Saturday, September 01, 2007

Zen My Pimpmobile

My nominee for the next step in reality television.

Because less is more ...

Thursday, August 30, 2007

Anglo-Protestant America

"The principal theme of this book is the continuing centrality of Anglo-Protestant culture to American national identity." With this claim, Samuel Huntington throws down the gauntlet in Who Are We?, his study of American national culture. Huntington distinguishes between Anglo-Protestant culture and the "American Creed," the Jeffersonian virtues in the Declaration of Independence. He argues that the Creed, while great and central to American identity, is too thin to build a nation on. In fact, he argues that any ideology is too thin for a nation to cohere around -- a problem that drove all the communist nations to return to the nationalism they had originally despised.

Huntington is clear to say that American individuals do not all have to be Protestants. It is the culture as a whole, not the faith of each individual, that shapes the collective identity. I am inclined to agree with him on both points -- that ideology is not enough, and that the distinctives of American culture are rooted in the peculiar tension of the English-speaking Calvinist and Arminian church cultures.

Wednesday, August 29, 2007

Age vs. Life Course

I teach students the "sociological triad" of race, class, and gender. I have come to add a second triad: age, religion, and region. These factors almost always matter in understanding any social phenomenon.

Later in the term I will have students write their own four-generation sociological narrative, from their grandparents to their (hypothetical) children. I want them to think of their family story in terms of these six standard social forces. In the spirit of leading by example, I wrote such an account of my own family, and gave it to the class to read.

The hardest factor to apply to my narrative was age. At any given moment, age matters quite a bit in shaping one's social circumstances. Over time, especially over generations, though, we move through the various ages, if we are favored with a long life. How to represent the effect of age in an over-time story?

I was seized with a sudden inspiration: how often did the members of my family go through various rites of passage at the customary age? This proved to be a fruitful measure of age-normalcy (or not) for the whole lineage, not just of one or another individual in it. I think this customary-age idea could be turned into a standardized measure of whole family lines.

Tuesday, August 28, 2007

Positive Inequality

I have assigned a good article, "The Rise and Fall of Narratives of Benign Inequality," the lead essay by David Grusky and Szonja Szelenyi in their fine Inequality Reader. They start with functionalist arguments made in the 1940s and 1950s that inequality serves a social purpose. They review several arguments that inequality is benign because it is declining. Then they outline some of the more recent arguments that inequality is bad in ways previously unexplored, such as in creating terrorism or environmental degradation.

Yet they never really take up the challenge of the functionalist argument. What Kingsley Davis and Wilbert Moore argued in their famous article of 1945, for example, is that inequality serves a positive good. Society needs to get people with rare talents and/or training into hard, socially useful jobs. Therefore, it is good for society if such positions carry more rewards. Hence, inequality is functional for all. The later studies that Grusky and Szelenyi consider are not arguments for the social necessity of inequality, but empirical studies of declining inequality. Since income inequality did not flatten out, as the Kuznets curve predicted, and has been rising lately in the age of Bill Gates, those optimistic studies of a generation ago seem naive.

Yet empirical studies of the rise and fall of actual inequality, especially of something so elastic as income, or wealth, does not address the main point raised by Davis and Moore: is inequality, in some form and to some degree, ultimately beneficial for all?

Monday, August 27, 2007

From Minnesota

Classes began this morning. In my Social Structure class I allowed that we would be studying the main social forces that sociologists believe shape the social structure, especially race, class, and gender. In the spirit of full disclosure, I told them that I had become convinced that there are deep, complementary differences between men and women, which are likely to shape all social structures. Afterwards, a student came to see me, not sure her views would really be compatible with the premises of the course. She put the potential conflict with wonderful, and revealing, delicacy. "I'm from Minnesota, and so are my parents. We moved to the South when I was little, but my family is not really from here."

I assured her that the class would be empirical throughout, and that she was welcome to argue with the evidence and the discourse of the class to her heart's content. She is staying.