ESS - Student Posters

February 28, 2014
Posted by Jay Livingston

Five Montclair undergraduates had posters accepted for the ESS meetings in Baltimore last weekend.  Here they are.

Ian Callahan, Noel Rozier, Luis Bernal, Rachel Druker, Lisa Kaiser

There were 130 posters presented in five sessions (the MSU five were all in the Friday afternoon session).  Of those 130, five students were selected for awards. One of those was Ian Callahan.

 Looking to study education and attitudes, I turned to the General Social Survey (1972-2006) for some data and some inspiration.  I stumbled upon a series of questions that measured respondents' attitudes towards 'non-traditional educators,' namely militarists, homosexuals, anti-religionists, and communists.

I like “stumbled upon.” It’s another example of research serendipity.  The problem that becomes the focus of research is a path that branches off from the road you set out on. But you never would have found it had you not started walking and looking.

The focal question was this:
How have attitudes toward non-traditional university educators (anti-religionists, communists, militarists, and homosexuals) changed in America from 1972-2006.

(If negative attitudes towards those groups carried the day, not many of our department would still be around, though I don’t think that was on Ian’s mind.) 

The trend was what you’d expect – generally liberalizing trend – as were the demographic correlates – education, gender, political views, region, marital status.  What made the research awardworthy was its sophisticated method – a stepwise model that untangled simultaneously occurring predictors – and its integration with theory (e.g. “cohort replacement”) .

The puzzling part was that religiosity did not make the cut – no statistical significance to confirm the obvious.  Were the measures of “religiosity” flawed? Was the regression model not up to the task? Or were the deeply religious equally tolerant of “non-traditional” professors?

Back in New Jersey, in their capstone seminar on Thursday, some other students organized a party in honor of the Fab Five.  What a great bunch of student we have.  Asked to say a few words, the department chair cited the Yiddish phrase “shep naches” – to derive pleasure or pride from the accomplishments of someone else’ (usually your children).  “We’re pleased and proud,” he said, “but you’re the ones who did it.”

(Photo credit: Janet Ruane)

Wonks Nix Pic Survey

February 18, 2014
Posted by Jay Livingston

“How could we get evidence for this?” I often ask students. And the answer, almost always is, “Do a survey.” The word survey has magical power; anything designated by that name wears a cloak of infallibility.

“Survey just means asking a bunch of people a bunch of questions,” I’ll say. “Whether it has any value depends on how good the bunch of people is and how good the questions are.”  My hope is that a few examples of bad sampling and bad questions will demystify.

For example, Variety

Here’s the lede:
Despite its Biblical inspiration, Paramount’s upcoming “Noah” may face some rough seas with religious audiences, according to a new survey by Faith Driven Consumers.
The data to confirm that idea:
The religious organization found in a survey that 98% of its supporters were not “satisfied” with Hollywood’s take on religious stories such as “Noah,” which focuses on Biblical figure Noah.
The sample:
Faith Driven Consumers surveyed its supporters over several days and based the results on a collected 5,000+ responses.
And (I’m saving the best till last) here’s the crucial survey question:
As a Faith Driven Consumer, are you satisfied with a Biblically themed movie – designed to appeal to you – which replaces the Bible’s core message with one created by Hollywood?
As if the part about “replacing the Bibles core message” werent enough, the item reminds the respondent of her or his identity as a Faith Driven Consumer. It does make you wonder about that 2% who either were fine with the Hollywood* message or didn’t know. 

You can’t really fault Faith Driven Consumer too much for this shoddy “research.” They’re not in business to find the sociological facts. What’s appalling is that Variety accepts it at face value and without comment.

* The director of “Noah” is Daniel Aronofsky; the script is credited to him and Ari Handel.  For the Faith Driven Consumer, “Hollywood” may carry connotations in addition to that of industry and location – perhaps something similar to “New York sense of humor” in this clip  from “The West Wing” (the whole six minutes is worth watching, but you’ll get the idea if you push the pointer to 2:20 or so and watch for the next 45 seconds). Or look at this L.A. Times column by Joel Stein.

(HT: @BrendanNyhan retweeted by Gabriel Rossman)

I Heard It Through the Grapevine

February 16, 2014
Posted by Jay Livingston

Valentine’s Day was Friday – that is like so last week.

Because I used to love her, but it’s all over now, baby blue. Still,, we have to ask what becomes of the broken-hearted? When they’re down and troubled and need a helping hand, have they got a friend? The answer seems to be yes, but only for a couple of days.

Facebook has been publishing some research they’ve done on their big data, particularly on relationships.  The day after Valentine’s day, they published a graph showing the change in FB interactions* that people have in the month before and after a break-up.** (The full post is here.)

The baseline (1.0)  is the average interaction activity for an individual. For some, that 1.0 might mean 2 interactions per day, for others 20 or 200. What the graph shows is the change relative to that baseline. 

Most obviously, a breakup is the occasion for a huge increase in FB activity – more than triple the usual amount.  Presumably, these are heartfelt expressions of support and sympathy from FB friends. But the sentiment, or at least its expression on Facebook, is short-lived – a huge dropoff after the first day. Apparently FB friends think anyone can have another you by tomorrow.  Or maybe these were not the “desert-island, all time, top five most memorable split-ups” of High Fidelity. Whatever. In a few days, the interaction level is back to what it was the day before the breakup. How come u don’t message me any more?

The other interesting pattern is the slight increase in the two days before the break up and the generally elevated level – about 50% higher –  in the month after. The Facebook researchers do not provide any specific content (they are using anonymous, aggregate data – damn), so we don’t know whether the newly decoupled are looking to start new romances or whether they just have more time for general online sociability. 

* Interactions included the “number of messages they sent and received, the number of posts from others on their timeline and the number of comments from others on their own content.”  

** To be in the breakup sample, people had to have been “in a relationship” for at least for weeks and then changed that relationship status. 

Miner Disagreement

February 16, 2014
Posted by Jay Livingston

Horace Miner’s “Body Ritual Among the Nacirema” was published in 1956 (here) and is still widely reprinted. It’s a classic, a golden oldie – the “Stairway to Heaven” of intro anthologies.  It does a wonderful job of making the familiar seem strange – a useful exercise in social science. It forces us to question our taken-for-granted behaviors and ideas.

People and societies have quirky ideas about the body, but we notice that strangeness only in others.  Miner does us a service by making our own taken-for-granted body practices and ideas seem bizarre. He makes us question them and the norms, beliefs, and values that go along with them.  We see that some of those ideas are purely cultural. For example, Miner says of the “shrine” found in each house, “the rituals associated with it are not family ceremonies but are private and secret.”  Right. There’s no rational, scientific basis for this segregation.

It’s the use of the term ritual that I have trouble with. That may be why, in a recent class discussion of ritual, Miner completely slipped my mind, even though the examples students brought up included brushing your teeth and brushing your hair.  In Miner’s essay, these are all rituals.  My students weren’t so sure. “But could they be ritualistic?” I asked.  “What’s the difference between brushing your hair ritualistically and doing it non-ritualistically?”

That finally got us to the main idea: If you’re doing it non-ritualistically, what matters is the result – attractive hair (or, if you’re rushing to class, acceptable, hair). But if you’re doing it ritualistically, what matters is that you do it correctly – exactly 50 strokes of the brush through your hair.  Rituals, whether personal or social, are not about rational goal-attainment.

That’s the part of the Nacirema essay that always bothered me .
The daily body ritual performed by everyone includes a mouth-rite [which] involves a practice which strikes the uninitiated stranger as revolting. It was reported to me that the ritual consists of inserting a small bundle of hog hairs into the mouth, along with certain magical powders, and then moving the bundle in a highly formalized series of gestures.
If we brush our teeth ritualistically, as Miner suggests, then we stress the process, not the results.  But I think that most Americans (oops, Nacirema) brush their teeth in order to make their mouths “feel fresh and clean” (or whatever the ads say) and to prevent tooth decay. We don’t ask “did I brush correctly?” but “does my mouth still feel and smell like a chicken slept in it?”

The same goes for Miner’s account of dentistry
The holy-mouth-man opens the client’s mouth and, using the above mentioned tools, enlarges any holes which decay may have created in the teeth. Magical materials are put into these holes. If there are no naturally occurring holes in the teeth, large sections of one or more teeth are gouged out so that the supernatural substance can be applied. In the client's view, the purpose of these ministrations is to arrest decay and to draw friends. The extremely sacred and traditional character of the rite is evident in the fact that the natives return to the holy-mouth-men year after year, despite the fact that their teeth continue to decay.
Ritual? magic? If the same tooth still hurt or was still sensitive to cold, we’d judge the filling a failure, even though the dentist followed all the right procedures. And we might seek out a different holy-mouth-man. 

In part, Miner’s essay is about language. It shows what you can do by choosing language usually reserved for unfamiliar peoples and practices. But calling a bathroom a “shrine” does not make it one. Nor does calling  pharmaceuticals “magic” mean that their effectiveness is caused by magic rather than rational, scientifically verifiable processes. (Miner uses magic or magical a dozen times in an essay of 2300 words, slightly longer than 4 journal pages.)  True, most of us may not really know how  a medication works, and in this sense our belief in its efficacy can resemble the belief in non-scientific cures. Let’s face it, most people’s understanding of germ theory isn’t much different from a third-grader’s theory of cooties. Miner is making an “as if” observation. We behave as if we had these ideas.  What we call hygiene may share elements with non-scientific and religious body ritual.* We may even act as if we believed in magical causes and effects. But we know that our important beliefs do have a basis in real science, not magic.


* My cousin Powers, when his kids were young, used to ask them before bed, “Have you finished your ablues?” (short for ablutions).

What Does “That Word” Mean?

February 7, 2014
Posted by Jay Livingston

1.  I wonder if hip-hop is taking some of the nastiness and venom out of the word “nigger” (or “nigga”).

I was at a Sweet Sixteen party last weekend in New Rochelle. The kids were mostly White or Hispanic.  Some of them knew “Livin’ La Vida Loca” – I could see them singing along to the music.  They also were singing along at the end of the evening when the DJ, in a patriotic mood I guess, put on “Empire State of Mind.”
You should know I bleed blue, but I ain't a Crip though
I got a gang of niggas walking with my clique, though
I was impressed watching these kids recite by heart the rapid-fire lyrics, and I realized they could do the same for lots of other rap hits. Those songs too have this same taboo word. Yet there they were, these sweet sixteen and fifteen year old girls, rapping along with Jay-Z about their gang of niggas. 

In this context, the word is not the supremely offensive racial epithet;* instead, it suggests affiliation and even affection.  Yes, as Jay Smooth brilliantly explains:
The meaning and impact of our words and the boundaries around them are always determined in part by the relationships involved. . . . Black people . . . have one particular kind of relationship with it. Everybody else has a different relationship with it. . . . We judge [a conversation] differently when there are different relationships involved. [The video is here – and if you are not familiar with Jay Smooth, you should watch this video now, and any of his other videos you can find.]
Relationships to “that word”** have always been different.  For White people.  “Nigger” was a taboo object – exotic, dangerous, and powerful.  But now a generation of White kids has grown up with this additional and more mundane meaning of the word.  Maybe, as this new meaning becomes more widespread, the other, more hateful meanings will ebb.

2.  And maybe not. As I was walking to the subway in Penn Station yesterday, I saw this ad poster on the wall near the Metrocard booth. I immediately noticed the graffiti.

The commuters rushed by not bothering to notice. Even when I stopped and took out my camera, nobody paused or turned to see what I was taking pictures of. What would they have thought if they had noticed?

3. Change in language is slow; change in racial attitudes even slower. It will be interesting to see how these play out in the generations for whom hip hop and its language are just another part of the culture. Unfortunately, there’s no guarantee that a change is gonna come.

A friend went to watch her grandson, age twelve, in a kids’ hockey tournament in western Massachusetts. The teams were from Vermont and western Connecticut and Massachusetts.  One of the kids on the team has a Black father and White mother. At the end of the game, as the players were coming off the ice, one of the kids on the other team called the kid “nigger.”  Yes, that word, and there was nothing friendly about it.


*In the classic SNL with Richard Pryor and Chevy Chase, a job interview turns into a tense confrontation as they hurl racial epithets back and forth, the nastiness of the terms steadily increasing – “Junglebunny,” “Peckerwood,” “Burrhead,” “Cracker,” etc. until the ultimate:
Interviewer: “Jungle Bunny!”
Mr. Wilson: [ upset ] "Honky!”
Mr. Wilson: [ really upset ]
“Honky Honky!”
Interviewer: [ relentless ]
Mr. Wilson: [ immediate but slower and deliberate ]
“Dead honky!”
YouTube has only low-quality versions done with a camcorder pointed at the TV –  this one, for example.

** Unlike Jay-Z, Jay Smooth is reluctant to utter the word “nigger” (or “nigga”) and instead refers only to “that word.” A third Jay (Livingston) is ambivalent. In the title for this post, I cautiously chose “that word.” But the text is different. If you can’t use a word when you are talking about that word, then the terrorists have won.

Super Bowl Post – Crowds, Birds, Horses

February 2, 2014
Posted by Jay Livingston

I have posted frequently – maybe too frequently – about the “wisdom of crowds” in sports betting (in this post, for example, which has links to earlier posts going back to the early days of this blog).  For those of us who doubt that wisdom, today’s Superbowl looks like a notable opportunity.

The initial line two weeks ago from most bookmakers was pick ’em or even the Seahawks favored by a point.  The crowd, in its alleged wisdom, jumped all over the Broncos.  The bookmakers, desperate for Seahawks action to balance their ledgers moved the line, and by early in the week the Broncos were 2½-point favorites.  Betting is still going 75% for the Broncos.*

Of course, a single game (n = 1) is not a good test of this betting strategy.  Still, as Damon Runyon said, the race is not always to the swift, but that’s the way to bet ’em.

It’s two hours till game time, and although this may be the year of the horse, I’m going with Seattle.

UPDATE, Monday, Feb. 3: Well, that was easy. Rarely is the crowd so decisively unwise. Their Broncos handed the Seahawks a two-point lead on the first play of the game, and after that it was all downhill. The Seahawks won 43 - 8. 

 *Bookmakers are leery of raising the line to 3 to attract Seahawks money because if the Broncos do win by 3 (the most common margin in football outcomes), those new bets will be result in a push rather than a win for the books. The books will pay Broncos bettors, who only gave 2½ points, but they will not collect from Seahawks bettors who took the 3 points.  So instead, the books are lowering the vigorish (in effect, the surcharge on losing bets) from 10% to 0% for Seattle bettors but raising it to 15% or 20% for Broncos bettors.