The unwritten rules of social life as illustrated by a baseball interchange

Our daily social lives contain a number of interchanges that follow unwritten social rules. (Here is one that I recently wrote about: saying “thanks for your service” to military personnel.) The same thing happens in sports, as illustrated by this well-reported interchange between the Los Angeles Angels and Detroit Tigers:

In his obviously genius book, “Everything Is Obvious: Once You Know the Answer,” sociologist Duncan J. Watts explains the notion that our lives are dictated by thousands of unwritten rules that we rarely, if ever, stop to examine…

The problem with the sport’s unwritten rules is that …

“They’re unwritten,” Tigers ace Justin Verlander said with a laugh.

Exactly. And Verlander and the Tigers were involved in a game with the Angels here at Comerica Park the other day that showcased the silliness of living by an unwritten rulebook very much open to interpretation. It was a game so steeped in indecipherable, unwritten language that it ought to have been sponsored by Rosetta Stone.

This interchange led to a lot of debate among sports pundits: was it justified or not?

I think there are two better, and more sociological, questions to ask: where exactly do players learn to follow this code and how could the whole process be stopped? The first question refers to the socialization process. At some point, players must be instructed or at least observe this code. They also learn how they might be punished by other players if they do not follow it. It would be interesting to ask individual players whether they really feel that this is acceptable behavior or if they follow along because of peer pressure.

The second question refers to how baseball could make this behavior deviant. One way would be to increase the sanctions so that the code becomes very unattractive. Such sanctions could include punishments for managers and perhaps even teams. To this point, baseball has instituted some punishments but they clearly aren’t enough to stop such incidents. Another way would be to start teaching a new code at the lower levels of baseball, minor leagues or even below. In response, players might say that they still need ways to deal with showboating (done by Carlos Guillen in this incident) but I think baseball would find it hard to determine what exactly counts and what doesn’t.

This may just be a good example of social norms to use in an Introduction to Sociology class.

A new kind of capital: “erotic capital”

Sociologists have written a lot about “economic, social, and cultural capital.” One sociologist suggests adding a new category: “erotic capital“:

Even some academics are waxing poetic about the hidden value of sexual prowess. Sociologist and London School of Economics professor Catherine Hakim, author of Erotic Capital: The Power of Attraction in the Boardroom and the Bedroom, believes that “erotic capital” is the fourth human asset, in addition to economic, social and cultural capital.

She defines it broadly as physical and social attractiveness, and says that flirting is one manifestation. “Charisma often includes flirting, when appropriate,” Hakim says, “and these days even CEOs are expected to display charisma.”

While the rest of this post is about “flirting gone wrong,” I wonder how other sociologists would view the idea of “erotic capital.” People have some control over their looks, particularly if they have money (which often enables better health care), but it is also predetermined. Additionally, there is pressure to conform to culturally-specific standards of beauty. All of us are socialized into particular patterns of attractiveness which could range from being well-mannered to flirtatious and dressy to roguish.

There are quite a few studies that discuss the effects of being attractive. I don’t recall Goffman’s dramaturgical work mentioning much about “physical or social attractiveness.” While such studies did account for power dynamics, certainly attractiveness plays some role in interaction. Can attractiveness be enough to overcome deficits in other areas of capital or would it be in fourth place in terms of importance about the types of capital?

Barbie needs a “green dream home”

The socialization process that children go through includes messages and ideas that they get from the toys that they play with. So if we want future adults to live in greener homes, then perhaps it will be Barbie who leads the way:

With an exciting new career in architecture, Barbie naturally needs stylish new digs which is why Mattel has teamed up with the American Institute of Architects (AIA) to launch the Architect Barbie Dream House Design Competition…

And here are Barbie’s guidelines, in her own words:

My Dream House should reflect the best sustainable design principles and also be a stylish space that I can live in comfortably. A sleek, smart home office is important for any doll…

I love to entertain so I need living and dining areas that are open and connected allowing for mingling and easy entertaining from one room to the other…

And the list of guidelines goes on.

This is an interesting list: it starts with “sustainable design principles” but then the rest of the list expands on the concept of “stylish space.” So Barbie might want a greener home but this home is still going to have to be pretty large to accommodate all of her stuff. The home may be designed a little better but it still sounds like it will be an ode to consumption since she is a “fashionista,” has at least three cars, and needs a big yard. Can Barbie live in a greener McMansion (not that architects could call it that)?

It would be interesting to see what type of architects would openly submit designs for this.

Study of over 5,000 children’s books from 20th century shows gender bias

A team of sociologists looked at “nearly 6,000” of children’s books from the 20th century and found that there were patterns of gender bias throughout the entire period:

“We looked at a full century of children’s books,” McCabe said. “We were surprised to find that books did not become consistently more equal throughout the century. They were most unequal in the middle of the century, with more male-dominated characters from 1930 to 1969, than those published in the first three decades of the century and in later decades.”…

The study, “Gender in Twentieth–Century Children’s Books: Patterns of Disparity in Titles and Central Characters,” was published in the journal Gender & Society. The study found that:

•Males are central characters in 57 percent of children’s books published per year, while only 31 percent have female central characters.
•No more than 33 percent of children’s books published in any given year contain central characters that are adult women or female animals, but adult men and male animals appear in up to 100 percent of books.
•Male animals are central characters in more than 23 percent of books per year, while female animals are in only 7.5 percent.
•On average, 36.5 percent of books in each year studied include a male in the title, compared to 17.5 percent that include a female.
•Although books published in the 1990s came close to parity for human characters, a significant disparity of nearly 2 to 1 remains for male animal characters versus female.

This may not seem terribly important in the grand scheme of the world but at the same time, children’s books can play an important role in the socialization process. I would be interested to see how the authors discuss the changing role of children’s book with the advent of mass publishing, television, movies/DVDs, etc. And is there any way to assess the impact of such texts on children who read them?

Just off the top of my head, I’m struck by the number of children’s books examined. Over a 100 year stretch, this would average out of 60 per year but this seems like an unusually large qualitative data set.

One proposal for 8 options instead of going to college

James Altucher is a “money manager and author” who has put out some provocative ideas about avoiding college, partly because of its high cost at numerous campuses. And Altucher has recently come up with 8 alternatives to college that he would encourage teenagers to pursue:

  • Start a business.
  • Work for a charity.
  • Travel the world.
  • Create art.
  • Master a sport.
  • Master a game.
  • Write a book.
  • Make people laugh.

This is an interesting list. A number of these items push teenagers to expand their horizons or be creative, rather than simply following prescribed paths of going to college.

Quick Review: Babies

I watched the film Babies recently with the hopes that I might use a portion of it to illustrate the idea of socialization in my Introduction to Sociology course. I didn’t end up using the film but I still have a few thoughts about this 2010 film:

1. The film follows four babies: one each in Namibia, Mongolia, Japan, and San Francisco. Between the four of them, there were some contrasts. But I’m not sure there was enough variation in these cases. Outside of the Namibian baby, the other three families were fairly Westernized. The Japanese and American baby seemed to experience similar things. If the goal was to draw attention to how babies develop in similar stages yet do so in unique cultural settings, I think this could have been improved. This is a problem that also plagues case studies: cases need to be selected in such a way that they have variation on the key variables of interest (culture in this instance).

2. The movie has no narration – it is a compilation of scenes tracking their development and there is some instrumental music. This leads to a lot of “awww” moments but the film struggles to say something larger.

3. Some of the scenes were quite well put together. The shots of the Mongolian child seemingly out in the wilderness on his own (a constant backdrop of mountains and cattle) were impressive.

4. I know this is an inherent problem in a film that attempts to follow four children through several years of life but I didn’t feel like we had a good understanding of the broader context the babies were in. There was little or no information about their parents or families. I felt like we saw a lot of scenes meant to show the different stages of development but little of the full story. Since the film was somewhat short (just under 80 minutes), ten or fifteen minutes of this information could easily have been added though it would have altered the approach.

Overall, this was an engaging film as it is interesting to watch the children grow up. There is much potential in these scenes but the film as a whole struggles to make a larger point.

(This film was okay in the eyes of critics. According to, 69% of critics – 67 out of 97 – said the film was “fresh.”)

Making gratitude part of the socialization process

A sociologist from UC-Berkeley suggests that children can be taught gratitude from a young age:

Most of us are actually born feeling entitled to our parents’ care. That means that if we don’t teach kids gratitude and practice it with them, they grow up feeling entitled, and entitlement does not lead to happiness. On the contrary, it leads to feelings of disappointment and frustration. In contrast, gratitude makes us happy and satisfied with our lives…

Studies of adults and college students show positive outcomes from consciously practicing gratitude. My own experience with children has been that they become kinder, more appreciative, more enthusiastic and just generally happier.

I wonder if there is broad-level data to support her claims that children who have more gratitude are happier. One could do a study of grateful adults and try to trace back where exactly they think (and where they actually did) develop this attitude. Could we also figure out why some children develop gratitude and others do not?

Also, these claims about gratitude leading to happiness sounds more like contentment rather than happiness. If we measured happiness on two levels, immediate happiness and longer-term satisfaction, gratitude would seem to lead to more longer-term satisfaction.

Schools don’t just teach academic skills; they also teach social and emotional skills

The Chicago Tribune reports on widespread programs in schools to teach social and emotional skills to students. The state of Illinois is leading the way:

In 2004, Illinois became the first state in the nation to require all school districts to teach social and emotional skills as part of their curriculum and daily school life. That means students are expected to meet certain benchmarks, such as recognizing and managing feelings, building empathy and making responsible decisions.

The touchy-feely stuff doesn’t have to come at the expense of intellect. New evidence shows a strong link between interpersonal skills and academics, said Roger Weissberg, a professor of psychology at the University of Illinois, Chicago, who has studied social and emotional learning for more than 25 years.

Weissberg and his colleagues recently completed an analysis of 300 scientific studies and reached two important conclusions: Students enrolled in such programs scored at least 10 percentage points higher on achievement tests than peers who weren’t. At the same time, discipline problems were cut in half.

The article also suggests teaching social and emotional skills is tied to seeing students more as whole persons. This is all part of the broad program of socialization in schools. While academic skills are an important emphasis, so are emotional/social skills as well as other topics such as learning how to be a good citizen or acquiring skills needed for jobs.

Climate change beliefs and gender

One thing I enjoy about academic research is that I often find people are asking questions I never would have thought of. An example: what is the relationship between gender and beliefs regarding climate change? A sociologist has some answers:

“Men still claim they have a better understanding of global warming than women, even though women’s beliefs align much more closely with the scientific consensus…”

McCright analyzed eight years of data from Gallup’s annual environment poll that asked fairly basic questions about climate change knowledge and concern. He said the gender divide on concern about climate change was not explained by the roles that men and women perform such as whether they were homemakers, parents or employed full time.

Instead, he said the gender divide likely is explained by “gender socialization.” According to this theory, boys in the United States learn that masculinity emphasizes detachment, control and mastery. A feminine identity, on the other hand, stresses attachment, empathy and care – traits that may make it easier to feel concern about the potential dire consequences of global warming, McCright said.

Interesting ideas. If this does occur through the socialization process, at what age do boys and girls begin to differ in their views?

The value of stretching for athletes

Henry Abbott at Truehoop looks at some recent research regarding stretching which suggests stretching before athletic events is not that helpful.

The question arises: why then do athletes go through a stretching routine before a game? I’ll throw out a possible answer: stretching is part of a routine that is psychologically helpful in preparing for a game. Even if stretching beforehand has limited value, as long as it is not harmful, it could help athletes feel like they are doing something worthwhile. Perhaps it helps improve their mental focus. For many, I assume it is part of an established routine that they were socialized into either at a younger age or by an expert. Since they have been doing it in the past, going through the motions helps them prepare.

Where this research could be used is with younger athletes. It is hard to break people out of established patterns but teenagers and kids could chart a new path that includes little or no pregame stretching and more postgame stretching. These younger athletes could then establish new kinds of routines that will be with them throughout their athletic careers.