The website that many of you will visit after this one (or may have already visited!) is providing sociologists with new research opportunities.

Andreas Wimmer and Kevin Lewis used facebook to study friendships among college freshman and found that race’s impact on friendships may be overstated.

“Sociologists have long maintained that race is the strongest predictor of whether two Americans will socialize,” says lead author Andreas Wimmer, professor of sociology at UCLA. “But we’ve found that birds of a feather don’t always flock together. Whom you get to know in your everyday life, where you live, and your country of origin or social class can provide stronger grounds for forging friendships than a shared racial background.”

To reach these conclusions, Wimmer and Lewis studied the social networks of college freshmen by examining tagged photos on facebook.

True to past research, the sociologists initially saw same-race friendships develop rapidly: White students befriended each other one-and-a-half times more frequently than would be expected by chance, Latino students befriended each other four-and-a-half times more frequently, and African American students befriended each other eight times more frequently. But when the researchers dug deeper, race appeared to be less important than a number of other factors in forging friendships.

“Much of what at first appeared to be same-race preference, for instance, ultimately proved to be preference for students of the same ethnic background,” Lewis says. “Once we started controlling for the attraction of shared ethnic backgrounds or countries of origin, the magnitude of racial preference was cut almost in half.”

While Wimmer and Lewis stress that racial discrimination is still a problem, they believe past research may have exaggerated the role of race in social relationships.  Instead, social and physical constraints play a bigger role.

To read the entire article, click here.

Facebook in the bathroom!
College students rest assured: the Chronicle of Higher Education reports that spending time on social networking sites like Facebook and MySpace won’t tank your grades.

Researchers at Northwestern University found no connection between time spent on social-networking sites and academic performance. The study, the results of which appear in the latest issue of Information, Communication & Society, included responses from approximately 1,000 first-year students at the University of Illinois at Chicago.

Sites such as Facebook and MySpace had no effect on grades, despite how often students used them or how many they used.

A sociologist weighs in on how other social perks of these sites may outweigh any detrimental effect.

Eszter Hargittai, associate professor of communication studies and sociology at Northwestern, suggests that the benefits of social-networking sites may cancel out the distractions they pose.

“You could go on there and waste your time,” she said. “On the other hand, you can connect with your classmates, get information about homework assignments, get to know people better, and feel more comfortable engaging with them on academic matters.”

F1000011What could decorative rocks and park benches have to do with sociology? The San Francisco Chronicle suggests one possibility:

For Jeffrey Miller, landscape architecture is more than just plants, waterfalls and decorative rocks. For Miller, the founder of San Francisco’s Miller Company Landscape Architects, it’s about uniting living spaces and bringing people together.

“My impetus to be a landscape architect came out of a question – how to design social and public space so that there were better relationships between people,” he said. “It wasn’t a nature-based beginning, it came from more of a sociological perspective.”

Since forming Miller Company in 1980, the former sociology student and filmmaker has been involved with some of the more dramatically landscaped residential communities in the Bay Area.

Miller applies his sociological imagination to landscaping by envisioning public spaces as opportunities for social interaction and connection, especially in big cities.

Ultimately, Miller realizes that the outdoor space of a development is almost always larger than the interior space, and what you do with that is as important as creating comfortable living rooms and spacious kitchens.

“The largest space that we have with these projects is everything that’s outside of the buildings,” he said. “So the care and design of the world outside of buildings is tremendously important to the way we live, especially in urban places. This is kind of our public living room – what we have outside – and the more we can create sociable environments for communities coming together, the better social environment we’re going to have.”

New research on the social network effects of obesity was recently reported in the Guardian UK:

Children at schools where older students are obese or otherwise overweight are significantly more likely to suffer weight problems themselves, researchers report.

For each one per cent increase in the prevalence of obese students aged 16 to 18 years, the odds of a student at 14 to 16 years old attending that school also being overweight increased significantly.

“It was the one risk factor that held true across every school we looked at,” said Dr Scott Leatherdale, the chair of research at Cancer Care Ontario and lead investigator with the School Health Action, Planning and Evaluation System.

Commenting on the obesity connection between older and younger students, Leatherdale says:

It could be that younger students look up to older students, and so emulate their sedentary behaviour and bad eating habits and do not judge the older children’s body shape.  Or it could be that the school doesn’t encourage enough physical activity among its students, and the older students’ weight issues are an indication of that.

Sociologist Steve Fuller at Warwick University concurs with his assessment:

Obesity is one phenomenon that medical sociologists have nominated as an ‘epidemic’ that is transmitted by copying the behaviour of peers.  Certain connections between overeating and social activities become contagious. Young people gather together in more stationary modes than in the past: in front of computers and video games rather than sports.

The reason it’s called an ‘epidemic’ is because the pattern is reinforced by regular contact, so that if one is not in regular contact with the pattern, one doesn’t spontaneously do it The idea is that you overcome obesity by breaking up the networks where it’s transmitted.

Yesterday USA Today ran a story about how ‘flocking’ behavior has now “landed on social networking sites” like Facebook, MySpace, and Twitter. The article integrates commentary from a number of different sociologists on this trend.

USA Today reports:

The interconnected web of our friends, family, neighbors and acquaintances may dominate our lives more than we know.

They’ve always been there, making up our social support systems. But now, largely thanks to the burgeoning popularity of online social networks like Facebook, researchers are discovering what a powerful influence our connections — both online and off — really have over our lives.

“Those of us who study social networks believe they matter — that things do spread along social networks,” says Claude Fischer, a sociology professor at the University of California-Berkeley.

Another sociologist adds…

“Social networking sites have brought social networks into people’s consciousness,” says Barry Wellman, a sociologist at the University of Toronto in Canada who started analyzing social networks in the 1960s and has expanded his studies to online.

The research:

For the most part, being part of a social network is good for you, research suggests. For example, a study in this month’s Scientific American Mind finds that social support and social networking offer benefits, from additional resilience to greater life satisfaction to reducing the risk of health problems. Other studies in the past two years have found that feeling like a part of a larger group helps in stroke recovery and memory retention and boosts overall well-being.

“In many ways, human beings behave like flocks of birds or schools of fish,” says Nicholas Christakis, a physician and Harvard University sociologist who is co-author of a new book,Connected: The Surprising Power of Our Social Networks and How They Shape Our Lives, out today.

“So many things we normally think of as individualistic — like what our body size is, or what we think about a political topic, or whether we are happy — are actually collective phenomena,” says Christakis, 47.

Whether they’re face-to-face or virtual, social networks influence human behavior and shape everything from finances to the way people vote, say Christakis and co-author James Fowler, a social scientist at the University of California-San Diego.

The authors suggest that the world is governed by what they call “three degrees of influence” — that is, your friend’s friend’s friend, most likely someone you don’t even know — who indirectly influences your actions and emotions.

For example, when a friend starts exercising more, “I change my mind about how much I should be exercising or I share stories with my other friends who are influenced to do the same. You either change your behavior or you transmit information about the behavior to others, who change their behavior,” says Fowler, 39.

Read more…

Facebook Page for Squashy Frog PhotographyAt the end of last week, the Economist ran a story entitled, “Primates on Facebook,” about the capability of humans to maintain social networks via websites such as facebook. The answer it seems, is that we are quite limited…

The Economist reports:

That Facebook, Twitter and other online social networks will increase the size of human social groups is an obvious hypothesis, given that they reduce a lot of the friction and cost involved in keeping in touch with other people. Once you join and gather your “friends” online, you can share in their lives as recorded by photographs, “status updates” and other tidbits, and, with your permission, they can share in yours. Additional friends are free, so why not say the more the merrier?

But perhaps additional friends are not free. Primatologists call at least some of the things that happen on social networks “grooming”. In the wild, grooming is time-consuming and here computerisation certainly helps. But keeping track of who to groom—and why—demands quite a bit of mental computation. You need to remember who is allied with, hostile to, or lusts after whom, and act accordingly. Several years ago, therefore, Robin Dunbar, an anthropologist who now works at Oxford University, concluded that the cognitive power of the brain limits the size of the social network that an individual of any given species can develop. Extrapolating from the brain sizes and social networks of apes, Dr Dunbar suggested that the size of the human brain allows stable networks of about 148. Rounded to 150, this has become famous as “the Dunbar number”.

But the Economist wouldn’t write a story like this without calling in the sociologists…

…Moreover, sociologists also distinguish between a person’s wider network, as described by the Dunbar number or something similar, and his social “core”. Peter Marsden, of Harvard University, found that Americans, even if they socialise a lot, tend to have only a handful of individuals with whom they “can discuss important matters”. A subsequent study found, to widespread concern, that this number is on a downward trend.

The rise of online social networks, with their troves of data, might shed some light on these matters. So The Economist asked Cameron Marlow, the “in-house sociologist” at Facebook, to crunch some numbers. Dr Marlow found that the average number of “friends” in a Facebook network is 120, consistent with Dr Dunbar’s hypothesis, and that women tend to have somewhat more than men. But the range is large, and some people have networks numbering more than 500, so the hypothesis cannot yet be regarded as proven.

I’m left wanting to know more about this supposed ‘in-house sociologist’ Facebook is keeping on call…

Read more.

The Los Angeles Times ran a story this week about a new study that details the persistence of negative racial stereotypes, reporting that “Changes in social standing such as falling below the poverty line or going to jail made people more likely to be perceived as black and less likely to be seen as white,” according to the researchers.

In a long-term survey of 12,686 people, changes in social circumstances such as falling below the poverty line or being sent to jail made people more likely to be perceived by interviewers as black and less likely to be seen as white. Altogether, the perceived race of 20% of the people in the study changed at least once over a 19-year period, according to the study published today in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.
Changes in racial perceptions — whether from outside or within — were likely concentrated among those of mixed ethnicity, researchers said.
From the sociologists’ mouth…
“Race isn’t a characteristic that’s fixed at birth,” said UC Irvine sociologist Andrew Penner, one of the study’s authors. “We’re perceived a certain way and identify a certain way depending on widely held stereotypes about how people believe we should behave.”  

Penner and Aliya Saperstein, a sociologist at the University of Oregon, examined data from the federal Bureau of Labor Statistics’ National Longitudinal Survey of Youth. Though the ongoing survey is primarily focused on the work history of Americans born in the 1950s and 1960s, participants have also provided interviewers with information on a variety of topics, including health, marital status, insurance coverage and race.

Even more surprising…
The effect has staying power. People who were perceived as white and then became incarcerated were more likely to be perceived as black even after they were released from prison, Penner said.  

The racial assumptions affected self-identity as well. Survey participants were asked to state their own race when the study began in 1979 and again in 2002, when the government streamlined its categories for race and ethnicity.

Read the full story.
Read the previous post on this work from the Crawler. 

This weekend the Calgary Herald reported on a new study about the effects of the internet on social relationships. 

…A new Statistics Canada study has found that far from promoting social isolation, the Internet is enhancing relationships with family and friends. The study delves into the social and civic uses of the Internet in Canada, with one of its authors, Statistics Canada analyst Ben Veenhof, calling the results a “two sided tale of how social cohesion is being transformed through technology.”

This two sided tale suggests that heavy internet users spend less time with family and friends in person, but that the internet can also serve as a ‘social device,’ meaning that participation in social organizations and involvement with community members can also be a benefit of web use. 

Meanwhile, a University of Toronto professor of sociology, who is one of the authors of the study, says research knocks down the myth that people are living their lives only on the Internet. “We find that very, very few people are online only,” Barry Wellman said. “Almost always it’s a mixed relationship –that they’re making arrangements or talking with their friends in between actually seeing them face-to-face.”

Wellman said almost all relationships people have online are with those they already know. In fact, he says, it’s generally more social people who are greater Internet users.

Read more.

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.

t w e n t yScience Daily News reports on a new national study from two sociologists out of Brigham Young University which concluded that religious involvement makes teenagers half as likely to use marijuana. The findings from the study are available in the October volume of the Journal of Drug Issues – allegedly settling a question scholars have traditionally disagreed upon.

Science Daily News:

“Some may think this is an obvious finding, but research and expert opinion on this issue have not been consistent,” said BYU sociology professor Stephen Bahr and an author on the study. “After we accounted for family and peer characteristics, and regardless of denomination, there was an independent effect that those who were religious were less likely to do drugs, even when their friends were users.”

The study, co-authored by BYU sociologist John Hoffmann, also found individual religiosity buffered peer pressure for cigarette smoking and heavy drinking.

What is it about religiousity?

The term religiosity as used in the study has to do with people’s participation in a religion and not the particular denomination. Hoffmann said the protective effect of church and spirituality supplements the influence of parents.

“Parents shouldn’t force it, but they can encourage spirituality and religion in their families, which in itself becomes a positive influence in their children’s lives,” Hoffmann said.

Read more.