Originally posted at Montclair Socioblog.

“Freedom of opinion does not exist in America,” said DeTocqueville 250 years ago. He might have held the same view today.

But how could a society that so values freedom and individualism be so demanding of conformity?  I had blogged about this in 2010 with references to old sitcoms, but for my class this semester I needed something more recent. Besides, Cosby now carries too much other baggage. ABC’s “black-ish”* came to the rescue.

The idea I was offering in class was, first, that our most cherished American values can conflict with one another. For example, our desire for family-like community can clash with our value on independence and freedom. Second, the American solution to this conflict between individual and group is often what Claude Fischer calls “voluntarism.”  We have freedom – you can voluntarily choose which groups to belong to. But once you choose to be a member, you have to conform.  The book I had assigned my class (My Freshman Year by Rebekah Nathan*) uses the phrase “voluntary conformism.”

In a recent episode of “black-ish,” the oldest daughter, Zoey, must choose which college to go to. She has been accepted at NYU, Miami, Vanderbilt, and Southern Cal. She leans heavily towards NYU, but her family, especially her father Dre, want her to stay close to home. The conflict is between Family – family togetherness, community – and Independence. If Zoey goes to NYU, she’ll be off on her own; if she stays in LA, she’ll be just a short drive from her family. New York also suggests values on Achievement, Success, even Risk-taking (“If I can make it there” etc.)

Zoey decides on NYU, and her father immediately tries to undermine that choice, reminding her of how cold and dangerous it will be. It’s typical sitcom-dad buffonery, and his childishness tips us off that this position, imposing his will, is the wrong one. Zoey, acting more mature, simply goes out and buys a bright red winter coat.

The argument for Independence, Individual Choice, and Success is most clearly expressed by Pops (Dre’s father, who lives with them), and it’s the turning point in the show. Dre and his wife are complaining about the kids growing up too fast. Pops says, “Isn’t this what you wanted? Isn’t this why you both worked so hard — movin’ to this White-ass neighborhood, sendin’ her to that White-ass school so she could have all these White-ass opportunities? Let. Her. Go.”

That should be the end of it. The final scene should be the family bidding a tearful goodbye to Zoey at LAX. But a few moments later, we see Zoey talking to her two younger siblings (8-year old twins – Jack and Diane). They remind her of how much family fun they have at holidays. Zoey has to tell them that New York is far, so she won’t be coming back till Christmas – no Thanksgiving, no Halloween.

Jack reminds her about the baby that will arrive soon. “He won’t even know you.”

In the next scene, Zoey walks into her parents room carrying the red winter coat. “I need to return this.”

“Wrong size?” asks her father.

“Wrong state.”

She’s going to stay in LA and go to USC.

Over a half-century ago, David McClelland wrote that a basic but unstated tenet of American culture is: “I want to freely choose to do what others expect me to do.” Zoey has chosen to do what others want her to do – but she has made that individual choice independently. It’s “voluntary conformism,” and it’s the perfect American solution (or at least the perfect American sitcom solution).

* For those totally unfamiliar with the show, the premise is this: Dre Johnson, a Black man who grew up in a working-class Black neighborhood of LA, has become a well-off advertising man, married a doctor (her name is Rainbow, or usually Bow), and moved to a big house in an upscale neighborhood. They have four children, and the wife is pregnant with a fifth.

Jay Livingston is the chair of the Sociology Department at Montclair State University. You can follow him at Montclair SocioBlog or on Twitter.

How observant are you? Here’s a test! Pay careful attention, then scroll down:

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Perception is not neutral, it’s curated. If we paid attention to everything in our environments all the time, we’d be overwhelming with information. So, we learn to direct our attention to what seems important at the moment. As a result, we miss a lot. See this example, too.

The directing of our attention is situationally specific, so we learn to adapt our seeing to differing circumstances. When driving, we see different things than we do when we’re walking down the sidewalk or sitting on our front porch. When engaged in a conversation with friends at a bar, we hear different things than when we momentarily turn our focus to the band across the room. When meditating, we feel different things than when we’re daydreaming or waiting to fall asleep. In all these cases, we miss seeing, hearing, and feeling different things, too.

We can imagine that sensation is culturally specific, too, such that people familiar with different cultures literally sense the world differently. Studies comparing the cognition of people from East Asia and America — communal and individualistic societies, respectively — find that Americans looking at a picture tend to focus on a central object, whereas East Asians pay attention to the relationships between objects.

In one study, Japanese and American citizens were shown an underwater scene, like this:

Photo by mycatkins, flickr creative commons.

Asked to describe the scene afterward, Americans started with and focused on the biggest fish, while the Japanese started with the whole picture — for example, “It was a fish tank” — and recalled more details about the rocks, plants, bubbles, and smaller denizens of the pond. “Americans immediately zoomed in on the objects,” the lead scientist Richard Nisbett said. “The Japanese paid more attention to context.”

Our experience of the world isn’t neutral. It’s shaped by our cultural backgrounds, situations, and choices about how to direct our attention. So, the question is, what are you missing? And what are you seeing that others do not?

Lisa Wade, PhD is a professor at Occidental College. She is the author of American Hookup, a book about college sexual culture, and a textbook about gender. You can follow her on Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram.

Flashback Friday.

Adam Smith observed in his Lectures on Jurisprudence (1762) — a series of talks that he gave at the University of Glasgow — that national character plays a significant role in economic transactions: the Dutch, he said, are “more faithful to their word” and better at “performing agreements” than the English, and the English more faithful than the Scots.

In the past few months, I’ve observed a similar kind of cultural variation in a much more prosaic setting: the panhandling interaction.

If you’re from North America, as I am, you’ve probably seen people on the street requesting money from strangers using appeals such as “Homeless—Please Help” or “Homeless Veteran.”  There are a number of variations, but homelessness is the common theme in many cases.

Photo by Steve Baker.

Elsewhere in the world, panhandlers use quite different rationales—or what the great mid-century sociologist C. Wright Mills would call “vocabularies of motive.” Mills wasn’t interested in what actually motivated people—such as what psychologists would term “needs” or “drives”—but rather in the ideologically-charged terms they used to justify their actions to themselves and others. As he observed, some motives are more acceptable than others, and we can learn something about local cultures based on what passes for a “good reason.”

So it’s sociologically interesting that within the North American context, the concept of “home” has such resonance that the claim of “homelessness” is considered a compelling and sufficient motive for giving money to strangers. But while the need for shelter would seem universal, it’s rare to see a panhandler outside North America requesting a donation on the basis of homelessness.

In Germany, for example, one often finds people begging for trinkgeld—”drinking money.” And they’re not playing for laughs, as one sometimes finds in the US, when panhandlers give a wink and a nod to the stereotype that money given to beggars is only ever used to buy alcohol (or drugs). When a panhandler asks for “drinking money” in the US, it’s sort of an in-joke, or an attempt to appear disarmingly honest; based on the limited examples I’ve seen, this seems to jolly people up and get good results (i.e., quantities of cash).

But in Germany, drinking money is serious business. In the four years I lived in the Rhine Valley, I saw dozens of men (always men) on public transport and on the street, asking for “trinkgeld, bitte” in monotonous, dirge-like tones that seemed to express just how grim a fate it was to lack beer money. Equally surprising to me was the willingness of Germans to open their purses for this reason, as if it was a truth universally acknowledged that a man with empty pockets must be in want of a beer. In the interactions I witnessed, no one on either end of the transaction ever smiled.

Yet another vocabulary of motive can be found on the streets of Istanbul, where panhandlers often approach passers-by with a request for ekmek parası—Turkish for “bread money.” In perhaps 10 visits to Turkey in the last 3 years, I’ve never seen anyone on the street claiming to be homeless. Nor have I seen a cardboard sign of the kind so common in North America.

In all three settings, the vocabularies of motive among panhandlers have a common theme of need: for shelter, drink or food. What’s interesting is how each cultural setting changes the calculus about what kind of motive is most likely to bring in the cash. Perhaps it comes down to what each society views as among the basic human rights: in the US, shelter has a plausible claim to that status, but beer does not; whereas in Germany, it an appeal for trinkgeld succeeds as an appeal to common humanity and decency; in Turkey, hunger seems to trump all other claims.

Originally posted in 2010.

Brooke Harrington is Associate Professor of Economic Sociology at the Copenhagen Business School. She is the author of two books: Pop Finance: Investment Clubs and the New Investor Populism and Deception: From Ancient Empires to Internet Dating.  She is currently doing research on offshore banking and blogs at our fellow Society Pages blog, Economic Sociology.

4The Numbers

Some History

The Winners and the Losers

Tax Cultures

Lisa Wade, PhD is a professor at Occidental College. She is the author of American Hookup, a book about college sexual culture, and a textbook about gender. You can follow her on Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram.

Why is “La La Land” so popular among Mormons?

The New York Times (here) has maps (chloropleths, if you want to show off your vocabulary) showing the popularity of the nominees for best picture. The maps look like different countries. “Fences,” for example, did best in the Southern swath from Louisiana to North Carolina but nowhere else except for Allegheny County, PA (it was filmed in Pittsburgh, where the story is set). In those same areas, “Arrival” and “Manchester by the Sea” basically don’t exist. The maps of “Fences” and “Arrival” look like direct opposites.

The map that puzzled me was “La La Land.” It’s big in LA, of course (like “Fences” in Pittsburgh). But its other strongholds are counties with a high proportion of Mormons: Utah plus Mormonic counties in neighboring states – Idaho, Wyoming, New Mexico, Colorado, and Nevada.

The maps match even for distant counties in Missouri and Virginia, where those dark spots on the map might indicate only 5-10% of the population. Most counties in the US are below 3%.

How to explain the “La La Land” – Latter Day Saints connection? The movie is rated PG-13, but so are “Fences,” “Arrival,” and “Lion.” And “Hidden Figures” is PG. But then, the cast of “La La Land” has very few non-Whites and zero aliens. That might have something to do with it.

Or maybe it’s just because Ryan Gosling grew up with seriously Mormon parents. He is no longer a Mormon and says he never really identified as one. He has long since left the church. He is neither a singer nor a dancer but has to sing and dance in this film. His character is supposed to be a jazz purist, but the music he plays is what you might call Utah jazz (one of the great oxymorons of our time). But those minor quibbles mean little compared with the fact the for the first years of his life, he was raised as a Mormon.

Jay Livingston is the chair of the Sociology Department at Montclair State University. You can follow him at Montclair SocioBlog or on Twitter.

If there’s one thing Americans can agree upon, it might be that people shouldn’t be indiscriminately firing guns crowds, no matter how angry they are. The shooting in the Ft. Lauderdale airport is just the latest example. Mass shootings are on the rise and I’m fearful that what we are seeing isn’t just an increase in violence, but the rise of a new habit, a behavior that is widely recognized as a way to express an objection to the way things are.

To register an objection to something about the world, a person or group needs to engage in an action that other people recognize as a form of protest. We know, in other words, what protest looks like. It’s a strike, a rally, a march, a sit-in, a boycott. These are all recognizable ways in which individuals and groups can stake a political claim, whereas other group activities — a picnic, a group bike ride, singing together — are not obviously so. To describe this set of protest-related tools, the sociologist Charles Tilly coined the phrase “repertoire of contention.” Activists have a stock of actions to draw from when they want to make a statement that others will understand.

A culture’s repertoire of contention is in constant evolution. Each tool has to be invented and conceptually linked to the idea of protest before it can play this role. The sit-in, for example, was invented during the early civil rights movement. When African American activists and their allies occupied white-only restaurants, bringing lunch counters to a halt to bring attention to the exclusion of black people, they introduced a new way of registering an objection to the status quo, one that almost anyone would recognize today.

New ways of protesting are being invented every day: the hashtag, the hacktivist, and shutting down freeways are some newer ones. Some become part of the repertoire. Consider the image below by sociologist Michael Biggs, which shows how suicide as a form of protest “caught on”  in the 1960s:

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I am afraid that mass murder has become part of the repertoire of contention. This is theoretically tricky – others have fought over what really counts as a social movement action – but it does seem quite clear that mass murder with a gun is a more familiar and more easily conceptualized way of expressing one’s discontent and then it was, say, pre-Columbine. If a person is outraged by some state of affairs, mass killing is a readily available way to express that outrage both technically (thanks to gun regulation) and cognitively (because it is now part of the recognized repertoire).

Dylann Roof wanted to register his discontent with the place of black people in American society, Robert Lewis Dear stormed a Planned Parenthood with a pro-choice message, Elliot Rodgers was angry about women’s freedom to reject him, Omar Matteen killed dozens to express his (internalized) disgust for homosexuality, Gavin Long communicated his sense of rage and helplessness in the face of black death by killing police. At some point each thought, “What can I do to make a difference?” And mass murder came to mind.

In the aftermath of such events, the news media routine contributes to the idea that mass murder is a form of protest by searching for an explanation above and beyond the desire to kill. That explanation often positions the rationale for the murder within the realm of politics, whether we call it terrorism, resistance, or prejudice. This further sends the message that mass murder is political, part of the American repertoire of contention.

The terrifying part is that once protest tools become part of the repertoire, they are diffused across movements and throughout society. It’s no longer just civil rights activists who use the sit-in; any and all activists do. Perhaps that’s why we see such a range of motivations among these mass murderers. It has become an obvious way to express an objection that the discontented can be sure others will understand.

Lisa Wade, PhD is a professor at Occidental College. She is the author of American Hookup, a book about college sexual culture, and a textbook about gender. You can follow her on Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram.

1The dining rooms are coming. It’s how I know my neighborhood is becoming aspirationally middle class.

My neighborhood is filled with “shotgun” houses. Probably from West Africa, they are designed for a hot, humid climate. The homes consist of several rooms in a row. There are no hallways (and no privacy). High ceilings collect the heat and the doorways are placed in a row to encourage a breeze to blow all the way through.

Around here, more often than not, they have been built as duplexes: two long skinny houses that share a middle wall. The kitchen is usually in the back leading to an addition that houses a small bathroom. Here’s my sketch:

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As the neighborhood has been gentrifying, flippers have set their sights on these double shotguns. Instead of simply refurbishing them, though, they’ve been merging them. Duplexes are becoming larger single family homes with hallways (which substantially changes the dynamic among its residents) and makes space for dining rooms. Check out the new dining room on this flip (yikes):

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At NPR, Mackensie Griffin offered a quick history of dining rooms, arguing that they were unusual in the US before the late 1700s. Families didn’t generally have enough room to set one aside strictly for dining. “Rooms and tables had multiple uses,” Griffin wrote, “and families would eat in shifts, if necessary.”

Thomas Jefferson would be one of the first Americans to have a dining room table. Monticello was built in 1772, dining room included. Wealthy families followed suit and eventually the trend trickled down to the middle classes. Correspondingly, the idea that the whole family should eat dinner together became a middle class value, a hallmark of good parenting, and one that was structurally — that is, architecturally — elusive to the poor and working class.

The shotgun house we find throughout the South is an example of just how elusive. Built before closets, all the rooms in a traditional shotgun are technically multi-purpose: they can be used as living rooms, bedrooms, offices, dining rooms, storage, or whatever. In practice, though, medium to large and sometimes extended families live in these homes. Many residents would be lucky to have a dedicated living room; a dining room would be a luxury indeed.

But they’re coming anyway. The rejection of the traditional floor plan in these remodels — for being too small, insufficiently private, and un-dining-roomed — hints at a turn toward a richer sort of resident, one that demands a lifestyle modeled by Jefferson and made sacred by the American middle class.

Cross-posted at Inequality by (Interior) Design.

Lisa Wade, PhD is a professor at Occidental College. She is the author of American Hookup, a book about college sexual culture, and a textbook about gender. You can follow her on Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram.

1Which line is longer?

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Most people who grow up in industrialized environments will be at least a little bit tricked by this optical illusion, called the Müller-Lyer illusion. At first look, it may seem as if the line on the left is shorter than the line on the right. In fact, if you look closely and carefully, you can probably see that both lines are the same length.

Some psychologists theorize that susceptibility to this illusion is due to a strongly “carpentered” environment, one built by humans with the help of machines. Such environments are made mostly of straight lines and right angles. If this geometry is all around us all the time, our brains get very good at interpreting these environments.

That advantage, though, is a disadvantage when looking at the Müller-Lyer lines because our brain learns to associate angles like the one on the right with distance and ones like the one on the left with closeness. Then, it alters our perception of their height to adjust for perceived space.

Bear with me.

Consider my drawing of a room and hallway below. You can see that the corner closest to us (A) has lines like the point of an arrow on both ends (like the line on the left above), while the one further away (B) has lines like the rear of an arrow on both sides (like the line on the right). Our brain gets so used to inferring distance when it sees these angles, it assumes that any line with angles like B appears inaccurately short because it’s far away. That’s how the illusion tricks our brain.

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People who don’t grow up in a carpentered environments, though—hunter gatherers and other groups who spend most of their time in nature and other uncarpentered environments—don’t have brains adjusted to understanding straight lines and angles, so the illusion doesn’t work on them.

The Müller-Lyer illusion, then, is a great example of how our brains get acculturated in ways that shape even simple and straightforward perception tasks.

Lisa Wade, PhD is a professor at Occidental College. She is the author of American Hookup, a book about college sexual culture, and a textbook about gender. You can follow her on Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram.