American conflict playing out through local school boards

One of the reasons many Americans like suburbs is the local government and local control over land, local organizations, and how local taxes are used. National debates are now playing out in one such local form of government: school boards.

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Local school boards around the country are increasingly becoming cauldrons of anger and political division, boiling with disputes over such issues as COVID-19 mask rules, the treatment of transgender students and how to teach the history of racism and slavery in America.

Meetings that were once orderly, even boring, have turned ugly. School board elections that were once uncontested have drawn slates of candidates galvanized by one issue or another…

School boards are typically composed of former educators and parents whose job, at least until recently, mostly consisted of ironing out budgets, discussing the lunch menu or hiring superintendents.

But online meetings during the pandemic made it easier for parents to tune in. And the crisis gave new gravity to school board decisions. Parents worried their children were falling behind because of remote learning or clashed over how serious the health risks were.

This preference for local input and control is not just limited to suburbs: from the beginning, Americans have generally liked the idea of decentralized power. In the realm of education, there is input from the federal government, state government, and local bodies and districts. Local citizens retain some ability to provide their opinion on local education and to serve on local governments that control budgets and other aspects of local education.

Because of this system, people can work through different channels to address issues they are concerned about. Perhaps they can pressure the national Department of Education. They might seek to influence state boards. They can run for local boards and show up at meetings to voice their opinions. All could be useful in terms of promoting particular educational paths or policies. At the same time, I would guess there is an immediate satisfaction at showing up at local meetings, seeing real people in your community that shape schools, and advocating for change. These are not distant bureaucrats grinding out policy decisions; these are local elected residents who meet at regular times.

In the current moment, decisions made by local school boards help to differentiate different communities from each other. One district might be open to teaching something where another says no. Money may be allocated one way in a particular community while it is not a budget line in another. Board members may claim to represent one part of a community and not others. Local schools are not just about education; they symbolize local priorities and concerns. They help address or reinforce racial, ethnic, class, and gender boundaries in and across communities. Schools are both a part of the status of a community and contribute to that status.

In this article, it sounds like many of the school board battles are proxy fights over national issues. Whether this serves individual communities and their residents well remains to be seen.

When two suburban residential developments border each other and have clear differences

A typical suburban single-family home, the symbol of the American Dream, is often in the middle of a subdivision surrounded by similar homes. Yet, some of these homes are on the edges of developments. This boundaries can be interesting: what do the homes back up to? What is nearby? Three local examples that I see regularly highlight how adjacent suburban residential developments can lead to some sharp contrasts.

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First, I know of a 1970s neighborhood of primarily raised ranches and split-levels of roughly 1,500-2,000 square feet. One side of this neighborhood borders a late 1980s development of larger homes built more in the style of 3,000 square foot McMansions with brick or Tudor facades. These two sets of homes back up to each other and the line of homes that do this are quite different: there is a significant size difference, the style of the homes – siding versus different materials – varies, and the newer development is slightly uphill so the larger, newer homes loom over the older, smaller homes.

Second, there are numerous single-family home neighborhoods where houses are across a residential street or next to a small apartment building. Or, next to a townhouse development. The scale of the buildings is not that different but the density and size are clearly contrasting.

Third, I know of one location where there are two neighborhoods that could have been constructed separately as they both have outlets to the neighboring arterial roads. But, there is a connecting road between the neighborhoods and there are houses of each neighborhood type, again different size and style side by side, on this connector.

Single-use zoning in the United States is intended to protect single-family homes from other less desirable land uses. But, this zoning system does not necessarily buffer certain residential neighborhoods from each other. Many suburbanites would object to significant changes in their nearby surroundings if the new residences were quite different. I ran into this in my suburban research where new small homes nearby or apartments were not welcomed, particularly if they were replacing open space. Yet, today many suburbs have different developments side by side, sometimes with a buffer – nature, a berm, a walkway, etc. – but sometimes not.

These neighboring dwellings could signal some significant differences. A larger home suggests a different social class. Residents of apartments are not always regarded fondly by homeowners. Densities and lot sizes can be different. The exteriors imply different status.

These boundaries are symbolic and clearly marked in physical space. What are the consequences: are the residences on these boundaries less desirable or go for a reduced price? How many people care about the clear boundaries? Do the people from the two or more sides interact within these boundary zones?

The boundaries between suburbia and other types of communities is often clear to see and experience but the internal boundaries are also fascinating.

Can we expect an authenticity backlash after report of fake online followers?

“The Follower Factory” in the New York Times details how many public figures and social media users purchase followers.

The Times reviewed business and court records showing that Devumi has more than 200,000 customers, including reality television stars, professional athletes, comedians, TED speakers, pastors and models. In most cases, the records show, they purchased their own followers. In others, their employees, agents, public relations companies, family members or friends did the buying. For just pennies each — sometimes even less — Devumi offers Twitter followers, views on YouTube, plays on SoundCloud, the music-hosting site, and endorsements on LinkedIn, the professional-networking site.

The actor John Leguizamo has Devumi followers. So do Michael Dell, the computer billionaire, and Ray Lewis, the football commentator and former Ravens linebacker. Kathy Ireland, the onetime swimsuit model who today presides over a half-billion-dollar licensing empire, has hundreds of thousands of fake Devumi followers, as does Akbar Gbajabiamila, the host of the show “American Ninja Warrior.” Even a Twitter board member, Martha Lane Fox, has some.

At a time when Facebook, Twitter and Google are grappling with an epidemic of political manipulation and fake news, Devumi’s fake followers also serve as phantom foot soldiers in political battles online. Devumi’s customers include both avid supporters and fervent critics of President Trump, and both liberal cable pundits and a reporter at the alt-right bastion Breitbart. Randy Bryce, an ironworker seeking to unseat Representative Paul Ryan of Wisconsin, purchased Devumi followers in 2015, when he was a blogger and labor activist. Louise Linton, the wife of the Treasury secretary, Steven Mnuchin, bought followers when she was trying to gain traction as an actress.

Devumi’s products serve politicians and governments overseas, too. An editor at China’s state-run news agency, Xinhua, paid Devumi for hundreds of thousands of followers and retweets on Twitter, which the country’s government has banned but sees as a forum for issuing propaganda abroad. An adviser to Ecuador’s president, Lenín Moreno, bought tens of thousands of followers and retweets for Mr. Moreno’s campaign accounts during last year’s elections.

The incentives to do this are high: not only can these purchased followers act on the behalf of the purchaser, media accounts regularly highlight the number of friends or followers a user has. These counts are one of the important social markers of status online. If you are not actively trying to boost these counts by multiple means, you are falling behind.

If so many public figures then have purchased followers, then will we see an authenticity backlash? Imagine a scenario where Twitter or LinkedIn offers a special badge that all of your friends and followers are authentic people. Or, public profiles will include an estimate of how many followers are actual users. Then, it is not only about how many followers you have but rather how many are “real” people. The irony may be that even if you have “real” followers, the sort of interactions you have with them in the online realm can be quite different than offline interactions.

Would the public care to have such metrics? News of paid followers has been available for years. (For example, see earlier posts here and here.) Would they act differently toward certain users or profiles if they knew where they came from? In a world full of paid or compensated online reviews, fake followers, and who knows what else (targeted Facebook ads? Google search results just for you?), perhaps we are already past the point of no return.

Insight into the highest status western suburbs of Chicagoland

An Internet journey led me to West Suburban Living‘s 2015 Best of the West which included this question to readers:

TOWN YOU’D WANT TO LIVE IN (OTHER THAN YOUR OWN)

Best: Geneva
2nd: Naperville
3rd: TIE: Glen Ellyn and Hinsdale
Other Favorites: Downers Grove, Elmhurst, Geneva, St. Charles and Western Springs

I’m sure there are all sorts of sampling issues here: who exactly reads this magazine and who votes? Yet, this may just provide a hint into how suburbanites in the western suburbs view their communities. All of these suburbs mentioned are majority white and pretty wealthy. They all have downtowns and fairly long histories (they were all founded before post-World War II suburbanization). Generally, they have high scores in quality of life: good schools, parks, good local services, low crime, nice houses, relatively competent local governments.

Sampling issues aside, this may get at the social status ranking of western suburbs. Or, at least, it hints at the geographic and lifestyle aspirations of the voters.

“McAnger” over new big homes in New York City suburbs

Some new large homes in Westchester County have drawn some “McAnger”:

“This is really stupid,” wrote Laura Kerns. “No one needs this much house.”…”It’s sad, really,” David Raguso wrote. “This county just doesn’t care about the average person.”

Said Dana Doyle, “Bye bye, middle-class! The rich folk are taking over!”…

Like others, Daphne Philipson questioned the need for so much square footage. “The Gilded Age is back – and we know how well that went for everyone.”…

“Wretched excess,” he wrote. “There is nothing wrong with being financially successful, but why then not be reserved about it? How much house does a man need? Find meaning in meaningful things.”…Some were not so much annoyed but still critical of the new homes, critiquing the exterior appearance specifically as a hodgepodge of conflicting architectural styles. “Looks like it was thrown together at different times by different moods,” wrote Erika Kislaki-Bauer.

Eileen Healy Rehill lamented the addition of “more overly priced McMansions” in Westchester rather than “nice yet affordable housing for the middle class.” She was far from the only one, with housing for seniors and the disabled also mentioned.

Some familiar comments when McMansions are involved. Three quick thoughts, with the first two mentioned briefly in this summary of feedback:

1. Westchester County already is a wealthy county. It was known as the home to many wealthy estates as New York City was growing. A number of high-profile companies moved there post-World War II, including IBM. It is home to “Hipsterurbia.” In other words, McMansions are just symptomatic of a wealthy county where many communities would not welcome affordable housing and builders see ongoing opportunities for wealthy buyers.

2. These new homes are indeed large and luxurious. But, the conversation about “who needs this” can get sticky. How much do Westchester County residents consume? How many suburbanites buy a home that is too small for them? How many people don’t seek through the exterior of their home or the things inside to provide some markers of their social status? On one hand, Americans have historically tended to frown upon opulent wealth (hence, everyone wants to be middle class) yet consumption is rampant and the American middle class is very well off by American standards (though there may be a big gap between them and many Westchester County residents).

3. The critique of the architecture might seem class neutral. After all, people could build both big and small houses that match the local styles or are done in good taste. Yet, architectural styles and design are likely class-based tastes, a la Bourdieu.

TV show uses McMansions to show off differing personalities

The TV show The Last Man on Earth features McMansions intended to quickly display the personalities of different characters:

“We wanted to play off the fact that we’re all worried about ‘bigger is better.’ With these McMansions, it’s kind of like, ‘Look what we’ve become,’ ” Hill says.

As with any good comedy, though, the main function of the McMansions is to reflect the personalities of the characters who live in them. The motley crew of pandemic survivors who unite in Tucson have little else in common, and the homes they adopt embody this.

“For Phil, we wanted something a little more masculine to kind of embrace the earth tones of the Tucson area,” Hill says. “Phil’s environment, obviously after the first few months he’s there, goes from this pristine environment with the artifacts he brings from all over the country to this completely slovenly layer upon layer of bottles and cans.”

Forte finds his foil in Kristen Schaal’s character, Carol, whose spotless home looks like a living Pinterest board. “For Carol, we wanted it to be a little bit more formal, a little bit colder,” Hill says. “She brings her own layer of craftiness.”

This works on two levels. First, television – particularly comedies – have limited time to develop characters. Thus, they have to use some shorthand to quickly convey character traits to viewers. Big differences in houses could imply quite a bit. Second, Americans generally have believed that their homes reflect them. Poorly maintained lawn and messy house? Garish decorations? Immaculate style? Lots of rooms but not as much furniture? Americans also think homeowners are more invested in their properties and communities than renters. Additionally, homes help denote status in their size, upkeep, and furnishings. Overall, McMansion owners are likely viewed poorly because their homes are designed poorly, try too hard to impress, and may be viewed as wasteful while homeownership gives them back some points. But, if you are truly the last people on earth in Tucson, Arizona, perhaps you have to differentiate yourself in some way…

See this earlier post about the use of McMansions on The Last Man on Earth.

What you can make from giving up your lawn in the West

There are some growing incentives in California and other Western states to replace your lawn with something else:

Even before Brown’s order, some of California’s 411 water districts offered rebates — now as much as $3.75 per square foot — to persuade homeowners to give up on grass.

The Southern Nevada Water Authority pays $1.50 per square foot of lawn replaced with desert landscaping, up to 5,000 square feet. After that, it’s $1 per square foot. Arizona and Utah also have lawn rebate programs…

In addition to paying rebates, the Southern Nevada Water Authority sponsors landscaping contests and offers homeowners free, downloadable designs, divvied into categories, such as “pool-friendly” and “child-friendly.”…

Las Vegas officials say they have removed nearly 4,000 acres of grass, with plans to rip up 3,000 more. In Los Angeles, officials want to take out 25 million square feet of grass by year’s end.

But there’s push-back from the $25-billion-a-year grass industry, which says lawns are good for the environment, producing oxygen, preventing soil erosion and dissipating heat.

Lawns are part of the American Dream and go along with owning a home and having private space. That grass industry is big and many Americans seem to like the status of having a well-kept lawn. Yet, when this dream comes up against ecological realities – as the article goes on to note, LA gets 15 inches of rain on average a year versus 50 inches in New York City – the lawn may just have to go. This isn’t something new; see this earlier post about painting the lawn.

I like the idea of landscaping contests because that would allow homeowners to still fight for status but in more sustainable ways. Perhaps some businesses would even want to sponsor these or offer discounts to those competing. At the same time, I do wonder how neighbors might view some of these new yards, particularly if they are front yard vegetable gardens (one illustration in the article).

How hot is the sociology of zombies?

An unemployed sociologist discusses his difficulties in securing a tenure track job with papers in the growing area of the sociology of zombies:

My job market struggles are made all more the inexplicable by the fact that I maintain an active publication track in a hot field of study – zombies. In the past year alone I have published three articles, and I have an additional three under review, and numerous projects in the pipeline.

While my research on zombies may be an odd topic for sociologists to tackle, my scholarship garners much interest. My first sole-authored article “Locating Zombies in the Sociology of Popular Culture,” for instance, can net 100+ downloads in a day on my academia.edu webpage. The same piece has been quoted in numerous press outlets, elicits interview requests, and even gets me open invitations to present at professional conferences that, ironically, I cannot afford to attend.

One of my “under review” articles “The New Horror Movie” is required reading for a graduate seminar taught by a friend at Aarhus University in Denmark. While some in sociology may be turned off to my research on zombies (something they do without reading it), I have also published and received grant money in the sociology of race – a topic of perennial sociological interest.

Zombies are a hot area in popular culture so it makes sense that academics would address this and think about what it says about or means for American society. At the same time, I wonder how many people within the larger discipline of sociology are thinking about zombies. Traditional markers of the status of a topic within the discipline include things like papers about the topic at professional meetings of sociologists (conferences involving other disciplines may not matter as much), respected faculty tackling the subject, important programs/departments teaching the course/having a concentration of faculty teaching about it/attracting graduate students interested in the topic, numerous articles/book chapters/books published and in the pipeline, citations of said publications, and perhaps a research network or ASA section or some sort of permanent sociology group addressing the topic. All of this takes quite a bit of time to develop and for the benefits to trickle down to those who study the subject.

I wonder if there is some easy way to track trends in sociological subjects over time to see which hot topics of past decades made it and which did not.

A college education as another object of conspicuous consumption?

A law professor argues the price of a college degree is related to seeing it as part of conspicuous consumption:

More than a century ago, the sociologist Thorstein Veblen coined the term “conspicuous consumption” to describe the practice of buying luxury goods in order to display social status. In its purest form, conspicuous consumption involves purchasing expensive goods precisely because they are expensive, which means that the true conspicuous consumer will have what economists call an inverted demand curve.

Normally, when the price of a good rises, demand for it will fall. Demand for a Veblen good, by contrast, goes up as it becomes more expensive. The purpose of buying it is to display wealth, so the fewer people that can afford to buy a good, the more valuable it becomes to conspicuous consumers…

In economic terms, higher education is a positional good: It is valuable to have a college degree because other people don’t have one. It is also to a significant extent a Veblen good: Sending one’s children to college, and most especially a prestigious (meaning expensive) college, is a way of signaling social status via the conspicuous consumption of a luxury good.

All of this helps explain why college tuition has increased three times faster than the cost of living over the past three decades. University administrators have discovered that, to a remarkable degree, the more they charge for what they’re offering, the more people will want to buy it.

This reminds me of the argument Mitchell Stevens makes in Creating a Class. After a prolonged study of college admissions, Stevens suggests prospective college students tend to select the school they will attend primarily based on status (my note: which is often tied to price). The emphasis is not on learning but rather on the economic benefits this can lead to (better jobs, better social networks) as well as the status the college confers to its graduates.

I encountered a bit of this with my graduate education at the University of Notre Dame. While Notre Dame does not have one of the highest ranked sociology programs, people who heard I was at Notre Dame expressed they were impressed since it is viewed as a good school. The implication was that I must be a good student if Notre Dame thought highly of me – a transfer of status from the university to the individual. However, I suspect their claims were based on the undergraduate ranking (usually between #15-20 in US News) and not on the specific of the sociology graduate program.

Are America’s most admired simply America’s most powerful?

Peter Beinart looks at the most recent Gallup’s most recent Most Admired poll and notices a trend:

Nor is it true that Gallup merely measures celebrity, since athletes and Hollywood icons are largely absent. Looking at the winners across the decades, the most common denominator is power. Indeed, the only female winners not in close proximity to political power are Mother Theresa in the 1980s and 1990s and Elizabeth Kenny, an Australian nurse who gained fame treating polio, in 1951.

The men tell a similar story. Presidents almost always win. When they’re deemed weak or unpopular, the public anoints another strong political figure: Douglas MacArthur supplants Harry Truman in 1946 and 1947; Dwight Eisenhower tops Lyndon Johnson in 1967 and 1968; Henry Kissinger replaces Richard Nixon between 1973 and 1975. Even the religious figures who do best are the ones closest to power. Although he never wins, the Reverend Billy Graham—famous for pastoring to presidents—makes the top-10 list more than other man between 1948 and 2005. The other highest-scoring religious figures are popes. Missing are any of the clergy, like William Sloane Coffin or Daniel Berrigan, who made their names fighting the Vietnam War.

In fact, activists protesting injustice rarely rank highly. That includes Martin Luther King. He doesn’t make America’s top 10 most admired men in 1963, the year of the March on Washington. King comes fourth in 1964 and sixth in 1965 but then falls out of the top ten again in 1966 and 1967. The same is true for Nelson Mandela. By the mid-1980s, the global anti-apartheid movement had made Mandela a household name. But as far as I can tell, he doesn’t crack Gallup’s top-10 list until he is elected South Africa’s president in 1994. (To be fair, I was only able to check 1983, 1984 , 1986, 1987, and 1992. For 1993, I could only find the top five. After 1994, Mandela becomes a top-10 regular. But by then, the Cold War is over, the controversy surrounding his communist sympathies has evaporated, and he’s become safe.

I suppose we shouldn’t be too surprised at this. Part of it could be that people get to vote for some of the political positions so they feel like they had a voice. Additionally, the media tends to cover the most powerful a lot. Celebrities may get a lot of attention but they tend not to do too well, whether star athletes or Hollywood stars, in job prestige rankings.

Beinart suggests the American public should pay more attention to activists, people fighting for justice rather than people holding the reins of justice. These two things are not mutually exclusive: powerful leaders can be good leaders. But, this could be a problem if people are admired simply for the power they command rather than for what they actually do with that power.