September 18, 2019
Posted by Jay Livingston

This blog is turning thirteen this month. It was originally supposed to be a group blog. That didn’t quite work out.

At our first department meeting in September 2006, we were thinking of ways to get more majors and to keep the ones we had. “How about a department blog?” I said. “We can post about things we see in our everyday lives but that we can relate to sociological ideas. That way, students will see that we’re just people with ordinary lives, and maybe they’ll see how sociological ideas can be useful.”

Everyone thought this was a good idea. So I set up the blog with posting privileges for all department members. After eleven or twelve years, I began to notice that with maybe three or four exceptions, all the posts were by me. So I changed the settings to make it my blog, though I kept the Montclair name just for the sake of continuity. I didn’t even change the name now that my connection to Montclair has become the thin thread of emeritus status.
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In the past year, the post that has gotten the most attention is one from the previous year — the one about language anachronisms in “The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel” (here).In his Times review the show last December, James Poniewozik mentioned these anachronisms in passing but with a link to my post. That brought a slew of visits, and the hits just keep on coming. A week or so ago, the page views for that post passed the 12,000 mark, an extraordinary number for this blog.

Besides that, here are some posts from the past year that I thought were worth revisiting.

1. Two posts about “Nostalgia and the Myth of Social Decline” (here and here) got me twenty minutes of air time on the Sociology Annex Podcast. That was fun, though in retrospect I quickly realized that I could have stated my ideas much more clearly.

2. Along similar lines, “The Past Is Never Uncertain” looks at the idea of that things today are more “uncertain” than things in the past. But the past is more certain only because now we know what happened.

3. People had different reactions to Brett Kavanagh at his confirmation hearings. But all of these reactions, for and against, seemed to share the same assumptions about “character” and about what a person is. This post (“A Different Person” ) tries to show the limitations of those assumptions.

4.  Aside from Mrs. Maisel, the post that got more views than any other in the past year was “Suicide and Well-Being. SOC 101, Week 1”). Were Soc 101 instructors assigning it?

It used current data but the same Durkheimian idea (and one of the same jokes) I’ve been using since I started teaching this stuff. The main point: rates are a property a group or society, not of individuals. Variables that explain individual cases (happiness, well-being) don’t seem to work so well at explaining rates.

Do the Poor Suffer From Elite Ideas?

September 14, 2019
Posted by Jay Livingston

People in the lower class and working class are more likely do things that violate middle-class standards. They drop out of school, have children out of wedlock, take drugs, don’t have a job, and commit crimes all at higher rates than their middle-class counterparts. Traditional conservative explanations for these shortcomings focus on the individual. These people fail to live middle-class lives because they lack virtue.

In modern times, conservatives have pinned that lack of virtue on the policies of liberals —  policies like not punishing criminals severely enough, not punishing idleness, giving poor unwed mothers assistance for themselves and their children, and other programs that encourage the irresponsibility of the undeserving poor. 

Starting a half-century ago or so ago, conservatives began to indict liberals not just for their social policies but for their ideas about things like happiness and freedom. James Q. Wilson, for example, attributed the 1960s increase in crime in part to the ideology of self-expression and “do your own thing.” “This attitude of radical self-indulgence, had affected a significant fraction of the population, and this weakened the ordinary social constraints that were operating on people.”

Of course, the people who were tuning in to these messages of self-indulgence (or as they might have styled it “self-actualization”) were largely young, White, and middle-class. Wilson never traced the paths of this diffusion of ideas. He just left us to assume that muggers, rioters, and welfare mothers in the cities had come together with the Whiter, less urban Woodstock generation, and they were all listening to Tim Leary, reading Fritz Perls or Abe Maslow, and putting those ideas into practice, even if those practices looked, on the surface, very different.       

A recent version of this theory — that the poor and uneducated have absorbed the ideas of affluent liberals and are worse off because of that — comes to us from Rob Henderson (here) in his catch-phrase “luxury beliefs” —  “ideas and opinions that confer status on the rich at very little cost, while taking a toll on the lower class.” He even claims that these beliefs explain the increase in economic inequaity. “These beliefs . . . produce real, tangible consequences for disadvantaged people, further widening the divide.”

Take, for example, ideas about the causes of success.

Then there’s the luxury belief that individual decisions don’t matter much compared to random social forces, including luck. This belief is more common among many of my peers at Yale and Cambridge than the kids I grew up with in foster care or the women and men I served with in the military. The key message is that the outcomes of your life are beyond your control. This idea works to the benefit of the upper class and harms ordinary people.[emphasis added]

As I said in a previous post, most of Henderson’s assertions are hard to test against actual data. But for the last 45 years, the GSS has in fact asked people about the importance of luck.
GETAHEAD: Some people say that people get ahead by their own hard work; others say that lucky breaks or help from other people are more important. Which do you think is most important?

I have broken the sample down into three educational categories: those who finished college, those who never finished high school, and those in between (a high school degree and possibly some college).  If Henderson is right, we should see a steady upward trend in the percent who say that Luck is important. The trend should begin among the most educated. If their ideas are filtering down through the class system, the less educated should also be trending upward but with a lag time of a few years.

(Click for a larger view.)

Henderson does not specify the time period for the trends he’s talking about, but if he’s thinking about very recent history, the graph offers some support. Among those with a college degree, the percent citing Luck rose in the two most recent iterations of the GSS — from about 8% in 2012 to 17% in 2018. Is that a trend? I don’t know. Prior to 2016, the percent fluctuates in no discernible pattern.

More relevant for Henderson’s claims, the fashion in Luck among the educated has no apparent effect on those with less education.  Since the mid-80s, among those who never finished high school, the belief that success depends mostly on luck does not follow the fluctuations of the college educated; instead it trends slightly downward.

 It does not look as though the less educated are adopting the ideas of those who finished college. More tellingly, the GSS data also raises the question of whether beliefs about luck affect behavior. Henderson says that the well educated (“my peers at Yale and Cambridge”) are more likely to believe in the importance of luck and “random social forces.” Yet they behave in a contradictory way. They work hard. Henderson also seems to be implying that the less educated do not work so hard. That’s why they’re poor. Unlike the Yalies, they are acting on their belief about luck and winding up worse off for it.

But what the graph shows is that these ideas have not changed much.  If anything, the dropouts believe in luck less now than in the past. And yet, their incomes have left them farther and farther from the well-educated. Maybe economic inequality has less to do with virtuous ideas and more to do with the economy.

Stand-up — the Pro Advantage

September 4, 2019
Posted by Jay Livingston

I went to the early show (7:00 p.m.) at the Gotham Comedy Club last night — a line-up of unknown, hopeful comics, most of them with day jobs. To get on the bill, they had to guarantee six friends or relatives in the audience paying the cover and two-drink minimum. One of the comics knew my wife, and so we went.

The MC was a pro, and she warmed up the audience. She really did ask people in the audience where they were from, and had some ready-made lines for Connecticut and New Jersey. Then it was one comic after another, each doing their solid six, some good, some merely OK. The first half dozen performers took us to about 8 p.m. That’s when the MC announced a special guest. Jim Gaffigan.

He did 25-30 minutes. He killed.

Then the MC asked us to welcome a newcomer, someone not too sure of himself, someone who needed our support, etc. Nobody bought that ruse — she didn’t really try to sell it. We just didn’t know who the “newcomer” would be.

(It’s Jerry Seinfeld. Apologies for the lousy photo. I wasn’t even sure that we were allowed to take pictures, so I was in a hurry.)

Seinfeld too did 25-30 minutes, and he too got big laughs with every joke, even the ones I didn’t think were so great. Some of the other comics had lines that didn’t work, and I’ve noticed that comedians now, when a joke doesn’t land, will often comment immediately about either the joke or the audience or both (“I don’t know. It worked in Jersey”). Seinfeld and Gaffigan didn’t have that problem, and I was reminded of something I wrote ten years ago (here) after I’d seen the Judd Apatow movie “Funny People.” George (Adam Sandler) is a top comedian. Ira (Seth Rogen) is an unseasoned hopeful who George hires as an assistant.

It makes you appreciate how difficult stand-up is, with its strange relationship between performer and audience. The key to success is not to tell a funny joke but to capture the audience. The same jokes that seem lame when done by an unseasoned, aspiring performer (Rogen) become good material in the hands of a pro like George, partly because of his ability, his craft, but also because the audience is already on his side.

Last night played out the same story but with real people, and it illustrates the importance of expectations and impressions. (No, not that kind of impression, though one of the comics last night did do a very good Obama.) The comedian coming onto the stage has two related tasks. First, they have to be funny and to get the audience to form the impression of them as a funny person. But they also have to get the audience to like them and to feel comfortable with them.* A Seinfeld or a Gaffigan doesn’t face that challenge. The audience already knows them, likes them, and thinks they’re funny. Even a weak joke won’t damage that impression or definition.

A comedian that the audience doesn’t know has to create that impression and do so quickly. Even then, the joke that falls flat can undo that work. It sends the relationship back to the beginning, with the audience wondering: Is this person funny, and do I like them?


[For some excellent sociology of stand-up, see the recent work of Pat Reilly. Or listen to him here on the Soc Annex podcast.]

* Andy Kaufman was a notable exception. He sometimes seemed to be deliberately trying to make the audience feel uncomfortable and uncertain about him. See this earlier post.

Fox Sports, Fox News, and Toxic Masculinity

August 26, 2019
Posted by Jay Livingston

Doug Gottlieb, who talks about sports on Fox, had this to say about Andrew Luck’s decision to retire from the NFL.

(Click for a better view.)

In his announcement, Luck said,

For the last four years or so, I've been in this cycle of injury, pain, rehab, injury, pain, rehab, and it's be unceasing, unrelenting, both in-season and offseason, and I felt stuck in it. The only way I see out is to no longer play football. . . . After 2016, when I played in pain and was unable to regularly practice, I made a vow to myself that I would not go down that path again.

The injuries requiring rehab included
  • Torn cartilage in two ribs
  • A partially torn abdomen
  • A lacerated kidney
  • A torn labrum.
  • A calf injury, which extended to a high ankle sprain.

Gottlieb’s tweet was not about Trump or Democrats or politics, yet it seemed so Fox-like. It too me a moment or two to see the common intertwined threads, but there they were: toxic masculinity and antipathy towards young people.

I rarely use the phrase toxic masculinity rather than machismo because so often the toxicity, the damage, is indirect and intangible. But here Gottlieb’s waving the flag of masculinity is clearly a demand that Luck do even further damage to his body. That’s typical, for in many cases the masculinity being called for is toxic to someone else, not the one waving the flag. In this post  ten years ago, I noted that commentators who wanted the US to continue to torture Afghanis, Iraqis, and other non-Americans framed it in terms of masculinity. To ban torture was to “emasculate” the CIA.

As for the millennials, what nettles Gottlieb and many others on the right is the refusal of young people to get sucked into the masculinity game. What must be especially infuriating to him and other masculinists is the indifference of many young men to the old machismo-based insults — “weak,” “soft,” “pussy,” etc. That response, or lack of response, calls that whole game into question, and often the anger of older people towards kids seems to be an effort to deny that maybe these younger people have a point. Maybe there’s something to be said for a less rigid and brittle masculinity, one where, instead of doing the hard work of rehab so that you can keep injuring yourself, you respond to the messages your body is giving you.

It’s not just Gottlieb. News of Luck’s retirement broke during a Colts exhibition game. Word spread quickly through the stadium, and the fans booed.

Like other elements of the “culture war,” the Gottlieb reaction to millennials (or what he imagines them to be) is nothing new. In 1970, Philip Slater in The Pursuit of Loneliness wrote of

a vague resentment towards youth — a resentment with roots in the parents’ discontent with their own lives. It’s a condition ideally suited to produce anger toward young people who live differently and more pleasurably than did the parental generation.

The old-culture is saying, “I worked hard at an unrewarding job, I gave up pleasure and fulfillment. Now you should do the same.”

In that light, it’s especially noteworthy that Luck was supported in his decision by nearly all NFL players who made public statements. They where highly critical of the booing fans and of Gottlieb. Troy Aikman, a former NFL quarterback who also now works for Fox, called Gottlieb’s tweet “total bullshit.” Here is a more thoughtful response from All-Pro cornerback Richard Sherman, now in his ninth season, who missed most of last season with a torn Achilles tendon.

See also the comments on Gottleib’s tweet (here ) — much criticism, little support, and a couple that stooped so low as to mention Gottlieb’s credit card theft of some years back.

Addendum, Aug. 29: A day after I posted this, the New York Times ran a piece (here )by Michael Serazio, “Why Andrew Luck’s Retirement Was So Shocking.” Serazio refers t the “collective gasp . . . from the sports world” at Luck’s announcement.

My impression was that most people in the sports world, especially players, understood Luck’s decision. Serazio has a different impression, though he cites only one NFL player who criticized Luck — former quarterback Steve Beuerlein, who wrote that Luck “owes it to his team” to keep playing.

Either way, Serazio is pointing out the same basic problem with “hegemonic masculinity” — it’s toxic. “Our shock at a player’s willingness to opt for self-preservation over inevitable bodily immolation shows how deeply rooted that toxic masculinity remains.”