Odd Man In

Residents of small Barnstable, Massachusetts, on Cape Cod, were not sure what to make of “odd” Joseph Gorham, who lived–and wandered–among them in the first half of the 1700s. He would walk unannounced into their homes, “Searching and Rumiging for Victuals in a Ravenous manner without Leave,” gorge himself on what he could find, sometimes to the point of throwing up, and often spend the night by their fireplaces or in their barns. Gorham had no wife, did no work, and neither bought nor sold, being unable to bargain on his own behalf. At the same time, he had a “Very Extraordinary Genius” in playing checkers, visually estimating the weights of goods, and recalling calendar information in exact detail. Also remarkable from our vantage point, his oddness was tolerated for decades.

Barnstable, 1690 building (K.C. Zirkel)

Barnstable, 1690 building (K.C. Zirkel)

University of Connecticut historian Cornelia H. Dayton tells Gorham’s story in the fall, 2015 issue of the Journal of Social History, a story only made visible by a court case over Gorham’s will when he died at 73 and a story with several implications for how we understand mental illness, community, gender, and class.

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The Pace, the Pace

An end-of-the-year crystal-ball statement by New York Times technology columnist, Farhad Manjoo, stimulated me to muse some more about how Americans think about technological change. Manjoo wrote:

In 2016, let’s begin to appreciate the dominant role technology now plays in shaping the world, and let’s strive to get smarter about how we think about its effects. “The pace of technological change has never been faster, so it’s more important for people to understand things that are harder to keep on top of,” said Julius Genachowski, the former chairman of the Federal Communications Commission. . . .



As I discussed in an earlier post, such claims are perennial. More examples: About 60 years before Manjoo, on April 22, 1957, noted Times journalist C. L. Sulzberger warned:

The dizzy speed with which mechanical techniques are now developing leads many serious thinkers to wonder if they may not soon exceed human capacity to absorb them.

And about 25 years before that, a member of my own tribe, sociology founding father William F. Ogburn, told a panel–as reported in the Times on January 2, 1931–that:

An increasing number of inventions . . . will mean an increasing pace of change and less peace. It will become increasingly difficult for the growing person to adapt himself to an ever more complicated environment; and so in the future, . . . . the problem will be met, perhaps, by prolonging infancy to say, thirty or forty years of age or even longer.

(Parents of 20-somethings may want to comment on the prediction of prolonged infancy.)

The Genachowski-like claims that Americans today are buffeted by unprecedented social change driven by an unprecedented technological pace is, I have argued (here and here), wrong. We may yet face, but do not yet experience, the sort of machine-assisted disruptions that were common a century ago.

Still, all this is about the views of talking (or writing) heads. How have average Americans thought about the pace and dangers of technological change?

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A Street Divided

The sharpest contrast in American communities is that between black and white neighborhoods. There is no greater spatial distinction in our cities. Everyone is aware of it. Would-be homebuyers shop accordingly; parents pick schools accordingly; employers hire accordingly; drivers plan routes accordingly–that is, when homebuyers, parents, employers, and drivers have some choice in the matter.

This great segregation of black and white, scholars had thought, was produced in the twentieth century. New research reveals a more complex story, as described in my latest column for the Boston Reviewhere.

The increasing delay of death for Americans over the last century or so has been extensive and consequential, probably in many profound ways that we do not fully appreciate. In the late 19th century, a newborn white boy would be expected to live, on average, to about 40; now, such a newborn can be expected to live into his late 70s. A ten-year-old then could expect to reach his late 50s and a ten-year-old can now expect to reach his mid-70s. Girls live longer and nonwhites shorter lives, but the trends have been dramatically upward for them, as well. Moreover, Americans’ health, while they lived, also improved markedly.

How did this happen? Historians have excavated old health records and applied new techniques to parse out why better health and lower mortality occurred. In a just-published review of the topic, appearing in the Journal of Economic Literature, UCLA economic historian Dora Costa describes how the United States extended its people’s lives in different ways in different eras, depending in part on the nature of the health threat and on public will.

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Why Diversity

“Diversity” became the announced goal of schools and employers and liberal activists once American voters and courts turned against “affirmative action” for black Americans (never mind the idea of reparations). Earlier, in the 1960s and ‘70s, the Johnson and Nixon administrations had pushed racial “goals” (not quotas, they stressed) in a not-so-transparent effort to redress some of the economic disadvantages accrued from centuries of slavery and Jim Crow. However, with votes such as the 1996 passage in California of a constitutional amendment outlawing state institutions from considering race in employment, contracts, or education, and with Supreme Court cases reaching almost as far, liberals retreated from affirmative action to promoting “diversity.” Ethnic diversity, they argue, is good for everyone, not just minorities; it makes learning, working, neighboring, and deliberating better (e.g., here). Thus was born a defense for legally considering race just a bit, as well as a set of careers in diversity promotion, management, training, and law.

Opinion leaders from school teachers to corporate CEOs now promote, with some support from research, the virtues of diversity. Yet, out of view from most public discussion of the topic, a line of scholarly research emerged that implies the opposite. It suggests that the more diverse neighborhoods, cities, or countries are, the less people cooperate to common ends and the more they socially disengage; they “hunker down,” in one colorful rendition. A new paper by Maria Abascal and Delia Baldassarri in the latest issue of the American Journal of Sociology revisits this academic line of research and forces us to think back to why diversity was important in the first place.

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Family Wages

In 1800, most American families were strictly patriarchal. Men deployed the women, youth, children, and, in some instances, the apprentices, servants, and slaves of the household on behalf of the family business. They virtually owned those lives. “Over the past two centuries,” however, “this patriarchal family system collapsed, as household heads lost control over their sons, wives, and servants.”

So writes the eminent historical demographer Steven Ruggles in his 2015 presidential address to the Population Association of America. (Presidential addresses provide opportunities for academics to think big.) He describes this change and then explains it as largely the result of fluctuations in young men’s wages over the past two centuries. Ruggles goes on to claim that in the twenty-first century the American family is not just changing but is unraveling, again as a result of what has happened to young men’s wages.

Ruggles’ is not the only explanation for the collapse of the patriarchal system (see below), but it is well-documented from the massive volumes of census data that he has archived as head of the Minnesota Population Center.

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Immig Cartoon

Cartoon re Irish and Chinese Immigrants, S.F., 1860s

The 1965 Immigration Act literally changed the face of America, creating a much more diverse society and bringing the proportion of foreign-born in the country back to levels not seen since about 1910. Today, roughly 13 percent of the population was born elsewhere; add in their children and close to one in four residents are immigrants or second-generation. In this 50th-anniversary year for the Hart-Cellar Act, the National Academy of Sciences–our nation’s official authority on matters scientific–is issuing two reports summarizing years of research on what followed from that act. The first report, focusing on the social implications of recent immigration, is out; another, focusing on the economic implications, will be issued soon.

The Integration of Immigrants into American Society (pdf) presents no dramatic revelations for those who have followed the accumulating research. (That Mexican immigration has so sharply tailed off recently that Asian newcomers now outnumber Latin ones may be a revelation to some.) The short story is that immigrants and their children seem to be assimilating, becoming American, at about the same rate and in about the same ways as earlier generations of immigrants. Becoming more American, however, is not always a good thing.

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