Durkheim With a Rim Shot

August 7, 2007
Posted by Jay Livingston

In his comment on yesterday’s blog post here, Jeremy Freese mentioned Robert Frank’s new book Falling Behind and its consideration of the general economic importance of relative deprivation. The Times reviewed that book Sunday along with another book by Frank, The Economic Naturalist.

This second book is the outcome of an assignment Frank gives his students: “pose and answer an interesting question about some pattern of events or behavior that you personally have observed.” The reviewer (Daniel Gross) provides a couple of examples.

Frank’s students, with a writing assist from their professor, explain why a $20,000 car rents for $40 a day but a $500 tuxedo rents for $90 a day. (Among other things, it has to do with the need for tuxedo shops to maintain a large inventory of different sizes.) Or why fast-food restaurants promise a free meal if customers don’t get a receipt. (It’s to deter theft by cashiers.)

The review doesn’t say which classes was Frank using. Was it freshman econ? Or was it the graduate seminar?

But I wonder if something similar might work in sociology. I wouldn’t even require that students provide answers. I just want them to step back and stop taking the world for granted. In fact, it’s always seemed to me that some of the best sociologists are like stand-up comedians – the “observational” comics who point out some not-quite-rational fact that we’ve all seen but haven’t really noticed. “What were they doing with a car on the moon? . . . There is no more male idea in the history of the universe than ‘Why don’t we fly up to the moon and drive around.’” That’s Seinfeld. But there are other examples.

And this thing with the number of suicides staying pretty much the same year in year out, what’s up with that? I mean, it can’t be the same thirty thousand Americans killing themselves each year.

Or did you ever notice that with some of these real tight-ass religious
types? They work so damn hard, they gotta wind up making some money, and then they don’t know how to kick back and enjoy it. What’s that all about? You’ve got the money. Spend it. Of course, in Italy it’s just the opposite. You work a little extra there, they make you feel guilty. They’re like, “Uh-oh, here comes the Protestant.”
But seriously folks... The above are macro-level phenomena not so visible in everyday life. I expect that students will choose more micro-level puzzles not based on differences in rates. But what specific questions would we get with this assignment. Only one way to find out.

I guess it’s time to revise the syllabus.


trrish said...

what's the deal with these millionaires in Silicon Valley who act like the welfare family on the block?

Having gotten my degree in sociology and went on to do graduate work in...yes, comedy, I couldn't agree more, as you know.


jeremy said...

I've read the Economic Naturalist. It was an intro micro econ course for undergrads, if memory serves.