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Surveying Change

Social historians studying the twentieth century have an advantage specialists in earlier centuries do not. Survey research, which began seriously in the 1930s, allows the former to know what average people reported about their attitudes and actions in ways that no documentary archive can even approximate (here, for example). To track changes over the decades in attitudes and action accurately, not only should the samples drawn in different eras be comparable, the questions asked should be the same – whether they are about church attendance, political participation, racial views, whatever. As the noted sociologist Otis Dudley Duncan reportedly stated, “If you want to measure change, don’t change the measure” – i.e., the wording of question.

Wise advice. But there is a problem: Sometimes the words themselves change meaning.

I was sharply reminded of this issue recently when leading a team that was putting together a survey. I had jotted down a phrase to use in a question: “in order to keep things straight.” Graduate students quickly objected. You can’t use straight because of its sexual connotations. I was well-aware that the word gay had been transformed. Tom W. Smith, a dean of survey research, noted that the Gallup Poll’s 1954 question, “Which American city do you think has the gayest night life?,” did not mean the same thing just 30 years later. Now, neither does straight.

Survey designers cannot fully rely on fixed meanings. Paradoxically, the pollsters’ craft requires judgments about social change in order to write the questions to measure social change. (For related discussions of how words’ histories can affect psychological testing, see this earlier post and here.)

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One issue sparking off from the fiery debate around the police shootings of black men is the extent to which Americans simply react negatively to seeing black – whether it is a police officer making a life-and-death split-second decision about the threat a black man poses, a store clerk tracking a black customer in a store more intently than she would a white one, or an online shopper preferring to buy a device shown in a white hand rather than a black hand.

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Explicit racial discrimination, often subconscious, is rarer than it was once was. And such discrimination does not explain most of the black-white gaps in life circumstances such as lifespan and wealth; those largely grow from historically deeper and convoluted roots, further fed by institutional inequalities. Still, the effects of plain old racial aversion are real – accounting, according to one recent analysis, for perhaps a third of the difference between black and white wages (pdf). And such racism certainly takes an emotional toll.

Two recent publications present yet more systematic evidence that plain old racial aversion persists and matters  — despite the belief among many whites, perhaps most, that reverse discrimination is just as big a problem. (An earlier related post is here.)

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A visit to Old City of Jerusalem in the holiday season, where Christian pilgrims, Jewish Hanukkah revelers, and Muslim muezzins’ calls to prayer mix in very tight quarters, underlines again the atypical nature of religion in the United States. Many countries, including western ones such as Israel, explicitly join state and church. Many have a formal state religion — in much of the Islamic world, and elsewhere, such as Argentina and Finland. Government officials in other countries route tax money to support clergy and church institutions. Many nations establish separate public school systems by religion, for instance, in Northern Ireland, Fiji, and some Canadian provinces. Governments mandate religious training in, for example, Finland, or provide separate religious instruction, as in Germany. Most dramatically, police forces enforce Islamic cultural codes in, for example, Saudi Arabia.

In contrast, church and state are officially separated in the United States, although this has been an evolving practice. For example, reading the (Protestant) Bible and reciting the Lord’s Prayer in public schools was quite common for much of American history. That Protestantism was long the default religious culture of American public schools sparked strong resistance from Catholics and the construction of a private parochial system. Some would argue that tax deductions for church dues today breach the separation. Still, the U.S. remains relatively distinct in its formal blindness to religious affiliations. The key distinction, however, is the grass-roots, associational nature of church in America compared to the more “tribal” nature of church elsewhere.

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At this writing, the future of the national movement in response to police shootings of unarmed black men is unclear. It could fizzle much like the Occupy movement did (see earlier posts here and here), or it could be more lasting.

Protests here in Berkeley and the greater Bay Area have gotten a lot of attention, not because shootings are common– although Oscar Grant was killed about six years ago – but because a strong cadre of largely non-black anarchists (ironically, one set is called the Black Bloc) repeatedly hijack all sorts of protests and climax them by smashing stores, lighting fires, and blocking highways. Needless to say, terrifying store clerks and keeping people from getting to work on time are not likely to engender sympathy for a cause. Indeed, any left movement that alienates Berkeley citizens is not going to find many allies.

Recently, black community efforts have changed the dynamic some. In Berkeley, for example, a black church and its allies held a brief, peaceful “die-in” on a major street. They succeeded by alerting the police but keeping the planning secret from the anarchists. We are also seeing a few, modest concessions by police departments here and there. Still, the tactical struggle over who represents this protest and who will lead it continues. More broadly, its strategic goals and strategies remain to be defined.

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Alice Goffman’s recent book On the Run: Fugitive Life in an American City, her firsthand account of young black men in a poor neighborhood of Philadelphia, has garnered rave reviews in high places and by high authorities, from Cornel West to Malcolm Gladwell. Goffman portrays urban fugitives effectively excluded from the job market, who hustle and deal drugs for money, move from apartment to apartment and relationship to relationship, do their best to evade jail, and are picked up by the police even when they try to live clean. Goffman’s depth of research, the vividness of her writing, and the drama and brutal tragedy of the stories she tells—“enough street-level detail to fill a season of The Wire,” the New York Times reviewer writes—have compelled widespread attention.

But alongside the praise has also come significant criticism……  (Read the rest of this column at the Boston Review here.)

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In the current issue of Contexts, James M. Thomas, a sociologist at the University of Mississippi, discusses efforts to address racism as a psychological illness. He begins by noting that celebrities, such as TV personalities Michael Richards and Paula Deen, exposed making racist remarks have responded by seeking “treatment,” as if they suffered from a mental health condition like alcoholism or PTSD. Thomas goes on to describe unsuccessful pushes over many years, for example by the well-known psychologist Kenneth Clark, to make racism an official diagnosis in the psychiatric profession.

It seems odd, from an historical or a cross-cultural perspective, to diagnose someone with racist – or, more generally, xenophobic – views as exhibiting a psychological abnormality. By that standard, most people in most places are mentally “ill.”

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Which University?

As I start this post, I hear voices on bullhorns in Sproul Plaza (ground zero for the Free Speech demonstrations 50 years ago) calling Berkeley students to walk out of classes today (Monday, Nov. 24) to protest the tuition increases approved last week by the University of California Regents for the entire ten-campus system. Many details are being argued about — promises, costs, efficiencies, subsidies, and much more. I am not going to address the particulars here; I lack the expertise to do so. Instead, I draw upon my 42+ years at Berkeley and what I know about the history of public higher education to make a few general points. They boil down to the simple observation that the citizens of California and the students need to decide what they want.

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