“Poetry as a sociological exercise”

A recipient of a Guggenheim Fellowship has a unique way of putting together poetry and sociology:

Poet Moten is working on a project titled “Hesitant Sociology: Blackness and Poetry.” The work was inspired, he said, by a piece written by W.E.B. Dubois, the African American sociologist and civil rights activist, called “Sociology Hesitant.”

Moten is a finalist for the Kingsley Tufts Poetry Award for his 2014 book “The Little Edges.” He was a finalist for the 2014 National Book Award in Poetry.

“I’m looking at poetry as a sociological exercise,” Moten said. “What I want to do is take on the term ‘sociology’ not as an insult or slur, but as a badge of honor, and be able to think that literature in general, at its best, is a sociological enterprise. Poetry is a form of rhythmic or syncopated sociology.”

One area of literature or writing that is often linked with sociology involves novels, particularly ones that provide social commentary or deeper portrayals of social life. Poetry could get at similar themes but in different forms – perhaps with a different rhythm as noted above.

The Dubois piece referenced here ends with this:

That there are limits is shown by the rhythm in birth and death rates
and the distribution by sex; it is found further in human customs and laws,
the forms of government, the laws of trade, and even in charity and ethics.
As, however, we rise in the realm of conduct, we note a primary and a
secondary rhythm. A primary rhythm depending, as we have indicated, on
physical forces and physical law; but within this appears again and again a
secondary rhythm which, while presenting nearly the same uniformity as the
first, differs from it in its more or less sudden rise at a given tune, in accor-
dance with prearranged plan and prediction and in being liable to stoppage
and change according to similar plan. An example of primary uniformity is
the death rate; of secondary uniformity, the operation of a woman’s club;
to confound the two sorts of human uniformity is fatal to clear thinking; to
explain them we must assume Law and Chance working in conjunction—
Chance being the scientific side of inexplicable Will. Sociology, then, is the
Science that seeks the limits of Chance in human conduct.

“Law and Chance working in conjunction” sounds like it could lead to fruitful creative interpretation.

Social science assumes “human living is not random”

Noted sociologist of religion Grace Davie gives a brief description of her work:

My work, like that of all social scientists, rests on the assumption that human living is not random. Why is it, for example, that Christian churches in the West are disproportionately attended by women? That requires an explanation.

This is a good starting point for describing the social sciences. There are patterns to human social life and we can’t rely on anecdotes or interpretations of whether there are patterns or how to understand them. We want to apply a scientific perspective to these patterns and explain why those patterns, and not others, exist. Then, we might delve deeper into level of analysis, theoretical assumptions, and techniques of data collection and analysis – three areas where the various social science disciplines differ.

“[O]ne of a sociologist’s prime traits is extreme nosiness”

A public sociologist describes how she interacts with what others say online about her opinions:

They say you should never read below the line after you publish an article in the public domain. Yes, but what if you’re a sociologist? You have to read the comments – it’s your job to know how society reacts to a particular viewpoint. Besides, one of a sociologist’s prime traits is extreme nosiness. So I look. My favourite comment came after I had written in a national newspaper about being a working-class academic and living on a council estate: “Where is her child’s father?” a reader demanded. That was just class – in every sense of the word.

Nosiness or someone who likes observing other people and social interactions? When sociologists describe what makes them tick (or at least how this is written in textbooks for Introduction to Sociology), people watching or a curiosity about social behavior is typically invoked. This could happen through reliable and valid data (in its more scientific and publishable forms) or through eavesdropping, seeing with your own eyes, and even acting within social situations (see breaching experiments as an example). Sometimes this is described as a sociological imagination. Such interest in the actions of others could be interpreted as nosiness, particularly if social norms are violated, but I hardly think reading online comments counts: reading such comments is observing actions taken in the public domain.

Mark Zuckerberg encouraging people to read sociological material

Mark Zuckerberg has been recommending an important every two weeks in 2015 and his list thus far includes a number of works that touch on sociological material:

Zuckerberg’s book club, A Year of Books, has focused on big ideas that influence society and business. His selections so far have been mostly contemporary, but for his eleventh pick he’s chosen “The Muqaddimah,” written in 1377 by the Islamic historian Ibn Khaldun…

Ibn Khaldun’s revolutionary scientific approach to history has established him as one of the foundational thinkers of modern sociology and historiography…

The majority of Zuckerberg’s book club selections have been explorations of issues through a sociological lens, so it makes sense that he is now reading the book that helped create the field.

A Year of Books so far:

  • “The End of Power: From Boardrooms to Battlefields and Churches to States, Why Being In Charge Isn’?t What It Used to Be” by Moisés Naím
  • “The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined” by Steven Pinker
  • “Gang Leader for a Day: A Rogue Sociologist Takes to the Streets” by Sud hir Venkatesh
  • “On Immunity: An Inoculation” by Eula Biss
  • “Creativity, Inc.: Overcoming the Unseen Forces That Stand in the Way of True Inspiration” by Ed Catmull and Amy Wallace
  • “The Structure of Scientific Revolutions” by Thomas S. Kuhn
  • “Rational Ritual: Culture, Coordination, and Common Knowledge” by Michael Chwe
  • “Dealing with China: An Insider Unmasks the New Economic Superpower” by Henry M. Paulson
  • “Orwell’s Revenge: The 1984 Palimpsest” by Peter Huber
  • “The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness” by Michelle Alexander
  • “The Muqaddimah” by Ibn Khaldun

An interesting set of selections. At the least, it suggests Zuckerberg is broadly interested in social issues and not just the success of Facebook (whether through gaining users or producing sky-high profits). More optimistically, perhaps Zuckerberg has a sociological perspective and can take a broader view of society. This could be very helpful given that his company is a sociological experiment in the making – not the first social networking site but certainly a very influential one that has helped pioneer new kinds of interactions as well as changed behaviors from news gathering to impression management.

The more cynical take here is that this book list is itself an impression management tool intended to bolster his reputation. Look, I do really want the best for our users and society! However, would this be the set of books that would most impress the public or investors? Listing sociology books as well as books regarding sociological topics may only impress some.

Traffic caused by the actions of individual drivers

Tom Vanderbilt has been talking about traffic for several years now and he highlighted again in a recent talk what leads to traffic and congestion:

Tom Vanderbilt, author of Traffic, gave a great 20-minute overview on the counterintuitive science of congestion at the Boing Boing: Ingenuity conference in San Francisco last month. Turns out a lot of the problems we ascribe to poor roads or other drivers are really our own fault. “[T]he individual driver cannot often understand the larger traffic system,” says Vanderbilt…

In fact, says Vanderbilt, traffic would be much better off if cars stayed in both lanes then merged at the very end, one by one, like a zipper. It’s safer (fewer lane changes), it reduces back-ups (often up to 40 percent), and it quenches road rage (still on the rise)…

A big reason for traffic is that too many cars are trying to occupy too little space on the road. But that’s not the only problem. A human inability to maintain a steady speed and following distance on the highway makes traffic a lot less smooth than it could be…

“You’re not driving into a traffic jam,” says Vanderbilt. “A traffic jam is basically driving into you.” He thinks autonomous cars will reduce this problem considerably...

That’s too bad, he says, because even a small drop in driving would improve congestion dramatically. One recent study of metropolitan Boston found that getting 1 percent of commuters off the road would enable the rest to get home 18 percent faster. Vanderbilt ends his science of traffic talk without suggesting ways to target this 1 percent. Fortunately there’s also a science of mass transit on the case.

In other words, individual drivers put their self-interests over the health of the entire system. So, then isn’t the trick getting drivers to recognize the larger system issues? Imagine signs at zipper merges where drivers were told to use all of the lanes – or even if this was the law. Or, if cities cut parking supply even further – this might prompt people to use mass transit more. Or, perhaps autonomous cars can really provide some solutions.

Another thought: this explanation of traffic sounds suspiciously like a sociological approach. The system is what is important when analyzing traffic, not starting with the individual drivers who will generally act in their own self-interest. New Urbanists tend to make a similar argument: roads should be designed less for cars alone, putting their interests first, and instead should make room for others like pedestrians, cyclists, and those living along the street.

Sociologist on bigger issues facing Chicago schools: poverty, demographics, segregation

There has been a lot of commentary about unions in the wake of the Chicago Teacher’s Union strike. But, sociologist Pedro Noguera argues there are three bigger issues that will trouble the Chicago schools and the city of Chicago long after the strike is settled:

President Obama, the teacher unions and all of the other reformers out there would do well to focus more attention on the three huge, interrelated issues that pose the biggest threat to public education and American society generally. These are complex issues that will not be resolved by any contract settlement the warring parties reach in Chicago—but they cannot be avoided if we are to fix what truly ails our public schools…

  1. Youth poverty—Since 2008, poverty rates for children have soared. Nationally, 1 out of 4 children comes from a family with incomes that fall below the poverty line, and 1 out of 7 children lives in a state of food emergency, meaning they frequently go without adequate nutrition. The impact of poverty on schools and on child development is most severe in cities and in states such as Michigan, California and Arizona. Increasingly, public schools are all that remains of the safety net for poor children, and with funding for education being cut back in almost all states, the safety net is falling apart.
  2. Changing demographics—Already in nine states, the majority of school age children are from minority backgrounds. The number of states with majority minority populations will steadily increase in the years ahead even if the influx of immigrants continues to slow due to higher birth rates among Latinos. As the ethnic composition of schools continues to change it is becoming increasingly difficult to obtain public support for school funding. Voters don’t seem to understand that today’s school children will be responsible for supporting an aging, largely white population during their retirement years. Economists project that it takes at least three workers to support one retiree who is financially dependent on social security. Since 2010 we have fallen below that critical threshold. Will a less educated, poorer, multiracial workforce be able or be willing to take care of an aging white population?
  3. Growing segregation—According to the Civil Rights Project based at UCLA, 44 percent of schools in the United States are comprised almost exclusively of minority students. Latinos and blacks, the two largest minority groups, attend schools more segregated today than during the civil rights movement forty years ago. Two of every five African-American and Latino students attend intensely segregated schools. Segregation is most severe in Western states, including California—not in the South, as many people believe, and increasingly, most non-white schools are segregated by poverty as well as race. Given that dropout rates and failure tends to be highest in the schools where poor children are concentrated, how will the next generation of young people be prepared to solve the problems they will inherit?

I’m glad a sociologist writes about these; we need the big picture in mind, not just the immediate issues of contracts. There are certain things that can be done in school yet there are a number of other factors in society that also affect schools, children, parents, and neighborhoods. Schools are one lever by which we can affect society but not the only one.

Of course, tackling these issues would require going far beyond schools and instead look at the changes that threaten a number of American big cities. Issues like these are not new and have been at least several decades in the making. Would major candidates, say those running for President, be willing to tackle these three issues? Thus far, it is easier to stick to the ideas of education reform…

 

Sociology: the study of constrained choices

I recent saw a blurb about a new online course that explores how sociology explains how we make choices:

In his lecture “If You’re So Free, Why Do You Follow Others? The Sociology and Science Behind Social Networks,” part of Floating University’s Great Big Ideas course, Christakis explains why individual actions are inextricably linked to sociological pressures. Whether you’re absorbing altruism performed by someone you’ll never meet or deciding to jump off the Golden Gate Bridge, collective phenomena affect every aspect of your life.

Christakis is well-known for research in recent years that shows things like obesity and emotions spreading through social networks and affecting friends of friends.

But this larger idea about constrained choices is interesting. When faced with a new Introduction to Sociology class at the beginning of the semester, this is one of the ideas that I present to them: sociology is less interested in how individuals make their individual choices and more interested in how larger social factors, society, culture, institutions, networks, etc., constrain the choices of individuals in certain ways. While we live in a culture that loves to celebrate individual choice, we don’t really have completely free choices to make. Common areas of analysis in sociology, such as race, social class, and gender, can open up or limit possible choices for individuals.

Of course, there are sociologists more interested in individual choice. This has led to a larger debate in the discipline between agency and structure. But overall, sociologists tend to focus more than other disciplines on social factors that often unknowingly affect all of us.

UPDATE 12/21/11: The Washington Post gives more information on this course that will be offered on a few elite college campuses as well as online.

Frustration of Millennials in personal anecdotes and experiences; need sociological perspective

Reading through these stories of Millennials regarding the tough economic times they face, I came to a realization: this is almost exclusively based on personal anecdotes and experiences. The comments are not much better were Millennials and Baby Boomers engage in unhelpful discourse about which generation did the worst things.

In these particular situations, a sociological perspective would be quite helpful. Yes, the economy is bad and Millennials face unique challenges. But, every generation has faced its own crises and challenges. Citing one’s own personal experience and perhaps those of friends and relatives can only go so far in illuminating the bigger picture. We need a broader, less emotional view of the whole situation: Millennials aren’t the only ones feeling the effects of a weak economy or a society that is adjusting to new globalized realities. Looking back, I suspect we will see this period as a fairly important moment in the United States and the world as economies, governments, and societies change their course.

It is interesting to read that some Millennials suggest that “society” suggested one path would be open (generally, the quick realization of the American Dream) but in reality, this path was much harder to walk or is impossible to even start on. This disconnect between expectations and outcomes is intriguing in itself.

One other thought: while there are just a few stories here, I see little mention of where Millennials turn in these times of difficulty. To families? To friends? To religion? Is a job/career really all there is?

Bonus coverage on the theme of generational conflict: a higher percentage of Baby Boomers than one might think plan to leave their children no inheritance.

You know you are thinking like a sociologist or a statistician when…

Last week, I received a phone call from the news editor of the campus newspaper regarding a story: this year’s freshman class is 52% male, a change from recent years where it tended to be 51/49, 52/48 female. (For those who don’t know: Wheaton College tries to have an even gender ratio.) I was asked, “how would this affect the freshman class?”

My first thought was to check how much of a percentage change this was from previous years. Having a freshman class that is over 50% male might be a symbolic change might a 3% difference between last year and this year is less important than a 5 or 7 or or 10% difference from the previous year. Thinking about this possible story in this way takes the shock value of the percentages away and puts it in a more proper context.Second, in absolute numbers, how many more males does this mean are in the freshman class? Since it is likely a small percentage change, this is perhaps a shift of 10-20 people, not a huge number among roughly 600 freshman. Even if the next three freshman classes had these same percentage distributions, this is only a shift of roughly 40-80 males throughout the entire college of about 2,400 underclassmen.

While this might make a good example of thinking statistically for my Statistics class, there could be broader implications about who I now am as a person…

Avoiding “vulgar sociologism” when responding to events like the London riots

Responding to commentary from social scientists about the recent riots in London, an Australian sociologist warns against “vulgar sociologism”:

ARGUABLY the greatest poet of the 20th century, Wynstan Hugh Auden, is reported to have quipped that, the goal of anyone seriously interested in human affairs, should be to “never commit a social science”. As I am an academic sociologist, one could be forgiven for thinking, I might take offence at such a blanket dismissal of my stock-in-trade.

However, I think WH was right on the money. And, the media and academic commentary on the riots in London days has only added to my conviction that ‘vulgar sociologism’ – as the Peruvian sociologist Cesar Graña termed it – is much worse than no sociology at all. If only social scientists knew how to keep their ‘traps’ shut, from time to time…

As a result of such shortcomings, what often passes for social science or social commentary, especially in the public domain, is no more than cliché, thinly veiled moralism or prophecy based on hindsight. Like the Old Testament prophets, who emerged from the desert to proclaim that unless the people repented, more God-willed disasters awaited, these social scientists and social commentators seem to relish holding society responsible for humanity’s ills…

If the recent outburst of public sociological commentary is anything to go by, we can see why Auden counselled against ‘committing’ the sin of social science. Bad social science reduces complex problems to simplistic formulas. It only fills our newspapers, radio and television airwaves, with irrelevant commentary…

The truth of the matter is, that unlike medical research and the fight against diseases, social science is acting in bad faith if it promotes the view that it can seriously enhance a society’s capacity to avoid or solve social problems. There is no social science equivalent to prevention or cure; and even diagnosis is a sketchy practice.

A sociologist is really arguing that sociologist can’t help society deal with social problems? Isn’t this what motivates many to become sociologists and what use is research if it doesn’t apply to society? If sociology can’t diagnose, let alone prevent or cure, what is left? What exactly does this sociologist lecture on in class?

At the same time, I can see some merit in another idea in this piece: it is difficult to quickly describe and/or understand what happened in London. While I don’t know many sociologists looking for “simplistic formulas,” this is a reminder that social behaviors and actions are often the product of complex circumstances. Quick, accurate, and helpful pronouncements about complex situations on television are hard to come by, whether the field is sociology, politics, economics, or something else. As this sociologist notes, there is quite a temptation to respond quickly: academics may want to be in the public eye and can be rewarded for it. In a world of sound bites and Tweets, is it any surprise that academics may want to take part and claim some space for themselves?

In the end, I’m somewhat bamboozled by this essay. Cautions about rushing to judgment are helpful but the broader statements about the capabilities of sociology and social science are unique.