Monthly Archives: February 2012

Exploring Homelessness: Causation and Measures of Eradication

The issue of homelessness is a sociological inquiry that has been relatively understudied, albeit the phenomenon’s unremitting development. According to Meanwell (2012), in the United States homelessness has continued to grow since the early 1980s with a particular proliferation among vagrant women and families. In 1984, the cities of New York, Chicago, and Los Angeles had the largest number of homeless persons per population, with New York witnessing the highest rates of homeless individuals (Wolch, Dear, & Akita, 1988).  The concept of homelessness is not an easily defined term. While the average person understands the basic concept of vagrancy, researchers in the sociological field have applied inconsistent definitions to the concept of homelessness, understandably so as the notion encompasses a dimension more exhaustive than a singular definition of “an individual without residence.” Homelessness comprises a continuum ranging from the absence of a permanent shelter to poor living arrangements and housing conditions. According to Wolch et al. (1988), homelessness is not an abrupt experience, rather it is “the culmination of a long process of economic hardship, isolation, and social dislocation” that has affected an individual or family ( p.443). Additionally, states of vagrancy may come in varying forms, such as street residence, temporary habitation in shelters, or assistance from service organizations, such as soup kitchens and the Salvation Army.


Local Immigration Politics in the Rust Belt

Photo courtesy: Official Site of the City of Dayton, Ohio

Editor’s note: This post has been printed with permission of the author.

By Dr. Jamie Longazel

Last fall, the Rust Belt city of Dayton, Ohio approved the “Welcome Dayton Plan” —  an attempt to foster the inclusion of immigrants and refugees in a city devastated by years of economic decline. Dayton’s plan comes at a time when two separate but not unrelated fires are blazing across the country: economic crisis and anti-immigrant sentiment.

We should certainly applaud Dayton’s willingness to embrace immigrants and refugees, especially at a time when many cities and states are passing sweeping anti-immigrant legislation. Yet for this countertrend to generate meaningful social change, it must be more than a redevelopment ploy. What we need is the formation of class-based alliances that are unwilling to submit to anti-immigrant scare tactics and eager to challenge the economic processes that have distressed these communities in the first place.


Rethinking Behavior Change, Nudge-style

A prevailing regime by which groups, organizations, and institutions attempt to alter the behavior of its members and constituents is through imposing penalties and fines, which seek to deter certain behaviors. Parking tickets intend to prevent people from parking in certain areas, sometimes at certain times. Prison sentences, and the death penalty, are intended to serve as deterrents for serious legal violations.

However, fines often prompt behaviors different from what those trying to mould behavior (e.g., governments or organizations) intend. Many studies have shown that the death penalty/prison is not a deterrent to violent crime (see here). In a study of a daycare where several parents repeatedly picked up their children late from school, researchers found that the imposition of a fine for late pick-ups actually increased the number of parents picking up their children late. Additionally, when the fine was lifted, the behavioral change remained such that more parents still picked up their children late. Gneezy and Rustichini, the authors of the study, argue that parents saw the fine as a cost, which they were willing to pay, when previously there was a moral, not a financial, meaning to picking up children late.

An alternative approach to behavioral change that has received plenty of attention in the last several years is described by the behavioral economist Richard Thaler and the legal scholar Cass Sunstein in their 2008 book, Nudge: Improving Decisions About Health, Wealth, and Happiness. In it, Thaler and Sunstein argue, using copious evidence from cognitive psychology and behavioral economics, that our cognitive architecture creates systematic biases in decision making that cause problems in certain domains. Because we often rely on heuristics deriving from automatic processing of information (as opposed to deliberative processing, see Daniel Kahneman’s new book for far more details about this), we often err especially in domains of logic and statistics.

Enter: choice architects and their nudging solutions.  Thaler and Sunstein argue that, however informal the policy and at whatever level it is enacted, the individuals who design program or policies—choice architects—can exert a good deal of influence over the kinds of decisions others make through “nudges.” These nudges are supposed to a) recognize common decision making errors and b) alter the decision making context in a way that acknowledges those biases. A nudge, for Thaler and Sunstein, is any aspect of design that “alters people’s behavior in a predictable way without forbidding any options or significantly changing their economic incentives” (p. 6). This caveat, that nudges do not shut off any behavioral options, allows Thaler and Sunstein to call their approach one of libertarian paternalism, whereby freedom of individual choice is preserved (the libertarian part) and  choices are influenced such that the “choosers are better off,” according to their own standards (the paternalism part). So, a woman working in a school cafeteria who recognizes that students’ food choices are determined by the order and arrangement of the types of foods, and who changes the arrangement in a way that promotes more healthy eating behaviors is a choice architect employing a nudge toward a particular goal. And Sunstein, as the current administrator of the White House’s Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs, seeks to build these insights about human cognition into a variety of policies.

In a recent Sociology Compass article, Evan Selinger and Kyle Whyte, both professors of philosophy, raise a number of nudge issues. First, they suggest, many of the examples often cited as nudges do not actually meet the criteria Thaler and Sunstein set for nudges; they call these “mistaken nudges.” One of Thaler and Sunstein’s main points is that that nudges are modifications that do not change people’s financial incentives and do not add new costs to situations. But, Selinger and Whyte argue many of the programs that are touted as nudging behavior fail to meet this criterion. They often change financial incentives and expect individuals’ behavior to fall in line with those incentives (often referred to as “acting rationally”) in much the same paradigm of penalties and fines. As an example, Selinger and Whyte argue that the Toxic Release Inventory, which provides information about how much companies pollute, should not be considered a nudge since it actually increases the costs to companies of polluting. In general, Selinger and Whyte note there is some confusion about what constitutes a genuine nudge as defined by Thaler and Sunstein.

In addition to issues of definition, Selinger and Whyte review the ethical concerns other scholars have raised concerning nudges. Do nudges really preserve individual choice? Might they make use morally lazy by letting us rely on the infrastructure set up by others for our decisions? Will the widespread use of nudges lead to less practical wisdom, a devalued public sphere, and a more simplified public life? Others make a slippery slope argument that introducing behavioral changes through interventions might lead people to accept more definitive control from government in their lives. The philosopher Thomas Nagel has argued that some biases might actually derive from something that is otherwise socially useful, so it is worth figuring out which biases should be “worked with,” and which should be challenged. Some of these concerns seem overstated, perhaps relying on an overly abstracted concept of nudges and an imagined future that seems unlikely to occur.

The most important and significant criticism, from my perspective, is that choice architects get to choose which values and preferences they promote with nudges. Here it seems useful to distinguish between nudges that are intended to alter significant lifestyle behaviors in a way that requires privileging a goal (e.g., getting people to stop smoking), and nudges that intend to make the small-scale behaviors individuals are already compelled to do more efficient (e.g., getting people to pay their fines in a more efficient manner or to complete their tax forms correctly). Some nudges change behavior in some direction or towards some end, while other nudges adjust existing policy to take into account how individuals often behave. In the latter case, few would fault the government for trying to improve compliance on tax forms given that tax collecting is a basic task of the state. Using nudges to improve the efficiency and the rates of compliance for basic governmental tasks seems far less ethically problematic than using nudges towards ends about which people disagree.

A final concern of Selinger and Whyte is practical: They argue that Thaler and Sunstein fail to provide an adequate roadmap for implementing nudges, a process which has the potential to be very complicated. In particular, Selinger and Whyte point out that the meaning individuals attach to different nudges might vary dramatically, which has implications both for perpetuating potentially problematic associations (e.g., including a male voice in German cars to inform drivers when they are speeding, as drivers did not respond to female voices) and for the effect of nudges in different situations and populations. It is certainly important to understand variation in how individuals assign meaning to nudges; the upshot seems to be that policymakers and choice architects must fully understand the social context in which they are applying nudges, which likely requires a good deal of groundwork and pretesting before particular nudges are deployed.

What the critics of policies that are designed to address the cognitive underpinnings of decision making might overlook is that most policies currently “nudge” us in some direction simply by virtue of building in default choices (e.g., in the case of organ donation) and assuming particular models of decision making (and, by consequence, decision makers) in policies. If our behavior is currently being shaped by policies and programs based on long-existing structures independent of the intentional designs of others, is that a violation of democratic principles? We might ask what features of organizational structures and arrangements act as nudges for behavior independent of the intentions of others to guide our behaviors in such ways.

 ”Is there a Right Way to Nudge? The Practice and Ethics of Choice Architecture.” Evan Selinger and Kyle Whyte. Sociology Compass, 2011.


Social Class: Income, Wealth, and Race

Lately there has been a lot of talk about class, and not just the vague election year pandering to the vague demographic of the “middle class.”  Instead, the very concept of class has become a subject of debate.  Last time, I focused on Mitt Romney’s comment’s about “people who have fallen out of the middle class.”  This time I focus on fellow candidate Rick Santorum’s criticism of Romney for using the word class.  Here’s what Santorum said:

“There are no classes in America. We’re a country that don’t allow for titles. We don’t put people in classes. Maybe middle income people.”

Once again, it’s tempting to dismiss these statements as bizarre gaffes perhaps brought on by a grueling campaign season.  However, I have convinced myself that there are no “bad” political soundbytes.  Partly because shouting “what are you insane?!?!?” at my computer is apparently frowned upon at my local Starbucks, but also because such comments often provide a useful starting point to discuss a complex phenomenon like class. (more…)

Immigration Bill Proposal: A Step Further from Equality

A recent article published in the Kansas City Star stimulated my interest for a discourse. I found the article especially relevant, as presently, a wide segment of the United States population vehemently opposes undocumented aliens in the country. The article’s author reported that an immigration bill proposal sponsored by State Senator Will Kraus, a Lee’s Summit Republican, would require public schools in Missouri to verify the immigration status of students. A provision of the proposed bill stipulates that all public schools document the immigration status of students in order to authenticate that they are lawful aliens. Another segment of the bill proposes that schools compile a report on students’ immigration status for classification purposes and to report the amount of students enrolled in English as a second language to the State Board of Education.


The Conundrum of Animal Rights

While leaving the gym this morning, I came across a dog that was left in a car with all of the windows sealed shut. Although it was by no means a hot morning in the southern New Mexico desert, the sun was nonetheless beating down directly on the car; by any indication, the panting dog inside was anything but comfortable. I decided to report the situation to the owner of the facility, only to be shrugged off with a flippant, “what do you want me to do about it?”

I ended up calling the police. Within minutes an officer responded to the scene and issued a citation to the couple that had left their dog in the car. Having two older sisters that are veterinarians, I realized that the animal, while not locked in the automobile for too long, may have suffered from minor heat stroke and should probably have been taken to the vet as a precautionary measure. The dog’s owners, however, merely cracked open the window and went back into the gym to resume their exercise routines.

Such treatment of pets, and animals more generally, seems far too common; and most likely, this dog’s owners probably did not think their actions equated to animal abuse any more than Archie Bunker thought that his routine slurs were racist. In many ways, this entire situation speaks to the larger question of whether animals actually have rights. Lyle Munro’s recent examination of the animal rights movement “in theory and practice” speaks to the fact that our understanding of the issue is empirically poor. In the article, he recommends a greater working partnership between research scholars and animal activists.