Moral minimalism and addressing social issues

In the 1989 study The Moral Order of a Suburb, sociologist M. P. Baumgartner argued that suburban order rested on what she called “moral minimalism”:

A kind of moral minimalism pervades the suburbs, in which people prefer the least extreme reactions to offenses and are reluctant to exercise any social control against one another at all. (3)

In a later description of moral minimalism, she writes:

Moral minimalism entails a considerable degree of indifference to the wrongdoing of others…If people in such places cannot be bothered to take action against those who offend them or to engage in conflicts, neither can they be bothered to help those in need. (131)

Most residents do not want to involve third parties when conflict arises (unless it involves strangers) – it would be better to do nothing at all.

The pervasive moral minimalism found in the suburbs contrasts sharply with claims that American society is particularly violent or litigious. However true such characterizations may be for other settings, they do not reflect suburban reality. Residents of suburbs like Hampton rarely aggress against one another physically, and for them, law remains primarily a theoretical option for handling grievances that arise in their everyday lives. They are happy to have police at as their champions in preventing and resolving trouble that unknown persons might cause, but beyond this, they have very little use for law. When problems occur, most people do not seriously consider recourse to legal officials, and, in fact, they generally act as if law did not exist at all. In this sense, suburbia is a king of limited anarchy. (127)

In conclusion:

suburbia is a model of social order. The order is not born, however, of conditions widely perceived to generate social harmony. It does not arise from intimacy and connectedness, but rather from some of the very things more often presumed to bring about conflict and violence – transiency, fragmentation, isolation, atomization, and indifference among people. The suburbs lack social cohesion but they are free of strife. They are, so to speak, disorganized and orderly at the same time. (134)

All of this does not lend itself to addressing social issues or community problems. If people are used to leaving each other alone and avoiding conflict, what happens when legitimate structural issues arise? Or, what happens when others make the case that addressing a structural issue is necessary or helpful? Or, if there is need, how do people used to moral minimalism respond? Convincing suburbanites to move on from moral minimalism, particularly when it seems to “work” in wealthier, whiter communities where people have the resources and agency to generally do what they want (having a single-family home, a good life for their kids, etc.), is a difficult task.

Interpreting data: the COVID-19 deaths in the United States roughly match the population of my mid-sized suburb

Understanding big numbers can be difficult. This is particularly true in a large country like the United States – over 330,000,000 residents – with a variety of contexts. Debates over COVID-19 numbers have been sharp as different approaches appeal to different numbers. To some degree, many potential social problems or public issues face this issue: how to use numbers (and other evidence) to convince people that action needs to be taken.

This week, the number of deaths in the United States due to COVID-19 approached the population of my suburban community of just over 53,000 residents. We are a mid-sized suburb; this is the second largest community in our county, the most populous suburban county in the Chicago region outside of Cook County. The community covers just over 11 square miles. Imagining an entire mid-sized suburb of COVID-19 deaths gives one pause. I had heard the comparison a week or two ago to the deaths matching the size of a good-sized indoor arena; thinking of an entire sizable community helps make sense of the number of deaths across the country.

Of course, there are other numbers to cite. Our community has relatively few cases – less than hundred as of a few days ago. Considering the Chicago suburbs: “If the Chicago suburbs were a state, it would have the 11th-highest COVID-19 death toll in the nation.” The COVID-19 cases and deaths are scattered throughout the United States, with clear hotspots in some places like New York City and fewer cases in other places. And so on.

Perhaps all of this means that we need medical experts alongside data experts in times like these. We need people well-versed in statistics and their implications to help inform the public and policymakers. Numbers are interpreted and used as part of arguments. Having a handle on the broad range of data, the different ways it can be interpreted (including what comparisons are useful to make), connecting the numbers to particular actions and policies, and communicating all of this clearly is a valuable skill set that can serve communities well.



McMansions as misplaced societal priorities

An obituary of a notable architect turned architectural critic concludes with a passage linking McMansions to larger societal ills:

Michael Sorkin, a fiery champion of social justice and sustainability in architecture and urban planning, who emerged as one of his profession’s most incisive public intellectuals over a multifaceted career as a critic, author, teacher and designer, died March 26 at a hospital in Manhattan. He was 71…

“Civilizations are marked by their priorities,” he wrote, “and ours are too given over to prisons, malls, and McMansions and too little to good housing for all, complete and sustainable communities, green energy, rational mobility, structures of succor. Politics programs our architecture. The emblem of Trump’s agenda is a piece of architecture — that absurd pharaonic wall he bruits for the Mexican border. His whole project trumpets control, and his mantra is shared by many an architect: just leave it to me!”

This would fit well into the fourth dimension of the term “McMansion” I discuss in analyzing hundreds of articles in the New York Times and Dallas Morning News that use the term. Here, McMansions are symbols of larger issues. In this case, Sorkin argues that society has the wrong priorities; instead of McMansions, we should look at “good housing for all.”

In this kind of argument, the McMansion is a symptom of larger issues. Fight against McMansions, as some critics and communities have done, and the larger issues still remain. If McMansions are part of larger issues, addressing the design and construction of McMansions may do relatively little to change conditions or address important social problems. Indeed, addressing architecture and local regulations might be much easier to do that considering systemic concerns. What about building large houses in general, not just McMansions? What about incentivizing or requiring the construction of affordable housing? What about sustainability? What about building communities with fewer private spaces and more attractive public spaces? McMansions might be particularly noteworthy – hence McMansion Hell – but they are products of particular conditions and processes.

Perhaps flipping the question around makes for a more provocative conversation: instead of thinking of how McMansions symbolize larger social problems in American society, we could think of whether a more just or equal or good society would or could have as many McMansions. Are they mutually exclusive? Must the McMansions decrease so that better outcomes would result?

“98 opioid-related deaths last year in DuPage” and local decisions

As Itasca leaders and residents debate a proposal for a drug-treatment facility in the suburb, an update on the story included this statistic:

There were 98 opioid-related deaths last year in DuPage.

Illinois appeared to be in the middle of states with its rate of opioid deaths in 2017 (see the data here). DuPage County has a lot of residents – over 928,000 according to 2018 estimates – and the Coroner has all the statistics on deaths in 2018.

In the debates over whether suburbs should be home to drug treatment facilities, such statistics could matter. Are 98 deaths enough to (a) declare that this is an issue worth addressing and (b) suburbs should welcome facilities that could help address the problems. Both issues could be up for debate though I suspect the real issue is the second one: even if suburbanites recognize that opioid-related deaths are a social problem, that does not necessarily mean they are willing to live near such a facility.

Does this mean that statistics are worthless in such a public discussion? Not necessarily, though statistics alone may not be enough to convince a suburban resident one way or another about supporting change in their community. If residents believe strongly that such a medical facility is detrimental to their suburb, often invoking the character of the community, local resources, and property values, no combination of numbers and narratives might overwhelm what is perceived as a big threat. On the other hand, public discussions of land use and zoning can evolve and opposition or support can shift.

Cities and societies always at risk of declining?

I feel that I regularly run into these narratives: cities are in decline and American society is in decline. After seeing a recent example of the cities-will-fall-apart argument, I thought it could be worthwhile to briefly think about where these narratives come from and what they are trying to do.

In terms of cities, Americans on the whole have an anti-urban bias. Data suggests Americans would prefer to live in small towns and even President Obama (resident of numerous big cities) noted the importance of small-town values for the development of the United States. Stephen Conn details anti-urban bias in the twentieth century when the United States experienced a significant population shift to the suburbs, locations where many Americans claim they can find their best life. Population loss is a public rebuke to an entire community. The decline of Detroit is held up as a tragedy and/or lesson.

Added to this is a political edge: cities are seen as strongholds for Democrats while Republicans rule in more rural areas and are against cities. Conservatives link Democratic leadership in these cities to all sorts of problems. Some conservatives see liberal plots to urbanize Americans against their will. Declining cities would then weaken one political party and their values.

In terms of societies, I have heard arguments from evangelical religious groups that society is declining, falling into a moral abyss, and headed toward ruin. Some of this is linked to particular theological views: some Christians believe the decline of society at large will hasten the end times. Others make these claims in order to try to spur believers into action and engagement with society. Still others might argue this is a reason for retreat from society in order to conserve or protect particular religious traditions.

This is also a common tactic of groups looking to address social problems: without tackling this important issue, society is in trouble in the long-term. Additionally, such arguments can also be part of political debates. Which party is in charge when these decline starts or accelerates? Which events are interpreted as harbingers of the end? Who exactly is trying to ruin the American experiment or distort American values? Is every presidential election the potential end for the other half of Americans because yet again it is the most important election we have ever seen?The possibilities are endless.

All of this apocalyptic thinking could have some serious consequences. Do such regular narratives discourage or encourage participation and trust in communities and institutions? Do they lead to long-term optimism or pessimism about individual lives and communities? Does it all distract from good news also taking place as well as small steps that could be taken toward positive change or community building?

It is true that cities and societies can decline and have indeed done so in the past. Just because a particular city or community or country is doing well now does not mean that this is guaranteed for the future. I read a thought-provoking book on this a few years ago from a scholar who studied numerous societies that had collapsed and concluded they reached a level of complexity where an issue in the system meant that all of the social machinery could come crashing down. But, predicting decline as it is happening might be difficult just as predicting trends is difficult.

Decline may happenbut with all the competing claims of decline of this or that (plus differing views on the same phenomena) makes it very difficult to know what to do with any of the claims.


Five forces behind the American affordable housing problem

Affordable housing is not an easy issue to address and one overview provides five factors at play:

Baby boomers—those aged 55 or older—are living longer and more independently than previous generations. They’re also more likely than previous generations to be divorced and living alone. This means less housing stock has been freed up by elderly people dying or moving into assisted-living facilities. In some cases, boomer homeowners are looking to trade down and compete for entry-level homes with other generations, putting upward pressure on prices on homes in the lowest price tier…

While subsequent administrations have swung the agency’s priorities between promoting homeownership programs and assisting poor renters by offering housing subsidies, the federal government consistently subsidizes middle- and upper-middle-class homeowners rather than low-income renters, seniors, and the disabled…

Restrictive zoning codes are often an effective tool in the fight against new construction and, frequently, densification, helping to suppress housing supply even as demand rises. Whether by limiting the height of new buildings or deciding that large apartment buildings need a minimum number of parking spots, these restrictions make construction more difficult and more expensive. California cities like Los Angeles and San Francisco are known for impeding new construction through these methods, which has led to the state’s severe housing shortage

The “affordability” of housing isn’t all about the housing itself: As rising rents and home prices push low- and middle-income households farther from major urban centers—where the greatest number of jobs and the most robust public transit systems tend to be—lower housing costs in suburbs and exurbs get offset by increased spending on transportation.

Three quick thoughts:

  1. As an academic, I am sympathetic with arguments such as this that try to explain a social problem with more complexity and nuance. Short answer for a typical academic answer to a social issue: it’s complicated. As a person who wants affordable housing to be addressed, I want solutions sooner rather than later.
  2. One advantage of the complexity/nuanced argument is to highlight that whole systems are at play. Making serious headway with one or two factor may not move the needle. All the issues need to be addressed and everyone needs to keep in mind their connected nature. To put it differently, this requires large-scale societal change, not just piece-meal approaches. There are a variety of social levels and actors involved and they should aim to work toward common goals. It is often hard to think in this structural or system way but necessary when tackling large problems.
  3. I wonder how helpful it would be to cite successful models or places, even if they are relatively small communities. Even if systems need to be addressed, it can be hard to tackle everything at once without some hope that the goal can be reached. Are there cities/municipalities/states/regions that have some answers that can be adopted elsewhere

The case for a social problem: over 49,000 pedestrian deaths in the US 2008-2017

A new report addresses pedestrian deaths in the United States:

Harrowing data showed that between 2008 and 2017 the number of annual pedestrian deaths in the U.S. increased by 35.7 percent. A total of 49,340 died in that 10-year period. That’s more than 13 people killed per day or one person every hour and 46 minutes…

“Why is this happening?” authors of the report asked. “We’re not walking more and we’re only driving slightly more than we were back in 2008. What is happening is that our streets, which we designed for the movement of vehicles, haven’t changed. In fact, we are continuing to design streets that are dangerous for all people.”

Federal and state transportation policies, blueprints and funding are stuck in the age of the automobile, when sprawling growth patterns — especially in the Sun Belt — led to wider roads, longer blocks and street engineering that prioritized high speeds for cars over safety for people on foot, on bikes or using mass transit, the report says.

Among the victims, death rates are disproportionately high for the elderly, minorities and people walking in poor communities, data showed. Older adults are more often struck at an intersection or in a crosswalk than younger victims. In San Francisco, Pittsburgh and Milwaukee, residents organized marches, flash mobs and 20-second performances in crosswalks to campaign for longer signal times for elderly and disabled people.

The numbers are likely shocking for many readers: that many people died over a 10 year stretch from walking? The cause for many a social problem is advanced by such figures which reveal to the average person the scope of an issue they rarely consider.

But, put those figures next to those that died in car accidents and they pale in comparison. Are the two numbers combined – both primarily the result of an automobile dependent culture – more valuable? Or, are they simply what Americans are willing to do for the sake of driving?

To me, the next step is to ask what it would take to reach a critical mass of Americans to push against a car dominated society and press for better options for pedestrians and other non-vehicles on streets and roads. This is not an easy task; diverting resources and attention away from roads and highways is difficult.

Deciding at which social level to counter a social problem

Once groups of Americans agree that an issue in society needs to be addressed, they encounter an important question: at what social level should we target our efforts? There are numerous options for many important issues. For example, see an earlier post about how efforts to fight smog in Los Angeles did not seriously address driving but rather pushed Detroit to create more efficient vehicles.

Two social institutions regularly come to mind when I think about how many Americans want to address social problems: schools and the federal government. Even as different sides might not agree which problems they think schools or the federal government should, the country has regular debates about how these institutions should be doing something different.

Start with schools. Because attendance is compulsory, children spend so much time there, learning may be the universally recognized need in a knowledge economy, and what is learned as a child can carry through a full lifetime, they seem like they are great places to address issues.

For similar reasons, it may appear prudent to operate at the level of the federal government Because it has broad oversight over the United States, it has the potential to shape numerous lives. Certain issues are so big and/or affect so many people that the federal government may seem to be the only way to adequately address a concern.

Both institutions are important in our society yet enacting change at these larger levels can be very difficult. Change brings a lot of attention. Politicians on all sides get involved. Those opposed to large-scale government action can be energized. Crafting one-size-fits-all policies is difficult.

What, then, are alternatives? Here are three common ways Americans go if they do not want to go large-scale:

Work through local or national voluntary associations. This can range from the local Rotary to religious congregations and a group of neighbors who get together to do something. With de Toqueville’s oft-repeated quote about the zeal with which Americans joined such groups, this option could offer hope (even as Americans are not participating in these like they did before – see Bowling Alone).

Voluntary associations benefit from the eagerness of their members to participate but Americans can also work through local governments which are always present. Americans tend to like smaller-scale government activity and oversight. Why get the federal government or the state involved when a city or community, township, or county could try to address the matter? For some issues, this social level may be too local – larger issues are hard to deal with one community at a time. At the same time, these smaller governments could try a variety of options and this can provide information on what might work at larger levels.

Finally, Americans can work through individual action. There is a reason that we celebrate certain notable individuals who worked tirelessly and successfully to fight for their convictions: it is rare to see such individual level success (and often, these famous figures benefited from organizations and support behind them). The actions of one person may typically not accomplish much but the aggregate actions of thousands or millions of people can add up or passionate individuals can help start movements.

All together, it is not easy to figure out which option might be the most effective in order to address important social problems. For many issues, it is likely that people are trying to find solutions at all of these levels: schools, the federal government, voluntary associations, local governments, and individual action. Actions at these various levels can occasionally intersect and enrich each other, helping provide energy for a broader movement or consensus. Indeed, truly finding solutions to social concerns likely requires broad action, even if the efforts began at just one of these social levels.

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.)

How a 9-year-old estimated that Americans use 500 million plastic straws a day

Statistics are often vital to public campaigns to fight social problems. The problem of plastic straws is no exception. Here is how 9-year-old Milo Cress developed the oft-cited statistic:

But as Cress began to dig into research on plastics and the environment, he noticed there wasn’t much data: “I couldn’t find anything on our use of straws in the United States,” he said.

So he called straw manufacturers himself, asking what they estimated to be the straw market in the United States per day. Some gave him a yearly estimate, which he divided by 365.

“Others gave an estimate of around 500 million straws,” Cress said. “That was the number that I stuck to, because it seemed to be around the middle of what they were saying.”…

“Why I use this statistic is because it illustrates that we use too many straws,” he said. “I think if it were another number, it still illustrates the fact that there is room for reduction. That’s really my message.”

Sociologist Joel Best, who has written about the social construction of statistics, could have a field day with this.

With all of the debate regarding this figure, couldn’t someone with expertise in this field offer a number that has some more rigor? Even if the number changes a bit, say it goes down to 200 million straws day, it would not matter much as either figure is huge. And this is the whole point (and this is often the case for advocates against a particular social problem): the big number is intended to shock and spur action.