Author Archives: jl2109

Crime Sprees or Media Themes? Organizing the News

Way back in 1978, Mark Fishman wrote an article titled “Crime Waves as Ideology.”  It referred to the way in which TV news gets organized thematically in ways that make non-trends appear to be trends.  Fishman pointed out that the news directors can unwittingly create media crime waves — sudden increases in the number of stories even as the the actual number of crimes remains unchanged.  Once the theme is established, it’s just a matter of combing the city or the entire country for incidents that fit.  Today we’re so used to it that when we watch the local news at eleven, we barely notice.

Now, thanks to hyperlinks, online news can do the same thematic grouping.  Consider: on a recent Sunday, both New York tabloids put the same story on page one — the stabbing death of a woman and four children in their apartment in Sunset Park, Brooklyn.

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Early word from the police was that “it’s looking a domestic violence case.” Apparently the killer knew the victims and may have been a relative.

What caught my attention was the “related” story that the Daily News linked to on its website version of the story.  What kind of story might be related?  A story about the family?  About difficulties faced by Chinese immigrants or conflicts within an immigrant community?  About mental illness and violence?  About ethnic and demographic changes in Sunset Park?   No.  None of the above.  The related story is actually an entirely unrelated story.

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The story the Daily News chose as “related” concerns the “Green Gang goon who was caught on video slugging a female New England Patriots fan in the face after the Jets’ upset victory” a week earlier. It turns out that in a fight twenty years ago, when he was 17, he fatally stabbed another kid.  He served three years.

How are these two stories related? There is no connection between the two killers or their victims. The incidents are separated by two decades.  The motives and circumstances are entirely different.  If the Jets fan had not been caught on camera punching the female Patriots fan, no journalist following the Sunday killing would have dug up information on this crime of twenty years ago in an attempt to elaborate on the Sunset Park killings.  Knowing about that “related” crime gives us no better understanding of Sunday’s stabbing.

Instead, the two stories are related by a common theme — they are both about killing where the weapon is a knife.  The Daily News seems to be taking a page from Amazon’s marketing strategy. “Readers who liked this story also liked . . .”  or Netflix recommendations. Television news often groups stories thematically. A story about a commercial arson in one part of town will be followed by a story about an accidental fire in a house in a distant neighborhood. The circumstances, location, and causes of the two fires are completely different, and if the big fire had not occurred, that house fire might not have been newsworthy.  But that night, it fit with the fire theme.

Here is another example in a screengrab from the Daily News website:

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A stabbing at the University of Indiana. The related stories are a stabbing death of a teacher in Long Beach, California and of a teacher in a Texas high school.

So, students stabbing people at schools — is that a real trend? Probably not, but it is a news theme.

Cross-posted at Montclair Socioblog.

Jay Livingston is the chair of the Sociology Department at Montclair State University. You can follow him at Montclair SocioBlog or on Twitter.

Kennedy and a Case of Emotional Contagion

The Kennedy assassination was my first clear lesson in the sociology of emotions, though I didn’t know it at the time.  I was in Japan, living with a Japanese family in a small town in the mountains of Nagano prefecture. I had been there less than two months, my knowledge of the language was barely rudimentary. There were no other Americans. I was the first Westerner many people in the town had ever seen in the flesh. (Everyone had seen gaijin on TV since the Japanese networks ran many American shows.)

When I came to breakfast that Saturday morning, and even before I had taken my place the tatami floor with the others,  my Japanese family desperately tried to tell me the news. At first all I could understand was that it had something to do with Kennedy. The Japanese words for shoot or kill were not part of my tiny vocabulary. I knew the word for dead, but when the father of the family used it, I assumed I was hearing one of the many homophones. The television was on, but I certainly could not understand what the news readers were saying. Finally, the father, still seated, acted it out. He fired his index-finger pistol. Then pointing to himself and saying, “Kennedy,” he clutched his hands to his chest and canted his body over as if falling to the floor.  The gravest event translated into a simplified charade – it would have seemed ludicrous had it not been so serious.

I understood, but I was still incredulous. In the next few days, I learned more, mostly from the one person in the town who spoke fluent English (he had just come back from a year in Kansas), and from the English language daily, the Japan Times, my only outside source of information. I remained isolated from other Americans. If emotions are contagious, I had been quarantined.

It was only much later, when I was back in the US that I learned of what it was like to be here then. When I heard people describing where they were; or on anniversaries like today, when the media hauled out their archival footage – only then did I sense the emotion that so many Americans felt.

Most people, if asked, would probably have said that their grief was caused entirely by a personal sense of loss perhaps and the symbolic meaning they assigned to Kennedy – the president who, in is youth and vibrancy, represented hope for the future, etc.

I had felt none of that. I was stunned of course. In the world I had taken for granted, presidents did not get assassinated.  Now that assumption was shattered.  But the Kennedy in my mind was still the same person, politician, and president that he had been before the assassination. So I missed out on feeling of grief and great loss. And I think the reason that I did not feel those emotions is not that I was young and callow (though I was that too) but that I was so isolated. Had I been in the US, engaged in the flood of constant talk, both in person and in the media, I would probably have felt those feelings more intensely.

When something so unusual and traumatic happens, we search for a way to make sense of it – our old sociological friend, a “definition of the situation.”  In that search, we look to others, and the definition we learn from others – what this thing is and what it means – is not just information and explanation. We learn the emotions that are part of this definition. We have a fairly large repertoire of emotions that we can experience, and in a sympathetic-vibration-like process, the emotions we see all around us evoke the same emotion in us.  We experience that emotion as personal.  But in an important way, it is also social.

Cross-posted at Montclair SocioBlog.

Jay Livingston is the chair of the Sociology Department at Montclair State University. You can follow him at Montclair SocioBlog or on Twitter.

The New Conventional: Anything Goes

olden days a glimpse of stocking
Was looked on as something shocking,
But now lord knows —
Anything goes.

— Cole Porter, 1934

Poor Richard Cohen, columnist for the Washington Post. He’s being raked over the liberal coals for this recent observation:

Today’s GOP is not racist, as Harry Belafonte alleged about the tea party, but it is deeply troubled – about the expansion of government, about immigration, about secularism, about the mainstreaming of what used to be the avant-garde. People with conventional views must repress a gag reflex when considering the mayor-elect of New York – a white man married to a black woman and with two biracial children. (Should I mention that Bill de Blasio’s wife, Chirlane McCray, used to be a lesbian?) This family represents the cultural changes that have enveloped parts – but not all – of America. To cultural conservatives, this doesn’t look like their country at all.

As Ta-Nehisi Coates points out, gagging at a Black-White couple and their biracial children is, in fact, racist. So let’s focus on the word that Cohen uses to avoid that obvious conclusion – conventional.

Conventional:  conforming or adhering to accepted standards; ordinary rather than different or original.

Matthew Yglesias at Slate seizes on that word and those “people with conventional views.” Yglesias too calls Cohen’s column “racist,” but more to the point, he provides some Gallup-poll evidence that interracial marriage is the new conventional.

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Or as Cole Porter put it in a 1935 production:

When ladies fair who seek affection
Prefer gents of dark complexion
As Romeos —
Anything goes

Porter was bemused; Cohen is troubled. My spider sense tells me that if he’s not actually one of those people with conventional views repressing a gag reflex, he at least feels some strong sympathy for them. But they are on the wrong side of 21st century history, and not only on interracial marriage.  Consider that parenthetical comment:

(Should I mention that Bill de Blasio’s wife, Chirlane McCray, used to be a lesbian?)

First, this is a pretty good example of one of my favorite rhetorical devices, paralipsis (or is it apophasis?) – saying something while saying that you’re not saying it. “To keep this discussion one of principle and not personalities, I won’t even mention that my opponent was arrested for wife-beating and has been linked to the Gambino crime family.”

Second, as with interracial marriage, opinion on homosexuality has shifted considerably.  Here’s the GSS data.
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In less than twenty years, the Always Wrong delegation has shrunk from more than three-fourths to less than half.  As Cohen says, this change has “enveloped” only parts of America.  The gag reflex is still strong in the East South Central, which comprises Alabama, Mississippi, Tennessee, and Kentucky – the most unenveloped (unreconstructed?) of the GSS regions.
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Despite the recent liberalizing trend, the Always Wrongs outnumber the Never Wrongs by more than two  to one.

But wait, Cohen is not from the South or Appalachia. Like Bill deBlasio, he’s a New Yorker born and bred. (DeBlasio is from Manhattan, Cohen from Far Rockaway, Queens.)  But there might be one other demographic source of that gag reflex – age.  Cohen is 72.  Here’s how his peers feel about people who share Cole Porter’s sexual orientation.
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Among septuagenarians and their elders, those gagging at gays have a large 3½-to-1 edge.

Cohen is probably making the mistake that many of us make – projecting our own views as more widely held than they actually are. Journalists may be especially prone to this kind of projection, preferring to write about what “the public” or “the voters” want or think, when simple first-person statements would be more accurate. So when Cohen says, “to cultural conservatives, this doesn’t look like their country at all,” he may be talking about himself and the country he grew up in — Far Rockaway in the forties and fifties.  But in 2013, that Far Rockaway is far away.

Cross-posted at Montclair SocioBlog.

Jay Livingston is the chair of the Sociology Department at Montclair State University. You can follow him at Montclair SocioBlog or on Twitter.

Who Wants a Christian America?

Republicans tend to be Second Amendment absolutists.  The NRA and their representatives in Congress haven’t yet weighed in on the specific issue of, say, banning assault rifles in LAX, but they just might argue that such a law would be an unconstitutional infringement of the right to bear arms.

The  First Amendment begins, “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion,” and when it comes to the Establishment Clause, Republican ideas become a bit more nuanced.  Here are the results of a recent YouGov survey.  The question was, “Would you favor or oppose establishing Christianity as the official state religion in your state?”

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Democrats and Independents oppose the establishment of Christianity – “strongly oppose” is their modal response.  But a majority of Republicans favor making their state a Christian state, and of those, most (two-thirds) are in the “strongly favor” pew.

This is not to say that Republicans are unaware of the Establishment Clause.  “Based on what you know, would you think that states are permitted by the constitution to establish official state religions, or not?”

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Republicans are slightly more likely than Democrats to say that the Constitution does not permit state religions.  They just think that on this one, the framers of the Constitution got it wrong.

Republicans are only a bit less enthusiastic about establishing Christianity as the official religion of the entire country.  “Would you favor or oppose a Constitutional amendment which would make Christianity the official religion of the United States?”

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A plurality, 46% – almost a majority – want to correct the Framers’ careless omission by amending the Constitution.  We can’t know specifically what the people who favor this have in mind. Republicans themselves probably differ in their ideas. Maybe only symbolic gestures, like invoking Jesus’s blessing on public events. Maybe public indoctrination – requiring Christian prayer and Bible reading in the public schools. Or maybe more tangible forms of support – giving taxpayers’ money directly to Christian organizations for explicitly religious purposes.

In any case, this is an interesting piece of data to keep in mind for next time a representative of the political right argues that the Constitution is unamendable and inflexible.

Cross-posted at Montclair SocioBlog.

Jay Livingston is the chair of the Sociology Department at Montclair State University. You can follow him at Montclair SocioBlog or on Twitter.

The Revenge Fantasy: Django Unchained vs. 12 Years a Slave

Many critics are praising 12 Years a Slave for its uncompromising honesty about slavery. It offers not one breath of romanticism about the ante-bellum South.  No Southern gentlemen getting all noble about honor and no Southern belles and their mammies affectionately reminiscing or any of that other Gone With the Wind crap, just an inhuman system. 12 Years depicts the sadism not only as personal (though the film does have its individual sadists) but as inherent in the system – essential, inescapable, and constant.

Now, Noah Berlatsky at The Atlantic points out something else about 12 Years as a movie, something most critics missed – its refusal to follow the usual feel-good cliche plot convention of American film:

If we were working with the logic of Glory or Django, Northup would have to regain his manhood by standing up to his attackers and besting them in combat.

Django Unchained is a revenge fantasy. In the typical version, our peaceful hero is just minding his own business when the bad guy or guys deliberately commit some terrible insult or offense, which then justifies the hero unleashing violence – often at cataclysmic levels – upon the baddies. One glance at the poster for Django, and you can pretty much guess most of the story.

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It’s the comic-book adolescent fantasy – the nebbish that the other kids insult when they’re not just ignoring him but who then ducks into a phone booth or says his magic word and transforms himself into the avenging superhero to put the bad guys in their place.

This scenario sometimes seems to be the basis of U.S. foreign policy. An insult or slight, real or imaginary, becomes the justification for “retaliation” in the form of destroying a government or an entire country along with tens of thousands or hundreds of thousands of its people. It seems pretty easy to sell that idea to us Americans – maybe because the revenge-fantasy scenario is woven deeply into American culture –  and it’s only in retrospect that we wonder how Iraq or Vietnam ever happened.

Django Unchained and the rest are a special example of a more general story line much cherished in American movies: the notion that all problems – psychological, interpersonal, political, moral – can be resolved by a final competition, whether it’s a quick-draw shootout or a dance contest.  (I’ve sung this song before in this blog, most recently here after I saw Silver Linings Playbook.)

Berlatsky’s piece on 12 Years points out something else I hadn’t noticed but that the Charles Atlas ad makes obvious: it’s all about masculinity. Revenge is a dish served almost exclusively at the Y-chromosome table.  The women in the story play a peripheral role as observers of the main event – an audience the hero is aware of – or as prizes to be won or, infrequently, as the hero’s chief source of encouragement, though that role usually goes to a male buddy or coach.

But when a story jettisons the manly revenge theme, women can enter more freely and fully.

12 Years a Slave though, doesn’t present masculinity as a solution to slavery, and as a result it’s able to think about and care about women as people rather than as accessories or MacGuffins.

Scrapping the revenge theme can also broaden the story’s perspective from the personal to the political (i.e., the sociological):

 12 Years a Slave doesn’t see slavery as a trial that men must overcome on their way to being men, but as a systemic evil that leaves those in its grasp with no good choices.

From that perspective, the solution lies not merely in avenging evil acts and people but in changing the system and the assumptions underlying it, a much lengthier and more difficult task. After all, revenge is just as much an aspect of that system as are the insults and injustices it is meant to punish. When men start talking about their manhood or their honor, there’s going to be blood, death, and destruction – sometimes a little, more likely lots of it.

One other difference between the revenge fantasy and political reality: in real life results of revenge are often short-lived. Killing off an evildoer or two doesn’t do much to end the evil. In the movies, we don’t have to worry about that. After the climactic revenge scene and peaceful coda, the credits roll, and the house lights come up. The End. In real life though, we rarely see a such clear endings, and we should know better than to believe a sign that declares “Mission Accomplished.”

Cross-posted at Montclair SocioBlog.

Jay Livingston is the chair of the Sociology Department at Montclair State University. You can follow him at Montclair SocioBlog or on Twitter.

The Psychology of Greed on Halloween

It turns out, there’s a nice Halloween field experiment.  Here’s the setup.  On Halloween, a woman answers the door and invites the trick-or-treaters in.  She tells them to “take one,” and then leaves the room leaving the bowl of candy and a bowl of nickels and pennies (adjusting for inflation: dimes and quarters, maybe even half-dollars).  They did this experiment at 27 houses with a total of 1,300 kids.

Overall, most kids (69%) took one.   But conditions mattered.

In one experimental manipulation, the woman either asked the kids who they were and where they lived or she allowed them to be anonymous.  Experimenters also noted whether the kids were trick-or-treating alone or in groups.  For some groups, the woman designated the smallest kid in the group as being in charge of making sure that kids took only one.   All these variables made a difference.

The greatest rate of cheating (80%) occurred when the smallest child was being responsible but everyone was anonymous.  Diener reasoned that with responsibility shifted to the smallest link, the other kids would feel freer to break the rule.

Those who did cheat usually took only an additional one to three candies.  But, of those who did grab more than what was offered, 20% took both candy and coins.   Unfortunately, the Snickers study is not like the marshmallow study, so we don’t know where those greediest kids are now.

HT: PsyBlog. Cross-posted at Montclair SocioBlog.

Jay Livingston is the chair of the Sociology Department at Montclair State University. You can follow him at Montclair SocioBlog or on Twitter.

Resistance to the “Redskins” Mascot: Racism in Perspective

The Redskins have been in the news lately – on the front page of the Times, for example — and not for their prowess on the gridiron. It’s their name. Many native Americans find it offensive, understandably so.  “Redskins” was not a name they chose. It was a label invented by the European-Americans who took their land and slaughtered them in numbers that today would be considered genocide.

President Obama offered the most tepid hint of criticism of the name. He did not say they should change their name. He said that if he owned the team, he would “think about” changing the name. But that was enough for non-Indians to dismiss the idea as yet one more instance of “political correctness.”

Defenders of the name also argue that the name is not intended to be offensive, and besides, a survey shows that most Americans are not bothered by it.  I would guess that most Americans also have no problem with the Cleveland Indians logo, another sports emblem that real Indians find offensive.

In response the National Congress of American Indians offers these possibilities.  The Cleveland cap is the real thing.  The other two are imagined variations on the same theme.

Caps

The pro-Redskins arguments could also apply here. The New York Jews and San Francisco Chinamen and their logos are not intended to offend, and a survey would probably find a majority of Americans untroubled by these names and logos.  And those who do object are just victims of “the tyranny of political correctness.”  This last phrase comes from a tweet by Washington quarterback Robert Griffin III, an African American.  His response seems to make all the more relevant the suggestion of years ago by the American Indian Movement’s Russell Means: “Why don’t they call them The Washington Niggers?”

Cross-posted at Montclair Socioblog; HT to Max.

Jay Livingston is the chair of the Sociology Department at Montclair State University. You can follow him at Montclair SocioBlog or on Twitter.

Is Profit the Ultimate Value? On JP Morgan’s $11b Fine

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He’s makin’ more money than you’ll ever see.

That was the preferred argument of my friend, Tommy, a classmate who lived across the street when I was a kid.  I sometimes would disagree with Tommy about the talents or behavior of some celebrity — a rock star or an actor.  Today’s equivalent might be Ke$ha or a Kardashian. Tommy’s response was usually, “He’s makin’ more money than you’ll ever see.”  And that settled the issue as far as Tommy was concerned.  A huge income trumped just about anything.

In sociology, we talk about values. Introduction to Sociology texts usually define values as abstract ideas about what is good, ideas that people use as guides to action.  Maybe. But the definition I prefer sees values as “legitimations” — ideas about what is good that people use to justify behavior or to win arguments.  For Tommy, money was this kind of ultimate legitimation. His behavior did not evidence a strong value on money — we were only about eleven at the time — but his judgments did. Values are what we use to evaluate.

I thought of Tommy and values today when I read the transcript of a CNBC interview with Alex Pereene.  Pereene has recently gone on record criticizing Jamie Dimon, the CEO of JPMorgan. That bank currently faces an $11 billion fine for having dealt in shoddy mortgage-backed securities.  JP Morgan can afford it, of course, but $11 billion begins to be real money.  The question on CNBC was whether Dimon should continue as its CEO.

Pareene says no. The CNBC anchor, Maria Bartiromo then says.

Legal problems aside, JP Morgan remains one of the best, if not the best performing major bank in the world today. You believe the leader of that bank should step down?

Or as Tommy Fiedler would have put it, “His bank is makin’ more money than you’ll ever see.”

Here’s Pareene’s response:

If you managed a restaurant, and it got the biggest health department fine in the history of restaurants, no one would say “Yeah, but the restaurant’s making a lot of money. There’s only a little bit of poison in the food.”

CNBC then brings in a Dimon booster, Duff McDonald. Asked to respond to Pareene’s charge of corruption, McDonald says,

It’s preposterous. The stock’s touching a ten-year high. It’s a cash-generating machine. Sure they’ve had their regulatory issues . . .

In McDonald’s view, the charge of corruption is preposterous because JP Morgan is makin’ more money than you’ll ever see.

Bartiromo’s reaction is especially telling. She seems to take Pereene’s criticism of JP Morgan personally. I thought that anchors were supposed to be neutral and try to  draw guests out. But Bartiromo is openly hostile. She loudly interrupts Pereene and demands evidence of the bank’s questionable tactics. When Pereene gives an example, she defends Dimon by again appealing to the value on profits above all else.

Even with all these losses, the company continues to churn out tens of billions of dollars in earnings and hundreds of millions in revenues. How do you criticize that? [emphasis added]

Her assumption is that anyone who makes so much money cannot be criticized. Such criticism is immoral. The reporting about JP Morgan’s shortcomings is, she says,  “a witch hunt.”

The problem with legitimations is that they work only if everyone in the room shares the same values. Members of the same culture, almost by definition, share values, and effective arguments apeal to those values. Americans, for example, are suckers for arguments based on appeals to individual freedom. We find them very hard to resist. But people in other cultures might not find those arguments so persuasive.

This brief CNBC interview hints at cultures or moral worlds in collision. In the CNBC world, people take the value on making money for granted. When they encounter someone who does not share that value, who is not persuaded by arguments based on it, they act as though threatened by some uncomprehending and dangerous alien, a creature from another world. It is a clash of cultures, a clash of values, and the way we discover those is not by watching what people do (values as guides to action)  but by listening to how they justify what they and others do (values as legitimations).

Here’s a video clip of the discussion:

Cross-posted at Montclair SocioBlog.

Jay Livingston is the chair of the Sociology Department at Montclair State University. You can follow him at Montclair SocioBlog or on Twitter.