Sociology and Changing Times

February 28, 2010
Posted by Jay Livingston

Things change. Watch the video (go ahead, it’s only five seconds long).

(Please ignore the offensive and irrelevant “blonde” in the title. “Secretary” would be better on all counts. )

Maybe you laughed out loud. And if your kids were in the room, maybe they asked you what was funny. Show them the video. Did they laugh? Did they get the joke? (The text that accompanies the video says that people under 40 won’t get it.)

I may use this in my class as a lead-in to the origins of sociology. Tönnies and Gemeinschaft, Durkheim and solidarity, Weber and rationalization. I always fear that students will see these thinkers as merely idle intellectuals coming up with fancy ideas and vocabulary for no other reason than to make life difficult for undergraduates a century later. I want students to see them as real people who were facing big changes, changes that they thought were important, puzzling, and even troubling.

My strategy of late has been to ask students what they think of as the most important events of the past 25-30 years. I also ask them the same question about inventions.

The list of events was slow in coming and a bit quirky:
  • The Iraq wars
  • 9/11
  • Election of Obama
  • Death of Michael Jackson (I don’t judge; I just write ’em on the board).
  • Haiti earthquake
  • Katrina
  • Tsunami of 2004 (there was a disaster chain of association)
  • Fall of the Berlin Wall
  • Formation of the European Union (from an older student, born in Europe)
They had an easier time with inventions:
  • Computers
  • The Internet
  • Cell Phones
  • iPods
  • Facebook
  • Fiberoptics
In fact, their list, although shorter, was strikingly similar to a list generated a year ago by a panel of judges at the Wharton school. (Drek too, here, has recently played this game.)

Then comes the hard part. Why are these important? In what ways have they changed, or will they change, our lives? Will we look back in 25 years and say, “Yes, the death of Michael Jackson – that changed everything,”? (When I asked this in class, the student who had contributed it agreed to take it off the list.) But even with 9/11, the question isn’t an easy one. We know we’re in a “post-9/11 world,” but how is it different from the pre-9/11 world?

The inventions were less baffling. Students thought it made a difference that you could be friends with someone thousands of miles away, someone you’d never met face to face. Or that you could form a group based on narrow interests with people you never could have met otherwise, people all over the world. But they had a hard time saying just how those changes would be important in their lives or how these things would change society.

My point was that with many of these things, we are in the same position as the early sociological thinkers. They were responding to events, chiefly the French Revolution and its legacy, and technological change, the Industrial Revolution. Their task was to come up with a way of talking about these changes, making sense of them, and figuring out their impact on how people lived their lives and thought about themselves and others.

I think the exercise was useful. Maybe some of the students saw it as just bullshitting about stuff we had no conclusions or information about. But my hope is that it gave students some appreciation of the thinkers we were going to be looking at and of the important changes that began around 1800. Some students have only the dimmest knowledge of the French Revolution or the Industrial Revolution (stuff that happened a long time ago in high school). I hope that the analogy with 9/11 and the Internet help.

Packaging Air

February 26, 2010
Posted by Jay Livingston

(A Dan Myers* kind of post)

I had to buy low-dose aspirin (81 mg). One a day, supposedly good for the heart. I went for the generic brand, of course. It came in two sizes – 120 pills and 300 pills. The larger size was the better bargain. And it certainly looked much larger on the shelf.

Then I got home and opened the package. The bottle was mostly empty. I had bought a lot of air. The 300 little aspirin tablets were all there I guess, though I didn’t bother to count them. But they would have fit into a bottle one-third the size. The pill packers hadn’t even put in the usual wads of cotton to fill out the empty space. (What are you supposed to do with that cotton anyway? Do you swallow it with the aspirin, or before? Or do you use it to sop up spilled water?)

In the picture, I’ve dumped the 300 aspirin into a plastic cup that’s about the same diameter as the bottle, and I’ve drawn a line on the bottle to show the level the aspirin reached.

*Dan would have made a video showing the 2/3 empty bottle and him pouring the aspirin into the glass, and maybe popping one into his mouth. Or probably something more amusing. Like taking a huge bag of potato chips, pounding on it till the contents were small particles, and then pouring that into a thimble.

Pimp My Write

February 23, 2010
Posted by Jay Livingston

It doesn’t have much to do with sociology, but this correction in the Times was too good to pass up.

“Pimp” as a verb has now become such a mainstream term that a Times reporter mistakes pumped up for pimped out. (The full Times article is here.)

Ben Yagoda says that the title he really preferred for his book on the parts of speech was Pimp My Ride. The name of the MTV show provides such a good example of the fluidity of parts of speech – a noun turned into a verb, a verb into a noun. Instead, he went with When You Catch An Adjective, Kill It.

Hat Tip: Brendan Nyhan reporting a tweet from Ben Smith at Politico

Cooking the Books - A Second Look

February 19, 2010
Posted by Jay Livingston

Do the police undercount crime?

The graph I cribbed from Rick Rosenfeld in yesterday’s post showed a remarkable similarity between victimization surveys and official crime statistics. In 2000, for example the rate of reported burglaries according to the NCVS was nearly identical to the UCR rate. Both were about 4.4 per 1,000.

Yet in the recent Eterno-Silverman study, police commanders, responding anonymously, said that crime statistics were suppressed. And Josh in his comment yesterday refers to Peter Moskos’s “let me count the ways” description of how the police keep crimes off the books. (See Moskos’s own take on the study at his website.)

The problem is that the graph I presented was somewhat misleading The NCVS and UCR rates of burglary do not measure exactly the same thing. It’s not exactly oranges and apples; more like oranges and tangerines.

1. The NCVS data are for the New York metro area, so we have to use similar UCR data even though the rap about fudging the stats is only about the NYPD. No way to get around that problem

2. More crucially, the NCVS counts only residential burglaries; the UCR number includes both commercial and residential burglaries. Nationwide, about 2/3 of all UCR burglaries are residential. Using that figure for the New York area we get a UCR rate for Residential burglaries of only 3.0 per 1,000 population, about one-third less than we would expect from the estimate of the number of residential burglaries that victims say they reported. Here’s an amended graph. I’ve added a line for residential burglaries that uses the simple 2/3 formula.

(Click on the graph for a larger view.)

The rate of residential burglaries that victims say that they report is usually one-and-a-half to two times greater than the rate of residential burglaries officially “known to the police.” For the year 2000, the NCVS rate of 4.4 per 1,000 population works out to 40,000 reported residential burglaries. If 2/3 of burglaries are residential, only 27,500 of those made it onto the police books.

Does that mean that the police canned 12,5000 reported burglaries? Probably not. There may be other explanations for the some of the discrepancy. But the data do provide some support for those who are skeptical of the precision of the police numbers.