01 – The Sociological Imagination


What is the meaning of life? Hank Green, in a Vlogbrothers video titled “Redefining What It Means to Matter,” suggests that it might just have something to do with our relationships with, treatment of, and contributions to others. Our interdependence is critical to his argument. He says, “Every human being that has ever existed and currently exist labored together to build this world.”

I was reminded of the idea that a “Hamburger Is a Miracle,” that, if we had to rely only upon our own knowledge and skill, we would likely starve (see SOC, Chapter 1). Green then quotes his friend/bandmate Joe DeGeorge as saying, “Tonight we feast on the labor of centuries,” which has echoes of Isaac Newton’s use of the expression, “If I have seen further, it is by standing on the shoulders of giants.” All that we know, think, and do depends on the ideas and efforts of those who have come before us. Or, as Hank Green puts it, “The good things that we have in our lives are mostly because other people worked to make life better.”

Rosa Rodil has created a poster of Joe DeGeorge’s quote. It is available here.

 

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Slate has a story up about how doing network analysis of our online personas can reveal a lot about us that we never intended to reveal. In a story titled, “The Leaky Nature of Online Privacy,” author Kevin Gold reports:

[P]attern recognition software has made it possible to learn about someone not based on what he has shared about himself but by examining what his friends have made public. For example, researchers have trained a program to identify the sexual orientation of gay males with roughly 80 percent accuracy using the self-reported orientation of their Facebook friends. Alan Mislove of Northeastern University has shown that it takes only a 20 percent participation rate among college students in filling out profile information to deduce facts—such as major, year, and dorm—about the nonresponders who simply friended others. The software uses statistics gleaned from large data sets about how often friends tend to have characteristics in common when they are a part of a community and how often they might simply share characteristics by chance; then it combines several such probabilities into a statistically motivated guess as to whether a person belongs to a particular community. So it’s not actually possible to participate in social networks without revealing anything about yourself; you reveal your interests by association.

In other words, even if we think we are keeping elements of our lives private, it is possible to leverage our network connections to learn information about us that we never intended to reveal. In fact, according to the story, “ZIP code, sex, and birth date are enough to determine your exact identity 87 percent of the time.” This raises questions about not only privacy but of power. Who has the capacity to do this kind of analysis? What might they do with it? Should using such information require some kind of informed consent?

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NPR has a story up, “More Americans Hungry For Food Stamps,” about the rise in food stamp use over the past few years. As the economy weakened, people turned to this program to provide for their basic food needs. According to Marilyn Geewax, the author of the story, food stamp use is up 70 percent over the past four year. She writes:

At this time four years ago, before the recession hit, about 27 million people were using food stamps. Today 46 million get help through the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program — what most people call food stamps — which is roughly 15 percent of the population.

The problem is compounded by the fact that food prices have been rising even though wages have remained stagnant.

Included with the story is an audio link so that it possible to listen to the NPR report.

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Do smaller towns produce more athletic stars? The article, “How to Raise a Superstar,” reports on research  suggesting that they do.

In the tradition of Malcolm Gladwell’s book Outliers the article considers the possible effect of Gladwell’s 10,000 hour rule which is based on the research of K. Anders Ericsson. Pointing toward a core presupposition of this approach, the article quotes Ericsson as saying, “The differences between expert performers and normal adults are not immutable, that is, due to genetically prescribed talent. Instead, these differences reflect a life-long period of deliberate effort to improve performance.”

An additional area that Gladwell considered was the impact of January birthdays on athletic success (especially for hockey players). This article, however, suggests that a more powerful influence is importance of birthplace. Researchers found:

the percent of professional athletes who came from cities of fewer than a half million people was far higher than expected. While approximately 52 percent of the United States population resides in metropolitan areas with more than 500,000 people, such cities only produce 13% of the players in the NHL, 29% of the players in the NBA, 15% of the players in MLB, and 13% of players in the PGA.

This suggests that the chances of going on to success in those sports is enhanced if the athlete comes from a smaller community rather than a large city.  The article goes on to suggest possible explanatory factors for this correlation. It would be interesting to break this down even further to see if this trend holds for those who come from communities of less than 50,000 or even less than 10,000.

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ZDNet has an article up about Facebook’s new Places feature including quotes from sociologist Ray Oldenburg: “Facebook Places rebuffed by eminent sociologist who inspired it.”  Oldenburg is described as “an expert in the design and analysis of public places and advocates for their importance in the development of civic responsibility and democracy.”

Oldenburg suggests that there’s been a decline of places where we can build social connections with others in our communities outside of home and work. He suggests the need for such locations (referred to as third places) including bars, coffee shops, and general stores, which can facilitate those connections. In the above article, however, he questions the ability of Facebook’s new Places feature to accomplish this. Oldenburg is quoted as saying:

Real places unite people, electronic ones, because they are based on user choice, tend to be divisive; that is, to connect people who think alike and exclude others.  The term “virtual third place(s)” is common and most inappropriate.

Oldenburg is the author of The Great Good Place: Cafes, Coffee Shops, Bookstores, Bars, Hair Salons, and Other Hangouts at the Heart of a Community and Celebrating the Third Place: Inspiring Stories About the “Great Good Places” at the Heart of Our Communities.

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In honor of Martin Luther King, Jr. day, here is a link (including audio) to his speech Drum Major Instinct. In it he considers what kind of leader he would like to be and how he might be remembered after he dies.

He begins  by defining the drum major instinct as “a desire to be out front, a desire to lead the parade, a desire to be first,” and he suggests that we all have this instinct. After considering the ways that this instinct can be destructive, and, especially in a consumeristic society, can lead to exclusivity, he turns the question toward himself and how he might be remembered as a leader. Speaking of what someone might say at his funeral he says:

I’d like somebody to mention that day that Martin Luther King, Jr., tried to give his life serving others. I’d like for somebody to say that day that Martin Luther King, Jr., tried to love somebody. I want you to say that day that I tried to be right on the war question. I want you to be able to say that day that I did try to feed the hungry. And I want you to be able to say that day that I did try in my life to clothe those who were naked. I want you to say on that day that I did try in my life to visit those who were in prison. I want you to say that I tried to love and serve humanity.

Yes, if you want to say that I was a drum major, say that I was a drum major for justice. Say that I was a drum major for peace. I was a drum major for righteousness. And all of the other shallow things will not matter. I won’t have any money to leave behind. I won’t have the fine and luxurious things of life to leave behind. But I just want to leave a committed life behind.

Two months later to the day King was assassinated. A recording of this speech was played at his funeral. Previous MLK day posts can be found here and here.

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Sociologist Alice S. Rossi, the 74th president of the American Sociological Association and one of the founders of the National Organization for Women (NOW), has died at age 87. The New York Times has a story highlighting some of her contributions. A brief snippet:

In her scholarship, Professor Rossi explored the status of women in work, family and sexual life. An early public advocate of abortion rights, she was often quoted by the national news media on an array of women’s issues. Her writings are widely credited with helping build the platform on which the women’s movement of the 1960s and afterward was erected.

Professor Rossi was best known for her studies of people’s lives — those of women in particular — as they move from youth to age.

Of her 1964 article, “Equality Between the Sexes: An Immodest Proposal,” she said:

My theme was simple enough. For the first time in known history, I wrote, motherhood had become a full-time occupation for adult women, and motherhood was not enough. For the psychological and physical health of mother and child, for the sake of the trembling family unit, and for the progress of society, equality between men and women was essential and inevitable.

A statement of hers (from The Feminist Papers: From Adams to de Beauvoir, p. 407) that is frequently quoted:

The single most impressive fact about the attempt by American women to obtain the right to vote is how long it took.

Her 1983 ASA presidential address, “Gender and Parenthood,” is available here.

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