Friday, March 02, 2012

In Praise of James Q. Wilson

Noted criminologist James Q. Wilson died today.  The author of the "broken windows" theory of improving social order.  Sometimes it is treated simply as a crime-control strategy, but really it is much broader.

The idea is that if a community lets a broken window stay broken, it sends a signal that the community is not organized enough or concerned enough to fix it. And if no one is watching little things, soon it loses the capacity to pay attention to big dangers, too.  Thus, the best way to start fighting serious crime is to vigorously respond to quality-of-life crimes.  These ideas have been tried in communities large and small, which has correlated with a significant drop in crime.

The larger sense of Wilson's theory, though, is in line with Tocqueville's insight that what makes American democracy work is the dense network of voluntary associations that come together to do whatever needs doing in our communities. The broken windows, literal and figurative, in our communities are not mainly fixed by government, nor by a few saintly individuals.  They are addressed by small groups of ordinary people who get together to deal with something that affects their corner of the community.

The next time something seems out of order in your neighborhood, call the neighbors, find a few who want to actually do something, and fix that broken window.  And raise a toast to James Q. Wilson.

Thursday, March 01, 2012

The World Is Getting Better

I gave a 20-slide lecture tonight on this topic, in the wonderful Pecha Kucha format.

I share with you four of those slides.

In addition to the massive decrease in violence, the subject of several prior slides,

Anything Else Gotten Better?

Sex discrimination
Race discrimination
Sexual-orientation discrimination
Handicap discrimination
Imperial control of colonized people
Totalitarianism and authoritarianism
  Is that all you’ve got?  
Food production has increased gigantically
Transportation is cheaper
Communication costs a tiny fraction of before
Information is available on unprecedented scale
The air is cleaner
World population is under control
Wait, What Was That About World Population?  

The population bomb was a dud
No developed nation has enough kids to replace itself
The two most populous countries, China and India, are at or below replacement fertility
Nearly all the large developing countries are down to replacement fertility or very close
Is Anything Worse? 
Rich-World Problems Are on the Rise:
Heart disease
Divorce and unmarried parenthood
Global warming

Tuesday, February 28, 2012

Negative Interactions Corrode Society; Neutrality is Not Enough to Counteract Them

I am working on an idea about negative and positive social interactions.

John Gottman, a famous divorce researcher, has argued that in a marriage, negative interactions are so corrosive that you need at least five positive interactions to balance them out - and more than that to keep your marriage in an emotionally positive tone.

Several positive psychologists have said that in our normal social interactions with friends and acquaintances we should have at least three positive interactions for every negative one.

It seems reasonable to me that the least intimate social relationships - the anonymous cash transaction at an unfamiliar store - needs at least ordinary civility on both sides to keep both parties on an even emotional keel.

Which leads me to an idea.  Negative interactions are socially corrosive. They are not neutral, but costly to society.  People who are consistently negative leave a wake of social costs for other people, and not just the ones they were negative to. It is as if they walked through the social world, dropping acid on others.

Negative people impose costs on other, so more positive people have to salve those wounds with extra positive interactions. The positive people have to make up for the residue of the negative - on top of the normal civility that we need to make sure our own interactions are at least emotionally balanced.

Monday, February 27, 2012

A Further Thought from Randall Collins' The Credential Society

My "Social Structure" class has taken up Randall Collins' still-provocative 1979 book, The Credential Society. He argues that most white collar jobs could be learned by any literate person with, say, six month's on-the-job training.  We don't need all the schooling and credentials we keep piling on to train for the actual jobs that most people have.

I have read and taught this book several times.  This time, though, I was struck by a more radical implication than even the radical Collins meant.

I tell students early and often that at a liberal arts college like Centre we are not trying to train them for a job.  We are trying to form them into people who will be good citizens and live meaningful lives.  We also hope and expect that some of what they learn will be useful for their employment.  By the time they graduate, most students absorb the liberal-arts mantra.  But I think they take our protestations only half seriously. 

Today, though it occurred to me that to treat school as job training is to prostitute education for an unsuitable purpose. And the more a school tries to be job relevant, the worse a job of real education - moral formation - it does.

I am chewing on this.

Sunday, February 26, 2012

Is Centre College a Privilege?

We are studying the concept of privilege in my "Social Structure" class.  I had them make an inventory of their own privileges and disprivileges, and analyze how that affected their lives.

As sociologists think of privilege, it means an unearned advantage, such as whiteness or maleness.  Privilege is contrasted with an earned advantage.

However, some of the students drew their understanding of privilege from a different discourse, more political science than sociology.  They contrasted privileges with rights.

Thus, the question of whether attending an elite college, such as Centre, is a privilege or not proved doubly tricky. 

Attending Centre is clearly not a right, so the second group thought it must be a privilege.  But attending Centre requires some work to earn a place, no matter how many unearned advantages you had helping you.  For the first group, attending Centre was not a privilege, even if various privileges helped improve their odds of admission.

Taking a longer view, though, once they graduate from Centre, they will benefit from some unearned expectations that other people have about how well educated they now are, independent of their personal achievement. 

So getting in to Centre is, I think, mostly not a privilege.  But successfully getting out again partly is.