Would less door-to-door trick-or-treating and more community Halloween events decrease or increase social interactions?

If Halloween is indeed evolving away from neighborhood trick-or-treating (good discussion here), are the replacement or alternative or additional events in downtowns, at churches, and activities organized by other groups leading to more or less community and social interactions? Thinking out loud:

-Going door-to-door often involves interacting with people who are near you in physical proximity. Even if neighborhood interactions are declining, people would be more likely to run into each other at other times just because they live near each other.

-Going to centralized Halloween events in other locations means more people might gather together. But, their interactions might be limited. Perhaps it depends on what commonalities people at the event may share – a church event could involve a number of core community members as could a downtown event where local luminaries or figures are involved. On the other hand, community or organized events could involve more people just dropping in and out after acquiring candy and a lower likelihood of later interactions.

In both cases, the practice of getting candy could do little to build community if (1) candy is the only goal and (2) the likelihood of subsequent interactions is limited. It would be easy to turn Halloween into an exercise is gathering a commodity with few opportunities to interact with people.

And more broadly, how much is Halloween a family or community holiday compared to other big celebrations like Christmas, Thanksgiving, and July 4th?

Dating and the coming and going of parlors

Skimming through a conservative take on dating in the modern era, I ran into a part involving the physical spaces where couples interact:

As a result, courtship morphed into dating, with couples venturing from family parlors and front porches to dance halls and, yes, the proverbial back seat. The parlor courtship rituals had been, of course, dependent on one’s family actually having a home with a parlor. As a result of the industrial revolution, families increasingly lived in tenements and apartments that lacked such amenities, so the shift was as much forced by the demographic shifts in the U.S. as by changes in cultural mores.

I could quibble with the details and take interest in the larger issue. Regarding the parlor, I would guess that many Americans in the 1800s into the 1900s did not have access to a parlor. This formal living room was part of a larger home of a wealthier family. Until then, many people lived in a single room or a limited number of rooms where it would be a waste to have a formal entertaining space that could have only a single use. This was true in rural settings – think of the first dwellings in the Little House on the Prairie books – and cities – apartments and limited space. The parlor/living room was linked to the middle-class and the single-family home, something that became part of a consistent American Dream in the early 1900s and became more accessible to more Americans in the 1920s and then the 1950s. And the parlor lasted only so long: living rooms are on the way out with more emphasis on using kitchens and great rooms for social spaces.

The larger issue is worth pondering: how do physical spaces shape relationships and vice versa? Spaces matter for relationships to form and develop. The ideal that developed in the 1800s emphasized a nuclear family dwelling in a private home. Additionally, the middle-class private home was viewed as the domain of women. Thus, intimate relationships moved to this setting. With the invention and then spread of the automobile, people could pursue relationships in cars as well as more easily access other locations. Urbanization likely had a similar effect: by putting people into close proximity with more people and more spaces, couples could easily access more than just the family dwelling. Today, dating can take place in an online realm and the privacy of bedrooms, possibly bypassing any public settings.

Including shopping malls on a list of former unifying institutions

It not news that Americans have less confidence in institutions and participate less in civic and voluntary associations. Yet, can we include shopping malls as part of a list of institutions that used to bring Americans together? Nancy Gibbs, the former editor-in-chief at Time, suggests as much:

For reasons cultural, economic, demographic, psychographic, we are divided as a country perhaps not more, but differently than ever before. What were once unifying institutions are declining—Rotary Clubs, churches, even malls. Unifying values, around speech and civility, freedom and fairness are shredded by rising tribal furies and passions. We have a president for whom division is not just a strategy, it’s a skill.

The best argument I have seen for how shopping malls bring people together is from sociologist Elijah Anderson who argues in The Cosmopolitan Canopy that certain shopping areas can bring together people across race and class lines. Malls in the past and present were places that could encourage contact – at least some proximity – between people of different backgrounds as they hunted for consumer goods or entertainment.

However, shopping malls are not doing well these days. With the rise of big box stores and online shopping, people simply do not go to the mall as much any longer. They may have similar experiences encountering the other in other retail settings – as one professor once told our class, you need to go to Walmart to see the real America – but there is now much freedom to avoid other shoppers all together.

Ultimately, I am a little hesitant to place shopping malls past or present on a list of unifying institutions. This is because much of the activity is driven by consumers seeking out the best deal with themselves and occasionally interacting with or noticing others. Malls are about consumption, not interacting with people. In contrast, traditional markers of civic decline – like political behavior or participating in voluntary organizations – require a higher level of interaction with people. If the shopping mall is the best we can hope for in terms of Americans interacting with each other, we are already in trouble.

Societal goals: avoiding society through online shopping

The comic Take It From the Tinkersons recently had a strip hinting at a major consequence of online shopping:

While this might be a bit of hyperbole, there is some truth to this. Is one of the appeals of online shopping the ability to avoid society and social interactions? Even shopping at your local big box store requires rubbing shoulders with other shoppers and a brief interaction with a cashier (even with self-checkout, you still have an overseer).

At the least, online shopping provides evidence of the significant shift that happened in Western societies in the last few hundred years. The earliest sociologists were very interested in the switch from tight-knit village or agrarian life to the less connected and varied urban life. Marx saw tremendous consequences for labor and the individual within an economic system rooted in burgeoning cities. Durkheim compared mechanical and organic solidarity, a shift toward a complex division of labor where individuals now depended on others to do essential tasks for their lives. Tonnies contrasted gemeinschaft and gesellschaft, more direct social interactions versus indirect social interactions.

Online shopping of the sorts we have today may only be possible in a highly complex and individualized society such as our own. The process of moving a product from its production point to a warehouse to your home or business through online clicks is quite complicated and amazing. Yet, it really does limit social interactions on the shopping end. As private individuals, we can now make choices and receive our products away from scrutiny. It would be an error to think that this private purchase is now removed from social influence – with the spread of media and influence of social media, we may be influenced by generalized social pressures more than ever – but the direct social experience is gone.

This could have big implications for social life. Will buying habits significantly change now that immediate social interactions and social pressure is removed? Will we become used to such social transactions not involving people that we will be willing to remove social interactions from other areas? There will certainly be consequences of increasing online shopping and public life – even if it is related to individuals consuming products in a capitalistic system – may just suffer for it.

 

Can neighbors act respectfully toward a nearby teardown McMansion owner?

McMansions constructed in established neighborhoods can draw the ire of neighbors but one resident of Frederick, Maryland suggests civility should win the day:

As for the Magnolia Avenue controversy, the proposed house to be built is certainly not a mass-built, PUD-style “McMansion.” I believe it is just like the one being built near West Second Street and College. I walked down Magnolia the other day and there are numerous, very nice modifications to existing homes that I believe are inconsistent with the original architecture and a couple of houses that have been remodeled that don’t look like others there. I don’t think those modifications would have been allowed if this neighborhood were in the historical preservation area. I think the Artises’ home will be a great asset to the neighborhood. But now is not the time to restrict the Artises’ property rights after they made a significant financial decision based on existing laws and regulations.

I have met the Artis family. They are really nice people, and I believe any neighborhood would love to have them as their neighbor. Regardless of how this all turns out, I hope that we all remember that this is about a family more than it is about a house, and that our comments and discussions should remain kind and respectful — because we may be getting some nice new neighbors soon. We can’t just roll up the sidewalks once we move in and not allow anyone else in.

Granted, this resident is in favor of property rights and does not seem to mind the particular proposed home. But, the larger question is intriguing: is a McMansion next door or down the street worth incivility for years or a lifetime? The examples cited in the media – such as neighbors suing each other or consistently bringing the issue to the local government – suggest this is hard to do. Many would feel strongly if their immediate surroundings were impacted in a way that they felt was (1) negative and harmful as well as (2) unnecessary. Some would say that the teardown McMansion infringes on their quality of life and finances. They would suggest their anger and actions are justified.

At the same time, there are thousands of teardowns across the United States each year. How do the neighbors treat each other? Do they welcome the new homeowner to the neighborhood? If they dislike the new home, is there a frostiness that lasts a long time or does it eventually thaw? (For example, would someone deny their kid the chance to play with the kid in the new McMansion?) Perhaps the real answer is that many communities do not have thriving local social interactions to start with so the teardown issues do not matter much in the long run.

For more background on this particular case in Frederick, read here.

The direct and indirect social pressure to buy the bigger house

One money manager explains the difficulty he experienced in not buying the largest house his financial resources allowed:

Our home is unimpressive. I love it, don’t get me wrong. We are very, very comfortable. It is way more than enough space for our family of four. Right now we’re even doing a full remodel of the basement. But I know that compared to many of my peers, our house isn’t the massive, brick-laden, towering McMansion that says “we’ve arrived.” We bought our home days before I quit my last job and launched this firm. We paid $265,000 and financed almost all of it as I was hoarding cash for us to live on since we had zero income.

I’ve had one client visit our home after our youngest daughter was born and I remember distinctly a feeling of anxiety that our modest home wouldn’t measure up to expectations. What I felt bordered on shame. Would people think I was “successful” if they saw our home? Does it present a picture of someone who is responsible, intelligent and capable? Does it represent someone who should be entrusted with managing client assets that now exceed $150 million?

I’ve come to terms with it, but these ideas still creep into my head. I like that we live well within our means. It brings me immeasurable happiness, quite frankly. But there is a lingering social pressure. A fear of a stigma that occasionally whispers from some deep recess in my mind. In general I’m not a person who is given to care much what other people think about me. (Seriously, ask my wife about this one)…

If I can feel these pressures, I imagine they could be stronger for many others. A house is a man’s castle, after all. A giant, expensive, cumbersome representation of your value to society. What would you think if your successful doctor or lawyer or local business owner lived in an average middle-class house? Is s/he in financial trouble? Recently bankrupted? Paying off bad debts? How many Americans would think “Wow, good for them. They have figured out what makes them happy and are spending/saving money in that way.” Can’t say I think it would be many.

There seem to be two kinds of social pressures hinted at here:

  1. Direct pressure where someone says or does something in response to the house.
  2. Indirect pressure where there are standards to uphold, whether within a neighborhood, business sector (the financial one here), or society.

At least in this piece, the money manager only suggests indirect pressure. No one negatively commented about his house or the client who visited did not withdraw their business because the house wasn’t as impressive as it could be. Yet, this indirect pressure – the feeling that there is a standard to conform to and violating that standard has negative consequences – can be consequential.

So where exactly does this indirect pressure to buy a large house come from? There are probably many sources including: conversations we have with family, friends, and acquaintances about what is the “proper” home (as well as observations of the actions of those same people); media depictions of homes (from TV shows to HGTV to commercials to news stories); financial, real estate, and governmental institutions that depict and enable the purchase of large homes; and a society that prizes and promotes consumerism as a primary mechanism of the economy as well as a key marker of our status.

How difficult it is to resist this pressure may depend on the individual as well as their social position. Of course, making a decision to consume something other than the large house – say, a tiny house instead – may also just be another decision made in the interest of conformity and status seeking.

Diversity in a community does not necessarily lead to diversity in interaction

Having a diverse population within a municipality or neighborhood doesn’t guarantee the groups will interact or work together:

Although my neighborhood was majority-black for much of my life, most of my friends were white. The same held for most of my parents’ friends. The kids I played with on my block were white. Diversity segregation of this kind manifested in other ways too. Mount Rainier is divided between single-family homes and the WWII-era brick garden apartment complexes that house two-thirds of the population. By the 1990s, these were overwhelmingly populated by people of color, while almost all of the white population lived in the single-family homes…

“On paper we are so diverse, but we really are not integrated,” Christopherson, Miles’ opponent in the mayor’s race, told me in the spring. “Just because you are exposed to people from the West Indies or El Salvador, or African Americans and whites, that has only a little benefit. But what if you were also coming together in a city committee or city events?”…

At present, Mount Rainier is still majority-black, and there are plenty of Hispanic and black homeowners. But consider the most extreme scenario, in which the single-family housing stock largely becomes the preserve of white professionals while working-class people of color remain in the apartments. In that case, Mount Rainier would experience a dispiritingly familiar form of segregation, where urban design and geography separate races. The two housing stocks in town do not share the same commercial corridors. The residents of the apartments are often transitory, and they do not vote as often. They tend to not identify with the commercial corridor near U.S. 1, which contains the Glut Food Co-op and harbors much of the civic infrastructure. Instead, the residents of the brick, multifamily housing do their shopping on the high-speed autocentric Queen’s Chapel Road commercial corridor.

The proposed solution? More interaction across groups within the public school system:

“The important thing is consistent exposure over a long period of time,” says Camille Z. Charles, professor of sociology at the University of Pennsylvania and director of its Center for Africana Studies. “We are often friendlier with people we actually interact with. We do find there is lasting benefit to that, which is why we think it is important to have [diversity] in schools because kids spend so much time in classrooms and on school campuses.”

Four quick thoughts:

  1. This is where Census data can let us down and experience on the ground is helpful. From a macro level, a community or city can look very diverse. An obvious example is a major city like Chicago which is around 45% white but is one of the most segregated cities in America. However, this also happens in much smaller communities as well. Take Wheaton, Illinois. Starting in the late 1800s, a small population of blacks lived on the east side of the city. This was unusual: very few Chicago suburbs had any black residents. But, how much interaction was there between groups in Wheaton?
  2. The author notes that this community is unusual in that a sizable white population remained even as the black population grew. This doesn’t happen in many places: as minorities move in, whites leave.
  3. While race is highlighted here as the dividing force, it sounds like social class is also a factor. While the two areas are closely intertwined, addressing one without the other may be as profitable.
  4. The proposed solution in the public schools is not an unusual one. Yet, it does highlight how few social institutions in the United States really cut across racial or class lines. Where else might people of different groups interact when most other opportunities (from churches to local government to social clubs and civic groups) are segregated?