Paxson's new book, available from UCPress.
Paxson’s new book, available from UCPress.

American cheeses—not just the individually-wrapped slices—are making a comeback, as documented by MIT’s Heather Paxson, who recently published The Life of Cheese: Crafting Food and Value in America. The anthropological work details her research into the people and processes behind artisan cheeses in the U.S. Looking over the last 50 years, Paxson indentifies a host of factors behind the re-emergence of American artisanal cheese: environmentalism, feminism, markets (both local and international), and 9/11, among others. In an interview with the Boston Globe, she commented:

Like most social movements, it only looks like a movement in retrospect… Cheesemaking appealed to people the way that some start-up dot-coms did. It was the rural counterpart to that.

Paxson, who studies “how people craft a sense of themselves as moral beings through everyday practices, especially those activities having to do with family and food,” became curious about artisanal cheese after eating a sample of Hooligan, a Connecticut cheese, and asking the questions that are the genesis of so much social science research: Who? How? Why?

Mission accomplished! $20 worth of jalapeño cheetos
The phrase “you are what you eat” may refer to more than your physical make-up. In fact, the food in your fridge might say just as much about your social class as about your health.  Newsweek reports:

According to data released last week by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, 17 percent of Americans—more than 50 million people—live in households that are “food insecure,” a term that means a family sometimes runs out of money to buy food, or it sometimes runs out of food before it can get more money. Food insecurity is especially high in households headed by a single mother. It is most severe in the South, and in big cities. In New York City, 1.4 million people are food insecure, and 257,000 of them live near me, in Brooklyn. Food insecurity is linked, of course, to other economic measures like housing and employment, so it surprised no one that the biggest surge in food insecurity since the agency established the measure in 1995 occurred between 2007 and 2008, at the start of the economic downturn.

Growing inequality between the rich and the poor in the United States is reflected at the dinner table as well:

Among the lowest quintile of American families, mean household income has held relatively steady between $10,000 and $13,000 for the past two decades (in inflation-adjusted dollars); among the highest, income has jumped 20 percent to $170,800 over the same period, according to census data. What this means, in practical terms, is that the richest Americans can afford to buy berries out of season at Whole Foods—the upscale grocery chain that recently reported a 58 percent increase in its quarterly profits—while the food insecure often eat what they can: highly caloric, mass-produced foods like pizza and packaged cakes that fill them up quickly.

Using language evocative of sociologist Pierre Bourdieu, one epidemiologist explains:

Lower-income families don’t subsist on junk food and fast food because they lack nutritional education, as some have argued. And though many poor neighborhoods are, indeed, food deserts—meaning that the people who live there don’t have access to a well-stocked supermarket—many are not. Lower-income families choose sugary, fat, and processed foods because they’re cheaper—and because they taste good. In a paper published last spring, Drewnowski showed how the prices of specific foods changed between 2004 and 2008 based on data from Seattle-area supermarkets. While food prices overall rose about 25 percent, the most nutritious foods (red peppers, raw oysters, spinach, mustard greens, romaine lettuce) rose 29 percent, while the least nutritious foods (white sugar, hard candy, jelly beans, and cola) rose just 16 percent.

“In America,” Drewnowski wrote in an e-mail, “food has become the premier marker of social distinctions, that is to say—social class. It used to be clothing and fashion, but no longer, now that ‘luxury’ has become affordable and available to all.”

Concern about rising obesity, especially among low income communities, had led to some controversial policy proposals.

In recent weeks the news in New York City has been full with a controversial proposal to ban food-stamp recipients from using their government money to buy soda. Local public-health officials insist they need to be more proactive about slowing obesity; a recent study found that 40 percent of the children in New York City’s kindergarten through eighth-grade classrooms were either overweight or obese. (Nationwide, 36 percent of 6- to 11-year-olds are overweight or obese.)

But French sociologist Claude Fischler suggests that there might be a better way to address both food insecurity and obesity: Americans should be more French about food.

Americans take an approach to food and eating that is unlike any other people in history. For one thing, we regard food primarily as (good or bad) nutrition. When asked “What is eating well?” Americans generally answer in the language of daily allowances: they talk about calories and carbs, fats, and sugars. They don’t see eating as a social activity, and they don’t see food—as it has been seen for millennia—as a shared resource, like a loaf of bread passed around the table. When asked “What is eating well?” the French inevitably answer in terms of “conviviality”: togetherness, intimacy, and good tastes unfolding in a predictable way.

Even more idiosyncratic than our obsession with nutrition, says Fischler, is that Americans see food choice as a matter of personal freedom, an inalienable right. Americans want to eat what they want: morels or Big Macs. They want to eat where they want, in the car or alfresco. And they want to eat when they want. With the exception of Thanksgiving, when most of us dine off the same turkey menu, we are food libertarians. In surveys, Fischler has found no single time of day (or night) when Americans predictably sit together and eat. By contrast, 54 percent of the French dine at 12:30 each day. Only 9.5 percent of the French are obese.

Others suggest addressing systematic barriers to food accessibility and delivery. According to author and foodie icon Micahel Pollan:

“Essentially,” he says, “we have a system where wealthy farmers feed the poor crap and poor farmers feed the wealthy high-quality food.” He points to Walmart’s recent announcement of a program that will put more locally grown food on its shelves as an indication that big retailers are looking to sell fresh produce in a scalable way. These fruits and vegetables might not be organic, but the goal, says Pollan, is not to be absolutist in one’s food ideology. “I argue for being conscious,” he says, “but perfectionism is an enemy of progress.”

Community activists agree:

Food co-ops and community-garden associations are doing better urban outreach. Municipalities are establishing bus routes between poor neighborhoods and those where well-stocked supermarkets exist.

Joel Berg, executive director of the New York City Coalition Against Hunger, says these programs are good, but they need to go much, much further. He believes, like Fischler, that the answer lies in seeing food more as a shared resource, like water, than as a consumer product, like shoes. “It’s a nuanced conversation, but I think ‘local’ or ‘organic’ as the shorthand for all things good is way too simplistic,” says Berg. “I think we need a broader conversation about scale, working conditions, and environmental impact. It’s a little too much of people buying easy virtue.”re as well,” Berg says…

Berg believes that part of the answer lies in working with Big Food. The food industry hasn’t been entirely bad: it developed the technology to bring apples to Wisconsin in the middle of winter, after all. It could surely make sustainably produced fruits and vegetables affordable and available. “We need to bring social justice to bigger agriculture as well,” Berg says.

EpicThe hipster is a difficult group to define for those that seem to be the most exemplary examples of the term are also the most offended by the label.

A year ago Mark Greif, a professor in Literary Studies at the New School, and his colleagues began their investigation of the ‘hipster’.  In a recent essay in the NY Times, Greif reflects upon some of their findings  and explains how Pierre Bourdieu’s masterwork, Distinction: A Social Critique of the Judgement of Taste, provides a base to understand the meaning of ‘hipster’.

In conducting the study, Greif was immediately surprised by the intense emotions and self-doubt that seemingly superficial topic generated.

The responses were more impassioned than those we’d had in our discussions on health care, young conservatives and feminism. And perfectly blameless individuals began flagellating themselves: “Am I a hipster?

Greif turns to Bourdieu – A French sociologist who died in 2002 at the age 71 after achieving a level of fame and public interest rarely obtained by academics –  to help us understand why so much seems to be stake. While Bourdieu’s biographical details provide little connection to people wearing skinny black jeans and riding fixed-gear bikes, his account of the way what people consume becomes a means of separating themselves from other groups provides the framework to study the rise of the hipsters.

Taste is not stable and peaceful, but a means of strategy and competition. Those superior in wealth use it to pretend they are superior in spirit. Groups closer in social class who yet draw their status from different sources use taste and its attainments to disdain one another and get a leg up. These conflicts for social dominance through culture are exactly what drive the dynamics within communities whose members are regarded as hipsters.

From this perspective the coffee shops, bars, and Roller Derby track become the sites of social struggle.

Once you take the Bourdieuian view, you can see how hipster neighborhoods are crossroads where young people from different origins, all crammed together, jockey for social gain.

The main strategy in this competition is to establish yourself as being more ‘authentic’ than everyone else.

Proving that someone is trying desperately to boost himself instantly undoes him as an opponent. He’s a fake, while you are a natural aristocrat of taste. That’s why “He’s not for real, he’s just a hipster” is a potent insult among all the people identifiable as hipsters themselves.

This does not only apply to people with ironic mustaches.

Many of us try to justify our privileges by pretending that our superb tastes and intellect prove we deserve them, reflecting our inner superiority. Those below us economically, the reasoning goes, don’t appreciate what we do; similarly, they couldn’t fill our jobs, handle our wealth or survive our difficulties. Of course this is a terrible lie.


In a recent thought piece titled, “Racing Safely to the Finish Line? Kids, Competitions, and Injuries,” Sociologist Hilary Levey, reflects upon the reaction to the recent death of thirteen-year-old Peter Lenz this past Sunday. Peter was killed in a motorcycle accident at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway during a practice session.

Levey explains that it would be an error for the public to be caught up in the type of accident that occurred and we should instead use this tragedy as an impetus to consider the dangers of increasingly competitive youth sport.

Youth racing shouldn’t be alone in getting a closer inspection. This tragedy could have happened to any girl on a balance beam or any boy in a football tackle last Sunday. We should not be distracted by the fact that Peter was in a motorcycle race.

Despite the risk of serious injuries, like concussions, and even death, millions of kids compete in almost any activity you can imagine. Did you know that there are shooting contests for young Davy Crocketts, a racing circuit for aspiring Danica Patricks, and a youth PGA for those pursuing Tiger Woods’ swing? When did American childhood become not just hyper-organized but also hyper-competitive?

Levey shows that youth sport should be examined as the culmination of a century long trajectory of increased competitiveness.

Initially the organized activities served as a way mitigate deviant behavior by reducing the amount of unmonitored idle hours.

In 1903 New York City’s Public School Athletic League for Boys was established and contests between children, organized by adults, emerged as a way to keep the boys coming back to activities and clubs. Settlement houses and ethnic clubs followed suit and the number of these clubs grew rapidly through the 1920s.

However, the level of competitiveness continued to ramp up as the 20th century progressed. National organizations were introduced after World War II and the by the 1970s, for-profit organizations were common.

And, by the turn of the twenty-first century, a variety of year-round competitive circuits, run by paid organizers and coaches, dominated families’ evenings and weekends.

Parents tried to find the activity best suited to turn their children into national champions, even at age seven. As competitive children’s activities became increasingly organized over the twentieth century, injuries increased — especially overuse injuries and concussions. More practice time, an earlier focus on only one sport, and a higher level of intensity in games create the environment for these types of injuries.

Peter Lenz’s death is indicative of an increasingly competitive and organized American childhood. Levey argues that as a society we have the responsibility to make sure the training and safety regulations keep up with the increased pressure and risk of injury. This should include greater monitoring of safety equipment and higher standards for coaches.

While catastrophic accidents like Peter Lenz’s will happen, we can work to better protect all competitive children from more common injuries like concussions and overuse injuries. Kids want to win whatever race they are in and be the champion. Adults should make sure they all safely cross the finish line.

Dora Suitcase and Backpack
As Dora the Explorer celebrates 10 years on the air, the LA Times comments on her broader social significance. The children’s show features a young Latina heroine who travels through the jungle with her friends, speaking some Spanish, and solving simple math and word problems.

The idea was to foster pride among Latino children and familiarity with Latino culture among English speakers, but only indirectly as part of an entertainment show.

“It was just about creating a show we thought kids would love,” said Chris Gifford, who created the series along with Valerie Walsh Valdes and Eric Weiner. “We didn’t begin to think how long it might go for.”

Dora, however, has grown much larger than these seemingly modest origins:

Amid these warm-hearted adventures, Dora became a pop-culture superstar, a lucrative franchise and a force that helped shift the globalized juvenile television landscape that has become increasingly multicultural and bilingual. Dora, in some eyes, also became a poster child for immigration and the target of anti-immigrant sentiment.

The animated series is now broadcast in more than 100 countries — it’s the No. 1-rated preschool show in many of them, including France — and dubbed in 30 languages, such as Russian, Mandarin and German, with Dora mostly teaching English (in some cases Spanish).

“What’s been innovative about the show is it wasn’t conceptualized or presented as a Latino-themed show,” said Chon Noriega, director of UCLA’s Chicano Studies Research Center. “It was an educational series for kids that happened to have a Latino girl as the lead character. And it didn’t shy away from having a character that spoke Spanish. That allowed it to do something that was very unique.”

Dora has gone on to enjoy considerable success, culturally and economically (generating more than $11 billion in retail sales alone).

“Dora isn’t just a show; she’s DVDs, clothes, lunchboxes,” said Karen Sternheimer, an associate professor of sociology at USC and author of “It’s Not the Media: The Truth About Pop Culture’s Influence on Children.” “Nickelodeon has been very savvy about getting their characters into kids’ lives through a number of different platforms. They’ve taken branding to another level.”

The main character wasn’t originally going to be Latina, but:

The idea for an ethnic rebirth sprang after Johnson [a Nickelodeon exec responsible for the program] attended an industry conference during which the underrepresentation of Latinos in media was discussed.

The 2000 census showed that Latino communities were the nation’s fastest growing — and the biggest five-year Latino age group is infants to preschoolers. Yet data have long shown that Latinos are underrepresented in prime-time TV: UCLA research found that 4% of prime-time’s regular characters in 2004 were Latino, while Latinos make up about 15% of the U.S. population.

For years, the main source for children’s multicultural TV was PBS’ “Sesame Street.” …Dora’s “success really reflects a change in the media environment for children over the years,” Sternheimer said. “It’s a great reflection of the shifting multicultural nature of our society.”

Since “Dora,” the children’s TV landscape has embraced diversity. PBS Kids revamped “Dragon Tales” in 2005 to include Enrique, who is Colombian. “Jay Jay the Jet Plane” has added a bilingual plane named Lina. “Dora” also launched a spinoff, “Go Diego Go,” starring Dora’s 8-year-old cousin, in 2005.

Sociologists are among the experts who consult for the show:

Schoolteachers, sociologists and historians are all brought in to advise on “Dora” episodes. More than 20 cultural consultants have worked on the show to make Dora’s world reflect a pan-Latino culture that’s not just tortillas and mariachi music, Johnson said. “It was important for us that Dora represented the idea that being multicultural was super cool,” she said.

Cortés, who’s serves as a cultural consultant on the show, said not giving Dora a specific heritage made that idea a reality. “Not knowing where she was from allowed her to be a source of pride for anyone of Latino background,” he said. “She’s more relatable if you don’t peg her down.”

So, is it all a rosy animated multicultural picture? A sociologist, per usual, complicates the story:

“The show definitely homogenizes the many different origin groups that are comprised within the Latino ethnicity,” said Jody Vallejo, an assistant professor of sociology at USC. “So Latino children are getting a very broad view of who they are. At the same time, it does allow people from those different origins to make her their own character, to take ownership. For non-Latinos who watch the show, it makes Latinos more relatable. It demonstrates that bilingualism is not that bad. But it makes it seem like Latinos come from a monolithic culture.”

Early Light Toy Factory Shenzhen China

NPR explores why the familiar “Made in China” print may be less common in the future:

Factory workers demanding better wages and working conditions are hastening the eventual end of an era of cheap costs that helped make southern coastal China the world’s factory floor.

A series of strikes over the past two months have been a rude wakeup call for the many foreign companies that depend on China’s low costs to compete overseas, from makers of Christmas trees to manufacturers of gadgets like the iPad.

Where once low-tech factories and scant wages were welcomed in a China eager to escape isolation and poverty, workers are now demanding a bigger share of the profits. The government, meanwhile, is pushing foreign companies to make investments in areas it believes will create greater wealth for China, like high technology.

Or, perhaps, manufacturers will shift their operations to other areas of the country:

Given the intricate supply chains and logistics systems that have helped make southern China an export manufacturing powerhouse, such changes won’t be easy.

But for manufacturers looking to boost sales inside fast-growing China, shifting production to the inland areas where many migrant workers come from, and costs are lower, offers the most realistic alternative…

Massive investments in roads, railways and other infrastructure are reducing the isolation of the inland cities, part of a decade-old “Develop the West” strategy aimed at shrinking the huge, politically volatile gap in wealth between city dwellers and the country’s 600 million farmers.

Gambling that the unrest will not spill over from foreign-owned factories, China’s leaders are using the chance to push investment in regions that have lagged the country’s industrial boom.

One sociologist sees this as potentially a large-scale shift:

Many of today’s factory workers have higher ambitions than their parents, who generally saved their earnings from assembling toys and television sets for retirement in their rural hometowns. They are also choosier about wages and working conditions. “The conflicts are challenging the current set-up of low-wage, low-tech manufacturing, and may catalyze the transformation of China’s industrial sector,” said Yu Hai, a sociology professor at Shanghai’s Fudan University.

Myung-Dong-Tofu-Cabin-San-Mateo_0008The Globe and Mail has published an interview with two University of Toronto sociologists who have written a new book on “foodies.” According to the article:

As the authors explain in their new book Foodies: Democracy and Distinction in the Gourmet Foodscape, for which they interviewed 30 people and analyzed hundreds of articles, today’s foodies might find classic French haute cuisine stuffy. They may be willing to try goat testicles and sheep brains. And they’ll happily visit the city’s best hole-in-the-wall eateries, no matter how dumpy the decor. But one thing foodies flat-out refuse to eat is dinner at a mundane, generic chain restaurant.

Sociologists Josée Johnston and Shyon Baumann argue that being a foodie isn’t just about consuming good food, it’s also about garnering cultural capital. Says Johnston:

A lot of elements of foodie culture are still relatively exclusive, and part of what foodie culture is about is dabbling in all sorts of different ethnic cuisines and food traditions. What makes that a kind of privilege is to have the kind of knowledge to go to all of these kinds of places [whether it’s a fancy restaurant or hole-in-the-wall eatery], so you’re not just familiar with one type of ethnic cuisine, you’re familiar with the whole range of them. And that can end up constituting a kind of cultural capital people use to display their sophistication.

However, this may entail ignoring inequalities. Says Baumann:

…if you’re going to be a foodie and value authentic and exotic cuisine, it’s going to lead you to places of poverty, to contexts of impoverished food production and consumption. Through romanticizing those conditions of poverty, you can get the good food without having to dwell on the uncomfortable fact of poverty.

The authors also noticed gender differences among foodies:

Johnston: One thing that was surprising to me was the different ways that men and women embody their foodie culture. Men often emphasize their expertise more, and they’re often much more interested in the exoticism, especially eating things that are wildly unconventional, like goat testicles. And women didn’t do that as much. They talked more about how their interest in food was also about protecting the health of their family.

100B8130The New York Times recently featured an op-ed by David Brooks on the role of sports in American society.  Commenting on the teachings of sociologist Eugen Rosenstock Huessy:

He used literary and other allusions when he wanted to talk about ethics, community, mysticism and emotion. But none of the students seemed to get it. Then, after a few years, he switched to sports analogies. Suddenly, everything clicked.

“The world in which the American student who comes to me at about twenty years of age really has confidence in is the world of sport,” he would write. “This world encompasses all of his virtues and experiences, affection and interests; therefore, I have built my entire sociology around the experiences an American has in athletics and games.”

Brooks summarizes Michael Allen Gillespie’s take on how American sports are organized:

Throughout Western history, Gillespie argues, there have been three major athletic traditions. First, there was the Greek tradition. Greek sports were highly individualistic. There was little interest in teamwork. Instead sports were supposed to inculcate aristocratic virtues like courage and endurance. They gave individuals a way to achieve eternal glory.

Then, there was the Roman tradition. In ancient Rome, free men did not fight in the arena. Roman sports were a spectacle organized by the government. The free Romans watched while the slaves fought and were slaughtered. The entertainment emphasized the awesome power of the state.

Finally, there was the British tradition. In the Victorian era, elite schools used sports to form a hardened ruling class. Unlike the Greeks, the British placed tremendous emphasis on team play and sportsmanship. If a soccer team committed a foul, it would withdraw its goalie to permit the other team to score. The object was to inculcate a sense of group loyalty, honor and rule-abidingness — traits that were important to a class trying to manage a far-flung empire.

Gillespie argues that the American sports ethos is a fusion of these three traditions. American sport teaches that effort leads to victory, a useful lesson in a work-oriented society. Sport also helps Americans navigate the tension between team loyalty and individual glory. We behave like the British, but think like the Greeks, A. Bartlett Giamatti, a former baseball commissioner, once observed.

Brooks also makes the case for the role of collective effervescence that college sports provide:

Several years ago, I arrived in Madison, Wis., for a conference. It was Saturday morning, and as my taxi got close to campus, I noticed people dressed in red walking in the same direction. At first it was a trickle, then thousands. It looked like the gathering of a happy Midwestern cult, though, of course, it was the procession to a football game.

In a segmented society, big-time college sports are one of the few avenues for large-scale communal participation. Mass college sports cross class lines. They induce large numbers of people in a region to stop, at the same time, and share common emotional experiences.

The crowds at big-time college sporting events do not sit passively, the way they do at a movie theater. They roar, suffer and invent chants (especially at Duke basketball games). Mass college sports are the emotional hubs at the center of vast networks of analysis, criticism and conversation. They generate loyalties that are less harmful than ethnic loyalties and emotional morality plays that are at once completely meaningless and totally consuming.

Day 167/365 - Pure EvilMany skinny Americans are fed up with obesity, reports the Los Angeles Times:

“Americans as a society are getting fed up with the matter of obesity. No doubt about it,” said Douglas Metz, chief of health services for American Specialty Health, a San Diego-based company that offers wellness programs to employers. “Some pockets of society are taking positive action, and unfortunately others are taking negative action. That’s what happens when a society hasn’t figured out what the fix is.”

Recent notable actions include:

* A recent and ultimately unsuccessful plan at Lincoln University in Pennsylvania sought to take the body mass index of every enrolling student and require the obese to lose weight or take a fitness class before they could graduate.
* In Mississippi, legislators tried to pass a bill to let restaurants prohibit obese people from dining.
* In an interview with the New York Times last August, Toby Cosgrove, chief executive of the Cleveland Clinic, one of the nation’s largest medical centers, provoked national outrage when he said that, if it were up to him, he would stop hiring the obese. He later apologized for his remarks.
* Last summer in Florida, animal rights activists at People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) took aim at heavy women in a “Save the whales” billboard campaign that featured an overweight, bikini-clad woman. It read: “Lose the blubber. Go vegetarian.” Angry reactions caused the organization to remove the signs.

Statistics about obesity are being assessed in the current debates on how to reduce the nation’s health care costs:

A report by Emory University researchers projected last November that by 2018 the United States could expect to spend $344 billion on healthcare costs attributable to obesity. Obesity-related costs would account for 21% of healthcare spending, up from 9.1% today, said the report, sponsored in part by the United Health Foundation and the American Public Health Assn.

Providing a different take on the issue, it’s time to call in the sociologist:

“In our society, being heavy has become more of a stigma lately because we’re struggling with other issues of consumption,” says Abigail Saguy, associate professor of sociology at UCLA.

The economic climate, a recent history of people buying more than they can afford as well as environmental issues, including the depletion of our planet’s resources, are making people feel more angry about society’s overconsumption, she says. Obviously overweight people are an easy target.

“They’re almost a caricature of greed, overconsumption, overspending, over-leveraging and overusing resources,” says Saguy. “Though it’s not entirely rational, it’s an understandable reaction, especially in a country founded on the Puritan ethics of self-reliance, sacrifice and individual responsibility. If people feel they’re sacrificing, then see someone spilling over an airplane seat, they feel angry that that person is not making the same sacrifices they are.”

Research indicates that discrimination based on weight has been increasing in recent years:

Rebecca Puhl, a researcher at Yale University’s Rudd Center for Food Policy and Obesity, published [two papers] last January — one in the journal Obesity, the other in the International Journal of Obesity — Puhl reported that weight discrimination in the United States increased 66% over the prior decade.

“Weight discrimination is highly prevalent in American society and increasing,” said Puhl, who cites several possible reasons. Among them are a lack of legislation to prohibit weight discrimination and an increase in media coverage of obesity (up fivefold from 1992 to 2003). Most media framed the problem of obesity as one of personal responsibility, she reported.

Yahoo! Headquarters

The San Francisco Chronicle explains Yahoo Inc.’s new effort to integrate social science into computer science:

In the last year, Yahoo Labs has bolstered its ranks of social scientists, adding highly credentialed cognitive psychologists, economists and ethnographers from top universities around the world. At approximately 25 people, it’s still the smallest group within the research division, but one of the fastest growing.

The recruitment effort reflects a growing realization at Yahoo, the second most popular U.S. online site and search engine, that computer science alone can’t answer all the questions of the modern Web business. As the novelty of the Internet gives way, Yahoo and other 21st century media businesses are discovering they must understand what motivates humans to click and stick on certain features, ads and applications – and dismiss others out of hand.

Yahoo Labs is taking a scientific approach to these questions, leveraging its massive window onto user behavior to set up a series of controlled experiments (identifying information is always masked) and employing classic ethnography techniques like participant observation and interviews.

Some, such as computer scientist John Seely Brown, praise Yahoo’s innovation:

He complimented Yahoo Labs’ efforts, both because increasingly few companies pursue basic research in Silicon Valley – and fewer still are applying a sociologist’s eye to a medium that is increasingly becoming a social phenomenon.

“Today, you really have to take much more seriously what captures attention,” he said. “Yahoo’s next competitive advantage may be taking a different attitude toward this … than Google, which tends to look at what they do as engineering efforts.”

But not all of Silicon Valley is convinced:

However, there are risks when a for-profit company adopts an academic approach, which calls for publishing research regardless of the outcome.