Photo by Kai Brinker via flickr.com
A recent incident where police officers removed elderly “loiterers” from a McDonald’s in Queens has sparked a debate over the phenomenon of spaces such as McDonald’s and Starbucks being used as impromptu senior centers. In her article for the New York Times, Stacy Torres makes excellent use of sociological ideas when defending the use of these spaces for socializing. She argues that the use of these public places as a sort of social club helps these Manhattan seniors avoid isolation and keep much needed social bonds. She turns to sociologists to explain the phenomenon:
Ray Oldenburg, a professor emeritus of sociology at the University of West Florida, calls these gathering spots “third places,” in contrast to the institutions of work and family that organize “first” and “second” places. He sees bookstores, cafes, and fast food joints as necessary yet endangered meeting points that foster community, often among diverse people. The Yale sociologist Elijah Anderson likens public settings such as Reading Terminal Market in Philadelphia to a “cosmopolitan canopy,” where people act with civility and converse with others to whom they might never otherwise speak.
Torres explains that since many of the neighborhood places such as local bakeries or cafes have disappeared, these seniors are forced to turn to institutions such as these fast food restaurants in order to provide structure and routine to their lives.
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?”
If we’re not all living in Steubenville, are we still subject to the rules of Guyland?
When people do horrible things, it is often too tempting to obsess over the individual perpetrator, to ask “What went wrong?” through a slew of news headlines, childhood photo montages, and impassioned Internet comments. However, one of the basic tenets of Sociology 101 is that nothing happens in isolation—we must also look at the social sphere around an individual.
Michael Kimmel reminds us of this maxim in a recent opinion piece on Ms. Magazine’s website. Writing about the community response around a now-notorious Steubenville, Ohio gang rape, Kimmel argues that public outcry against the individual perpetrators (and trivial “poster boy(s) for teenage male douchery” who make light of the event) misses the point. What about the influence of a male-dominated community that could protect the perpetrators—those Kimmel calls “The 18,437 Perpetrators of Steubenville” in his title? He writes:
As I found in my interviews with more than 400 young men for my book Guyland, in the aftermath of these sorts of events—when high-status high school athletes commit felonies, especially gang rape—they are surrounded and protected by their fathers, their school administrations and their communities.
They did what they did because they felt entitled to, because they knew they could get away with it. Because they knew that their coaches, their families, their friends, their teammates and the police department—indeed, the entire town would rally around them and protect them from the consequences of what they’ve done.