This guest post is the first in what I hope will be a series of contributions by some of my former students from Brown University: people who took my course in Economic Sociology, and who have stayed in touch over the years. It’s always wonderful to hear from former students, and especially so when they find that material from my classes has been helpful in navigating their post-university lives. Since I was always rattling on in lectures about how pragmatic and useful Sociology can be–I was particularly fond of quoting Kurt Lewin, who is credited with saying “there is nothing so practical as a good theory”–it’s great to see how former students have applied sociological theories to make sense of their experiences.

In this entry, we find Galyn Burke–Brown class of ’05, formerly a competitive equestrienne, and now an enthusiastic triathlete–using Foucault and Putnam to shed light on the surging popularity of triathlon competition among American elites. Her analysis of what makes triathlons the “latest and greatest place to network professionally” follows.

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Triathlon is the new Golf: As a young lawyer making a name for himself in the mid-seventies, my father’s superiors told him to “pick up golf” as a way to rise quickly within the firm, and to land lucrative clients. It’s still all about who you know, but if you want to get ahead in business today, don’t hit the putting green, sign up for an Ironman. Why?

Like Golf, Triathlon is cost prohibitive: The average annual income of an Ironman participant is nearly $160,000, while the average golfer makes a measly $100,980 a year, according to Golf.com’s 2009 Survey.

With Ironman entry fees upwards of $500 each (plus the flight and lodging expenses associated with destination racing), a decent bike starting around $3,000 (plus $400 for the shoes, helmet, pedals and accessories), $200 for swim, bike and run gear, and $300/month in coaching and facilities fees; you start to understand the need for that extra $60,000/year.


A $6,800 Trek TT Bike, with Carbon, disk
wheels, which cost upwards of $2,000/set.



Triathletes make better business connections: Like Golf, Triathlon entrances “Type A” personalities, obsessed with winning, even if victory requires continuous practice and focus. Unlike golf, Triathlon also demands incredible pain tolerance and phenomenal endurance. Consequently, “the sport attracts high-income, driven, focused individuals who are able and willing to pay the price in time and money,” says David Samson, Florida Marlins president, and Hawaii Ironman 2006 finisher.

Not only are triathletes more driven, they’re also younger. On average, Ironman triathletes are 35-44, while avid golfers are generally in their early 50’s. Consequently, triathletes are at the peak of their professional careers, while many golfers are contemplating retirement, and thereby less effective in helping you infiltrate the network or company of your choosing.

Triathlon is a better way to schmooze (on a Micro Level): Now that you’ve drawn all of the rich, hard working, high powered individuals into one sport, it is time to make connections. Typically, only four players participate in a round of golf, which takes around 4.5 hours. You likely know at least one or two of the other competitors if you’ve been invited to play in the first place, so you’re left with at best two networking opportunities, which isn’t an efficient way to find the right contact for you.

Most of the Multi-Sport fitness groups in my home town (Marin County, CA), host weekly group rides, averaging thirty to fifty participants. The group usually covers seventy miles in a given ride, thereby providing five hours (plus a group brunch) to make friends, and connections.


The PurplePatch Fitness Weekly
Saturday Group Ride, Marin County, CA



The group usually breaks into smaller packs of evenly matched athletes after a ten mile warm-up. As competitive, Type A folks, multiple members in a given group will eventually ask you how old you are, what team you belong to, and what you do (probably to ascertain how much time you have to train, how long you’ve been serious about the sport, who coaches you, and what if any advantage your bike may provide you).

It is during this hierarchical ranking process that you establish dominance over the somewhat older, not-as-fast man on the really expensive bike. He may be the CEO of a major tech company in Silicon Valley, but that is the professional “Pond” (Frank, 1987) or “Sphere” (Putnam, 1995). Right now, you’re both in the triathlon sphere, where you’re fitter, faster and had a better time at Ironman Canada last year. As Frank noted, it is relative status that creates happiness and satisfaction, and in this pond, your status is higher than his.

So, for the remainder of the ride (and during brunch afterward), he picks your brain about triathlon, and you arrange to have lunch with him at his office next week, a networking win you’d never enjoy if you’d attempted to engage said CEO in the professional Sphere.


Aaron Wallen: ‘World’s Fittest CEO, 2008’
Ironman Challenge, Kona, HI

Triathlon as a character reference: Not only have you now procured a meeting, you’ve already passed the first round of the interview process. The ability to withstand (and even enjoy) suffering is a form of ‘bonding social capital’ (Putnam, 2001) that forges a strong sense of collective identity. It implies a preference for achieving work-like goals in the leisure sphere, which translates seamlessly into a strong, professional recommendation from your new friend, the high powered CEO.

Triathlon is a better way to schmooze (on a Macro Level): There is no other sport in which every race includes Professional, Amateur and “Age Group” triathletes from under ten to over eighty, separated only by “wave” times, which are determined by age and gender. As Bob Babbitt, publisher of Competitor Magazine put it: “I can’t pitch to Barry Bonds or tee off with Tiger Woods, but I can be on the starting line with the top people in triathlon.” Consequently, you can train, compete and network with individuals of all ages and abilities, from around the world.

While the world of triathlon is growing rapidly (223,594 US adults participated in a triathlon in 2007, up from just 83,612 just ten years ago), Triathlon is still a small community, even at the Macro level. With a limited number of Ironman (2.4mi Swim, 112mi Bike, 26.2mi Run), Half Ironman (1.2mi Swim, 56mi Bike, 13.1mi Run), Olympic (.9mi Swim, 26mi Bike, 6.1mi Run) and Sprint (.5mi Swim, 16mi Bike, 2mi Run) distance races, you are assured to become familiar (and even friendly) with similarly matched athletes from across the country, and the world.

Triathlon is a reciprocal Panopticon: Your athletic club affiliations are declared on your uniform, and your age is written on your calf prior to each race (so you can check the legs of everyone you pass and everyone who passes you, to estimate ranking in on your age group during the actual race).

Your relative time and ranking is posted within minutes of completing the race, so all can see where you fall amongst the 2,000 or so athletes who participated that day. Award ceremonies are performed immediately, and results are posted online within 24 hours. You can even look up their participant’s photos!

Basically, Triathlon is a Panopticon (Bentham 1995 [1785]; Foucault 1995 [1977]), in which everyone is given the role of prison guard and prisoner. You can’t hide anything about yourself, but in turn, you know everything about everyone else.

Left: Athlink.com results display an athlete’s age, gender, city, and results for every event completed.



Right:
Bentham’s Panopticon: A theoretical prison that allows guards to observe (-opticon) all (pan-) prisoners, who can’t reciprocally tell whether they are being watched.

Conclusion: Triathletes are a self selecting group of affluent, hig hly motivated individuals, who spend countless hours forging bonds through the competitive, grueling, and socially cohesive ritual of endurance athletics. The greater community convenes several times a year to establish relative rank by sex, age, casual, amateur and pro standards. With access to the region, age, gender and past performances of every athlete in this group, Triathletes are “tee’d up” to make local, national and international connections that turn into husbands, wives (38% of Triathletes are now women), employees, employers and friends. In a world where it’s all about whom you know, it doesn’t hurt to know the rich, successful, driven group that is Triathlon.


References

Bentham, Jeremy. 1995 [1785]. Panopticon Letters. Miran Bozovic (Ed.). London: Verso.

Foucault, Michel. 1995 [1977]. Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison. New York: Vintage.

Frank, Robert. 1987. Choosing the Right Pond: Human Behavior and the Quest for Status. New York: Oxford University Press.

Putnam, Robert. 2001. Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community. New York: Simon and Schuster.

A sign whose like you will never see in Germany. Taken in Mountain View, CA.
A sign whose like you will never see in Germany. Taken in Mountain View, CA.
You know what’s really fun? Being sick and in pain, up the middle of the night, trying to decipher the directions inside a box of pain medication, in a language you don’t really understand that well. I got to enjoy that experience about six weeks ago, with a recurrence of the same problem that made it excruciating for me to walk back in July, prompting the first Medicine and Money post.

This time around, there was prescribed pain medication involved—hooray—but it was of a kind that could kill you if you took too much. So reading and understanding the package directions was actually important. Imagine my surprise to open that package in my hour of need and find that the insert contained pages of directions, but only in German. Not one word in any other language: as if it never occurred to the manufacturer that non-German-speakers might find themselves in Germany, sick and in need of this common pain medication. As if there were no such thing as a tourist, or an immigrant worker. 

In case the reasons for my surprise aren’t clear, I should point out that Germany is a relatively small country (by American standards) surrounded by neighbors who speak other languages: French, Italian, Dutch, Danish, Polish, etcetera. Internally, Germany also has a large number of immigrant groups in its population, the largest of which is Turkish. But was there any Turkish, or French, or Italian to be found on that package insert? Nein!A thousand times nein! Because anyone lucky enough to get into Germany should have the courtesy and intelligence to read German, right? Especially medical German, of the kind printed on the package insert for this pain medication.

So I sat in the bathroom with a dictionary at 3am, barely able to focus my eyes from the pain, trying to figure how to avoid killing myself by accident with the pills that were supposed to bring relief. Obviously, all’s well that ends well: I am not blogging from beyond the grave. But it got me thinking wistfully about the ways in which American drug manufacturers and pharmacies go way out of their way to avoid this sort of situation happening in the US. When I was in California a few weeks after wrestling with the pain meds, I stopped by a CVS and had to smile at images like the one above, of the Asian pharmacist with the caption in Spanish, and this sign—displayed near the prescription drop-off window—explaining to customers how to get help in 21 different languages, including English, Laotian, Polish, Portugese and German! (Please forgive the poor quality of my camera phone shots.)

CVS pharmacy service: now available in 21 languages.
CVS pharmacy service: now available in 21 languages.

Now this kind of outreach to non-English-speaking populations obviously doesn’t occur just as a humanitarian gesture: it’s a business decision by firms that want to make money by reaching out to the widest possible customer base. This means eliminating obstacles to the use and purchase of medical products—like language barriers. Despite all the crummy pockets of English-only activism in the US, American firms still want to make money, and that keeps them printing signs and package directions in lots of non-English languages—because they recognize the reality that many people in the United States, whether tourists or immigrants, don’t speak English at all, or don’t speak it well enough to decipher things like dosage directions while in pain in the middle of the night.

The question is: why don’t German firms recognize that? Why don’t they recognize that non-German-speakers within Germany have money to spend, and try reaching out to them—for instance, by making package directions available in other languages? Leaving aside the safety issues—it says something about German culture and its stance on foreigners that potentially dangerous medications are not labeled in any language other than German, or even in pictograms, which are commonly used elsewhere in the world as a language barrier workaround—it seems that German firms are forgoing some profits by making their products hard to use by non-German-speakers.

At root, I believe, this is about culture. Shortly after my arrival in the country, many Germans told me to be prepared for the total absence of American-style service culture. But that was only part of the story: after three years in Germany, what I notice is not just the absence of something like service orientation, but the presence of a cultivated user-unfriendliness, in which making things difficult and exclusionary is very much an explicit goal rather than an unintended consequence.

This is one of the many instances where conventional economic wisdom—all businesses wants to maximize profits—breaks down, and economic sociology can be very helpful. Because it’s not that hard to find places where entities nominally called businesses seem hell-bent on making it difficult for people to buy and use goods and services. The whole culture of capitalism as Americans know it is not universal, even though many US political and economic leaders would have us believe that those norms and values are shared everywhere that business is transacted. If you’ve ever been to a socialist or communist country, you know this already; but it is perhaps more surprising that one finds such substantial deviations from American, customer-oriented norms in countries known as developed capitalist democracies.

Like Germany—where two of my German friends recently got “fired” from their long-time health club because they complained to the owner that her employees were 10-15 minutes late almost every morning at opening time, leaving a crowd of members waiting around for the front doors to open. So instead of apologizing or trying to remedy the situation, the club’s owner told my friends that they were banned from the club henceforth as complainers who “upset the staff” with their unreasonable demands for things like reliable opening hours. Now that’s customer service! (I did find a tiny speck of consolation in this story: I thought that kind of thing only happened to foreigners like me, whose accents and grammatical errors while speaking German gave us away as members of a lower caste.)

Economically, this is just insane: what kind of business owner fires her own customers when they complain about her business failing to live up to its commitments? Wouldn’t it seem easier just to make sure the doors of the club got opened on time, rather than losing the revenue stream from customers of years’ standing? I suppose an economist would say that the club owner was maximizing her utility—whatever that means in this case. The utility of being able to cut off her nose to spite her face? To “win” a power play, but lose money in the process? Certainly, many people are willing to pay dearly for the experience of power and dominance over others. But whenever this sort of thing gets explained in terms of economic theory, I find the term “utility” deeply unsatisfactory: like a giant black box in which economists throw everything that they don’t understand.

Sociology is sort of like dumpster-diving in that black box: that’s where all the interesting stuff can be found. Like the costly, irrational stuff people do in the name of culture and preferences. There are a number of different definitions of culture across the social sciences, but I see it as the broad set of social values, practices, norms, roles and expectations people have because of the setting in which they were raised, or in which they live. Nothing happens without culture, including capitalism. And this is a major insight of economic sociology: there is no one universal capitalism, but numerous local variations, dependent upon culture. (Paging Max Weber—again.) So I come from a world in which the business norm is “the customer is king”—whether or not an individual transaction actually lives up to that ideal, I can call upon it within the US and most people will a) know what I’m talking about, and b) acknowledge that it’s the ideal to which business should aspire.

Go to Germany, however, and both a) and b) would cease to apply: there is no shared cultural agreement that customers are the most important people in a business transaction. That changes everything about the lived experience of economic activity there: things that would be unthinkable in the US can happen in Germany, like the gym owner firing my friends for their service complaints.

This produces a special kind of culture shock, of the specifically economic variety. It’s not something I’ve ever seen described, either in the scholarly literature or the popular press. But I’d venture that it happens to most of us, even when we travel outside our home countries: every time you find yourself in a new country, wondering if you’re supposed to leave a tip, and if so, how much, you’re experiencing a minor form of economic culture shock. But the phenomenon manifests itself in a variety of other ways that are hard to fully appreciate until you move to that new country and start working there, buying groceries, and going to the doctor.

Having shared a few stories about the way that economic culture shock has affected me, I’d be interested to hear from you–what forms have you encountered, and what did you make of those experiences?