“Docs to Parents: Limit Kids’ Texts, Tweets, Online.” So reads one version of today’s reports on a new study published in the American Academy of Pediatrics Policy. I haven’t even read the study yet, and I’m skeptical. First, why are physicians the experts on this? Second, what research is this directive based upon? From the news story, I learned only that, according to the AAPP study, time online has been “linked with” such bad things as “violence, cyberbullying, school woes, obesity, a lack of sleep,” as well as “a host of other problems.” “Linked with?” Even the study’s lead author acknowledges in the first paragraphs of the article that online activities are “not a major cause of these troubles,” though he does cheekily say, “I guarantee you that if you have a 14-year-old boy and he has an Internet connect in his bedroom, he is looking at pornography.”
Some of the news pieces go on to quote the study’s authors: “Young people now spend more time with media than they do in school—it is the leading activity for children and teenagers other than sleeping.” That may be true—I believe it. But the kids are doing a lot of different things with this media—a not-insignificant amount of which, I think, is reading, research, and (gasp!) school work. These are, of course, empirical questions but my guess is that young people have a much better sense of how to utilize, engage, and manage the technologies and media than we give them credit for.
Now to be clear: I don’t disagree that parents need to help their kids understand technology and monitor the ways in which their children use it. However, I do wonder if the fright of WiFi is less about worrying over our kids than worrying over our own obsessions with devices and activities that we can’t quite control or contain.
Along those lines, there is a fascinating little review in the most recent New Yorker of a host of new research and books about the technologically-mediated environment that can overwhelm us and what we can do about it. Its title is “Only Disconnect: Two Cheers for Boredom.” A couple of years back I wrote a bit about boredom in the context of our hyper active, hyper mediated world. But here I just want to note how sociological all of this research and reflection is–about questions of activity and meaning as they are constituted in the built environments that we inhabit. Can it be any more sociological? No. And thus is it not surprising that the piece begins with a shout out to the German sociologist Georg Simmel’s classic piece “The Metropolis and Mental Life.”As always, assumptions tend to spring from our own experience—just the sort of trap that leaves us needed more research, more scientific analysis, and less public hand-wringing.
Perhaps envisioning Chris Uggen as a Sociological Spiderman last week got me going, but over the past few days, I have found myself thinking about all kinds of super-hero analogies and metaphors for sociologists and the sociological enterprise. The one that has stuck with me is the idea of sociologists as “Society’s Super Egos.”
I’m not sure exactly where I got the idea—maybe from a review or backcover blurb I once read that described the foundational German sociologist Georg Simmel as the “Sigmund Freud of society.” It was Freud, after all, who came up with the whole super ego concept. Clearly the most sociological of his ideas, Freud thought of the super ego as a kind of psychic representative of societal norms and expectations which acted a constraint on the otherwise greedy interests, impulses, and self-absorption of the ego and its animating id (see: Civilization and its Discontents.)
I find it both useful and amusing to think of sociology as a kind of societal super ego. As analysts of “the social,” we are almost by nature critics and contrarians, always searching for different ways to see social arrangements and alternatives to the conventional wisdom; exposing inequalities and injustices; advocating for the marginalized, the forgotten, and the dispossessed; unpacking taken-for-granted assumptions and cultural norms; and delving into how things came to be and how they might be better. When it is done properly, sociology operates as a kind of collectively oriented, self-reflective mirror or lens, that reflects back at us—all of us. Playing both the Devil’s Advocate and the critical onlooker seems to be our birthright. In a broader, less self-oriented context, sociology’s critical orientation and perspectives provides society and all its aggregated actors a means of self-assessment, collective reflection, and even, if you will, a collective conscience.
Of course, playing the part of the collective super ego has its downsides and dangers. One of the downsides is that naysayers and critics are not always the most well-understood or beloved members of a community (we all well aware of the tendency to blame the messenger or marginalize the critic). As for dangers, the super ego role requires a certain, very real degree of arrogance, of we-know-best aloofness. This is as it should be. Often the whole point of sociological practice is to assemble information and ideas that are missing from public knowledge or run counter to received understandings. Heck, we invented the notion of false consciousness. You gotta have big egos, super-sized egos, to do that! And this is where my amusement with thinking of sociologists as society’s super ego takes a bit more serious turn.
Sometimes our opinions of ourselves can get a little too big. We can become too confident in ourselves and our visions of society, too disconnected from the realities and experiences of those whose perspectives may be different, but who make their meanings and worlds just like us. I’ve written about that several times over the last few weeks and won’t repeat that all here. Instead, what I want to do is underscore this second and perhaps more familiar meaning of the term “super ego”–one that is just too big, too full of itself and only itself, not realizing that any self always requires others that is it constantly defined by and in relationship to. I take this additional or alternative meaning of super ego as a cautionary tale, a manifestation of the sociological mission and practice that we must always be careful about falling into.
And what I really like is at the end of the day, and why I think i find the phrase so amusing, provocative, and on-point, is how these different ways of thinking about the term super ego fit together, the kind of ironic, self-depreciating way that the term Society’s Super Ego works when you put the psychoanalytic and more common sense meanings together. Thinking of ourselves as society’s super egos provides a neat framework for taking the sociologist’s role in and relationship to society seriously, but not so seriously that we flip from being bearers of information and insight to experts who cannot be questioned or ultimate arbiters of right and wrong or good and bad. We inhabit social worlds just like everyone else, and we’ve got a particular, kind of complicated role to play in it. We should embrace our super ego role and, at the same time, be careful not too get too caught up in our own super egos–and, of course, to always use the super powers of sociology for good rather than evil.
A few months ago, one of our bloggers, the “backstage sociologist” Monte Bute offered up a post that referenced political theorist Isaiah Berlin’s famous distinction between foxes and hedgehogs. In the world of ideas, according to Berlin (borrowing from ancient Greek poet Archilochus), there are those who know many, many things (foxes), and those who know one big thing (hedgehogs). Berlin’s categories have been widely referenced in both the social sciences and the humanities to identify styles of thought, the contributions of various scholars, and lines of research and writing. In reflecting on Berlin’s categories back in the long, lazy days of summer, Chris and I had a little fun putting our favorite sociologists and works in one box or the other. And as we played with the categories and thought about sociology as a discipline, we began to realize anew—much as I think Berlin meant to suggest (this appeared in an essay about Tolstoy)—that real insight and understanding in any field requires both foxes and hedgehogs.
Certainly sociology fits this characterization. The foxes among us collect tons of data and generate myriad facts and explanations of facts, and our hedgehogs work tirelessly to organize these ideas and information in big conceptual frames, organizing theories, and frameworks. Yet the more Chris and I talked and thought, the more we found ourselves uncomfortable with the dualistic distinction: the scholars and works we like best didn’t quite fit into the boxes. Further, the usual ways of thinking about the relationships between foxes and hedgehogs (either privileging one over the other or thinking of each as balancing the other, contributing equally in its own way) didn’t seem to capture what is truly unique, important, and inspiring about sociology as a intellectual pursuit.
We think about sociology not as a competition between foxes and hedgehogs, nor even as a balancing act between these different styles of thought, but as a genuine, ongoing synthesis of these approaches. Sociologists are necessarily engaged in both fox- and hedgehog-like thinking, operating at different levels, up and down and all around the social world.
Chris went back into his early graduate school theory days and suggested that the imagery of a different creature—a spider—better captured the essence of the sociological enterprise (an idea adapted from a Francis Bacon essay Chris once read for class). The spider doesn’t so much think about one big thing or lots of smaller things, but does both at once. Put differently, the spider is oriented toward weaving all of the little strings into a grand, synthetic whole.
I felt a bit like that synthetic spider this past weekend when I spoke at a big immigration event at the faith-based community—okay, it’s a Lutheran Church—with which I have long been affiliated in the Twin Cities. The event was less about immigration reform than about welcoming immigrants in our communities. We discussed how individuals and organizations, neighborhoods, and entire cities can do a better job of understanding, engaging, and integrating societal newcomers and outsiders more generally. I was asked to give the main, initial framing talk. Consistent with my vision of the value of social scientific information and perspective, I tried to provide some basic facts, important context, and useful concepts about immigrants, migrants, and immigration in the contemporary United States. I talked about about immigrants and foreign-born people in the U.S. and around the world; recent research on attitudes about immigration, immigrants, and immigration reform; patterns of assimilation and incorporation of recent immigrants and their children; and a brief overview of economic costs and benefits of migration and movement. Most of this research was drawn from others in the field. In fact, some in the audience were undoubtedly more expert and informed on some of these issues and aspects than I. But as a sociologist, I was well positioned to pull all of this information and ideas together and present them in a format that was as (relatively) engaging and accessible as it was informative. And from the feedback I received (and how well the rest of the event went), I think these ideas and information provided a fairly useful frame for thinking and interacting: a web within which we could all operate.
We sociologists find ourselves doing such web-spinning all the time, at different levels, and through a range of media—community groups, classrooms, talks and presentations, blog posts, newspaper op-eds, media interviews, and, of course, on TSP, especially with our extended features and white papers. Probably our most famous and most successful example came early this fall when my partner and collaborator, Chris, was asked to be part of a White House event on some of the collateral consequences of our current punishment and prison policies. A range of scholars and intellectuals presented findings and analyses at the event, which Chris described in a post last week, modestly titled “TSP at the White House.” But what I wanted to highlight here is that our guy was assigned the quintessential “sociological spider” role of pulling this all together, on the fly and in a lively, engaging, and informative manner. TSP couldn’t have been prouder.
I’ve been thinking a lot lately about what sociologists have to gain from doing “public sociology,” from engaging broader, non-ivory tower audiences more self-consciously and systematically. In my last post, “Ears to the Ground,” in fact, I gave the example of how, in my own experience with journalists and reporters, I often learn a great deal about current events, institutional dynamics, and emerging social trends that I wouldn’t otherwise be privy to. These are concrete facts, the kind of empircal social realities I talk a lot about but often don’t have the time or access to collect. But there is so much more to be gained from going public as a sociologist.
One of those potential benefits is the understanding and perspective that comes from actually conversing with regular, ordinary folks out there in the real world about our big ideas, social findings, and critical interpretations of social life. These conversations are not always the easiest to have–in fact, non-specialists not only often misunderstand our findings and claims, but adamantly disagree with them. But engaging these disagreements and addressing these misunderstandings–engaging in real, genuine public dialogue and debate–can really help sharpen and shape our own understandings of things as well as make us much more effective participants in public dialogue and public policy debates.
The scholarly benefit of dialogue between social scientists and our publics was illustrated and reinforced for me when re-reading, just last week with students in my senior projects course, a little, two-page column written by the renowned family scholar Stephanie Coontz for Contexts some years back. (It was published well before Chris and I took our turn editing). In that piece, called “Putting on a Public Face,” Coontz recounts her experience in the late 1980s national debate about out-of-wedlock parenting. That debate was ignited when then-Vice President Dan Quayle made a disparaging speech about the TV sitcom character Murphy Brown’s decision to have and raise a child on her own. For Quayle, Brown was a symbol of the bad parenting choices and family arrangements at the root of America’s social ills. He advocated a return to traditional, 1950s family values. Coontz, whose now-classic book The Way We Never Were: American Families and the Nostalgia Trap was just about to be released, seized the opportunity to enter into the public debate. She spent several weeks on radio talk shows around the country refuting Quayle and the idea American should–or even could–go back to “traditional” family values.
The core of Coontz’s message, based on the research in her book, was to remind folks that 1950s families life wasn’t actually all that great: 50% of black, married couple families lived in poverty in the period; parents were three times more likely to lose children to death; women much less likely to work outside the home, not even allowed to take credit cards in their name. And, perhaps most chillingly, “Incest, rape, child abuse, and wife battering were covered up, leaving victims no place to turn.”
But the reception our family scholar received as not what she expected. It was not so much that callers sided with the Vice President rather than Coontz about Murphy Brown. It was that they refused to accept her characterization and critique of the 1950s. In spite of all of her research and evidence, “The callers,” as Coontz put it, “were convinced that I was dead wrong, maybe even a liar.”
Rather than digging in her heals and proclaiming herself the expert, Coontz decided to listen more carefully to what they had to say and figure out why she was making people so mad. And once she went back and listened to the tapes of the exchanges, she began to get a better sense of what was going on. On the one hand, she realized that many of the callers were involved in “family rearrangements” that were “highly traumatic,” and there were many things that made their current family lives extraordinarily difficult– long hours of work, failing marriages, relationships of violence, disfunction, and abuse. And on the other hand, they had been raised on a very real nostalgia for an earlier, simpler era of family life, the very mythical notions that Coontz was criticizing. The result was therefore not only understandable but predictable. “When I insisted on the dark side of the 1950s, they heard me say that their anxiety about contemporary family was stupid, their memory of a more stable time was delusional, and that they were too ignorant to be allowed opinions.”
Armed with this better understanding of the very real travails of contemporary family life and the mythological ideals that were being aspired to instead, Coontz began to devise better ways to make her points and engage the public–she acknowledged their struggles and aspirations first, and then helped them to realize that 1950s had their limitations and drawbacks for families as well (women stuck at home, African American families mired in poverty, violence, abuse and neglect pathologically taboo topics of conversation, etc.)
The result was a much better mode of communication and exchange for all parties involved. But what I want to highlight here is that Coontz not only learned how to better package her own research and findings; she actually learned a lot about contemporary families and family life itself, both the struggles families now face and the ideals and goals to which they, rightly or wrongly, aspire.
“Any time we can add nuance to the conversation about family life or other hot-button issues,” Coontz wrote, “we are performing a public service.” “But often,” she concluded, “when we succeed in reaching out beyond the academy, we also enrich our own research. Sometimes we can even make our work more sophisticated by trying to explain it in simple terms [and] …by connect[ing] our research to emotional and practical realities that the academy may ignore.”
When scholars think about doing interviews with the media, we often imagine ourselves to be doing some kind of great public service–wherein we deign to come down from the ivory tower and share our wisdom and knowledge with naive, uninformed journalists and their massive, mostly ignorant, and fundamentally distracted masses. There is some truth to this conceit. Writers and producers often approach a story or a topic with a limited, fairly narrow frame of reference, and sometimes don’t even know the most basic facts or more general trends that are involved. I average maybe an interview a week, and find myself spending much of my time in these exchanges trying to get the writer or producer on the other end of the line to expand their scope, attend to some of the broader social forces or issues, or reframe their pieces in one way or the other. Sometimes this effort to frame and/or reorient stories works, sometimes it doesn’t (and rarely do we get credit either way).
But none of that is really the point of this post. The point of this post is that journalists often know a lot more than we give them credit for, and that we scholars–especially us sociologists–have got a lot more to gain from working with them than we usually realize.
For one thing, the best journalists are not ignorant or uniformed. To the contrary, they know a ton–more than this, they know what they know, know what they need to confirm and support, and what they don’t know yet and still need to figure out. That’s the whole point of them calling us. And even reporters who aren’t so curious, well-informed, and self-aware usually know a lot more about what is going on in neighborhoods, communities, and cities in regular people’s lives at this very moment than we do. This shouldn’t be surprising. We talk a lot in the academy, especially in the social sciences, about being empirical, staying grounded, and understanding the lifeworlds and world views of others. But these are folks who actually have their ears to the ground on a daily basis. It’s their job, and most of them–like most of us–work hard at it and do it fairly well.
And this knowledge and perspective is–or at least should be–a real resource for a sociologist like myself. Thus it is that I have come to think of my conversations and exchanges with journalists, reporters, writers, and producers not so much as an obligation or responsibility (though I do believe that to be the case) but as one of the most important and unrecognized benefits of “public engagement” as a scholar. It brings me into contact with people in the real world who know a lot about things I am otherwise not party to or disconnected from. It helps me to learn about what is going on in that big, bustling, ever-changing, always-evolving social world all around me.
This past week provided me with another little reminder of this basic truth–which was fortuitous because with the start of a new academic year (where I get paid to stand up and tell young people what I know and their job is to be prepared to be tested on that) I’m sure I was otherwise soon to fall into that old “I’m-the-expert” conceit myself once again.
It started in the middle of the afternoon last Tuesday when I got a voice mail from a local sportswriter, one who I know fairly well, asking me if I might be available to comment on a high school sports story he “thought I might be intrigued by.” Obviously, knowing my schedule and that it was the start of class, this guy was trying to be coy and get me to call him back on a deadline by appealing to my curiosity and, truth be told, vanity. And the current of underlying urgency in his message was confirmed by a series of additional voice mails and text messages. Still, it was a typically busy day for me too (class, followed by a department workshop and a three hour board meeting with a local community group) and I sent him a quick text asking what his deadline was and apologizing that I might not be able to squeeze it in.We scholars talk a ton about being empiricists, about identifying new social trends, about gathering facts and learning about the lives of those who are different from us. Yet far too often we remain isolated and disconnected from those people and trends. So here’s part of the answer how we stay grounded and fresh: talk as much as we can to others trying to do the same—journalists. Perhaps it is verboten to suggest, but I think we may actually get more than we give in this relationship.
Anyway, despite the temptation to not be bothered and just do my own thing, I decided to do the right thing and called to talk the following morning on my drive in to campus.The story my reporter friend was working on turned out to be about a local, Friday night high school football game that was going to be televised live, nation-wide on ESPN 2 that week. This was a big story, a national story, driven mainly by the fact that one of the teams had a player, a defensive lineman, who was rated at the very top of national college recruiting lists over the summer. So I had heard about it but I didn’t know a lot about the actual details. Nevertheless and as is my won’t, I had a few (mostly critical) ideas about the general trends, pitfalls, and problems of turning high school athletics into big-time, national media events to offer. Indeed, I spent about twenty minutes explaining what I thought most scholars and researchers in the field would be concerned about, and trying to convince him to use the story to talk about some of the larger, longer term developments and implications.
This sportswriters listened patiently to what I had to say and dutifully asked a few questions, but from the point of view of my usual smarter-than-thou, scholarly expert self, the exchange was far from a complete success. The story that ran two days later in the paper (on the front page, mind you) didn’t have any of the larger scope or more critical nuance I had worked so hard to cultivate. This, to such an extent that the quotes I gave him that he was able to work into the story (as is common practice and professional courtesy) were cut by his editors. (My guy emailed before the story even ran to apologize in advance and explain that his editors insisted on that my contribution be cut from “an already too long story.”) Adding insult to injury, this version of the story was scooped by a rival outlet in the Twin Cities; when this reporter insisted that “ours was better,” I couldn’t help but get the message that my primary contribution was simply to make the piece late.
But as frustrating as all of this was for the reporter I was working with, it actually turned out to be a pretty good exchange for me. After all, looking back, I realize that learned a ton of facts about the dynamics of high school sports I previously could only have guessed at. I learned about how ESPN producers sitting in Connecticut make their decisions about what national games to televise, and that they themselves are fully aware of (and indeed somewhat circumspect about) the broader impacts and implications that we scholarly critics only pontificate about. I learned that the games are actually produced by subcontractors working out of various regional offices (this one in Chicago), which have become a whole industry in themselves–talent, camera operators, techies,and road crew to be sure, but also lighting operators, advertising specialists, crowd control etc. Talk about production! And just for a high school football game. I learned also just how much money each school was going to make, and that the locals really had very little sense of whether they were getting a good deal in this (or not, as the case may have been), nor of any of the larger, systemic pitfalls and problems that this coverage may be creating. In short, I learned a ton of facts and inside information about this whole system that is emerging that I otherwise would have known nothing about. The reason, obviously, is because my reporter friend is out there, with his ear to the ground in the real world, learning about all of the developments and dynamics around high school football that are threatening to reshape the sporting landscape right in front of us.
We scholars, at least we sociologists, talk a ton about being empiricists, about identifying new social trends, about gathering facts and learning about the lives of those who are different from us. Yet far too often (if, for reasons we can’t entirely control–the world is big, our resources are limited, and we’ve got on own, fairly extensive teaching responsibilities ), we remain isolated and disconnected from all those people and trends we are supposed to know about (and regularly asked to comment upon). So here’s part of the answer how we stay–or at least can stay–grounded and fresh: talk as much as we can to those other folks who also do this for a living. Perhaps it is verboten to suggest, but I think we may actually get more than we give in this relationship.
New years bring new goals and often bigger ambitions. One of our TSP goals, over the next year or two, is to better represent the field of sociology as a whole. Don’t get us wrong: we think we’ve got a great site with tremendous (and tremendously provocative) content. But there are some areas of specialization we don’t cover as well as others, and our suite of blogs probably leans more toward the op-ed, commentary-and-critique side than the more basic, empirical data and explanation of concrete social processes that dominates much of our journal research and scholarly publishing.
We are working with our graduate student board on some new features and initiatives to make our site even bigger and broader, and we’re hoping to begin rolling some of those out in the weeks to come. But in thinking through and working on all of this, Chris and I have also begun to believe that we’ve got some ideas about sociology itself—what it is, how it can be better understood and practiced, and what its role in society should and can be—that aren’t nearly as well represented or articulated as they should be. So what we are going to do is start laying out some of those observations and ideas as part of the Editors’ Desk. We’re not sure exactly how much we’ve got to say or how it will cohere, but for the next few weeks, under the heading of “Sketches,” that’s what we’re going to try to do. Here goes…
Sketch 1: Just Don’t Call It That
When we first started working on Contexts, Chris and I allowed ourselves and our publication to be guinea pigs for an entrepreneurial marketing class here at the U’s business school. Some 50 or 60 students worked in small teams on research projects intended to help us better understand how to publicize and market sociology.
We learned a great deal from these projects and presentations, and some of the ideas and suggestions shaped or even found their way into some of the innovations we made with that publication. But thinking back to those presentations now, especially with the print publication in our rearview mirror, there is one that was especially memorable. It came from a group of students who did a series of focus groups and reading experiments with the feature articles we had produced in the first year or two of editorship. The research was initially intended to assess which kinds of topics and writing did well among our audience and whether or how interest was driven by graphics, layout and design, or other related factors. But their main finding was simple. In a nutshell, any article that had “sociology” or some variation of it in the title immediately lost the interest of the students. They quit reading at the title. The researchers recommended that, no matter what we decided to do with our content—topics, length, layout, etc.—the one thing we needed to avoid was the word “sociology.”
Talk about a catch-22! Here we were (and are) trying to disseminate and publicize work from a discipline whose name we weren’t even supposed to mention. While we still haven’t solved this problem, we did realize that we had a marketing—or, in sociological lingo, “framing”—issue. I feel like there is a lot to learn from this little insight and the conundrum it presents for sociology and any sociologist interested in making an impact in the “real”–that is, non-academic–world. I think I”ll try to come back to that soon. But for the moment let me just say that ultimately, we also realized we don’t really care what people call our work… we care about the ideas and information produced from this particular tradition. And we’re more convinced than ever that the best of this work merits greater public attention.
Why is it that some people seem so much more energetic and productive than others? As is our wont, sociologists tend to answer such questions not with respect to individual characteristics and variations, but instead by thinking about the social context and cultural factors—the external forces that structure, inculcate, and incentivize individual output and creativity. Max Weber’s The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism provides the usual point of departure. In an nutshell, Weber argues that the Protestant reformation, in shifting the hope for eternal salvation from institutional church membership to individual belief and one’s own relationship with God, put a new emphasis and impetus on personal practice that gave rise to attitudes and activities that provided the cultural foundations for capitalism.
I’ve been thinking about this the past few days as my son begins his freshman year of college (here at the University of Minnesota, no less!). College is obviously an environment designed to push, pull, and prod young people in ways and to a degree that they have never been pushed, pulled, or prodded before. And it is no great or original insight to suggest that our American system of higher education is one of the key institutional sites for the construction of the social skills and moral qualities that make our society so unique and uniquely productive. I’ve been particularly impressed with my first glimpse into the energy, excellence, and dedication displayed by the marching band, the proudly named “Pride of Minnesota.” As my son takes his place in the clarinet section, the band has put in 14-hour days in 100 degree heat (over 130 on the field turf yesterday afternoon, I heard) to get ready for the season opener tonight.
As I try to put myself in the shoes of these exceptional band members as well as all of the other energetic, excited, and nervous new students I’m seeing walk around campus, I’ve reflected back on my own early college experience. And I am brought to think about other, more individual, non-contextualist, and even natural or biological factors that may be in play when it comes to explaining variations in energy, productivity, and creativity in college and the human context more generally. I say this because I don’t think there is any way I can bring the energy and enthusiasm I see in the band myself these days. And also because college was for me—as, I am sure, for many others—a time when I was not only propelled to levels of activity and output I could not previously have imagined, but also the moment in my life when I really began to realize the limits of my abilities and capabilities, especially emotionally and physically. I mean, I initially tried to do everything—high academic standards, a large list of extracurricular activities, and all of the social side of college as well as staying in touch with family and friends from home—but I soon began to find myself overly stressed and tired. My body was beginning to break down. Without a sufficient sleep, simple day-to-day functioning became a real issue. And soon I had to scale back, make choices about what I could and couldn’t do, find out how to balance different interests and activities and aspirations against each other. I came to see first-hand that others had abilities and capabilities above and beyond my own, and that I had realms in which I was particularly proficient.
Like most of us, I figured this out, as I trust my son and all of his new friends, classmates, and bandmates will. Yet I also am sure that the individual solutions that each of us work our way into are driven and constrained as much by our material needs and physiological makeups—how much sleep we need (I still can’t get over how much sleep I require in comparison to many higher octane folks out there), what we eat (and how much), how much stress we can tolerate, how much physical and psychic energy we can generate—as larger cultural contexts. Energy is a scarce and unevenly distributed resource. Perhaps this is a relatively trite, obvious observation. But it is one that we sociologists must—because of our culturalist and collectivist inclinations—remind ourselves of, both in our personal lives and in terms of the research and analyses we do in our professional capacities. Societies contain individuals, and our basic physical endowments do indeed shape and determine the energies we exert and the impacts we can make.
In the wake of the annual American Sociological Association meetings, it is always interesting to see what (if any) new research and ideas from the field capture media attention. One topic is fairly predictable: sex. Stories about sex and sexuality get the eyeballs, and sociology is no exception. (Uncomfortable point in fact: sex and sexuality are two of the most common search terms new readers use to find The Society Pages.) The most recent example is an article that originally ran in the Los Angeles Times on “hookup culture” on college campuses.
The story, from a writer named Emily Alpert, reports on recently released research from Martin Monto, a sociologist at the University of Portland. The main thrust of the findings is that, while a new form of sexual intimacy has emerged on college campuses in the last decade or so (intimate physical encounters between friends and casual-but-known acquaintances: “hookups”), this does not mean that college students are having more sex than ever before. Indeed, according to Monto’s work, fewer than one third of college students surveyed between 2002 and 2010 had had sex with more than one person in the preceding year—the same level reported in the 1980s and 1990s. (What is new is that 68% of those who were sexually active were involved with a friend, an increase from 56% in previous periods.) As one headline put it: “Sex on campus has changed, [but] not surged.”
Being both a bit titillating (sex on campus!) and yet reassuring (our kids haven’t gone completely wild—whew), the story definitely has legs. Since it originally appeared in the Times over a week ago (I’m actually not sure if it came directly from the meetings in New York, an ASA press release, or coincidental timing ), I’ve seen a number of references, reprints, and reflections—including, as of this morning, in both of the local papers in the Twin Cities.
It is always good to see sociology in the news, and I find it especially rewarding that this particular piece is based upon concrete, empirical research into social behaviors and trends, one of the things sociologists do quite well in general. But what I find equally noteworthy and promising is how many prominent sociologists are in the piece. Including Monto, no fewer than six (6 !) sociologists are referenced and/or quoted as sociologists in the versions of this relatively brief article I have seen (including TSP’s own online star, Lisa Wade, the founder and author of the TSP Community Page Sociological Images). For example sociologist Kathleen Bogle, the author of one of the first books on the topic, Hooking Up: Sex, Dating, and Relationships on Campus, is quoted as saying that the emergence of hookup culture indicates a shift in the romantic “scripts” of young adults. The article further suggests, drawing straight from sociology and sociologists, that this sexual intimacy with friends and known acquaintances is connected with larger trends among young people, especially young women, in putting off family and marriage in favor of things like keeping their studies at the fore and limiting distractions, as well as forging careers before partnerships. Still other sociologists (including incoming ASA President-elect Paula England) are referenced to say that hooking up is more common among white, wealthy students and doesn’t necessarily involve intercourse as it’s traditionally defined.
Real cultural shifts that confound popular stereotypes and anxieties and are driven by broader societal trends and forces. Class variations. Different meanings and understandings of seemingly similar practices and activities. These are all important sociological insights and contributions, and I am quite pleased to see Alpert work them into her reporting so seamlessly. (If you want more, in fact, these themes and many others that involve sex and relationships among youth and young adults are explored in an extended feature in the latest issue of the society’s review journal, Contemporary Sociology, as well as in an issue of Contexts our editorial team put out in the Summer of 2010.) Still I can’t help but wonder if these glimpses into the range and complexity of the sociological vision and contribution to societal understandings are fully appreciated by readers. They may not get further than the basic (and perhaps base) connection between sex and sociology. That is one of the ironies and challenges that we face, in terms of getting sociology research and writing to the public: we must to educate and inform publics about what sociology is in the first place.
So, we are back from that extravaganza of society’s science, the annual American Sociology Association meetings. Among all the usual parties, plenaries, and pleasantries, the conference, held this year in New York City, featured lot of talk about blogs and social media, websites, and public sociology. For example, incoming ASA President Annette Lareau has created an ad hoc task force on social media, and apparently several different proposals are floating around to create an association-sponsored blog. Who knows whether or how these ideas will come to fruition before next year’s meeting. What is particularly intriguing and exciting for us is that The Society Pages seems to be very much on people’s minds and it’s been at the center of many of these conversations. Even as our HQ dispersed for the meetings and our authors circulated in NYC, our bloggers continued to blog and contributions and exciting ideas continued to come in. Among the highlights on the site this past week was a roundtable on one of the most fascinating cultural festivals in the nation, Burning Man, assembled by Matt Wray. Below, Letta Page has assembled some of the other weekend reading from the past couple of weeks of site work.
One last note: for those who joined us on Monday night, you know that W.W. Norton & Co. throws a fantastic annual party, and we’re honored to be invited. Thanks for coming, and thanks to Karl Bakeman and his team for putting together such a fun night. The Norton Party is always the home of some unforgettable moments.
“Burning Man: A Roundtable Discussion,” with Matt Wray. Wherein one sociological “burner” talks shop with fellow field (err, desert) scientists Katherine K. Chen, S. Megan Heller, and Jon Stern.
“The Homicide Divide,” by Lauren J. Krivo and Julie A. Phillips. The leading cause of death for young black men in the U.S. is homicide, a fact that holds enormous ramifications for an already disadvantaged population. I mean, you can’t get much worse than death (sociologically speaking or otherwise).
“Natan Sznaider on Compassion,” with Shannon Golden. In one ASA session, organized by our fearless editor Doug Hartmann, we were reminded that passionate language has been stripped from so much academic sociology, leaving appeals to morality and compassion to social workers, rather than researchers. Let’s see what Sznaider can do.
“FOOD, INC.: Film Guide,” by Kia Heise. Heise shares the first of many class guides she’s designed for students to use while watching documentaries in class and for the class to use as jumping-off points for discussion once the lights come up.
Citings & Sightings:
“Barroom Bystanders,” by Andrew Weibe. Penn State’s Michael Parks studies the conditions under which we’re willing to jump in with a “Cool, it, man, he just ganked your Bud Light. Bigger problems in the world… have you heard of sociology?”
A new issue of Contexts came out while you weren’t looking, and it’s chock full of great stuff! Highlights include this issue’s online feature, Scott Melzer’s “Ritual Violence in a Two-Car Garage” and a set of insightful Viewpoints articles arranged by Syed Ali around the topic of charter schools. Also be sure to check out Joshua Gamson’s conversation with his own parents about sociology as the family trade.
Sociological Images. Lisa Wade was much missed at this year’s ASA, but she and her colleagues kept on with the great work online (hopefully from some very exotic locale!). Exhibits A through forever: Kara Kamos’s video argument against the relevance of beauty, the endurance of “exotic” tropes, Phil Cohen on the insidiousness of Smurfette sexism, and Jay Livingston on the language of class in the U.S. and abroad.
Since sociology and sports are two of my greatest passions, it should come as no surprise that an article in the current issue of Time magazine that had the words “quarterback sociology” in the title caught my eye.
The article was about Colin Kaepernick of the San Francisco 49er’s. Kaepernick, for those who don’t know, burst onto the NFL scene last fall when came off the bench as a rookie to lead the Bay area team on a surprising playoff run. With his swashbuckling style of play, a provocative personal backstory (Kaepernick is a mixed race adoptee, raised in a white family), and a unique new-millenium look, Kaepernick has quickly become one of the league’s most popular players–as evidenced by the fact that his is already the best selling jersey in the league.
I usually don’t find such profiles particularly interesting or revealing since they are often more an exercise in image making and celebrity gossip than anything else. But this one is worth a read. In a wide-ranging, stimulating interview Kaepernick talks confidently about race, athletic stereotypes, adoption, and body art. For example, Kaepernick suggests that those who describe him as a freak athlete may be subtly diminishing his work ethic and intelligence as has happened to so many African American athletes–and especially quarterbacks (remember Rush Limbaugh’s criticisms of Donovan McNabb?)–before him . Challenging those who have criticized his body art as self-indulgent or disrespectful, Kaepernick describes tattoos as a way of expressing oneself in a profoundly American individualist fashion. He also speaks at length about the experience of adoption into a white family, his relationship with his birth mother, and the complexities of his own mixed-race identity and experience.
Athletes are often far more interesting and insightful than we give them credit for or allow them to be. And if we are willing to get past our outdated dumb-jock stereotypes, we’d also realize that they’ve got things to say about society as well as sports. Kaepernick, after all, is not just not talking about the sociology of quarterbacks; he is a quarterback talking sociology.
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