Photo by Greger Ravik via Flickr.
Photo by Greger Ravik via Flickr.

Alice Goffman’s On the Run: Fugitive Life in an American City shares the stories of young men evading arrest for crimes ranging from unpaid fines to murder. In describing their day-to-day maneuvers under heavy surveillance, she brings to life the impact of the U.S. prison boom on members of a low-income African American neighborhood in Philadelphia. But her work was not without risk. According to the Philadelphia Inquirer,

By the time Goffman left Sixth Street, she was displaying symptoms reminiscent of post-traumatic stress disorder, such as panicking at sudden noises.

In fact, so compelling is Goffman’s ethnography–and the great lengths she goes to in getting it–that the Inquirer is not alone in its eagerness to share her story. The New York Times writes:

Though written in a sober, scholarly style, “On the Run” contains enough street-level detail to fill a season of “The Wire,” along with plenty of screen-ready moments involving the author herself, who describes, among other ordeals, being thrown to the floor and handcuffed during a police raid, enduring a harrowing precinct house interrogation and watching a man be shot to death after exiting her car.

But the attention lavished on Goffman’s work has been mixed. On the one hand, her extreme ethnography is technically demanding and dangerous. She gives us a sympathetic and sociological glimpse of a world that’s usually off-limits to outsiders. On the other, she is “hardly the first middle-class white observer to venture into black urban America and emerge with a marketable story to tell,” as the New York Times puts it. Given this bipolar public gaze, Goffman may find it every bit as dicey to take a position in the spotlight as in the field.

Goffman acknowledges this awkwardness to the Times: “It just feels morally strange to talk about my own experiences when a whole community is dealing with violence and getting arrested…. I could always just leave.” To the Inquirer, she insists, “For the residents…there’s no ‘post’: ‘It’s just traumatic. This is everyday life: a series of ongoing and acute traumas.’”

It appears she’s already working on her next professional challenge: coaxing the spotlight back onto the the 47,000 fugitives living in fear in Philadelphia in 2009, avoiding hospitals and skipping friends’ funerals to avoid surveillance, worrying about eviction and losing custody of their children.


According to the Editor’s Desk, ethnography sells. Here’s one example of how it’s used in corporate America:

SociologyLens caught Gang Leader for a Day, Sudhir Venkatesh, explaining extreme ethnography:

Photo by Eduardo Hulshof, Flickr CC.
Photo by Eduardo Hulshof, Flickr CC.

Ubisoft has been trying to find out what makes its gamers tick. Nick Yee, a researcher fronting the company’s internal “Daedalus Project,” now has a new book, The Proteus Paradox, bringing together some of the major findings from the years of interviewing and observing gamers. Perhaps most interesting, as Bryan Alexander points out in Reason, is that, no matter how otherworldly the games might be, players tend to import their offline behavior and attitudes.

For instance, Yee explains in a chapter called “The Labor of Fun,” many gamers come to see gaming as a second job, demanding hours of boring drudgery contributing to fleeting achievements. Some even exploit other gamers to do the “grinding” work of leveling-up and repay it with racism toward those willing to do the work.

Gender figures interestingly, too:

Proteus outlines how male players denigrate, harass, and drive off female players. But Yee offers two twists to this sadly familiar story. First, women report wanting to play for the same reasons men do—achievement, social interaction, and immersion—going against essentialist expectations of gender behavior difference. And second, MMOs [massively multiplayer online games] offer a pedagogical benefit of sorts to male gamers who play under female avatars.

Males do this switching with some frequency… mostly to enjoy the eye candy of an attractive female avatar displayed in a game’s third-person perspective. That gaze is then reversed, as it were, as other players ogle the same avatar from their avatar’s perspectives. It’s a surprising opportunity to experience the kinds of sexual harassment that real-world women know to well.

Love, death, and helping others all come into play. “For all the criticisms that can be made of gamers’ behavior,” Alexander writes after reading Yee’s book, “these worlds are not bleak places entirely devoid of pleasure and fellow-feeling.” Between levels, it seems, some Putnam, Goffman, and Addams have snuck into the online realm.

For more in the Reason series on gaming, click here. For more on race in gaming, check out “The Whiteness of Warcraft,” here on TSP.

In the U.S., it’s enough to cause concern, Amherst College’s Austin D. Sarat tells “All Things Considered.” After a botched execution—that is, one that did not follow protocol, did not kill the prisoner, or did not kill the prisoner in a way that prevented suffering—in Oklahoma, the co-author of the forthcoming Gruesome Spectacles: Botched Executions and America’s Death Penalty (with Katherine Blumstein), said that the country has seen a 3% rate in botched executions overall. And though legislators have favored scientific progress in the death chamber, choosing hanging, then electrocution, lethal injection, and finally, today’s three-step injection process, the record of by-the-book executions is getting worse.

The rate of botched executions by lethal injection is now up to 7%, according to Sarat’s studies.

Lethal injection by the current process is meant to be more humane in that it is more scientific. It also removes any one person in the execution chamber from personal responsibility for the prisoner’s death, as each injection is delivered by a different person. But when it fails 7 out of 100 times, the experience is likely to be a “gruesome spectacle” for prison staff, prisoner, and viewers alike.

For more on the death penalty in the U.S., listen to our podcast with David Garland, author of Peculiar Institution: America’s Death Penalty in an Age of Abolition.

Photo by woodleywonderworks via Flickr Creative Commons.
Photo by woodleywonderworks via Flickr Creative Commons.

According to the New York Times, research from everyone from the Department of Health and Human Services to the CDCP, National Survey of Family Growth, the Tinina Q. Cade Foundation, and black women themselves shows that, despite centuries’ old stereotypes and even fears that black women are particularly fertile, well, they’re not. In fact, married black women have twice the odds of infertility than white married women, but it’s rarely talked about.

Regina Townsend of tells the Times:

“With women of color, specifically Hispanic and African-American women, the stigma attached to us is that it’s not hard to have kids, and that we have a lot of kids,” she said. “And when you’re the one that can’t, you feel like, ‘I’ve failed.’”

Some of the disparity in seeking treatment for infertility comes from differing health networks (see our recent piece with Brian Southwell for more on that) and some from differing financial positions (see decades upon decades of research on the wealth gap between black and white U.S. citizens). That is, black women seem less likely to talk to other women, their gynecologists, and their faith communities about fertility (or a lack thereof), and they’re less likely to have the resources—financial, medical, and network-wise—to seek infertility treatment.

Part of the problem, said Arthur L. Greil, a sociologist at Alfred University in western New York who has studied infertility and women of color, is that middle-class white women tend to have the confidence and connections to navigate the health care system better than less affluent minority women.

Even further, since fibroids (benign tumors that can significantly affect fertility) are more prevalent among black women and black women take longer to reach out for fertility advice, problems are compounded by time. Fertility drops naturally over the years, of course, but Dr. David B. Seifer said:

…fibroids [are] just one of various “cultural issues, biological issues and social issues” black women face that can affect their fertility. He said black women often waited longer to seek a diagnosis of or treatment for infertility, which “gives all of these other biological factors more time to become more severe.”

As Cariesha Tate Singleton told the article’s author, she knows she’s up against a stereotype that women like her are naturally “baby-producing machines.” Groups like Fertility for Colored Girls are working to change that notion.

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.

These superconnective people might be more innovative because they have a broad network, can learn about trends faster than their peers, and they jump on new ideas. The trick is, a broad network can be made up of shallow connections—hand-shakes, Facebook friending, and business card exchanges don’t exactly add up to a huge group of confidants and collaborators.

What to do? Shallow, but big pool, or small, deep pool?

Burt thinks you can have it all (remember, he’s a positive guy). Thus, he boils his innovation insights down into four key ideas: branch out, but not without a goal (don’t just read the entire Internet); keep your enemies close (that is, get to know competitors and people who don’t agree with you); set a deadline (“We all get a say! Before Monday at 3pm!”); and play pretend (imagine you’re not an accountant but a psychiatrist; what does the problem look like now?).


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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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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.

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.

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.

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.