Author Archives: letta

Why One Social Network Isn’t Enough for Innovators

Burt says playing pretend is a useful tool for innovators. Artwork via Blue Sky Innovation. Click for original.

Burt says playing pretend is a useful tool for innovators. Artwork via Blue Sky Innovation. Click for original.

“There’s always someone more ignorant than you!” Ronald Burt, a professor of sociology and strategy at the University of Chicago’s prestigious Booth School of Business is definitely up for looking on the bright side. In fact, that opening mantra? It’s his way of saying maybe there isn’t anything new under the sun—but if it’s new to you? You can work with that.

According to the Chicago Tribune’s “Blue Sky Innovation,” Burt says there are two good ways to network that to support your ideas. Those who need to work on nitty gritty improvements—say getting production processes fine-tuned—need “closure,” or a tight social network of specialists. But those “charged with innovation need to branch out and build brokerage,” or a diverse network of people and insights from different fields and even different mindsets. (more…)

Maximizing Your Parental Investment: 10 Easy Steps*

Photo by Travis Barfield, Flickr Creative Commons.

Photo by Travis Barfield, Flickr Creative Commons.

Forbes Magazine recently highlighted some shocking numbers. According to the USDA,

A child born in 2012 will cost his parents $241,080 in 2012 dollars, on average [in the first 17 years of life]… And children of higher-earning families drain the bank account more: Families earning more than $105,000 annually can expect to spend $399,780 per child.

That works out to about $14,000 a year on the low end. Now that, as author Laura Shin points out, is a big investment—especially when kids used to be contributors to the household economy, not drains on it. Today, NYU professor Dalton Conley calls on research from colleague Viviana Zelizer who says “kids are emotionally priceless and economically worthless.” And yet, “We think of them as our most important life project.”

In a hard economy in a country with high inequality, parental investment in children is truly important, Conley goes on. “We know… that investments at home in time, energy and from birth and before are what actually develop kids that are successful in terms of this knowledge economy.” And those successful kids will get into better schools, have better jobs, and maybe even be able to support their parents into old age. But how do can parents get the best return on this investment?

That question, Shin writes, is at least partially answered with Conley’s new book Parentology: Everything You Wanted to Know about the Science of Raising Children But Were Too Exhausted to Ask. Along with Conley, she goes on to boil down the how-to for investing in your child to ten easy (well, depending on means, time, and commitment) steps. Be sure to click on over for all the good stuff on number, timing, names, parental work decisions, public v. private school, bribes, ADD, and whether to “stay together for the kids.” In the meantime, Shin concludes, “The most important guideline is to make your actions speak louder than you words.” Parenting the Warren Buffett way!


*Edited to better contextualize the USDA’s numbers and why parents’ investment might have an ROI at all (someone’s got to foot the bill for all those Golden Years we’ve heard so much about… particularly if we blew all our cash on soccer lessons). Another reader points out that it’s worth looking at all the sociology on how to maximize returns by minimizing investment (that is, not having children at all).

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The Moral Compass of Millennials

Does the "wrong" come in creating the secret or telling it? Photo by John Perivolaris via Click for original.

Does the “wrong” come in creating the secret or telling it? Photo by John Perivolaris via Click for original.

Philosopher Peter Ludlow, a faculty member at Northwestern University, writes in a recent post for “The Stone” blog on that, instead of undermining systems and generally acting immorally, people like Chelsea Manning and Edward Snowden took real risks to expose what Hannah Arendt famously called “the banality of systemic evil.” In a lengthy dissection, Ludlow looks at the leaks that so many have condemned and, noting that one of Aaron Swartz’s self-professed favorite books was the sociology text Moral Mazes, and finds an emerging extra-institutional morality across the cases. Ludlow concludes:

…if there are psychological motivations for whistleblowing, leaking and hacktivism, there are likewise psychological motivations for closing ranks with the power structure within a system — in this case a system in which corporate media plays an important role. Similarly it is possible that the system itself is sick, even though the actors within the organization are behaving in accord with organizational etiquette and respecting the internal bonds of trust.

Just as Hannah Arendt saw that the combined action of loyal managers can give rise to unspeakable systemic evil, so too generation W has seen that complicity within the surveillance state can give rise to evil as well — not the horrific evil that Eichmann’s bureaucratic efficiency brought us, but still an Orwellian future that must be avoided at all costs.

For more on weighing the costs and benefits of surveillance, be sure to check out “A Social Welfare Critique of Contemporary Crime Control” and pretty much all of the Community Page Cyborgology here on TSP. For more on moral ambiguity, consider Moral Mazes by Robert Jackall (updated and released in paperback by Oxford University Press in 2009) and Teaching TSP’s piece on the “Obedience to Authority” and the Milgram experiments.

Colleges Suffering College Debt, Too

A sign protesting the imposition of tuition fees at NYC's historic Cooper Union, a 150-year-old free school. Photo by Michael Fleshman via

A sign protesting the imposition of tuition fees at NYC’s historic Cooper Union, a 150-year-old free school. Photo by Michael Fleshman via

UC Berkeley grad students and Scholars Strategy Network members Charlie Eaton and Jacob Habinek are in an ideal spot—geographically, educationally, even generationally—to look at college debt. Young people seeking first degrees, let alone post-secondary education, are increasingly floundering in student debt, and Congress is dragging its heels when it comes to finding ways to mitigate that debt’s effects. But the state of California’s higher education system is also notoriously in the red, and that’s where their research comes in.

“Public research universities,” like those the authors attend, “have passed along their own debt to students by raising tuition and fees by an average of 56 percent from 2002 to 2010,” writes Don Troop in The Chronicle of Higher Education’s Bottom Line blog. So, yes, the students face rising loan debt, but it’s at least partially due to the borrowing needs of the colleges getting passed along to the “consumer,” a model not usually associated with public institutions. Troop goes on to cite the authors’ work examining data ”from 155 public research universities,” “among which debt-service payments had risen 86 percent from 2002 to 2010.”

The idea that inflation raises the cost of goods and providers then raise the cost of the goods for the end consumer isn’t new. When that commodity is education, however, we see students (even those who never graduate) holding what may soon amount to adjustable rate credit card bills: federal and private education loans. To read the full SSN report, click here.

Economics, Sentimentality, and the Safe Baby

Catalog photo by travelingcookie via

Catalog photo by travelingcookie via

Adam Davidson, of NPR’s “Planet Money,” makes a sheepish confession right at the very start of his latest NYTimes piece: “raising a child in Park Slope, Brooklyn, can bear an embarrassing resemblance to the TV show ‘Portlandia.’” Having trucked his family down to the Brooklyn Baby Expo, Davidson saw everything from plant-resin teething rings to organic-cotton car seat covers (to limit babies’ exposure to manmade fibers). He realized, the baby market is a commodity market, and that’s when he started to feel better:

It’s easy to feel like a sucker once you realize that nearly every dollar you’ve paid over the commodity price is probably wasted. But the process also has enormous benefits for all consumers.

When companies need to compete, they must differentiate, and in the baby market that can mean safety innovations that set the newest standard—possibly inspiring the government to raise safety regulations. Even if you’re not an early adopter of BPA-free bottles, you may soon find that your store brand bottles are BPA-free, just like joovy® “boob baby bottle.” And then everyone’s a little safer, even if that concern is relatively new.

Davidson turns to classic research from sociologist Viviana Zelizer to expand on “The Sippy Cup 1%” and changing childhood:

It might shock the shoppers at Brooklyn Baby Expo, but the idea that everything children touch should be completely safe is a fairly new one. In previous generations—and for most people currently living in poorer countries—having children was an economic investment. Viviana Zelizer, a Princeton sociologist, in her 1985 classic, “Pricing the Priceless Child,” tracked how childhood in America was transformed between the 1880s and the 1930s. During this period, Zelizer says, parents stopped seeing their children as economic actors who were expected to contribute to household finances. Families used to routinely take out life insurance plans on their children to make up for lost wages in the not unlikely event of a child’s death.

But eventually, increased societal wealth, child-labor laws and the significant drop in child mortality led parents to reclassify their children, Zelizer explained, as “a separate sphere, untainted by economic concerns.” This came along with “an increasingly sentimentalized view of children,” in which their comfort and protection can be given no price. Now, for the first time in human history, having a child in the United States is a net financial cost for a parent. This, of course, has been a huge boon to child-product manufacturers. Companies profit from our sentiment with extraneous features. The whole process is prone to produce absurdities like the $4,495 Roddler custom stroller, but the best advances become inexpensively incorporated into everybody’s products. In the end, it really does contribute to making children safer than ever.

The People’s Art

Banksy vs. Monet

Banksy vs. Monet

In Britain, it’s usually Banksy who’s associated with free-wheeling art in the streets. But now, sociologist and performer Tom Shakespeare is taking what might be an even more radical stance—not only should street art be outside the walls of the museum, museum art should go free, too.

“Couldn’t a gallery be more like a library and less like a temple?” Shakespeare asks in his Point of View piece for the BBC News Magazine. His idea is that a society is enriched by its art, and so, by locking up the great works of the world, we’re preventing the flourishing of society-level happiness. Hang a Monet in your house for a couple of weeks, and your whole worldview might change.

Maybe my modest proposal to break open the museum vaults will appear as fanciful as my support for the much-maligned Arts Council. In which case, let me finish by mentioning another way of democratising the visual arts – an experiment that is happening here and now and in the UK, no less.

Last week, the long list for Art Everywhere was published. This project, subtitled “A very, very big art show”, seeks to use hundreds of donated billboard sites to bring 50 of the best-loved works of British art into the public space for two weeks.

I think that Art Everywhere is an inspired idea. We are being asked to donate three pounds, and to choose which pictures from the long list will get this unprecedented exposure.

Just imagine: for two weeks, large scale artworks, in our streets. Not selling, not scaring, not “sloganising”, not titillating – just existing. Intervening silently in our lives with beauty and wonder and mystery.

More please.

For art lovers as well as scholars of utopias and happiness, this modest proposal might be a fantastic conversation starter—and we know that’s good for society.

January 2013 TSP Media Award for Measured Social Science

Just gotta find the gold one… Photo by takingthemoney via

Just gotta find the gold one… Photo by takingthemoney via

We are pleased to announce the winner of the January 2013 TSP Media Award for Measured Social Science:

US media helped anti-Muslim bodies gain influence, distort Islam,” Liat Clark, Wired UK

In an engaging piece jumping off of recently published sociological analysis of post-9/11 rhetoric in the United States, Clark wrote:

A study published by a sociologist has revealed that fear-mongering non-governmental anti-Muslim organisations have been heavily influencing US media since 9/11, their messages seeping into news articles and television reporting and drawing their ethos from the fringes, straight into the mainstream.

What’s perhaps most troubling about the results is how these minor groups, which would ordinarily receive little or no air time, have gained an element of respect that has led to them receiving more funding and coupling with influential bodies. Their influence is such that they have even been able to paint mainstream Muslim organisations as radical, says the study.

By going on to further explore Christopher Bail’s article and bring in commentary from sociologist Penny Edgell about her work on American responses to atheism, Clark shows a broad, but intricate, journalistic approach—particularly notable since she’s writing about religion, but also, well, journalism.

Clark’s article has been written up as a Citing by our own Andrew Wiebe, but is well worth a thorough read.

As we say often, the choice of each month’s TSP Media Award is neither scientific nor exhaustive, but we do work hard to winnow our favorite nominees. And, while we don’t have the deep pocketbooks to offer enormous trophies or cash prizes, we hope our informal award offers cheer and encouragement for journalists and social scientists to keep up the important (if not always rewarding) work of bringing academic knowledge to the broader public.

Shortage of Sick Days: Worse than Shortage of Flu Vaccine?

Not a good sign around the water cooler. Photo by John Liu via flickr.

In TIME’s online Ideas section, Columbia’s Shamus Khan makes a reasonable proposition: let sick people stay home and get well. “While we typically look to doctors and medicines in a health crisis,” such as the current flu outbreak, “we should recognize that guaranteeing paid sick days to workers could do as much, if not more, to help moderate the impact…”

Khan goes on to cite the 40% of American workers who have no paid sick days and point out that “this is not just inhumane but a matter of public health.”

The jobs with the most contact with the public are the least likely to provide sick days… when you go to purchase a cup of coffee or eat at a restaurant, know that almost all (76%) of the people serving you are likely to show up to work sick, because not doing so means not getting paid and could mean getting fired. Scholars have a name for this—presenteeism: being at work when you otherwise should not for fear of losing your job or beng viewed by your boss as lazy or unreliable.

While New York’s leadership has declined to support paid sick leave policies, San Francisco has implemented one and saw higher rates of employment. “Paid sick leave works,” Khan concludes. Employees stay home and get well, spread less disease, and are less likely to visit emergency rooms (saving themselves and the wider healthcare system millions).

School’s Not Out for Summer?

Kids celebrate the start of summer break with an end-of-term pageant. Photo by Andrea_44 via

Educators, parents, and politicians concerned with the bottom line have spent untold time debating the merits of year-round grade school. As the Associated Press reports, the U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan falls firmly into the “pro” camp, believing bringing the academic and annual calendars into line will help propel American students to the front of the global classroom. Duncan even announced a new national program adding 300 hours of school per year in select districts: “The three-year pilot project will affect about 20,000 students in 40 schools in Colorado, Connecticut, Massachusetts, New York and Tennessee.” Others plumping for a longer school-year point out that parents would rather arrange for 3 weeks than 3 months of childcare and say that disadvantaged students gain in everything from better nutrition (because they may eat up to two meals at school) to better test scores. The former head of the National Association for Year Round School in San Diego is quoted as saying ”The only [kids] who don’t lose [over the summer] are the upper 10 to 15 percent of the student body. Those tend to be gifted, college-bound, they’re natural learners who will learn wherever they are.”

In the “con” camp come parents who enjoy the chance to let their kids daydream, travel, take specific summer courses to bone up in particularly needed areas, and play sports and go to camps. Groups like “Save Our Summers” “point out that states such as Minnesota and Massachusetts steadily shine on standardized achievement tests while preserving their summer break with a post-Labor Day school start,” and that districts are already strapped for cash—how will they pay for extra teachers to fill all those hours?

As it turns out, the calendar conservatives may have at least some research on their side. After outlining the many arguments for and against changing schedules, even profiling San Diego’s 40-year-old blended model (some of its schools are year-round, others aren’t), the AP comes down in the middle: “A 2007 study by Ohio State University sociologist Paul von Hippel found virtually no difference in the academic gains of students who followed a traditional nine-month school calendar and those educated the same number of days spread across the entire year.” So, while the number of classroom hours may make a great deal of difference in educational outcomes, how they’re spread out over the course of a year probably doesn’t.

Savage Love, Social Science

Well, you don’t see that every day—or even every week in columnist Dan Savage’s nationally-syndicated “Savage Love.” But this week, if you happened to flip through your local alternative paper or visit The Onion’s AV Club online, you might have spotted the ever-elusive social scientist lurking in the often thought-provoking, sometimes lurid, and generally entertaining and thoughtful column. That’s right, Eric Klinenberg, NYU sociologist and author of Going Solo: The Extraordinary Rise and Surprising Appeal of Living Alone, is called in to reassure a reader who simply doesn’t feel like coupling up.

When Klinenberg began his research for this book, he told NPR affiliate KALW San Francisco earlier this year, he thought it was going to be a story of sadness. Lonely elderly people dying alone in heatwaves, young people failing to launch, etc. But instead, as he tells Savage, “…young adults have been the fastest growing group of American singletons. They’re delaying marriage and spending more years single. Moreover, they increasingly recognize the fact that over their long lives, they’re likely to cycle in and out of different situations: alone, together; alone, together.” Klinenberg advises the letter writer to remain open to any of those possibilities, but demand respect for his current choice to remain single, pointing out that his findings show, “People who live alone tend to be more social than people who are married… So much for the myth of selfish singles!”

Klinenberg closes rhetorically, “We’ve come a long way in our attitudes about sex and relationships. Now that living alone is more common than living with a spouse and two children, isn’t it time we learned to respect the choice to go solo, too?” For the sake of the not-so-lonely letter-writer, we certainly hope so.

For more on Klinenberg’s research, be sure to check out our Office Hours interview with him about Going Solo.