Americans dress more casually…because they can

A historian explain how and why American clothing styles have changed toward the casual:

It wasn’t always this way. For much of the 20th century, Americans didn’t dress casually all the time. There were dress codes and customs. Men wore suits and hats, women wore dresses. Jeans and t-shirts were for laborers, not professionals.

“Casual is the sweet spot between looking like every middle class American and being an individual in the massive wash of options,” Clemente told the Post.

She says we now find meaning in the way we dress, in a way we didn’t in the early 20th century, when people dressed more aspirationally. They wanted to look as though they had higher social status than they actually did.

As it turns out, historians can point to two major periods in the 20th century that changed the way we dress today: the 1920s, when women started breaking away from dresses and fewer men attending college wore full suits; and World War II, when women cared more about their work in the factories and the victory gardens than what they were wearing on the particular day.

While the goals of choosing certain clothes have changed (from projecting a higher social standing which is now viewed as gauche since we are all middle class to individualization), clothing is still intended to present a message to others. Arguably, that individualization is still about status but a different kind. Instead of pointing to traditional markers of class such as money and wealth, individualization points to creative status and taste. Perhaps we have shifted the symbolic boundaries of clothing from socioeconomic boundaries to cultural boundaries (to use the terms laid out by sociologist of culture Michele Lamont) where the aesthetic choices we make now matter more.

Errors committed by surgeons, plagiarism, and disciplinary errors

Megan McArdle highlights the work of a sociologist who studied the categories of errors made by surgeons and then connects those findings to plagiarism in journalism:

For my book on failure, I thought a lot about what constitutes failure. One of the most interesting interviews I did was with Charles Bosk, a sociologist who has spent his career studying medical errors. Bosk did his first work with surgical residents, and his book divides the errors into different categories: technical errors (failures of skill or knowledge), judgment errors (failing to make the right decision in a difficult case), and normative errors. The last category includes not being prepared to discuss every facet of your patient’s case, and interestingly, trying to cover up one of the other kinds of error.

Surgeons, he said, view the first two kinds of errors as acceptable, indeed inevitable, during residency. You learn to do surgery by doing surgery, and in the early days, you’re going to make some mistakes. Of course, if you just can’t seem to acquire the manual skills needed to do surgery, then you may have to leave the program for another branch of medicine, but some level of technical and judgment error is expected from everyone. Normative error is different; it immediately raises the suspicion that you shouldn’t be a surgeon…

Plagiarism might actually fall into Bosk’s fourth category of error, the one I find most interesting: quasi-normative error. That’s when a resident does something that might be acceptable under the supervision of a different attending physician, but is forbidden by the attending physician he reports to. In the program he studied, if your attending physician did a procedure one way, that’s the way you had to do it, even if you thought some other surgeon’s way was better.

In other words, quasi-normative error is contextual. So with plagiarism. In college and in journalism, it’s absolutely wrong, because “don’t plagiarize” is — for good reason — in your job description. In most of the rest of corporate America, lifting copy from somewhere else might be illegal if the material is copyrighted, but in many situations, maybe even most situations, no one, including the folks from whom you are lifting the copy, will care. They certainly won’t care if you “self-plagiarize” (as Jonah Lehrer was also accused of doing), and I’m very thankful for that, because I wrote a lot of proposals for my company, and there are only so many original ways to describe a computer network. Yet I’d never copy and paste my own writing for Bloomberg without a link, a block quote and attribution.

All errors are not created equal yet I suspect all professional and academic fields could come up with similar lists. The third and fourth types of errors above seemed to be related to professional boundaries; how exactly are surgeons supposed to act, whether when in surgery or not? The first two are more linked to surgery themselves: could you make the right decision and execute the decision? Somewhat frustratingly, some of the same language might be used across fields yet be defined differently. Plagiarism in journalism will look different than it does it academic settings where the practice McArdle describes of “re-researching” a story and not making any attributions to the original researcher would not be good in a peer-reviewed article.

Sociologist on “grassroots [support] for hire”

A sociologist discusses his new book about grassroots support that can be bought:

These are consultants that mobilize mass support on behalf of paying clients, and they can be distinguished from conventional insider lobbyists in that they rely less on direct contact with policymakers and more on the activation of third parties. A plurality of them are nonpartisan, and the rest are a roughly even split between those affiliated with the Democrats or Republicans. Their activity is generally unregulated by federal lobbying laws, and so it’s fair to see them, as Tom Edsall does, as “unlobbyists.” They use a wide range of strategies: some that political professionals are well known for using (targeted recruitment for sending letters/e-mails to policymakers, advocacy ads encouraging participation) and some that are less widely recognized (‘intercepts’ that stage seemingly unplanned interactions with legislators, creating third-party or ‘front’ organizations for clients’ causes, ghostwriting blogs, or even helping to stage protest demonstrations)…

Our everyday image of grassroots participation sees it as unprompted, spontaneous, and driven by the authentic moral concerns of local communities rather than by instrumental concerns about gaining resources or political power. Of course, the sociologists and political scientists who study advocacy know that this image has always been something of a myth. Effective organizing generally requires effective organizations, and those organizations need funding, staff, and some degree of structure.

When corporations and other interests hire public affairs consultants to organize on their behalf, what they are doing is often following the script of citizen advocacy: locating sources of public support, studying the opposition, searching out strategic alliances and points of political leverage, and trying to frame their arguments persuasively.  But there are certainly some key differences: the consultants usually have better data, significant funding, and the backing of a heavyweight client. A disadvantage, on the other hand, is that they need to operate with a light touch such that their efforts aren’t discounted as inauthentic “astroturf” (i.e. ersatz grassroots)…

Putting the issue of astroturf aside, an important finding in the book is that the targeting strategies of these consultants have significant consequences. In aggregate, these consultants are reaching out to and mobilizing many millions of Americans every year on behalf of their clients.  These consultants need to turn out numbers for their clients, and so the rational strategy is to target those most likely to acquiesce to their requests, namely, people with a history of political engagement and who are strong political partisans.  Of course, these are the groups that are already overrepresented in the political process, so selectively mobilizing these groups is amplifying inequalities in participation and representation.

This sounds like it raises lots of interesting questions about social movements and what gets counted as “authentic” or not. Large-scale social movements that get many members to physically act are quite rare so it is not surprising that different firms and organizations would want to generate more grassroots activity. Yet, as the author suggests, there is a line where we question the motivations of those organizing or participating in social movements. Are they acting for the right reasons? Are they protesting because there is a legitimate grievance or are they doing it because they are self-interested or getting some kind of renumeration? Should social movements only originate with the public and non-profits (which is practically its own industry these days) or is it okay if corporations and governments also try to get people involved on their behalf? It would then be interesting to look at where Americans draw this symbolic boundary between authentic and inauthentic social action. Perhaps the line would tend to get drawn more harshly for causes you don’t personally agree with as much…

There are some interesting parallels here with action online regarding social movements. If you sign an online petition or like a group or cause, have you become part of the movement? A recent study suggests more private forms of slactivism can lead to deeper engagement with social movements while more public displays don’t do as much. And then what about all of those fake Twitter followers that can be purchased for different causes, whether furthering fame, status, or political interests? While many people may not be aware of the number of less-than-active Twitter accounts, I suspect the public would see these kinds of support as more inauthentic.

How boundary work helps explains false equivalence in the media

Read here for an explanation of how the sociological concept of boundary work is applied to the issue of false equivalence in media coverage:

Boundary work is a kind of rhetorical work that is performed in public argument: something is asserted to be science by stressing what it is not (pseudo-science, or faith, or religion, or what have you). Even Tim Geithner did it in his exit interview when he painted his own work as just a kind of technocratic problem-solving rather than politics, see this analysis.

It seems to me that our political discourse also contains a similar kind of boundary work — between “politics” and “policy.” Our politicians will always say: what I’m doing is just plain old common sense or the right thing or just good policy, or just the solution to a problem; whereas what my opponent is doing is playing politics. And if one sees politics as actually a way of managing relations between conflicting groups of people, one can see why they do that.

For instance, reforming the American health care system is almost certainly a matter of redistribution: taking money from older people and giving it to others (the uninsured, younger people, etc.). But one can’t say that if one is a politician, and so there is a delicate balancing act: one’s own work is constructed as problem-solving and policy-making, the opponent is portrayed as playing politics (where politics is understood to be trading off between different social groups).

I think this kind of boundary work exists in journalism too (and more on why it exists later); it’s what you call false equivalence (and Yglesias calls bipartisan think). Here the newspaper is seen as above politics, which is what grubby politicians do. And therefore the contrast between the policy that the newspaper is advocating (which is not politics but merely good moral sensible stuff), and that what the politicians are doing. It is imperative, I think, in this model that both parties be painted in the same brush. Because if you don’t, then you agree with one of the parties, which therefore makes you political.

Why should the newspapers practice this kind of boundary work? My sense (which comes straight from Paul Starr’s history of the media) is that it’s a holdover from the times when the newspaper industry changed. As we all know now (from arguing about partisanship), newspapers in the 19th century were unabashedly partisan. They also catered to niches, and made money from subscriptions. And that changed sometime in the 20th century when newspapers started to make money from advertisements — and therefore they had to be less partisan and attract more people. Hence the objective tone of the reported stories (he says, she says) — and also I think the false equivalence of the editorials.

The concept of symbolic boundaries is an important one in the sociology of culture. Groups or organizations engage in drawing boundaries between what they are (by their own definition) and what they say others are. Policing these boundaries is a consistent and tricky task; the changes the other groups make might force a group to redraw its own boundaries. Or, outside social forces and circumstances might push all groups to redraw or double down on their boundaries. A good application of this concept to defining social class in the United States and France is Michele Lamont’s book Money, Morals, and Manners.

Sociological concepts that help explain why some companies are telling employees to avoid work email at home

Some companies are telling their employees to not check their work email at home:

In recent years, one in four companies have created similar rules on e-mail, both formal and informal, according to a recent survey by the Society for Human Resource Management. Firms trying out these policies include Volkswagen, some divisions of PricewaterhouseCoopers and shipping company PBD Worldwide.

For the vast majority of companies and federal offices, the muddying of work and personal time has had financial advantages. Corporations and agencies, unable to hire, are more productive than ever thanks in part to work-issued smartphones, tablets and other mobile technology, economists say…

“There is no question e-mail is an important tool, but it’s just gone overboard and encroached in our lives in a way where employees were feeling like it was harder and harder to achieve a good balance,” said Robert Musslewhite, chief executive of the Advisory Board, a health and education research and software-services firm.

Official numbers show just one in 10 people brings work home, according to a Labor Department report in 2010. But economists say that figure is wildly conservative because it counts only those who are clocking in those hours for extra pay.

Three sociological ideas shed some light on this:

1. This increased level of stress might be due to the mixing of the front-stage and back-stage performances of employees. Sociologist Erving Goffman wrote about these two settings, the first where we play a role, in this case as employee, and this requires emotional and physical energy. In the latter setting, we can let down our guard. Checking work email at home means this back-stage setting is interrupted.

2. This reminds me of the work by sociologist Christena Nippert-Eng on the symbolic boundaries between home and work. We place home and work in certain mental categories and so crossing these boundaries can create some difficulties. Sociologist Ray Oldenberg suggested another way around these two symbolic boundaries: we need “third places” like coffee shops and pubs where workers can relax and interact with other citizens in settings distinct from work and home.

3. A few centuries ago, more average citizens may have mixed home and work as people worked in their homes or very near by. It wasn’t until the industrial era that more employees had to travel further to their workplaces, creating a larger physical difference between home and work that also translated into more symbolic difference. Perhaps this story about email is a reminder that at this point in history we are swinging back to mixing  home and work because of technology that transcends physical boundaries.

How Americans use “tax talk” to assert their own status

In a timely follow-up to an earlier post, a sociologist further explains a study about “tax talk” in America:

Our findings highlight how people can use tax talk as a way of asserting what sociologist Herbert Blumer called “a sense of group position.” That is, tax talk can be a symbolic way for people to proclaim their righteousness in contrast to those they believe are less deserving. Thus, our interviews were filled with abstract descriptions of people our respondents felt unjustly benefited from federal tax policies…

The importance of our findings is in how people brought these economic issues to life in everyday discourse. In ordinary talk these matters are not really about balancing budgets and encouraging growth. They are about a moral sense of right and wrong. They are about asserting one’s belief about who should and should not be rewarded by the policies of the federal government, and it’s worth noting here that even though we attempted to engage people in talk about all forms of taxation, people generally only wanted to talk about federal income tax.

Ultimately, our respondents’ discursive use of the income tax – as a symbol of a morally illegitimate, exploitive relationship between hard-working middle-class people, and the rich and poor who exploit them – helps to illuminate why tax talk occupies such a central place in American political discourse. Among other things, it helps to illuminate what American conservatives talk about when they talk about taxes.

Fiscal debates are about more than money; they are also about the meanings people attribute to how that money is collected in the first place. The Tea Party is a vivid example. Although the rhetoric of the Tea Party concerns taxes, this is not the main policy concern of the movement. Instead, Tea Party activists use anti-tax rhetoric to position themselves symbolically as a righteous group burdened by policies they believe only benefit the rich and the poor.

This sounds like boundary making, to put it into terms used in the sociology of culture. One way groups can differentiate between themselves is to draw strong symbolic and moral boundaries. In this case, paying taxes is seen as this moral boundary. Hard-working Americans pay their “fair share” while those above and below them find ways to shirk their civic duty. This is a clear value judgment that is then used to back or undergird political action.

Given the current political situation, we need a follow-up study that then looks at how taxes are talked about in social groups beyond this limited sample. As I noted in the earlier post, this ethnographic study had a targeted sample: “24 semi-structured, open-ended interviews with white Southerners who owned or managed small businesses—a demographic group that is typically anti-taxation.” How do other Americans wield taxes as a symbolic and moral boundary in their own actions and politics? President Obama has clearly used another moral boundary, suggesting those with more income and wealth should be paying more in taxes. This is a different kind of “fair share” but it might also give these higher-income Americans their own moral boost.

The gendered tasks you do at work can affect the gendered work you do at home

A new study in the American Journal of Sociology looks at what men who work in female-dominated careers do at home:

When stacked up against men who have jobs where men and women are equally represented, men in gender-atypical jobs put in an extra hour each week on typically male housework. What’s more, these men’s wives stick to female-typed tasks, spending about four hours more each week cooking dinner, vacuuming or throwing in a load of laundry. Meanwhile, women who work in male-centric professions also tend to pursue more female-typed housework but not with the same consistency as men in female-dominated arenas — perhaps because they perceive it as less of a threat to their femininity. (It should also be noted that a different study in the Journal of Family Psychology found that doing housework after a day on the job isn’t good for anyone, regardless of gender.)

What’s going on here? It seems to be a manifestation of what sociologists call the “neutralization of gender deviance.” Or, in plainspeak, “men are trying to bolster their masculinity at home,” says Daniel Schneider, the study’s author and a doctoral student in sociology and social policy at Princeton University…

Truth be told, Schneider was surprised by the findings. He’d expected to discover that men in gender-typical jobs — a mechanic, for example — would spend more time at home working on car or home maintenance. By that logic, he also anticipated that men in male-atypical jobs would come home and do more cooking and cleaning-type housework typically associated with women.

But humans don’t always make sense. “The market and home are really intertwined and influence each other,” says Schneider. “But they are not necessarily intertwined in a rational way. Instead, they’re intertwined in a way that’s about cultural salience and the meaning of gender.”

In other words: gender norms and expectations influence how people act. If we were to interview men who work in more female fields, would they be able to describe this process discovered in survey data? Also,  I wonder if this is tied to the amount of time people spend at work.

More broadly, this is a reminder that what happens in our career or at the workplace has an influence on other areas of our life. On one hand, perhaps this seems fairly obvious: our culture is one where people are defined by their occupation and what they do. As I tell my students, when you meet people as an adult, the first or one of the first questions you tend to be asked is, “what do you do [for work, a living]?” These puts a lot of pressure on individuals to have meaningful jobs. On the other hand, we tend to act like we can compartmentalize work and home. This goes back into history as there was a separation of home and work only in the Industrial Revolution as jobs moved out of the household or close by to larger factories and offices owned by corporations. While technology may have blurred the lines in recent decades, we still tend to have strong physical and mental boundaries between home and work.

Considering how much time full-time workers put into their jobs today, it should be little surprise that it is hard to keep these spheres apart. At the same time, specifying how it affects other areas of our lives is worth considering.