culture

Tis’ the season for throwing down at dinner. Every year the humor and the horror stories about Thanksgiving hit our social media feeds. This isn’t just about politics, either. Family dinners have a strong symbolic significance. When the stakes are high for a once-a-year gathering, other kinds of social conflicts are primed to play out as well.

Photo Credit: Louish Pixel, Flickr CC

But for all this talk about fighting, one thing I find really interesting as a political sociologist is just how much work people do to avoid conflict. We know from embedded studies of parent organizations and neighborhood groups that people will tie themselves up in knots to avoid talking about political issues. In some cases, people are more likely to confide in near-strangers or acquaintances than close family members. In an increasingly fraught political climate, the answer for many people might be cutting their visits short. According to research published last year Science, there is some evidence for this happening.

In the article, political scientists matched anonymous smartphone location data from over 10 million Americans to precinct-level voting data from 2016. By doing this, they could see who traveled for Thanksgiving that year and how long they stayed at dinner. People who ate in an opposing political district spent less time at dinner, about 30-50 minutes less on average. The pattern was stronger for people coming from Republican districts to dine among Democrats—they split about 50 to 70 minutes sooner. The authors also find that increased local political advertising was also associated with cut-down dinner time.

Sure, these people could be storming out before that second helping. But I think one of the less-appreciated trends in political life is that many of us are just clamming up and cutting out early to spend time elsewhere. There are many perfectly valid reasons to do this, especially if people are made to feel unwelcome or unsafe. These results suggest we could all do a little more to think about keeping people at the table.

Evan Stewart is an assistant professor of sociology at University of Massachusetts Boston. You can follow him on Twitter.

Sociologists
studying emotion have opened up the inner, private feelings of anger, fear,
shame, and love to reveal the far-reaching effects of social forces on our most
personal experiences. This subfield has given us new words to make sense of shared
experiences: emotional labor in our professional lives, collective
effervescence at sporting events and concerts, emotional capital as a resource
linked to gender, race, and class, and the relevance of power in shaping
positive and negative emotions.

Despite
these advances, scholars studying emotion still struggle to capture emotion
directly. In the lab, we can elicit certain emotions, but by removing context,
we remove much of what shapes real-life experiences. In surveys and interviews,
we can ask about emotions retrospectively, but rarely in the moment and in
situ.

One
way to try to capture emotions as they unfold in all of their messy glory is
through audio diaries (Theodosius 2008). Our team set out to use audio
diaries as a way to understand the emotions of hospital nurses—workers on the
front lines of healthcare. We asked nurses to make a minimum of one recording
after each of 6 consecutive shifts. Some made short 10-minute recordings. Some
talked for hours in the midst of beeping hospital machines and in break rooms,
while walking to their cars, driving home, and as they unplugged after a long
day. With the recorders out in the world, we couldn’t control what they
discussed. We couldn’t follow-up with probing questions or ask them to move to
a quieter location to minimize background noise.

But what this lack of control gave us was a trove of emotions and reflections, experienced and processed while recording. One fruitful way to try to distill these data, we found, was through visuals. We created wavelength visualizations in order to augment our interpretation of diary transcripts. Pairing the two reintroduces some of the ‘texture’ of spoken word often lost in the transcription process (Smart 2009:296). The following is from our new article in the journal, Qualitative Research (Cottingham and Erickson Forthcoming).

In this first segment, Tamara (all participant names are pseudonyms) describes a memorable situation in which a patient’s visitor assumed that Tamara was a lower-level nursing aid rather than a registered nurse (the full event is discussed in greater detail in Cottingham, Johnson, and Erickson 2018). This caused her to feel “ticked” (angry), which is the word she uses after a quick, high-pitched laugh that peaks the wavelength just after the 30-s mark (Figure 1). The wavelength peak just after the 1:15 mark is as she says the word ‘why’ with notable agitation in ‘I’m not sure why. Maybe cuz I’m Black. I don’t know.’

Figure 1. Tamara’s “Ticked” Segment (shift 2, part 1)

We can compare Figure 1 that visualizes Tamara’s feelings of
anger with the visualization of emotion in Figure 2. “Draining” is the
description Tamara gives at the beginning of this second segment. The peak just
after the 15-second mark is from a breathy laugh as she describes her sister “who
has MS is sitting on the bedside commode” when she gets home from work. After
the 45-second mark, she has a similar breathy laugh but in conjunction with the
word ‘compassionate’ as she says ‘I’m trying to be as empathetic and
compassionate as I want to be, but I know I’m really not. So I feel kinda
crappy, guilty maybe about that.’ Just before the 1:30 mark she draws out the
words ‘draining’ and ‘frustrating’ before finishing: ‘because you leave it and
you come home to it…you know…yeah.’ We can see that the segment ends with
longer pauses, muted remarks, and sighs, suggesting low energy and representing
the drained feelings she expresses, particularly in comparison to the lively
energy seen in the first segment when she discusses feeling angry.

Figure 2. Tamara’s “Draining” Segment (shift 2, part 2)

A second example comes from Leah, recorded while driving to work. Here she is angry (“pissed off”) because she has to work on a day that she was not originally scheduled to work. This segment is visualized in the waveform shown in Figure 3.

Figure 3. Leah’s ‘Righteous Indignation’ Segment (shift 2, part 1)
Figure 4. Leah’s ‘I Don’t Want to Stay’ Segment (shift 2, part 3)

In contrast to her discussion of being pissed off and working to ‘retain enough righteous indignation’ to confront her boss later (in figure 3), we see a different wavelength visualization in her second segment (figure 4). In that segment, she describes her lack of enthusiasm for continuing the shift. She reflects on this lack of desire (‘I don’t want to stay’) by stepping outside her own feelings and contrasting them with the dire circumstances of her young patient. This reflexivity leads her to conclude that she has reached the limits of her ability to be compassionate.

To
be sure, waveform visualizations are only meaningful in tandem with what our nurses say. And they do not
provide definitive proof of certain emotions over others. They can’t fully
identify the sighs, deep inhales, uses of sarcasm, or other subtle features of
spoken diary entries. They do, however, offer some insight into how speed,
pitch, and pauses correspond to different emotional expressions and, arguably,
levels of emotional energy (Collins 2004) that vary across time and interactions.

While
there is little that can serve as a substitute for hearing the recordings
directly, the need to protect participants’ confidentiality compels us to turn
to other means to convey the nuances of these verbalizations. Visualization of
wavelengths, in combination with transcripts, can lend themselves to further
qualitative interpretation of these subtleties, conveying the dynamics of a
segment to others who do not have direct access to the recordings themselves.

Check
out the full, open-access article on this topic here and more on the experiences of nurses
here.

Marci Cottingham is assistant professor of sociology at the University of Amsterdam. She researches emotion and inequality broadly and their connection to healthcare and biomedical risk. She is a 2019-2020 visiting fellow at the HWK Institute for Advanced Study. More on her research can be found here: www.uva.nl/profile/m.d.cottingham

References:

Collins, Randall.
2004. Interaction Ritual Chains. Princeton, New Jersey: Princeton
University Press.

Cottingham,
Marci D. and Rebecca J. Erickson. Forthcoming. “Capturing Emotion with Audio
Diaries.” Qualitative Research. https://doi.org/10.1177/1468794119885037

Cottingham,
Marci D., Austin H. Johnson, and Rebecca J. Erickson. 2018. “‘I Can Never Be
Too Comfortable’: Race, Gender, and Emotion at the Hospital Bedside.” Qualitative
Health Research
28(1):145–158. https://doi.org/10.1177/1049732317737980

Smart,
Carol. 2009. “Shifting Horizons: Reflections on Qualitative Methods.” Feminist
Theory
10(3):295–308.

Theodosius,
Catherine. 2008. Emotional Labour in Health Care: The Unmanaged Heart of
Nursing
. NY: Routledge.
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And the hits start coming and they don’t stop coming. Research published in Royal Society Open Science (thanks to @MattGrossmann for sharing on Twitter) compared music charts in the US, the UK, Germany, and the Netherlands. The authors found that more albums are climbing these charts faster than they did in the past.

Schneider, Lukas and Claudius Gros. “Five Decades of US, UK, German and Dutch Music Charts Show That Cultural Processes Are Accelerating.” Royal Society Open Science 6(8):190944.

Last week we looked at cultural hybridity and the mixing of music genres. Here, the authors point out that these trends indicate cultural acceleration as more hits happen in a shorter time. This creates new pressures on the music production side. From the article:

In the past, essentially no number one album would start at the top of a chart. Reaching the top was instead a tedious climbing process that would take on the average an entire month, or more. Nowadays, the situation is the opposite. If an album is not the number one the first week of its listing, it has only a marginal chance to climb to the top later on.

This cultural acceleration is having a big impact on the kinds of hits we end up hearing, because creativity always happens in a particular social context. One of my favorite episodes of the Switched on Pop podcast recently looked at how songwriting is changing in the era of the quick streaming hit, including the rise of the “pop overture.” What’s a pop overture, you ask? Lizzo can tell you.

Evan Stewart is an assistant professor of sociology at University of Massachusetts Boston. You can follow him on Twitter.

From music to movies and restaurants, genres are a core part of popular culture. The rules we use to classify different scenes and styles help to shape our tastes and our social identities, and so we often see people sticking to clear boundaries between what they like and what they don’t like (for example: “I’ll listen to anything but metal.”). 

But bending the rules of genre can be the quickest way to shake up expectations. Mashups were huge a few years ago. This past summer we saw “Old Town Road” push boundaries in the country music world on its way to becoming a mega-hit. Zeal & Ardor’s mix of black metal and gospel, country blues, and funk is breaking new ground in heavier music.

Blending genres can also backfire. A new fusion concept could be a hit, or it could just be confusing. Sociological research on Netflix ratings and Yelp reviews finds that people with a high preference for variety, who like to consume many different things, are not necessarily interested in atypical work that blends genres in a new or strange way.

One of the more interesting recent examples is this new gameshow concept from Hillsong—a media channel tied to the charismatic megachurch organization:

What is this show? Is it preaching? Is it a game show? Do millennials even watch prime time game shows? Don’t get me wrong, I’ll hate-watch The Masked Singer every once in a while, but the mix seems a little out of place here. Gerardo Martí makes a good point in the tweet above. This show may be a way to repackage religious messaging in a new style. Given what we know about cultural consumption, however, I wonder if this is just too risky to pull anyone in.

It is easy to chase atypicality today, both for media organizations and religious groups trying to retain a younger viewership and find the next big thing. For all the pressure to innovate, this trailer for SOUTHPAW shows us just how much we still rely on genre rules to figure out what to consume.

Evan Stewart is an assistant professor of sociology at University of Massachusetts Boston. You can follow him on Twitter.

The ‘power elite’ as we conceive it, also rests upon the similarity of its personnel, and their personal and official relations with one another, upon their social and psychological affinities. In order to grasp the personal and social basis of the power elite’s unity, we have first to remind ourselves of the facts of origin, career, and style of life of each of the types of circle whose members compose the power elite.

— C. Wright Mills. 1956. The Power Elite. Oxford University Press

President John F. Kennedy addresses the Prayer Breakfast in 1961. Wikimedia Commons.

A big question in political sociology is “what keeps leaders working together?” The drive to stay in public office and common business interests can encourage elites to cooperate, but politics is still messy. Different constituent groups and social movements demand that representatives support their interests, and the U.S. political system was originally designed to use this big, diverse set of factions to keep any single person or party from becoming too powerful.

Sociologists know that shared culture, or what Mills calls a “style of life,” is really important among elites. One of my favorite profiles of a style of life is Jeff Sharlet’s The Family, a look at how one religious fellowship has a big influence on the networks behind political power in the modern world. The book is a gripping case of embedded reporting that shows how this elite culture works. It also has a new documentary series:

When we talk about the religious right in politics, it is easy to jump to images of loud, pro-life protests and controversial speakers. What interests me about the Family is how the group has worked so hard to avoid this contentious approach. Instead, everything is geared toward simply getting newcomers to think of themselves as elites, bringing leaders together, and keeping them connected. A major theme in the first episode of the series is just how simple the theology is (“Jesus plus nothing”) and how quiet the group is, even drawing comparisons to the mafia.

Vipassana Meditation in Chiang Mai, Thailand. Source: Matteo, Flickr CC.

Sociologists see similar trends in other elite networks. In research on how mindfulness and meditation caught on in the corporate world, Jaime Kucinskas calls this “unobtrusive organizing.” Both the Family and the mindfulness movement show how leaders draw on core theological ideas in Christianity and Buddhism, but also modify those ideas to support their relationships in business and government. Rather than challenging those institutions, adapting and modifying these traditions creates new opportunities for elites to meet, mingle, and coordinate their work.

When we study politics and culture, it is easy to assume that core beliefs make people do things by giving them an agenda to follow. These cases are important because they show how that’s not always the point; sometimes core beliefs just shape how people do things in the halls of power.

Evan Stewart is an assistant professor of sociology at University of Massachusetts Boston. You can follow him on Twitter.

Last month, Green Book won Best Picture at the 91st Academy Awards. The movie tells the based-on-a-true-story of Tony Lip, a white working-class bouncer from the Bronx, who is hired to drive world-class classical pianist Dr. Don Shirley on a tour of performances in the early-1960s Deep South. Shirley and Lip butt heads over their differences, encounter Jim Crow-era racism, and, ultimately, form an unlikely friendship. With period-perfect art direction and top-notch actors in Mahershala Ali and Viggo Mortensen, the movie is competently-crafted and performed fairly well at the box office.

Still, the movie has also been controversial for at least two reasons. First, many critics have pointed out that the movie paints a too simple account of racism and racial inequality and positions them as problem in a long ago past. New York Times movie critic Wesley Morris has called Green Book the latest in a long line of “racial reconciliation fantasy” films that have gone on to be honored at the Oscars.

But Green Book stands out for another reason. It’s an unlikely movie to win the Best Picture because, well, it’s just not very good.

Source: Wikimedia Commons

Sociologists have long been interested in how Hollywood movies represent society and which types of movies the Academy does and doesn’t reward. Matthew Hughey, for example, has noted the overwhelming whiteness of Oscar award winners at the Oscars, despite the Oscars A2020 initiative aimed at improving the diversity of the Academy by 2020. But, as Maryann Erigha shows, the limited number of people of color winning at the Oscars reflects, in part, the broader under-representation and exclusion of people of color in Hollywood.

Apart from race, past research by Gabriel Rossman and Oliver Schilke has found that the Oscars tend to favor certain genres like dramas, period pieces, and movies about media workers (e.g., artists, journalists, musicians). Most winners are released in the final few months of the year and have actors or directors with multiple prior nominations. According to these considerations, Green Book had a lot going for it. Released during the holiday season, it is a historical movie about a musician, co-starring a prior Oscar winner and a prior multiple time Oscar nominee. Sounds like perfect Oscar bait.

And, yet, quality matters, too. It’s supposed to be the Best Picture after all. The problem is what makes a movie “good” is both socially-constructed and a matter of opinion. Most studies that examine questions related to movies measure quality using the average of film critics’ reviews. Sites like Metacritic compile these reviews and produce composite scores on a scale from 0 (the worst reviewed movie) to 100 (the best reviewed movie). Of course, critics’ preferences sometimes diverge from popular tastes (see: the ongoing box office success of the Transformers movies, despite being vigorously panned by critics). Still, movies with higher Metacritic scores tend to do better at the box office, holding all else constant.

If more critically-acclaimed movies do better at the box office, how does quality (or at least the average of critical opinion) translate into Academy Awards? It is certainly true that Oscar nominees tend to have higher Metacritic scores than the wider population of award-eligible movies. But the nominees are certainly not just a list of the most critically-acclaimed movies of the year. Among the films eligible for this year’s awards, movies like The Rider, Cold War, Eight Grade, The Death of Stalin, and even Paddington 2 all had higher Metacritic scores than most of the Best Picture nominees. So, while nominated movies tend to be better than most movies, they are not necessarily the “best” in the eyes of the critics.

Even among the nominees, it is not the case that the most critically-acclaimed movie always wins. In the plot below, I chart the range of Metacritic scores of the Oscars nominees since the Academy Awards reinvented the category in 2009 (by expanding the number of nominees and changing the voting method). The top of the golden area represents the highest-rated movie in the pool of nominees and the bottom represents the worst-rated film. The line captures the average of the pool of nominees and the dots point out each year’s winner.

Click to Enlarge

As we can see, the most critically-acclaimed movie doesn’t always win, but the Best Picture is usually above the average of the pool of nominees. What makes Green Book really unusual as a Best Picture winner is that it’s well below the average of this year’s pool and the worst winner since 2009. Moreover, according to MetaCritic (and LA Times’ film critic Justin Chang), Green Book is the worst winner since Crash in 2005.

Green Book’s Best Picture win has led to some renewed calls to reconsider the Academy’s ranked choice voting system in which voters indicate the order of preferences rather than voting for a single movie. The irony is that when Moonlight, a highly critically-acclaimed movie with an all-black cast, won in 2016, that win was seen as a victory made possible by ranked choice voting. Now, in 2019, we have a racially-controversial and unusually weak Best Picture winner that took home the award because it appears to have been the “least disliked” movie in the pool.

The debate over ranked choice voting for the Academy Awards may ultimately end in further voting rule changes. Until then, we should regard a relatively weak movie like Green Book winning Best Picture as the exception to the rule.   

Andrew M. Lindner is an Associate Professor at Skidmore College. His research interests include media sociology, political sociology, and sociology of sport.

Happy Valentine’s Day! A sociological look at love is always a little awkward, because it means coming to terms with just how much our most personal, intimate, and individual relationships are conditioned by the cultures we live in. Dating preferences reflect broader patterns in social inequality, external strains like job insecurity can shape the way we think about romantic commitment, and even the way people orgasm can be culturally conditioned.

Classic sociological research finds that love follows cultural scripts and repertoires. While every relationship is unique, we learn fundamental patterns about how to love from the world around us. Breaking those scripts can be uncomfortable, but also hilarious and genuine. This year the internet has gifted us two amazing examples where romantic scripts and comedy collide.

One comes from research scientist Janelle Shane. Shane recently trained a machine learning algorithm using a collection of phrases from those candy hearts that always pop up this time of year. After detecting patterns in the real messages, the program generated its own. You can see a full set of hearts on her blog. These hearts get so very close to our familiar valentine scripts, but they miss hilariously because the program can only ever approximate the romantic gesture.

The other comes from comedy writer Ryan Creamer, who has uploaded an entire series of simple, earnest, and distinctly not pornographic videos to PornHub. Hit titles include, “I Hug You and Say I Had a Really Good Time Tonight and Then I Go Home,” and “I Ride in a Taxi and Don’t Have Sex With the Driver.” Check out Joana Ramiro’s analysis of Creamer’s work, capitalism, and intimacy at Jacobin. 

This Valentine’s Day, take a moment and see if you’re just following the typical social script. Breaking up the romantic routine can lead to a genuine laugh or two, and you might even learn something new about your relationship.Evan Stewart is an assistant professor of sociology at University of Massachusetts Boston. You can follow him on Twitter.

At the start of a new year, our thoughts often turn to self-improvement. People make all kinds of resolutions to live healthier, happier, more engaged lives…at least until the middle of February.

Sociological thinking often gets skeptical of this work. Sure, it is great to set personal goals, but fixating on personal problems can also make us blame ourselves for larger social and cultural factors that make it hard to meet those goals. You can buy a new trendy Bullet Journal and fill it with to-do lists, but that alone probably won’t beat a whole culture of burnout.

I get a kick out of imagining a new wave of snarky sociological self-help. The headlines would be fantastic.

  • I lost 20 pounds on this new hot diet: not having to live in a food desert!
  • Trouble in the bedroom? Your problems may be political!
  • And, of course, the classic:

This year I found a book that gets as close the dream genre as ever. After multiple nods from the Ezra Klein Show and buzz from Silicon Valley, I picked up James P. Carse’s Finite and Infinite Games (1986) for a holiday read. The first sentence of the second section sums it up:

No one can play a game alone. One cannot be human by oneself. There is no selfhood where there is no community. We do not relate to others as the persons we are; we are who we are in relating to others. Pp. 37

That line didn’t sound like the typical self-focused pop philosophy, and it kicked off a lot more sociology than I was expecting. Carse’s book focuses on “finite games” as social interactions that are meant to come to a clearly defined end and “infinite games” where the aim is simply to keep playing with other people. Along the way, he riffs on some major sociological themes like role theory, and there’s even an appearance from Veblen. Much of the argument boils down to the classic structure and agency debate in sociology—new situations often give us both strict social rules to follow in finite games and resources that invite creative improvisation in infinite games. Recognizing both kinds of games in life draws our attention to social structures and opens up the possibility to turn off autopilot once in a while.

It isn’t a perfect read, but I appreciated seeing a book with a popular following putting these kinds of ideas in the spotlight, especially because economists and psychologists often get more of the credit in popular nonfiction. Maybe we can replace the resolutions with a few more good reads. Can you think of other examples of self-help sociology?Evan Stewart is an assistant professor of sociology at University of Massachusetts Boston. You can follow him on Twitter.