Summers School

November 29, 2008
Posted by Jay Livingston

I don’t know Larry Summers (though my father was a very good friend of his uncle), but I always sensed he was the kind of guy I wouldn’t like even when I agreed with him. And that was before I read this:

Over lunch not long after Summers took over the presidency in 2001, Ellison said, Summers suggested that some funds should be moved from a sociology program to the Kennedy School, home to many economists and political scientists. “President Summers asked me, didn’t I agree that, in general, economists are smarter than political scientists, and political scientists are smarter than sociologists?” Ellison said. “To which I laughed nervously and didn't reply.”

A major critique of Summers by faculty has been that he plays favorites with subject areas.

It’s from a Boston Globe piece in 2006, when Summers, as president of Harvard, was busy alienating much of the faculty.

Hat tip to Henry at The Monkey Cage, who is, I suppose, smarter than the average sociologist Boo Boo.

Vegans to the Moon

November 26, 2008
Posted by Jay Livingston

One of those strange coincidences. For some reason, Monday morning I was sitting in my office thinking about Jackie Gleason in the Honeymooners, his Ralph Kramden character stomping about the kitchen in anger and frustration. “One of these days, Alice, one of these days . . . . POW. Right in the kisser.” Or he would threaten to hit her so hard, she would go “to the moon.” These were regular laugh-getters.

Here's a collection of these threats; the first “pow” comes at 6:55 into the clip.

We knew he didn’t mean it. So did Alice, who would respond – unfazed, arms akimbo, scornful – “Sure, Ralph.” (It was the fifties. “Yeah, right” didn’t yet exist.)

Even so, you couldn’t use that “joke” today, I thought. ’Taint funny, McGee.

The coincidence is that the next day, bellelettre at Scatterplot posted a link to a blogpost by a law professor, Michael Dorf Neil Buchanan*, who asks, “How quickly can norms change?” Here’s his first example of norms that have changed:
I recently watched a rerun of the 60's sitcom "The Dick Van Dyke Show." The story revolved around a woman who was drawn to a man because he was a mean drunk, bringing out her "maternal" side. The final line of the episode had one character saying to another: "You know what we should do? Go home and hit our wives." Raucous laughter, upbeat theme music, roll credits. It goes without saying that this is shocking to us today.
Dorf’s Buchanan's other examples, besides domestic violence, are smoking, the environment, and alcohol use / drunk driving. But what’s interesting is that in Dorf Buchananf’s version, these attitudes change seemingly by themselves. People just change their minds. Here’s his take on smoking:
The driving force in this social change seems to have been more a matter of deciding who had the right to force other people to do what they wanted. This may have been caused by concerns about suffering, but from my perspective it seemed to be more about attitudes toward public cleanliness. Smoking came to be seen as ugly, not dangerous (which people had known even before the surgeon general's report in the 60's).

Dorf Buchanan presents change as a strangely passive phenomenon. There’s no human action/agency involved. Smoking “came to be seen as.” You can’t do “to the moon” jokes anymore “because of a rapid and widespread public acceptance of a new norm.”

Dorf Buchanan, who is now a vegan, wants attitudes on veganism to change, and he frames the issue as a matter of the awareness of harm. Attitudes on smoking, domestic violence, and the rest changed because of a similar awareness of harm.

But how do people become aware? I guess law professors don’t know about “moral entrepreneurs.” Anti-smoking groups, MADD, NOW, etc. If veganism becomes more accepted, it will have more to do with the actions of PETA and other groups than with the outcome of Talmudic debates about the certainty of suffering.

*SocProf at Global Sociology pointed out that I incorrectly attributed the post to Dorf when in fact it was written by Buchanan posting on Dorf's blog.

Mirror, Mirror

November 24, 2008
Posted by Jay Livingston

I’m skipping the “Self and Socialization” unit this semester. The real reason is that time thieves have been at work, and the term is about two weeks too short this year. But beyond that, I’ve lost my faith. I realize how wrong I’ve been about some basic ideas. Taking the role of other, seeing ourselves as other see us, the looking-glass self – what a crock. In fact, people don’t see themselves as others see them, and I’m not just talking about people who are clearly delusional.

A few months ago, I was interviewed for a TV show – a show you’ve never heard of for a network you’ve never heard of, unless you’ve heard of Ebru TV. Weeks later, they sent me a DVD of the show. It was painful to watch myself. Not because I said things that were wrong (though there was some of that too), but because the person in that real video looked and sounded so different from the person in the imaginary video of myself that I carry around in my head.

A looking-glass self? Maybe, but that looking-glass is flat and flattering. That’s why it’s so distressing to look in those triptych mirrors in the fitting rooms. Or to watch yourself on TV. Who was this stiff-looking guy with the ungraceful walk and a much higher forehead than I remember, this guy who looked like my brother (what’s Jack doing in this video?) and not at all like Gregory Peck?

I didn’t sound like Gregory Peck either. I knew that already, but even so, I certainly didn’t hear myself as others hear me. It wasn’t just my voice, which sounds so much more resonant from inside my head than from outside. It was all those verbal tics – “y’know” and “I mean.” I had no idea how often and how unwittingly I utter them.

Maybe the proper question is not how socialization works. The interesting questions are about the discrepancy between the image we have of ourselves and the image others have of us. Why do we so seldom become aware of the discrepancy? And given this discrepancy, how do we manage to sustain social life?

Taylorism – Ann Taylorism

November 20, 2008
Posted by Jay Livingston

I had thought that Taylorism was a quaint bit of early twentieth century history. You remember Frederick Taylor, the father of “scientific management,” the guy who reduced each job to its smallest component motions, timing out exactly the one best way a worker could do each step.

Taylor wrote The Principles of Scientific Management in 1911. As early as the 1950s, those principles were already the subject of some disdain. In the 1954 musical The Pajama Game, the principle comic role is Hinesy, the “time study man,” who sings “Think of the Time I Save.”

Taylorism might have been appropriate for work in factories, even pajama factories. From working with a machine, it’s only a small step to working like a machine. But in the service sector, workers deal with actual human beings (customers), so it makes little sense to try to impose the dehumanizing style of Taylorism.

Or so I thought. Earlier this season, the Wall Street Journal reported on another Taylor – Ann – which had installed the Ann Taylor Labor Allocation System, ATLAS.
Ann Taylor spent a year studying labor efficiencies. It established standards for how long it should take for employees to complete certain tasks: three seconds to greet a shopper; two minutes to help someone trying on clothing; 32 seconds to fold a sweater; and most importantly, five minutes to clinch a sale.
The computerized system clocks sales per hour for each employee so that managers can cut back on the hours of less “productive” employees. “Each Wednesday, the new system generates the following week’s schedules, broken into 15-minute increments for maximum efficiency.” Some employees wound up with only a three-hour shift, a ten-hour week.

The consequences were predictable. Labor costs went down, employee dissatisfaction went up. Some workers quit, but that was before the current economic debacle. Strange, but for some reason the workers didn’t like their every minute being measured for efficiency. As John Gibbons, a sort of twenty-first century Taylor, says. “There’s been a natural resistance to thinking about human beings as pieces in a puzzle rather than individuals,” but he adds that when it comes to “clear methods of measurement [i.e. Taylorism], it’s a natural transition to apply it to human resources as well.” Natural somehow isn’t the word I would have chosen for this transition.

It’s not that Ann Taylor wasn’t thinking about employee reactions. That’s why they gave the system that cute name ATLAS. It “was important because it gave a personality to the system, so [employees] hate the system and not us.”

Ann isn’t alone. This week, the Journal reported on similar applications of Taylorism in retail – operating the cash register, folding clothes, making sales.

(Click on the chart to see a larger version.)

So the next time you’re shopping at Ann Taylor, the Gap, Wal-Mart, or any other retail chain store, remember, as Hinesy in The Pajama Game says, seconds are ticking, girls, seconds are ticking.