iraq and Syria, but territorial control signals capability and threat, in the same way that aviation attacks do, as Miner and I argued in our study. Finally, ISIS engages in classically “terrorist” behavior—beheadings of captives and attacks on civilian populations. In essence, it’s the combination of sudden success, territorial control, and markers of terrorism that bring attention to the Islamic State.

None of these are sufficient explanations by themselves.

– See more at: http://blog.oup.com/2014/09/decides-isis-terrorist-group/#sthash.5V5lFlam.dpuf

While there are a number of militant groups in Syria that foreign governments could focus on, ISIS has three things that makes it appear as a pressing threat. First, ISIS’s sudden advances in Iraq were an unanticipated event, and consequently created a media spectacle. No one really expected the Iraqi central government or Kurdish authorities to lose control of major cities and sites so quickly. Once they did, there was a major story there. Second, and related, the group has territorial control. While ISIS had controlled territory in Syria and Iraq previously, the declaration of an Islamic State in late June creates a clear target. There is little evidence that the Islamic State intends to directly attack outside of Iraq and Syria, but territorial control signals capability and threat, in the same way that aviation attacks do, as Miner and I argued in our study. Finally, ISIS engages in classically “terrorist” behavior—beheadings of captives and attacks on civilian populations. In essence, it’s the combination of sudden success, territorial control, and markers of terrorism that bring attention to the Islamic State.

None of these are sufficient explanations by themselves.

– See more at: http://blog.oup.com/2014/09/decides-isis-terrorist-group/#sthash.5V5lFlam.dpuf

Appears to be a combination of militant Islam and specific actions like drawing attention through victories, controlling territory, and beheadings. But, it still has to be defined as terrorism – these traits on their own don’t automatically confer such a status unless other states and actors do so. When it is the United States or other powerful bodies doing the deciding, a matter of definitions can matter quite a bit.

One implication here is that switching up a few things such as changing the specific place (the Middle East already draws extra attention given recent years) or the religious background of the group or actions receiving less media attention might lead to a very different definition of the group.

Traffic deaths predicted to be 5th leading cause of death in the developing world

Even as the conversation about safer autonomous cars picks up in the United States, traffic deaths are an increasing problem in the developing world:

It has a global death toll of 1.24 million per year and is on course to triple to 3.6 million per year by 2030.

In the developing world, it will become the fifth leading cause of death, leapfrogging past HIV/AIDS, malaria, tuberculosis and other familiar killers, according to the most recent Global Burden of Disease study.

The victims tend to be poor, young and male.

In one country — Indonesia — the toll is now nearly 120 dead per day; in Nigeria, it is claiming 140 lives each day…

In 2010, the U.N. General Assembly adopted a resolution calling for a “Decade of Action for Road Safety.” The goal is to stabilize and eventually reverse the upward trend in road fatalities, saving an estimated 5 million lives during the period. The World Bank and other regional development banks have made road safety a priority, but according to Irigoyen, donor funding lags “very far below” the $24 billion that has been pledged to the Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria.

It sounds like while diseases are well known and relatively well-funded, not many people have caught on to the problems of traffic deaths. This is all about social construction: where are the Bill Gates of the world to come in and tackle traffic problems in poorer nations?

Perhaps this gets less attention it is because cars are viewed as things that may help developing countries improve: owning them means citizens have more economic power and have more independence to get around as well as help their own economic chances (can carry things around, etc.). Particularly from an American point of view, cars are generally good things. But, of course, cars bring other problems in addition to safety concerns: pollution (a huge problem in many large cities), clogged streets, and an infrastructure that may not be able to handle lots of new cars on the roads (maintaining roads, having enough police, driver training, cities that have to redevelop areas to accommodate wider roads).

It will be interesting to see if this gets more attention in the coming years. It is one thing to discuss longer-term consequences of cars like increasing pollution but it is another to ignore large numbers of deaths each day.

Is the media narrative that bullying directly leads to suicide a social construction?

A member of the Poynter Institute argues the media narrative that bullying leads to suicide is too simple:

The common narrative goes like this: Mean kids, usually the most popular and powerful, single out and relentlessly bully a socially weaker classmate in a systemic and calculated way, which then drives the victim into a darkness where he or she sees no alternative other than committing suicide.

And yet experts – those who study suicide, teen behavior and the dynamics of cyber interactions of teens – all say that the facts are rarely that simple. And by repeating this inaccurate story over and over, journalists are harming the public’s ability to understand the dynamics of both bullying and suicide…

Yet when journalists (and law enforcement, talking heads and politicians) imply that teenage suicides are directly caused by bullying, we reinforce a false narrative that has no scientific support. In doing so, we miss opportunities to educate the public about the things we could be doing to reduce both bullying and suicide…

It is journalistically irresponsible to claim that bullying leads to suicide. Even in specific cases where a teenager or child was bullied and subsequently commits suicide, it’s not accurate to imply the bullying was the direct and sole cause behind the suicide.

I don’t know this literature too well outside of reading some work by Michael Kimmel on gender and bullying and Katherine Newman et al. regarding school shootings. Some thoughts:

1. Bullying is not a good thing, even if it doesn’t lead to tragic outcomes.

2. Even if a majority of kids who are bullied don’t commit suicide, that doesn’t mean that there isn’t a relationship. It might be that under certain conditions (perhaps social and environmental conditions or perhaps it has to do with more individual physiological traits) this relationship is more likely.

3. It seems that the media does not generally do very well in conveying complex stories. Perhaps it is because they don’t lend themselves to soundbites and headlines. Perhaps it is the need to find the winners, just like on ESPN. Perhaps the audience doesn’t want a complex story. But, look at any of the major events of recent years that have drawn a lot of media attention – from invading Iraq to Hurricane Katrina to the Trayvon Martin case – and you see relatively simple narratives for incredibly complex situations. Context matters.

As researchers look more at this issue, this is a reminder that the public perceptions of tragic events matter.

h/t Instapundit

Illinois revenue issue: “sin taxes” can’t keep pace

Even as legislators raise “sin taxes,” it is difficult for the state to bring in as much revenue from such taxes:

While state lawmakers continue to increase taxes on liquor, cigarettes and gambling, revenues from the so-called “sin taxes” aren’t keeping pace. At $1.95 billion, 2012 revenue from those taxes was almost on par with that of 2003, even though most tax rates increased significantly, according to a Daily Herald analysis of Illinois Department of Revenue financial reports…

Since tobacco taxes were raised in 2002, revenues steadily have declined to pre-hike levels as cigarette purchases dropped in Illinois. Legislators last year doubled tobacco taxes, but revenue did not keep up. After getting $609 million in tobacco taxes in the previous fiscal year, the state generated $856.5 million from tobacco taxes in the fiscal year that wrapped up a few months ago, according to the state legislature’s Commission on Government Forecasting and Accountability…

While taxes on things like cigarettes and liquor are relatively easy to sell to many taxpayers, critics say a failure to maintain these revenue levels ultimately results in higher taxes for everyone. It’s no surprise to Illinois Policy Institute Executive Vice President Kristina Rasmussen that sales and income tax rates have also increased in recent years…

The state’s sales and income tax projections are also eroded by buyers going elsewhere for alcohol, cigarettes and similar products. Rasmussen said legislators are taking a shortsighted approach to revenue enhancements instead of solving long-term debt problems.

It is more popular politically to go after sin taxes than to look at larger spending or taxing issues.

But, what counts as a “sin” is also interesting to note – it is quite a social construction. Cigarettes are seen as a huge threat to public health but are not illegal. Alcohol was once banned on a national level and there were decades of temperance movements but it too is legal and brings in a lot of revenue beyond sin taxes – think what restaurants generate. Marijuana is a growing sin tax alternative as some places look to cut costs: instead of jailing users and sellers, why not just ticket them or tax them, making money off of behavior that is still seen as deviant. Thus, it isn’t surprising as more of these traditional “sins” fail to generate sufficient revenue that new sins are identified, from red-light cameras to speed cameras to soft drinks to junk food and beyond.