Lots of American cultural values on display in State of the Union speech

While State of the Union Speeches can contain specific information and plans, they are often great places to spot American cultural values and ideals. Democrat or Republican, the themes are often similar. (Of course some topics are more contentious than others but these speeches tend to try to appeal to a broad demographic.) Here is the text of the full speech.

Some of the ideas contained in the speech:

-Americans who work hard should be able to get ahead

-There is an American Dream of a middle-class lifestyle

(Here is a summary of these first two: “They understood they were part of something larger; that they were contributing to a story of success that every American had a chance to share – the basic American promise that if you worked hard, you could do well enough to raise a family, own a home, send your kids to college, and put a little away for retirement.”)

-American will win out in the end

-American workers are the best in the world

-More and better education will help our country move forward

-Our troops are heroes and embody the best of America

-May God bless the United States of America

Any other big common ideas you can spot?

Using sociological surveys as political weapons

One commentator suggests that sociological surveys were used as political weapons recently in Russia:

Long before the State Duma elections of Dec 4, the ultra-rightist and liberal mass media, collaborating with anti-Russian elements in the West, forecast that the ruling United Russia party would suffer a serious defeat.

They organized all sorts of sociological surveys to support this thoroughly planned campaign and to push their “predictions” on the “crisis” facing Russian leaders and “sharply declining rating” of Prime Minister Vladimir Putin and President Dmitry Medvedev. The anti-Putin campaign became really vociferous when the United Russia congress officially and unanimously approved Putin as its nominee for the presidential election in March 2012.

It is true that the election results showed the correlation of political forces and sentiments in Russia, which is experiencing the difficult strategic consequences of the disintegration of the erstwhile Soviet Union and the impact of the global economic crisis.

I’m less interested in dissecting recent events in Russia (which are very interesting to read about) and more interested in thinking about using sociological findings as political weapons. The argument made here is that these surveys are part of a larger, unfair, ideological campaign waged by pundits and the media. Perhaps more importantly, there is a claim that the surveys were “organized,” suggesting they were only undertaken in order to push a particular viewpoint.

I don’t doubt that sociological findings are used in struggles for power. Indeed, sociologists are not value-neutral as they themselves have their own interests and class position within society. However, I tend to think the primary purpose of sociological data is to explain what is happening in society. If sociological surveys in Russia show dissatisfaction with Putin, is it incorrect to report this? Of course, statistics and facts are open to interpretation and need to be approached carefully.

Where is the line between sociological surveys illuminating social structures, practices, and beliefs and having viewpoints and using sociological data to push these perspectives? Max Weber’s writings on value-neutrality are still useful today as we think about the proper use of sociological data.

The difference between a sociologist and a geologist, the “soft” and “hard” sciences

Comments about sociology can come from anywhere. See this example from a House member discussing FDA guidelines:

The most intense reaction was generated by a provision offered by Rep. Denny Rehberg (R-Mont.) that would block the FDA from issuing rules or guidance unless its decisions are based on “hard science” rather than “cost and consumer behavior.” The amendment would prevent the FDA from restricting a substance unless it caused greater harm to health than a product not containing the substance.

“The FDA is starting to use soft sciences in some considerations in the promulgation of its rules,” said Rehberg, who defined “hard science”, as “perceived as being more scientific, rigorous and accurate” than behavioral and social sciences.

“I hate to try and define the difference between a psychiatrist and a psychologist, between a sociologist and a geologist, but there is clearly a difference,” he told the committee.

Three sets of comparisons are made here: between psychology and psychiatry, sociology and geology, and “hard” and “soft” science. I think it is pretty easy to make the first two distinctions, particularly between geology and sociology. But the third comparison seems a little strange: does Rehberg want to suggest that soft sciences are less true or that they matter less/are less valid for FDA decision making?

Overall, it sounds like Rehberg is suggesting that the “soft” sciences (psychology and sociology) are not as important in crafting FDA policies as the actual science that says whether certain products are good or bad for humans. But it seems somewhat silly to suggest that perceptions and behaviors shouldn’t influence policy decisions. A lot of legislation is driven by perceptions and values in addition to the actual influences in the physical world. Think about some of the major issues being discussed today such as the deficit or taxes: less of the conversation is about the actual impact on the country and more involves ideologies about who should be responsible for funding the government and what is the proper role and/or size of the government. One of the problems presented in this article is instructive: cigarettes are not illegal and yet government bodies are interested in limiting the consumption of them. Therefore, while menthol cigarettes may not be that much more harmful, if it is attractive to younger kids who then take smoking, why not regulate this? Of course, the smoking example is a loaded one and it would be hard to find someone who would suggest more smoking among teenagers is a good thing.

Based on this discussion, would either political party be willing to create legislation only based on “hard science” or is this only a suggestion when the “hard science” supports one’s existing viewpoint? Additionally, are there politicians out there who have publicly supported sociology rather than suggested it is a “soft” science?

Why we need “duh science”

There are a lot of studies that are completed every year. The results of some seem quite obvious than others, what this article calls “duh research.” Here is why experts say these studies are still necessary:

But there’s more to duh research than meets the eye. Experts say they have to prove the obvious — and prove it again and again — to influence perceptions and policy.

“Think about the number of studies that had to be published for people to realize smoking is bad for you,” said Ronald J. Iannotti, a psychologist at the National Institutes of Health. “There are some subjects where it seems you can never publish enough.”…

There’s another reason why studies tend to confirm notions that are already widely held, said Daniele Fanelli, an expert on bias at the University of Edinburgh in Scotland. Instead of trying to find something new, “people want to draw attention to problems,” especially when policy decisions hang in the balance, he said.

Kyle Stanford, a professor of the philosophy of science at UC Irvine, thinks the professionalization of science has led researchers — who must win grants to pay their bills — to ask timid questions. Research that hews to established theories is more likely to be funded, even if it contributes little to knowledge.

Here we get three possible answers as to why “duh research” takes place:

1. It takes time for studies to draw attention and become part of cultural “common sense.” One example cited in this article is cigarette smoking. One study wasn’t enough to show a relationship between smoking and negative health outcomes. Rather, it took a number of studies until there was a critical mass that the public accepted. While the suggestion here is that this is mainly about convincing the public, this also makes me think of the general process of science where numerous studies find the same thing and knowledge becomes accepted.

2. These studies could be about social problems. There are many social ills that could be deserving of attention and funding and one way to get attention is to publish more studies. The findings might already be widely accepted but the studies help keep the issue in the public view.

3. It is about the structure of science/the academy where researchers are rewarded for publications and perhaps not so much for advancing particular fields of study. “Easy” findings help scientists and researchers keep their careers moving forward. These structures could be altered to promote more innovative research.

All three of these explanations make some sense to me. I wonder how much the media plays a role in this; why do media sources cite so much “duh research” where there are other kinds of research going on as well? Could these be “easy” journalistic stories that fit particular established narratives or causes? Do universities/research labs tend to promote these studies more?

Of course, the article also notes that some of these studies can also turn out unexpected results. I would guess that there are quite a few important findings that came out of research that someone at the beginning could have easily predicted a well-established answer.

(It would be interesting to think more about the relationship between sociology and “duh research.” One frequent knock against sociology is that it is all “common sense.” Aren’t we aware of our interactions with others as well as how our culture operates? But we often don’t have time for analysis and understanding in our everyday activities and we often simply go along with prevailing norms and behaviors. It all may seem obvious until we are put in situations that challenge our understandings, like stepping into new situations or different cultures.

Additionally, sociology goes beyond the individual, anecdotal level at which many of us operate. We can often create a whole understanding of the world based on our personal experiences and what we have heard from others. Sociology looks at the structural level and works with data, looking to draw broad conclusions about human interaction.)

A narrative about McMansions at the heart of the economic crisis

With an ongoing economic crisis and housing slump, there are plenty of stories about who has been hit the hardest. But one writer suggests that perhaps we can’t just simply say that those who were excessive in their consumption and purchased McMansions are the only ones affected:

With an ongoing economic crisis and housing slump, one target of blame is McMansion buyers. But one writer suggests the economic crisis affects more people than just those who consumed beyond their means:

The nation’s lingering housing foreclosure mess is too often about folks with McMansion-size aspirations and duplex paychecks, granite counter appetites and laminate budgets.

And when we hear that one of the nation’s hot spots for foreclosures is Prince William County, we nod knowingly, thinking of the vast tracts of huge new homes and the dreamers who drowned in them.

But the other day, I met some of the folks who lost their homes or are fighting with banks to try to keep them. And McMansion isn’t what comes to mind.

The rest of the story goes on to describe the stories of a few people who lived more modest lifestyles and yet have still fallen into housing issues.

I would be interested in seeing some figures about what kinds of homes or types of owners are those who have experienced the most foreclosures or mortgage difficulties. Is it really McMansion owners or others? We hear quite a bit about regional differences, such as high vacancy rates in Florida and high foreclosure rates in certain states or cities, but less about other factors.

In reading this one particular story, I wonder why people might be quick to jump on people like those who live in Prince William County (a wealthy county – this Wikipedia list has it as the 14th highest county in the country in terms of median household income). How much of this is a moral judgment leveled against McMansion owners and houses more broadly? With this housing crisis, it now looks like McMansions are also a bad economic deal, adding to the other issues that critics say McMansions have.

Finland schools: raising the overall educational scores by helping the students with the most troubles

There is much angst in the United States regarding the education system and how its students compare to those of other countries. Time presents a different kind of model in Finland (which they oppose to “tiger mothering“) where there is less concern for stardom and more interest in helping the lower kids succeed:

In the ’80s, Finland stopped “streaming” pupils to different math and language tracks based on ability. “People in Finland cannot be divided by how smart they are,” says Laukkanen. “It has been very beneficial.”…

“Finland is a society based on equity,” says Laukkanen. “Japan and Korea are highly competitive societies — if you’re not better than your neighbor, your parents pay to send you to night school. In Finland, outperforming your neighbor isn’t very important. Everybody is average, but you want that average to be very high.” (See 20 back-to-school gadgets.)

This principle has gone far toward making Finland an educational overachiever. In the 2006 PISA science results, Finland’s worst students did 80% better than the OECD average for the worst group; its brightest did only 50% better than the average for bright students. “Raising the average for the bottom rungs has had a profound effect on the overall result,” says MacIsaac.

This is an interesting statistical point as there are two ways a country could go about raising the mean. Instead of trying to raise the average score by putting resources into the gifted or smartest students, the strategy in Finland is to instead raise the bottom group to a higher point.

From reading this article, it sounds like this is possible because of a particular set of cultural values that prizes community or equity over competition. Of course, some might argue that this might not be great for society: where are the next innovators or geniuses going to come from if they aren’t pushed harder? But one could argue on the other side that more help and success for the lower students (who used to be shunted off into lower track classes) helps limit later societal problems and instead promotes a more well-rounded and less bifurcated work force and citizenry.

Op-ed: the American Dream is now about attaining perfection

The American Dream is a popular topic: politicians, businesses, citizens, and immigrants have all had a hand in defining this set of values and goals. A recent op-ed in the Boston Globe by Neal Gabler suggests that the end goal of the American Dream has changed in recent years from seizing opportunities to attaining perfection:

But over the past 50 years, the American Dream has been revised. It is no longer about seizing opportunity but about realizing perfection. Many Americans have come to feel that the lives they always imagined for themselves are not only attainable; those lives are now transcendable, as if our imaginations were inadequate to the possibilities. In short, many Americans have come to believe in their own perfectibility…

We agonize a lot over perfection, and we dedicate a lot of time, energy, and money to it — everything from plastic surgery to gated communities of McMansions to the professionalization of our children’s activities like soccer and baseball to pricey preschools that prepare 4-year-olds for Harvard. After all, we are all on the Ivy League track now.

Or else. And that’s another thing that a perfectionist society has engendered. It has removed failure as an option because we realize that there are no second chances, that mistakes are usually irrevocable, and that you have to assume there are other people out there — your competition! — whose wives will always be beautifully coiffed and dressed or whose husbands will be power brokers, whose children will score 2,400 on their SATs and who will be playing competitive-level tennis, whose careers will be skyrocketing, whose fortunes will be growing. In a world in which perfection is expected, you must be perfect. Otherwise you are second rate.

I wish Gabler had some more space to expand on this idea. When he says we are chasing “perfection,” what exactly does he mean? I’m guessing that this does not refer to perfect lives: no one has these as we all have troubles to face and obstacles to overcome. We all face failure at some time or another. I wonder if by perfection, Gabler really is getting at something else, something along the lines of, “perfect enough to be better than most others.” When do we or would we know that our lives are perfect or is it more about being perfect enough?

When I read this piece, I was reminded of sociologist Juliet Schor’s argument in The Overspent American: in recent decades, Americans have spent more money and time chasing richer and richer reference groups. Even if we enjoy our house, we see better houses that supposedly middle-class families have on TV or in movies. Even if our kid is smart, we read newspaper stories about the kid who got a perfect on their SAT and seems to have every opportunity available to them. If we are always chasing other people, we might indeed get to a similar point – until other people have even more or something different. But we often only assess where we are at by comparing ourselves to others.

In this sense, perfect is not perfection but rather good enough to be better than most. Or perfect enough to look better than most. As Schor suggests, this could become an endless cycle of keeping up with the Joneses. Or as Gabler puts it, we are seeking to “live within [our] illusions” and to “live not just the good life but the perfect one.”