Monthly Archives: January 2010

the iPad favors passive consumers not active prosumers

by nathan jurgenson

I’ve written many posts on this blog about the implosion of the spheres of production and consumption indicating the rise of prosumption. This trend has exploded online with the rise of user-generated content. We both produce and consume the content on Facebook, MySpace, Wikipedia, YouTube and so on. And it is from this lens that I describe Apple’s latest creation announced yesterday: the iPad. The observation I want to make is that the iPad is not indicative of prosumption, but rather places a wedge between production and consumption.

From the perspective of the user the iPad is made for consuming content. While future apps might focus on the production of content, the very construction of the device dissuades these activities. Not ideal for typing, and most notably missing a camera, the device is limited in the ways in which users create content. Further, the device, much like Apple’s other devices, is far less customizable than the netbooks Apple is attempting to displace (which often use the endlessly customizable Linux OS).

Instead, the iPad is focused on an enhanced passive consumption experience (and advertised as such, opposed to their earlier focus: can’t resist). Unlike netbooks, the iPad is primarily an entertainment device. Instead of giving users new ways to produce media content, the focus is on making more spectacular and profitable the experience of consuming old media content -music and movies via the iTunes store, books via the new iBookstore and news via Apple’s partnership with the New York Times.

Thus, the story of the iPad’s first 24hours, for me, is the degree to which the tasks of producing and consuming content have been again split into two camps. The few produce it -flashy, glittering and spectacular- and the many consume it as experience. And, of course, for a price.

Does this serve as a rebuttal to an argument that the trend towards the merging of the spheres of production and consumption into prosumption is inevitable? Or is prosumption indeed the trend for a future Apple seems not to grasp? Or will the applications developed for the device overcome its limitations? ~nathan

Read More: Times Topics: the iPad

Read More: Read More: The Intersecting Roles of Consumer and Producer: A Critical Perspective on Co-production, Co-creation and Prosumption

Editor’s Highlights: Engaging the Life Course Perspective to Study Same-Sex Families

Photo courtesy of Melinda.

As the Proposition 8 trial is underway in California, testing the definitions of family and marriage, it seems timely to look at what sociologists know about same-sex families.  Easterbrook’s December 2009 article in the Social Psychology & Family section of Sociology Compass is a review of sociological literature on same-sex families, focusing on the life course perspective.  A life course study of the family examines the transitions that families experience over time, history, and social context.

Existing literature tells a story of same-sex relationships, identifying patterns in: meeting partners, dating, sexual consummation, relationship formation, committed relationships/marriage, parenting, dissolution, and old age.  The literature reveals that sex-linked differences matter more than whether a person is in a same or opposite-sex relationship at three stages: partner choice, cohabitation, and relationship dissolution.  Holes in the literature reveal a need for research on dating and committed relationships.  Easterbrook is particularly critical of the large gaps in sociological knowledge of parenthood, relationship dissolution, and old age in same-sex families, which exist due to marginalization and the inability of same-sex couples to transition into family life via marriage.  Yet a life course lens has much to contribute to the study of same-sex families.  To the extent that it acknowledges a different life course for same-sex couples, it will be possible to grow sociological knowledge of same-sex families and challenge the assumptions of a family’s life course among both same and opposite-sex families.

Adam Easterbrook on Rethinking Families Over the Life Course Development Perspective: Including the Lives of Same-Sex Families


Mainstream news media and the problem of privileging generic pornography research

By Rachael Liberman

As pornography becomes increasingly accessible due to technology (mobile phones, Internet, etc.), researchers have started to pay close attention to its individual and cultural impact on the construction of sexuality and subsequent behavior. Research on pornography spans a variety of theoretical paradigms and methodologies, and works to answer questions regarding audience reception, political economy of the industry, content and violence, and a variety of other cultural and critical inquiries. While at one point on the margins of media studies, film studies, and sociological research, porn studies has become a staple in attempts to understand the interaction between sexuality, audience and media.

Periodically, the mainstream media will pick up on published pornography studies and offer the researcher, or researchers, an opportunity to reach a larger audience. A recent article published in London’s Times reports on a recent study by Michael Flood, which found that young boys who are exposed to porn are likely to have problematic relationships with women. According to the article, “Boys exposed to porn are more likely to indulge in casual sex and less likely to form successful relationships when they grow older, according to research carried out in a dozen countries.” The article goes on to report that Flood’s research indicates that pornography is not the ideal sex educator and that the Internet is creating an environment where boys are most likely going to treat it as such.

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Republican win in Massachusetts – The tipping point for abandoning health care reform?

Last week, Senator Edward Kennedy’s long-held senate seat went to a Republican, Scott Brown and marked what will likely be the beginning of the end for the health care reforms – changes that were likely to pass if this incredibly close race had gone to the Democratic candidate. This election, or more accurately, the discourse surrounding the “big Republican win”  is, in many ways, the tipping point toward more conservative fiscal and social policy. In The Tipping Point: How Little Things Can Make a Big Difference, Malcolm Gladwell reinforces a principle central to sociology: the environment affects individuals’ behavior, Further, he claims change often happens quickly and in unpredictable ways. In particular, Gladwell shows how little things like graffiti on the subway or broken windows in a neighborhood can actually be the factor that pushes people over the edge into criminal behavior. Likewise, changes to the environment such as clean subway cars and orderly physical structures can prevent crime. In other words, it’s not character or psychology, but the environment that makes the actor act. Similarly, Brown’s campaign, which was particularly focused on blocking health care reform, with slogans indicating just that, and his surprising win of a traditionally democratic senate seat became a visible icon for frustration with the current state of political affairs and possibly with the President himself. This likely will be a watershed moment when the media refrains from the last year of discussion of the death of the Republican party and instead picks up on the undercurrent of frustration and disappointment with the incumbent party, alluding to the possible ousting of the Democratic majority in congress.

My purpose here is not to assess Gladwell’s “broken windows” or “tipping point”  theory, but rather to suggest that there are many situations, some much more ephemeral, that call for an examination of the “environmental” or “aesthetic” influences on individuals. In this case, I would like to suggest that, aside from the very real and objective consequences of the loss of Kennedy’s senate seat in Massachusetts to a Republican – the reality is that the filibuster-proof senate is no longer a stronghold for the Democrats – seems to have had a tipping-point-like effect of this event. Yes, every senate seat is important, but in the grander scheme of things, this is but one of the one hundred seats in congress. However, the message or appearance of this one loss for the Democrats or perhaps this one win for the Republicans is really the damaging element here. Even before Brown won his seat, the pundits launched into predictions that a vote for the republican candidate was a vote against health care and the Democrats more generally. It may also be a vote against the high unemployment rates, but the graffiti, so to speak, in this situation ensconced people in a sense of revolt against health care reform and the conversation this election and Brown’s visible campaign catalyzed is one that is very different than the discussion even one week before this shift in the balance of the senate.

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Liquid Charity

Sea of Phonesby pj.rey

In the ten days following the earthquake that devastated Haiti’s capital, Americans used text messaging to donate over $30 million.  Text messaging has been prominent in the news as of late.  Candidate Obama shocked supporters by announcing his vice presidential pick using this new medium.  In 2008, Nielson reported that the average teen sends a whopping 2,272 messages a month.  A new term, “sexting,” entered popular usage following several high profile cases of teens being expelled or even charged with distribution of child pornography.  The Pew Internet and American Life Center reported in 2009 that 15% of teens ages 12-17 received sexually explicit images of people they know.  Texting has proven the most dangerous common distraction to drivers.  The first images of the plane that crash-landed in the Hudson were uploaded to the Web from the cell phone of a passenger on a nearby boat.  The incident was also Twittered by a survivor.  Then, of course, there were the protests to the recent Iranian elections, which used personal mobile communication devices to subvert state-run media.

Each of these incidences share a common theme: traditional practices were supplanted in favor of a new set of behaviors associated with mobile communications.  That’s the what, but as a social theorist, I suggest we also ought to consider the why.  I think Zymgunt Bauman, a remarkably prolific octogenarian sociologist, has a lot to offer us here.  Bauman famously speaks of “liquid modernity” where traditional social structures are melting away and fading ambiguously into one another.  He argues that things which are liquid, flowing, and mobile tend to undo things which are rigid, solid, and stable.

Mobile communication networks increasingly provide concrete examples supporting Bauman’s theory and Haiti is only the latest instance.  The cell phone has made transferring money more immediate, more flexible, and simpler than even the credit card.  People need only reach into their pockets for a device which is already profoundly integrated into their lives and dial a few numbers.  Within seconds, the transaction is complete and money has flowed from one node in the network to another.  The power of such fluid networks is that, with minimal cost in time and money (most were $10 contributions) to individuals, enormous resources can be mobilized.  The political implications of this new fluid and hyper-networked reality should not be lost on us.

Square-eye “Mobile giving to help Haiti exceeds $30 million” by Suzanne Choney

Square-eye “Teaching and Learning Guide for: Social Implications of Mobile Telephony: The Rise of Personal Communication Society” by Scott W. Campbell and Yong Jin Park

Working our way to Symbolic Gender Equality?

nmccoy1

The New York Times recently reported that gender relations are completely changing due to the shift in the number of highly educated and highly paid women in the workforce as well as the high rates of unemployment among men.  Aside from the fact that a majority of these women are white and middle to upper class, this article fails to acknowledge that gender relations are only partially structured economically.  Twenty years ago the media declared that women were finally equal because they were working outside of the home in large numbers.  Yet sociological evidence pointed to a double bind for women, the difficulties of mothering while working, and finally the stay-at-home-mom movement we have been witnessing among educated and well off women.

What we tend not to discuss and theorize is the traditional gendered symbolic order that seems to hold steadfast amidst the multiple social, economic, and political changes.  Fears of backlashes against the shifting roles between men and women in the home, criticism of day cares and absentee mothers often surface at the moment in which the symbolic order appears to shift.

Nancy Fraser, the social philosopher calls for transformative social-feminist redistribution and recognition in order to address the multiple axe along which gendered symbolic orders are reified and strengthened.  As a society we have not done enough to transform relations at all levels, rather we see affirmative change as the goal.  So while it is progress to see more and more women in the workforce, there positions are precarious until the structural and symbolic orders have progressed simultaneously.

NY Times, “More Men Marrying Wealthier Women”

Nancy Fraser in the Blackwell Companion to the Sociology of Culture

Avatar’s Themes as Exposing Real-Life Occurrences?

Photo of Natural Resources Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

James Cameron’s Avatar has been making millions of dollars from movie ticket sales worldwide. The movie features humans invading the planet Pandora in the future. Corporate entities in cooperation with military units hope to extract natural resources from territory inhabited by indigenous people called the Na’vi. Although a human named Jake Sully initially agrees to gather intelligence for the military by using an avatar identity, he eventually decides to help the Na’vi mount an attack against the military. Regardless of James Cameron’s intention, the movie’s themes parallel several real-life occurrences such as the extraction of natural resources from the periphery, the forcible removal of indigenous peoples from their land, and the rise of transnational corporations.

Some people praise the movie for its recognition of environmental degradation, its promotion of sustainable practices, and its acknowledgement of the importance of landholding among indigenous peoples. Meanwhile, other people characterize the movie as anti-American and anti-military. Additionally, some critics consider the movie to be racist. Similar to other movies such as Dances with Wolves, the movie involves white males rescuing indigenous peoples.

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The Anatomy of a Bubble

On January 9th, the Economist magazine addressed the fear that current economic conditions will lead to market bubbles… again. With the  combination of high prices, low interest rates and huge deficits these fears may be justified. The recovery of the global economy will dissuade authorities from raising interest rates and may incentivize investment in risky assets. The article explains that bubbles start with a “displacement” or a shock to the financial system such as the introduction of a new technology that in turn creates the rational for widespread investment. Next comes rapid credit growth “which inflates the bubble” and as investors borrow money to purchase more of the asset, the price rises, justifying the investment. With rapid growth comes the hysterical notion that the price will continue to rise but, as we have seen, the bubble must eventually burst, generally when the asset runs out of new buyers. As for the present situation, the article explains that while some argue (notably, Allen Greenspan) that it is impossible to predict a bubble, if the interest rates of developed countries stay low, bubbles are likely to emerge somewhere. What to do with this information is a far more complex debate.

While this Economist article provides us with the financial nuts and bolts of an asset bubble, Jacqueline Best attempts in, “How to Make a Bubble: Toward a Cultural Political Economy of the Financial Crisis” to take an analytical approach to the process that combines the literature of sociologists, anthropologists, and geographers, “adding a cultural dimension to critical political economy, bringing economic insights to the cultural turn in IR, and emphasizing the political character of cultural economic processes.” It is the goal of the author to marry accounts of bubble formation as presented in the Economist with those of the average person whose bubble is quite literally burst buy the process- reminding us of the ways that everyday aspirations such as home ownership are at the center of such a crisis. (more…)

Science confirms that we’re “amusing ourselves to death”: A new study reports that television can, in fact, kill you

Televison Hungarian ORION 1957

Courtesy of Istvan Takacs

By Rachael Liberman

In a recent article published by the LA Times, titled “Watching TV shortens life span, study finds,” Jeannine Stein reports on a study that “found that each hour a day spent watching TV was linked with an 18% greater risk of dying from cardiovascular disease, an 11% greater risk of all causes of death, and a 9% increased risk of death from cancer.” This particular study, which used participants from the Australian Diabetes, Obesity and Lifestyle Study, used both television viewing hours and blood sugar levels as variables to determine their results. As Stein reports, “Researchers found a strong connection between TV hours and death from cardiovascular disease, not just among the overweight and obese, but among people who had a healthy weight and exercised.” Further, “People who watched more than four hours a day showed an 80% greater risk of death from cardiovascular disease and a 46% higher risk of all causes of death compared with those who watched fewer than two hours a day, suggesting that being sedentary could have general deleterious effects.”

The rest of Stein’s article includes quotes from Dr. David Dunstan, lead author of the study, and Dr. Prediman K. Shah, director of the cardiology division of the Cedars-Sinai Heart Institute, who both comment on “sitting posture,” “long periods of sitting,” “long hours in front of the computer screen,” and “couch potatoes.” (more…)

Creating or Identifying Mental Illness: what American psychiatric definitions of illness do

brain

The New York Times Sunday Magazine featured an article (a preview of a book) by Ethan Watters about the globalization of American concepts of mental illness (linked below). In short, along with our flavored lattes, burgers and GAP jeans, American concepts of illness are spreading across the globe. I would argue they have spread and are relatively well-integrated into the majority of societies’ understandings of a wide range of symptoms. There are very few places untouched by American conceptualizations of mental disorders, particularly those of the American Psychiatric Association. Relatively ignored in this shortened version of Watters’s argument are the contributions of Sociologists of mental health in describing the construction of illness and how illness conceptualizations/categories spread and affect both individuals diagnosed with the myriad psychiatric conditions now considered biological disorders by American Psychiatry as well as cultures and societies more generally once these concepts become commonly accepted.

For decades, sociologists of mental health have focused on the the ways in which certain symptoms come to be classified as disorders and how psychiatry has become the discipline considered to be the legitimate conceptualizers of these conditions. Allan Horwitz, for example, has been particularly influential in this debate (see the article below). Medications for treating these illnesses are also centrally implicated in these illness definitions. Further, as mentioned in the Times article, though not attributed to sociological research, sociologists have also noted the complex question of whether American criteria for psychiatric illness are being used to diagnose illness across the globe where it had been previously been ignored or whether these criteria are in fact creating illness where it did not exist before by providing cultures previously unexposed to knowledge of, for instance, depression symptomatology. In other words, are we exposing illness where it had been previously been ignored or are we creating illness by imposing our illness categories on societies where the same symptoms we see in the US were not around until our categories hit the scene?

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