Basic sociology in the story of a fancy burger from cattle breeding to plate

The story of a $20 hamburger in Washington, D.C. reminded me of several basic sociology concepts from Introduction to Sociology:

ham burger with vegetables

Photo by Valeria Boltneva on Pexels.com

But for months, the burger had been traveling through a complex supply chain crippled by the novel coronavirus. Now it was about to end up in a takeout box…

On the burger’s journey from a Kansas farm to the engineer’s dinner plate, every person had a story like Solano’s. A rancher with five children who lost thousands every week. A factory worker who brought the virus home to her son. A courier who calculated the true cost of every delivery not in profit, but in the risk it required her to take.

To follow the burger is to glimpse the lasting toll of this pandemic: on the beef supply chain, on the restaurant industry, on the people who were struggling before this catastrophe began, kept going to work throughout it and are still waiting to see what their lives will become when it ends.

A few of the sociological concepts in the story:

  1. The miracle of modern systems. The number of people involved, the travel, and the meanings and social policy it play all hint at the complexity and ability of rationalized processes to bring a burger to the home of city residents. Reminds me of Durkheim’s organic solidarity and division of labor as well as Ritzer’s McDonaldization.
  2. The human involvement and costs all along the way. Producers and workers struggling, consumers eating the product with little idea of how it all happened, and an economic and social system that tried to make it as profitable as possible. Furthermore, many of the people are faceless and their personal and collective circumstances – whether race, class, or gender – are obscured or ignored. Reminds me of Marx and alienated workers as well as consumption patterns within modern capitalism.
  3. I am struck by two additional factors that perhaps could be hinted at during Intro to Sociology: does this story illustrate urban-rural divides? The city residents, young 30-somethings order fancy burgers after a week of white-collar work, ranchers raise cattle in the middle of the country, and faceless workers in between facilitate the exchange. And does this illustrate how broad social change is within the United States over the last century? Some aspects of this story could fit 100 years ago – the shipment of beef and other agricultural commodities helped make Chicago and other places – while other aspects would be unheard of. People need to eat and make money but how this happens evolves over time.

The effects of social class, education levels on ability to work from home during COVID-19

Survey results from Pew Research show that whether American workers work from home amid the COVID-19 pandemic is affected by social class and education:

Four-in-ten working-age adults – those ages 18 to 64 – say they have worked from home as a result of the coronavirus outbreak. Men and women in this age group are about equally likely to say they have worked from home.

About three-quarters of working-age adults with a postgraduate degree (73%) say they have worked from home as a result of the coronavirus outbreak, as do 62% of those with a bachelor’s degree. Far smaller shares of working-age adults with some college (35%) or with a high school diploma or less education (22%) say they have worked from home.

Similarly, working-age adults with higher incomes are more likely than those with lower incomes to say they have worked from home because of the coronavirus outbreak: 61% of those in the upper-income tier say they have done this, compared with 41% in the middle-income tier and an even smaller share (27%) of those with lower incomes.

In states with a high number of coronavirus cases, 45% of working-age adults say they have worked from home because of the outbreak; smaller shares in states with a medium or low number of cases say the same (38% each).

The knowledge economy is up and running. Those with more education and income have jobs and workplaces that can be done from home and other locations. This could have to do with the kind of work being done and the resources the organizations and/or workers have. The dividing line of a bachelor’s degree or higher does not just affect future earnings; it can affect exposure to particular diseases.

On the other hand, workers with less education and lower incomes are less able to work at home. This could put them in settings with more contact with others and present a tough decision between keeping a job and wanting to stay healthy. The reactions of workers in numerous facilities and companies suggests this is indeed a real issue. The dividing line of a bachelor’s degree or higher does not just affect future earnings or opportunities; it can affect exposure to particular social conditions.

In the longer run, I would guess there will be plenty of future research on the effects of COVID-19 by social class. Whether facing a pandemic or not, working from home is a luxury for those who have particular social statuses. Since the American economy is a long ways from making all or even most jobs doable from a distance (and there are likely other important considerations regarding this), this will continue to be an important matter.

The advantages McMansions may offer for working from home

With coronavirus pushing more people to work from home, I have seen more advice about setting up a home workspace. I found one example that suggests workers in all kinds of homes face similar challenges:

First things first: As we’re learning, there’s no “normal” with the coronavirus. But that also applies to where you live. “Home workers” now include apartment dwellers, Millennials who share a house, Midwesterners with basements, suburbanites in McMansions, and more. You’ll have to figure out what works for you, within your own unique environment. Still, some rules apply to just about everyone.

Is this true? Do McMansion-dwellers have any advantages in working out of their large homes? A few ideas:

  1. All that space means McMansion occupants have plenty of options to choose from regarding where to work. They could even rotate (though these articles tend to emphasize making one space a clearly delineated work space).
  2. All that space also means they can keep their distance from all other occupants.
  3. Although the McMansion might have a lot of open common space, there are likely parts of the house that can be pretty quiet and separate from other activities.
  4. Related to #1-3, who likes open office plans?
  5. If a worker needs to bring lots of materials home, the McMansion likely has a lot of storage space. A temporary home office might barely be noticed.
  6. Because of the size of the home, the walk from the office space to the kitchen or bathroom could be a sufficient break or help the worker acquire their needed steps.
  7. The McMansion home worker pressed for cash could rent out a room or create a coworking space (while attending to local zoning codes, of course).
  8. There could be enough space to recreate the spaces in a large office building, ranging from a workout room to a large eating area to spacious bathroom to room to spread out one’s work.

Americans like their private spaces but being confined to one’s home for a few weeks may just reinforce the desire of some to have plenty of space.

“What if the greatest threat to capitalism…is simply lack of enthusiasm and activity?”

In a long excerpt from The Happiness Industry, William Davies explores a real threat to capitalism: a lack of happiness.

What if the greatest threat to capitalism, at least in the liberal West, is simply lack of enthusiasm and activity? What if, rather than inciting violence or explicit refusal, contemporary capitalism is just met with a yawn? From a political point of view, this would be somewhat disappointing. Yet it is no less of an obstacle for the longer-term viability of capitalism. Without a certain level of commitment on the part of employees, businesses run into some very tangible problems, which soon show up in their profits.

This fear has gripped the imaginations of managers and policymakers in recent years, and not without reason. Various studies of employee engagement have highlighted the economic costs of allowing workers to become mentally withdrawn from their jobs. Gallup conducts frequent and wide-ranging studies in this area and has found that only 13 per cent of the global workforce is properly “engaged,” while around 20 percent of employees in North America and Europe are “actively disengaged.” They estimate that active disengagement costs the U.S. economy as much as $550 billion a year. Disengagement is believed to manifest itself in absenteeism, sickness and—sometimes more problematic—presenteeism, in which employees come into the office purely to be physically present. A Canadian study suggests over a quarter of workplace absence is due to general burnout, rather than sickness.

Perhaps people should turn their attention away from the NSA and toward their employers:

Rather than the rise of alternative corporate forms, we are now witnessing the discreet return of the scientific management style, only now with even greater scientific scrutiny of bodies, movement, and performance. The front line in worker performance evaluation has shifted into bodily-monitoring devices, heart-rate monitoring, and sharing of real-time health data, for analysis of stress risks. Strange to say, the notion of what represents a good worker has gone full circle since the 1870s, from the origins of ergonomic fatigue studies, through psychology, psychosomatic medicine and back to the body once more. Perhaps the managerial cult of optimization just needs something tangible to cling onto.

Studying happiness (and related concepts like life satisfaction and well-being) is its own academic subfield – see earlier posts here and here. And governments are very interested in well-being as well with measures like Gross National Happiness from Bhutan and regular reports about the happiest countries on earth.

All of this reminds me of sociologist Arlie Hochschild’s research on “emotion work” in relationships to keep them going and “emotion labor” in jobs that require a consistent cheerfulness or happiness as part of the routine. This would include a lot of service and retail jobs where employees regularly interact with customers and need to present an upbeat image. This is not easy to do and can be quite draining.

And what might Marx say about this – capitalism goes out not with a revolution but rather with indifference and apathy?

More Americans living on $2 a day

A sociologist finds more Americans suffering extreme poverty:

The number of U.S. residents who are struggling to survive on just $2 a day has more than doubled since 1996, placing 1.5 million households and 3 million children in this desperate economic situation. That’s according to “$2.00 a Day: Living on Almost Nothing in America,” a book from publisher Houghton Mifflin Harcourt that will be released on Sept. 1…

“Most of us would say we would have trouble understanding how families in the county as rich as ours could live on so little,” said author Kathryn Edin, who spoke on a conference call to discuss the book, which she wrote with Luke Shaefer. Edin is the Bloomberg Distinguished Professor of Sociology at Johns Hopkins University. “These families, contrary to what many would expect, are workers, and their slide into poverty is a failure of the labor market and our safety net, as well as their own personal circumstances.”…

“Time and time again, we would constantly see people’s hours cut from week to week,” said Shaefer, associate professor of social work at University of Michigan. “Someone might have 30 hours one week, down to 15 the next and down to 5 after that. We saw people who would remain employed but were down to zero hours. This was incredibly common in this population.”…

Many of the families Edin and Shaefer interviewed saw themselves as workers, the researchers noted. Rather than the negative stereotype of the “welfare queen” created by President Ronald Reagan, the families that are suffering with less than $2 a day want to work and are using self-reliance to get by. That hasn’t stopped the stereotype from proliferating, even though Edin and Shaefer note that extreme poverty in America is an equal-opportunity affliction: It hurts single parents, married couples, white, blacks and Hispanics, as well as rural and urban families.

While this is a small percent of the American population (less than 2% based on the figures cited in this story), Edin is likely right: few Americans could imagine this level of poverty that they would tend to associate with developing countries. And these are often people willing to work but job opportunities are limited.

It will be interesting to see reactions to this. Because of the relatively small numbers as well as the relative powerlessness of poor groups, this could be easy to sweep under the rug. Yet, I would guess many Americans would want something to be done for the poorest members of society even if they vehemently disagree on the means by which to do this. (This article suggests not much is being done in any sector, from government to charities.) I hope I’m not overestimating the compassion of the American people…

“The Saddest Office Cubicles”

Wired has a collection of “The Saddest Office Cubicles.”

In 2007, WIRED.com (then known as “Wired News”) asked readers with particularly depressing office cubicles to submit photos of their plight. People hated their cubicles—and rightly so. They didn’t offer any real privacy, but were incredibly effective at communicating office hierarchy. The hatred of this terrible design was clear: Our gallery of “winners” of the saddest-cubicle contest still holds the record for WIRED’s most popular post ever…

The winner — if you can call it winning — of the Wired News saddest-cubicles contest is David Gunnells, an IT guy at the University of Alabama at Birmingham. His desk is penned in by heavily used filing cabinets in a windowless conference room, near a poorly ventilated bathroom and a microwave. The overhead light doesn’t work — his mother-in-law was so saddened by his cube that she gave him a lamp — and the other side of the wall is a parking garage. Gunnells recalls a day when one co-worker reheated catfish in the microwave, while another used the bathroom and covered the smell with a stinky air freshener. Lovely.

Quite depressing. It is interesting, though, that several of these seem to be the product of what was once a temporary adaptation: because of rearranging or some odd situation, the company threw something together. Perhaps the big problems then come in when these temporary solutions become permanent. I do have to wonder how much these individual workers complained and what responses they heard.

These are the sorts of pictures that probably helped the motivate the writing of Cubed regarding the history and development of modern office settings. Of course, most offices don’t look like this. But, these pictures tend to be popular (the most popular Wired post ever?!?) and it is easy for many workers to see hints of their own workplaces (certain lighting, bland furniture, close quarters, lots of noise, etc.).

 

A “single lifestyle” the primary factor in making a city one of the worst for singles?

A recent list of the “10 Worst Cities for Singles” uses this criteria:

How did we come up with our list of the worst cities for singles? We started by looking for metropolitan areas with more than 125,000 people. Then we penalized places with small populations of singles, including the never-married, divorced and widowed. The share of unmarried residents in each of these bottom-ten cities is well shy of the national average.

Financial indicators didn’t boost the cities’ attractiveness. Although many of these areas boast below-average living costs, paychecks typically are way below average, too. We also factored in education level, keeping in mind that people with bachelor’s and advanced degrees are more likely to be gainfully employed. After all, you can’t exactly rock the single lifestyle without the earnings to fund it.

So there two primary factors in this analysis:

1. The number of single people. Presumably this has something to do with an exciting social scene, a la the culture and scene sought by the creative class. However, just measuring the number of single people doesn’t necessarily signal a more or less exciting cultural and entertainment scene.

2. The financial indicators are mainly about income, suggesting that single workers don’t want to be in places without high incomes. Does this mean younger workers only want higher-paying jobs? Is a high paying job the number one goal? The last line in the second paragraph above drives this point home: younger workers want a flashier “single lifestyle.”

All this seems to make some assumptions about single workers: they want high incomes, they want other singles around, and they want to “rock the single lifestyle.” While this may be the case for a number of them, it does highlight some different reasons for moving that are fairly accepted in American society today:

1. Economics. People need jobs. They should move where the jobs are. Young workers are particularly assumed to be more mobile and willing to move.

2. Finding exciting cultural centers. Places like Austin are held up as cities where one should move to enjoy life.

Are there other acceptable reasons for choosing where to live?

Exploited workers: why Apple and other companies will not move manufacturing jobs back to the US

The New York Times has a long piece examining why Apple, even with the pleas of President Obama, will not likely move manufacturing jobs back to the United States. It sounds like it has a lot to do with what Apple can ask of workers in China. Here are a few examples:

Apple executives say that going overseas, at this point, is their only option. One former executive described how the company relied upon a Chinese factory to revamp iPhone manufacturing just weeks before the device was due on shelves. Apple had redesigned the iPhone’s screen at the last minute, forcing an assembly line overhaul. New screens began arriving at the plant near midnight.

A foreman immediately roused 8,000 workers inside the company’s dormitories, according to the executive. Each employee was given a biscuit and a cup of tea, guided to a workstation and within half an hour started a 12-hour shift fitting glass screens into beveled frames. Within 96 hours, the plant was producing over 10,000 iPhones a day…

The facility has 230,000 employees, many working six days a week, often spending up to 12 hours a day at the plant. Over a quarter of Foxconn’s work force lives in company barracks and many workers earn less than $17 a day. When one Apple executive arrived during a shift change, his car was stuck in a river of employees streaming past. “The scale is unimaginable,” he said…

In mid-2007, after a month of experimentation, Apple’s engineers finally perfected a method for cutting strengthened glass so it could be used in the iPhone’s screen. The first truckloads of cut glass arrived at Foxconn City in the dead of night, according to the former Apple executive. That’s when managers woke thousands of workers, who crawled into their uniforms — white and black shirts for men, red for women — and quickly lined up to assemble, by hand, the phones. Within three months, Apple had sold one million iPhones. Since then, Foxconn has assembled over 200 million more.

This sounds ripe for a Marxist explanation: Apple has its products overseas because it can ask things of workers (possibly interpreted as “exploiting” these workers) that would be very difficult to ask of workers in the United States. American workers would not be happy about multiple things: non-predictable work hours, living in company dormitories, relatively low pay compared to wages in the first-world, consistent twelve hour days.

When I first read these descriptions, it immediately reminded of manufacturing in the United States in the late 1800s and early 1900s. This was a period marked by labor unrest, the rise of unions, and a change in a lot of laws about what companies could ask of employees. We’ve had company towns; think of Pullman on the south side of Chicago. We’ve had bad working conditions; think the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire. We’ve had low wages; now we have a minimum wage (that some would argue is still not enough and should be replaced by a living wage). With the protests of workers plus a growing prosperity, work conditions changed. Is China close to a similar period or does a different governmental approach and different culture make is less feasible? As Marx suggested, will the basics of capitalism help turn these workers against the system, pushing companies to look for workers in other countries?

The article hints at this but I think it could be put more clearly: there are not easy answers to this issue. If manufacturing jobs will not return to the US except in certain circumstances (see the recent battle over Boeing plants being located in right-to-work states), we need a clear discussion of this rather than politicians saying nice things.

Opening day care facilities beyond 8 AM to 6 PM

As the American economy changes and workers try to adapt, some day care centers are offering extended hours:

About 40 percent of the American labor force now works some form of nonstandard hours, including evenings, nights, weekends and early mornings, according to Harriet B. Presser, a professor of sociology at the University of Maryland. That share is expected to grow with the projected expansion of jobs in industries like nursing, retail and food service, which tend to require after-hours work.

At the same time, working hours are less predictable than they once were. ”There’s a greater variability and irregularity of schedules,” said Lonnie Golden, a professor of economics and labor studies at Pennsylvania State University. “In surveys, more and more people are no longer able to specify a beginning or end of the workday.”

Yet for years it has been a frustrating reality for parents that child care services have failed to keep pace with the changing workday, with many centers still keeping a rigid 8 a.m. to 6 p.m. schedule. Experiments with nighttime care have come and gone over the years, but lingering ambivalence about the concept led most centers to deem it financially untenable…

While overnight care is still relatively rare, evening hours are no longer so unusual, providers say. Donna McClintock, chief operating officer for Children’s Choice Learning Centers Inc., which runs 46 employer-sponsored child care centers across the country, said that demand for nontraditional hours had grown and that centers providing care after-hours care made up a large part of the company’s recent growth. About a fifth of the company’s centers have added nontraditional hours in the past few years, she said.

This sounds like an unanticipated consequence of a poor economy: childcare providers have to offer more hours as people have to accept different kinds of jobs or work additional jobs. What are the potential consequences of changing childcare schedules?

The sociological department at Ford

I stumbled across an interesting piece of information the other day: Henry Ford established a sociological department at his company in 1913. Here are some interesting tidbits about the short-lived department culled from some varied sources:

From a University of Michigan website:

The Sociological Department of the Ford Motor Company was organized in March, 1913, and oversaw a broad array of social benefits for Ford employees, including assistance in living in well-maintained single-family homes as opposed to small apartments. After the announcement of the Five Dollar Day in 1914, the Sociological Department was responsible for determining if employees’ personal lives and personal habits made them eligible for the full wage. This phase of the Department’s activities terminated with the reorganization of the company in 1920.

From a blogger:

On January 5 1914, Ford announced the revolutionary five-dollar, eight-hour day:

What the company announced was not a plan to pay workers an hourly rate equivalent to five dollars a day. Instead, the company announced a plan to allow the workers to share in the company profits at a rate that promised five dollars a day … The five-dollar profit sharing plan was designed by the company to include only those who were ‘worthy’ and who would ‘not debauch the additional money he receives’.

The Sociological Department, under the leadership of the Reverend Samuel S. Marquis, was put in charge of administering the programme and investigating the home lives of workers: “investigators from the Sociological Department visited workers’ homes and suggested ways to achieve the company’s standards for ‘better morals,’ sanitary living conditions, and ‘habits of thrift and saving’.”…

Inspired by welfare capitalism, Ford’s “philosophy adopted a paternalistic attitude toward workers that, in Ford’s case, was rooted in the Protestant work ethic. Ford believed in it and wanted his employees to adopt it…” And Ford’s social standards reached far beyond the confines of work-life. The PBS film Demon Rum documents the Sociological Department’s efforts to “end the working man’s drinking habit” and how the “success of the small program led to a national prohibition campaign.”

-A 2004 article in American Culture titled “Ford’s Sociology Department and the Americanization Campaign and the Manufacture of Popular Culture Among Assembly Line Workers.”

A two-day lesson for (high school?) students on the topic.

I am not surprised by Ford’s actions: there was a lot of pressure at the time to improve efficiency and a number of companies tried other tactics we might consider paternalistic today (example: the Pullman town which is now part of Chicago).

I am also reminded about the changed role of sociology. Ford seems to have viewed sociology as a means of “social engineering” or enforcing particular ways of living. This involved very strong value judgments and a lot of company control over workers. I imagine this would make most, if not all, sociologists today very nervous.