Big claim in a new book title: “Society Explained”

Go big or go home with your sociology book titles as this new sociology book Society Explained illustrates:

Rousseau had a couple of overriding goals in writing the book, his third.

One goal was to make the case that technological change, the use of social media and a sense of both economic and personal powerlessness are causing people to turn inward and become increasingly self-absorbed.

“People are much more alone than they need to be,” Rousseau said.

His other goal was to write a book that “is not dull or jargon-filled,” as many sociology texts tend to be, using personal examples and historical perspective.

“I was trying to take a very down-to-earth look at how our society functions,” he said.

In that, he appears to have struck a chord. After reviewing more than 7,000 titles, the American Library Association has named “Society Explained” one of the top 25 academic books of 2014.

Does this book offer one or a few key social forces that explain society today or does it take the typical introduction to sociology approach of looking at numerous subfields? I would expect the former with such a title though I’ve seen enough books to suspect the latter might be true. Alas, society is complex with numerous moving parts and doesn’t have the same kind of universal laws that might be found in the natural sciences. (What is the sociological equivalent of the law of gravity?) Yet, this is precisely what makes the subject so fascinating.

Suggested: We need to think more about the sociology of aliens

One analyst suggests we are ignoring a big feature about aliens: what would their society be like?

“We keep complaining about the fact that we know so little about extraterrestrials in general, and even though sociology is mentioned in the Drake Equation, it is generally agreed that is the most difficult aspect to address,” said Morris Jones, an Australian who describes himself as an independent space analyst.

The Drake Equation is a set of variables proposed by astronomer Frank Drake that estimates how many intelligent, communicating civilizations there are in the universe. While speaking at the International Astronautical Congress Wednesday (Oct. 1), Jones pointed out that most talk about alien communications focuses on the basics – how they transmit, and where to search, and whether we can hear them. But to fully understand the message, we have to understand how their society works.

How a society functions is partly a function of biology, Jones argued. So if humans decided to incorporate machine intelligence in their bodies, it would be reasonable to assume that society would change because of that. “Machine society is an entirely different sociology, and that we cannot predict,” Jones said. An extraterrestrial civilization could use machines, drugs, genetic engineering or surgery to alter their basic nature (something that is used also with humans.)

Class systems could also be in place that are similar to the animal kingdom. Herd and hive sociology covers how animals behave. Pigeons, for example, flock together for mutual protection. In the insect world, beings such as ants tend to be born in specific physiological roles that prepare them for different functions — such as the queen ant that is the mother of other ants in the colony.

These are societies that we could predict, perhaps, but more intriguing are those that are difficult to extrapolate from human experience or observation. Jones is particularly interested in cryptosociology. That’s the concept that because we can’t predict yet how alien civilizations will behave, we can speculate what they are capable of.

Sounds like a potentially interesting topic but how is anyone supposed to do anything definitive?

Living Earth Simulator to model social world

Here is an interesting project, the Living Earth Simulator, that hopes to take a lot of data and come to conclusions about social life:

Described as a “knowledge collider,” and now with a pledge of one billion euros from the European Union, the Living Earth Simulator is a new big data and supercomputing project that will attempt to uncover the underlying sociological and psychological laws that underpin human civilization. In the same way that CERN’s Large Hadron Collider smashes together protons to see what happens, the Living Earth Simulator (LES) will gather knowledge from a Planetary Nervous System (PNS — yes, really) to try to predict societal fluctuations such as political unrest, economic bubbles, disease epidemics, and so on.

Orchestrated by FuturICT, which is basically a consortium of preeminent scientists, computer science centers around the world, and high-power computing (HPC) installations, the Living Earth Simulator hopes to correlate huge amounts of data — including real-time sources such as Twitter and web news — and extant, but separate approaches currently being used by other institutions, into a big melting pot of information. To put it into scientific terms, the LES will analyze techno-socio-economic-environmental (!) systems. From this, FuturICT hopes to reveal the tacit agreements and hidden laws that actually govern society, rather than the explicit, far-removed-from-reality bills and acts that lawmakers inexorably enact…

The timing of EU’s billion-euro grant is telling, too. As you probably know, the European Union is struggling to keep the plates spinning, and the LES, rather handily, will probably be the most accurate predictor of economic stability in the world. Beyond money, though, it is hoped that the LES and PNS can finally tell us why humans do things, like watch a specific TV show, buy a useless gadget, or start a revolution.

Looking at the larger picture, the Living Earth Simulator is really an admission that we know more about the physical universe than the social. We can predict with startling accuracy whether an asteroid will hit Earth, but we know scant little about how society might actually react to an extinction-level event. We plough billions of dollars into studying the effects and extent of climate change, but what if understood enough of the psychology and sociology behind human nature to actually change our behavior?

I don’t know about the prospects of such a project but if the BBC is reporting on it, perhaps it has a future.

A couple of statements in the description above intrigue me:

1. The simulator will help uncover “the tacit agreements and hidden laws that actually govern society.” Do most social scientists think this is possible if we only had enough data and the right simulator?

2. The comparison between the natural and social sciences is telling. The portrayal here is that the natural sciences have come a lot further in studying nature than social scientists in studying human behavior. Is this true? Is this a fair comparison – natural systems vs. social systems? How much “unknown knowledge” is really in each realm?

3. The coding for this project must be immense.

4. The article makes no mention of utilizing social scientists to help develop this project and analyze the data though the group behind it does have some social scientists on board.

The counterpart to women’s studies: men’s or male studies?

Women’s studies programs are common at American colleges and universities. And in recent years, courses about men and masculinity have increased in numbers. An article in the New York Times explores this phenomenon and the split between proponents of men’s and male studies:

Male studies, largely the brainchild of Dr. Edward M. Stephens, a New York City psychiatrist, doesn’t actually exist anywhere yet. Last spring, there was a scholarly symposium at Wagner College on Staten Island, intended to raise the movement’s profile and attract funds for a department with a tenured chair on some campus. A number of prominent scholars attended, including Lionel Tiger, an emeritus anthropology professor at Rutgers, who invented the term “male bonding,” and Paul Nathanson, a religious studies scholar at McGill University, who specializes in the study of misandry, the flip side of misogyny. Both are on the advisory board of the Foundation for Male Studies, which Dr. Stephens founded last year…

The people in men’s studies, like those in women’s studies, take a mostly sociological perspective and believe that masculinity is essentially a cultural construct and that gender differences in general are fluid and variable. To Professor Kimmel, we live in a world that is increasingly gender-neutral and gender integrated and that this is a good thing for men and women both. “That ship has sailed — it’s a done deal,” he said recently, dismissing the idea that men and women are as different as Martians and Venutians.

The male studies people, on the other had, are what their critics call “essentialists” and believe that male behavior is in large part biologically determined. Men think and act differently from how women think and act because that’s how evolution shaped them. In the most extreme formulations of essentialism, men are basically still Neanderthals: violent, clannish, sexually voracious and in need of female domestication.

The article points this out but this sounds like another episode in the nature vs. nurture debate.

But the study of masculinity does seem to be a growing field of study. I don’t know much about this particular field  but it seems to me that there has been a growing recognition that there is a wide range of male experiences. And more men seem to be interested in at least thinking about this and how their lives have been shaped by cultural expectations.

What is the “typical” role for males today? Take a sector of the media like video games. These are popular among males, particularly the younger generations, and many of these games present particular views of masculinity and the world. Should one be an soldier shooting others in Black Ops? Should one be a 13th century assassin? Should one be a puzzle solver or an athlete? There are a number of roles, realistic and otherwise, that are presented. And all of this has real consequences: with terms like “man-cession” or “he-pression” being in the news recently due to the loss of certain jobs, what happens to males matters for society.

A sociologist discusses giving money and gift certificates as gifts

The history and social significance of money is more complicated than one might think. One sociologist, Viviana Zelizer, has written a lot about money including pieces about how life insurance came to be seen as “moral” in the 19th century and how women’s earnings were seen as extra money rather than part of a household’s finances. In a recent New York Times op-ed, Zelizer tackled a subject that often comes up at the holidays: is giving money or a gift certificate an acceptable gift?

It turns out that both the economic realists who give money as presents and the traditionalists have history on their side, because this is a debate that began back in the early 20th century. As the consumer society expanded and Americans began giving more Christmas presents to more people, money emerged as an acceptable gift. Christmas money, according to a 1912 issue of Ladies’ Home Journal, “supplies dearly cherished wishes, adds small luxuries, prevents worriment and gives opportunities for helpfulness as no other gift does.”…

We can’t all be as clever as Lou Eleanor Colby, but buying a gift card that restricts what the money can be used for is just another way of distinguishing gift money from regular money, and a way for givers to demonstrate their intimate knowledge of what the recipient likes and cares about.

The key here seems to be the significance behind the money or gift certificate: is it simply a cash payout (and writing a check or withdrawing money from an ATM can be a fairly normal and heartless event) or does it have thought behind it (meaning it is a gift certificate that matches one’s tastes)? I know we have had these discussions in my family with people coming down on various sides.

But as Zelizer points out in this op-ed, this was a particular historical process that had to occur. Businesses, particularly those catering to women, had to create a safe space for a gift of money or a gift certificate. Gift certificates do not have inherent significance – it must be endowed with such by the society, the giver, and the recipient.

Personally, I would accept both cash or gift certificates. But they do have separate meanings: cash tends to go into a larger pot of money and gets lost while a gift certificate, say to a bookstore, helps keep that money destined for books or music or DVDs. I would also expect that the younger generations have less difficulty giving and receiving money or gift certificates.

An example of fun solutions to social problems: speed camera lottery

There are lots of social problems where it is hard to motivate individuals to support efforts to battle the problems or to change their individual behavior. But what if individuals could have a chance to benefit from the measures beyond simply the abstract “you’re helping society”? Some thinkers developed a lottery that might improve people’s views of speed cameras and reduced the number of speeding people on the road:

“Can we get more people to obey the speed limit by making it fun to do?” That’s a question Volkswagen recently posed in a public contest — and the winning entry was the Speed Camera Lottery, conceived by Kevin Richardson of San Francisco. Richardson’s idea, quite simply, is to build a better speed trap. Strategically placed traffic cameras will photograph all passing cars. Drivers exceeding the speed limit are sent tickets, while those obeying it are pooled into a lottery funded by the fines. Every now and then a randomly selected winner is sent a check.

The speed-limit contest was part of the Fun Theory, a program designed by Swedish advertising firm DDB Stockholm to make “seemingly baleful social challenges — environmental protection, speed-limit adherence, boosting public transportation ridership — enjoyable,” according to the Wheels blog of the New York Times. Other transportation-related innovations included the Wiki Traffic Light, which tries to get people to stop on red by fixing a screen that displays interesting facts, and the Piano Stairs, which nudges subway riders off escalators and onto the stairs by converting the steps into piano keys — ala the “Heart and Soul” scene from “Big.”

A demo of the Speed Camera Lottery enacted in Stockholm seems to have been a success. In collaboration with the Swedish National Society for Road Safety, Volkswagen installed a speed camera that showed drivers their speed. Over a three-day period the camera snapped shots of 24,857 cars. The average speed before the test was 32 kilometers an hour. During the test that figure dropped to 25 k.p.h. — a 22 percent reduction in speed.

My first thought upon reading this was that it is a clever way to deal with the issue of speeding. But, this could get complicated quickly. Where exactly is the trade-off point where people need to see that enough drivers who obey the law are benefiting versus the number of people who are receiving tickets? Such cameras have been particularly detested in the United Kingdom and the United States – would a program like this be enough to overcome these attitudes? More broadly, should people be rewarded for following laws or guidelines?

In general, we need more creative thinking like this. People generally don’t like to be told what to do, particularly if they feel that they are being scolded or that the state is just out to get them (or raise revenue). But if people can be convinced that they could tangibly benefit from following the law or fighting a particular social problem, perhaps more people would jump on board.

Watching social interaction in the bouncy castle/moon bounce

A New York Times parenting blog explores how children interact with each other in a bouncy castle/moon bounce. Within a short period of time, the interaction moves from pure mayhem to the forming of powerful tribes:

Initially, the children bounced in random joy. They screamed and flailed about. It was pure mayhem, only rarely interrupted by a call for a parent to “watch this” and “look at this.” There was little collaboration among the children at this stage…

For as the first wave of youthful energy burned off, the children settled down and started to recognize the other. They tentatively reached out, jumping together as they held hands. It was simple collaboration accompanied by squeals of delight…

Then came the teams. Neanderdad was surprised to see kids in his children’s age group start build alliances. Three or four tikes would bounce together and exclude the other kids from their area. Those kids would, in turn, form their own factions and stake out territory as well…

After the small teams came the bouncy tribes. As all the territory inside the Bouncy Castle became claimed, conflicts between teams developed.  As a result, smaller groups merged to make themselves stronger. This co-opting processing progressed until only two large tribes remained…

When things seemed be getting a bit too heated, Neanderdad and other fathers were forced to step in and break up the door monopoly and disband the teams. Interestingly, once the conflict was defused, the children on both sides suddenly seemed to lose interest in the Bouncy Castle.

What is most interesting to me is that these are young kids working through patterns of interaction. Very quickly, they band together and stake out territory. Is this a real life version of Lord of the Flies? Would this sort of behavior hold true across cultures? Where exactly do children develop this process?

Next time I see one of these moon bounces in action, I may just have to look more closely.

(An odd side note: the title of the blog post is “the sociology of the Bouncy Castle” while the second paragraph suggests the author is turning “an anthropological eye on child’s play.” Sociology or anthropology? Perhaps both – but this doesn’t help the perception among some that the disciplines are the same.)

A recent experiment in human history: living alone

Sociologist Eric Klinenberg recently spoke in Boston about a relatively recent trend in human history: living alone.

The stats are arresting. In this country, approximately 31 million people live alone, and one-person households make up 28 percent of the total, tying with childless couples as the most common residential type — “more common,’’ Klinenberg pointed out, “than the nuclear family, the multigenerational family, and the roommate or group home.’’

Those who live alone are mostly middle-age, with young adults the fastest-growing segment, and there are more women than men. No longer a transitional stage, living alone is one of the most stable household arrangements. And while one-person households were once scattered in low-density rural settings, they’re now concentrated in cities. “In Manhattan,’’ he said, “more than half of all residences are one-person dwellings.’’

You’d think that the United States, with its cult of individualism, would be the world leader in living alone, but it’s not. Sweden, Norway, Finland, and Denmark, among others, come in ahead of us…

But despite a chapter that expands his examination of dying alone in the city, Klinenberg’s new work, based on a study of hundreds of one-person households in several cities and forthcoming as a book next year, takes a much more positive view of living alone. He treats it as an important rite of passage, our emergent standard measure of full adulthood, one for which our society begins preparing us from infancy onward — by making it normal to teach babies to sleep alone and for middle-class children to have their own rooms, and by making it convenient for young adults to carry on full and rewarding lives while living alone.

Klinenberg makes an interesting point about how this idea of being alone is one that many families stress from a young age. This trend of living alone as adults may just be a logical consequence of socializing children with these ideas.

Additionally, it sounds like Klinenberg is not as pessimistic as some who argue that American society has become more fragmented in recent decades. Indeed, Klinenberg makes it sound like living alone could provide people the ability to be even more social.

One way this could change society is in how people understand themselves. Living with other people is revealing in that it demonstrates how others operate in day-to-day life and also reveals individual’s faults and positive traits. This sort of interaction is hard to duplicate outside of the home.

This trend could also raise questions about traditional understandings of families and adulthood. People who choose to have families or live with others may become those who have to explain themselves. Social policy might need to be altered to limit privileges for families or provide new privileges for those living alone.

In the end, what would Klinenberg say about accumulated thoughts over the centuries about communal life, such as Donne’s suggestion that “no man is an island”? Have we simply moved on to a better understanding of our lives as individuals and a society? How will “community” be redefined?

The difficulty of defining culture

The term “culture” can be tricky to define – as is evidenced in a story from the New York Times about culture and poverty. One writer tries to sum up the definition and the argument:

The important thing is, you can’t isolate culture as one element of a society and change it without changing anything else. You can’t ignore the roles racism, lack of fundamental necessities, and social isolation play in shaping culture, and you can’t use it as a convenient way to blame poverty on the individuals who suffer from it.

While I would agree that it is difficult to separate culture from other areas, sociologists of culture tend to stress that culture is “patterns of meaning-making.” All people do this: develop narratives and ways of understanding their surroundings.

What seems to be the new wave of research is looking at how culture and structures (such as unemployment, isolation, lack of opportunity) interact with and influence each other.

Experiments in the social sciences

Jim Manzi writes in City Journal about using experiments in the social sciences to help make decisions like whether the economic stimulus in the United States was successful. Manzi writes:

Another way of putting the problem is that we have no reliable way to measure counterfactuals—that is, to know what would have happened had we not executed some policy—because so many other factors influence the outcome. This seemingly narrow problem is central to our continuing inability to transform social sciences into actual sciences. Unlike physics or biology, the social sciences have not demonstrated the capacity to produce a substantial body of useful, nonobvious, and reliable predictive rules about what they study—that is, human social behavior, including the impact of proposed government programs.

Manzi provides an overview of experimentation and discusses using randomized field trials. An interesting look at how we know – and don’t know – about the social world.