Just gotta find the gold one… Photo by takingthemoney via
Just gotta find the gold one… Photo by takingthemoney via

It’s been decided! The winner of the March 2013 TSP Media Award for Measured Social Science goes to:

Anthropology Inc.,” Graeme Wood, The Atlantic.

Wood explains that corporations are seeking the help of social scientists to understand the qualitative dynamics of consumer behavior. To illustrate, Wood delves into one strategy consulting company’s struggle to understand consumers’ needs in China:

“We find that these objects have meanings, not just facts,” Madsbjerg says, “and that the meaning is often what matters.” So to sell a personal computer in China, for example, what matters is the whole concept of a “personal” computer, which is culturally wrong from the start. “Household objects don’t have the same personal attachment [in China as they do in America]. It has to be a shared thing.” So if the device isn’t designed and marketed as a shared household object, but instead as one customized for a single user, it probably won’t sell, no matter how many gigahertz it has.

TSP author Andrew Wiebe wrote a citing on this article which outlines the problem-solving Absolut Vodka did with the help of anthropologists. To see more examples of how social scientists are helping unearth consumer insights, check out Wood’s article—a lengthy, but fascinating read.

As we say often, the choice of each month’s TSP Media Award is neither scientific nor exhaustive, but we do work hard to winnow our favorite nominees. And, while we don’t have the deep pocketbooks to offer enormous trophies or cash prizes, we hope our informal award offers cheer and encouragement for journalists and social scientists to keep up the important (if not always rewarding) work of bringing academic knowledge to the broader public.

The controversial New York Post cover, cropped so as not to show the victim, nor the word DOOMED (all caps in the original). Image via

On a busy bridge in Detroit during a traffic jam, Deletha Word was pulled from her car by Martell Welch, whose car she had sideswiped. In view of more than forty people, former football-player Welch savagely beat Word, tearing off her clothes. Welch jumped off the bridge to escape her attacker and subsequently drowned. When I heard this story on the evening news back in 1996, I was horrified that not one of the many onlookers attempted to stop Word’s attack or to pull her from the river (she initially survived the fall, but couldn’t swim). I will never forget my first introduction to the “Bystander Effect,” the social phenomenon in which individuals are less likely to intervene to help someone in distress if there are other people nearby.

The Bystander Effect was highlighted again recently as a result of the notoriously-tactless New York Post’s front-page publication of photographs of a man about to be killed by an oncoming New York City subway train. The man had been pushed onto the tracks after an altercation was struggling to get back onto the platform. Facing criticism for photographing the man’s death, rather than helping pull him from the tracks, the photographer has defended himself in the media. He’s said he could not have gotten to the victim in time to save him, but by taking photos—thus causing his camera’s flash to go off and possibly alert the driver of the train—he hoped to help. Plus, many other people were closer to the man, but did nothing to pull him up.

Arguably, social media has exacerbated the Bystander Effect. Tim Knapp, a sociologist at Missouri State University, commented in an article about the NYC incident, “Now everyone can be a journalist and some times, at the expense of being a good Samaritan.” That is, no longer are onlookers passive observers who “do not want to get involved” or risk their own personal safety; now many bystanders film or photograph the incidents in which they fail to intervene.

The Occupy Wall Street protests are in full swing across the nation, and reporters are doing their best to navigate and explain the growing, and sometimes ambiguous, movement. Not surprisingly, sociologists are helping journalists make sense of the phenomenon for viewers and readers. To help shed light on the Occupy Boston protests, FOX 25 Boston turned to Tufts University sociology professor Sarah Sobieraj. In a relatively short TV interview, Sobieraj was asked to cover a lot of territory, including explaining reasons for the movement’s popularity, addressing the breadth of its message, and identifying connections to other famous American protests.

These are all topics Sobieraj should feel pretty comfortable speaking on—after all, she wrote the book on media and protest (Soundbitten: The Perils of Media-Centered Political Activism). However, she isn’t the only academic with something to say about the Occupy protests. For instance, CUNY professor Héctor Cordero-Guzmán was asked by OWS itself to analyze the characteristics of visitors and saw his results picked up by The New Yorker’s Rational Irrationality blog, while Columbia’s Todd Gitlin wrote about the difference between Tea Party and OWS protests in the New York Times and discussed the movement with National Public Radio’s Marketplace. These scholars are working as ambassadors for the discipline and proving to the broader public that sociological research can be timely and relevant for parsing current events. Let us know if you spot any particularly edifying articles in your daily news review.

True/Slant recently parodied how reporting on the oil spill might look quite different “if sociologists wrote the news instead”:

Absent from the dialogue surrounding the Deepwater Horizon oil spill, which began on April 20, 2010 following an explosion that killed eleven workers, are the roles of class, race and especially gender. Due to the environmental devastation wrought by the catastrophe, which is likely to fall heaviest on the working poor, it is understandable that attention is largely focused on efforts to plug the oil well undertaken by British Petroleum, a corporation founded in imperial Britain to exploit the oil resources of people of color.

Read the rest.

The latest installment from the video podcast ‘Meet the Bloggers‘ (from Friday, October 24th), examines the role of race in the presidential election and features commentary from sociologist Adia Harvey Wingfield. Watch the podcast below.

Also take a look at Wingfield’s recent post on the Racism Review blog, ‘How White Privilege Works.’

Left screenThis Sunday’s New York Times ran a piece titled ‘Overfeeding on Information’ about our obsession with the news, especially during such a closely contested presidential election and in the midst of an economic crisis.

The Times describes this compulsion for constant updates:

This explosion of information technology, when combined with an unusual confluence of dramatic — and ongoing — news events, has led many people to conclude that they have given their lives over to a news obsession. They find themselves taking breaks at work every 15 minutes to check the latest updates, and at the end of the day, taking laptops to bed. Then they pad through darkened homes in the predawn to check on the Asian markets.

Sociologist Eric Klinenberg is asked to weigh in on this trend…

ERIC KLINENBERG, a sociology professor at New York University, said people are unusually transfixed by news of the day because the economic crisis in particular seems to reach into every corner of their lives. Usually, he added, people can compartmentalize their lives into different spheres of activity, such as work, family and leisure. But now, “those spheres are collapsing into each other.”

And the news is not just consequential, but whipsaw-volatile. Financial markets swing hundreds of points within an hour; poll numbers shift. This means that news these days has an unbelievably short shelf life, news addicts said. If you haven’t checked the headlines in the last half-hour, the world may already have changed.

And commentary from a psychologist…

For others, information serves as social currency. Crises, like soap operas or sports teams, can provide a serial drama for people to talk about and bond over, said Kenneth J. Gergen, a senior research psychologist at Swarthmore College who studies technology and culture. “It gives us the stuff that keeps the community together,” he said. And for those whose social circles think of knowledge as power, having the latest information can also enhance status, Dr. Gergen said. “If you can just say what somebody said yesterday, that doesn’t do the trick,” he said.

Read the full story.

The Washington Post recently posted comments from sociologist Andrew Cherlin on the state of the American family. The online forum was developed to address vice-presidential candidate Sarah Palin’s remarks about her own family.

The Post reports: 

“If the candidates wished to convince viewers that their families were just like ours, they were undone by a 21st-century reality: There is no typical family anymore — at least not in terms of who lives in the household and how they are related. Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin noted as much on Wednesday when, while introducing her clan to a cheering crowd of the Republican faithful, the GOP vice presidential nominee said: ‘From the inside, no family ever seems typical. That’s how it is with us.'”

View the transcript of the online forum here.

The exchange features topics like homosexual family formation, and Cherlin’s own work, but centers mostly around families currently in the political spotlight. The exchange was in part a response to a piece by Cherlin in the Post in the ‘Outlook’ section this past Sunday

Cherlin writes: 

That traditional family unit has been replaced by a wide variety of living arrangements. Today, only 58 percent of children live with two married, biological parents. Many others live with stepparents or with single parents. Even having a pregnant teen in the home is not that unusual: About one out of six 15-year-old girls will give birth before reaching age 20, according to the National Center for Health Statistics.

The candidates seemed to realize that none of their families is typical in the old sense. None of them tried to look like the ’50s family. Instead, they focused on being “typical” in a different, 21st-century sense: They worked hard to show us how emotionally close they are.

Read more.

Business #1

NYU sociologist Dalton Conley published an op-ed piece entitled ‘Rich Man’s Burden,’ in honor of Labor Day. This did not go over well with writer Timothy Noah, who wrote a response entitled ‘Stress and Class: An NYU Sociologist Claims, Preposterously, That It’s More Stressful to be Rich than Poor.’

Dalton Conley writes about how many people probably didn’t take the Labor Day holiday to relax with their families but instead remained tied to their Blackberries and connected to their laptops. Conley suggests that Americans working on holidays is not a new thing, and dexterously tied is to Weber’s concept of the ‘Protestant ethic.’ But Conley notes a significant departure from Weber’s notion in current times:

But what’s different from Weber’s era is that it is now the rich who are the most stressed out and the most likely to be working the most. Perhaps for the first time since we’ve kept track of such things, higher-income folks work more hours than lower-wage earners do. Since 1980, the number of men in the bottom fifth of the income ladder who work long hours (over 49 hours per week) has dropped by half, according to a study by the economists Peter Kuhn and Fernando Lozano. But among the top fifth of earners, long weeks have increased by 80 percent.

It was this statement that prompted writer Timothy Noah to respond. He writes:

Dalton Conley, chairman of the Sociology Department at New York University, has written extensively about race, poverty, and social classand was himself raised in a housing project on New York’s Lower East Side. This ought to inoculate him against the popular notion, cherished by the professional classes, that the BlackBerry-punching haves experience more stress in their daily lives than the indolent poor. Apparently, it hasn’t….

Now, it may be true that the bottom fifth is working fewer hours while the top fifth is working longer hours. The authors of the study in question claim no insight as to why this should be so and note that because the observed shift took place fully two decades ago, it “is not likely related to advances in communications technology (such as the Internet) that facilitate additional work from home.” Scratch the BlackBerry and the easy availability of wireless Internet off your list of possible culprits. Remember, too, that these findings may be distorted by the survey’s exclusion of women and the self-employed. Still, for simplicity’s sake, let’s assume that the haves are now working longer hours than the have-nots. How does Conley make the leap from saying the haves consume more time on the job to saying, “[I]t is now the rich who are the most stressed out”?

Read the full story from Conley.

Read the full story from Noah.

Is this just about interpretation?

Noah suggests: 

It’s easy to imagine that “It is now the rich who are the most stressed out” is what readers of the Times op-ed page want to hear. But that doesn’t make it true.

The Boston Globe reports on how the increasing potency of marijuana fuels the fires of partisan marijuana debates.

“…The polarized debate about [marijuana’s] safety has been rekindled by two reports released separately this month by the federal government and a leading drug prohibition group. Both studies conclude that marijuana’s potency has increased, which they link to reports of more addiction, mental health problems, and emergency room admissions related to marijuana use among teenagers.”

And the sociologist weighs in…

In a field with limited research, partisans tend to create paper thin arguments, as easily made as they are countered, said Roger Roffman, professor of sociology at the University of Washington.

“I think [both sides] do a disservice to the general public,” said Roffman, who has written papers and edited books on marijuana use and dependence. On websites of drug policy reform advocates, “you’ll find lots of information about the very adverse consequences of criminalizing marijuana and very little mention of the very real harm associated with marijuana among some people in some circumstances,” he said.

Meanwhile, on government and prohibitionist websites, he said, “you’ll find plenty of information on the harmful consequences of marijuana abuse and very little information, perhaps, on the harmful consequences of criminalizing marijuana.”

Read on.

Check out this fascinating blog post from Jeff Weintraub about MSNBC commentator Chris Matthews’ comments about contrasting sociologists with Americans.

Weintraub writes,

“Tonight, Matthews suddenly decided that even mentioning class and race in connection with elections is for ‘sociologists,’ not ‘Americans.’ Using phrases like ‘blue-collar’ is ‘elitist talk.’ And simply by talking about ‘white working-class voters,’ Hillary Clinton is almost ‘like the Al Sharpton of white people.'”

Check out the full story with video link.