Sociologist Richard Sennett: Wall Street offices lack cooperation

After talking with a number of workers involved in the Wall Street troubles of 2008, sociologist Richard Sennett argues that Wall Street offices lack cooperation:

The financial industry is a high-stress business that requires people to work extremely long hours, sacrificing time for children, spouses and social pleasures. But after 2008, many of my subjects were no longer willing to make those sacrifices. Looking back, they realized how little respect they had for the executives who’d worked above them, how superficial was the trust they had for fellow workers and, most of all, how weak cooperation proved in the wake of financial disaster.

The fragility of this social triangle is disturbing. When informal channels of communication wither, people keep to themselves ideas about how the organization is really doing, or guard their own territory. Weak social ties erode loyalty, which businesses need in good times as well as bad. Many of the employees I’ve been talking with have come to feel embittered by the thin, superficial quality of social ties in places where they spend most of their waking hours…

Even for those workers who have recovered quickly, the crash isn’t something they are likely to forget. The front office may want to get back as quickly as possible to the old regime, to business as usual, but lower down the institutional ladder, people seem to feel that during the long boom something was missing in their lives: the connections and bonds forged at work.

This is an example of how sociology can help inform economics and/or social policy. In order for offices or any social group to work well, there has to be trust, solidarity, and cooperation. These traits cannot simply be dictated or ordered. Rather, relationships and social ties need to be started, developed, and maintained over time. These relationships may seem silly or unnecessary to some but it will be difficult to accomplish great things without them.

I expect an analysis like this is just the beginning of a flood of academic work and commentary about the recent economy crisis. And I would guess that a lot of research will show that people were not acting “rationally” but rather were working off of different emotions that led to “irrational exuberance.” Cultural and social factors played a role but it will up to scholars to determine how much.

How recorded music might limit social action

iPod headphones are ubiquitous on college campuses and many other places. What effect such devices and more broadly, recorded music, might have on modern society is explored in this essay that includes references to sociologists Sudhir Venkatesh and Pierre Bourdieu:

Two years ago, at the nadir of the financial crisis, the urban sociologist Sudhir Venkatesh wondered aloud in the New York Times why no mass protests had arisen against what was clearly a criminal coup by the banks. Where were the pitchforks, the tar, the feathers? Where, more importantly, were the crowds? Venkatesh’s answer was the iPod: “In public spaces, serendipitous interaction is needed to create the ‘mob mentality.’ Most iPod-like devices separate citizens from one another; you can’t join someone in a movement if you can’t hear the participants. Congrats Mr. Jobs for impeding social change.” Venkatesh’s suggestion was glib, tossed off—yet it was also a rare reminder, from the quasi-left, of how urban life has been changed by recording technologies.

Later in the essay, Bourdieu is presented as the anti-Adorno, the sociologist who argued that music doesn’t help prompt revolutionary action but rather is indicative (and helps reinforce) class differences:

In the mid-1960s, [Bourdieu] conducted a giant survey of French musical tastes, and what do you know? The haute bourgeoisie loved The Well-Tempered Clavier; the upwardly mobile got high on “jazzy” classics like “Rhapsody in Blue”; while the working class dug what the higher reaches thought of as schmaltzy trash, the “Blue Danube” waltz and Petula Clark. Bourdieu drew the conclusion that judgments of taste reinforce forms of social inequality, as individuals imagine themselves to possess superior or inferior spirit and perceptiveness, when really they just like what their class inheritance has taught them to. Distinction appeared in English in 1984, cresting the high tide of the culture wars about to hit the universities. Adorno had felt that advanced art-music was doing the work of revolution. Are you kidding, Herr Professor? might have been Bourdieu’s response. And thus was Adorno dethroned, all his passionate arguments about history as expressed in musical form recast as moves in the game of taste, while his dismissal of jazz became practically the most famous cultural mistake of the 20th century.

This is an interesting analysis. Sociologists of culture have been very interested in music in recent decades. One line of research has insights into “omnivore” behavior, those high-status people who claim to like all sorts of music. (See an example of this sort of analysis here.)

But this essay seems to tap into a larger debate about technologies beyond just recorded music: do computers, laptops, iPods, cell phones and smart phones, Facebook memberships, and other digital technologies serve to keep us separated from each other or do they enhance and deepen human relationships?

What influences how residents feel about their communities: social ties

New research to be published in the American Journal of Sociology suggests that how people feel about their particular community is not influenced by the community itself:

Prior to this research, many sociologists believed that certain community traits influenced how attached residents felt. That list of suspected factors included cultural heritage, levels of acquaintanceship, the pace of economic development, population density and habits of the predominant ethnic group.

Instead, the BYU researchers found that none of these dimensions of a locale produce a higher sense of attachment – or at least they don’t anymore.

“I take our findings to be part of the bad news of modernity,” said lead study author Jeremy Flaherty, who is completing a Ph.D. at BYU. “How people interpret their local community has probably changed substantially over the generations.”

While the researchers found that no characteristics of the community played a role, they did find that feelings of attachment develop if a person develops social ties where they live – and that usually takes time.

So it is not really about the community but rather the relationships one builds and the social standing one has in a community. This would fit with a lot of research in the last decade or so about community life in places where many would suspect there is not much community life. For example, Sudhir Venkatesh has written several books that show there is a strong community structure in poor neighborhoods on the South Side of Chicago. While outsiders would look at each community and see chaos or disorder, Venkatesh found a well-established social structure where people were still tied to each other.

I will be interested to read then how if it is really about social relationships, some people do come to have such attachments to particular places. Do they not find such social relationships elsewhere? Do these relationships then taint or influence their view of every community thereafter?

If this is the case, perhaps the “Best Places to Live” lists should include some new measures of things like friendliness, openness, and social ties within a community. Does the average new person who moves to the community become part of new social networks in a relatively short amount of time? Do neighbors know each other beyond just saying hello? And if people knew that some places were friendlier or more open than others, would that be a draw to majority of Americans or a detriment?