Many Americans have reunited work and home…because of a pandemic

One of the consequences of urbanization is the physical and social separation of work and home. People live further from where they labor and land uses are often separated. Yet, the pandemic may have helped many Americans reunite these two realms that were once joined more closely. Here is a summary of a survey specifically looking at working from home:

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While there has been a widespread recognition that the remote work rate surged during the height of the coronavirus pandemic, there is disagreement about the extent of this change. To address this limitation, we field a new, nationally-representative survey instrument called the Remote Life Survey (LFS) in October 2020. We find that in October, 2020, 31.6% of the workforce always worked from home and 22.8% sometimes or rarely worked from home, totaling 53.6%. We compare our results with alternative measurement approaches, focusing on five factors: (a) differences in the selection of respondents among mail versus web -based surveys, (b) differences in the inclusion of self-employed workers, (c) ambiguity that arises from the forced classification of remote versus non-remote work into discrete categories, (d) the industry mix of the sample, and (e) the exclusion of people who were already remote pre-pandemic. We find that explanation (e) explains the bulk of the difference in estimates between the Current Population Survey (CPS) and other measures of remote work, underestimating the remote work rate by 33 percentage points. Overall, we estimate that about half of the US workforce currently works remotely at least some days each week.

For those who wanted to reunite work and home, is it good that a pandemic brought this about for a good number of workers? What I mean is this: metropolitan regions did not become denser, employees were not economically more able to reside closer to where they worked, and companies and organizations did not necessarily allow this because they wanted to. People worked at home more because of a health risk, not because they aimed to create more holistic lives.

But, here we are with more people working from home. Does this then transform both the communities where they live and the communities where they work? Does it enable more integrated social networks and communities or has too much changed since urbanization (such as the Internet and social media)?

It is hard to predict what exactly might happen if work from home trends continue. As the researchers suggest above, having better data should allow us to better understand what is going on. Figuring out what this all leads to will require more work and interpretation.

The role of suburbs in “a nearly natureless world”

An MIT professor describes our current world as “nearly natureless”:

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Many of us invest hours each day staring at the screens of our televisions and computers and smartphones. Seldom do we go outside on a clear night, away from the lights of the city, and gaze at the dark starry sky, or take walks in the woods unaccompanied by our digital devices. Most of the minutes and hours of each day we spend in temperature-controlled structures of wood, concrete, and steel. With all of its success, our technology has greatly diminished our direct experience with nature. We live mediated lives. We have created a natureless world.

Much is made here of how recent technology like smartphones, computers, and television has cut our connection to nature. But, I wonder about the role of urbanization and, more specifically, the suburbs that supposedly connect people to nature even as they enjoy the conveniences of the modern world.

From the beginning of suburbs in the United States, part of their definition and appeal was a closer connection to nature. As cities rapidly urbanized and this coincided with a host of changes (industrialization, immigration, much higher densities, new social relationships), the suburbs offered a private home in nature (a “cottage in the woods”). Suburban homes became associated with trees, lawns, and open space.

Of course, the kind of nature found in suburbia was a particular kind. As suburbs expanded, the natural elements disappeared or became more planned. Humans leveled land, constructed roads and buildings, and whizzed by the landscape at speeds relatively unknown in nature. The nature of suburbia was suited to and used for human purposes.

Granted, humans have interacted with and shaped nature for a long time. Yet, the suburbs are relatively new in human history. Even as they promised a connection to nature, they offered a truncated version of nature with relatively little regard for the organisms and ecosystems already present. Might the suburbanites of today be closer to nature if they did not have a smartphone in one hand and a 60-inch TV in front of them? Maybe – but the natureless world of suburbia has been here for a while already.

The health costs of initial urbanization and industrialization

In Extra Life: A Short History of Living Longer, Steven Johnson briefly summarizes how the development of big cities around the world in roughly the last two centuries often came at a high cost regarding health. After discussing the first life tables developed in England:

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How could any economy that was creating more wealth than any other place on earth produce such devastating health outcomes? The answer that Farr proposed with epidemiological data was similar to the one Marx and Engels were forming at the same time using political science: the mortality rates were plunging because the defining characteristic of being “Advanced” at that moment in history was industrialization, and industrialization seems to come with an unusually high body count in its initial decades, wherever it happens to arrive. The twentieth century would go on to show the same trends happening around the world whenever people left their agrarian lifestyle and crowded into factories and urban slums, even in economies where communist planners were driving the shift to an industrial economy…

The data told an incontrovertible story: industrial cities were killing people at an unprecedented rate. (73-74)

As Johnson goes on to note, this trend did not necessarily last as many cities and the millions living there became healthier over time. But, that transition period in Liverpool and other industrializing cities, whether in the 1800s or in more recent decades with the development of megacities around the globe, comes at a significant cost.

Even though I have not emphasized the health aspects of this in the past, this is part of the reason that I link the beginnings of sociology, urbanization, and industrialization in my courses. The population shift to big cities plus a new economic and production structure are noteworthy enough. But, these are connected to seismic shifts in societal structures and relations. People had lived in relatively small communities for thousands of years and this was shifting to significantly different kinds of communities, governments, and interaction. Sociology as a discipline emerges at this time to help explain and understand these changes. As noted above, Marx was seeing all of this happen and expressedt his concerns of what it all meant.

And all of this affected the human body in significant ways. This shift required poor health and death for many. We may look now and think it turned out okay – and life expectancy around the globe has increased dramatically – but it influenced bodies and social structures in profound ways.

Connecting urbanization and the strong commitment to a seven day week

A historian with a new book on the creation of a seven day week suggests urbanization in the modern helped make this happen:

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If you were to single out one factor, I would say urbanization. This really is a social phenomenon: It’s about people wanting to be able to make schedules with others, especially strangers, either in a consumer context or socially. When most people lived on farms or in small villages, they didn’t need to coordinate many activities with folks whom they didn’t see regularly.

It’s become much more important to know what day of the week it is. Today, a lot varies between one day of the week and the next—entertainment schedules, violin lessons, custody arrangements, or any of the millions of things that we attach to the seven-day cycle.

This would go along with the creation of time zones which similarly attempted to standardize time for the benefit of all the people who were now interacting and traveling. I wonder if this is also related somehow to the earlier adoption of clocks in cities in the Middle Ages. With more people gathered in a single community, having a common time and calendar could be useful for organizing activity.

More broadly, the shift to cities had significant impacts beyond geography and physical locations. The change to city life, specifically big city life, prompted new ways of understanding the world plus new methods for organizing people and knowledge. How people related to each other changed. How government operated changed. Daily activities and the meaning of those changed.

This is why I often start my Urban Sociology course with highlighting how some of the first sociologists in Europe – Marx, Durkheim, Weber, and a few others – noted and commented on urban life. Could you have the capitalism described by Marx without big city life? Durkheim contrasted organic and mechanical solidarity. Weber defined cities as market centers. And so on. The big city as the center of social, economic, political, and religious life had numerous implications for society.

Starting work on a 105 mile long linear city in Saudi Arabia

The proposed linear city of Neom is underway:

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Saudi Arabia has started moving earth and tunneling through mountains to build a futuristic linear city that officials hope will host its first residents in 2024, the project’s chief executive said.

Employees are still developing regional master plans and a “founding law” for the mega-project called Neom, Nadhmi Al-Nasr said in an interview in Riyadh. But they’ve already started early infrastructure work on its main feature – a 170-kilometre (105-mile) long car-free city called “The Line” that could begin welcoming inhabitants and tourists as early as the first quarter of 2024, he said…

His plans to turn the remote region on the kingdom’s northwest Red Sea coast into a futuristic tech hub encapsulates the major elements of his so-called ‘Vision 2030’ to diversify away from crude, loosen social restrictions and boost investment…

One of the next steps could be the approval of the special regulations that will govern Neom as a “free zone”, with different laws than the rest of Saudi Arabia, Al-Nasr said. That could be completed around the first quarter of next year, he said.

Two features of this possible city are not a surprise. The emphasis on tech is a feature of many city plans, whether for whole new cities or for existing places. Everyone sees opportunity, money, and status in tech. Similarly, the idea of a “free zone” is common as it opens possibilities for business and international culture. Theoretically, a country could reap the benefits of such a location while also overseeing a uniquely setting with fewer regulations.

What may be most unique here is the concept of a linear car-free city. The world’s largest cities today are huge sprawling areas. But, starting with no cars and having a linear city rather than one expanding out from some center sound different. How exactly such a large expanse could be connected to itself so hat it feels like the same community remains to be seen.

Such construction will be a lengthy process, even in a country with lots of resources. And then there is a process of developing a community which adds time. At some point, Neom might join other free zone cities as new kinds of global places.

Urbanism in board game form, 7 Wonders Duel edition

I am intrigued when the topics I study as a sociologist intersect with board games. Here is another example: the highly rated two person 7 Wonders Duel game includes a token that through science gains you can acquire called “urbanism”:

The way it works is that it immediately provides the player 6 coins and then each time they acquire a building for free, possible if you have already constructed a building linked to the proposed structure, they gain 4 additional coins. In short, you get more coins for constructing free buildings. Hence, urbanism as you are building your city faster.

There is little doubt that urbanism is one of the most important forces in human history. This is about the process of cities developing as well as a particular way of life that emerged in and around cities. Urbanism was important in multiple time periods. This includes the last two centuries as megacities developed around the globe concurrently with industrial, economic, and societal change. It is also the case in the last five or so millennia as population centers around the globe emerged. This is the period that 7 Wonders is covering as ancient wonders are constructed and denser permanent centers of political, religious, and economic life emerge. Most of these cities are not the size of cities today yet their permanence and way of life transformed human and societal fortunes.

In playing the game, having free buildings also contribute free coins is a helpful bonus. More buildings beget more buildings and wealth.

The best ASA talk I heard: Hampton and Wellman on moral panics and “persistent-pervasive” community

Internet and community scholars presented a paper on Sunday at the ASA meetings that addressed the widespread social concerns – or moral panic – over the loss of community and relationships due to smartphones, social media, and the Internet. They argue this particular argument is nothing new. For at least a century, Westerners and sociologists have argued various technological and social changes have harmed traditional notions of community. I’ll do my best to summarize the argument and they explained it should be in a published piece soon.

At the beginning of the discipline of sociology, leading figures lamented the loss of close-knit communities. Often based in villages or small cities, these societies were marked by close ties, shared cultural values, and limited interaction with the outside world. Tönnies called this gemeinscahft and Durkheim labeled it mechanical solidarity. The development of capitalism, industrialization, and megacities upended these traditional ways of life with increased mobility, moving away from relatives, and the fragmentation of collective values. Tönnies called this gesellschaft and Durkheim termed this organic solidarity. Marx also responded to these major social changes by arguing workers experienced alienation as they were now cogs in a capitalistic machine rather than free individuals. Writing specifically about cities, Simmel worried that dense population centers would lead to overstimulated minds and cause mental distress.

But, the changes kept coming. Urbanization took off – and is still happening at amazing rates in many parts of the world – and was later supplanted by suburbanization in the United States (and a few other countries). Critics also claimed suburbanization ruined community. Whereas urban residents interacted with numerous neighbors and often lived in ethnic enclaves, suburbs moved people to private single-family homes, encouraged individual interests, and produced conformity. Numerous critics inside and outside sociology argued suburbs limits civil society.

The Internet, smartphones, and social media then disrupted suburban communities with a move away from the limits of proximity and geography. Now, users could interact with other users unconstrained by time and space. Close ties could be abandoned in favor of ties based on common interests. Users had little reason to contribute to civil society based on geography. As Jean Twenge argued in The Atlantic, the introduction of the iPhone marks a turning point toward a host of negative individual and collective outcomes.

Hampton and Wellman make this point: all of these technological and social changes and their effects on communities afforded both new opportunities and limitations. In a shift from close-knit communities to post-industrial community to what they now call “persistent-pervasive community,” people gained things and lost others. The new form of community offers two primary strengths: the ability to engage in long-term relationships that in the past would have disappeared as people moved geographically and socially as well as a new awareness of information, people, and the world around them. Going back to earlier stages of community, a world of closer face-to-face bonds or geographically-bounded relationships, might lead to negative outcomes like repression, conformity, hierarchy, constraints, and a lack of awareness of important causes like social justice and equality.

In the end, should a moral panic push Americans back toward an earlier form of community or should we recognize that the persistent-pervasive community of today contains both opportunities and threats?

(Three reasons why I resonated with this talk. First, it combines two areas of research in which I engage: suburban communities and social network site use. Both are communities and institutions yet they are typically treated as separate spheres. Additionally, both are relatively ignored by mainstream sociology even as more than 50% of Americans live in suburbs and the vast majority of Americans are affected by the Internet and social media. Second, a balanced approach where social change is recognized as having both positive and negative consequences fits my personality as well as my research findings. Sometimes, the negative consequences of social change are easy to identify but often the change happens because groups and institutions believe there is something to be gained by changes. Third, while there is always a danger in simplified explanations of large-scale social change, I think sociologists can contribute much by explaining broad changes over time.)

Douglass: humans may not be able to adapt to cities but suburbs could work

Church researcher Harlan Paul Douglass concludes his 1925 work The Suburban Trend with his ideas about human nature and cities:

Human nature, all agree, is capable of a certain measure of adaptive elasticity. Village life, which was its typical form of civilization up to the beginning of the era of steam-driven machinery, little more than a century ago, was not, so far as determined, an undue strain upon it. The city does overstrain human nature, and relief must be looked for in the direction of the village. JUst how far back, then, is it necessary to go? Perhaps no further than the suburbs, and to a different balance between the urban and rural elements in civilization. One cannot prove just where the broken ranks of civilization will hold even if it is possible to rally them again. But it is worth trying along this line. (p.311)

Four quick thoughts:

  1. Here in the second decade of the twenty-first century in the United States, it is hard to remember how big of a social change the move to large cities is. It changes everything for social relationships. It is still happening in numerous parts of the world as rural life is disrupted by huge flows of people to large cities. And even in the United States and the Western world, in the limited time of recorded human history, this urbanization happened not long ago.
  2. Given #1, it serves as a reminder of how quickly we have adapted to big city and surrounding suburbs life. This is all relatively new yet we take it for granted.
  3. Douglass hints at the work of others like Simmel who were also concerned about whether humans could survive in big cities. Few urbanists would raise such concerns now; instead, cities are often held up as the solution to numerous social problems. Humans are indeed adaptable.
  4. At the same time, Douglass does presciently hint at the appeal of suburbs for many Americans. It may not be cities themselves that are the problem – many Americans left cities for issues such as race, social class, and immigration – but in the decades after this book was published, the suburbs became the home for a plurality of Americans.

 

Study suggests cities and farming began more than 40,000 years ago

A recent study suggests cities may have started much earlier:

For centuries, archaeologists believed that ancient people couldn’t live in tropical jungles. The environment was simply too harsh and challenging, they thought. As a result, scientists simply didn’t look for clues of ancient civilizations in the tropics. Instead, they turned their attention to the Middle East, where we have ample evidence that hunter-gatherers settled down in farming villages 9,000 years ago during a period dubbed the “Neolithic revolution.” Eventually, these farmers’ offspring built the ziggurats of Mesopotamia and the great pyramids of Egypt. It seemed certain that city life came from these places and spread from there around the world.

But now that story seems increasingly uncertain. In an article published in Nature Plants, Max Planck Institute archaeologist Patrick Roberts and his colleagues explain that cities and farms are far older than we think. Using techniques ranging from genetic sampling of forest ecosystems and isotope analysis of human teeth, to soil analysis and lidar, the researchers have found ample evidence that people at the equator were actively changing the natural world to make it more human-centric.

It all started about 45,000 years ago. At that point, people began burning down vegetation to make room for plant resources and homes. Over the next 35,000 years, the simple practice of burning back forest evolved. People mixed specialized soils for growing plants; they drained swamps for agriculture; they domesticated animals like chickens; and they farmed yam, taro, sweet potato, chili pepper, black pepper, mango, and bananas…

“The tropics demonstrate that where we draw the lines of agriculture and urbanism can be very difficult to determine. Humans were clearly modifying environments and moving even small animals around as early as 20,000 years ago in Melanesia, they were performing the extensive drainage of landscapes at Kuk Swamp to farm yams [and] bananas… From a Middle East/European perspective, there has always been a revolutionary difference (“Neolithic revolution”) between hunter gatherers and farmers, [but] the tropics belie this somewhat.”

Two things strike me:

  1. The article suggests that this finding just occurred now because scholars assumed it wasn’t worth examining the tropics. This happens more often than researchers want to admit: we explore certain phenomena for certain reasons and this may blind us to other phenomena or explanations. In a perfect world, there would be so many researchers that everything could be covered and research that rules out explanations or shows a lack of phenomena would be valued more highly.
  2. That cities and agriculture took a longer time to develop does not seem too surprising. The shift to more anchored lives – tied to farming and larger population centers – would have been quite a change. Arguably, the world is still going through this process with the pace of urbanization increasing tremendously in the last century and nations and cities desperately trying to catch up.

Now that scientists are looking into this matter, hopefully we get a more complete understanding soon.

Katie Couric: “Urbanization explained”

In a little under three minutes, Katie Couric explains urbanization. Here is some of the text that goes along with the video:

Bright lights, big cities are getting bigger and brighter. Urbanization — the expansion of cities — is on the rise. People across the globe are heading into urban areas looking for work, education and health care. Others arrive, fleeing wars and natural disasters. They turn to the city life for better living and more opportunities…

Without the proper planning, the rapid increase in urban areas, especially in developing countries where most growth is happening, can lead to some big problems. The World Economic Forum has identified the biggest challenges, from health to poverty to pollution to outmoded transportation…

Governments are faced with the challenges of properly preparing cities for these popping populations by following health guidelines, making housing affordable, funding infrastructure projects and investing in mass transit and alternative energy sources to give Mother Nature a break.

But, still, cities are hot spots for cultural development and economic opportunity. So whether you’re a country mouse or a city slicker, when it comes to urbanization, at least you can say, “Now I get it.”

Three quick thoughts:

  1. The story is broken into three parts: the rapid population increase in cities, the peril of these growing cities, and some of the promise of cities. Explain the term, describe some of the problems this causes, and hint at some good things about cities.
  2. A good portion of this is devoted to the difficulties that arise with rapidly growing cities. These are real issues – though they have been going on for decades and will likely continue in the future – that need big solutions. Yet, few solutions are offered or nor is there any suggestion how cities might be part of the solution rather than simply present more issues. And, why put the big issues ahead of the promise of cities which only comes at the end? If the majority of the world’s people are going to be in cities within the next few decades and the majority of the world’s GDP is there as well, could cities be both perilous and promising? As the viewer, should I be fearful of what these global megacities bring (epidemics, climate change, etc.)?
  3. There are some interesting cultural references in here such as country mouse and city mouse as well as country boy (or girl) versus city slickers. These simply seem outdated to me; in 2015, how many people really use these terms? While urbanization is happening at an impressive rate around the world, it already took place in the United States with now more than 80% of the population living in metropolitan areas.