Seeing Through the Clouds

January 31, 2008
Posted by Jay Livingston

Tag clouds offer content analysis at a glance. Here, for example, is the cloud of Monday’s State of the Union speech.

The biggest tags are no surprise: America, Iraq, people, terrorists. Nor are hope and future, which fit with the often-noted American cultural traits of optimism and future orientation (besides, it might have been difficult for Bush to look backward and review the list of his accomplishments).

Two tags of about the same size as these got my interest: trust and world. Here, you have to look at the contexts, and you have to look at what does not appear in those contexts, to understand what they mean in the Bush perspective.

Trust is usually a reciprocal sentiment, and Bush might have stressed the trust that people must have in their government, particularly in time of war. Or he might have said something about his administration having kept the trust of the American people (or would that have been too much of a stretch even for Bush?).

Instead, the speech was all about the government trusting the people. In fact, lurking not very deep in the subtext is the idea that the government itself is not to be trusted, certainly to be trusted with money (all those earmarks). This trust-the-people theme is, of course, just a flattering way of saying that the government is not going to do much for the people. Instead, the Bush administration will trust us to take care of ourselves as best we can.

The Bush view of “the world” is similarly unreconstructed. American exceptionalism reigns. No “taking our place among the nations of the world” or “working together for a better world.” Instead, Bush looks at America and the world as though he were a fan at a football game: We’re number one, and they’re out to get us. Cooperation with other countries is not an option, unless, of course, they want to co-operate by doing what we tell them.

“We showed the world the power and resilience of American self-government.” Take that, world.

I haven’t seen any polls yet measuring popular response to the speech. But I wonder if this stuff still sells.

When the Average Isn't Average

January 29, 2008
Posted by Jay Livingston

Here’s George Bush in the State of the Union last night urging Congress to make his tax cuts permanent.
Unless the Congress acts, most of the tax relief we have delivered over the past 7 years will be taken away. Some in Washington argue that letting tax relief expire is not a tax increase. Try explaining that to 116 million American taxpayers who would see their taxes rise by an average of $1,800.
You can’t blame a guy for trying, and you can’t blame the general public for not appreciating why the “average” tax cut is not the same as the tax cut for the average person. But income and income tax distributions are so skewed that using the average is misleading. When Bill Gates walks into the room, the average income goes way up, but everyone in the room except Gates is now below average.

The Tax Policy Center has computed the tax savings for each income quintile. For the middle income quintile, those tax cuts meant a savings of, on average, $814. In other words, the median savings was less than half the mean that Bush mentioned.

The big winners in the tax cuts are those at the top. The savings for the top fifth averaged $7452. For the top 0.5%, the tax cuts have meant an annual savings of over $100,000.

Lolita or Zane?

January 27, 2008
Posted by Jay Livingston

Books That Make You Dumb posts a chart showing the SAT scores of books.

Well, not the books themselves, and this isn't the entire chart. Scores are based on the average SAT scores of campuses where these books are listed on the Facebook campus network statistics. Interesting that books classified as erotica (pink on the chart) anchor both ends of the SAT scale. You can find the full chart and a better description of the method here.

You can also go from there to the list of schools and see what's popular on your campus. Harry Potter cuts across all types of schools. So do Grey's Anatomy (though for some reason it doesn't make the top ten at art schools like Cal Arts and RISD), Fight Club, Garden State, and Coldplay.

Hat tip to Tyler Cowen for the link to Books That Make You Dumb.

The Moving Edge

January 26, 2008
Posted by Jay Livingston

Every so often I meet Claude the brand consultant for morning coffee at Zabar’s café right next to the main Zabar’s store. If café suggests a Parisian-style venue, think again. The place is small and purely functional. Fluorescent lights and formica counters. (The pictures here are from New York Magazine.) Last week, once again the audio system was piping out the Beethoven Violin Concerto –Zabar’s has twelve different kinds of lox but apparently only one CD – and it prompted Claude to inaugurate his own blog with a post about brands and background music. I guess you’re not supposed to be aware of the music. In some stores, mostly those for the younger crowd, the music is so loud you can’t help but notice. But usually the music provides an innocuous subliminal background. Like in the Macy’s in Sarasota, where I was returning some stuff a couple of days after Christmas.

I listened, actually listened, for a minute, and I recognized what was coming out of the speakers: Horace Silver’s 1953 recording of “Opus de Funk.” When that Blue Note album (with Art Blakey on drums) came out, it was for hip folks only (or were they still “hep” in the early 50s?*). I couldn’t imagine Macy’s shoppers in the era of Patti Page and Mantovani tolerating hard bop piano, even at a very low volume. But in 2007, nobody noticed.

Things change. The concertgoers of one era react with incomprehension or revulsion to avante-garde music, but those same sounds – dissonant, polyrhythmic, minimalist, or whatever – become, after a generation or two, the stuff of barely noticed movie soundtracks. John Lennon dreaded that when he got old, he might need money and wind up having to play Las Vegas, like some latter day version of Wayne Newton or Andy Williams. Hard to Imagine.

But what was once edgy becomes mainstream – so far from the edge that you can play it for South Florida shoppers at three in the afternoon and not ruffle a feather. It was no accident either. Yesterday, I called Macy’s here in New York about my bill, and what was the music playing while I was on hold? Horace Silver’s trio recording of “Que Pasa.” How long will it be till it’s Mötley Crüe?

*Dave Frishberg’s song “I’m Hip,” contains the line which should certainly be in Bartlett’s some day – “When it was hip to be hep, I was hep.”


January 23, 2008
Posted by Jay Livingston

The Internet is the great equalizer. It democratizes everything. Anybody can be an op-ed columnist (just get yourself a blog) or a video producer (YouTube). And now, anybody can be a survey researcher, thanks to Ask 500 People .

When you submit a question, Ask sends it out to a random sample of people at various website and tallies the first hundred responses. (I’m puzzled about the number in the site’s name, but it’s still in beta. It's also not clear how it selects the websites.)

Oh I know some nitpicking methodologist will probably complain about non-representative samples and inelegantly worded questions. (That didn’t stop me from looking at the results of several questions and wondering about them as though they were real findings.)

On the other hand, it’s quick and it’s free.

It might be useful in a methods class. When I was in grad school, fellow grad student Michael Schwartz (now at Stony Brook) would give students this assignment: “Design a questionnaire to show . . .” and he would specify some result. Part two of the assignment was: “Design a questionnaire to show just the opposite.” I don’t think Michael actually had his students try out their survey instruments – it would have been something of a chore. But with Ask 500 People, you can have your results in a few hours.

Hat tip to Polly for the link to Ask 500.

What the Army Knew in 1943

January 21, 2008
Posted by Jay Livingston

I remember hearing a general on radio not long before the US invasion of Iraq. After the fall of Saddam, he said, “it’s not like everyone’s going to rush to the palace, join hands, and sing Kumbaya.”

Maybe he’d read this book, recently reissued by University of Chicago Press.

The pamphlet was handed out to GIs in World War II who were posted to Iraq. It’s very brief and written so that the typical dogface could understand it. The brilliant minds that gave us the rosy scenarios – chicken hawks like Cheney, Rumsfeld, Wolfowitz, Feith, Libby, et. al. – must have left it off their reading list. Too much cultural relativism, I guess.

Here are some excerpts:
There are also political differences in Iraq that have puzzled diplomats and statesmen. You won’t help matters by getting mixed up in them.

Differences? Sure there are differences. Differences of costume. Differences of food. . . . Different attitudes toward women. Differences galore.
But what of it? You weren’t going to Iraq to change the Iraqis. Just the opposite. We are fighting the war to preserve the principle of “live and let live.”
Lt. Col. John Nagl wrote an introduction for the current edition and refers to the “stunning understatement” in this sentence.
The Iraqis have some religious and tribal differences among themselves.
Nagl is a Rhodes Scholar with an Oxford Ph.D., an expert on counterinsurgency who served in Iraq in 2003-2004 and co-wrote the current manual for US COIN forces. If there’s any hope for anything resembling success in Iraq, it lies with people like Nagl. He just announced his retirement from the military.

King's Gambit, Bobby Fischer, Bed

January 19, 2008
Posted by Jay Livingston

Over at Marginal Revolution, Tyler Cowen, who knows a lot about chess, has a brief obit for Bobby Fischer. Last September, Tyler also wrote that King’s Gambit by Paul Hoffman is “one of the few great chess books.”

I am no judge of chess books, but when I think about the King’s Gambit, I think of the first time I bought a bed, and I think about the pressures of grad school. And of course I think about Bobby Fischer.

In my junior year of college, I needed a bed. I had decided to live off campus, and I wound up sharing an unfurnished two-bedroom apartment with another guy. I looked in the want ads and on bulletin boards (this was in the 1960s, long before the Internet), and found what I was looking for – a double bed (I was an optimist, and overweight), cheap. The man who answered the phone had a Spanish accent, and he lived in Cambridge, not too far away. I drove over.

He was Mexican, in his twenties, short and soft-spoken with sad brown eyes. He was a graduate student at Harvard, and because of the anxiety caused by grad school, he was having trouble sleeping. His tossing and turning was ruining his wife’s sleep too, so they were going to get separate beds. It was a bit pathetic, and I paid him his asking price (probably $35).

As I was on my way out of the apartment, I noticed a chess board set up. “Do you play chess?” I asked. Yes, he said and immediately asked if I’d like to play. I’m a terrible chess player, but he seemed so forlorn, I figured it was the least I could do. Besides, it wasn’t even a real chessboard but a checkerboard with red and black squares. So how good could he be?

I let him play white. He moved out his king’s pawn. I did likewise. It was the only move I knew. Then he did something I’d never seen before. He moved out his king’s bishop pawn. Not his queen’s pawn, not his knight – the only two second moves I recognized as legal. I don’t recall what move I made, but after about four more moves, it was clear that I had lost.
“What was that?” I asked.

“It’s the King’s Gambit,” he said, “it was popular in the 1890s but hasn’t been in much use since the 1920s. It develops a strong king’s side attack.” Or something like that.

He offered to play again. Still thinking that I was doing him a favor, I accepted. Again, he moved out his king’s bishop pawn on the second move. I stared at the board and then tried the same second move I always played, the one my father taught me. I pushed my queen’s pawn to the center.

“Ah,” he said, “the Falkbeer Countergambit.” He added a capsule history, and a few moves later my pieces, those that were still on the board, lay in a disastrous position.

Now I felt even worse. Here’s a poor guy, living in a foreign country, stressed out by grad school, unable to sleep in the same bed with his wife, suffering from insomnia. And not only was I responsible for his taking financial a loss on his bed, but I couldn’t even provide him with a decent game of chess.

And Bobby Fischer? He too lost a game playing black against the King’s Gambit. Boris Spassky was playing white. That was in 1960, and Fischer left the match in tears. He went back to the drawing board and developed the Fischer Defense – a defense which, he thought, would relegate the King’s Gambit to the dustbin of history.

It didn’t. The gambit is still played – Fischer himself played it as white at times – but nobody ever played it against Fischer in a tournament. And everybody (well, everybody who follows chess at all) knows what happened in his Reykjavik match against Spassky twelve years later.

Oakland and Baghdad

January 18, 2008
Posted by Jay Livingston
Community policing is the close cousin of counterinsurgency -- at their core, they're about providing security for the people and addressing the root causes of violence in a holistic way.
That's Philip Carter at Intel Dump a week ago noting a RAND study of community policing in Oakland. (Carter knows a lot about the military and counterinsurgency. He was an advisor to the Iraqi police in 2005-2006, deployed with the 101st Airborne.)

In both community policing and counterinsurgency (at least as Carter envisions it), the cops or troops have to get beyond the adversarial frame of mind that seems to be so natural in those settings.

The parallel between the two is useful on both sides. People interested in community policing may have much to learn from counterinsurgency efforts in Iraq. But a look at the abstract of the RAND report on community policigy suggests what a monumental and maybe impossible task we face in Iraq.
The early evidence on the implementation of the Measure Y community-policing program is not altogether positive. Deployment of problem-solving officers, which is the cornerstone of the community-policing initiative, has been delayed because of a lack of available officers, and community participation has been inadequate.
Lack of officers who know how to relate to the community, a community that’s reluctant to participate in a program that’s supposed to reduce violence in their own community. And in Oakland, the people and the police speak the same language and share certain general values.

It doesn’t make you optimistic about Baghdad, Diyala, Fallujah, or the country as a whole.

The Other-Directed Candidate

January 16, 2008
Posted by Jay Livingston

When people pluck a word or phrase from a specialized area and bring it into widespread use, they often change the meaning. “Track record,” for example, in general speech means something very different from what it means to horseplayers.*

Sociology terms that have suffered this fate include “playing a role,” which now has a negative connotation (as Robert Park said long ago, we are all always playing some role) and “significant other,” which is now a gender-neutral term for someone you’re sexually involved with. That’s a far cry from its origins in symbolic interaction.

Here’s one I hadn’t heard before. Hillary Clinton on Meet the Press last Sunday said, “I’m very other-directed. I don’t like talking about myself.”

David Riesman coined the term other-directed nearly sixty years ago in The Lonely Crowd. He used it to describe what he saw as a new character type that had arisen in response to changes in society. The nineteenth century had been dominated by the “inner-directed” type, the person who remained rigidly true to a set of internal dictates regardless of the pressures of the social or physical environment. The upper-class Englishman on safari who, even in the jungle, wears a formal dinner jacket to dinner.

By contrast, the other-directed person is guided not by an internal gyroscope but by a kind of social radar. Other-directed people pick up signals from others, and – sensitive to these external demands, needs, and strategies – adjust their course accordingly.

Riesman did not intend his analysis as part of the critique of American “conformity” so popular at the time (books with titles like A Nation of Sheep), though that’s how it was taken. People viewed the terms as moral judgments: inner-directed good (the principled individualist), other-directed bad (the unprincipled conformist).

Obviously, what Hillary Clinton meant was that she was not much given to public introspection but instead directed her attention outward towards the problems of the world. But it’s interesting, given her “track record” on a variety of issues, to look at her statement from the perspective of Riesman’s original definition.

* The track record is the fastest time for a given distance at a given track. For example, the track record for the mile at Aqueduct is 1:32 2/5, set in 1989. What people mean in everyday speech when they say, “My track record on that issue . . .” is closer to what horseplayers refer to as “past performances” – the chart of the horse’s performance in past races.

As for
track record” as popularly used, in most cases the track” could be dropped with no loss of meaning.

Research as Politics

January 15, 2008
Posted by Jay LivingstonBy now, I should be used to dishonest research by the politically motivated – the careful selection of time periods or samples so as to magnify effects. That sort of thing. But I’m not. Maybe Max Weber should have written a third essay – political scholarship as a vocation.*

I was browsing at Intel Dump, a reality-based blog about military affairs. Blogger-in-chief Philip Carter was ripping into the Sunday NY Times article on homicide among Iraq vets both for its method and its implied stereotype image of the crazed combat vet.

But in the comments – and Intel Dump gets a ton of comments – there was a reference to a Heritage Foundation study: The press release title was, “Post-9/11 Military Recruits Wealthier, Better Educated, Study Shows.” The lead was, “Wartime recruits who joined the United States military in 2004 and 2005 tended to be better educated and wealthier than their civilian peers.”

That didn’t sound right. It certainly did not square with news reports about Army recruiters shanghaiing near-imbeciles and schizophrenics in order to meet their quotas, or promising signing bonuses to tempt impoverished youths.

As the press release says,
This disproves the idea, expressed on Oct. 30 by Sen. John Kerry, that only those who fail in school end up in the military. “If you study hard, do your homework and you make an effort to be smart, you can do well. If you don’t, you get stuck in Iraq,” the former presidential candidate told college students.**
The Heritage Foundation is a conservative think tank, and highly political. Their view of the war in Iraq is basically, it’s all good. But how did they get the data to show the beneficial effects the war was having on recruitment?

I didn’t read every word of the report, but it appears that the author, Timothy Kane, uses a semantic trick to obscure an important distinction. Unless you pay close attention, you might forget that “the Army” is not the same as “the military” or “the armed forces.” The report focuses almost exclusively on “the military.”

But the branches of the military differ greatly in their involvement in Iraq and in their recruitment. The Air Force and Navy have suffered fewer than 125 fatalities and fewer than 250 casualties serious enough to require medical air transport. (The Heritage report didn’t mention these figures. I had to find them here [this link is broken, sop you're on your own in finding casualty figures on the separate branches of the military].) So Navy and Air Force recruitment has apparently been going along as usual.

The Army has suffered the heaviest losses – more than twenty times the combined Air Force and Navy figures – and it’s the Army that is having trouble recruiting and that in fact had lowered its standards. But of course you wouldn’t know that from reading the Heritage press release or even the full report. All the tables on education and income show only data for all military recruits; they do not break down the sample by service branch.

* For non-sociologists: Ninety years ago, Max Weber wrote two famous essays, “Scholarship as a Vocation” and “Politics as a Vocation.”

**There is some question as to what Kerry meant by this remark. He later claimed that he meant to say “you get us stuck in Iraq” the way that President Bush, not an outstanding student, had done.

Losing Face(book)

January 13, 2008
Posted by Jay Livingston

Here’s an update on the technical and ethical Facebook problem I mentioned a few days ago.

The teacher who offered an A+ to any student who could hack into his Facebook page had to admit, to his chagrin, that my colleague’s son had in fact gotten access. (The kid created a sock puppet – a supposed classmate of the teacher – and persuaded the teacher to “friend” him.) But the teacher negotiated the promised A+ down to an extra ten points in every category of the final grade.

The kid didn’t care so much about the grade. To him, the best part was the “mad props” he got from all his classmates.

What do we conclude from this?
  • Intangible social rewards from peers outweigh bureaucratic rewards.
  • Social solutions (creating a false identity) trump technical ones (hacking).
  • Fourteen-year-olds have no ethical qualms about deceiving a teacher who, essentially, asks for it.

Chicken False Consciousness - II

January 10, 2008
Posted by Jay Livingston

Back in November, I blogged about Chicken Delight as the embodiment of false consciousness – the cartoon chicken happily serving up a roasted version of himself for the dining pleasure and convenience of hegemonic humans.

The idea transcends national boundaries, and the picture I used was of a French chicken that I found in Polly’s blog. (Polly is not a sociologist, but her blog is well worth looking at.) Now, she has found this revised and more complex and nuanced version.

The video is by Remi Gaillard at N'importe qui. He has a number of these slightly surrealistic, humorous vids. Mostly silent, so understanding French is not necessary. (I’m still trying to figure out a translation for their motto: “C’est en faisant n’importe quoi qu’on devient n’importe qui.” Literally, “It’s in doing whatever that one becomes just anybody.”)

Facebook Lessons

January 8, 2008

Posted by Jay Livingston

A co-worker tells me this story.

Her 14-year-old son is taking a computer graphics course in school. Talk in class must have veered over to the topic of Facebook because the teacher says, “I’ll give anyone in here and A+ in the course if they can get into my Facebook page.”

The kid comes home last night, goes on line to check out the teacher’s credentials (resumé I guess) to find out where he went to college. Then he creates a fake identity on Facebook and gets in touch with the teacher claiming to be an ex-classmate (“We were in the same math class. . . .”). A few more brief exchanges, and the teacher agrees to friend this old school acquaintance. And the kid is in.

It’s not exactly Megan Meier, and I doubt that anything illegal happened. But the mother had some questions about right and wrong.
  • Is it right for a teacher to offer an A+ for something not course related?
  • Is it right for a teacher to encourage kids to sneak in to places where they are not wanted?
  • Is it right for her son to create a fake identity on Facebook and pretend to be someone he’s not?
I’ll be interested to see how this plays out when the kid reveals the ploy to his teacher.

Sports Betting as a Prediction Market

January 6, 2008
Posted by Jay Livingston

There’s been some discussion of prediction markets at sociology blogs like Statistical Modeling and Scatterplot. Prediction markets are like stock markets: in stock markets, investors are betting on the ultimate price of a stock; in prediction markets they are betting on the outcome of events like elections, Academy Awards, American Idol, or when the US will start withdrawing troops from Iraq.

The collective wisdom of the investors is reflected in the price of the different options. If you want to buy shares in Obama as the Democratic nominee, you have to pay a higher price now than you would have three days ago.

The question is whether that collective wisdom has more predictive power than do the so-called experts.

Sports betting is essentially a prediction market. The odds or the betting line reflects the collective wisdom of the bettors (or “investors” – the term applied to people who bet on stocks). I blogged about this a year ago, and I came down on the side of the experts – the bookies and oddsmakers who set the initial line.

Yesterday’s NFL games offered a good example (i.e., anecdotal evidence) of what I meant. The oddsmakers made the Seahawks a 4-point favorite over Washington. But the public bet Washington, and the line came down to 3. The Seahawks covered easily, winning by 21. The crowd lost.

The Steeler game was an example of the worst-case scenario of following the “wisdom of crowds.” The Jaguars opened as 1 point favorites. The public bet them heavily, and by game time, the line was 3. If you had bet the Jaguars early in the week, you would have given up one point. But suppose you had waited to see wisdom of the crowd. You see the line going up, you see that the collective wisdom is heavily in favor of the Jaguars, and on Saturday you put down your bet, giving the Steelers 3 points.

The Jaguars won but by only two points. Following the wisdom of the crowd turned a winning bet into a losing bet. (That was cold comfort for us Steeler fans, who may have won our bets but saw our team lose a heartbreaker.)

In today’s games, the 3-point line on the Bucs and Giants hasn’t moved, at least not as of this morning. But in the Chargers-Titans game, the public has been favoring the Chargers. The line opened at 9 and is now up to 10 at most bookmakers. If you believe in the wisdom of crowds, you bet the Chargers. If you think the oddsmakers are smarter than the public, you bet the Titans plus ten points.

I Must Be Getting Old

January 5, 2008
Posted by Jay Livingston

The subject line of the e-mail was “sociology major.” The sender’s name was completely unfamiliar. Here’s the text in its entirety (I’ve changed the name):

hey mr livingston - i am a sociology major named raoul flynn - i am having a lil problem and i need your help with something - can i please make an apointment to come see you whenever you are free as soon as possible if ya can - thank you

It’s hard to say why I found this so off-putting – at least not without sounding stuffy and authoritarian. But as Ali G might put it, “Yo, respeck.”

Iowa: Self-fulfilling Prophecy

January 3, 2008
Posted by Jay Livingston

Why Iowa?

As Gail Collins says in today’s New York Times,
The identity of the next leader of the most powerful nation in the world is not supposed to depend on the opinion of one small state. Let alone the sliver of that state with the leisure and physical capacity to make a personal appearance tonight at a local caucus that begins at precisely 7 o’clock.
It’s not supposed to, but it does.

In part, it’s self-fulfilling prophesy, and the media play a central role. The media coverage makes the caucuses more important than they should be. The media stories focus far more on the horse-race aspect than on policy. They pay far more attention to who’s ahead and why than to substantive positions of the candidates. The result, like that of a horse race, is framed in the language of winners and losers. I’m sure there are good organizational, contextual reasons for media coverage being what it is, but the result is to magnify the importance of Iowa, with its 7 electoral votes, and New Hampshire with four.

Pennsylvania has three times as many electoral votes as Iowa; California has nearly 14 times as many as New Hampshire. But candidates aren’t spending collectively $14 for every person of voting age in those states. Spending per Iowa caucus-goer is closer to $300.

So all the news tonight and tomorrow will be about who won and who lost. Candidate X will not just be the person who got the most Iowa caucus votes; he or she will be “a winner.” Those who got fewer votes will be tarred as “losers.”

Those labels probably won’t directly affect the views of voters in other states. But they will affect how the media cover the candidates. And most important, the winner/loser distinction will affect the money people. As John Edwards (quoted in Collins’s column) says, “The winner of the Iowa caucus is going to have huge amounts of money pouring in.”

Because the media think Iowa is important, it in fact becomes important: self-fulfilling prophecy.

What would happen, I wonder, if the media paid as little attention to the Iowa caucuses as they do to the preferences of some other non-representative aggregate of a few thousand people? Or what if the candidates and media gave that other aggregate the attention they give the Iowa caucusers? How about the 60,000 people in my zip code? Hey dude, here’s my $300 of ad money?

Provost Humor

January 2, 2008
Posted by Jay Livingston

No, that subject line is not an error or oxymoron.

If you want to start the new year with a chuckle, try this at Inside Higher Ed. It's a testimonial for Henry Fenton, Assistant Provost at U of All People. In the first line, Fenton is identified as having been a sociology instructor, which is about the only reason I kept reading. But I'm glad I did.

I had never heard of the author David Galef, but the article bio has him at U of Mississippi. (Galef? Galef? Funny, you don't look Mississippian.) And IMDB has a David Galef acting in the 1971 movie "Who Is Harry Kellerman and Why Is He Saying Those Terrible Things About Me?" with Dustin Hoffman. That film was written by Herb Gardner, who may well have been an inspiration for Galef.

Resolutions, Self, and Society

January 1, 2008
Posted by Jay Livingston

Resolutions seem so American. They reverberate with cultural themes like optimism, “active mastery” (sociologist Robin Williams’s term from the 1950s), hard work, and change.

I know that the custom of resolutions is now widespread. Google resolution nouvel an, and you get 386,000 hits (though I wonder how many of these are Canadian, not French). Even in Italy – hardly the place for a puritanical effort like resolutions – risoluzione nuovo anno returns 240,000 hits.

But these are dwarfed by the 6.6 million pages with “New Year’s Resolution.” (I know this is shoddy methodology, but even allowing for difference in base rates of language and Internet use, it seems like a huge difference.)

The idea of self-improvement in America goes back at least to Ben Franklin, and it blossomed in the late nineteenth century. But somewhere along the way, probably after World War II, the focus shifted from society to self. The resolutions we take for granted today – maybe the ones you and I made today – probably include things like working on some project, reading some number of books, fixing something in the house, and of course the most common, losing weight.

I will try to make myself better in any way I possible can with the help of my budget and babysitting money. I will lose weight, get new lenses, already got a new haircut, good makeup, new clothes and accessories.
That’s from a girl’s diary circa 1982, reprinted in The Body Project, by Joan Jacob Brumberg. The girl assumes – and her assumption is so much a part of our culture that we don’t really notice it or consider it remarkable – that making yourself more attractive makes you “better.” These resolutions about body go hand in hand these days with work on “personality” – be more outgoing, fun, etc.

Brumberg contrasts this with a diary excerpt from seventy years early, 1892.
Resolved, not to talk about myself or feelings. To think before speaking. To work seriously. To be self-restrained in conversation and action. Not to let my thoughts wander. To be dignified. Interest myself more in others.
Here what makes you better is not the expression of self but the restraint of self. I imagine this girl time-transported to the US today. I picture her telling people that she has resolved not to talk about her feelings. And I imagine her bafflement at the others’ reaction to what she thought was a virtue.