Hints of growing art scene in English suburbs, towns

COVID-19 and housing prices have pushed more artists out of English big cities:

Photo by Anthony Shkraba on Pexels.com

Now, the pandemic is prompting a wider exodus from the British capital, pushing up real estate values in outlying regions. Months of remote working have made city dwellers reassess their housing priorities. And like many office workers, contemporary artists such as Mr. Allan — who makes art under the moniker “Dominic from Luton” — are also finding that they no longer need to be in a big city…

Hastings, with its scrappy mix of stately but unkempt 19th-century houses, 1970s seafront amusements, poor transportation links and limited employment opportunities, was recently ranked as the most deprived town in southern England by Britain’s housing ministry. But its distinctness and affordability have long been valued by artists…

Supported by a new [Croydon] City Hall-funded initiative called Conditions, 27 such spaces are being offered for £138 to £230 a month in a repurposed bicycle factory and office building. Katie Sheppard, one of the artists based in the complex, makes digitally embroidered portraits based on selfies; another, Felix Riemann, makes sound sculptures for performances…

This vision of an accessible, locally grounded art scene is very different from the elitist flying circus of blockbuster exhibitions, auctions, fairs and biennials in destination cities that has dominated the art world in recent years.

On one hand, as is noted in the story, the Internet and the smartphone make art possible from anywhere.

On the other hand, art is more than just a single genius creating while sitting quietly somewhere. Local conditions, such as housing costs, matter. Having a set of like-minded arts around who provide support and spur creativity may be essential. Funding, local resources, and neighborly or community goodwill help.

One of the biggest barriers to art in these communities may just be the decades of suburban and small town critiques that suggest they are dull and backward locales. Can art only work there when conditions in big cities are too difficult for artists?

More broadly, this speaks to the concept of art worlds in which artists and numerous other actors operate. The creation of art is a social activity involving multiple pieces and social forces. Art can indeed flourish in many locations, including suburbs and small towns, if the conditions are right.

Asking Americans where they live to determine what exactly a suburb is

A recent project asked over 55,000 Americans where they live and the researchers used this to classify what counts as a suburb:

aerial shot of buildings

Photo by Benjamin Suter on Pexels.com

Kolko and his colleagues got a survey sample of 55,000 households to sound off about whether their neighborhoods were urban, rural or suburban. That let them build a model looking at which factors predict how respondents will answer.

Unsurprisingly, many people defined their neighborhoods in part by their population density. But a whole host of other factors also made the prediction more accurate. For example, areas with higher median incomes were more likely to be called suburban. Areas with older homes were more likely to be called urban. Areas with lots of senior citizens were more frequently called rural.

The researchers—Kolko, Shawn Bucholtz of the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, and Emily Molfino of the U.S. Census Bureau—have released data online showing how their model classifies every neighborhood in the U.S., as well as an academic working paper detailing their methods and findings.

It’s a question that matters quite a bit because, by the researchers’ survey, more than half of American households identify as suburban: 52%, versus 21% rural and 27% urban.

A few thoughts based on this summary:

  1. This suggests defining places requires more than just political or geographic boundaries: how people perceive communities and neighborhoods matters. There is a cultural, meaning-making dimension to where people live that is often not picked up in these kinds of definitions.
  2. The next step after #1 is this: if residents of some places may technically live in a big city but they perceive it to be more suburban, they may act differently. Or, if they think of their suburban area as urban, they could lead different lives and favor different policies.
  3. I wonder how this overlaps with previous survey data suggesting Americans prefer small towns which could fit into suburban or rural settings. Here, the feel of a small town might be more important than the actual designation.
  4. The overall proportions of Americans living in different settings are not that different than what the Census Bureau calculates. What then makes this useful information is the ability to provide micro-level data about specific neighborhoods and communities.
  5. Without looking at the working paper, my guess is some of the discrepancies between this model and the Census definition is on the edges of areas: the fringes of big cities where residents could be suburban or urban and on the edges of suburbia where areas could be suburban or rural. These areas straddling municipal boundaries as well as lifestyles could be in flux for a long time.
  6. All of this points to an ongoing recognition of “complex suburbia.”

Adapting “What Do People Do All Day?” for COVID-19

Spotted on Facebook the other day: an alternative version of Richard Scarry’s What Do People Do All D Richard Scaarry’s What Do People Do All Day?

It is relatively easy to focus on the big-picture issues with COVID-19 without thinking too much about how so many daily routines have changed. Kids tend to like routine and children’s books help explain what kids and everyone else do.

Additionally, Richard Scarry’s original connected daily activities to a number of larger schemes including how people make money, various modes of travel, the construction of roads and houses, and the production of food, water, energy, and wood.

Maybe this is part of why I am a sociologist: these quotidian activities all add to something as well as reflect larger social forces at work. If culture is “patterns of meaning-making” as sociologists of culture argue, then even the mundane things are worth something. When these daily patterns change, they might signal something momentous, whether it is through personal maturation or changed life circumstances or global pandemics. Similarly, a big question coming out of COVID-19 is how much the disruptions from several months of shelter-in-place stick with people. For example, will people want to commute as much? Return to an office for work? Consume as much? And children who have new routines may carry these changes through many years and subsequent experiences.

Argument: “the real civic religion of America, business at all costs”

Which values should guide decisions in a time of crisis? Here is one argument regarding how decisions are made in the United States:

These approaches are the horns of America’s corona-dilemma. Every society has reacted to COVID-19 according to its principles or, if no principles were to hand, its habits. It has been America’s misfortune that its principles and habits are ill-suited to managing an epidemic. The federal system, by functioning as it should, prevented the kind of nationwide shutdown that worked in smaller countries like Austria. The real civic religion of America, business at all costs, can accept the redirection of the economy by the Defense Production Act, but it cannot tolerate the suspension of all economic activity. Yet a powerful counter-impulse — averse to risk, trusting of authority, and hence likely to seek out niches in the economy which are immune to booms and busts — prefers to shelter in place.

It is hard to make sweeping claims about cultural values in the midst of significant social change. At the same time, understanding “patterns of meaning-making” (the definition of culture from sociologist Lyn Spillman) is invaluable for analyzing why certain actors respond as they do in such times.

This reminds me of two sociological works that get at the same issue:

1. Emerson and Smiley’s 2018 book Market Cities, People Cities examined cities around the United States and the world to see if they put markets or people first. On the whole, American cities privilege markets with their policies and rhetoric. In American communities, growth – usually measured as economic growth and/or population increases, is always good. (See an earlier post on this book here.)

2. Dobbin’s 1994 book Forging Industrial Policy suggests in the early decades of the railroad the United States pursued a public-private policy regarding develpoment compared to the laissez-faire approach of Britain and the top-down, centralized approach of France. Yet, in the last few decades, a growing chorus of voices argues the United States privileges the interests of corporations over the welfare of all residents.

There could be other contenders for the civic religion of Americans including individualism, the civil religion described by sociologist Robert Bellah, middle-class values, and the importance of private property and private spaces. But, in this particular situation, what exactly should be done regarding businesses and the economy is a particular hot point.

Sociology = studying facts and interpretations of those facts

David Brooks hits on a lesson I teach in my Social Research class: studying sociology involves both looking for empirical patterns (facts) and the interpretations of patterns, real or not (meanings). Here is how Brooks puts it:

An event is really two things. It’s the event itself and then it’s the process by which we make meaning of the event. As Aldous Huxley put it, “Experience is not what happens to you, it’s what you do with what happens to you.”

In my class, this discussion comes about through reading the 2002 piece by Roth and Mehta titled “The Rashomon Effect: Combining Positivist and Interpretivist Approaches in the Analysis of Contested Events.” The authors argue research needs to look at what actually happened (the school shootings under study here) as well as how people in the community understood what happened (which may or may not have aligned with what actually happened but had important consequences for local social life). Both aspects might be interesting to study on their own – here is a phenomenon or here is what people make of this – but together researchers can get a full human experience where facts and meanings interact.

Brooks writes this in the context of the media. A good example of how this would be applied is the matter of journalists looking to spot trends. There are new empirical patterns to spot and point out. New social phenomena develop often (and figuring out where they come from can be a whole different complex matter). At the same time, we want to know what these trends mean. If psychologist Jean Twenge says there are troubling patterns as the result of smartphone use among teenagers and young adults, we can examine the empirical data – is smartphone use connected to other outcomes? – and what we think about all of this – is it good that this might be connected to increased loneliness?

More broadly, Brooks is hinting at the realm of sociology of culture where culture can be defined as patterns of meaning-making. The ways in which societies, groups, and individuals make meaning of their own actions and the social world around them is very important.

Bringing a cultural production perspective to the industry of Christian worship music

The Christian worship charts are dominated by relatively few artists. Why might this be the case?

“If a song is going up the charts, there’s pressure on the worship leader to play that song,” said John J. Thompson, who worked with Christian artists as creative director for Capitol CMG Publishing and now runs the website truetunes.com.

Because songs must be catchy, they focus on simplified melodic structures, fewer words, and limited emotional range, with the goal that the congregation can catch on to new songs by the second verse, said Thompson, now the associate dean of the Trevecca School of Music and Worship Arts and the author of Jesus, Bread, and Chocolate; Crafting a Hand Made Faith in a Mass Market World

Most of the songs on the list were written by Caucasians. Thematically, the songs tend to stay in the realm of praise and adoration without venturing too far into more complex themes like confession, doubt, and suffering.

Sandra Van Opstal, pastor, liturgist, and author of The Next Worship: Glorifying God in a Diverse World previously told CT, “…The worship industrial complex has become so influential that millions of people around the world are being discipled via iTunes. The narrative of God and faith is in the hands of a few worship movements who aren’t talking about how their social location, cultural values, and racial privilege shape their faith.”

In many culture industries, it can be difficult to predict what will become hits. There are hundreds, likely thousands, of worship tracks produced each year. There are ways that all industries try to hedge their bets. One route is to promote and support stars. In the list provided of popular songs, this means Chris Tomlin or Hillsong are better bets for hits compared to lesser-known artists. Another route is to try to cross-promote across platforms. Radio, even as a dying medium, can help drive traffic to streaming music and use of music in churches. Performing the songs in church can help drive congregants to the music and radio.

But, there are more factors at play. How does an artist become popular in the first place? At one point, Chris Tomlin was an unknown and the Hillsong movement had a limited reach. Stars can put out average or bad music. New artists can arise. The cross-promotion can fail to produce. Tastes and trends in music can change. Technology can change in both how music is made and delivered, boosting some and hurting others. How congregations view and utilize worship music could change. And so on.

More broadly, how culture and cultural objects come about is a complex process involving multiple social forces and institutions. In other words, this is not necessarily the way the Christian worship industry works at the moment or into the future. It is hard to know what kind of worship music will dominate ten or fifty years from now. Certain artists may be the music du jour today and be gone tomorrow.

Shakespeare not as lone genius but product of an art world

Howard Becker’s famous idea of an “art world” sounds like it could well apply to the success of William Shakespeare:

Shakespeare is not Western literature’s great inventor but rather its great inheritor. The Bard borrowed plots, ideas, characters, themes, philosophies, and occasional passages from sources ranging from Plutarch’s Lives and Holinshed’s Chronicles to Montaigne’s Essays and plays by his contemporaries. He returned again and again to ancient Rome, finding inspiration in Ovid, Seneca, Plautus, and others.

His inheritance also goes beyond the textual. When he began working in the London theater scene, its component parts were there waiting for him. There were already professional theater companies, outdoor amphitheaters, plays in five acts, iambic pentameter, and conventions surrounding comedies, tragedies, and history plays.

None of this should make us think less of Shakespeare’s achievements and neither should the increasing evidence that he sometimes used uncredited collaborators and occasionally served as one himself. Shakespeare didn’t just faithfully reproduce his sources—he argued with and subverted them, he combined them in unconventional ways, and he made substantial changes to them. King Leir, the anonymous source text for Shakespeare’s King Lear, ends with Leir restored to the throne and everyone still alive. Shakespeare frequently expands roles for women in his plays and removes many passages where characters share their motivations. Shakespeare also often makes his plays more complicated than his sources, both ethically and logistically. He even went so far as to add an extra set of identical twins to The Comedy of Errors.

To sum up:

A grubby businessman furiously writing plays and ripping off whatever he could get his hands on hardly fits our model of artistic genius. We think of geniuses as tormented rock stars, breaking new ground with sui generis innovations that spring from their minds like Athena from the brow of Zeus. In movies like Amadeus, this myth of artistic genius makes for delicious art in its own right, but it’s not how artistic creation really works. Creating a work of art is part of an endless dialogue that reaches both back thousands of years and out into the world around us. This is what Shakespeare did, and he didn’t do it alone.

Just because Shakespeare was not a lone genius does not diminish his work. Indeed, perhaps it is even more remarkable in this light: while there were plenty of other people who could have drawn upon the same resources and were engaged in similar activities to Shakespeare, they were not able to do the same thing.

Even though I teach about this topic from the sociology of culture fairly regularly, the idea of a lone genius is difficult for students to overcome. Not only do they want to give credit for success to a single person, they sometimes do not see “remixing” or approaching existing materials in new ways and with editing as examples of creativity. Yet, many of the social changes we see as monumental did not require the development of a completely new idea but rather a reapplication or reuse of existing concepts.

This reminds me: I should do a better job in the classroom of explaining how sociological work comes about. When you see a final product – article, book, other publication – it is easy to just see the author(s). But, there is often a significant backstory involving multiple people, institutions, and ongoing discussions within an academic field. For example, this blog post could be examined further for where the ideas came from. The typical acknowledgements section of a publication does not provide enough space to truly acknowledge the intellectual debts of the author(s) – and it is debatable whether readers would want to dig into this further.

Sociologist: “Celebrity is a self-defeating construct”

With a new Amy Winehouse documentary out, several sociologists weigh in on the nature of celebrity:

“Celebrity is a self-defeating construct,” says Dustin Kidd, a sociologist at Temple University and the author of Pop Culture Freaks: Identity, Mass Media, and Society. “Celebrities are seen as geniuses whose creativity comes out of [personal narrative]. Working artists, more common but more boring, develop their creative work through a daily grind of creative discipline, practice, and revision that is balanced with a full, multi-dimensional life. Tabloid culture turns the artist into the story themselves.”…

In other words, though this might be obvious, the attention Winehouse got as she rose to superstardom, like Marilyn Monroe or Ernest Hemingway before her, actually changed what society expected of her as an artist: the public was obsessed with how her image as an iconic trainwreck was reflected in her music, not with the music itself…

“There’s no boundaries to who can weigh in on what you’ve done and what you are doing,” says Joshua Gamson, a sociologist at the University of San Francisco and author of “Claims to Fame: Celebrity in Contemporary America.” “Your story is a commodity, so people are actually competing for the profit from that commodity … [Celebrities] try to stay in control of their story — that’s why they hire publicists, why they hide out — but that’s part of the deal with celebrity. It’s what keeps you successful.”

“The working artists who survive and thrive,” Kidd adds, “seem to consistently either avoid the tabloid spotlight entirely, or they present the media only with a contrived performance, like Lady Gaga.”

And as noted later in the article, we all get a little taste of this today as we can project what we want through social media and receive attention from both those who know us as well as join a viral realm where what we say and do might be picked apart by millions.

Yet, to me this seems to beg some basic questions about celebrity:

1. Do the people who were or are celebrities actually enjoy it? To be turned into a commodity sounds exactly like Marx’s idea of alienation.

2. What are the long-lasting consequences of being positively or negatively famous?

3. Since we have some indications that humans can only have about 150 stable relationships (Dunbar’s number), does having so much social exposure from celebrity inevitably lead to social and psychological problems?

4. So much of this celebrity push seems to come from the mass media – indeed, you couldn’t really have celebrity in the way we know it today before the mass media of the 20th century. Are people who consume less media less interested in or influenced by celebrity?

Structuralists vs. culturalists in explaining poverty

Sociologists may not have the public profile they desire but the discussion about it may have helped. The New Yorker looks at two sociological approaches to poverty and attempts to sum up the culturalist approach:

There is a paradox at the heart of cultural sociology, which both seeks to explain behavior in broad, categorical terms and promises to respect its subjects’ autonomy and intelligence. The results can be deflating, as the researchers find that their subjects are not stupid or crazy or heroic or transcendent—their cultural traditions just don’t seem peculiar enough to answer the questions that motivate the research. Black cultural sociology has always been a project of comparison: the idea is not simply to understand black culture but to understand how it differs from white culture, as part of the broader push to reduce racial disparities that have changed surprisingly little since Du Bois’s time. Fifty years after Moynihan’s report, it’s easy to understand why he was concerned. Even so, it’s getting easier, too, to sympathize with his detractors, who couldn’t understand why he thought new trends might explain old problems. If we want to learn more about black culture, we should study it. But, if we seek to answer the question of racial inequality in America, black culture won’t tell us what we want to know.

Do we have to have an either/or answer? Situations like these are complex and involve a multitude of factors. That doesn’t necessarily lend itself to quick policy making or answers the media can grab and run with. Yet, even sociologists of culture would highlight other structural factors including economics and race in addition to the power of patterns of meaning-making.

How much do academics cite work in another discipline?

Sociologist Jerry Jacobs has a new book about the value of specific academic disciplines and presents this data regarding how much academics cite work outside their field:

“Interdisciplinarity depends on strong disciplines,” he said.

He said he became interested in the topic while serving as editor of American Sociological Review. He wanted to see if the articles in that journal were showing up as citations in the work of non-sociologists, and found that they were, leading him to question the idea that disciplines don’t communicate with one another. Using National Science Foundation data, he looked at where science journals are cited, and found that a “substantial minority” of citations come in other fields.

Citation Outside of Disciplines

Discipline % of Citations From Outside Field
Physics 18.3%
Chemistry 31.0%
Earth and space sciences 16.8%
Mathematics 22.6%
Biology 38.3%
Biomedical research 24.6%
Clinical medicine 28.6%
Engineering and technology 38.1%
Psychology 34.5%
Social sciences 22.7%

Jacobs then analyzes the various social sciences, and finds that scholars in the interdisciplinary field of area studies are more likely to cite non-area studies work than their own fields, while economics scholars are mostly likely to cite their own field. “These data on cross-field citations raise an important question for advocates of interdisciplinarity, namely whether the fields that are most open to external ideas are also the most intellectually dynamic,” Jacobs writes. “If this were true, area studies would be the envy of the social sciences, and economists would be busy trying to figure out how best to emulate the success of areas studies scholars. In fact, the reverse is true: economics is the most influential field in the social sciences, and it is also the most inwardly focused.”

While interdisciplinary is a hot topic, it is nice to see some data on the topic. How much should scholars cite those outside their disciplines? Jacobs suggests here that he thinks 20-30% of citations outside of one’s field is a good total – roughly one-fifth to one-third of citations. Should this be higher? Who gets to set these guidelines? The table also suggests this can vary quite a bit across disciplines.

I’ve noticed in my own research that certain topics in sociology lend themselves to more interdisciplinary citations, particularly for certain subject matter and new areas of study. I study within the subfields of urban sociology and the sociology of culture, subjects with plenty of sociologists but also plenty of interest in other disciplines. Some of my recent projects have been more historical, meaning I’m interacting more with historians, and about the media, meaning I’m interacting with work in media studies, communication, English, and elsewhere. Also, studying less-studied topics means one has to go further afield to understand what all of academia has said. In my work with McMansions, I’ve found that sociologists haven’t said much so I’ve worked with sources in history, planning, law, and housing (a rather interdisciplinary field).