Calling All Sociologists

November 29, 2006
Posted by Jay Livingston

Anthony Giddens is a prolific British sociologist (you might have come across him in your sociological theory course). On Sunday, the Guardian, a leftish British newspaper, published a “call to arms” by Giddens. (It’s interesting in itself that a major newspaper would publish a 1000-word piece about sociology. I wonder if any of the major US papers would do so.) Sociology is the challenger in this bout. The champion is “market fundamentalism,” which has worn the crown for the last quarter-century.

Giddens begins by calling out the troops.
All you sociologists out there! All you ex-students of sociology! All of you (if there are such people) who are simply interested in sociology and its future!

He sets up the challenge.
Why isn't sociology again right at the forefront of intellectual life and public debate? In universities, sociology used to be much more popular than psychology; today it is the other way around. [Giddens has some answers to his own question.]

And he predicts a victory.
The world is moving in a propitious way for a recovery of the sociological imagination. Market fundamentalism is disappearing from the scene.

The entire article (it's not that long) is worth a look. An economics blog has the article and much response from readers.

Durkheim at the Parade

November 22, 2006
Posted by Jay Livingston
Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade will have a new “balloonicle” (described in press-releases as “a balloon and self-powered vehicle”) — the Energizer Bunny.
Durkheim, author of The Elementary Forms of Religious Life, would love it. To understand why, look at this excerpt from a British observer, Jonathan Raban, who watched the parade twenty years ago from a window on Central Park West. The parade was . . .
. . the secular, American descendant of the European Catholic Easter procession in which all the icons and saints’ bones are removed from the churches and carried ceremonially around the town. The baseball hero, the gaseous, rubbery Mickey Mouse, the Mayflower pilgrims were the totems and treasure relics of a culture, as the New Orleans jazz and Sousa marches were its solemn music.

Had a serious-minded Martian been standing at the window, he would have learned a good deal by studying the parade’s idyllic version of American history. [guns, refugees, rebels]. . . The i
maginative life of children was honored to a degree unknown on Mars— which was, perhaps, why matters of fact and matters of fiction were so confusingly jumbled up here, with Santa Claus and George Washington and Superman and Abraham Lincoln all stirred into the same pot.

He would be struck by the extraordinarily mythopoeic character of life in this strange country. People made myths and lived by them with an ease and fertility that would have been the envy of any tribe of Pacific islanders. Sometimes there were big myths that took possession of the whole society, sometimes little ones, casually manufactured, then trusted absolutely.
from Jonathan Raban, Hunting Mr. Heartbreak: a Discovery of America, 1998.

In my class, when we read about religion, Durkheim mostly, I have students write a paper about a secular ritual. One goal of the assignment is to get them to see that from a functional perspective, a ritual is a way to generate and distribute the energy for binding the members of a society together, and it doesn’t matter whether the ritual is officially secular or religious. In fact, if you're a complete stranger to the culture, you probably couldn’t tell the difference.

No student has ever chosen the Macy’s parade. I wonder why not. Raban, who is from England, not Mars, senses the religious aura of the parade with its many gods. Had there been a Macy’s in ancient Greece, the parade would no doubt have had balloon representations of Demeter (god of the harvest), Poseidon (god of the sea— or would he have a float?), Aphrodite (god of beauty), Hermes (god of silk scarves), and of course in the US, Hebe (goddess of youth). And all the rest. We’re not Athenians. Instead, we throng the streets for icons like Snoopy and Spiderman, Pikachu, Bullwinkle, and Spongebob, but the idea is the same. They are our totems, our gods.

I imagine Durkheim on Central Park West, watching the children and grown-ups that have come together here to look up to these huge embodiments of our cultural ideals. Durkheim feels a frisson, a shiver of recognition. He sees the newest addition coming along. The Energizer Bunny. What better way to symbolize the idea about the binding power of ritual social energy?

Durkheim smiles.

Cool Tool

November 21, 2006

Posted by Jay Livingston

Google Trends has information about the number of Google searches by time and place. If you go to and enter "turkey," you'll see a graph that looks like this (I've limited it to the US).

Not too surprising. The second line, below the search line, is the trend line for news stories mentioning the word. Of course, you can't be sure whether the newswriters and googlers were curious about recipes or about vacations in Istanbul.

I plugged in "Durkheim" and got this.

Not much interest in Durkheim during the summer. But comes the new semester, I guess I'm not the only one starting with social facts and suicide. Interesting that the sharp differences of 2004 and 2005 aren't repeated in 2006. Could it mean that sociology enrollments are down? Or that more students took sociology in the summer?
(Or it could be an artifact of sampling. Google does not use the total of all searches but selects a sample, though they won't tell you how they arrive at that sample.)

The results also show the top cities in the search— those with the highest percentage of searches for your keyword relative to the total of all searches from that city. Cambridge, MA came in first for Durkheim. But the city with the highest percentage of searches on "sociology" is Piscataway. Somebody help me out here. What's up with Piscataway and sociology?


Top cities (normalized)

1. Piscataway, NJ, USA

2. Madison, WI, USA

3. Cambridge, MA, USA

4. Columbus, OH, USA

5. Baltimore, MD, USA

6. Honolulu, HI, USA

7. Raleigh, NC, USA

8. Philadelphia, PA, USA

9. New York, NY, USA

10. Los Angeles, CA, USA

Borat, Milgram, Goffman

November 18, 2006
Posted by Jay Livingston
I showed the Milgram film in class last week—the film Stanley Milgram made of his famous experiments on “obedience to authority.” In the experiment, subjects are asked to deliver very painful and even apparently fatal shocks to a person in another room. When we discussed the ethics of the experiment, I drew an analogy to the Borat film, especially the amount of deception.

Both Borat (i.e., Sacha Baron Cohen in character) and Milgram lie about who the people involved really are and about what’s really happening. Borat is not really a Eurasian journalist making a documentary; in Milgram’s experiment, the “learner” supposedly receiving the shocks is not really a volunteer, and the experiment isn’t about learning. Both Borat and Milgram lie to their subjects about the true purpose of the project. It is not about the things taking place around the subject (a dinner party, a comedy coaching session, or a learning experiment); what it’s really about, and what the camera is zooming in on, is the reactions of the subjects themselves.

The two projects are similar not just in their ethically questionable methods but in their results. What both movies show is the power of social norms, the unwritten rules of everyday politeness.
Borat and Milgram can get away with their outrageous questions, requests, or behavior because people are just too polite to tell them that they are way out of line.

The rules of everyday politeness also require that both people in an interaction must agree as to when it ends. (Try breaking off a conversation with someone who wants to continue. It’s not so easy.) So once Borat’s victims have committed themselves to the interaction, which always starts out being normal enough, they can’t figure out how to end it even when Borat’s behavior goes far beyond the bounds of good taste. The humor, like that of the old TV show “Candid Camera” depends on people continuing to try to be polite even when circumstances would seem to call for confrontation and even when that politeness makes them increasingly uncomfortable.

The same goes for Milgram’s subjects. The experiment starts off quite normally— no howls of pain for the low-voltage shocks— and the subjects become committed to their place in the situation. The norm against breaking up the interaction kicks in. One subject shown at length in the film says to the experimenter, “I don’t mean to be rude, Sir, but . . . .” To us watching the film, it seems ridiculous that he’s apparently less affected by the extreme pain, injury or death of someone in the next room than he is by the possibility of being rude to the experimenter a few feet away. But that’s because we don’t realize the power of the norms in the immediate situation.

The other unwritten rule that enables Milgram and Borat (and Ali G and “Candid Camera”) to take things so far is this: don’t question what someone says he is, at least not
without very, very strong information to the contrary. (This insight is the basis for one of the classic books in sociology, The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life, by Erving Goffman.)

Borat presents himself as a very naive Eurasian journalist trying to learn about America. To act towards him as though he were an uncouth fool — even though he’s behaving like one — would be an insult. Milgram says in effect that this is a learning experiment. To discontinue the experiment would be saying in effect, “You’re not really the psychology researcher you say you are. You don’t know how to run an experiment.” Yes, some people discontinue the experiment, and no doubt some people didn’t go along with Borat (though of course they get edited out of the film). But even those brave people must still overcome the pull of very strong norms.

As in other scams, the set-up is crucial. For the game to work, Borat (like Ali G and Milgram) must first get the other person to commit himself to the interaction and to accept Borat for what he claims to be. For the scammer, going in cold may be risky, as Sacha Baron Cohen found out two weeks ago. After doing Saturday Night Live as Borat, he went out in New York still in character with fellow Brit Hugh Laurie. They were on the street in the Village when Cohen, with no set-up, approached a stranger and reportedly said, “I like your clothings. Are nice! Please, may I buying? I want to have sex with it...your clothings...very much.”
The guy began punching Cohen and didn’t stop till Laurie came and pulled him off (making a House call, I guess).


Political Football

November 14, 2006
Posted by Jay Livingston

Thinking back on the Democratic sweep of a week ago, I now realize that I should have seen it coming last year during football season. It was the year of the Steelers.
I don’t mean anything silly, like the idea that the Superbowl forecasts the stock market— if the NFC team wins, buy; if the AFC wins, sell. It’s worked about three-quarters of the time, but if it’s anything more than coincidence, it’s mostly because the NFC has won more often than the AFC, and the stock market has gone up more often than down.

But the link between the Steelers and the election may be real. It wasn’t that the Steelers won the Superbowl; it was that somehow along the way, they had become “America’s Team.”

That title used to belong to the Dallas Cowboys. I imagine that some PR person for the Cowboys dreamed up the phrase, but it was true in a way. The Cowboys weren’t really America’s team so much as they were what we might now call the Red States’ Team. Through a wide swath of the South and West, people rooted for the Cowboys, mostly because football fans had no other good pro team to root for, maybe no team at all.

Today, fans in places like Arizona, North Carolina, and Tennessee have local teams. Not so in the 1960s and 70s. And the teams that did make their home in the South and West were in the AFC. On Sunday, NBC would broadcast the local AFC team (Broncos, Dolphins). But the CBS affiliate would be broadcasting the NFC, and usually it was the Cowboys.

So the people who listened to Country & Western on the radio watched the Cowboys on TV. Rooting for Dallas was easy in those days. The Cowboys were good. They went to the Superbowl four times in the 1970s, winning twice. Beyond the won-lost record, they had an image, a brand. The Cowboys represented the individualist strain in
American culture. The Cowboys were Texas, the land of big thinking, big opportunity, and every man for himself. They were rugged, independent, a football version of the Marlboro man. And just as Americans bought Marlboro cigarettes, America also bought a lot of Cowboys jerseys and other paraphernalia. For a while, the Cowboys alone accounted for 30% of all NFL merchandise sales.

As the red states got more NFL teams, the Cowboys position as “America’s Team” started to fade. There were teams closer to home to root for, and the Cowboys’ performance in the past few years hasn’t exactly been the kind that makes distant fans remain loyal.

The Steeler brand is something else entirely. If the Cowboys were the team of the Sun Belt, the Steelers are the team of the Rust Belt. Pittsburgh produces very little steel these days. The economy of the region is dominated by medical complexes. That and unemployment. But the team is still called the Steelers, not the Medics, and it still represents the values of an industrial past. Steelworkers are working class wage earners bringing home a paycheck. Their families depend on the New Deal kind of government they pay taxes to or the union they are part of to help protect them from the uncertainties of life — sudden turns of fortune like layoffs at work and serious illness at home. These people stress the public and collective over the private and individual. Remember, the Steelers’ powerful running back Jerome Bettis was not called the SUV or the Pick-up Truck; he was public transportation, The Bus.

Is there a parallel in the election? We all know that people were voting against Republican policies in Iraq and against Republican sleaze. But Democrats weren’t just non-Republicans. Many of the Democrats who won ran as economic populists. They support policies that benefit ordinary people and perhaps cut into the profits of corporations. One of the first things the new Democratic congress will do is pass an increase in the minimum wage. They will also try to change the new Medicare law to allow the Government to negotiate with drug companies to get lower prices, something forbidden under the Republicans’ Medicare bill.

In 2005, the Steelers became America’s team. They won the Superbowl. But more tellingly, Americans, voting with their wallets, bought more Steeler merchandise than that of any other team. Nine months later, Americans voted for a congressional majority that could easily be wearing black and gold under their red, white, and blue.

(An ironic footnote: The election did feature one actual Steeler. Lynn Swann, the great receiver for the great Steeler teams of the seventies, ran for governor of Pennsylvania as a Republican. He lost badly.)

They Blew It

November 13, 2006Posted by Jay Livingston
“Victory has a hundred fathers, but defeat is an orphan.” It’s not clear who originally said this. JFK used it after the disastrous the Bay of Pigs invasion. I’m surprised this quote hasn’t turned up again now that even the Bush administration is all but admitting that Iraq is pretty much what The Daily Show has been labeling it all along — a mess (“Mess-o-potamia”). Or worse.
The question is no longer how to achieve “victory”— after the election, that word has disappeared quickly from official talk— but which policy will give the least bad results.
Proponents of the war—the neoconservatives who, from in and out of government, pushed hard for the invasion— are starting to sing the chorus of “Don’t Blame Me.” In the latest issue of Vanity Fair, several neo-con biggies who have since left government insist that the invasion was a great idea. The trouble is that those incompetents in the Bush administration, including the president, botched the way that idea was put into action.
Here’s Richard Perle, a member of something called the Defense Policy Board, who pushed long and hard for the invasion: “I'm getting damn tired of being described as an architect of the war. I was in favor of bringing down Saddam. Nobody said, ‘Go design the campaign to do that.’ I had no responsibility for that.”
What about the millions of Americans who have supported the war, who talked about victory, who voted for Bush in 2000 and 2004? Will they similarly be able to distance themselves from their earlier enthusiasms and blame everything on the people they elected?
When I was in graduate school I remember hearing about a study on pronouns. The researchers called students at a large university, one of those places where football was very important, and asked them about the game. When the team won, students usually used “we.” When the team lost, the students used “they.” The perfect example came from one student after a disappointing loss: “We were winning up until the fourth quarter; then they blew it.”

"I Want to Be a Part of It. . . "

November 9, 2006
Posted by Jay Livingston
“Who voted?” I asked in class today. One student. And this was in New Jersey where the race for Senate looked to be close enough that your vote might have made a difference. One. The others were too busy.

I voted. I live in New York, where none of the races was going to be close. I knew my vote didn’t mean a thing. But I voted. I wonder why. Not out of civic duty or a belief that my vote will influence policy or any of those other reasons you learn in school.

Why do I vote, I asked myself. Then I remembered that “why” is the wrong question. Start with the other “reporter’s” questions – who, what, where, when, how. Get good answers to those, and you’ll be much closer to answering why.

What do I do when I vote; where and how do I do it?

I live in New York City. In my precinct, you vote an old building in a drab room with dull lighting and a coffee-stained linoleum floor. Usually, people are waiting in line, most of them people you’ve never seen, but you chat and joke with them. The voting booths and machines are the old kind with a curtain —an old piece of canvas that if you thought about or looked at closely you wouldn’t want to spend too much time touching. Inside the both is the machine. You push the big lever to the right, then you flip down the little levers beside the candidates’ names, then you pull the lever back to the left, and that’s it.

Every time I do it, I think – and sometimes I make this comment to the person next to me in line– that these are probably the same machines people voted on to elect LaGuardia mayor in 1934.

As I was thinking about this now, I realized that I felt good about this whole scene. I liked it. I liked the dirty floors, I liked standing there with these strangers. I liked it because even though we were strangers, even though we might be voting for different people (not really all that likely in my precinct), we were all there together as New Yorkers. I liked thinking that I was connected with New Yorkers and New York elections going back to Fiorello (who, by the way, was dead long before I ever set foot in the city). It’s the sense of being part of something that I want to be part of.

I was talking about this with a friend, and he had the same reaction. He said that when he votes, it always takes him back to the first time he voted. It was the Oregon Democratic primary in 1968. He voted for Bobby Kennedy against Hubert Humphrey and Eugene McCarthy. Kennedy didn’t win in Oregon, McCarthy did. But a couple of weeks later, Kennedy went to California, and on the night that he won that primary, he was assassinated. My friend’s point is that his vote then connected him with an event of historical importance. And now when he votes, he still feels he’s connecting to history.

I think that’s why I vote and why my students don’t. Older people feel more of a connection to history. I know I feel that connection much more now than when I was in my twenties.

But the larger point is that voting is not a rational act, or at least not completely and not always. It’s not a logical means towards some specific goal (like putting the people you like in office). It’s more about how you feel. If you don’t feel connected to the dominant institutions and the history of the country, come election day there will be something else
you feel emotionally closer to, and you’ll probably be “too busy” to vote.

The Old Rugged Cross Pressure

November 6, 2006
Posted by Jay Livingston
I don’t know if Paul Lazarsfeld (1901-1976) invented survey research and applied sociology, but he was certainly one of the most important figures in those fields. Everyone who does voter surveys today owes Lazarsfeld, big time. As we go into tomorrow’s election, I keep wondering about the Republican “base,” the Christian conservatives or conservative Christians, the “values voters” who have provided the Republicans not just votes but much of the campaign work force. And I keep remembering Lazarfeld’s concept of “cross pressures,” something he developed back in the 1940s.

Lazarsfeld thought you could make a pretty good prediction about how someone would vote if you knew about certain demographic markers — income, occupation, religion, urban or small town, etc. Often, these characteristics tended to cluster, especially in the 1940s with the dominance of the Roosevelt coalition. But what about the person who belonged to groups that pulled in different ways — the small-town Protestant (Republican pressure) who had a blue-collar union job (Democratic pressure)? Lazarsfeld’s answer was that these voters tend make up their minds later in the campaign, and sometimes they resolve their conflict by just not voting at all.
The conflict for the conservative base today is not so much between group affiliations or demographic categories but between image and reality. They have supported the war in Iraq, but more and more the reality in Iraq makes the war seem to have been a bad idea. They support the President and they support the military. But they may also hear that many generals and the military newspapers want Rumsfeld to resign while Bush wants Rumsfeld to stay. These conservatives are against sex outside of marriage, especially when it involves minors or homosexuals or both. But each week seems to bring some new scandal about homosexuality or infidelity, and the perpetrators and their protectors are Republicans.

Obviously, the Republican leadership is worried about these pressures and about the response that Lazarsfeld would predict
— staying home on election day. From the top of the party on down, GOP professionals are trying to make sure that their traditional voters come out. It’s not about converting Democrats or persuading the Independents and undecided. It’s about making sure that the hard core keep the faith, that they do not give in to cross pressures and just avoid the voting booth.

The election is no longer about issues; it’s about turnout. And that’s what a lot of people — the politicos, the network analysts, me — are going to be looking at tomorrow.

Cheating the Executioner

November 5, 2006
Posted by Jay Livingston

Saddam Hussein was sentenced to death today. No doubt, he will be under close watch to make sure that he does not kill himself.

It’s called “cheating the executioner.” It's a phrase you hear when a murderer shoots himself just as the cops are closing in on him. Or when a prisoner on death row dies of some disease while his case is still pending. It cropped up in the news two weeks ago when a death-row prisoner in Texas, Michael Johnson, committed suicide the day before he was to be executed. He cut his own throat and used the blood to write “I didn’t do it” on his cell wall.

The headline in the Washington Times (the online version at least) was “Death Row Inmate Cheats Executioner,” and some other papers had similar wording. That headline, along with the reported detail that death-row inmates are checked on every fifteen minutes, tells us a lot about the real reasons for the death penalty, and they are not the ones usually given.

One rationale for the death penalty is that it saves innocent lives. Supposedly, it deters other potential murderers. Or it “incapacitates” the executed murderer so that he can’t kill again. In reality, there’s not a lot of convincing data to support the idea that executions have any impact on murder rates. But evidence is not really relevant because most death-penalty supporters base their opinions not on the practical effects of executions but on principles of justice and morality: a person who commits a horrible crime does not “deserve” to live. It’s a matter of right and wrong, and regardless of the impact on future murders, it would be wrong to let him live.

If the criminal’s death were the central issue, as it is in these three rationales, it wouldn’t matter how he died; he would still have been removed from society. So we are not looking at a simple rational process. The irrationality is clear in the standard death-row procedure of the 15-minute suicide watch. If the guards had caught Mr. Johnson in time, the best medical help would have been called and no effort spared to save his life. Then, weeks or months later, when he had recovered, the state would kill him.

Why does the state go to such extraordinary lengths —checking every fifteen minutes— to make sure that some condemned man doesn’t pull a fast one and kill himself. Why, when death comes by suicide or cancer rather than execution, do some people feel “cheated”? What were they cheated of?

The answer is clear. The death-row suicide deprives us of only one thing: the chance to inflict the punishment ourselves via our representative the executioner. The importance of the execution is not the effect it has on the criminal — that effect is the same regardless of the cause of death — but its effect on society, on those who carry out the execution. It allows them to dramatize that they and their morality are in control. It draws a clear line, with “us” on the good side and the criminal on the other.

This is the logic behind President Bush’s characterizing the 9/11 bombers as “cowards.” It was not only that they killed unsuspecting civilians. They also cheated us of the privilege of trying and executing them, of showing them who was boss and who was right. The trial, sentence, and execution would have drawn that line between us and them, between good and evil, a line which the president and many other Americans desperately wanted to draw. No doubt, many Iraqis— and Americans— will feel the same way about Saddam.

By executing the criminal, the “good” people confirm their own virtue. Any other form of death cheats them of this occasion to feel good about themselves and secure in their morality.

Can We Talk?

November 1, 2006
Posted by Jay Livingston

The news today is that North Korea has agreed to sit down in talks about their nuclear bomb. North Korea leader Kim Jong-il (son of former leader Kim Il Sung) had previously demanded that the US talk with North Korea one-to-one, but US leader George W. Bush (son of former leader George Bush) had refused. Lil’ Bush refused direct talks and insisted that four other countries had to be there. Lil’ Kim eventually caved, probably because China was threatening to cut off his oil.

North Korea isn’t the only country we won’t talk to directly. Syria, Iran, maybe others. As with North Korea, if we’re going to communicate with them at all, we need other countries as intermediaries to relay the messages.

When I was a kid, I would sometimes have a dispute with one of my brothers, and we’d get so angry, we’d refuse to talk to each other. At the dinner table, I’d say something like, “Tell Skip that if  he doesn’t give back my racer, I’m not going tell him where I hid his airplane.” My mother would dutifully turn to her right and repeat the message, as though my brother hadn’t been right there to hear it. Then she’d do the same with his answer. You see similar scenes in sitcoms and movies. Maybe it happened in your family too.

In real life, at least in my house, it never lasted long. Everyone would see how stupid it was, how impossible to sustain, and usually we’d wind up dissolving in laughter at how ridiculous we were.

I imagine our ambassador turning to the Chinese representative and saying, “You tell North Korea that we aren’t going to give it any food unless they stop making bombs.” China turns to North Korea, just as my mother turned to my brother, and repeats the same message. Then North Korea says to China, “Yeah, well you tell the US . . . .” and so on. That’s pretty much what these countries have been doing anyway, though without actually sitting down in the same room.

When people insist on this “I’m not talking to him” charade, we call it childish and silly. When nations do it, we call it foreign policy.

(Full disclosure: I think I may be borrowing — i.e., stealing— this observation from something I heard Philip Slater say many years ago.)