Saturday, September 30, 2006

Creative Social Change Projects

I was rereading Edward De Bono's book Serious Creativity and got some ideas. De Bono describes many techniques for generating new ideas, and some techniques for introducing creativity into organizations. These are really formal mechanisms for eliciting new ideas.

Activist organizations and social service nonprofits need to keep up a list of specific areas where creative ideas are needed. This is what De Bono called a Creative Hit List.

People interested in changing the world in some way, big or small, could benefit from creating new concepts to use or to promote. This much is probably not news, but maybe you have never thought of an organization implementing a formal process to create new concepts. This is called concept R&D. Maybe some of the big activist organizations, like Greenpeace, need Concept R&D offices. Maybe some of the big social service organizations like the United Way need the same sort of office.

Activists often concentrate on solving problems, which is a reasonable thing to do if you genuinely believe that ___________ is a big problem. Creative Hit Lists and Concept R&D can be useful here. As De Bono points out in Serious Creativity, there is a need to go beyond problem solving and make a conscious effort to look for opportunities. An Opportunity Search could be done in broad subject areas like fund raising, public policy, marketing, and public education. Searches could also be focused on issue areas like animal welfare or renewable energy. What opportunities exist to advance our agenda? To change more behaviors in the direction we desire?

We can't help but act on assumptions about the world, about people, about social institutions, and about what tactics or strategies will work best. Sometimes we need to tease out then challenge assumptions about the world and even our assumptions about what needs to be changed.

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How to Make Better Decisions(What Should I Do? - Part 2)

Last time I went on and on about how the mass media, peer groups, and childhood experiences lead us to making bad decisions. These bad decisions are bad for individuals and they add up to real problems for society.

If I sometimes drive my car like I am in Formula 1, this is really a personal problem and not a social problem. If everyone who owns a hot car starts to drive like a race car driver then we have a social problem! Preventing that sort of building up from personal decision to social problem is what I'm going to offer a few ideas about this time.

So, lets take these influences on our decisions one-by-one:

1. Mass Media - Maybe some old advice is really best here: Read fewer men's/women's magazines, watch less television (or at least stick with news, and serious documentaries - the life of Ann Nicole Smith does not count as a serious documentary subject by the way!). Boycott companies that sponsor trash television shows.

What is trash television anyway? Well, almost all television is trash television to some people. I feel the need to be a little more precise than that. Trash television to me is television that promotes unhealthy body images (for men and women), unrealistic ideas about success, unrealistic expectations for relationships, and unrealistic standards regarding what people should own. Hmm, maybe most television is trash.

2. Peer Pressure - Once again, the old advice is best: Pick your friends carefully! Pick your kid's friends even more carefully. Some people say that you cannot pick your friends, but this is obviously not true! We have some control over who we develop or end relationships with and when. This is what it means to pick your friends.

3. Generalized Other - our ideas about how others will react to our behavior comes from friends, family, coworkers, religious leaders (even if you are not religious) and the mass media. Aside from being careful about what you read or watch and picking your friends carefully, there is probably nothing you can do.

4. Childhood Experiences - Well, if you are old enough to reflect on your childhood experiences then it is too late for you! However, you can still try to protect your kids from trash television and bad kids in the neighborhood.

However, the more people follow the advice to avoid "trash" television (and books and magazines and radio shows) the more likely culture will change to produce a "generalized other" that is more supportive of making healthy, for the individual, decisions.

Maybe I need to say more about this next time.

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Tuesday, September 26, 2006

What Should I Do?

This isn't really a question for my readers. This post is about decisions we make in our personal lives, decisions about finances, jobs, education, relationships, and many other things. Decision making involves social forces, free will, and psychological forces we are only dimly aware of.

You see, the idea that we do what we choose to do is partly true and partly illusion.

How does this work?

1. Peer pressure - friends get us to binge drink or drive too fast; coworkers get us to work harder than we planned to work

2. Childhood experiences - This is really from Pscyhology 101. Childhood experiences influence our ability to trust people and that ability (or lack of it) can affect our relationship decisions.

3. Mass Media - This is almost everyone's favorite whipping boy when it comes to dicussing the causes of social problems. Television, magazines, radio, books, newspapers, and the Internet do affect us by giving us ideas about how we should live or what we should be afraid of.

4. The Generalized Other - a fancy term for the collective opinions and views that we think other people have: "What will people think of me if they see me doing ___________?"

5. Learning - Not just formal schooling, but all forms of learning can expose us to rules for making "good" decisions. We probably apply these rules without even thinking about them. You might buy a slightly used Honda Civic because this represents a "sensible" transportation choice. Your rules for picking a vehicle may have come from friends, family, and the media. Another person my consider a 2006 Miata to be a perfectly sound transportation choice because she is using different decision rules.

OK, so that was kinda interesting. What good is it? Maybe I can explain in my next post.

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Thursday, September 21, 2006

The Birds and the Bees

Yes, this post is about sex. And biology. And genetics. Think for a few minutes and I bet you can identify some of the wasy that sex, biology, and genetics each influence society and culture.

1. Our attitudes toward sex are really cultural and not biological or genetic. Consider how many people make money with sex toys, pronographic films, dirty magazines, books of sex advice, and so on. People who market these things, intentionally or not, create cultural expectations of what sex should be like. We spread those expaectations when we interact with friends and lovers, or potential lovers. (Ideas that we spread around are called memes.The term was created by evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins.)

2. Some businesses, academics, and writers are trumpeting the impending victory of science and technology over biology. We can soon prevent or cure any genetic disorder. We can prevent most of the problems of aging and even reverse some of the effects. (Sorry, but there is no hope of curing married men of the urge to visit topless bars.) Never mind if those expectations are rooted in facts or wishful thinking or marketing hype. The cultural impacts are real so the reality of the predictions is, sociologically speaking, irrelevant.

3. How long will it be before someone writes an essay or makes a speech and suggests that Arabic men are genetically inferior to Northern European white males?

4. Biology imposes limits on how a society could be organized. We need food, water, and protection from the elements. So, the need to secure food, water, and protection from the elements imposes limits on how many people can live in a given area, what they must do to get food, and how much time and effort is required to cope with the climate. So, biology acting in concert with climate and the local ecology will influence social organization and culture.

Sociology lecture over.

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Tuesday, September 19, 2006

Politics Explained

What explains party politics, campaign promises, broken campaign promises, smear campaigns, political scandals, imaginary political scandals, voting behavior, and public policy? Sociology explains that stuff. Really. Consider these sociological observations:

1. People form groups for all sorts of reasons and to pursue all sorts of goals. Advancing our vision of how society should work is generally going to be a group effort. So, people band together with people who have roughly similar views and form political parties. (Note that this can happen even in places where some or all political parties are outlawed.)

2. The concept of democratic rule predates the United States by at least 2000 years.

3. Politicians make campaign promises that they may or may not be able to keep because other politicians make campaing promises. And we seem to expect these promises to be made, if not kept. The expectation sets up a competitive political environment where nobody dares say  "I'll try real hard to do good things."  or "Realistically, a freshman Representative can't expect to accomplish a whole bunch, but I'll do what I can."

4. Who's to blame for low voter turnout? The lazy people who can't be bothered? Yes, that really is the answer.

5. Political ideas don't just emerge out of somebody's head or from smoke-filled back room. Both of those things are involved but a lot more also goes on here. People evaluate ideas in light of what their audience will like, they get pressure/encouragement/inspiration from interest groups. powerful lobbyists, and books. God help us but politicians also test ideas on focus groups.

Sidebar: You did know that politics involved selling didn't you? Politicians sell their influence and their ideas.

That's enough sociological rambling for today folks!

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Thursday, September 14, 2006

Bad Driving Explained

I was inspired to address this subject by a question someone asked me last night: Why are there so many rude drivers? You probably thought that some people were just selfish and/or stupid.

You were partly right. Since this is a sociology blog so I feel compelled to come up with a few sociological observations.

Several social forces are at work, or not, in the case of rude drivers. Consider the low standard that so many drivers set for us. Its easy to say that I'm not as bad as that chick who cut me off while talking on a cel phone and drinking coffee. Bad drivers seldom experience any negative consequences for their behavior. Sure, they get tickets sometimes. Sometimes bad drivers and the just plain rude drivers get in accidents. Do they take responsibility for themselves? Not always. Nope. It is easy to blame to the "stupid cops" for punishing aggressive drivers to whom natural selection has bequethed control of the roads. Easier still is blaming dumb luck or bad road conditions for your accident.

An unwillingness to own up to one's responsibilities is party psychological and perhaps partly cultural. Conservatives love to complain about how American culture encourages people to blame everyone else for everything. Maybe the conservatives have a point there. Or maybe not.

Getting back to the consequences of bad driving behavior brings up an idea. People seldom get in trouble for being rude or aggressive. Maybe that can change? A honking horn or an obscene gesture aren't going to make an impact. Playing Mad Max with a really rude drive is definitely not a good idea. We need new and informal ways to sanction bad drivers and make them behave. We need something that doesn't require the police to be involved, is not dangerous, is legal, and will make a real impression. Horns and ramming are defnitely out! Cursing and making obscene gestures can get you in trouble, or have no effect whatever.

Any ideas?

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Tuesday, September 12, 2006

What causes terrorism?

The political answer is that terrrorism is caused by evil people who want to kill Americans or at least destroy our democratic, capitalist way of life. That's the sort of garbage that makes me hate politics. But, you and I have both heard similarly witless explanations of terrorism. Here are a few other explanations for terrorism:

1. Terrorists want to martyr themselves and go to heaven. (Where else can a guy get 72 virgins?)

2. The terrorists are people who will do absolutely anything to spread fundamentalist Islam.

3. The terrorists are genetically defective individuals.

4. The terrorists are products of a degenerate, primitive culture.

5. The terrorists are mentally defective individuals.

6. The terrorists are driven to insane behavior by demonic forces.

7. The terrorists are products of a culture that glorifies the struggle against infidels and offers little hope of economic success or stable family life for huge numbers of young people who are poorly educated and under the influence of authoritarian religious leaders who role in society is grounded in centuries of tradition.

8. Who cares! Terrorists are the enemy in a great clash of civilizations!

Guess which explanation is closest to the truth?

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Saturday, September 09, 2006

How Does Society Work?

Money, office politics, biology, sex, genetics, greed, and powerful organizations are the reasons that things happen in society. Hmmm...

How does society really work? I'm hoping you've wondered about this as much as I have. The answers are all around us, on TV, in conversations with friends, on talk radio, in the newspapers. Stick with me for a few minutes and I'll show you how all of those "explanations" come up short.

We can easily be sold an overly simplified explanation of how things work. People are busy. People are focused on day-to-day concerns and are ready to accept any seemingly reasonable explanation. Money and special interest groups drive politics. Greed and selfishness explain why environmental problems persist.

Those short answers contain elements of truth. Money, interest groups (not just political interest groups), and psychology all contribute to our society being one way and not another. Oh, and so does the natural environment. Geography is also be involved.

What else? Well, blind chance plays a part in things. The culture - beliefs, values, technologies, symbolism, laws, unwritten rules - also influences the way a society works. Relationships between people and groups also shape a society. History is also involved; nothing just happens in a historical vacuum. Biology, not just genetics, is also involved in making a society work the way it does. There are interaction effects between biology, geography, natural environment, psychology, culture, relationships, and chance.

Yeah, that's pretty abstract. In future posts, I'll bring things down to earth using real-world events. This being election season I may feel compelled to comment on the politicians' ideas - do they pass my social pollution test?  Finally, I'll try to explain what you can really do with all of this knowledge.

Question: Does anyone really do anything for money? (My answer is "no" but I'll save the explanation for a future post.)

A closing question: Why are people in the United States not like people in Pakistan? If you can answer that question in a rigorous way you deserve a Ph.D. in Sociology. Or, at least you can be a guest columnist.

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Tuesday, September 05, 2006

Miscellaneous Thoughts

Election season has officially started. The advertising season started a bit earlier than the Labor Day weekend opening of "election season." You probably know that if you watch television or read the newspaper. This seems like a good time to remind people of a few important facts about politics.

1. Politicians lie.

2. Politicians want to get in office and stay in office.

3. One can be sure that some politicians believe their own stories

4. Politicians generally traffic in slogans and stories that pander to one side or another, rather than coming up with reasonable ideas and showing us why the ideas are reasonable.

Politicians can lie and tell us meaningless stories because we are all distracted. We hear facts and anecdotes that support our liberal or conservative view of the world. We don't take much time to reflect, so we tend to believe the stories and facts that support our own worldview. We vote accordingly.

Sociological consequences: Public policy is created that has no significant effect or that makes things worse. The government vomits money all over the place. We elect people who have grandiose ideas about their places in the world. That grandiosity, to the extent that its contradicted by facts, makes us waste money and energy.

One could argue that our current conservative leadership is motivated by a fantasy that centers on leading an epic struggle of Christianity against fundamentalist Islam.  I am not arguing that the war on terror is pointless, only that we are overreaching to say this is an epic struggle between Christianity and fundamentalist Islam. How much money and energy are being wasted on a conflict that, while serious, is definitely not in the same league as World War II.

Maybe I can explain these ideas in more detail. I'll just have to pay attention to political advertising. I think everyone else should do the same. Everyone should also reread my posts on social pollution so politicians' ideas are easier to evaluate.

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