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This blog is one small example of a media- and internet-wide phenomenon: the torrent of reports on social science research. There was a time, back in the ‘80s, when some of us bemoaned the dearth of social science reporting in the media. That dearth motivated my experiment in the early 2000s with Contexts, a magazine of sociology for general readers, and then this blog a decade later. Now, I’m here to bemoan too much social science reporting.

The voracious appetite of the media, particularly the online venues, for “content” has combined with trends in the social sciences to produce an efflorescence of reports on social science findings. Unfortunately, there are many weeds as well as blossoms in this dense garden. Maybe there is too much social science reporting, too much tabloid social science journalism.

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Much of the meta-coverage of the Ferguson, Missouri, tragedy has stressed the apparent importance of social media in focusing attention and fanning the flames. The NPR program On the Media had a story on August 14, 2014 which, in part, spoke in wonderment about how much Ferguson was a social media event and that because of social media people know so much more about the events and are therefore mobilized more than ever before. Maybe.

What is striking in historical perspective is that, however vast the media apparatus may be, the disturbances have not spread. Forty or so years ago, before the computer, internet, and smartphone, the fury in African-American neighborhoods spread from city to city quite rapidly. But not now. How come? (This post is partly a revisit to an earlier one on social media and protest.)

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Blame Who or What

The sense of empowerment that is part of American individualism benefits Americans. People who feel empowered, able to shape the world, and responsible for themselves tend, social psychological research shows, to act more forcefully and succeed more often than people who feel themselves to be at the mercy of others or of larger forces. Confidence is often a positive self-fulfilling prophecy. But there is another side to such an empowered world view: self-blame.

To be sure, a healthy level of egoism – also part of the individualistic world-view – protects Americans from blaming themselves too much. Americans tend to take credit for their successes while sidestepping fault when things go wrong more often than other peoples do; Americans tend to be especially “self-enhancing” (see, e.g., here, here, and here). Nonetheless, the sense of personal responsibility can lead many Americans who face repeated difficulties to beat up on themselves.

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About six months ago, I had a column in the Boston Review by the title above. Many heated comments ensued, especially once a couple of libertarian blogs pointed their readers to the essay. I respond here briefly to two connected lines of critique that I think are substantial and important. (I set aside the comments that I am an idiot or that I shouldn’t address the topic until I had read the full libertarian canon.)

I had argued that libertarianism made historically and anthropologically unrealistic assumptions by placing the separate self at the center of its world view. One valid critique is that I was thereby rejecting the historic advances of individual liberty, waxing nostalgic for coercive communities. The other critique is that, by looking only backward to the way societies have existed, I had blindly foreclosed new possibilities. I reply below.

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The flood of new devices, apps, and gadgets raises the recurrent worry about what these things, individually or in ensembles, are “doing” to us, how they are “impacting” us. Technology critic and MIT professor Sherry Turkle, for instance, argues that “technology doesn’t just do things for us. It does things to us, changing not just what we do but who we are.” In a similar vein, the legal scholar Tim Wu, who focuses on media and technology, warns that the Internet is psychologically overloading us.

This metaphor of impact obscures the evolution of each personal technology as it enters widespread use, misconstruing the implications for our personal lives and psyches. It implies that a technology hits, pushes, smashes us. Meteors impact the earth; missiles impact a target; bats impact a baseball. But in what meaningful sense does an electric light or a cell phone, literally or metaphorically, impact us?

We better understand the role of technologies if we think about how we use them and how that use changes over time….. [Read the rest of this post on the Boston Review's BR Blog here.]

“Ideas Matter” is the slogan of the Boston Review. This is a controversial claim in the social sciences. (Disclosure: I write a column for BR; I wear a tee-shirt of theirs that says “Ideas Matter.”) Do ideas really matter? How much do they shape individual behavior or society compared to material circumstances such as economic incentives, physical constraints, and military force?

Arguments about how much ideas matter have addressed broad historical issues, such as explaining the economic rise of the West – was it the “Protestant Ethic” (Max Weber), or the West’s geographical advantages (Jared Diamond)?  – and differences between Asian and European societies – are they about Confucianism vs Greek thought, collectivism vs individualism, the timing of industrialization, or something else? Arguments over individual differences in behavior similarly polarize around the issue of whether they are to be explained by what people think or by people’s circumstances, as in the debates over the “culture of poverty.” Ideas matter, across these sorts of debates, to the extent to which they shape how people understand the world, value their options, and are guided by social norms.

This post however, is about a different way that ideas can matter: by re-shaping the “reality” to match the idea. Ideas can become, in the phrase developed by the great sociologist Robert K. Merton “self-fulfilling prophecies.” Ideas about the world, although initially false, can become true – and consequential – because people believe them to be true. Consider a few examples from psychology and economics.

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As many Americans anticipate the likely nomination by a major party of a woman for president – the New Republic cover of July 14 calls Hillary Clinton “Inevitable” – it is worth pausing to reflect on how women’s participation in politics has changed over the course of American history. In eras before Clinton, Sarah Palin, and Nancy Pelosi, participating in politics was not only nearly impossible for women but was also considered a violation of what it meant to be a woman.

A just-published article in the Journal of the Early Republic by Emily J. Arendt illustrates the stark contrast between then and now. Arendt tells the story of the Ladies Association of Philadelphia, “the first female voluntary association in the United States,” formed in 1780 to assist Continental soldiers. The domestic nature of its work and awestruck reaction observers had to activist women underlines the era’s low expectations for women’s participation in civic life. Those low expectations lasted – despite the notoriety of early feminists – well into the twentieth century, making the last half-century a sharp historical departure for women in politics.

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