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).