Best-selling Sociology

November 30, 2009
Posted by Jay Livingston

I was leafing through the New York Times Book Review on Sunday, and when I got to the best sellers page, I noticed that three of the top ten books on the nonfiction list are sociology. Well, maybe not exactly sociology in a narrow sense, but in the sense of social science that isn’t psychology.

(Click on the image for a larger view.)
At number four is Superfreakonomics. The authors claim to be doing economics, but in the sequel as in the original, purely financial matters play a secondary role. Much of both Freak books looks a lot like sociology.

Numbers five (What the Dog Saw) and 10 (Outliers) are collections of Malcolm Gladwell essays, many of them based on research by sociologists. Gladwell is a journalist, but sociology is a large sector in his beat. He even spoke at the ASA a couple of years back.

Should I mention Mitch Albom in the #2 spot – a sports writer who wouldn’t be on the list at all were it not for his first best-seller about Tuesdays with a sociology professor? No I shouldn’t mention it.


November 26, 2009
Posted by Jay Livingston

Last year’s post-Thanksgiving post, was a response to a repost at The Situationist fretting about the conservative framing of Thanksgiving (The Situationist reposted it again this year.). The high priests of our society exhort the poor and downtrodden to give thanks for a system that is screwing them. Don’t question or rise against, is the message, but rather be thankful for the few crumbs it brings. The holiday is an exercise in false-consciousness.

From a Durkheimian perspective, I argued, this is the nature of all rituals not just Thanksgiving. “All rituals are inherently conservative. They idealize and uphold the society as a whole and promote the attachment of individuals to that whole.”

I added.
I just wonder whether godly conservatives, those who “recognize that everything we have is a gift from God” included the election of Obama as one of those gifts . . . and gave thanks for it last Thursday.
This Thanksgiving, I’m less sure that the spirit of Durkheim reigns in the land. My guess is that the thanks we hear from the right side of the table will come mixed with a generous portion of snark. The “Pray for Obama” campaign, hawked on everything from bumper stickers to teddy bears, is a recent example of the sort of thing we might get.

Psalm 109, verse 8 is: “Let his days be few; and let another take his office.” And in case it wasn’t clear what “days be few” means, the next verse spells it out: “Let his children be fatherless, and his wife a widow.”

Clever, isn’t it? Doesn’t it bring a smile to your face in this holiday season?

Conservatives know how to avoid false-consciousness. So expect more of this today. I hope someone else is reading the right wing blogs and watching Fox so I don’t have to.

Sour Grapes and Sweet Snickers

November 25, 2009
Posted by Jay Livingston

Let a group of kids trade their candy bars – the “I’ll swap you three Krackles for a two Milky Ways” sort of thing – and you’ll wind up with an allocation that, on the whole, has greater value.

That’s the gist of a Marginal Revolution post by Alex Tabarrok. Now we know what Alex did with his leftover Halloween candy. . . only the “kids” were college students in his economics class, and the trading was not post-Halloween fun; it was a classroom exercise to demonstrate “gains from trade.”
Students open the bag and are then asked to write down how much they would be willing to pay for the bag's contents. But before snacking, students are allowed to trade. After a few minutes of trade, ask the students to write down their valuation again. Voila! Gains from trade. With a few numbers pulled at random from the students you can do a back of the envelope calculation for the total increase in value.
No doubt the economic explanation is valid, but when I read the post, the idea that sprang to mind was something that didn’t occur to Tabarrok or any of the people who commented on the post: cognitive dissonance, more specifically “postdecision dissonance.” People will value something more if they’ve chosen it rather than having no choice. 

It’s the converse of “sour grapes” (if I can’t choose it, it wasn’t sweet). Ask people what each of two candy bars is worth or how much satisfaction each would bring. Then have them actually pay something for their preferred treat. Now ask them to evaluate the two choices again. The subjective value of the chosen candy will have risen relative to the unchosen one. The valuation of the candy will have increased, but there has been no trade, just choice.

Two and a Half Jokes

November 24, 2009
Posted by Jay Livingston

I finally watched an episode of Two and Half Men. The show’s been around for five or six years, and it’s still in the top ten – even in a week when there’s a really good football game in prime time (Colts-Patriots). So it was on my to-do list. As Everett Hughes said, the worst sin for a sociologist is snobbery.

Ideally this post would analyze Two and a Half Men in its social context – its relation to aspects of US society and culture. Maybe another time. For the moment all I could think of was this:

Basically, it’s the “in bed” fortune cookie thing. You know, you read the fortune, pause, then add meaningfully, “in bed.” Funny, right? It’s been around for years (maybe since around the same time that 2.5 Men started), but it still works. I heard Jon Stewart do it just a few days ago on the Daily show.

Sex makes it funny. If something’s already funny, sex makes it funnier. And basically, that’s 2.5 Men. Why is sex funny? Probably because it’s still something we don’t talk about openly. Any laughter a joke might evoke gets the add-on of the tension that comes from touching on a taboo topic. So we hear the essentially the same joke again and again and again. . . . in bed.

The central plot of last night’s episode was that Chelsea wasn’t having an orgasm when she and Charlie had sex. Charlie’s self-centered insensitivity is, I gathered, a regular comic element of the show. But add sex, and it becomes even funnier. Same with Berta. She’s caustic and earthy; she can say sardonic things about her husband and her marriage. But if it’s about sex (like who got to be on top) it’s like adding “in bed” to the Chinese fortune.

Yes, there was a subplot only tangentially related to sex – Alan trying to get a date by using spray-on hair to cover his bald spot. (It took me a few moments to remember where I’d seen this before. Beau Bridges in The Fabulous Baker Boys twenty years ago.). Then Alan goes on J-date and pretends to be Jewish – also not exactly a new idea in comedy.

But mostly, if last night’s episode is typical, 2.5 Men makes its living by taking standard sitcom jokes and adding “in bed.” And it works.

OTOH, or is it really the same hand, there’s XKCD’s take.