culture

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 a Ph.D. candidate in sociology at the University of Minnesota. 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 a Ph.D. candidate in sociology at the University of Minnesota. 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 a Ph.D. candidate in sociology at the University of Minnesota. 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.

(Click to Enlarge)

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.

(Click to Enlarge)

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).

(Click to Enlarge)

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 a Ph.D. candidate in sociology at the University of Minnesota. 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 a Ph.D. candidate in sociology at the University of Minnesota. 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 a Ph.D. candidate in sociology at the University of Minnesota. You can follow him on Twitter.

People talk. Their interactions become habits, habits become routines, and routines become rules. Sociologists call this emergent behavior, and sometimes it happens so slowly we don’t even notice it until we look back and think “where did that come from?”  Emergent behavior can be quirky and fun (think of Taco Friday at the office or “on Wednesdays we wear pink“), but sometimes it can also be far more serious or more troubling.

The challenge is that new technology makes these interactions happen much faster, on a much larger scale, and with less editing—often with odd results. Check out this TED talk—The Nightmare Videos of Children’s YouTube— for a good illustration of the dark side of emergent behavior when algorithms accelerate and exploit social interactions online.

 

Evan Stewart is a Ph.D. candidate in sociology at the University of Minnesota. You can follow him on Twitter.

If you walked through a city without looking up at any billboards, could advertisers yell at you? Could the owner of an iconic building shame you for “stealing” a beautiful view while weaseling them out of their livelihood? It sounds absurd, and you might remember a viral quote from Banksy (riffing on original writing from Sean Tejaratchi), tearing the idea apart.

But what about digital advertising? The internet looks very different if you are using software to block advertisements. Use it for a long time you’ll forget how much junk a user has to slog through to read or watch anything.

Of course, blocking ads cuts into the main source of support for online publications. Lately, many have taken up a new approach to discourage their users from blocking ads: good old fashioned shame and guilt.

We can have an important conversation about the ethics of paying for content online, but what strikes me the most about these pop-ups are some core sociological questions about the shaming tactic: why here, and why now?

For a long time, social scientists have seen a “digital divide” in how unequal access to the internet reinforces social inequality. Research also shows that the digital divide isn’t just about access; people learn to use the internet in different ways from these early access experiences. From the design side, sociologists Jenny Davis and James Chouinard have also written about affordance theory: the way technology requests, demands, allows, encourages, discourages, and refuses different kinds of behavior from users.

Yes, you can see the important weather alert, but first…

For some, the internet is about abundance and agency. Take as much time as you need to figure out your problems, and, if things don’t work out, bend the world to your will! Grab open source software or write a script to automate the boring stuff! Open your app of choice to hail a ride if the bus is delayed or the taxis are busy! For others, these choices aren’t as readily apparent. If you had to trek to the library and sign up for time-limited computer access, the internet can seem a lot less helpful and a lot less free, at least at first glance.

These ideas help us understand the biggest problem for ad-block shaming: “soft” barriers, delays, and emotional appeals are trying to change the behavior of people who already have the upper hand from learning to seek out and use blocking software to make the internet work better for them. David Banks’ writing on this over at Cyborgology in 2015 shows the power struggle at work:

The ad blocker should not be seen as a selfish technology. It is a socialist cudgel—something that forces otherwise lazy capitalists to find new and inventive ways to make their creations sustainable. Ad blockers are one of the few tools users have to fight against the need to monetize fast and big because it troubles the predictability of readily traceable attention.

Now, emotional appeals like guilt and shame are the next step after stronger power plays like rigid paywalls largely failed for publishing companies. The challenge is that guilt and shame require a larger sense of community obligation for people to feel their effects, and I am not sure a pop-up is ever going to be anything other than an obstacle to get around.

It’s not that online advertising is inherently good or bad, and the problem of paying artists and writers in the digital age is a serious concern. But in addition to these considerations, looking directly at the way web design tries to shape our online interactions can better prepare us to see how the rules of the social world can be challenged and changed.

Evan Stewart is a Ph.D. candidate in sociology at the University of Minnesota. You can follow him on Twitter.