Will we See an Upswing in America’s Social Capital?

Social trust in America is at all time lows, but can this be reversed?

The Covid-19 Pandemic, and Capitol-Hill Insurrection following President Biden’s election victory seem to indicate that America is more socially disconnected and politically divided than ever.

In Bowling Alone (1995), Robert Putnam famously argued that levels of trust and social capital had been declining in American society since the 1960s and recent events seem to suggest that this trend has just continued towards new lows.

Social capital refers to the amount of connections we have outside of the family and work – Bowling alone being a metaphor the decreasing amount of shared social activities people engaged in.

A strongly related concept is Trust, which is something the PEW research centre measures regularly, and the latest stats suggest very low levels of trust among younger people in particular in America:

However, despite this 60 year decline, there is hope that we can turn this around and move to a more connected society again.

in Recent publication by Robert Putnam: The UpSwing he investigated the levels of social capital in America over a longer time frame, more than a century in this case, using four indicators to measure social capital…

  • Political polarisation – how wide apart our political opinions and voting patterns are
  • Economic inequality – how big is the gap between the richest and poorest
  • Social isolation – how much interaction is there outside of the family and work
  • cultural intolerance – to what extent to we accept cultural diversity?

Back at the turn of the century, in 1900 social capital (measured by the above four indicators) had been as low as it is today, but around 1910, the American society turned a corner and began an ‘upswing’. They started to move towards a society which was more connected, more economically equal and more focussed on what brought them together rather than on what divided them.

Back in the early 20th century there was a big focus on social darwinism, most people believed in ‘individual salvation’, but this was replaced gradually with the idea of social obligation to others, and in this upswing, increasing social capital came first at the grass roots, last in Washington.

So maybe if they’ve done it before, The United States can learn lessons from the past and once again start to move towards being a more connected society?

Problems with the last upswing

Putnam suggests that that old ‘we’ was a racist – it didn’t extend to non-whites and the rise of individualism from the 1960s coincides with the rise of Civil Rights and the backlash against this.

So there was a lot of ‘agreeing about things’ and ‘working together’ at the grass-roots level, but there was also an underbelly of racism which resulted in a gradual increase in more visible individualism and social division.

Putnam also points out that ‘too much we can be bad’ As in the 1950s…. with McCarthyism and too much conformity.

So is there hope for a more connected America?

The Pandemic has shown us that there are some things which cannot be tackled if you just focus on your self, which may spur America towards a more socially connected future.

HOWEVER, the issue of Race in America is huge, and it’s hard to see just how this going to be resolve itself into a ‘diverse-we’ from the current situation.

And the sheer level of economic inequality can’t help things either.

I’m kind of left wondering if this isn’t an old-man Putnam just trying to be optimistic in his old age and at least give the next generation some kind of (false?) hope that life might get better?

Signposting and Sources

This post should be of interest to students studying Functionalist Theory as part of the Theory and Methods module in the second year of A-level sociology.

To my mind it can best be used as a criticism of the concept that society’s today are characterised by social integration. Despite Putnam’s optimism I’m not convinced the USA will now start to move towards more social integration.

This is a summary of this Thinking Allowed Podcast.

Robert D Putnam is the Malkin Research Professor of Public Policy at Harvard University

Social Exclusion in British Tennis

So we’ve got a new Wimbledon Champion in waiting in the form of Emma Radacanu – but don’t get too excited, she doesn’t break the trend of the English Middle Class Norm. .

For a start, Radacanu grew up and started playing tennis in Canada, where social class is much less entrenched, and in any case her mother (Chinese) and farther (Romanian), neither of whom are from Britain originally, and both of whom work in Finance, are firmly part of the global middle class, who just happen to be resident in Britain ATM.

So she just carries on the middle-class tradition in British Tennis…. all the way back as far as I can remember until Tim Henman who was quintissentially middle class – home counties, dad a solicitor, privately educated, own tennis court in his back garden.

No, it seems that elite tennis just isn’t for the working classes.

There’s an interesting study from 2008 that explored why this is: Social Exclusion in British Tennis: A History of Privilege and Prejudice.

It explores the history using a literature review and ethnography in one local tennis club, and it’s the later I find the most interesting.

The author found that members of the club would enforce a set of social norms beyond playing the game that worked to exclude non established members – for example it was frowned upon to not have a drink after a game, but in the bar established members rarely spoke to newer members.

Appropriate etiquette was also a big deal, meaning appropriate middle class norms of behaviour.

It’s noted that the grass courts were kept open for any member and their children to be able to play on during the summer, but these were heavily policed by senior middle class women, and children had the lowest status in the club, they were hardly encouraged to play.

The ethnography doesn’t extend to professional tennis, which may well be class-neutral, but the point is, tennis clubs are one of the few means whereby people without their own tennis courts at home are going to be able to get into tennis, and this local tennis club blocked ordinary children from being able to do this.

The primary function of this club seemed to be for middle class women to exercise their power and status over others, through ignoring and excluding those they deemed to be inferior, which was pretty much anyone not like them.

Relevance to A-level sociology

This is quite useful for illustrating aspects of cultural capital theory and yet another reminder of how social class permeates so many aspects of British life.

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16-24 year olds hit hardest by Coronavirus Pandemic

How has coronavirus affected the young?

The government’s response to the Coronavirus Pandemic primarily focused on protecting the very old, who have the highest chance of dying with (although not necessarily from) Covid-19 if they catch it.

However, the drastic lock down strategy introduced back in March 2020, which closed all schools in England and Wales as well as many work places for several months has left children ad young adults ‘scarred for life’ according to many experts within SAGE (The Scientific Advisory Group on Emergencies), as summarised in this Guardian article.

Children have been negatively impacted through their schools being closed for 4 months, with some being hit further by local lockdowns more recently in September and October.

While schools did put in place online learning programmes, the quality of these varied from school to school and many children have been left 6 months behind with their learning, having now to catch up.

Then there’s the damage done to children’s social development – with their not being able to go out for 4 months and socialise face to face, and the added stress and uncertainty of just being subject to the ‘covid-climate’ in Britain (it hasn’t exactly been a fun or easy going year has it?!?).

If there’s any truth in Sue Palmer’s theory about toxic childhood, keeping children indoors for extended periods most definitely wouldn’t have done their mental health any good, which is something the SAGE experts are particularly concerned about!

While it might seem that 16 and 18 year olds who sat exams in 2020 got of relatively lightly because of their school predicted grades being inflated, let’s not forget that this would have been stressful and unpleasant for many of them, and we’ve now also got about 10% of these students enrolled on A-level programmes or degrees their probably not qualified to do because of their inflated grades, so there’s probably going to be higher failure rates and drop-out rates to come later this year.

Where young adults are concerned (18-24s) this age group has been most affected by the increase in unemployment in the wake of the Pandemic:

(The graphic shows 16-24s, but there aren’t that many under 18s in employment, so it’s mainly 18-24 year olds)

I guess this is because they are more likely to be working in the kinds of sectors which have been hit hardest by the virus – namely the hospitality sector, and while Furlough would have offered some protection, many hospitality sectors businesses are now starting to fold as consumers are just more reluctant to eat and drink out.

Looking at the longer term – if we have a recession, it’s likely to be younger people that suffer more as they struggle with the legacy of a disrupted education and fewer opportunities to get their first jobs.

Relevance to A-level sociology

Age stratification isn’t a major topic in most options, but perhaps it should be, as this is a great example of how the young seem to be suffering more than any other age group.

It certainly shows the limitations of the government’s capacity to deal with a crisis. Anthony Giddens famously said that Nation States are too small to deal with global problems – and here we have a government simply not having the resources to help everyone in society when faced with a global pandemic.

IF you think we need the government to help us through this mess, then this is a criticism of neoliberalism, which argues for less government.

However, you might just regard such reports as the one linked above by The Guardian as part of an exaggerated risk consciousness, and think that maybe young people haven’t been harmed at all by this crisis – maybe they are perfectly capable of being innovative and adapting to this crisis in new ways we haven’t even thought about yet?!?

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CoronaVirus: A very divisive virus?

The CoronaVirus seems to be dividing us

While our national response to CoronaVirus has been couched in terms of ‘working together to beat this’,  ‘solidarity’ and ‘social responsibility’, I don’t think our collective response to this virus can be characterised as ‘acting in solidarity’ or ‘enhancing social integration’.

Rather, I think the short- and long-term result of the Virus and our response to it is leading to more social fragmentation and division.

There is a lot of case study and statistical evidence you can use to back up this analysis:

In the initial phases of the ‘emergency response’ there was plenty of evidence of people not obeying the government advice of ‘social distancing’ – plenty of photos of people in buys Parks and crammed tube carriages for example, duly shared on twitter and other social media sites.  

Then there’s the most recent government’s orders that we should all stay indoors, with a handful of exceptions such as for exercise and food shopping, during which time we all need to keep 2 metres apart from each other.

You might interpret this as ‘solidarity’ – all ‘distancing together’, but TBH I don’t think we can characterize us NOT doing things as solidarity.  For the most part, people are staying indoors, isolated in their private life-worlds.

Yes, we can stay connected via social media and our Smart T.V.s, but this is a very selective kind of social interaction, we aren’t ‘rubbing up against’ people in public space anymore, at least not for the foreseeable future.  

What we are seeing are new norms about social interaction – people view each other as potential carriers of the virus and thus a potential threat to their own health.

Maybe there is a new kind of uniting against the social pariahs who do not social distance? This article outlines how there have been social media campaigns shaming people ‘not doing their bit by keeping their distance’…. But that strikes me as a very weak kind of solidarity, at about the same level as online petitions.

Then of course there’s the evidence of so many people just looking out for themselves – by stockpiling food, leaving the shelves empty for others!

The response the Virus is set to be even more divisive

Public sector workers (bizarrely) do quite well (at least for now) by keeping their pay, private sector workers get 80%, but the self-employed seemed to have been left to their own devices.

Those on lower incomes and in precarious employment are likely to suffer the most of course, as these do not have the funds to tied them over a reduction income in the short term and maybe further cuts to hours and pay in the long term as a recession is likely.

Meanwhile I have no doubt that there will be  a massive bail-out coming for the banks and Corporations, again, like in 2008.

All of this means that the young will probably pick up the tab as decreasing tax revenues and increasing government debt in future months will be managed by cuts to public services and probably pensions.

Finally, from a global perspective, I don’t imagine travelling abroad is going to be easy or welcomed by people in other countries – there may be more hostility towards tourists, let alone asylum seekers after this.

Final thoughts…

To make this sociologically relevant, I think CoronaVirus is a great example of an event that suggests Functionalist analysis is no longer relevant to understanding late-modern society.

TBH I’m not sure what perspectives are relevant to understanding this – I guess it’s an extreme example of how we manage Risk, so maybe Beck’s Risk Society thesis, maybe also Giddens – I think it was him who said Nation States were too small to tackle global problems, and this seems to be the case here!

Unless this current situation is the best we can do?

The Sociology of Halloween 2019

Halloween’s not a huge deal in the United Kingdom, but it is still an annual festival/ ritual that everyone recognizes, and I imagine most people can relate to it having gone trick or treating as kid?

At the very least you’ll likely be exposed to it via Strictly’s Halloween Special.

Some stats on Halloween

  • One third of Brits believe in ghosts, spirits or other paranormal activity
  • Britain is divided on Halloween – over half (56%) of the public say they won’t be celebrating it!
  • Britain is also divided over trick or treat – 40% think it’s harmless fun, but 38% would feel unsafe opening the doors to strangers.
  • Only 11% of Brits say they’ll be dressing up to go to a party.
  • Despite the low numbers of people who celebrate it, expenditure on Halloween has been increasing in recent years, and is now around the £400 million mark!

Sociological Perspectives Applied to Halloween

Functionalist Durkheim argued that national rituals are worth analyzing as they can reveal something about the collective conscience of a society – I think this is true to an extent: it’s now more commercialized than ever and the relatively high levels of fear of trick and treat are a reminder that we live in a ‘risk society’ .

However, more than anything the poll results show how divided we are as a nation, and how privatized – we’re split over Halloween, just like we are over Brexit, and it seems it’s mostly a private affair, rather than a public celebration, as evidenced in the fact that trick or treating is in decline.

Going back to Strictly, maybe that’s it for most of us – we experience Halloween like how we experience so many other things in life – through celebrities having a jolly old time playing dress up, while we cower indoors with the lights off to ward off the trick or treat threat?!

Maybe Halloween does offer us a commentary on social life today after all, just not the kind you’re likely to see revealed in an opinion poll.

Sources

Generation Anxious

700 000 children in the U.K. are currently registered with an emotional disorder, that’s 7.2%, of 5-19 year olds, or about 1 in 13, according to a recent survey by NHS Digital.

emotional disorders NHS

And that’s just those children who have been formally diagnosed. That figure of 7.2% represents those children who have reached the clinical diagnoses threshold – where their distress impairs them so much that it gets in the way of their daily functioning.

The Children’s society says there are many who can’t get help because their problems are not serious enough, maybe as many as 3-4 times the above figure.

Mental health disorders have a huge economic impact, costing the UK 4% of GDP.

In this blog post I summarize a recent podcast from Radio Four’s ‘Bringing Up Britain: Generation Anxious’ which explores why so many of today’s children suffer with anxiety.

The show explores various possible contributors such as social media, pressurized exams, genetics and parents passing on their own worries to their children, as well as changing cultural norms which remove children’s agency.

What is anxiety?

Anxiety is the buzz word of the moment, but the anxiety which stops children going to school is different to butterflies in tummies before going on stage at the school play. The word covers both, a human experience we all feel and a clinical diagnosis.

The later type of ‘ordinary’ anxiety can be helpful in some senses, and anxiety is a normal response to stress and entirely normally developmentally – e.g. up to the age of three separation anxiety is normal as are phobias for pre-school children, and for teens there is a heightened sense of awareness of our selves and how others see us.

In order to be diagnosed with an anxiety disorder, the level of distress must be so debilitating that one cannot function – it’s where you can’t face going out because you’re so anxious.

There are also different types of anxiety: such as social anxiety – not being able to be scrutinized without going bright red, and generalized anxieties – about anything that can go wrong, for example.

If you get serious anxiety as a child, it harms your development – you’re behind your peers and with schoolwork, and it’s reinforcing – the more you get behind, then the more there is to be anxious about!

Anxiety Increases with age, more common with girls, strong link to deprivation and family history. It’s also affect by personality types – some are more cautious and socially shy.

What is it that’s making children feel more anxious?

Social context is important – not so long ago, children would be out playing at ages 6-7, away from their parents, developing a sense of their own agency, but we’ve now starved them of these chances to be independent in primary school – primary schools forbid children to travel their alone – hence why secondary school is now seen as more of a challenge!

It could also be parents are increasingly transferring their anxieties onto their children – linked to the fact that there are too many experts telling parents what to do and the increased pressure on ‘getting parenting right’ – anxious parents makes anxious children: they do share an environment, after all!

A recent column in The Times likened GCSEs to a type of child abuse, but increased exam pressure is dismissed as being linked to increasing anxiety, because we’ve been doing them for thousands of years, and they’re probably less stressful now than they were 30 years ago.

However, it doesn’t help that children are more sensitive about the future nowadays and that more creative subjects which many children prefer are now squeezed out in favour of English and Maths.

The show also considers the effect of Social Media – it makes sense because your social media presence is fundamentally linked to your social identity – and it doesn’t switch off, and this is especially likely to impact teens at the time of life when they’re thinking about their identities.

However, there is a lock of good evidence of the relationship between social media usage and anxiety levels: its just cross sectional but we don’t know what comes first, we don’t know what kind of social media activity teens are involved in and we don’t have longitudinal data.

Socioeconomic factors also play a role – giving time to children, both physically and emotionally is important for their development, but the lower an income you earn, then the more time you need to spend working, and the less time you have for your children.

Body Image and anxiety

There does seem to be evidence of a relationship between body image and anxiety.

A recent Mental Health Foundation Survey found that ¼ people aged 18-24 believed that reality TV shows such as Love Island makes them worry about body image.

1/3rd of young people worry every day about their body, feeling things such as shame.

Over 1/5th 17-19 year old girls have anxiety depression or both. Around 11-14 there is a relationship between obesity and anxiety, but the relationship is complex.

How to help children control anxiety…

Various solutions are offered

  • More resources for mental health services
  • Cognitive behavioural therapy is mentioned as a good way of dealing with more serious anxiety.
  • Forest Schools and meditation lessons in schools are day to day things we could be doing socially
  • Giving young people more of a sense of agency
  • Being prepared to listen to children and talking about anxiety.

We also need to remember that ‘normal’ levels of anxiety are helpful – without it, we probably wouldn’t care about how we perform in society, it’s a natural part of going through changes, and the best things in life don’t tend to happen in comfort zones!

Relevance to A-level Sociology 

This is of relevance to the sociology of childhood, especially toxic childhood, and also research methods: we need to question whether these anxiety stats are valid or whether they’re socially constructed. The growth of anxiety might just be because there are more experts more willing to diagnose anxiety.

 

Intersex Policing – the case of Caster Semenya

You’ll probably recognize Caster Semenya the female 400 meter runner with intersex traits who won the 800 meters in the 2012 and 2016 Olympic Games.

800 meter gender police.PNG

However she probably won’t be at next year’s in 2020 because the Court of Arbitration for Sport recently judged that female athletes with intersex traits won’t be able to compete in middle distance events (from 400m to 1 mile) unless they take medication to suppress their naturally high levels of testosterone.

On the surface this seems to be creating a ‘level playing field’ for all female athletes, but if we’re going to insist that someone like Semenva takes medication to suppress her unfair natural advantage, surely we should drug all the future Michael Phelps and Usain Bolts of the athletics world too?

Michael Phelps’ 6 ft 7″ arm span and size 13 feet certainly gave him an unfair natural advantage, and Usain Bolt’s supreme body-mechanics contributed to his sprint world records: how many other people have you seen ‘jogging to line’ and winning that often?

So maybe there’s more to the Semenva Case? 

Maybe she (and anyone else whose intersex) is being punished for their ‘gender ambiguity’ rather than this being a just penalty for being physically advantaged.

Then there’s the fact that she (and other intersex females) are easy victims here: they are an extreme minority, and relatively powerless, after all – easy to mete out harsh justice on such individuals and then forget about it in the name of ‘fairness’.

Maybe this is about rendering intersex females invisible – policing our ‘normalised’ sex-boundaries, making sure the rest of us don’t become too uncomfortable about the reality that sex/gender are complex/ fluid….. it CANNOT be about just biological advantage as the cases of Phelps and Bolt demonstrate – we celebrate their ‘good’ freakishness, after all!)

NB – she’s rejected the ruling, it is a violation of her human rights, after all!

Sources

https://www.vox.com/identities/2019/5/3/18526723/caster-semenya-800-gender-race-intersex-athletes

 

The dumping of plastic waste – a green crime?

Only an estimated 9% of the world’s plastic waste is recycled. A further 12% is burnt and the rest, 79% is buried in land fill or just dumped.

China used to be the main dumping ground for the world’s rubbish, but it banned the import of plastic waste in 2017, which then lead to a surge in the amount of used plastic sent to other countries in South East Asia such as Malaysia.

In Malaysia, much of the world’s used plastic is either burnt, releasing toxic chemicals into the air or dumped in rivers, polluting local water supplies and ultimately the oceans.

The BBC recently made a documentary about the harmful effects of the vast plastic-waste mountains in Malaysia, caused by wealthier countries such as the UK not dealing with their plastic waste at home, but rather outsourcing its disposal to a poorer country, because it’s cheaper to do so.

green crime plastic waste
A pile of plastic waste somewhere in Malaysia

From a traditional criminology perspective there is nothing necessarily ‘criminal’ about a company in one country engaging in ‘law evasion’ by exporting plastic waste to a second company in another country with slacker environmental protection laws and then that second company burning or just dumping the waste –   it is up to each individual country to establish its own environmental laws, after all.

However, this case study may well be an example of a ‘green crime‘ from a green-criminological perspective – in the above example company A is knowingly doing something that will result in pollution and thus do environmental harm – even if it is thousands of miles away.

NB Malaysia recently announced that it will no longer accept imports of foreign rubbish, and has threatened to return 3000 tonnes of non-recyclable plastic waste back to the U.K. other countries.

Sources 

The Week, 8 June 2019

 

Contemporary sociology – religion in the news

Three very recent examples of news events relevant to the sociology of religion.

  • Austria recently joined the list of European countries banning the wearing of face veils in public – the headscarf is now banned in primary schools, but not Jewish or Sikh head coverings. Other EU countries to have done similar recently include France, Belgium, the Netherlands and Bulgaria. This could be interpreted as a moral panic over Islam, differential treatment for women maybe?
  • Hindu agains Muslim violence in India – this documentary is a useful, and shocking example of religiously inspired violence, evidence for religion as a source of conflict. The ruling party in India is the ‘Hindu-first Bharatiya Janata party (BJP)’, so there’s an argument that the state is actually supporting violence against Muslims, who are a religious minority in India.
  • Several states in the US are introducing bans on abortion – the religious right supported Trump in 2016, and now he is an outspoken supporter of anti-abortion policies.

Using contemporary examples to evaluate for theory and methods

A level sociology students should be looking to using contemporary examples and case studies to illustrate points and evaluate theories whenever possible. In the exams, the use of contemporary evidence is something examiners look for and reward.

Below are a few examples of some recent events in the news which are relevant to the theory and methods aspects of sociology

All of the above took place in either 2019 or 2018! 

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