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.