The Ad That Wasn’t

May 30, 2011
Posted by Jay Livingston

Bringing in new customers is a challenge for any organization, especially museums.

In the first season of thirtysomething, Michael and Elliot, who run a small ad agency, have to come up with a campaign for the local arts center, which is trying to broaden its base. They struggle, they founder, they fail. The best they can do is a poster with a photo of a hard hat guy and the caption, “Yo, it’s my arts center.” The city, sensibly, rejects their proposal.

But how can a museum reach people other than those they usually reach? Among current museum-goers, according to a survey of 40,000 households,
  • 92% are white
  • 70% are over the age of 30
  • 81% have college degrees
  • 82% have incomes above the national median
  • For history museums, age was even more skewed – only about a third were under 50.
Enter Jenny Burrows and Matt Kappler and their “Historically Hardcore” Smithsonian campaign.

(Click on the image for a larger view.)

I wish I could report on the success of this campaign in bringing a younger and more diverse audience to the museum. But unfortunately, this campaign, like the one in thirtysomething, was fictional. They did it as an exercise, and the posters lived only in cyberspace, where they flourished briefly. Reddit put them on their front page. Burrows was thrilled at first, then cautious. As she writes on her blog,
I decided it was probably time to get in touch with someone from Smithsonian, just to cover my ass. Well, they were less than pleased about the attention the posters were getting and requested that I take them down immediately.
She scrubbed the posters of any Smithsonian traces. You will never see them on the sides of buses or the walls of the Metro. The Smithsonian, apparently, has no desire to appeal to a hardcore constituency. Our great national institution will continue to round up the usual subjects.*

HT: Total Drek

*thirtysomething was great TV, but it played to the same demographic as museums, though perhaps a bit younger. The show often seemed to be written about, by, and for English majors from elite universities. Here’s a bit of script I found. Gary and Susannah, new parents, are talking with two couples whose children are slightly older – Michael and Hope, and Elliot and Nancy.

GARY
Why would I make something like that up?
Seriously. I swear. I put them both in
front of her, right? Runaway Bunny and Ulysses.

MICHAEL
And let me guess: she went right to Ulysses?

GARY
Right.

SUSANNAH
And put it in her mouth. You
forgot to mention that, right?

MICHAEL
So big deal. Listen. Janey, by the
time she was five months old had
eaten most of the major early work
of Saul Bellow,up to and including
Henderson the Rain King, but hey,
I don't like to brag.

HOPE
Oh, I'm sure Emma's as bright as a button, Gary.

NANCY
Hey, hey, what was that woman on the Lucy Show
that was always bragging about her kids?

SUSANNAH [definitively]
Caroline Appleby. The kid's name was 'Stevie.'

GARY [turning to her, clearly surprised]
I... I thought you hated pop culture?

SUSANNAH
Lucy isn't pop culture. Lucy is God

Underground Norms

May 27, 2011
Posted by Jay Livingston

This happened yesterday as I was returning from the Book Fair at the Javitz Center. For some reason, I decided to write it in verse.

SHOOTING ON THE UPTOWN #1 TRAIN

The Broadway local had stopped at Times Square.
A dozen more passengers pushed their way in.
No seats left but still there was some room to spare.
Three-thirty, rush hour about to begin.

The last to get on were four older black guys.
The one in a t-shirt was noticeably loud.
Some people glanced up then averted their eyes.
That’s how we react to a nut in the crowd.

The doors closed. The guy called, “Hey, what do y’all say?”
Then in that same voice, he broke into a song,
“I’ve got sunshine,” he sang out, “on a cloudy day
Then the other three guys started singing along,

Their harmony perfect, their timing on cue,
And as the train picked up some speed between stations.
You could feel the crowd mood get sunnier too,
Brought to life by these One-Train-Uptown Temptations.

The lead singer paused as he finished a verse
Looked the car up and down, made a cheerful, short plea
As he held out a large rumpled red nylon purse,
“Folks, give what you like, or buy our CD.”

Some gave coins or a bill – easy enough to afford.
But a twenty-ish woman who didn’t comply
Took out her iPhone and began to record.
As the quartet still singing “My Girl” shuffled by.

“You’re taking our picture, and you won’t give a dime?”
Asked the leader. The girl did not say a thing.
The men moved on quickly – no sense losing time.
Other train cars to try, other songs still to sing.

But a rider across from the blond iPhone user
Apparently irked by her cheap, selfish ways,
Stood up, crossed the car, and as if to accuse her
Stared down with a challenging, withering gaze.

“You didn’t give a cent?” he asked. “Have you no shame?
“That totally sucks,” in his judgmental tone
“I don’t have any money,” but she knew this was lame.
“No money? Bullshit. You’ve got a fucking iPhone.”

She sat there in silence. What more could he do
To keep her selfishness on the informal docket?
Then he realized maybe he wasn’t quite through
For his own camera sat in his left front pants pocket.

Still staring at her across two feet of space,
He took out the camera and aimed at his spot.
But she lowered her sunglasses onto her face
Before he could zoom in and take the first shot.

Flash went the camera, and stalking his prey,.
The man moved to get a clear shot of her face.
A second flash came as the girl turned away
From this Canon-armed man in the cramped subway space.

She was fuming, but given how she’d used her phone,
She couldn’t very well speak up to complain.
Or tell the guy loudly to leave her alone.
Then at last, at the next stop, he got off the train.

Like another bit of verse about shooting, Frankie and Johnny, this story has no moral, this story has no end. This story just goes to show that in any situation, norms may be contradictory, and acts of informal social control may themselves violate norms.

Norms are the functional equivalent of laws. Laws protect property and bodies. Norms protect the self, as Goffman said a half century ago. He also pointed out that by calling attention to someone else’s norm violation, we may ourselves be violating the norms that protect that person. The man on the subway trying to enforce some norm of reciprocity was crossing the boundary protecting the girl.

It also shows that “primitive” or “magical” ideas about cameras – that they steal the soul of the subject – might have some resonance even in our own camera-drenched climate. The subway singers felt that the girl had unfairly taken something from them without compensation. And clearly the crank avenger, shooting with his Canon, was using his camera as a weapon to diminish the self, the personhood, of the iPhone girl.

Gingrich, Weber, Bourdieu

May 26, 2011
Posted by Jay Livingston

I imagine that Stewart, Colbert, Letterman, and the rest must have had fun with the Gingrich-Tiffany story. (I wouldn’t know. I haven’t been watching much TV lately, and it didn’t come up at all on “Dancing With the Stars.”) Newt had a $500,000 revolving charge account at Tiffany’s. Apparently he was a good customer.

The story was something of an embarrassment, and Gingrich tried to make the best of it.
If the U.S. government was as debt-free as I am, everybody in America would be celebrating. I think I have proven I can manage money.
I don’t know how this is playing out there in America – I haven’t seen any opinion surveys. But the Times went to the heartland for quotes:
But out in Iowa, Mr. Robinson says buying jewelry on credit somehow feels different from buying a refrigerator or a new washing machine. Rich Galen, a former Gingrich aide, agrees.
“It’s not something that normal people do,” Mr. Galen said. “I understand he’s made a lot of money and he’s done very well, and God bless him for it, but that’s sort of a departure from the Newt Gingrich that I knew.”
At first, I thought that this reaction was pure Protestant Ethic. It’s OK to make as much money as you can, and we’ll even tax you less. But don’t spend it for pleasure.

But on second thought, the problem isn’t that Gingrich spent rather than reinvesting or giving to charity. The problem is what he bought – or rather, where he bought, since he refuses to say exactly what his Tiffany purchases were. A $25,000 Tiffany necklace, even for your wife, is too elitist.

What is it OK to spend money on? A ranch, where you can clear brush and ride a horse into the sunset. But probably not a villa. A sports team is probably OK but not a Jackson Pollack. A Hummer (if they were still made) but not a Rolls.

What else should go on the approved list? The trick is to avoid implying that your tastes are better, or even different, from those of the ordinary guy. In America, we may not be egalitarian about wealth and power – hats off to those who have the most. But we are egalitarian about taste. You want to have tastes that do NOT require any special abilities of distinction or any education. You want to your tastes to be the same as what the woman in Iowa calls “normal people.”

It makes me wonder: what if Bourdieu had been American rather than French?

The Bad News

May 24, 2011
Posted by Jay Livingston

The Socioblog has never been one to shrink away from reporting the facts even when the news is bad. So here is a screen shot of an interactive graphic at the Chronicle. It’s based on Census Bureau data.

(Click on the image for a larger view.
Click on the Chronicle link above to get the full
interactive graph and see the breakdowns in each category.)

Oh, well – at least we didn’t get a BA in counseling psychology.

HT: Arnie Korotkin, whose Little Falls blog is here.

Conservative Grades, Liberal Grades

May 23, 2011
Posted by Jay Livingston

Would conservative students prefer greater inequality in grades? That was the question I asked in a recent post. I was responding to a stunt by the Merced Republicans that asked A-students if they would be willing to give some of their GPA points to lower-GPA students in order to reduce inequality. The Republicans opposed such redistribution, so I wondered just how deep and solid was their preference for inequality. Would they favor a return to the less equal grade distributions of the 1940s, with far fewer As and more Cs and Ds?

My proposal was far more realistic. Students cannot transfer their GPA points, but professors can change their grading scales. And, at least in one study, Republican professors create grade distributions with greater inequality than those of their Democratic colleagues. Here’s a graph from a forthcoming article by Talia Bar and Asaf Zussman.

(Click on the graph for a larger view.)
Students with high SATs get higher grades than do low-SAT students (despite all the criticisms of the SAT, it is still a good predictor of college performance). But those high-SAT students are more likely to get the highest marks in courses taught by Republicans. Students with low SAT scores get better grades from Democrats than they do from Republicans.
Relative to their Democratic colleagues, Republican professors tend to assign more very low and very high grades: the share of the lowest grades (F, D-, D, D+, and C-) out of the total is 6.2 percent in courses taught by Republican professors and only 4.0 percent in courses taught by Democratic professors; the share of the highest grade (A+) out the total is 8.0 percent in courses taught by Republican professors and only 3.5 percent in courses taught by Democratic professors.

The students were undergraduates in the College of Arts and Sciences at “an elite university.” The paper has been mentioned at The Monkey Cage and at a WSJ blog.

Congratulations CHSS grads

May 21, 2011
Posted by Jay Livingston

The College of Humanities and Social Sciences had its convocation Thursday on the football field. The students walked across the platform, shook hands with the president and the dean, then went back to the bleachers.

(MSU photo. Other pictures are here.)

I had nothing to do with the program. I sat on the stage with the other department chairs, and I stood up when the guys from the Dean’s office read the names of graduating Sociology majors. But if it had been up to me, I would have made a large backdrop of this graph showing scores on the CLA, an assessment of how much students learn in college.

(Click on the graph for a larger view.)

The authors of the report* summarize their findings
There is notable variation in academic experiences and outcomes across fields of study. . . .While appreciating the diverse causes of differences by field of study, we observed several patterns in our data:

Students majoring in traditional liberal-arts fields, including social science, humanities, natural science, and mathematics, demonstrated significantly higher gains in critical thinking, complex reasoning, and writing skills over time than students in other fields of study.

Students majoring in business, education, social work, and communications had the lowest measurable gains.
*“Improving Undergraduate Learning: Findings and Policy Recommendations from the SSRC-CLA Longitudinal Project” by Arum, Roksma, and Cho. (Full report downloadable here.)

Oh, Brother

May 19, 2011
Posted by Jay Livingston

Gabriel Rossman at Code and Culture has a nice post – theory by Roger Gould, data by
Cornel West. Gould is talking about status hierarchies and reciprocity. West is talking about feeling snubbed by “my dear brother Barack Obama.”

Everybody, it seems, is West’s brother. “I was under the impression that he [Obama] might bring in the voices of brother Joseph Stiglitz and brother Paul Krugman.” In the interview, recorded by Chris Hedges, West uses the word another ten times.

It reminded me of a story my brother (my real brother, Skip) told me long ago, back when he was an undergrad at U Chicago. Ralph Ellison had given a lecture there, and afterwards Skip asked him if The Brotherhood in Invisible Man was based on a real organization.

“It’s not the Communist Party, if that’s what you mean, Ellison said. He added that the idea of brotherhood had been used throughout history as a cover for a variety of unsavory schemes. “When someone starts calling you brother," Ellison said, "stick your hands in your pockets. And cross your legs.”

Name and Profession - A Positive Correlation

May 19, 2011
Posted by Jay Livingston

I’ve known for a long time that the brains behind Playboy’s marketing strategy, especially in its early decades, was a sociologist – A. C. Spectorsky (in 1955, he coined the term exurb in his book The Exurbanites). Now, thanks to Scott McLemee’s Inside Higher Ed review of a new book about Playboy, I learn that the A.C. stood for Auguste Comte.

Elsewhere in this blog, I’ve been skeptical about the influence of names – the research purporting to show that batters whose names begin with K are more likely to strike out, that students with D-names get lower grades than do A-name students, that women named Laura are more likely to become lawyers and men named Dennis dentists, or that boys named Tennyson are more likely to go to college in Tennessee. (The posts are here and here .)

But now with A.C., I may have to rethink this name thing.

Win Ben Stein's Advocacy

May 18, 2011
Posted by Jay Livingston

In a comment on the previous post, “Anonymous” takes me to task for not writing about Dominique Strauss-Kahn and the hotel maid as members of social categories (“a high-power white man attempting to rape an African immigrant woman”).

Now Ben Stein, in an American Spectator post yesterday, uses reasoning by social category but on behalf of Strauss-Kahn.
In life, events tend to follow patterns. People who commit crimes tend to be criminals, for example. Can anyone tell me any economists who have been convicted of violent sex crimes? Can anyone tell me of any heads of nonprofit international economic entities who have ever been charged and convicted of violent sexual crimes? Is it likely that just by chance this hotel maid found the only one in this category? Maybe Mr. Strauss-Kahn is guilty but if so, he is one of a kind, and criminals are not usually one of a kind.

What do we know about the complainant besides that she is a hotel maid? I am sure she is a fine woman. On the other hand, I have had hotel maids that were complete lunatics, stealing airline tickets from me, stealing money from me, throwing away important papers, stealing medications from me. How do we know that this woman's word was good enough to put Mr. Strauss-Kahn straight into a horrific jail? Putting a man in Riker's is serious business. Maybe more than a few minutes of investigation is merited before it's done.
Drawing conclusions about an individual’s motivations, behavior, honesty, etc., based on these demographic characteristics – there’s a word for that: stereotyping.
  • Powerful white men go around trying to rape powerless women.
  • Very successful economists don’t commit violent crime.
  • Privileged people get away with crimes against powerless victims
  • Chambermaids, out of their own self-interest, can be dishonest.
Simple caricature and plotline. You can take the few facts that have become public and create the comic book you prefer. In fact, we often do convert the world into familiar stories. The trouble is that these stories are not always accurate.

The one thing that Stein says that is not in dispute is that Rikers (like jails generally) is horrific. I wonder whether he has ever before expressed this concern. I don’t know all of Stein’s oeuvre, but maybe others can enlighten me. (Obvious Ben Stein tag line here.)

L'Etat C'est Moi

May 15, 2011
Posted by Jay Livingston

Dominique Strauss-Kahn, the likely Socialist candidate for President of France, was arrested in New York, accused of sexual assault on a chambermaid in his hotel.
Strauss-Kahn no longer electable for many French (Reuters)
Strauss-Kahn Rape-Attempt Charge May End Presidential Prospects (Bloomberg )
Allegations leave presidency bid in tatters (Financial Times)
None of those headlines rests on actual evidence except perhaps a brief in-the-street interview or the estimate of some politician. Maybe DSK’s presidential career is fini, at least for now. But maybe it isn’t. The point is that the people who wrote those headlines and articles don’t really know what the electorate thinks. Like Louis XIV, they are conflating themselves with the nation. (Another post on this bit of journalistic arrogance is here.)

The Monica Lewinsky scandal broke on January 17, 1998.
People Talking about Clinton: 'If He's Lying, It's Over' (AP, Jan. 22)
Clinton's Cooked If It's Fire, Not Just Smoke (Daily News, Jan 22. 1998)
Public's Tolerance Wears Thin (Star-Ledger, Jan. 23)
Some pundits assured us that Clinton’s presidency was all but over. The nation would not tolerate such behavior. Sam Donaldson, a top reporter at ABC news, predicted that Clinton would resign within days. These predictions seemed like a good idea at the time. But Clinton remained in office.

Later, Donaldson said he was “just dumb” to have made that prediction. But in October, he made the same prediction based on his reading of “the American public.” Wrong again.

Are A-student Liberals Hypocrites?

May 13, 2011
Posted by Jay Livingston

On his Overcoming Bias blog, Robin Hanson posted a video of UC Merced College Republicans asking A-students to sign a petition to redistribute GPA points. Students with high GPAs, the top 10%, would give up some fraction of points; those with low GPAs would get those points.

Nobody signs the petition.

As the kid in the video says, the proposal is supposed to be “ kind of like emulating the federal tax structure.” These liberal students favor a progressive income tax to pay for federal programs for the poor, yet they won’t give their own GPA points to those who are poor in GPA. Gotcha.

The students cannot come up with reasons why their positions are not inconsistent. Robin Hanson pronounces them guilty of “Natural Hypocrisy.” Megan McCardle, who slings an even heavier blog than Hanson, smashes the arguments for why GPA redistribution is different from a progressive income tax.

Yes, grades do share certain qualities with income, and students often use the language of money and income when they speak and think about a grade – it’s what you earn by working, and you try to maximize it, sometimes with the least amount of effort (students have to budget their time).

But the analogy is far from perfect. The GPA proposal has only one goal – to reduce grade inequality. But taxes are not primarily intended to be a mechanism of direct redistribution. Taxes are primarily intended to pay for what the government does. Some of those things benefit the poor. Some don’t. (If it weren’t for taxes, those Merced Republicans would be paying double what they are now for their college education.) Over half of the federal budget goes for the military, Social Security, and Medicare – programs whose benefits do not exclude anyone, even the rich. So the question is who should pay how much. Should the rich pay a higher rate?

GPA points, unlike taxes, don’t pay for anything. So students at every GPA level would object to any tax on their GPA, even a flat tax. If you asked the Merced Republicans to sign a petition to lower everyone’s GPA by 10%, you wouldn’t get many signers. Does that mean they oppose a flat tax? Or if they support a flat tax on income but oppose the 10% GPA reduction, are they natural (or unnatural) hypocrites? No, because nobody would benefit from those lost GPA points.

But suppose GPA points actually could buy something useful for the school – improved health services, for example. Would high-GPA students object to paying more of their points while students with fewer GPA points paid less? Would healthy students gripe that their GPA points were going to benefit only the sick and not themselves? I doubt it. Consider the example – a real example, not a hypothetical one or a phony petition – of scholarship programs. These benefit lower-income students while more affluent students pay full fare. Have you ever heard even one full-fare student or parent complain about financial aid going only to lower-income students rather than to a tuition-reduction for themselves? I’ve certainly heard parents and students complain about tuition, but I’ve never heard them complain about financial aid that goes to others. (Of course, I have no idea what college Republicans say among themselves.)

As for reducing GPA inequality, that has already happened thanks to grade inflation. Back in January, I posted (here) a grade sheet from a Harvard class JFK took seventy years ago.** The average grade was C+. In a class of nearly sixty students, nobody got an A, two students got A-. How do conservative students feel about this narrowing of inequality, this inflation that cheapens the value of an A?

How about another petition? Let’s take our camcorder to a campus with mostly conservative and libertarian students and ask them to sign a petition calling for grade deflation. Here’s our pitch: “Right now, the real distribution of grades runs from A to B, maybe B-. We want professors to use the full grading range, A down to F. The student who’s now getting B- would get a D or D+, a C- would probably be an F, those getting a B would get a C or C-. A’s would be really, really hard to get. This will make students work harder and learn more, which is what college is all about. Here’s the petition; here’s a pen.”

Will the UC Merced Republicans sign?

* There are rich people who feel that taxes should be more progressive – very rich people, like Warren Buffet.
** “Where’d you get a grade sheet from 1940?” a friend asked. I said that the professor was a little late turning in his grades. My friend, who had also served as department chair at her school, thought that was a pretty good joke.

Hondling With the Bureaucracy – Again

May 11, 2011
Posted by Jay Livingston

I’ve learned my lesson. When the bureaucracy offers you a deal, don’t push your luck.

Two years ago, when I challenged a ticket, the Parking Violations Bureau offered me a deal – one-third off. This seemed violate basic sociological ideas – the quintessential government bureaucracy was offering to be flexible about what I would pay – I blogged it (here).* I also continued to maintain my innocence, hoping for a better deal. Silly me. I wound up paying the full $65.

A few weeks ago, I came down to the car on Monday morning to find no license plate on the rear of the car and a ticket on the windshield for failure to have a license plate. Sixty-five bucks. I pled not guilty on the grounds that hey, I’m the victim here, not the offender. Back came the offer – $43. The letter didn’t say, “Final Offer.” But I knew. I paid.

I had learned one lesson. But my trip to the local precinct had two other reminders about public bureaucracies. First, it brought to mind a sentence that I wrote in my crim textbook decades ago. I began the chapter on courts with a brief description of what I saw when I spent a day hanging around at the criminal court. “What you see in the criminal court is what you see at the public hospital or the welfare department: poor people waiting.” At the precinct house for my neighborhood (median household income $78,000) , the income in the room may have been slightly higher, but the atmosphere was similar.

Second, what goes in the file is more important than what really happened. The desk sergeant told me that they would have to classify the license plate as “lost” rather than “stolen.” “Y’know, sometimes if someone hits your bumper a few times squeezing into a parking space, the plate can fall off. “ The two screws that had held the plate in place for several years of New York street parking had been removed – a fact I pointed out to no avail. “If both plates are gone, it’s a theft. Only one, it’s lost.”

Could this classification have had anything to do with a concern for the precinct’s larceny statistics?

* Two months later, the Times ran a story on this policy which, unbeknownst to me and most New Yorkers, had been in place since 2005.

Rupert Murdoch’s Not-As-Safe-As-You-Think House

May 6, 2011
Posted by Jay Livingston

In December, the Wall Street Journal (here) called for death to leakers of government documents, specifically WikiLeaks sources and Julian Assange.
One alternative would be for Congress and the Administration to collaborate on writing a new statute aimed more precisely at provocateurs like Mr. Assange. At a minimum, the Administration should throw the book at those who do the leaking, including the option of the death penalty. That would probably give second thoughts to the casual spy or to leakers who fancy themselves as idealists.
Five months later, the WSJ announced its own version of WikiLeaks called SafeHouse. It sounded pretty good to me. It would do for (or to) capitalists what WikiLeaks did to governments.
Documents and databases: They're key to modern journalism. But they're almost always hidden behind locked doors, especially when they detail wrongdoing such as fraud, abuse, pollution, insider trading, and other harms. That's why we need your help.

If you have newsworthy contracts, correspondence, emails, financial records or databases from companies, government agencies or non-profits, you can send them to us using the SafeHouse service.
Business Insider dashed onto the field to lead the cheers, comparing the WSJ most favorably to WikiLeaks.
[An informant] can simply and easily submit his documents to an organization with a reputation for journalistic excellence. The choice between the erratic Julian Assange and WSJ is not a tough one at all.
Or is it?

A colleague directed me and my naive optimism to Gawker, which read the fine print in the SafeHouse prospectus and found “a doozy of a caveat in its Terms of Use:”
Except when we have a separately negotiated confidentiality agreement… we reserve the right to disclose any information about you to law enforcement authorities or to a requesting third party, without notice, in order to comply with any applicable laws and/or requests under legal process, to operate our systems properly, to protect the property or rights of Dow Jones or any affiliated companies, and to safeguard the interests of others.[emphasis added]
There’s probably a sociological point here – something about technology and information and institutions. Or maybe just something about my own (temporary, I hope) credulity. As our great orator (and apparently great Who fan) said, “There's an old saying in Tennessee — I know it's in Texas, probably in Tennessee — that says, fool me once, shame on — [pause] — shame on you. Fool me — [pause] — You can't get fooled again.”

Serious Sociology in Syria

May 5, 2011
Posted by Jay Livingston

UPDATE, June 21: The Gay Girl in Damascus turns out to be a straight man in Scotland – one Tom MacMaster, age 40, married, American, living in Edinburgh. I’m not sure how that information affects the more general ideas in the post below. After all, I am certainly not the first sociologist to use a piece of fiction to illustrate sociological principles. Most of the others have done so knowing that their source material was fiction. (Gawker story is here.)

Two thugs from Syria’s security services knock on the door in the middle of the night. They have come for Amina, who blogs as A Gay Girl in Damascus. The goons in their leather jackets are like bullies everywhere – in the name of patriotism or some noble idea, they brutalize the weak.

Amina’s father goes to the door, and by the time she has thrown on some clothes and come to the door, her father is talking with the thugs. Her blog post describing the encounter offers a wealth of topics – Syrian political and religious conflict, fathers and daughters, and more. But what struck me was that the encounter is a good example of values in use.

In the unit on culture, I try to get across the idea of values as legitimations. I give the standard definition of values as shared ideas about what is right or good. So if you want to discover a culture’s values, you can look at what people do (people using values as guides to action). The trouble is that people do a lot of things that seem to ignore or contradict cultural values.

But if you think of values as legitimations, you listen to what people say about what they do, for when people need justify what they’ve done, they have to invoke assumptions about what is right and good, assumptions that anyone else in the culture would share (people using values to win arguments).

Amina describes the entire conversation, and we can see her father using values and ideas that sound quite familiar to us. Rationality and self-interest to be sure (your Assad won’t live forever, and you’ll need all the friends you can get). And logic (how could she be in league with the sectarian plotters when she rejects their sectarianism, their sex codes, their dress codes).

But his argument also plays on a theme that to my American ears has a distinct foreign accent. He invokes particularistic knowledge, ascribed status (family), and tradition.
“What are your names?”
They tell him. He nods
“Your father,” he says to the one who threatened to rape me, “does he know this is how you act? He was an officer, yes? And he served in ...” (he mentions exactly and then turns to the other) “and your mother? Wasn't she the daughter of ...?”

They are both wide-eyed, yes, that is right,

“What would they think if they heard how you act? And my daughter? Let me tell you this about her; she has done many things that, if I had been her, I would not have done. But she has never once stopped being my daughter and I will never once let you do any harm to her. You will not take her from here. And, if you try, know that generations of her ancestors are looking down on you. Do you know what is our family name? You do? Then you know where we stood when Muhammad, peace be upon him, went to Medina, you know who it was who liberated al Quds, you know too, maybe, that my father fought to save this country from the foreigners and who he was, know who my uncles and my brothers were ... and if that doesn't shame you enough, you know my cousins and you will leave here. . . . .

And time froze when he stopped speaking. Now, they would either smack him down and beat him, rape me, and take us both away ... or ...
Read the entire post (here). I’m surprised it hasn’t gotten more attention.

”A Man Sees What He Wants to See . . .

May 2, 2011
Posted by Jay Livingston

. . . and disregards the rest. “ (Paul Simon)

If you believe that government welfare programs are the road to serfdom, then whenever you see them, you look down that lonely road and see (what else?) serfdom, regardless of what’s really there.

Brad DeLong unearthed an interview that Friedrich Hayek did with Reason magazine in 1977.
Reason: If big government is really the culprit, why do Sweden and many Scandinavian welfare states seem to be prospering? . . . Sweden is reasonably successful.

Hayek: Yes. But there is perhaps more social discontent in Sweden than in almost any other country I have been. The standard feeling that life is really not worth living is very strong in Sweden. Although they can hardly conceive of things being different than what they're used to, I think the doubt about their past doctrines is quite strong.

This seems to be a case of ideology guiding perception. I guess Stockholm’s a lonely town when you’re the only serf (er, boy) around. Or maybe he’d just seen a lot of Bergman movies.

To Parse a Purse (and a Person)

May 2, 2011
Posted by Jay Livingston

In French, a “sac” is a bag. The phrase “vider son sac” – literally, to empty ones bag – is roughly equivalent to the now ancient “to let it all hang out” or “to tell all” but with the added connotation of confession and catharsis.

“Sac” also serves as a shorter version of “sac à main” just as in English, women’s handbags become merely “bags.” For women, the literal and figurative meanings of “vider son sac” may be indistinguishable. The handbag and its contents are a representation of the self. At least, that’s part of the message of French sociologist Jean-Claude Kaufmann, last seen in this Socioblog for his study of bare breasts on the beach. He has, of late, turned his gaze to women’s handbags inside and out, and published Le Sac: Un Petit Monde d’Amour.

There’s a bit of the showman about Kaufmann. He passes off pedestrian observations as profundities or sociological analysis. For Elle magazine (several French women’s mags reported on Kaufmann’s book), he even does a cold reading, assessing the personality of two women by parsing their handbags (video here).

Then by coincidence, same idea, same time, same place. Photographer/videographer Pierre Klein (son of photographer William Klein) was talking with a woman friend when she accidentally upended her handbag, spilling its contents. As she picked up the various objects, he asked, and she told. In the few minutes it took for her to restock her handbag, he had learned more about her than he had in the previous months of their acquaintanceship. “Each object was linked to some anxiety or fear, with a story of its own. Once the contents were spread out on the counter, I saw the makings of a photo.”

Make photos he did. It became a gallery exhibition – “Elles vident leur sac.” Fifty women, fifty handbags, fifty photos. (That’s Klein in the picture below, reviewing his photos before they went up on the walls.)

(Click on an image for a larger view.)

When he asked women to empty their bags for a shoot, he also interviewed them, and they spoke freely about the things in their handbags and about themselves. And in keeping with the confession/catharsis theme, they all said that they liked the experience. (In this video, push the slider to 3:50 – “Debriefing.” Even if you don’t speak French, you’ll get the idea. If you do have any French – and my French isn’t all that good – watch the whole thing.)

Here are five of the photos. The pictures stand by themselves, sans interview, though you can see brief clips of five of the sac-videuses in the previous video link).

(Click on an image for a larger view.)

The objects themselves are not particularly intimate or revealing, and the women did not feel that Klein was intruding on their privacy. Instead, as Klein says, it is in talking about the the things in their purses that they vident leur sac. It suggests a new strategy for sociological interviews: start with tangible objects.

(A Guardian article about the exhibit is here).