Americans are conditioned and enabled to buy large homes

Findings regarding how Americans use the space in their homes may show they do not use all the space equally but evidence may not matter much. Americans want larger homes and the society and system is set up to push them towards this. Some of the factors involved:

-A consumption heavy culture where people enjoy shopping and buying items to signal their worth and for their own enjoyment. People want bigger homes like McMansions to impress others. Owners want a bigger home for all their stuff (and not necessarily for larger families).

-A lending industry that often requires relatively small down payments and repayments of a mortgage over three decades. Even if borrowers pay more in interest over time, they can afford a bigger home up front. Mortgages are socialized.

-A building industry that can make more money per house on selling a larger house. Building starter homes – a smaller house a couple might start with – or smaller single-family homes is a minor part of the industry.

-An emphasis on private family space as opposed to thriving public life on streets, urban public spaces, or third spaces. Additionally, Americans like their personal space.

An emphasis on suburban culture and spread-out settlement.

With these conditions, making a choice to have a smaller home is going against the grain. Perhaps this is why the tiny house movement is small.

 

The effects of residential segregation on kids

Sociologist Carla Shedd describes some of her findings about what children in segregated neighborhoods learn about the world:

I’m looking at young people in a very similar predicament, and their vantage point is outside their window. I interviewed one kid and asked, “What do you think about police in your neighborhood?” He said, “I think they’re fair. When I look outside my window I see black gangbangers, I see people doing things they shouldn’t be doing.” Whereas the kids who move across these boundaries of race and geography, they’re saying, “Wow, the police downtown, they wave at people and give the thumbs up. They don’t do that to me. They actually go in the shops and buy stuff. These aren’t things I see in the South Shore.”

The protective piece is so key. A kid asks, “Don’t the police stop everyone?” If you shatter that and say, “No, it’s actually just in your neighborhood,” or “No, it’s people who look like you,” what does that do, if they feel like they can’t really respond against it, or change that reality?…

So when it comes to looking at someone under the guise of criminalized suspicion, younger and younger black kids are caught under that same gaze. That’s one piece where they say, “I have to learn that I can’t run and race with my friends, since I might be seen as running from the scene of a crime.” Or, “I have to be careful about how I use my body in public spaces.”

Think about all the opportunities adolescents have to figure out who they are and try different things. These kids don’t get that same freedom to do that. To try different looks, to range farther from home, to be around different types of people. That’s not a mark of their adolescent experience, and it ages them.

In my estimation, it makes them skip that step of exploration, because there are consequences to stepping outside of those boundaries, or perhaps being received in a certain way by authoritative figures in what could be free spaces, like in school or particular neighborhoods.

While the attention urban neighborhoods receive may typically focus on large or traumatic events, Shedd and a number of other scholars have revealed day to day life and its consequences.

This reminds me that one of the goals of relocation programs – like Moving to Opportunity – was to provide better opportunities for kids. Some of the research has found such moves help.

The artificial constructs of the French Republican Calendar and the metric system

The first French Republic introduced two new ideas – a new calendar and the metric system – but only one of them stuck.

The Republican Calendar lasted a meager twelve years before Napoleon reinstated the Gregorian on January 1, 1805. It was, in a way, perhaps a victim of its own success, as Eviatar Zerubavel suggests. “One of the most remarkable accomplishments of the calendar reformers was exposing people to the naked truth, that their traditional calendar, whose absolute validity they had probably taken for granted, was a mere social artifact and by no means unalterable,” Zerubavel writes. However, this truth works both ways, and what the French reformers found was that “it was impossible to expose the conventionality and artificiality of the traditional calendar without exposing those of any other calendar, including the new one, at the same time.” While the Earth’s orbit is not a fiction, any attempt to organize that orbit’s movement into a rigid order is as arbitrary as any other.

It’s not entirely a fluke that the Republican Calendar failed while another of the Revolutionaries’ great projects — the Metric system — was a wild success. Unlike Metric-standard conversions, or, for that matter, Gregorian-Julian conversions, there was no way to translate the days of the Republican Calendar to the Gregorian calendar, which meant that France found itself isolated from other nations. But more importantly, the Metric system did not, in itself, threaten social order, and the natural diurnal rhythms of human lived experience that have evolved over millennia. By suddenly asserting a ten-day work week, with one day of rest for nine days’ work, the Republicans completely up-ended the ergonomics of the day, and this — more so than the religious function of the old calendar — was what was irreplaceable. The Metric system of weights and measurements marks a triumph of sense over tradition — it’s just plain easier to work with multiples of tens than the odd figures of the Standard measurement system. But in the case of calendars and time, convention wins out over sense.

Pretty fascinating to think how parts of social life that we often take for granted – the calendar and time, measurement – have complicated social histories. It didn’t necessarily have to turn out this way, as the rest of the discussion of the calendar demonstrates. Yet, once we are socialized into a particular system and may even passionately defend the way it is constructed without really knowing the reasons behind it, it can be very hard to conceive of a different way of doing things.

“Learn to Write Badly: How to Write in the Social Sciences”

A new book titled Learn to Write Badly highlights the poor writing in the social sciences. Here is an example of such writing as sociologist C. Wright Mills tries to simplify the work of Talcott Parsons:

No reader of The Sociological Imagination (1959) will soon forget C. Wright Mills’s “translations” of a few passages from The Social System by Talcott Parsons, one of the most eminent American social scientists of the day. Here’s a representative selection from The Social System, in the original Parsonian idiom:

“Attachment to common values means, motivationally considered, that the actors have common ‘sentiments’ in support of the value patterns, which may be defined as meaning that conformity with the relevant expectations is treated as a ‘good thing’ relatively independently of any specific instrumental ‘advantage’ to be gained from such conformity, e.g. in the avoidance of negative sanctions. Furthermore, this attachment to common values, while it may fit the immediate gratificational needs of the actor, always has a ‘moral’ aspect in that to some degree this conformity defines the ‘responsibility’ of the actor in the wider, that is, social action systems in which he participates.”

And here is how Mills put the same thoughts into demotic English:

“When people share the same values, they tend to behave in accordance with the way they expect one another to behave. Moreover, they often treat such conformity as a very good thing – even when it seems to go against their immediate interests.”

To get the full effect, you have to see Mills perform the operation upon much larger chunks of ore – a solid page of Parsons, massy and leaden, followed by its rendering into three or four spry statements of the relatively obvious. “I do not pretend that my translation is excellent,” Mills writes, “but only that in the translation no meaning is lost.” He later quotes a suggestion by Edmund Wilson that social scientists get help from their colleagues in the English department.

The short book review suggests the author argues disciplinary jargon is the result of new adherents wanting to fit in. One way to fit in is to talk and write like a social scientist, which includes certain conventions.

Still, I’ve heard this argument for years from within sociology and from the outside (including lots of students): sociologists should be able to explain their ideas in simpler terms. Particularly when the complaint arises that sociology gets less of a public hearing than other disciplines, this topic comes up. But, I haven’t heard too many responses to this complaint that include citing sociologists or journals or book series that do a good job of writing sociologically. Are there widely accepted examples of sociologists consistently writing well?

A society that develops deep readers

Sociologist Wendy Griswold has written about what it means to develop a reading culture and recent research about “deep reading” suggests people have to learn to have to do it:

Recent research in cognitive science, psychology and neuroscience has demonstrated that deep reading — slow, immersive, rich in sensory detail and emotional and moral complexity — is a distinctive experience, different in kind from the mere decoding of words. Although deep reading does not, strictly speaking, require a conventional book, the built-in limits of the printed page are uniquely conducive to the deep reading experience. A book’s lack of hyperlinks, for example, frees the reader from making decisions — Should I click on this link or not? — allowing her to remain fully immersed in the narrative.

That immersion is supported by the way the brain handles language rich in detail, allusion and metaphor: by creating a mental representation that draws on the same brain regions that would be active if the scene were unfolding in real life. The emotional situations and moral dilemmas that are the stuff of literature are also vigorous exercise for the brain, propelling us inside the heads of fictional characters and even, studies suggest, increasing our real-life capacity for empathy…

To understand why we should be concerned about how young people read, and not just whether they’re reading at all, it helps to know something about the way the ability to read evolved. “Human beings were never born to read,” notes Maryanne Wolf, director of the Center for Reading and Language Research at Tufts University and author of Proust and the Squid: The Story and Science of the Reading Brain. Unlike the ability to understand and produce spoken language, which under normal circumstances will unfold according to a program dictated by our genes, the ability to read must be painstakingly acquired by each individual. The “reading circuits” we construct are recruited from structures in the brain that evolved for other purposes—and these circuits can be feeble or they can be robust, depending on how often and how vigorously we use them…

This is not reading as many young people are coming to know it. Their reading is pragmatic and instrumental: the difference between what literary critic Frank Kermode calls “carnal reading” and “spiritual reading.” If we allow our offspring to believe that carnal reading is all there is—if we don’t open the door to spiritual reading, through an early insistence on discipline and practice—we will have cheated them of an enjoyable, even ecstatic experience they would not otherwise encounter.

If we put this in sociological terms, it sounds like the research suggests that deep reading is a socialized experience. Deep reading is a developed skill, perhaps explicitly modeled and taught and also observed and absorbed. For those who see the benefits of deep reading, the next logical question seems to be how to continue this socialization process. When Griswold studied reading culture in Nigeria, she discussed the role of printing presses and publishing companies, educated authors, citizens have the money to buy books, and citizens having the time to read novels and longer works. There are not the same kinds of issues in the United States: there are plenty books, authors, and potential readers with the time and money for deep reading. Instead, the issues are things like a lot of competition for reading and a value system that privileges progress, novelty, anti-intellectualism, and pragmatism.

What happens then if a society is post deep reading, having advanced past that stage according to the practices of many residents? Does this affect civic and social life in meaningful ways? Or, if a society is divided along reading and non-reading lines? There has been plenty of discussion about inequality regarding the Internet but what about with books and reading?

Socializing kids in how to do recess at school

An article about the “cognitive and social benefits” recess brings up an interesting idea: kids in schools that haven’t had recess for years will have to be taught how to do recess again.

Despite the cognitive and social benefits of recess, principals still hate it: In the scholarship on recess, they inevitably describe their recess periods as total chaos. In Chicago, recess has been out of the schools so long that principals are nervous about having it back.

That’s the twist in this rebirth-of-recess narrative: In part because of these fears, recess in many schools is now a very different beast. It’s more structured and sports-focused, less dreamy and aimless. Whether it leads to the same cognitive and social benefits is an open question. The nonprofit organization Playworks puts full-time “recess coaches” in low-income schools—currently they’re in 387 schools in 23 cities—who teach children how to play: They organize games; they model how to resolve disputes (rock-paper-scissors); they try to get kids more active and engaged. (A recent study found that schools with Playworks reported less bullying and better behavior.)

“Recess has changed because the times we live in have changed,” says Playworks CEO Jill Vialet. Children no longer know how to play, she says; they don’t run around after school with all the kids on their block. “What we’re doing is creating just enough structure. That same structure that was created by the older kids in the neighborhood in times past—we’re creating that now on the schoolyard.”…

Recess may look problematic to the grown-ups, but for Pellegrini, the value of recess is that the children, not the adults, are in charge. It may not look pretty, but that’s the point. “A very important part of what kids do on the playground is social competence—that is, they learn how to get along with others,” he says. “You have to cooperate, you have to use language, you have to compromise. And that’s not trivial. That is huge, in terms of both academic success and success in life.”

Sounds like there may be some conflict between what the adults want and what might benefit the students the most. How much do liability and public relations issues (even though the article suggests violence at recess is rare, news can spread fast) affect this?

This reminds me of some of George Herbert Mead’s thoughts in Mind, Self, and Society about how children learn. Mead suggests that children at younger ages often learn by playing, acting out adult roles and developing and debating their own rules. This sounds similar to how unstructured recess is described above: together, kids take what they know and apply it to the recess setting, learning as they go along. Vialet suggests kids have lost some of these skills and need to be taught some basic ways to play and act.

I wonder how this might mesh with Annette Lareau’s findings in Unequal Childhoods. In her description of parenting styles that differ by race, it seems like kids who are brought up in the natural growth style might be better off in these unstructured recess times that middle- and upper-class kids. But perhaps technology has subverted some of this; natural growth today may look more like being free to explore one’s own media and entertainment options.

Revealing a child’s gender at age 5

This genre of news story pops up every now and then: parents decide not to reveal the gender of their child to the public for several years. I have used a 2009 story about a Swedish kid named “Pop” as an example in class. Here is a more recent example from a few days ago:

Laxton, a UK-based web editor, and her partner, Cooper, decided to keep Sasha’s sex a secret when he was still in the womb. The birth announcement stated the gender-neutral name of their child, but skipped the big reveal. Up until recently, the couple only told a few close friends and family members that Sasha was a boy and managed to keep the rest of the world in the dark. But now that he’s starting school the secret’s out…

But the sandbox is just a precursor to the classroom. When Sasha turned five and headed to school, Laxton was forced to make her son’s sex public. That meant Sasha would have to get used to being a boy in the eyes of his peers. Still, his mom is intervening. While the school requires different uniforms for boys and girls, Sasha wears a girl’s blouse with his pants…

Last year another couple, Kathy Witterick, 38, and David Stocker, 39, of Toronto made a similar decision when they had their baby, Storm. At the time, certain psychiatric experts voiced concern over their decision. “To have a sense of self and personal identity is a critical part of normal healthy development,” Dr. Eugene Beresin, director of training in child and adolescent psychiatry at Massachusetts General Hospital, told ABC News. “This blocks that and sets the child up for bullying, scapegoating and marginalization.”…

As for Laxton, she says she’s open to her son pursing any career or sexual preference he chooses as he matures. “As long as he has good relationships and good friends,” she says, “then nothing else matters, does it?”

When I present a story like this to students, they tend to think that the child will be harmed because they will be confused about their identity and will end up enduring taunts from classmates. This seems to line up with the experts cited in this story. Now that I think about it, I can’t say that I have seen any cited experts saying the child would be just fine but perhaps I missed it.

At the same time, these are great examples to talk about the boundaries of the nature vs. nurture debate. Could a child even be treated neutrally? At some point will society “force” the children to pick a side?

By this point in time, do we have any studies of kids who have grown up in these settings? It might also be interesting to see if there are patterns in the parents who follow this path.