culture

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.

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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.

The rise of online shopping at the holiday season highlights some pretty Grinchy behavior. Local news and home security companies have been trumpeting market research about so-called “porch pirates” swiping deliveries before people can get home from work or school to bring them inside.

Most of the current solutions for package security aren’t that great. If you don’t feel comfortable trusting Amazon or some other company to remotely run your door locks for deliveries (or if you live in an apartment building without a fancy mailroom), getting packages can be a gamble unless you can route them to a secure delivery site. If someone wants to send you a gift with all the warm intentions of a classic Christmas tradition, their surprise could end up costing everyone a lot more time, money, and stress.

That friction between the idea of the gift and the gift itself is a great example of sociological theory at work. Pierre Bourdieu wrote about gift exchanges throughout his work, especially the idea that giving a gift has a “double truth.” People want to show kindness and generosity, expecting nothing in return, but gifts are still exchanged in relationships. That exchange implicitly demands some things: your thanks, your continued commitment to the relationship, and often a different gift at a different time. This seems like a contradiction, but both things can be true because there are different styles of gift-giving tied to time and place. Exchange too quickly and you look like you’re trying to tie up a relationship and move on. Respond too slowly, and it looks like you have forgotten your loved ones.

To betray one’s haste to be free of an obligation one has incurred, and thus to reveal too overtly one’s desire to pay off services rendered or gifts received, so as to be quits, is to denounce the initial gift…It is all a question of style, which means in this case timing and choice of occasion, for the same act-giving, giving in return, offering one’s services, paying a visit, etc. – can have completely different meanings at different times, coming as it may at the right or the wrong moment… (Outline of a Theory of Practice, 1977, Pp. 5-6)

Package pirates put a whole new strain on our relationships at special occasions. Now, if someone mails you a gift, accepting it gracefully might also mean being responsible for its security. What happens if your apartment has said they will not be liable for packages delivered, or your work schedule may not get you home in time to receive them? Do you sound ungrateful if you complain about these things or ask not to receive gifts?

On the other hand, it might also become much more rude to send someone a holiday surprise without a heads up first. It is also important to ask ourselves whether we are putting the idea of sending a gift ahead of the actual experience of our loved ones receiving it.

This time of year, we often say “it’s the thought that counts.” If that’s true, we might have to think carefully about some of the social norms for sending gifts until the shipping industry can catch up.Evan Stewart is an assistant professor of sociology at University of Massachusetts Boston. You can follow him on Twitter.

For better or worse, pop culture models some of our deepest assumptions about social relationships. One classic example is the Hollywood double standard when it comes to gender and aging—leading men get to age while the media expects most leading women to stay forever young. This can lead to age gaps on screen that mirror uncomfortable patterns of gendered power in society.

Has this trend gotten better or worse over time? I recently came across some great open data from the Hollywood Age Gap project, where Lynn Fisher has collected the ages of actors playing the romantic leads in over 600 films to calculate the actual age gaps behind the on-screen relationships. The website does an excellent job showing the gaps for each movie individually, but we can also look at them in the aggregate. It turns out that as more movies are produced, more also tend to have smaller age gaps between the leads. The average age gap for films in this data set sits just below 10 years since 2000, down from average gaps of about 15 years through the 1970s.

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We also know that social context matters for relationships. If both people are older, for example, smaller age gaps aren’t as big a deal. The classic “half-your-age-plus-seven” shortcut is one example of the kind of informal rules cultures can develop to figure these things out. After a little math, I color coded the age gaps using this common shortcut. About 27% of the movies in this data set fail the test. Notice how the rule cuts both ways—some larger age gaps pass the test because both actors are older. Other smaller age gaps fail the test.

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However, there is still a massive gendered double standard in these movies. Once we remove the 20 instances of same-sex relationships in the data set, 83% of the cases have an older man and only 17% of cases have an older woman. The older men cases are also more likely to violate the half-plus-seven rule (based on a quick chi-square test for gender of older actor x half plus seven status – p<.001).

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The news here is a mixed bag. While average age gaps as a whole are on the decline, these data show how Hollywood still has a gendered double standard for who has to act in a potentially “creepy” scenario on screen.Evan Stewart is an assistant professor of sociology at University of Massachusetts Boston. You can follow him on Twitter.

One of the most important ideas in social psychology is that there are different ways to think. Sometimes we consciously process information by reasoning through it. Other times we rely on snap judgements, emotional reactions, habit and instinct. These two ways of thinking (sometimes called “cold” and “hot”, “discursive” and “practical”, or System 1 and System 2) are important for studying society and culture. Is an advertisement trying to persuade you with an argument, or just trying to get you to feel a certain way when you pick up a product? We all think that System 1 is thinking, but once you start noticing System 2 at work, plain old thinking can seem a bit more magical.

Photo Credit: Robbi Baba, Flickr CC

Psychics are a fun way to see these ideas at work. Check out this short clip of actor Orson Welles talking about his experience with “cold reading”—learning and practicing the techniques that psychics use to draw conclusions and make predictions about people. Notice how the story he tells moves across the different kinds of thinking.

At first, cold readers consciously rely on a set of observations and rules, but as they get better this process becomes instinctual. They start relying on snap judgements, and they sometimes start believing that their instincts reflect actual psychic abilities. What’s actually happening is a practical insight from their training, it is just packaged and sold like it came from carefully considering a mystical knowledge or power.

But if a psychic doesn’t believe in what they are doing, is selling readings unethical? If the insights they get are based on real observations and instincts, are they just helping people think about their lives in a different way? If you have a little more time to ponder this, check out this cool documentary about Tarot reader Enrique Enriquez. He makes no claims to a mystical power or secret knowledge here; he just lays out cards and talks to people about what they bring to mind. The commentators say this is closer to poetry or performance art than psychic work. What kinds of thinking are going on here?Evan Stewart is an assistant professor of sociology at University of Massachusetts Boston. You can follow him on Twitter.

Our lives are a team effort, often influenced by larger social forces outside of our control. At the same time, we love stories about singular heroes rising to the occasion. Sociologists often argue that focusing too much on individual merit teaches us not to see the rest of the social world at play.

Photo Credit: Vadu Amka, Flickr CC

One of my favorite recent examples of this is a case from Christopher A. Paul’s book, The Toxic Meritocracy of Video Games, about the popular team-based competitive shooter Overwatch. After the match is over and a winning team declared, one player is awarded “play of the game,” and everyone watches an automatically-generated replay. Paul writes that the replay…

… takes one moment out of context and then chooses to only celebrate one of twelve players when the efforts of the other members of the team often make the moment possible…a more dynamic, holistic system would likely be harder to judge and code, which is a problem at the heart of meritocracy. Actually judging skill or effort is ridiculously difficult to do…the algorithm built into selecting what is the play of the game and which statistics will be highlighted rewards only what it can count and judge, stripping out situation and context. (2018, Pp. 34-35)

It isn’t just the computer doing this; there is a whole genre of youtube videos devoted to top plays and personalized highlight reels from games like Overwatch, Paladins, and Counter Strike: Global Offensive.

 

Paul’s point got me thinking about the structure and culture of replays in general. They aren’t always about a star player. Sometimes we see the execution of a brilliant team play. Other times, it’s all about the star’s slam dunk. But replays do highlight one of the weird structural features about modern competition. Many of the most popular video games in the massive esports industry are team based, but because these are often played in a first-person or limited third person view, replays and highlight reels from these games are often cast from the perspective of a single “star” player.

This is a great exercise for thinking sociologically in everyday life and in the classroom. Watch some replays from your favorite team sport. Are the highlights emphasizing teamwork or are they focusing on a single player’s achievements? Do you think different replays would have been possible without the efforts of the rest of the team? How does the structure of the shot—the composition and perspective—shape the viewer’s interpretation of what happened on the field?Evan Stewart is an assistant professor of sociology at University of Massachusetts Boston. You can follow him on Twitter.