AKD - The Sociology Honors Society

April 28, 2007
posted by Jay Livingston

As ceremonies go, it’s not a big deal. Every year, some of our best students choose to join Alpha Kappa Delta, the sociology honor society, and we have an official induction. We announce the student’s name, and he or she comes up and receives a rolled-up sheet of paper tied with a red ribbon (the real certificate comes in the mail). This year, twenty students elected to join, the most we’ve ever had at Montclair.

Unfortunately, our photographer was not very skillful, nor did he “work the room” properly and get photos of all the students. (He claims that he was busy reading names, handing out pseudo-certificates, and being chair of the department, but that’s a pretty lame excuse.)

The speaker for the evening was Bill DeFazio of St. John’s University. Bill’s an ethnographer. Ethnographers do what the research methods textbooks call participant observation.
That means they hang around. Bill has hung around with longshoremen, with juvenile delinquents in Brooklyn (white, criminal, violent), and with theoretical biologists. They biologist project was the hardest, he says, much harder than hanging around with the delinquents.

Most recently, he spent years at the St. John's Bread and Life soup kitchen in Bed-Stuy, and the result is his latest book Ordinary Poverty: A Little Food and Cold Storage. That subtitle— those are the words of a young homeless man describing the life he now lives.
I wish I could convey the sense of compassion and commitment of hope and despair that Bill conveys when he talks about the poor people in all their variety who came to the soup kitchen and about Sister Bernadette, who ran it. There’s nothing romantic about poverty, theirs or anybody else’s.

Forty-year-old male of the middle class, with twenty years of experience as a warehouse manager, hasn't worked in a year. “You should see the people that I have to compete with. I'm waiting for a job interview in a moving company. A beautiful operation. They liked me but they said they didn't want to train me. It's not because I'm obese, at least not this time. It’s a computerized operation, and I would have to be trained on the computer. But, I’m sitting waiting for the interview. The other guy waiting to be interviewed is an MBA, also my age, knows how to use the computer but was laid off from Wall Street and a $80,000 a year job. He's competing with me. I told him I just applied for a warehouse job at Bush Terminal. He asks me for the information and if I mind that he’ll apply for the job, too. I have all on-the-job experience but only a two-year college degree. How can I compete for warehouse jobs with MBAs?”

Poverty, Bill kept reminding us, is ordinary. In the United States of America, the richest country in the world (as Bill also kept reminding us), there are at least 37.5 million people living in poverty. That’s the official count, the real number is much higher. What is so surprising and disappointing is how badly our government and society treat them.

Acceptable Risks — a rant

April 25, 2007
Posted by Jay Livingston

1. Apparently it’s not easy to think like a social scientist. Most people prefer to think in terms of individuals and absolute certainties. But social science doesn’t deal in certainties, at least not about individuals. We think in terms of probabilities or risks. For example, we don’t know precisely which smokers will get lung cancer and which will not; we know only that lung cancer rates will be higher among smokers than among non-smokers. That is, smoking raises the risk.

If you smoke, you are saying in effect that lung cancer is an “acceptable risk.”

Many of the stories in the press after the Virginia Tech shootings were about what the school might have done after the first killings to prevent the ones that occurred later. Many others were about “the mind of the killer.” Behind these stories lay the assumption, the wish really, that somehow it was possible to have predicted what Cho would do, and therefore the killings could have been prevented. The trouble is that such prediction is impossible. There are hundreds, maybe thousands, of people walking around with minds very similar to Cho’s, but who will never kill anyone.

But we could have reduced the probability that such a person could kill on such a large scale. If automatic handguns hadn’t been so easy to get, we would have greatly reduced the risk. Not eliminated it—a determined killer would find a way— but reduced it.

By allowing such easy access to weapons, we are saying that the Virginia Tech killings were an “acceptable risk.”

We cannot predict campus or workplace will be hit; we cannot predict which crazed person will be the shooter. But we can no longer dismiss such a shooting as a one-of-a-kind event — not after Columbine and the many other school shootings, not after the many cases of an employee “going postal.” (Only a few days after Virginia Tech, a NASA worker, upset over a performance evaluation, killed a supervisor and then himself.)

Legislators have been proposing stricter handgun laws for nearly a half century now. But congressional majorities have either voted these down or diluted to then insignificance. If they had been passed, we cannot say that there would be no mass shootings. But we can say that there would have been far fewer of them.

2. A week after the Virginia Tech shootings, the New York Times ran an article on infant mortality in Mississippi. In order not to raise taxes, the governor, Haley Barbour, cut state spending on Medicaid and the Children’s Health Insurance Program (CHIP). “Locations and hours for enrollment changed, and documentation requirements became more stringent. As a result, the number of non-elderly people, mainly children, covered by the Medicaid and CHIP programs declined by 54,000 in the 2005 and 2006 fiscal years.”

The infant mortality rate in Mississippi rose from 14 per 1,000 births to 17 per 1,000. It’s possible that Gov. Barbour didn’t know what effect his policy would have, but he knows now. If he continues this policy, he is saying in effect that those additional 481 dead infants are an “acceptable risk.”

Gov. Barbour is strongly “pro-life.” But don’t bet on him restoring the cuts to Medicaid and CHIP.

The Times also cites a private church-run program in one county where the population is poor, rural, and largely black. Yet the infant mortality rate is only 5 per 1,000, and it has remained that low for the past 15 years. If similar programs were instituted state-wide, it would save the lives of 1,600 infants per year.

If a parent starves an infant and deprives it of medical care, and the child dies, that’s a crime, probably some level of manslaughter. If a governor and legislature deprive thousands of children of food and medical care, and several hundred of them die, that’s just good tax policy.

The New York Walk

April 22, 2007
Posted by Jay Livingston

The weather was perfect Saturday for the informal and unofficial semi-annual Sociology Department New York Walk. And walk we did. We started at Port Authority.

The new murals in the subway station there deserve a better picture than the little thumbnails here.

When you get out on the street in New York, you miss a lot if you look only at eye level. A lot of the interesting things to be seen are up above — the ornamention at the top floors of the buildings, the gargoyles, the windows.

Of course, at street level too you can run into interesting things. Here are two of our walkers, Priscilla and Miriam, with a guy they seemed to recognize and who was kind enough to pose for a picture.
(Full disclosure: Samuel L. was not really there. Madame Tussaud's Wax Museum on Forty-second St. has this likeness outside.)

The great economist and game theorist Thomas Schelling once gave a roomful of law students in New York the following problem: You have to meet a stranger in New York City today, and you have no way of getting in touch with him. The trouble is that you don’t know the time or the place. All you know is that he wants to meet with you, and you want to meet with him. Where and when do you go? Students weren’t allowed to consult with one another, yet most of them wrote the same answer:

The information booth under the clock and Grand Central Station at noon. (As you can see, we were a bit late, and whoever the stranger was, apparently he didn’t wait around for us.) Schelling was interested generally in how one person’s decisions affect those of other people and how those decisions in turn affect yet others. The where-to-meet problem is about the coordination of behavior, and the lesson Schelling offered is that some places are more important than others as “focal point[s] for each person’s expectation of what the other expects him to expect to be expected to do.”

What he should have added was that even if the other guy doesn't show up, you can have a great time just wandering around in this grand piece of architecture.

We took the subway down to the Lower East Side and had lunch at a hole-in-the-wall Thai place. Here are George, Joanne, and Tanya standing just outside.

We've been doing the New York Walk for decades now, and for us old timers, it's about change — the Disneyfication of Forty-second Street, the rehabilitation of Grand Central, the gentrification of just about everywhere. Those changes are invisible to city-walkers who are seeing these places for the first time. But sometimes you can see the neighborhood in transition. In the 1970s, when we first started doing this walk, The Lower East Side looked and felt much like it must have fifty or sixty years earlier — the stores with cheap clothes displayed outside. The stores were still owned by Jews, though the many of the customers and sales people were Hispanic. You can still see some of that. But now much of the sidewalk space seems to be take up by cafes like this one.

You can't read the street sign, but this is at the corner of Orchard and Stanton. Orchard Street, a name once synonymous with tenements and pushcarts. And now you can get a burger here blackened with Cajun mayonnaise or with chipotle pepper and avocado. Oy.

That’s why I particularly liked this fabric store that has probably been around for most of a century. It's squeezed into a narrow space on Stanton Street and doesn’t look like much. Inside, the store goes back forever, with bolts of fabric in every color and texture you can imagine randomly lining the wall. I mean it looked random to me. But I’m sure that if I'd asked this man in charge for some particular item, he could have taken me directly to it in two seconds.
But stores like this one are glimpses of a fast-fading history, and they are quickly giving way to boutiques (two of our walkers, Tanya and Joanne, were particularly taken with a black cotton top that was only $275), cafes, pricier restaurants, cell-phone stores, and real estate offices.

And now, as I think about Thomas Schelling, I realize that my decisions are part of the reason for the change. I'd never buy fabric; I don’t sew my own clothes, and neither does anyone else I know. Sewing machines are all computerized now, and a good one costs thousands of dollars. When I look at the labels in the clothes I buy, they all say made in places on the other side of the globe.

Has Anybody Here Seen a Kelly

April 20, 2007
Posted by Jay Livingston

Social context influences how we judge and respond to a piece of art (or anything else for that matter). That was the message of the previous post in this blog. It was based on a Washington Post article, “Pearls Before Breakfast,” about virtuoso Joshua Bell busking in the DC metro. Everybody who was in on the stunt thought that people would recognize Bell or that at the very least, some people would recognize the quality of the performance. In fact, almost nobody stopped to listen, and many commuters, when interviewed later, didn’t even recall that there was a violinist in the station that morning.

But one person wasn’t surprised and did realize the importance of context—Mark Leithauser, curator at the National Gallery of Art.

Let’s say I took one of our more abstract masterpieces, say an Ellsworth Kelly, and removed it from its frame, marched it down the 52 steps that people walk up to get to the National Gallery, past the giant columns, and brought it into a restaurant. It’s a $5 million painting. And it's one of those restaurants where there are pieces of original art for sale, by some industrious kids from the Corcoran School, and I hang that Kelly on the wall with a price tag of $150. No one is going to notice it. An art curator might look up and say: “Hey, that looks a little like an Ellsworth Kelly. Please pass the salt.”

One reason for the art curator’s wisdom might be that in his field, the connection between artistic value and monetary value is so tenuous. And he knows it. Monetary value is based on what collectors are willing to pay. They’ll pay $5 million because that canvas is a genuine Kelly. The same canvas painted by a nobody would be bring only $150.

Of course, if someone decided to hang the nobody’s canvas in a major museum or an upscale gallery, its price would skyrocket. Location, location, location.

It’s not about the art, it’s about economics. And in this case, as in Father Guido Sarducci’s Five Minute University, all you need to know about economics is “supply ana demand.” Here’s a Kelly print.

It costs $8,000 signed. Unsigned, it might go for less than $1,000. It’s from a limited edition, the supply is limited to 45. If Kelly had printed and signed several hundred, it would still be the same piece of art and have the same artistic value. But it’s price would be less.

(Maybe you think you yourself could produce these works with a $1.89 roll of masking tape and three cans of paint. But that just shows what a Philistines you are.)

People who work in the art world probably take it for granted that judgments and evaluations will be influenced by extrinsics — rarity, authorship, a signature, and location— rather than the intrinsic qualities of the painting. It’s a lesson the rest of us, social scientists included, are continually learning.