Monday, October 30, 2006

Why Are People Afraid of Ghosts?

That's not really a sociological question but it does raise some sociological questions.

According to an article I read in last week's Time magazine, 37% of Americans believe that houses can really be haunted. (Did the research organization really get a good cross-section of the American public when they asked that question? Who knows.) I wonder how we compare with the populations of other rich, industrialized nations.

I wonder how religion and education level affect belief in haunted houses. I'll go way out on a limb and say the less religious you are the more likely you subscribe to a materialistic worldview that doesn't allow for the existence of ghosts and magic. I'll also guess that as education increases, belief in education decreases. So, maybe 5% of people with graduate degrees believe in haunted houses while 60% of high school dropouts think that houses can be haunted. Why do I think so> Well, maybe getting more education is related to having a more "rational" worldview, one that tends to make people dismiss things like ghosts and magic.

Halloween is based on a pagan holiday, if I remember my history correctly. The pagan holiday was then co-opted by the Catholic church and turned into something called All-Souls Day, which I think was actually observed on November 1st. (Sorry to say that I am just too busy and tired to do any research tonight.). Of course that Pagan and Christian stuff was tossed out the window as society started to turn away from religion. 

Yes, I guess Americans are still quite religious compared with Europeans. Or are we? I sometimes wonder how much of this "religiosity" is just an act. How often are our "Christian" sentiments just kneejerk reactions programmed into us when our parents could still make us go to church? How often are our "Christian" attitudes toward social issues like ga marriage really just the product of manipulation by political and religious elites? But I digress...

Anyway, now that the various religious associations with this extra-spooky time of the year have fallen away we are left with costume parties, treak-or-treating, and 5647 types of Halloween candy. And about 1/3 of that candy will be on sale beginning November 1. Yum.

When did we start playing tricks on people and asking for treats? Yes, I played some tricks as a kid. But being either a baby or a sugar addict, I tended to focus on the candy. Yum. Ever noticed that trick-or-treat time has changed? well, probably not unless you are over 30. Seems like it was normal for kids to go around the neighborhood asking for candy. Now, I think, most kids only go to organized Halloween events like events at malls. Yawn.

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Sunday, October 29, 2006

Want to Change the World? Keep These Thoughts in Mind

Solving the world's problems will require some new ideas and some effective selling of many ideas. Taking advantage of opportunities to improve things that are okay now will also take new ideas. That's easy enough to see.

But what counts as a good idea? If you don't know then you can't really say whether your idea is any good. Many factors are really involved here, though we may want to oversimplify the evaluation process and simply assert that we have a good idea ("My idea will be good for women." "My idea will force people to save energy.").

I've written about the characteristics of social pollution before. We obviously want our world-changing ideas to be the opposite of social pollution. We want our "good" ideas to be scientically sound (wherever there is some relevant science), logical, and consistent with widely held human values like freedom, family, and health.

One more element we need to consider is the set of abstract principles that also need to be considered. I'd like to offer a preliminary list of principles to keep in mind as you create an idea and try to sell it to the world:

1. Decision making is emotional not rational.

2. Canging perceptions will be more effective than appealing to emotions or to cold facts.

3. People will work harder to avoid a loss than to achieve a gain.

4. People who benefit from an idea should also bear the costs.

5. Look for ways to gain leverage over an issue, to get the maximum effect per unit of money or time.

6. All changes in society will have unintended consequences, good and bad.

7. People always want to know what's in it for them.

8. Opportunities, rather than perceived problems, are a legitimate focus.

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Saturday, October 28, 2006

All About Shopping Malls

Macy's, Hechts, Sears, "cool" specialty stores, Christmas sales, model railroad shows, baseball card shows, and so much more! This is why people love going to the shopping mall. Or maybe the convenience of having so many different places to shop at one location is the real reason. Maybe, shopping malls are popular because Fortune 500 executives and government officials have colluded to turn us into mindless, yet efficient, consumers of the dazzling array of mostly useless stuff that can be found at the local mall.

So, in about 400 words I'm going to cover everything the budding social theorist (social critic, culture critic) will want to know about the sociology of shopping malls.

1. Why do teenagers like to hang out at malls? I assume that teenagers still like to do this. The sociological explanation may be simply that there are other teenagers and they are all (generally) at the mall without their parents. Freedom, movies, junk food, friends, and romantic opportunities can all be found at the mall on a Friday night!

2. Why are multi-level malls have stairs and escalators spread around the mall that way? If you often visit medium to large shopping malls you probably notcied that pattern that down escalators are often located some distance apart. You have to walk through part of a level to get to the escalator to the level you want to reach. Probably, mall designers want to force you to walk around and look at more stuff. The more stuff you have to look at, the more likely you are to buy something on impulse.

3. How many malls are there in the United States? Mmm, at the moment I'm not able to think of anywhere you could look for that number? Perhaps Googling "shopping malls in the United States" and "number" would work.

4. How are malls changing? Are there more now than at some particular time in the past? Are there fewer malls today? I suppose there is some year before which nobody was trying to keep count of the number of malls in the United States. You can bet that somebody, somewhere has been keeping track.

5. Why do malls have so many features in common? All shopping malls have some of these features: food court, movie theaters, customer service/information desk, security, stroller rental, "anchor stores" (big department stores like Sears), kiosks, vending machines, ATMs, and Christmas decorations. Malls generally host community events like the aforementioned model railroad shows and baseball card shows. At least 50% of shopping malls that have Christmas decorations put them up in the same week (second week of November?).

You can bet that most of the architects and managers grew up in North America and went to American universities, where they learned the same things about design and about the "proper" design of a shopping mall. These same people probably belong to the same social networks and so are exposed to the same sorts of ideas. When they do surveys of what mall tenants and visitors want, they will get answers from people with relatively similar sets of ideas about what a proper shopping mall should offer.

6. Are shopping malls good or evil? Well, shopping malls are mindless objects and cannot, at least in theory, be good or evil. As a "social technology" designed to efficiently sell goods and services malls might be considered good. The shopping mall appears to be a very popular social innovation. Maybe things like shopping malls can be justifiably labeled "good" or "evil" because of the intentions of their creators, or because of their social consequences. Whether an object can truly be good or evil, in any sense of those words, is a deep (and rather boring) philosphical issue.

I'll stick with the sociological questions about shopping malls. As one would expect, some people are critical of the shopping mall. Why? Well, aside from the environmental impact implied by all that paved-over land and all that traffic, the collection of chain stores at malls tends to wreck the homegrown downtown shopping experience that so many old people and you small-town people are familiar with.

Other observers of contemporary society point out that shopping malls perform many of the same social functions as those quaint downtowns: places to shop, places to socialize, and places to have community events. Maybe the fact that these things tend to be done differently at a mall is really a problem. Maybe the quality and quantity of social interactions at a mall don't measure up to what people had in the old downtown shopping district. Or maybe not. Maybe the criticism of shopping malls is just some conservative (or reaction against social change.

OK, next time I'm going to post the inevitable Halloween blog. The specific subject would be a secret if I knew the specific subject, which I don't.

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Tuesday, October 24, 2006

Fitness Center Sociology

Exercise, YMCAs, gyms, health clubs, rock climbing gyms (like the Sportrock chain here in the DC area) raise bunces of questions about culture, organizations, economics, relationships, and psychology. I think that I'll concentrate on raising some of the questions and suggesting ways that the questions could be researched.

How many gyms per 100,000 people are there in the United States? How does this fugure compare with the figures for Canada, Australia, Japan, and the European Union. I'm going to suggest that Europeans are less interested in the sorts of activities that a gym typically offers - aerobics classes, weight training, exercise bikes. You can't smoke and sip a coffee on an exercise bike (Just a joke people!). Anyway, Europeans tend to spend more time walking and bike riding because gas is very expensive and their cities tend to be less car-friendly. Owning a car also tends to be much, much more expensive! 

What percent of adults in the United States belong to a gym or health club? How does that figure compare with other rich industrialized nations? Is the trend up or down, or has the percentage stayed pretty stable? Why have things worked out that way? What social, cultural, and psychological factors are involved?

If you want to look at trends, what years offer good starting points and ending points?. As an endpoint 2005 makes sense because figures for the whole year are almost certainly available. But where do you begin? Maybe there is a year before which nobody was trying to collect membership data. You could always get estimates from some trade association. Just be sure to check the method that they used to make their estimates! Trade associations might inflate the figures to make the industry look more important than it really is.

Another critical question suggests itself: To what extent are these centers really contributing to health and fitness as opposed to pandering to our media-driven desire for a certain "sexy" body type? 

So, much for the "big" questions about fitness centers. Now, the process of using the facilities at your local gym is also sociological in many ways. Some of those ways are kinda boring, at least for me, so I'll skip right to the interesting part. How do the rules at a fitness center become rules anyway? Some rules are simple efforts to protect the equipment or to comply with local regulations. Some rules may be designed to protect the facility from lawsuits.

Some rules serve an obvious purpose, but it might be interesting to discover where they came from and how they became common. Two examples of these sorts of rules will make my point and maybe help you to think of other, similar rules. First, gym users are requested to wipe off the equipment after using it. Second, users of strength training machines are expected to take turns if someone is waiting.

Next time: The sociology of shopping malls! Bring your credit card and wear sensible shoes!

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Thursday, October 19, 2006

Pedestrian Traffic Jams

I could have titled this post "The Sociology of Walking" but that isn't terribly interesting. So, now you know the actual subject of my post - the sociology of walking. (If this were a thesis or dissertation I might title it "The Sociology of Walking with Special Emphasis on the Phenomenon of Stoppages in Pedestrian Traffic Flows." If anyone needs a thesis title or subject you are welcome to use that one!)

How many of you generally follow these sorts of rules:

1. Walk on the right

2. On an escalator, walk on the left and stand on the right (Yes that really is a rule!)

3. Exit from the back of the bus if people are waiting to board the bus

What other rules can you think of? Think about rules for opening doors to public buildings, to using crosswalks, and for paying attention to what you are doing.

"Sunday" walkers really aren't paying attention. They just saunter along blissfully unaware that other people may be focused on getting somewhere. I honestly think their behavior is just a temporary lapse in walker etiquette. And other people are just too fat or lazy to move any faster. The old and infirm are a different matter because they can't help but be a tad slow. Many Sunday walkers are just being rude though.

Some of the Sunday walkers also like to stop at the top or bottom of an escalator for no apparent reason. Happily for we heavy users of Metro, these people rarely act up during rush hour.

The phenomenon of the Sunday walker leads me, clumsily, to a discussion of pedestrian traffic jams. I'm going to theorize that pedestrian traffic jams happen when three conditions are satisfied: (1) One or more people insist on moving more slowly than the crowd, (2) there is any sort of bottleneck, like a kiosk or a bench, the obstructs the flow of traffic, and (3) the area has reached a certain critical density level that makes it hard for individuals to manuever. I could say more about the dynamics, and the parallels with motor vehicle traffic, but I think that is enough information for one blog post.

Strange but true: Some sociologist or anthropologist has almost certainly studied pedestrian traffic jams. Maybe somebody feels energetic enough to locate the research. Maybe somebody who needs a thesis topic will feel moved to investigate my ideas about pedestrian traffic jams.

That's about all I've got to say about walking. Next time I'll tackle the sociology of the gym! Be sure to dress appropriately for that class!

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Tuesday, October 17, 2006

United States Population tops 300,000,000!

So, what does this mean sociological, economically, and ecologically? Economically, it means there are more potential buyers of my books :-) For the environment, well the meaning of this momentus event is up for debate. Sociologically, hitting the 300 million mark is of no real consequence unless we make it so. The country is not significantly more diverse today than yesterday. Cultural and economic opportunities have not expanded greatly in the past 24 hours. The change, if there was any, probably would have been the same even if the population slipped by 0.034% in the past 24 hours?

Hmmm, so what is the percentage difference in the country's population compared with yesterday at this time (8:22)?

The mass media: Well, they have to talk about something don't they? This symbolic but not important event gave the networks a little something to fill the airwaves for awhile.

The environmental impact of a large, growing, and rich population is something worth talking about. And I did read about the subject in Washington Post Express yesterday. The environmental significance of this population milestone is negligible. But if our population keeps growing, and buying SUVs and houses in the 'burbs, things could get pretty bad.

Maybe they could get pretty bad. I'm not entirely convinced. Scientists seem to think that global climate change is real, and is really fueled by human activity. If so, our high level of fossil fuel use can't continue. With the population growing and the standard of living steady or increasing for many people increased fossil fuel use seems inevitable. 

Anyway, our impact on the environment will depend more on lifestyle choices and policies than on sheer numbers. Maybe we can eat fewer imported foods, consume less meat, walk more, live in condos or apartment buildings, and that sort of "green" stuff. I should hope so! I'd love to buy a condo in a super green building. I'm not interested in giving up meat though.

Population growth also means the country is getting more crowded. They just aren't making land anymore, and gobbling up one's weak neighbors to get more land is socially unacceptable these days. We'll just have to accept the increasingly crowded malls, highways, and supermarkets. But the United States isn't densely populated compared with most of Western Europe, Japan, Singapore, Indonesia, India, Bangladesh, Israel, Gaza, and China.

So much for the idea of a population crisis in the United States!

Next Time: How Can People Create a Pedestrian Traffic Jam?

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Thursday, October 05, 2006

Why Do People Do What They Do?

How does one answer that question in a short blog post, or even several short posts? Such a feat is not really possible. I can offer a few random thoughts on why some carelessly selected and unrelated phenomena occur. The answers, as I like to think of them, are not what you were probably expecting. Some of my answers may confuse or offend. That's okay because reality can be confusing or offensive.

So, two random questions and answers:

1. Why do men love football? It gives them something in common with other guys. This sense of commonality engenders the trust that's needed in social relationships and in business. (It is comparatively hard to trust some slightly bitter loner who sits at home at night and writes eggheaded stuff.)

2. Why do women watch soap operas? See above.

And, some random observations:

  • Our individual decisions to do stuff, or not do stuff, can influence society in many ways. Sometimes the influences are obvious in particular cases and sometimes things take a bit of effort to understand..

  • That nutjob in Pennsylvania who killed the Amish children has made a mark on society.

  •  People who watch infomercials are building a society that keeps producing informercials for products and services ranging from the useless (colloidal silver) to the ridiculous (no down payment real estate investing).

  • Teenage guys car surf because they are rewarded by other young people - you know who you are!

  • Why do guys insist on acting like pigs? Because they tend to be rewarded with sex, probably by the same women who complain..

  • Why do guys buy flashy sports cars and hot motorcycles? Three reasons: sex; social status; a cultural rule that says this is an appropriate way for a man to express his personality and show of his wealth.

So, the individual decisions we make to do things or not do things, or to reward or punish add up in ways we don't always think about.

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Tuesday, October 03, 2006

Helping People Make Better Decisions(r)

Voters, politicians, consumers, activists, managers and the rest of us all make choices regularly. We make choices about legislation (Shall I vote for it or against it?), where to live, what car to buy, what politicians to vote for, whether to bother voting at all, and a bunch of other stuff. You get the picture.

My topic for the past two posts has been the common human question "What should I do?" and the ways in which our answers depend on much more than free will. Now I want to offer a few (potentially) practical thoughts and put this subject to bed.

My ideas relate to creating a social environment where people are encouraged to make better decisions. One of the big influences on decisions is what sociologists call the "generalized other" - a fancy term for the cultural expectations and judgements that we're exposed to throughout life. Our childhood is another important factor in our decision making.

So, here are six suggestions for creating a social environment that encourages better decision making.

1. Create and promote new ideas -specifically, we need people who can create and sell new decision rules, like the rule about avoiding synthetic chemicals or the rule about never taking "hot" stock tips.

2. Boycott men's and women's lifestyle magazines - I never read the women's magazines, but the men's magazines tend to promote fantasy images of what a man's body, sex life, income, and wardrobe should be like. I suspect that the equivalent women's magazines are just as harmful.

3. Advertising regulations - Libertarians please don't read this! We should ban AL:L advertising for alcohol, tobacco, and gambling.The net effects on society of those three things are so negative that we should not allow companies to market them through the usual channels. That brings me to ...

4. Banning product placements - Companies should not be allowed to place their alcohol and tobacco products in movies.

5. Critical thinking skills - teach 'em in school

6. Moral education - GASP! CHOKE! Yes, I think kids should be taught to understand widely held human values (like freedom and family), why those values are so common, and how they can be undermined by our personal decisions, by corporations, by governments, by religions, and by secular interest groups.

So, your homework assignment is to take one of my six ideas and make something happen! I'll expect to see a progress report monthly beginning on 11/04. 

(r) Obviously, the (r) is a joke here! I can't register some generic-sounding blog title. Or can I?

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