Beyond technological advances: “50 Social Innovations that Changed the World”

After reading The Atlantic‘s recent list of the 50 greatest inventions, one reader sends in a list of the most important social innovations. Here is the top 10 – in chronological order:

50 Social innovations that changed the world more or less in chronological order.  Rank order in top 10 shown in [ ]

1. Irrigation that
2. created a structured bureaucracy, land measurement and administration in Egypt and Mesopotamia
3. mathematics [3]
4. creation of nations as workable structures
5. empires based  on bureaucracy and military discipline
6. writing, instructions could be sent over distance – Incas used knots [1]
7. written rules and laws – the lawyers and courts as independent
8. alphabet [11]
9. agriculture and and animal husbandry skills that could be recorder and spread
10. history as peoples myths and lessons…

One could argue that these social skills made other technologies possible. It provided a social infrastructure. Imagine trying to large social groups without bureaucracy. While it often gets a bad name today, you couldn’t have the Roman army or city-states or the modern welfare state without bureaucracy.

I’m a little surprised that language isn’t included here – writing makes it but perhaps language predates the beginning of this list. It is also intriguing that economics and political science make the end of the list – perhaps this betrays the opinions of the author but few other academic disciplines make the list.

Why more Americans are living alone

A new book by sociologist Eric Klinenberg tries to explain why more American are living alone:

Despite these risks, more and more people all over the world have decided that living alone is their best option. In the United States, 31 million people—one in seven adults—live alone, accounting for a remarkable 28% of households. That’s up from just 9% in 1950. Americans may think of themselves as uniquely self-reliant, thanks perhaps to Emerson, but the trend is even more pronounced in other affluent countries…

Why are people making this choice? For the many women who outlive their husbands, healthy single older men are scarce. Young and old alike, meanwhile, recognize that family togetherness, when it is not wonderful, can be conflict-ridden and downright awful. Roommates, at any age, hold little appeal. Not least, people go solo because they can afford it. Living alone is a luxury good that, like the purchase of a car or the increased consumption of meat, flourishes in societies that have become affluent.

But people also seem motivated by a loss of faith in the very idea of family. Mr. Klinenberg quotes Joseph Schumpeter’s observation that, as soon as people stop taking traditional arrangements for granted, “they cannot fail to become aware of the heavy personal sacrifices that family ties and especially parenthood entail.” Or as the sociologist Andrew Cherlin puts it, today “one’s primary obligation is to oneself rather than to one’s partner and children.”…

Most important, perhaps, is the increased value we place on autonomy. Since Dr. Spock, mothers and infants have departed from the age-old practice of sleeping together, and middle-class babies are now often placed in their own rooms. Swelling home sizes made this possible; from 1960 to 1980, the ratio of bedrooms to children in the average U.S. family rose to 1.1 from 0.7, so that nowadays parents and kids are rarely together in the same room—even for eating. Students increasingly expect a private room at college. Assuming that they do share quarters for a while after graduation, the move to an apartment of one’s own is now, writes Mr. Klinenberg, “the crucial turning point between second adolescence and becoming an adult.”

The review suggests Klinenberg thinks is a lasting trend but we’ll have to wait and see. What would it take for people to reverse the trend and have more people living in households or to want to take on the responsibility of having a family?

Perhaps Klinenberg doesn’t have the data to address this but I wonder how much people living alone interact with others – are they more involved in organizations, have higher levels of civic engagement, are more involved with others online, etc.?

It is interesting to think about this on college campuses – does anyone have numbers about how many college students do live in single rooms or how many would like to? Of course, few college students have ever lived with others in the same room when they arrive on campus so outside of marriage, this may be the only “normal” time for this to happen. If living in single rooms becomes a norm on campus, does this significantly alter the college experience?

A student’s inside view of the Sociology of Lady Gaga course

Several months ago, the Internet was worked up over a new sociology class being offered at the University of South Carolina: Lady Gaga and the Sociology of the Fame. I read numerous articles about this with a number asking some variation on the question, “How exactly is this proper material for a college course?”

A student in the course offers an inside view – and it sounds like they are doing what the course title says: sociology.

I’m four classes into “Lady Gaga and the Sociology of the Fame,” and every day, someone new demands, “What are you doing in there?” Maybe, like Cosmo, they envision that I clothe myself in bubble wrap and lunch meat as part of my pre-class ritual…

This is a serious course about the sociology of music. What it does not cover: The coded symbolism behind “Alejandro”; Gaga’s decision to wear a dress made of Kermit the Frogs; whether she has a disco stick for real. This is, as my professor underlines, a class about the social conditions that contribute to the fame of Lady Gaga.

And here is the description of the final project for the class:

At this point, we will turn in research papers detailing a single social condition contributing to Gaga’s fame – and then, we will analyze her fame. The findings of our papers will have an effect on the direction of discussion because, as Deflem argues, fame is as much about the fans that popularize the famous as it is about the artist.

Although the subject matter and the title are aimed at gaining attention (it seems to have worked to some degree as the student says some students are in the class because they are curious – though I doubt the school could have guessed at the number of outside people who ended up commenting on the class), the class sounds like a fairly normal sociology class: to explain why social life happens as it does.

And the headline, “Why Lady Gaga Class Is Not Sexy,” seems misleading as the student suggests she keeps coming back to class to see “where this semester is going and just how Gaga we’re going to get.”

The new American normal: pursuing an enriched social life rather than spending

Sociologist Amitai Etzoni argues that Americans have reached a point where from this point on they may choose to enhance their social lives rather than consume:

The Great Recession provides a golden opportunity to test Maslow’s prescription. As most everybody has read by now, we lived beyond our means for decades, and we borrowed about all we could from overseas and indebted our children. It’s payback time.

There is no way on earth Americans over the next decade will continue to experience the kind of increases in income, and hence standards of living, we have seen since World War II. The question is if they will respond in anger — or benefit, by dedicating themselves, once their basic needs are sated, to spending more time with each other, their children, in social activities and cultural pursuits.

Polls suggest that large numbers are ready.

As Etzioni notes at the end of this piece, the real test of these opinions will come once the economy recovers. If people have more income and disposable income, will they return to their consumerist ways?

But perhaps these attitudes will lead to something different: a society that no longer desires or tries to attain explosive growth periods. Perhaps the true non-consumerist society will be content with slow but consistent growth.

Trying to figure out why crime rates are down

Crime rates are down but experts are having difficulty figuring out exactly why:

There are no neat answers. Among the theories: As overall economic activity slows, more people who otherwise would be at work are unemployed and at home, and when they do travel they are not as likely to carry items of value, so burglaries and street robberies decline.

In the 1970s and early 1980s, when the economy went south crime rates went up. Inflation was high then, low now. Is that the difference? For the experts, it’s back to the drawing board.

A couple of thoughts:

1. In a large system like American society, it can be very difficult to isolate individual or even small groups of factors that are causing the downward trend in crime. Some might take this as evidence that social scientists can’t figure anything out about society. I would suggest that it simply illustrates how complex social life can be.

2. Perhaps like the economy, politicians will get credit for crime going down and get blamed if crime goes up even if policies had little known effect on these changes.

3. Across American society, do the American people perceive that crime has gone down? While the statistics say it has, do people feel safer? This is an issue of how crime is portrayed and whether individuals accept these societal-level figures (if they even ever see them) over anecdotal evidence.