Saturday, April 24, 2010

Disney's Weenie

Eminent sociologist George Ritzer gave a plenary address to the Southern Sociological Society this week on consumption and hyperconsumption. I learned a wonderful new term from this address: a weenie. Walt Disney, a genius at marketing, thought that his theme parks needed a tall, striking visual magnet to draw visitors along through the park. And as they were drawn along toward the magnet, their path could be lined with stores selling them stuff. He called these visual magnets "weenies." Cinderella's Castle is the great Disney weenie.

Ritzer said the principle of the weenie has not been lost on brand makers around the world. He showed a series of images of the arms race of tallest buildings in the world, as they have grown increasingly outsized. The biggest weenie of them all is also the most ridiculous: the Burj Khalifa in Dubai. It is, indeed, the world's tallest building - a Chrysler Building stacked on top of an Empire State Building. It is also, Ritzer said, empty, and not in use except for the observation tower. The Burj Khalifa is the perfect emblem of both the weenie and of hyperconsumption.

Friday, April 23, 2010

Strong Marriages Fight Risk

Tonight I heard Angela O'Rand's very interesting presidential address at the Southern Sociological Society. Her topic was "The Devolution of Risk and the Changing Life Course." What she means by devolution of risk is that we used to have a more orderly life course, but now that order has devolved into a thousand paths and no certain route. This uncertainty has increased our risk.

O'Rand cited "ephemeral families" as one of the devolving institutions that increases risk. She cited most other institutions, too, especially economic ones.

She is right that the family life course can't be taken for granted as it once was. But I don't think we need to accept that families simply are ephemeral and have no order. Of all of the devolving institutions in social life, families are the ones we have the most capacity to make for ourselves. The economy, the state, the educational system, even religious institutions may be largely beyond our control. But we can make our own marriages and family life stronger, more orderly, and less risky.

Wednesday, April 21, 2010

Black Men in Prison Undermine Black Marriage

The Economist has a good story on how the high prison rate for black men contributes to the abysmally low black marriage rate. They cite a study by Kerwin Kofi Charles and Ming Ching Luoh which estimates that for every 1% increase in the black male incarceration rate, there is a 2.4% reduction in the number of black women who ever marry.

Nisa Muhammad, promoter of the annual Black Marriage Day, urges educated black women to be more open to marriage with blue-collar black men. I think this is a very sensible idea.

Moreover, middle-class black boys are not likely to commit crimes, but are likely to become educated, middle-class black men. They have their pick of educated black women, who outnumber their male counterparts by about 40%.

The Economist concludes that "the simplest way to help the black family would be to lock up fewer black men for non-violent offences."

I disagree. The simplest way to help the black family would be for fewer black men to commit crimes in the first place.

Tuesday, April 20, 2010

"Day Fratting" a New Term for an Old Bad Idea

Every year there seems to be a story in which college women who get drunk and fool around with guys discover that this is not satisfying, leaves them feeling empty, and does not lead to serious romance.

This year's edition brings a new term: day fratting:

Imbibing for hours in the front yard of a fraternity. Day fratting can result in "afternoon delight," noncommittal physical activity between two people that can include casual sex.

Monday, April 19, 2010

Planned Parenthood is Unnatural - and a Good Thing

In the family life class this week we are discussing Promises I Can Keep, a fine study of poor single mothers. It is so hard for my class of bourgeois people who plan their entire lives to comprehend having a baby at 15. What is harder to comprehend is that most of the mothers said that their babies were neither planned nor unplanned. Living a life without planning is through-the-looking-glass for people like my students (and me) for whom deferred gratification is one of the top seven habits of our fairly effective lives.

Which led to an interesting discussion about which way of viewing the world - planning or not planning parenthood - was the odder. From the social world of the college-going class, not planning is odd. But we realized that from the perspective of most people in the world, and most people who have ever lived, the idea of tightly controlled and limited fertility is supremely odd.

Planning parenthood is very unnatural. Planning parenthood is a great achievement of civilization. Civilization, though, has developed one crucial brake and help that the poor single mothers we are studying skipped: get married first.

Sunday, April 18, 2010

Competing Second Comings: Christ vs. The Caliphate

The Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life has released a study of religious life in sub-Saharan Africa - the most religious region in the world.

One of the driving facts of religious life in Africa is the competition between Islam and Christianity. The report details many elements of this competition, some of which are actually quite encouraging.

One comparison was new to me. They asked Christians "do you believe Jesus will return in your lifetime?" The median answer among the 19 sub-Saharan Africa countries was 61%. This question is often asked of Christians in this country, and usually produces high percentages of "yes" answers among conservative Christians of all denominations.

Pew asked a parallel question that I had not seen in a survey before. They asked Muslims "do you expect the caliphate to be re-established in your lifetime?" The median answer among the 19 sub-Saharan African countries was 52%.

Theologically, these two answers are not really parallel - the return of God Incarnate to establish a new heaven and earth is metaphysically a bigger deal than the restoration of the earthly rule of Muslims. Sociologically, though, I think the two ideas are parallel for many people. The second coming of Christ will, many Christians think, mean a golden age for Christians; the second coming of the caliphate will, many Muslims think, mean a golden age for Muslims.

Moreover, I think the competition between Islam and Christianity in Africa has probably spurred on the hope of both kinds of second comings as a way of resolving the competition.