05 – Social Structure & Interaction

Our life chances are shaped by the positions we occupy, the resources we control, the ability we have, the effort we exert, luck, and any number of other possible factors. Games can help us to better see how such factors can shape outcomes, especially when, as in the case of some games, the deck seems stacked in favor of some and at the expense of others.

SOCiable – A Game of Life Chances is a card game inspired by the traditional Chinese card game Zheng Shangyou (争上游), meaning “struggling upstream.” Many variations of this game exist, including Dai Hin Min (大貧民) in Japan, Tiên Lên in Vietnam, and President in the United States. Unlike many games popular in the United States, starting positions in these games are hierarchical. Players do not begin with equal resources, power, or opportunities to win. SOCiable is a streamlined version of those games designed to speed up game play in order to fit more hands and games into a shorter period of time (such as a class period).

I’ve been experimenting with using SOCiable in class and thought I’d pass it along. I’ve found it to be helpful when talking about the relationships between structure, individual ability/effort, and luck. I’m hoping that others will give it a try and find it useful, too. I’d love to hear what worked and what didn’t, how students responded, what lessons might have been learned, etc. I would also welcome suggestions for changes or descriptions of how you adapted it to suit your purposes.

I am including both a PDF with full instructions (SOCiable – A Game of Life Chances – version 1.0) and the somewhat briefer PowerPoint file I used to introduce the game in class (SOCiable – A Game of Life Chances (PowerPoint) – version 1.0) . I hope you find them useful.

I talk about these kinds of games in the opening vignette for SOC Chapter 5 as a means of introducing the significance of structures, so it could be used in conjunction with that chapter, but I’ve also used it in my Social Problems course and plan to give it a try in my stratification course this coming semester.

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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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Researchers find that “text speak” by kids, in which they use creative abbreviations to shorten words, correlates with strong literacy skills: Phone texting ‘helps pupils to spell’. According to the BBC report on the research:

Instead it suggests that pupils who regularly use text language – with all its mutations of phonetic spelling and abbreviations – also appear to be developing skills in the more formal use of English.

Are social networking sites such as Facebook, handheld devices including iPhones & Blackberries, online shopping, and blogs changes for the better? According to Pew, answers depend on age and education. For example, they report:

The age gap in attitudes toward these devices is particularly wide: 72% of those under age 30 consider handheld wireless devices to be a positive change, compared with just 33% of those ages 65 and older.

They summarize their results about these quetions in the following table:

These data come from a larger study on people’s attitudes about both technological and social change over the past 10 years: Public Looks Back at Worst Decade in 50 Years.

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PBS has a Frontline program up that raises interesting questions about the impact the Internet is having on our lives. It is called Digital_Nation: Life on the Virtual Frontier. They describe the show this way:

Within a single generation, digital media and the World Wide Web have transformed virtually every aspect of modern culture, from the way we learn and work to the ways in which we socialize and even conduct war. But is the technology moving faster than we can adapt to it? And is our 24/7 wired world causing us to lose as much as we’ve gained?

In Digital Nation: Life on the Virtual Frontier, FRONTLINE presents an in-depth exploration of what it means to be human in a 21st-century digital world….[A]ward-winning producer Rachel Dretzin embarks on a journey to understand the implications of living in a world consumed by technology and the impact that this constant connectivity may have on future generations. “I’m amazed at the things my kids are able to do online, but I’m also a little bit panicked when I realize that no one seems to know where all this technology is taking us, or its long-term effects,” says Dretzin.

I think it would make for fascinating classroom discussions. It would be possible to watch a segment and then see how people respond to the claims that are made, how it matches their experience or not, etc. Fortunately, it is possible to view the program online. The site also includes links to numerous resources, including extended interviews, links, round-table discussions, and more.

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Sociologist Duncan Watts raises questions about Malcolm Gladwell‘s concept of the tipping point in a Fast Company article by Clive Thompson: Is the Tipping Point Toast?

Watts suggests that, while the idea that there are small groups of influentials who drive taste is intuitively appealing, discovering how or even if it happens is, in practice, murky at best. He suggests that it should be operationalized and tested. However, his attempts to do just that have not supported what Gladwell refers to as “the Law of the Few.” A sample from the article:

My models might be totally wrong,” he says cheerfully. “But at least I’m clear about what I’m saying. You can look at them, and tell me if you disagree. But none of these other thinkers are actually clear about what they’re saying. You can’t tell if they’re wrong.”No researcher, he points out–including Keller [author of The Influentials–ever analyzes interactions between specific Influentials and the friends they’re supposedly influencing; no one observes influence in action. In essence, Keller appeals to common sense–our intuitive sense of how the world works. Watts thinks common sense is misleading.

Mind you, Watts does agree that some people are more instrumental than others. He simply doesn’t think it’s possible to will a trend into existence by recruiting highly social people. The network effects in society, he argues, are too complex–too weird and unpredictable–to work that way. If it were just a matter of tipping the crucial first adopters, why can’t most companies do it reliably?

As Watts points out, viral thinkers analyze trends after they’ve broken out. “They start with an existing trend, like Hush Puppies, and they go backward until they’ve identified the people who did it first, and then they go, ‘Okay, these are the Influentials!'” But who’s to say those aren’t just Watts’s accidental Influentials, random smokers who walked, unwittingly, into a dry forest? East Village hipsters were wearing lots of cool things in the fall of 1994. But, as Watts wondered, why did only Hush Puppies take off? Why didn’t their other clothing choices reach a tipping point too?

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From C. Wright Mills:

Caught in the limited milieux of their everyday lives, ordinary men [and women] often cannot reason about the great social structures–rational and irrational–of which their milieux are subordinate parts. Accordingly, they often carry out series of apparently rational actions without any idea of the ends they serve.

From The Sociological Imagination: Fortieth Anniversary Edition, New York: Oxford University Press, 2000, p. 168.

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