NBP Gold by Giorgio Monteforti via flickr.com
Much of Switzerland’s wealth is built upon its powerful and secretive financial sector. While it has long been a safe haven for wealthy individuals seeking to stash their cash, sociologist Jean Ziegler (no relation) argues that it is time for the famously neutral nation to reform its banking sector. In an interview with German newspaper Der Spiegel, he asserts that the country has enriched itself through stolen goods:
Money comes to Switzerland through three illegal sources: tax evasion in other developed countries, the blood money of dictators and other rulers in the Third World and organized crime.
Ziegler, who served on the Swiss National Council for 18 years and also acted as the U.N. Special Rapporteur on the Right to Food for another 8, is lukewarm about the prospects for change. On the one hand, he sees popular pressure from neighboring Germany and data leaks that could reveal the origins of deposits in his country’s banks. That said, he notes that much inertia must be overcome before real change can happen.
The structure of the Swiss ruling class is rock-hard, and unchanged since the time of Napoleon. They sit on their mountains and lecture the world on democracy.
Photo by Chris Butterworth via flickr.com
When Tanya Marie Luhrmann, a Stanford anthropologist, studies religion, she’s not asking whether God is real. Rather, she wants to know how believing in a higher power affects the lifecourse. Writing in The New York Times, Luhrmann argues that the positive effects of church attendance go beyond simply increasing social capital through community interaction—it can be a psychiatric boon:
What I saw in church as an anthropological observer was that people were encouraged to listen to God in their minds, but only to pay attention to mental experiences that were in accord with what they took to be God’s character, which they took to be good. I saw that people were able to learn to experience God in this way, and that those who were able to experience a loving God vividly were healthier—at least, as judged by a standardized psychiatric scale.
Luhrmann’s work centers around “the way that ideas held in the mind come to seem externally real to people,” and she notes that belief in God is not always beneficial (for instance, some may feel only despair when they search for religious guidance). To that end, Luhrmann uses her essay to encourage more research into the relationships between mental illness and religion. Like many topics that interest social scientists, the challenge here is to move beyond, “Is this good or bad?” to explore, “When and for whom is this good or bad?”
Paxson’s new book, available from UCPress.
American cheeses—not just the individually-wrapped slices—are making a comeback, as documented by MIT’s Heather Paxson, who recently published The Life of Cheese: Crafting Food and Value in America. The anthropological work details her research into the people and processes behind artisan cheeses in the U.S. Looking over the last 50 years, Paxson indentifies a host of factors behind the re-emergence of American artisanal cheese: environmentalism, feminism, markets (both local and international), and 9/11, among others. In an interview with the Boston Globe, she commented:
Like most social movements, it only looks like a movement in retrospect… Cheesemaking appealed to people the way that some start-up dot-coms did. It was the rural counterpart to that.
Paxson, who studies “how people craft a sense of themselves as moral beings through everyday practices, especially those activities having to do with family and food,” became curious about artisanal cheese after eating a sample of Hooligan, a Connecticut cheese, and asking the questions that are the genesis of so much social science research: Who? How? Why?
Working from home photo by Victor1558 via flickr.com.
Best Buy has ended its Result Only Work Environment (ROWE) program, which famously allowed employees to telecommute, working in the office on a set schedule, or have the flexibility to do both. Evaluations were based solely on job performance, with no consideration of attendance. Best Buy’s policy change follows a similar change at Yahoo, where CEO Marissa Meyer no longer allows staff to work from home.
Executives at both companies cite a need to improve competitiveness, and they argue that requiring employees to come to the office will enhance collaboration and innovation. Erin Kelly, a sociologist at the University of Minnesota, is skeptical. She argues that ROWE is not to blame for the companies’ struggles:
“I’m concerned that these flexibility initiatives and telework initiatives are getting blamed for what may be other problems those organizations are facing in the broader market,” Kelly told the Star Tribune.
Jennifer Glass, a sociologist at the University of Texas, similarly disputes research claims that required attendance improves innovation among employees.
In an op-ed for the New York Times, Glass writes:
[M]uch of this “research” simply shows that workers who collaborate with others in loose networks generate better ideas. It doesn’t suggest that the best way to create new products and services is by isolating your employees in the silo of a single location.
Best Buy and Yahoo are calling for all hands on deck, but do all hands need to be on deck at the same time?
Step One in the Chemistry.com system.
Despite being a word (and act) that’s tricky to time, perhaps love can be deciphered by an algorithm. Increasingly, online dating sites are using the results from user surveys to try to do just that. Helen Fisher, a biological anthropologist at Rutgers who advises Chemistry.com, uses a questionnaire to identify people as Negotiators, Directors, Builders, or Explorers. Directors, for example, tend to match well with Negotiators.
And whether the sites are actually helping people find “the one,” their personality tests and post-date reviews are providing a treasure trove of data for social scientists. In an interview with Buzzfeed, Michael Rosenfeld, a sociologist at Stanford, raises methodological questions about the value of the data—for example, people who create profiles on data sites are not a random sample of the population.
Still, sampling aside, Rosenfeld points out the cultural implications of the rise of online dating, noting:
The Internet has increased the decline of family but also of friends and coworkers and school, because [it’s] an efficient marketplace, especially if you are looking for something particular.
If people continue to turn to the online marketplace, larger sample sizes and more feedback may make matchmaking websites more efficient and give researchers more insights into the science of attraction (including people’s attraction to such sites).
Photo by Nevele Otseog via flickr.com
The shifting ethnic and racial composition of the United States has social scientists and political strategists busy calculating the “new electoral math”. By 2040, Latinos will surpass 30% of the population, while whites will be a minority. A new study from the Pew Research Center suggests this could spell serious trouble for the GOP—children of Latino immigrants are more likely to lean Democrat than their parents.
Jody Agius Vallejo, a sociologist at USC, believes that the data is correct: Latino voters are going blue. She pushes back against the notion that the Latino vote will eventually break toward the Republicans due to “traditional values,” instead arguing that Republican policies like Arizona’s controversial SB1070 will continue to drive Latino voters to the left. She puts it bluntly:
Latinos are presently not attracted to the Republican party and there is no reason to think that Latinos will become Republicans just because a few Republicans support immigration reform.
Immigration reform figured prominently in both President Obama’s State of the Union address and Senator Marco Rubio’s GOP response. As the debate heats up in Congress, the increasing voting power of Latinos will certainly factor into how both major parties draw up their positions.