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.

Inside Higher Ed’s “Sociologists in Sin City” raises some interesting issues

Earlier this week, I offered some thoughts about the American Sociological Association meetings in Las Vegas and Inside Higher Ed also offered an overview of the conference:

There is something both jarring and perfectly apropos about bringing thousands of sociologists to Sin City. As the ASA press release delicately observed, “Las Vegas [is] vibrant and fascinating from a sociological perspective” – but it’s not difficult to conjecture why the conference had never been held here before. The very aspects of Las Vegas that might make it fascinating to a sociologist — the emphasis on consumerism and decadence; the unapologetic obsession with (and exploitation of) female flesh; and the city’s most celebrated pastime gambling, whose appeal is particularly mystifying to some with a background in statistics — are also the sorts of things that tend to be off-putting to academics, especially (or at least) in the presence of their colleagues. Little wonder that ol’ Lost Wages is one of the least-educated cities in the country. (As David Dickens, professor of sociology at the University of Nevada at Las Vegas, likes to say: “Thank god for Fresno.”) And little wonder, too, that even those who have dedicated their careers to studying human society weren’t wholly enthused about being thrust into the heart of this particular society, however fascinating it might be…

Sara Goldrick-Rab, associate professor of educational policy studies and sociology at the University of Wisconsin at Madison, emphatically agreed. “I found it hard to believe we sociologists would come to a place that clearly thrives on the exploitation of people’s financial and emotional insecurities,” she wrote in an e-mail. “The grotesque treatment of young women was visible and jarring.”…

Perhaps not incidentally, this faculty member was male – as was the graduate student from a highly respected private institution who suggested that any dislike of or discomfort with Las Vegas was limited to the conference’s female attendees. Also male: the grad student from a California public who smilingly boasted of having slipped a small bribe to the man at the check-in desk in exchange for a room with a good view of the pools (and the bikini-clad women therein) – which view, he said, he found rather distracting as he sat in his room preparing his presentation.

The article suggests several possible fault lines of opinion: between men and women (some of this is quoted above), those who like to gamble and those who do not, and those who work in Las Vegas (UNLV) versus elsewhere. But there was one particularly interesting thought from one of the UNLV sociologists:

Wade said it might not be a bad thing if the city made its visitors uncomfortable. Academics, she noted, tend to lead “pretty cushy” lives, and spending a few days in a difficult and even disturbing environment could prompt them to think about the “real people” who call the city home — and about the fact that, in many ways, Las Vegas is just a distilled and amplified representation of the world we all live in. “There’s a little bit of Vegas in all of us.”

I wonder how many sociologists would like to admit that as a possibility. But there is a point here: it is not as if exploitation, extreme gaps between the rich and poor, the objectification of women, and other issues are not present in other cities. Las Vegas, in its own unique way, seems to shove these issues in your face that doesn’t fit the typical academic experience.

Does this story suggest that sociologists are moralists, generally turned off by places like Las Vegas?

Reading that some people were unhappy to attend ASA in Las Vegas, it made me wonder whether ASA ever sends out surveys after the meetings to see how attendees liked the experience and what might be changed. If so, I don’t recall seeing one. Seeing that my car repair place always sends a survey afterwards, wouldn’t it make sense for ASA to do the same thing or do they not have to because they have a captive audience?

Another question: how exactly did Inside Higher Ed go about interviewing sociologists for this story?

Sociology: helping us move beyond common sense (and individualistic) understandings of the world

This overview of the recent book Everything is Obvious Once You Know the Answer: How Common Sense Fails Us does a decent job in explaining why sociology helps us move beyond common sense understandings of the world:

This thought-provoking book challenges the universal belief that management decisions based on common sense – rooted in best practices, hunches and experiences – often lead to the best outcomes.  According to the book, the reality ends up being quite different.  Relying too much on common sense often leads well-intentioned and intelligent people to make poor strategic and tactical decisions in areas such as capital investments, product introductions, new market entry and advertising decisions.

Watt’s supposition is that people give too much credence to their prior and accumulated experiences, history in general and what they perceive as best practices when making decisions.  According to the research, a person’s common sense is faulty for a number of reasons:  it contains intrinsic bias; it is based on unproven or wrong assumptions and; it is too difficult to deduce clear-cut conclusions and action steps from an environment that is overly complex or unclear…

Relying on common sense for decisions or to make predictions has dangerous implications.  For one thing, reality is usually very different from what was first imagined.  The future is quite complex and rarely reflects the same conditions that earlier decisions were based on.  As a result, it is highly unlikely positive outcomes will repeat themselves if the individual relies solely on history.  In my consulting experience,  the higher degree of uncertainty around a decision or potential outcome, the more likely senior executives will rely on subjective criteria like common sense or best practices as a basis for decision making.

I’ve made a similar argument to students: we tend to operate on a day-to-day basis by seeing things in terms of how we have seen or experienced them before. We make patterns out of things (we are pattern-making creatures) that have happened to us regardless of the amount of information to back up our conclusions. New information is then filtered through these older constructs. When confronted with new information that doesn’t “fit,” we have to ignore it, fit it into our old constructs, or develop new constructs.

Thinking sociologically means that we move beyond this individualistic level in a couple of ways:

1. We try to take a broad overview, recognizing that the world is complicated and many things are related. Instead of just thinking about how something affects us, we look at how systems are connected and social processes take place. The question is more “how does the whole affect the individual” rather than “how does the individual fit within the whole.”

2. Conclusions should be based on data that is collected and analyzed in ways that minimize individual level bias. Though we often are unable to create perfect models or understanding, we can make good estimates.

I may have to try out this description with my students to see what they think.

How sociology can “unravel the [London] riots”

The president and vice-chair of the British Sociological Association explain how sociology can help explain the London riots:

One of the first things that disappears when considering disturbances such as these is perspective. One loses sight of the fact that nine out of 10 local residents aren’t rioting, that nine out of 10 who are rioting aren’t local to the area, and that nine out of 10 of these non-locals aren’t doing it to commit crime. That is to say, it is a tiny minority who are participating and, of those that are, it’s a tiny minority who are doing so solely to commit crime. Crime is a motive, but crowd behaviour is a more complex process, and it is sociology as a discipline that best understands crowd behaviour.

Crowds are irrational. Crowds don’t have motives – that’s far too calculating and rational. Crowd behaviour is dynamic in unpredictable ways, and reason and motive disappear when crowds move unpredictably. But has anyone made a connection with the two media events that dominated media coverage on the same day – the irrationality of crowds on the streets and of traders on the stock market? Both sorts of behaviour are moved by emotion not reason, passions not predictability, and reason disappears. Economists are lauded for their accounts of the irrationality of the market traders, but sociologists get criticised for suggesting that allegations of criminality are a poor account of the irrationality of crowds.

Sociologists seek to explain – not explain away – these events. An understanding of the impact of social inequalities and deprivation, youth unemployment, racism and ethnic conflict, and crime and policing forms a large part of the concerns of UK sociology. Since most politicians and the police seem to have been taken unawares by the events of the past few days, it seems we need more understanding and explanation, not less, if we are to be able to draw lessons from the current events and prevent their recurrence. The British Sociological Association would be happy to put London’s mayor and his staff in touch with sociologists who could add real understanding to the all-too-easy condemnations of these disturbing events.

Several things stand out to me:
1. I like the opening suggestion and make a similar argument to my Introduction to Sociology class: instead of asking why a few people commit crimes or are deviant, why not ask why most people are so willing to follow social rules and norms?

2. I like the comparison of the role of emotions in stock trading and crowd behavior on the streets. Arguably, emotions may a large role in social actions but generally get short shrift from commentators and researchers.

3. But, why suggest that sociologists are bitter because economists “are lauded” for their explanations?

4. I like the distinction between explaining and explaining away. I’ve seen some commentators suggest that we shouldn’t talk about the class status or alienation of the rioters because this may suggest that their actions are justified. But, at the same time, there is something that set off these riots and sociologists are often looking to understanding why something happened and not something else (to paraphrase Weber). We should not be afraid of explanations though determining how one should respond once the explanation is known is another matter.

From gang member to sociologist

A sociologist tells how he journeyed from being a gang member to obtaining a PhD in sociology:

As a doctoral candidate in ethnic studies at the University of California at Berkeley, Rios spent three years shadowing 40 youths between the ages of 14 and 17, a lot of whom had arrest records and gang affiliations. He had plenty of opportunity to learn that many police officers had a poor opinion of any efforts to understand inner-city youths. The police were instead part of a system that kept the boys under constant surveillance, criminalized their even relatively benign behavior, and left them demoralized and angry, Rios argues in a new book, Punished: Policing the Lives of Black and Latino Boys (New York University Press).

When police officers demanded to know what he was doing, Rios knew the routine: Be deferential, even when abusively spoken to. He had grown up on those Oakland streets and he knew the costs of stepping out of line. One day, when he was 14, an officer “stomped my face against the ground with his thick, black, military-grade rubber boot,” he writes.

Rios, now an assistant professor of sociology at the University of California at Santa Barbara, was no angel when that happened. He had just been pulled over in a car he had stolen. He had joined a gang at 13, lured by the promise of protection in Oakland’s drug-riddled, gang-controlled neighborhoods. Soon he was dealing drugs. He was witnessing beatings, knifings, and murders. He served a string of juvenile-detention sentences. And he would soon see his best friend, Smiley, killed by a rival gang member, a bullet to his head.

How Rios, now 33, came to escape that life, and earn a Ph.D., is one striking narrative in Punished. Another is his account of the dissertation research that took him back to the neighborhoods where he grew up. Starting in 2002, he wandered the streets with his subjects at all times of day and night. He saw the jeopardy that defined their lives. And he met their families, their probation officers, and the police officers who constantly monitored them. The boys’ encounters with the police were almost always negative.

It sounds like Rios could have some unusual insights into gangs and policing from his experiences. It also sounds like there are some interesting methodological issues here as Rios was familiar with what he was studying: on one hand, this likely allowed him to understand certain things in ways that outsiders could not but on the other hand, he was warned about “going native.”

I also like how he flips the script with this remark:

Over lunch at the beachside faculty club on the Santa Barbara campus, where a whole academic lifetime seems indisputably safer than one day in gang territory, he says: “A great research question would be: Why not more violence? Why aren’t these kids attacking everyday people? Why are they only attacking themselves?” Knowing the answers, “we might get a little closer to finding ways to implement policies that will allow communities to bring in their own controls relating to group violence.”

This goes against many media portrayals of violence which seems to focus on how violence affects law-abiding (and wealthier?) citizens. I also ask my Intro to Sociology class to think about social order in this way: instead of thinking of why people are deviant at times, why not ask why many/most people are not deviant most of the time?

Additionally, is this growing evidence (along with this) that sociologists are more interested in including more biographical information in their work?