Doing Sociology

Songs are better than sociology

Jason Isbell’s lyric “Is your brother on a church kick? Seems like just a different kind of dopesick” is everything I’d like my sociology to be.

It’s critical without being uncaring. It points out that religion is mundane – that it’s just like a lot of other human salves.

The next lyric, “Better off to teach a dog a card trick than try to have a point and make it clear” clearly makes a point I’ve never been quite able to communicate. This is that any successful human communication is pretty remarkable given how difficult it often is to get across the most basic things like what ingredients you want on your sandwich.

The whole song, “Relatively Easy” on his album Southeastern is an excellent portrayal of privilege, a concept social scientists know matters a lot but seem never to be able to share without producing mass confusion and angry backlash. Listen to it:

Electric Customer-Service-Lady Land

We have Verizon Fios, and this morning our Fios box in the basement started beeping. It is notifying us, via the beep and a little flickering light, that the backup battery is about to fail and that we should replace it. This means calling Verizon customer service which I hate because I’ve had to call it far too many times and it’s almost always futile. I don’t think I’ve ever experienced worse customer service than I’ve received nearly every time I’ve called Verizon. Problems with Fios aren’t resolved without talking to at least 4 different people across multiple phone calls; even then it seems like the problems just resolve themselves without anyone doing anything. I prefer just to avoid calling and the problems usually go away after a bit. But, sometimes it requires an angry phone call with an employee who has no responsibility for what’s wrong and a manager who tries to tell us nothing is wrong. I hate it, and it often involves a rant about capitalism and a let’s move to the woods lament.

About a month ago we got a new wireless router which we required to buy from Verizon or they’d put a new service charge on our bill for keeping the old router which apparently isn’t supposed to work anymore. The old one worked just fine, but I installed the new router when it arrived, and, surprise, it didn’t work. I hooked the old one back up and went about my internet saturated life. Rather than call Verizon, I’ve been putting it off because why deal with the terrible customer service? Why hassle the employee who picks up the phone who won’t be able to help?

Well, the beeping Fios box in the basement isn’t as easy to ignore. The cat doesn’t like it at all. So, I called, if just to save my cat from the terror of the periodic beep. I figured at least I can deal with the router issue now too, so twice the help for half the agony!

I dialed the customer service number on the Fios box, and who picks up? A robot. ‘She’ tried to sound like a human woman, but it was an automated customer service agent. ‘She’ asked me human questions like “are you authorized to make decisions about this account,” and then paused to wait for answers, just like a human would. She even waited long enough for me to think to myself “Am I supposed to push #1, or do I just say ‘yes?'” She wanted me to say “yes,” and the interaction moved on. ‘She’ verified my phone number, started casually calling me Matt, and then immediately told me my backup battery was about to die. It saved so much time not having to say it. So efficient. She understood my problems better than any human customer service representative ever has, and I bet she never demands a raise or quits in the middle of her shift. ‘She’ asked if I’d like to order a new battery. I wondered, ‘do I have a choice, robot lady?,’ but all I said was “yes.” Would I let the charge go onto my next Verizon bill? “Yes.” That’s how you do business!

After that last “yes,” I think ‘this interaction is going well.’ Too well. It’s going so efficiently, in fact, that I’m not sure I’m going to be able to ask my question about the router. As I was realizing the potential problem, I think the robot lady said some things about how I might continue the conversation with the right command, but I was too distracted to hear it. “Oh no,” I thought, “what did I just miss? Was that my chance to say my router sucks? Can I talk to her about this problem she clearly wasn’t programmed to already know about?” The pause was long enough to have that entire thought, and then the kind robot lady said “thank you” in the coldest slash cheeriest voice I’ve ever heard and hung up. Interaction over, and I’m stuck with the bricked router and I’ve still got to call Verizon. Sigh.

 

 

Secular is good for us!

I’ve been fascinated to see a growing literature showing that religious beliefs, particularly beliefs about god, reduce social trust (examples here and here). Much of the work in the sociology of religion for so long has had a more or less explicit ‘religion is good for society’ thrust. I’ve published in that mainstream view myself, and usually the most you’ll see is ‘religion is mostly good for us, except for maybe fundamentalism.’

But, I’m starting to think this is because most survey data, particularly in the United States, has only allowed quantitative sociologists to study the very religious and the moderately religious, until recently. Now, with more and more seculars all the time, our samples are catching more people at the ‘not religious’ end of the spectrum, and it turns out they trust people too, and a paper I’m finishing up argues nontheists are more trusting than believers. So, it’s not ‘mainline’ versus ‘evangelical,’ but really it’s ‘very religious,’ ‘moderately religious,’ and ‘not religious.’And it turns out secular is good for you, and for us.

Cardinal Dolan at Le Moyne: sociological reflections (not culture war material, sorry)

Le Moyne College has made the news recently because we have invited Timothy Cardinal Dolan to be our commencement speaker and receive an honorary degree. A group of students started a petition to disinvite Dolan because of his role in the Church’s response the child sex abuse scandal and because of statements he’s made about same sex relationships.

I was interviewed a few times by different journalists, but my comments weren’t used –I’d guess because I didn’t really have anything controversial to say. I didn’t sign the petition, and except for rather limited contact with just a few students who have signed the petition or are involved in various forms of protest, I haven’t really been involved. I’ll wear a rainbow sash during Sunday’s commencement ceremony, as will several other faculty members. When Cardinal Dolan speaks, I’ll probably be just as uninterested as I ever am in commencement speakers.

Probably the biggest media splash was yesterday when two representatives of Le Moyne, our president Dr. Linda LeMura, and director of mission and identity, Fr. David McCallum chose to appear on Fox & Friends to discuss the ‘controversy.’ Honestly, I was under the impression things had mostly died down here on campus. Yes, there is some slight civil disobedience planned for Sunday, but the man is speaking and I’ll be very surprised if any Le Moyne students engage in disruptive protest.

Fox News, and in particular Fox & Friends, make their money by stoking the culture war (also see this silly piece in National Review Online). To hear the segment from the morning ‘news’ show, you’d think ‘leftist, secularist’ students were flipping the pope mobile. On the contrary, this is the most active protest having to do with religious issues I’ve seen in my 10 years here, and it’s decidedly civil and reasonable. There are good reasons to be upset that Le Moyne has invited Fr. Dolan (apparently an invitation offered by our Eric Dolphy loving past president), just as there are good reasons to invite the Archbishop of New York to be the speaker at Jesuit Le Moyne College (this is why I didn’t sign the petition, defensible choice or not).

Because I’m a sociologist of religion, however, this is certainly an opportunity to think about the sociological meaning of the protest on our campus.

Le Moyne got more Catholic after we moved to lay presidents. It’s a case study in the processes of secularization and resacralization. With Jesuit presidents, we just were Catholic. It was more difficult for outsiders to question it. Now it’s easier to question, so it has be demonstrated more overtly. We got our first director of mission and identity, and we are increasingly offered opportunities to explore our Ignation heritage.

However, were I to guess, I think our student body follows the general trends of their generation in terms of religiosity. When I ask, as I regularly do, students rarely say they’ve come because the school is Catholic, and less because it is Jesuit. Many seniors barely know what a Jesuit is, and I think we see that as more of a problem now than we used to. There is probably a selection effect as I teach social science electives, and I’d not be surprised if more religious students avoid me because of my relatively outspoken attitudes about atheism. But, I don’t think there is much self-organized religious activism on campus, orthodox or progressive. The Dolan reaction is the most I recall in my time here. I’m sure there is support, but it’s not organized like the opposition. I think that is indicative of the general apathy about religious issues on campus. The Dolan protest isn’t about Catholicism, per se. It’s more about sexuality and sexual assault, issues common across college campuses, Catholic or not.

Drone police and instant replay justice

As yet another video of a police officer murdering a black man makes its way through the media, we are again hearing calls for officers to wear body cameras. It’s not certain that body cameras would make much difference in police behavior. Nonetheless, cameras on cops all across the country opens up a number of exciting possibilities.

Here are some ideas.

Police departments need revenue – sometimes they’ll stop and fine you just to pay the bills. That’s patently unfair, and not very entertaining. Why not affix a camera to every officer and live-stream the feed over the police department website? Charge a few bucks a month for access, and put the long running tv show Cops right out of business. Violence voyeurs everywhere will sign up for Gold Subscriptions that include exclusive access to the racist jokes making their way around the local police department.

Americans love instant replay almost as much as reality TV. Who doesn’t like an X-Mo replay of a great diving catch, or viral video replays of police brutality? But, why not use the replay technology to make sure everybody gets a fair shot at justice? Pop a camera on every police officer in America, give every citizen 2 ‘challenges,’ and set up a Police Replay Operations Center in Times Square. Whenever a citizen feels unjustly treated by an officer of the law they can use one of their remaining challenges. The Police Operations Replay Operations Center will spring into action, carefully evaluating all available video angles to make sure the police officer made the right call. Broadcast the replays on a mega-sized video board in the town square so citizens can deliberate the case as well. Rationality will deliver indisputable justice. (To be fair, however, people of color should probably be allowed more challenges).

I can’t help but think that the Police Operations Video Operations Center could be put to better use than a clunky replay system that disrupts the flow of police work. Why not let the folks at the monitors play an active role in protecting and serving? In fact, police work can be dangerous for cops out on the streets, so why not use the technology to remove the cop from the beat where things can get out of hand quickly, while also giving them the eyes and force needed to control any situation? It works for the military, and police forces all around the country are using military grade resources. Yes, drone cops is clearly the way to go. Remote controlled, camera equipped, fully armed drone cops will ensure the safety of the police while delivering swift, reviewable, streamable, profitable justice.

Artists and Alienation: Everyday Marxism at Subway

I eat at Subway, a lot. Probably more than any self-respecting person should. In fact, including this post, my blog has a bit of a Subway Series going on here and here. Maybe I should write a book on the sociology of Subway.

The Subway I go to most often requires its employees to shout ‘Welcome to Subway!’ whenever someone walks through the door. Other places do this as well – i.e. “Welcome to Moe’s!” I don’t find it particularly welcoming to be shouted at by strangers when I walk through doors. Does anyone ever shout back – “Oh my! It’s so nice to see you all today!” That would be weird. But, more than not feeling welcomed, it makes me feel guilty about imposing on these low wage workers making sandwiches on command for strangers all day. (I mean, not so guilty that I don’t eat there twice a week and load my card with points.)

A couple of months ago I was at a different Subway than my usual spot, but they still do the Welcome to Subway Shout – standardized welcoming is heartwarming. This day, however, it was less a shout and much more of a ‘dumb things I gotta do today mumble.’ I totally get that – no offense taken. In fact, I’ve often thought that ‘Subway sandwich maker’ has got to be one of the most alienating jobs available. These folks are making products that they immediately give away to their boss of the moment. They make the sandwich, someone else eats the sandwich – all day long. Not only do they immediately lose the product of their labor to someone else, they have to experience alienation from customers who often make really odd demands for sandwiches (i.e. “cut the bread the old way”). Customers are the sandwich exploiters of these Sandwich laborers – or as they are known in the industry: Sandwich Artists.

Yes, Corporate Subway calls these folks Sandwich Artists. This has to be as ironic an employee moniker as there is – it’s much worse than Wal-Mart’s ‘associates.’ There is nothing artistic about using predetermined ingredients, in required amounts, at the command of strangers walking through the door. This is not craft nor creativity, but rather carefully monitored capitalist production.

Here is a screenshot from Subway Corporate describing the position of Sandwich Artist:

Sandwich Artists report to Management.

Sandwich Artists report to Management.

Notice the happy Sandwich Artist who ‘Reports to: Management.’ I’d guess this isn’t the same as an artist working for a patron. These are well managed artists, as we can see in the position’s Tasks and Responsibilities which include exhibiting “a cheerful and helpful manner while greeting guests and preparing their orders” and preparing “food neatly, according to formula, and in a timely manner.” These artists are paid for emotional labor and following a formula. Smiling and painting by numbers isn’t how I think of artists! That said, some members of the Subway Family are very fast – and, like any strong, artistically inclined family, Subway celebrates their efficiency.

Once at my favorite little corner Subway, I was chatting with a Sandwich Artist I’d come to know a little bit. She’d start my Veggie Delite before I ordered it. Yes, there was a sense of friendship here, not alienation. As we worked our way down the sandwich assembly line she mentioned she’d just given her two weeks and was leaving without a new job yet acquired. I said, ‘oh, that’s too bad, why are you leaving?.’ She gave me the most obvious look one could give, and said “It’s Subway.”

Yep. It’s Subway. Home of the alienated artist.

I’m not your boss, sir: service worker small talk as class warfare?

One of my least favorite social interactions is when service workers, often waitstaff, use ‘terms of endearment.’ You know, “what can I get you, hon?” or “there you go, boss.” It makes me uncomfortable. I say service workers because these are the interactions in which I notice it, but surely it happens elsewhere too. Quite frankly, terms of endearment from just about anyone make me uncomfortable, so it may just be that I’m atypically socially distant (I’d buy that). Maybe, but I think there are social patterns here to be considered

First, the phenomenon appears gendered. I’ve never noticed a male waiter call me ‘hon’ or ‘sweetie,’ and I don’t recall a lot of female service workers calling me ‘boss.’ Service workers have an opportunity to do some fun breaching experiments here. I imagine most folks wouldn’t notice if a female worker called them ‘boss,’ but I imagine nearly every male would notice if a male worker called him ‘sweetie.’  Having read about ‘everyday sexism‘, I’d guess women hear a lot more of this sort of small talk than do men, from both women and men. Women are probably uncomfortably called ‘sweetie’ all the time, by everyone. Do male workers call female customers ‘boss’?

Second, why do I find it so uncomfortable? I think the language is too intimate for what are nearly always fleeting relationships in the context of economic transactions. While I’ve never said it, I always think “I’m not your hon,” or “I’m not your boss”  Maybe Donald Black’s theory of Moral Time could help me understand a bit of it. Is the conflict I feel a result of ‘over intimacy?’ That seems reasonable for ‘hon’ and ‘sweetie’ and the like, but maybe not for ‘boss.’ I find ‘boss’ harder to take. I always hear with it a bit of disdain. Maybe it’s a small shot at the inequality of the service relationship? Maybe in this context ‘boss’ is meant to draw attention to the fact that work is being done, for me, by someone who is likely underpaid and under appreciated. Maybe it’s a subtle critique of class privilege? Maybe it’s the expression of completely internalized capitalistic social relations?

‘Merican Douchebags?: Elitist and Redneck discourse

This Michael Mark Cohen essay about ‘douchebag’ as a white racial slur has come my way a few times recently. Whatever you think about the argument, it could be a useful resource to start conversations about the intersectionality of white, male, upper class privilege.

Here’s how Cohen puts it:

For the time being, this is the vernacular critique of whiteness that we’ve always needed, and its been right before our eyes all along. The term douchebag, again used as we already use it, has the power to name white ruling class power and white sexist privilege as noxious, selfish, toxic, foolish and above all, dangerous.

What got me thinking about this again today was sitting in a Bruegger’s watching a ‘preppy’ white guy parked in a running Jeep Grand Cherokee 4 X 4 on his cellphone for at least 15 minutes, and he was still there when I left. As anyone who drives with me knows, I’ll barely let my car idle between turning the key and moving, or stopping and shutting down. Idling, in almost any instance, is bad for the environment, our health, and wastes expensive fossil fuel (8 facts and myths about warming up your car). This well dressed guy, sitting in a behemoth that probably cost north of $30,000 and manages an around town mpg rating in the low 20s, clearly cared about none of those things.

But, I don’t think this particular automotive behavior is significantly classed or raced in America. If anything, being obsessed with environmentally conscious behavior is maybe a bourgeois affliction. The term I thought when I walked past this guy, tempted to knock on the window and ask him what the hell he was thinking, was this: Merica (urban dictionary). I realized, however, that I don’t think I’ve ever heard anyone use the term (what is the correct version, anyway?) except to denigrate or celebrate what I think of as working class, white culture. I grew up in that culture, in a town that has advertised “Redneck Games” on the webpage of its visitors bureau. If that’s not ‘Mercia, I don’t know what is.

So, I checked, and Cohen’s article doesn’t make any mention of “merica” or its other forms. I’d hypothesize it’s use would correlate with ‘cracker,’ ‘hillbilly,’ and ‘redneck,’ or the other terms that Cohen correctly points out also discriminate by class. Google Correlate didn’t show any search results, but this post at floatingsheep (Welcome to ‘Merica (Or is it ‘Murica?)) maps Twitter use of the two terms, and argues that the more sarcastic ‘murica is preferred by coastal elites who may be eager to differentiate themselves from the yokels in flyover country. At the same time, I’ve been to fireworks shows and sporting events where people in the middle of a good time shout ‘Murica!’ to advertise and celebrate their fun.

So, what’s the function of ‘merica/’murica? Is it for elites to denigrate America’s working class? Is it to celebrate ‘middle America’ fun? When I saw that douche in the 4 X 4 guzzling gas and a large coffee, was ‘Merica a reasonable response?

Let’s settle it with some enraged comments on the internet!

 

Sports: Who benefits?

Who benefits from sports? A lot folks, certainly. I’m sitting here watching a Milwaukee Bucks game as I write. I’m benefiting because I’m being entertained. The players are benefiting because they are being paid, and hopefully having fun. The coaches and team staff benefit because they get jobs, and the owner benefits because he (they are mostly men in pro sports) makes money. There are stadium staff from food service to custodial. Restaurant and bar owners in the area benefit from folks who gather to watch the games and buy food and drink. Fans may stay in hotels, so the hotel owners benefit too. The league and other retailers sell team merchandise. In short, there is a lot of economic benefit to go around.

What about amateur sports? Who benefits? If we are talking about NCAA sports, it’s very similar to the pros, except for the players aren’t being paid. But, they must love the game more, right? Otherwise, why play? Sure, there is the college education, but student-athlete is in many cases a misnomer. Especially for ‘big time’ college sports, the athletes are often playing as much for the chance to make money in the pros as they are to get an education.

What about folks who play in recreational leagues and pick up games? There, it seems that the economic benefits for others not involved in the play are much less direct. I’d guess they are still there as it’s not that uncommon to go from the game to dinner or a bar, and a few folks will probably stop and watch for a few minutes to see what’s going on in the park.

In recreational leagues the benefits accrue most completely to the participants themselves. What about as sports become more commodified? Do the athletes still benefit the most? It’s hard to argue that’s the case for ‘big time’ college sports. So many people are making so much money, and getting so much entertainment, while the student-athletes tend to be so focused on the sport that they often don’t have time to take full advantage of the academic scholarship, and the NCAA produces some funky numbers to inflate ‘graduation rates.’ Do the athletes get what they deserve given the work they do to produce the product? This Forbes article compares the market value of college athletes to professional athletes, and it doesn’t seem to be the case.

I’m obviously asking more questions than I’m answering, but these are questions worth considering. Who gets the most from sports? Players, those who extract value from the game but don’t play it, fans? Who should get the most?

As I wrote the Bucks lost, so it wasn’t quite as fun as it could have been, and those guys still get paid!

The locker room as sexualized space?

Today’s ‘Sports in America’ discussion was about 2 recent articles related to Michael Sam and the details of his pre-draft coming out, draft result, and experiences with the Rams and Cowboys afterward. Here are the two articles we read, both by Dave Zirin:

After the Press Conference: Michael Sam and “The Man Box

Michael Sam gets drafted and the NFL has issues

These were great conversation starters, but I couldn’t have predicted the way the conversation went. Early on one of the students asked if Michael Sam being openly gay would be a problem in the locker room, and if so, why? The class was in general agreement that while, morally, it shouldn’t be a problem, sociologically, it almost certainly would be. Why?

While our 50 minute conversation took many twists and turns, we spent a good bit of time talking about locker room norms and culture. The male students, most of whom are athletes now or have high school sports experience, told stories of ‘life in the locker-room.’ One said, basically, ‘in the locker room everyone is 12.’ I said, but why would homosexuality matter, in that case? It turns out that the locker room must be a very sexualized space. To hear my students tell it, the locker room is a place where straight men engage in a range of behavior, some of which mimic sex, and sexualized dancing. One student said it really was expected if you are to be part of the team. So, everyone should be sexual, but no one should take it too seriously. The fear (yes, it’s homophobia) is that a gay teammate might ‘take it too seriously.’

Obviously there is much here to explore, but I was surprised to learn that the locker room may in fact be a very sexualized place for male athletes. I shouldn’t have been surprised that performances of masculinity would be different in a locker room than elsewhere, as Tristan Bridges points out here. Bridges writes that locker rooms are “often presented as a cultural “safe space” for men—a space in which they can talk and act however they want without fear of reprisal.” I would have imagined hyper-heterosexuality, not ‘blurred lines’ between heterosexuality and homosexuality that would generate homophobia because ‘gay guys might not understand.’ The female student athletes seemed to know this, too, but said the female locker room isn’t the same. Nonetheless, there was discomfort at the thought of lesbian athletes in the women’s locker room. What explains it there?