Innovative design in response to social needs and social conditions

The creativity in innovative design doesn’t come emerge from a vacuum: one academic explains how it is related to social forces.

“The ADA totally changed transport, architecture and every area where accessibility is important,” he says. “Design also develops out of a sense of social needs.”…

At a time when Jony Ive’s creations for Apple are as much status symbol as a technological advance, Margolin believes that the discipline’s potential lies in solving big problems and the creation of culture, not just the newest products…

He sees system design and a systemic perspective as key to innovation. Numerous modern inventions, such as Peapod and mobile banking, are built upon pre-existing infrastructure and only work well when they encompass different behaviors and user cases. Failures that ignore these perspectives are apparent every day…

Margolin also believes that innovation on a disruptive scale often requires a concept that creates a community of people around a common cause, such as the American mobilization of industry during WWII, the growth of research laboratories of mid-century American industry or the Silicon Valley of Steve Jobs’ era, inspired in part by the innovations of Xerox’s PARC research division.

This is related to one thing I try to impart in my Culture, Media, and Society course: despite our images of lone geniuses developing great novels, music, art, technology, etc., objects come out of a social process. This is the argument of a number of sociological works on cultural production and includes famous ideas like Becker’s idea of “art worlds.” You can also this in case studies of certain objects that once were not very popular but became popular through a series of events, such as the Mona Lisa whose stature was heightened by theft. Of course, social forces can also limit creativity whether we are talking about Babylonian culture in the first century BC where they were more interested in preservation of their past or in current copyright law that places restrictions on using created works.

Sociologists argue it is difficult to find causal data for how inequality leads to different outcomes

Two sociologists tackle the question of how exactly inequality is related to a variety of social outcomes and argue it is difficult to find causal, and not correlative, data:

For all the brain power thrown at the problem since then, however, specific evidence about inequality’s effects has been hard to find. Mr. Jencks said he could already picture the book’s reviews, “Professor Doesn’t Know What He Is Talking About.”…

One problem with these analyses is that they are based on correlations between levels of inequality and variables like life expectancy or the odds of poor children climbing the income ladder. But such correlations can’t prove inequality causes other social ills. They can’t disentangle inequality from the myriad things pushing American society this way and that.

Life expectancy in the United States might lag that of other countries because the United States still does not have universal health care. Scandinavia may enjoy higher upward mobility than the United States because governments in Sweden, Denmark and other Scandinavian countries invest a lot in early childhood education and the United States does not.

Lane Kenworthy, a sociologist at the University of Arizona, is all too aware of these limitations. He was to be Mr. Jencks’s co-author on the book about inequality’s consequences. Now he is going it alone, hoping to publish “Should We Worry About Inequality?” next year.

“People that worry about inequality for normative reasons have been very quick to jump on plausible hypothesis and a little bit of evidence to make sweeping conclusions about its consequences,” Professor Kenworthy told me.

It sounds like these sociologists are asking for some more methodological rigor in studying how inequality affects social life. Finding direct relationships between social forces and outcomes can be difficult but I look forward to seeing more work on the subject.

Read more in this follow-up interview with Lane Kenworthy.

The increasing sadness in pop music songs

A psychologist and sociologist looked at Billboard pop music hits since 1965 and found that the songs have become more sad:

“As the lyrics of popular music became more self-focused and negative over time, the music itself became sadder-sounding and more emotionally ambiguous,” according to psychologist E. Glenn Schellenberg and sociologist Christian von Scheve.

Analyzing Top 40 hits from the mid-1960s through the first decade of the 2000s, they find an increasing percentage of pop songs are written using minor modes, which most listeners—including children—associate with gloom and despair. In what may or may not be a coincidence, they also found the percentage of female artists at the top of the charts rose steadily through the 1990s before retreating a bit in the 2000s…

Strikingly, they found “the proportion of minor songs doubled over five decades.” In the second half of the 1960s, 85 percent of songs that made it to the top of the pop charts were written in a major mode. By the second half of the 2000s, that figure was down to 43.5 percent…

“The present findings have striking parallels to the evolution of classical music from 1600 to 1900,” Schellenberg and von Scheve write. “Throughout the 17th and 18th centuries …. Pieces tended to sound unambiguously happy or sad. By the 1800s, and the middle of the Romantic era, tempo and mode cues were more likely to conflict,” which allowed composers to express a wide range of emotions within a single piece.

I would be interested to hear how they relate these changes to larger social forces: does this line up with a greater sadness in society or perhaps the ability or proclivity to express negative emotions? I also wonder if the data is skewed at all by only looking at Top 40 songs – does all music reflect this or only the most popular songs (which then reflect the influence of musical gatekeepers such as radio stations, journalists, critics, and music labels)?

Also: could we have a period where we return to more major mode music? Can a musical genre, whether classical or pop music, recover from an extended period of “sadness”?

It is the best of times for teaching sociology and the worst of times for America

A minister and adjunct instructor of sociology raises an intriguing question: when times are good for teaching sociology, it may be bad times for society.

This is a great time for teaching sociology, which means it is a bad time.

The study of sociology was born of the Industrial Revolution when the gap between the rich and the poor became the greatest ever known. The two groups which I straddle; the religious community and the academic community, became interested and attempted to study social phenomenon with a scientific approach, replacing social myths with evidence and facts.

Somehow we have managed to return statistically to that time. In our country, the wealthiest one percent of the population own 33 percent of the wealth and the wealthiest 10 percent own 70 percent of “our” wealth. It seems we have returned to the ruling class mode of the 19th century in Russia and France—a time when America was awash with “robber barons.”

No wonder folks are taking to the streets.

I wonder if anyone has researched the relationship between the popularity and of sociology compared to the historical milieu. Sociology did emerge out of turbulent times in the mid 1800s but it also seemed to reach peaks in the United States in the prosperous 1920s (the Chicago School) and the 1960s and 1970s while there was both unrest and prosperity. Might this suggest that when academia thrives, i.e. student populations are increasing as well as budgets, sociology (and perhaps other disciplines) thrive? At the very least, we could look at how figures of undergraduate  majors and student enrolled in sociology graduate programs over the years. Perhaps there simply wouldn’t be many dips in the data as sociology programs expand over time and spread into more schools.

Probably the better argument to make here is that sociology appears more relevant in unsettled times. As society dips toward troubles and chaos, people want answers and explanations. Additionally, perceptions of social problems might be more important here than the scale of actual problems. However, I wonder if this tends to give sociology a bad name as people then equate it only with social problems rather than solutions and thriving societies.

Loss of Sunday as a day of rest more about sociology than loss of religious beliefs?

I’ve had several conversations in the last year or so about how Sundays have shifted from being days for church to normal days full of athletic activities, football, and shopping. One commentator suggests this change is due to larger sociological forces:

The revolution in the American Sunday was wrought not so much by paganism as it was by sociology. The workweek shrank from six to five days, and with two days free each week, Sunday lost its specialness. Women went to work, and retailers had to adjust their hours to suit them. The traditional American Sunday, which consisted largely of attending church and abstaining from work, was conditioned by cultural circumstances that no longer existed. Americans could not adapt themselves to 19th-century agrarian life.

So Sundays are the way they are because of an extended weekend, more women in the workforce, and an information-age society? Were all these changes necessary for this to come to pass or would have one, say the extended weekend, been enough to erode the importance of Sundays? What about the rise of the NFL? If these larger social forces are responsible for this change, what could religious congregations or others do to re-promote the Sunday as sabbath idea?

I wonder if someone has some hard data on when and how exactly this shift took place…

Suicide rates among the Baby Boomers

Suicide rates have long been of interest to sociologists, beginning with Emile Durkheim’s Suicide. The general argument from sociologists: suicide rates are reflective of broader social forces.

Recent research by two sociologists shows suicide rates among the baby boomers rose around the turn of the millennium. Here are some of the findings:

  • There was a substantial increase in the suicide rate for men (50-59) and women (40-59) between 1999 and 2005.  For men aged 40 to 49, the increase began about a decade earlier, in the late 1980s.
  • Increases in middle-aged suicide rates were typically greater among those who were unmarried.
  • The rise in suicide was particularly dramatic for people without college degrees, with increases near 30 percent.
  • People with college degrees seem to have escaped the trend.

Traditionally, U.S. suicide rates rise in adolescence and again in old age. They stabilize  in maturity and middle age, a time when people are invested in their families and work. For men in particular, suicide rates rise again in old age, when children are grown, illness is more frequent and spouses and contemporaries start to die.

The sociologists speculate that economic pressures played a role in these rising rates.

Based on findings like these, can we expect that the economic troubles of the last few years also led to higher suicide rates?