Doing Sociology

Open up a can of sociology

Sometimes I worry I’m turning into my dad. I’m afraid I’ll start to seriously believe trite sayings like “success comes in cans not can’ts,” or listening to motivational speakers while I drive. These things don’t work. They don’t work because the world doesn’t reward hard work in anything like equal measure. They don’t work because positive vibes can’t control the balance of your brain as well as SSRI’s. I think I’m fortunate to know those things, but I don’t blame my dad for believing what he did. And I can’t help thinking some inspirational words are needed right now, even if they are leveled out with some sociology.

Have you noticed that the world is a mess? Trump is president. Chaos and absurdity abound. Have you noticed friends and acquaintances seem to be having trouble managing unexpected challenges that have made their personal lives feel as chaotic as our political world? I have. I can’t help but think these facts are connected. Instability breeds instability. The details of the Trumpian chaos and the personal struggles are endlessly complex in their moments, but less so in the abstract. In the abstract they aren’t even new or odd. If my dad had inspirational Bible passages on his checks, I’ve got sociological aphorisms like C. Wright Mills’ wise words, “Neither the life of an individual nor the history of a society can be understood without understanding both,” or “People with advantages are loath to believe that they just happen to be people with advantages.”

I don’t know if the sociological imagination requires any more than those two fully packed sentences to get going. None of us chose to be born at this time, in this place, with these material advantages or disadvantages, in this body, with this brain. Most of our life is a function of things that were set in motion by randomness, and big or small choices others made before we were born. In addition, the choices we do get to make have consequences no one can fully anticipate. This is as true of the choices that end up good as it is of the ones that turn out bad. It is self-torture to believe that your own decisions are much more than putting one foot in front of the other on a path that shifts with each step you take (even if I am sometimes jealous of the fortunately brained people who seem to believe in their own remarkable agency). The relationships we make, and we do make them, are as much a function of the historical time in which we live as the work we do to ‘find ourselves’ or ‘surround ourselves with good people.’ Most of the times I’ve ‘found myself,’ it turns out I really found out who I used to be – and don’t want to be anymore – because of some new way I’m living – some way I don’t entirely understand in the moment but is a function of steps I took along the way.

I know this sounds like fatalism. It isn’t fatalism. We do make choices. We can choose to focus on some things and ignore others, like those who decide to ‘accentuate the positive.’  We can do right and wrong by others, and we can know that by their reactions when they let us see them. We should acknowledge the nice things when we notice them. We should make every effort to do right by others. We should recognize when we’ve done someone wrong and try to fix it. But this can’t mean ignoring hardship like it isn’t real; it can’t mean ‘going back to how things were.’ The flow of history and biography make these things impossible. I think what we can do is try to recognize how that flow is beyond any one person’s control. We can recognize that bad exists without granting it cosmic significance. It’s a mundane part of human life.

For me, remaining aware of these things is as valuable as my dad’s insistence on appreciating a sunny day was to him. People don’t choose their historical or personal conditions, some of which are truly miserable, and none of us can fully understand either. We don’t all have the same choices, and we can’t know the consequences of the choices we make. To recognize that is freedom from the torture that comes with believing that it’s possible to make no mistakes; from believing it is possible to eliminate the negative and avoid the inevitable struggles of living in the here and now. Besides, the sun is shining in Syracuse today.

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We Care A Lot: Profits of Social Entreprenurship

Social Entrepreneurship is often championed as a solution to social problems. As I understand it, social entrepreneurs are ingenious people who use their creativity to help those who suffer from poverty, sickness, lack of education, and whatever other problems catch their attention. Their solutions, because ‘Social Entrepreneurs’ would never question the basic good of capitalism (would they?), are of course only feasible if they return a profit to good-as-angel investors. Let’s ignore that the framing of Social Entrepreneurship, by itself, suggests that other profit seekers are Anti-Social Entrepreneurs (which is probably right). Instead let’s offer a brief critique of social entrepreneurship itself.

Here’s a good example in this morning’s New York Times. Retail monster Walmart is well known to pay its employees a less than livable wage of, on average, $13.85 an hour. One fortunate worker highlighted in the piece, Alexis, earns $19.25 an hour. Trading 30 hours a week with Walmart, she gets in return around $30,000 a year. This would put Alexis and her 4 children just beyond the $28,780 federal poverty guideline for a family of 5 in 2017, but they’re certainly eligible for many forms of assistance. So, this is a paycheck to paycheck life.

Alexis says she’d like to save more, but that’s hard to do with most of your money spent between pay-periods. So, here’s a problem for the Social Entrepreneurs to solve. In this case the solution is an app called Even, cofounded by idealistic young man Jon Schlossberg, to help low-wage workers manage their money. With Even, workers can even withdraw some of their earned cash before the next paycheck. No more pay-day loans with their high interest rates, but rather earlier access to money you’ve earned. Jon is focusing his entrepreneurial energy on helping those in need, which is good. He’s able to do this because he’s already created something very useful for us:

“Before creating Even, one of the firm’s founders, Jon Schlossberg, had developed an app called Knock, which allows phone users to unlock a Mac computer by knocking on their phone.”

Having made his money via this invaluable contribution to society, it was time to do good.

Idealistic and flush with money from the success of Knock, Mr. Schlossberg said
he began studying how a cash shortage affects people’s physical and mental well-being. “It is a fundamental problem with the capitalistic society,” Mr. Schlossberg said in an interview. Mr. Schlossberg, 30, said he set out to create a product that could reduce the stress associated with money problems, joining a crowd of other so-called fintech start-ups seeking to disrupt the traditional banking model.

Sounding like a real Marxist (who conveniently came to understand how awful capitalism is for workers after he’d made his money), Jon identifies how capitalism is fundamentally alienating and destructive of the human person. That’s not good. So, what’s the lesson? Do as any good capitalist would and disrupt! For a profit, of course.

Walmart pays a small fee to Even to allow workers to withdraw their wages
ahead of payday. Workers can take out only a portion of wages that they have already earned during the two-week pay cycle — so technically, Even says, these are not loans.

Walmart is paying Jon. Jon, flush with cash because he made it easier to unlock your computer, is being paid by Walmart so that he can help Walmart employees manage their paycheck to paycheck lives.  Stand-up guy, Jon. But, far from alone in his social entrepreneurial quest for justice, he has partners who share his concern for the struggles of the poor.

“You have earned this money,” said Safwan Shah, founder of PayActiv. “Who
decides you should get paid every two weeks?”

Jon’s comrade Safwan owns a company, missing an ‘e,’ that helps process the transactions between Walmart and its cash poor employees. Safwan understands that workers are the source of wealth, and how unfair it is that the capitalist decides when the worker gets access to the fruit of their labor. He’s going to help by processing a limited number of mid-pay-period transactions for a fee paid by Walmart, or if things get really bad, the employee.

With the new service, every Walmart employee can obtain a portion of his or her
earned wages eight times a year free of charge. For most of the workers, the so-called Instapays will be deducted from their next paycheck. The workers can pay extra if they want more than eight Instapays.

Safwan is also being paid by Walmart, at least indirectly, to help out it’s cash-strapped workers. Walmart is making the “reasonably substantial investment” in Even because C.O.O. Judith McKenna believes it’s “the right thing to do.” Judith says the company will keep “investing in its associates.”

$10.20 an hour Walmart associate Matt Fixel has some input for entrepreneurial justice warriors Jon and Safwan:

“That app sounds helpful,’’ Mr. Fixel said of the Even service, but added, “I
would prefer it if they gave me more hours.”

So, what do you say Jon and Safwan, maybe a campaign for better, more frequent pay for hard-working associates like Alexis and Matt? Of course, the needed changes might put your profits at risk, but you don’t actually care about those, do you? You care about justice.

The Silent Majority and Mayor Ben Walsh

Ben Walsh, running on the Independence Party line, among others, was elected mayor of Syracuse yesterday. He won 54% of the vote to Democratic candidate Juanita Perez Williams’ 38%. Behind the two front runners were Green Pary candidate Howie Hawkins at 4%, Republican Laura Lavine at 2.5%, and Working Families nominee Joe Nicoletti at 1%. Yes, the Green Party beat the Republican party.

The early narrative appearing in the local media is well summed up here. The Post-Standard reports that voters told political parties they’re not needed, and that “The city decisively elected Walsh Tuesday.” Perhaps this a rejection of Republicans and Democrats, and maybe it is significant that the Republican candidate got just 2.5%. But, Lavine’s campaign was barely funded nor supported by the party, and Republicans haven’t been strong in Syracuse for a long time. Walsh, while saying often that he doesn’t represent the GOP, is the heir to one of the most prominent Republican families in CNY history. I don’t buy the easy ‘Republican in sheep’s clothing’ argument about Walsh. While he may not be a Republican, certainly a lot of Republicans voted for him. A lot of Democrats, too.

But, the most popular choice among the voters was not Walsh. Rather, it was to not vote at all. Early estimates of turnout are about 35%. The silent majority, in this case, just kept quiet. Do the math and you see that the incoming mayor of Syracuse won the votes of about 18% of eligible voters. This looks more like a message about what Syracuse residents think of government, period, rather than a rejection of parties. It’s a stretch to call this a decisive victory. If Walsh’s message about the importance of civic life is sincere, I hope he’ll do what he can to get that 65% who stayed home involved in city governance. In any case, the final vote tally in the 2017 Syracuse mayoral race looks to be ‘Who Cares Party’ 65%, mayor Ben Walsh 18%.

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?