Thursday, July 09, 2009

Social Facts and the Media

Jonathan Verson of Dead Horse and Hugo Zoom made some interesting points about my claim that class-based insecurity was a motive force in contemporary American culture. (His post is titled "Security State," a double entendre that gets him instant credibility here at the Playground.) He makes two points that I think are worth playing with.

The first is a point TheWife also made when she and I discussed the idea behind this post last week. He argues,

"I think there's a bit more to it than that, since this is, to an extent, one of those "people are so X because of Y" arguments, when in fact our society is increasingly less homogeneous and that argument, irrespective of the particulars you replace X and Y with, gets increasingly harder to make."
The point here is that my claim is too broad to be true or meaningful (pick a strength), society is more complicated and when you talk about individuals there is so much variability, that social generalizations of this sort are bound to miss the mark.

I see my claim coming out of the tradition of Emile Durkheim who argues that there are social facts concerning individual behaviors that are as, if not more important than biographical/psychological facts about the individual. He argues in his book Suicide, that even this most personal of acts which no doubt every individual who attempted or succeeded undertook for his or her own reasons that were tied to his or own individual life context is conditioned by sociological factors. He considers religion and shows that suicide rates were significantly higher in Protestant countries than in Catholic countries and in countries with mixed populations, Protestants were much more likely than Catholics to take their own lives. Surely, there is a causal mechanism here related to something in the institutions, power structures, and foundational beliefs within the group that played a role.

Verson, like theWife, is arguing, if I get him right, that while Durkheim might have had something, he was dealing with much more homogeneous societies; so even if there are operative social forces, the complexity of contemporary American society makes simple claims like mine oversimplifying.

To some degree this is correct. There are places where I make the claim in a fashion that is stronger than I am entitled to. But, I do think the underlying argument is cogent. While we are a heterogeneous society, we are also a starkly polarized one, especially after the overt political intents of the last administration where the strategy was to try to do away with the political center and create a radical cleave in the population with the belief that conservative voters are more likely to turn out on election day than those constituencies that traditionally vote Democratic. Rove's strategy when combined with Luntz's wordsmithing worked. We have become a culture divided and there are, I think, definite differences in the basic stance towards life and society that are shared on either side of the divide.

There is a reason why "elite" has become a four-letter word for a significant part of the country and a goal for the other. Working class conservatives bristle at anything branded that way while at the same time middle-class parents try to send their kids to everything from pre-school through college at an institution so labeled as elite. To play David Brooks here, upper middle class families tend to prefer the more nutritious and sophisticated leafy greens like arugula where such snubbing of the flavorless iceberg variety is used as evidence of being out of touch for those in a different socio-economic place. Why does that work? Insecurity seems the best explanation. Ever been to a dinner that a bit fancier than you are used to? Feel insecure? You betcha.

My daughter was incensed when a member of my son's little league team scoffed at soccer "Who plays THAT?" Where I live (an extremely conservative working class part of Maryland), boys play football and girls cheer for boys playing football. The contact makes you a man in their eyes. It makes you base, common to the more well off where soccer is the sport, in part because it shows a worldliness, a cosmopolitanism. Football, on the other hand, is purely American and not only has the macho factor, but a provincial pull in line with the knee-jerk "we're number 1," "America: right or wrong" type attitude that comes with the nationalistic aspect of conservatism as opposed to the internationalist impulse of the liberal point of view. There is a reason why you find Indian, Thai, and Ethiopian restaurants in certain places and KFCs and McDonalds in others. Italian, Chinese, and Mexican foods have become safe, but beyond that is to be elite.

Are these generalizations overgeneralizations? I don't think so, but there's question one for everyone.

The second interesting point Verson makes is that where such homogeneity does exist, it may be artificially stoked by the media.
"it would be interesting to explore the ways that popular media reinforces our more reactionary traits and deliberately avoids discussing contrasting qualities we have."
Chicken or egg? Are these divisions here beforehand and then played to by the media, are they small rips in the pantyhose of society that the media turns into large runs, or are they created by them whole cloth for the purposes of marketing and/or pleasing certain powerful constituencies?

Hmmmm. Good stuff.