Morals and Markets by Viviana Zelizer

Since I started my graduate education, I have had fascination with economic sociology. Unfortunately, I have never taken a course in economic sociology. While reading, and reviewing monographs such as Dealing in Desire by Kimberly Hoang, Under the Cover by Clayton Childress, and Pricing Beauty by Ashley Mears, I recognized that many sociologists whose work lies in the intersection of cultural sociology and economic sociology employ Viviana Zelizer’s framework to analyze certain markets. This led me to wonder what is it about Zelizer’s work that has influenced generations of sociologists.  When I had a chance to come up with a reading list for sociology of consumption, I just incorporated Zelizer’s first book, Morals and Markets, into my list.  It has such a treat to read her dissertation-turn-book. After finishing the book, I am left to wonder about Zelizer’s life long research agenda: that is, the intersection between morals and markets. How and why did life insurance become a commodity in the United States?  How can market problems solve moral and ethical problems?  These questions remind me of my own research questions. They beg me to ask myself the question: what is it that motivates my research, my curiosity, and my commitment to a research career.

In a nutshell, Morals and Markets, looks into the puzzle why the life insurance industry in the United States took off in the second half of the nineteenth century, when it could not develop for the preceding decades. Zelizer used a comparative historical sociology approach. She compared the life insurance industry with fire insurance and marine insurance industries, and showed that in comparison to the former, the latter faced little public resistance. Then she also compared the American life insurance market to that of France and of Britain. She found that life insurance industry in the UK had an easy start, while in France it suffered even more public resistance than in the United States. By tracing its historical development, Zelizer is able to show how public opinion about life insurance changed over time in the United States.

Essentially, she showed that at the beginning, Americans were resistant to use economic rationality to think about sacred aspects of life and death. The life insurance industry had to use various marketing strategies to change this public understanding of life and health. Zelizer conceptualizes life insurance as a social innovation, and traces how American public opinion changes over time.

As a major social innovation, life insurance made its own impact on values. We will examine four different ways in which life insurance made its own impact on value. We will examine four different ways in which life insurance penetrated values regarding death: (a) as a secular ritual, (b) as an additional requirement for a “good death,” (c) as a form of immortality, and (d) by redefining the value of life.

In many ways, life insurance as a social innovation changed American understanding of life and death. Through market mechanisms, at the end Americans are now able to commercialize both life and death.

At some point in the second half of the nineteenth century,  American public started to accept that life insurance was a valuable commodity:

After years of requesting public acceptance as beneficent institutions, life insurance companies now demanded to be judged strictly on business terms….. As their self-image changed, the nature of public criticism against life insurance companies also shifted from ideological censure to economic indictment (p.119).

While originally, the public thought about life and death in religious terms, now they were thinking of these companies in purely cost-benefit terms. They wanted to see how these companies could make money.

The industry itself changed its own perception about its goal, and its self image:

After disguising its commercialism for almost three-quarters of a century, the life insurance industry became embarrassed by its former sentimentality and sought identification as a sober economic institution, The protection of widows and orphans however, could not be easily reproduced to pure economic exchange, and those who upheld it as a distinctively moral enterprise criticized the new trends…. All this oscillation can be largely understood as the result of the structurally ambivalent status of life insurance determined by the marketing of products such as death and protection, culturally defined as beyond monetary evaluation. This created an inescapable dilemma: in order to survive as a business life insurance was compelled to maximize profits, but profits alone remained a justification too sordid for an institution of its kind. The contradictory trends in its historical development reflect the industry’s inner tensions caused by the uneven demands of market and morals (p. 135).

As the industry matured, its legitimacy affirmed, it became to recognize that as an economic institution, it had to provide sound economic analysis to the public. Zelizer argues that this inconsistency of how an industry understood itself is logical because it had to juggle “the uneven demands of market and morals.”

Zelizer also paints a portrait of the workers in this industry. As the industry faced difficulties in gaining public acceptance, the life insurance agents suffered occupational stigma. They were “the stigmatized salesman”

An earlier generation of life insurance agents defined themselves as priests and missionaries to legitimate their commercial involvement with death. Life insurance salesmen in the 20th century claimed professional status based on knowledge and service to redeem their role (p. 165).

The image of a life insurance agent changed from stigmatized missionaries to professionals whose knowledge and expertise was sought after. Their occupational reputation fluctuated with the rise and fall of the industry.

In the conclusion of the book, Zelizer offered her own interpretation of American society:

America was, an remains, a land of economic magic. In the case of life insurance the trick was to sell futures – pessimistic futures. The task of selling a commodity to a materialist civilization was relatively simple. The task of converting human life and death into commodities, however, was highly complex. The universe of believers and theologians became involved with another universe of hard-headed businessmen. Out of this interaction emerged a compromise credo which was a far cry from vulgar marketplace linkages and at the same time a giant step beyond simplified heavenly rewards. Theology yielded to the capitalist ethos – but not without compelling the latter to disguise its materialist mission in spiritual garb (p.176)

As “a land of economic magic,” America is able to commercialize anything even life and death. The impression that everything could become a commodity in this country is still relevant. It comes naturally to many people who come from other countries. Every foreigner I know at one point or another would be puzzled by this fact. Someone asked me “how come Americans could commercialize everything?” with amazement. This person was not only impressed by admired American entrepreneurism. Other people would decry the fact that everything in this country is up for sale, including sacred things such as religion, and hospital care. Is it capitalism running wild in this country? Or is capitalism working its wonder?

 

 

 

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Notes on Michaela DeSoucey’s Contested Taste

Last week, I made the decision to change one of my orals lists into sociology of consumption. This means that I will need to read a completely new list of literature than the one that I had proposed. The two weeks before finalizing the decision, I suffered headaches and stress about the change. Yet, after making a new list of literature, all my anxiety somehow disappeared, and I started enjoying the venture into the new terrain of scholarly debates.

What is sociology of consumption? I asked myself constantly. Wikipedia outlines the history of the field:

Theories of consumption have been a part of the field of sociology since its earliest days, dating back, at least implicitly, to the work of Karl Marx in the mid-to-late nineteenth century. Sociologists view consumption as central to everyday life, identity and social order. Many sociologists associate it with social class, identity, group membership, age and stratification as it plays a huge part in modernity.

What is apparent is that sociologists have always been studying consumption. And consumption is dependent on an individual’s various identities such as class, gender, ethnicity, and nationality. Disputes over some consumer products are linked to all other social factors that regulate our social lives.

Among the first books that I read for the new list is Contested Tastes Foie Gras and the Politics of Food by Michaela DeSoucey. This book is about Foie Gras, a luxury food product made of the liver of a duck or goose that has been especially fattened. It is a popular and well known delicacy in French cuisine. I heard of the book a couple of years ago, when I took the class sociology of consumption as a graduate student. The term “foie gras” [pronounced /fwah grah/] really triggered my culinary imagination. Then I had the first taste of foie gras a few months later when I visited a friend in Boston, whose friend just smuggled some French foie gras to Boston. My curiosity was satisfied. I had a slice of foie gras pâté. It tasted similar to some pork pâté that I had as a kid in Vietnam, but it was less fatty, and more “refine.” I did not venture into the topic of foie gras any further until when I had to compose the new list of literature to read. Triggered by the experience of tasting this delicacy, and also curious to how foie gras became a contested food, I decided to read about it.

The book is about foie gras, who supports, and who opposes the production, distribution and consumption of it on both sides of the Atlantic. It starts out describing the heated debates between different chefs in Chicago about their use of foie gras in their menus. Then the author talks about the fact that the city of Chicago created a law that bans the distribution (selling) of foie gras. Other states in the United States also banned the production of foie gras based on the idea that the ducks or geese were inhumanely fattened. This luxury product is a highly contested food item in the culinary scene in the United States. Animal rights activists tried various tactics to stop the production and consumption of it. On the other side of the Atlantic, in France, foie gras is a tradition. It is also a contested political topic, but its politics is operating differently because it is such a ubiquitous item.

In order to explain the different politics around foie gras in both the United States, and France, DeSoucey proposed the concept “gastropolitics” to understand this phenomenon. This politics refers to “conflicts over food that are located at the intersections  of social movements, cultural markets, and state regulation.” They are “conflicts over food and culinary practices that are branded as social problems.” Everything around foie gras in both countries is framed as social problem. Many groups are involved in the production, distribution, and consumption of this specialty. There are also anti-foie-gras groups, whose claims over the mal-treatment of the birds are not less convincing than artisanal farmers in Southern France who tried to preserve the traditional ways of producing ducks.

In many ways, all groups are participating in gastropolitics, which “are everyday politics where people and groups actively engage to keep or change what is eaten, and they are also formal politics related to laws and governmental regulations that shape the food system.” Actors try to change the way foods are eaten, prepared, and produced. They also influence formal politics, and change formal laws that dictate what is distributed, and how something should be distributed.

DeSoucey’s writing is superb. Her book  reads like a page turner. I devoured the book in two days. She leads the reader on an ethnographic tour from urban consumption scene in Chicago to the production sites in southern France. Her comparative project makes clear that

Foie gras has struck a resonant chord for many – it has often (and polemically) been called America’s most controversial food. Its politics reveal how ideas and concerns about morality intersect with markets, social movements, and state systems of law and regulation. The very topic of foie gras’s existence, as well as its presence on the menus, has galvanized some people – animal rights activitists, chefs, industry members, consumers and legislators – to action in ways that other issues have not. These politics involve deep, identity-laden concerns, and they illuminate the various ways in which institutions and organizations, as makers and mediators of morally grounded cultural meanings, are critical to contested tastes.

Theoretically speaking, DeSoucey follows in the footsteps of Viviana Zelizer to investigate markets for “morally questionable goods and services that elicit questions of consumer and business ethics.” Different foie gras markets invoke different moral and ethical questions from animal rights questions to questions about national identity.

In the chapter about the origin myth of foie gras, DeSoucey argues:

The origin myth marries foie gras’s production and consumption to the idea of French nationhood. It meshes selected bits of cultural history and nostalgic reflections on foie gras’s connections to the greatness of past civilizations, the grand narrative of French cuisine, and family belonging. This works to propagate national taste as moral taste, marking who belongs to the nation (and who does not). It gives foie gras and its producers legitimacy. …. I argue that gastronationalism appeals not just to collective identity that is shaped through cultural scripts and is contingent on actual and embodied consumption.

In France, foie gras is associated with  the French nationhood. It is a national product. It sets France apart from other European nations. It is about a collective identity that takes years to form. In the age of Europeanization, and globalization, foie gras is a contested product that shows case French superior culinary traditions.

In the American side, “being a good citizen and being a good consumer became intertwined ideas over the course of the 20th century, in large part via the aegis of government programs and policymakers interested in safeguarding the American economy.” Citizens and government work together to pass certain laws to prohibit certain food items. Banning foie gras is a symbolic act where the government sided with the animal rights groups, while punishing a small group of duck farmers that produce a product that most Americans (including myself) don’t know what it is, and have never tasted it.

This following table summarizes the different gastropolitics in relations to foie gras:

 

Dimensions France US
History Origin myth that is associated with specific regions in France No origin myth
Class Ubiquitous Elite, luxury product
Nationalism France vs. Europe vs globalization imported and having no national impact
Tourism Fostering nationalism and a recognition about traditional way of producing foie gras Touring farms gives a sense of transparency in how animals are being treated
Social movements Not strong anti-foie-gras production, but some animal rights groups do exist Anti-inhumae treatment of ducks

Trying to promote laws that prohibit production, distribution and consumption of foie gras

Production Huge Small farms, and negligible in comparisons to other animal products
State Promoting foie gras as a national symbol, and cultural identity

National level

Banning the production/distribution at the city and state level
Markets Large Small

After finishing the book, I was left wanting. Is there anyway I can get some affordable foie gras in New York? Is the concept gastropolitics applicable to other cases? Is foie gras such as a big deal? Why is it that Americans do not eat more ducks like Europeans do? Even though the book tells such a good tale about foie gras, it is not clear to me how many people DeSoucey interviewed. In general, I love reading the methods section of a sociological monograph. In this book, I could not find it. However, I am very impressed that DeSoucey does not de-identify her interviewees. All of their names are real. This is some new and interesting development for sociological research in terms of methodological transparency.

 

 

Teaching (Dis)Satisfaction

This morning, when I woke up, I checked emails (a bad habit, despite the fact that I vowed to not be dependent on emails for information too much). What I found in my mailbox was a tempting email from Chronicle of Higher Education with title “Faculty Satisfaction Survey.” As a sociologist who is doing sociology of work, I am immensely interested in job satisfaction, and  workers’ experience. As a college instructor myself, this strikes at the heart of my daily experience. So I opened the email, followed the link, and went to the main article on Chronicle of Higher Education Website. The article has the title “How Professors View Students: the Most Satisfying and Challenging Part of the Job”. The article breaks down the term satisfaction into different dimensions such as whether students respect them, or whether professors think that they benefit students. This blog post highlights a few aspects of the survey.

First, in terms of data, the survey collects experience of 1000 faculty members. The research finds that most faculty members find teaching students to be “satisfying work”. Among all of faculty responsibilities: service work, research, grant writing, administrative duties, teaching stands out to be the most satisfying. Adjuncts are more satisfied than their tenure peers; professors at private institutions are more satisfied than their peers at public institutions. Overall professors are satisfied with teaching regardless of whether it is the main component of their professorship.

Most interviewees said that teaching students today is more fulfilling than teaching students in the past; they also all think that their teaching positively impacts their students’ lives.

The most confusing question in this survey is whether the professor’s job is respected by students. Many think that they are respected by their students. Yet, some have doubt, and humanities professors are the most concerned about whether they are respected by their students.

I think that the results of this survey certainly reinforce my belief as an educator that teaching is a very fulfilling job for a faculty member in higher education. From my personal experience, whenever I see my students’ enthusiasm about their own projects, or about a concept, I feel as if their energy is just transferred to me. Oftentimes, my classes take place early in the morning. If my students engage with me throughout the class time, I would feel extremely energetic for the entire day. Somehow there is a synergy between me and my students, and I believe that together we can accomplish something great. But if my students do not at all engage with me throughout the class time, and I have to do most of the talking, and explaining, I would feel like all of my energy is drained out after the class time. Thus, I would have absolute no more energy for other activities during the day. In other words, there are ups and downs during a semester. These ups and downs are contingent upon the group of students I get, and whether the materials are difficult to teach and to discuss.

Whenever my students feel that they are learning and exploring something new. They show that the are empowered; therefore, I am also empowered. I feel confident in my ability, and I trust myself more. This is a huge confidence boost for a young educator. However, if I encounter some criticisms in class about my ability to teach, or the quizzes or other aspects of teaching and structuring the class, I would feel down, and incompetent. That is when I need to reevaluate my efforts to transmit knowledge to the next generation. Put it differently, teaching requires some organization, discipline, and also self-motivation.

However, one should not forget about the dark side of teaching in a neo-liberal university. First, teaching is not the main job of a professor anymore. A professor is evaluated based on their publication track. They are not evaluated by how many lives they have impacted during face-to-face teaching/learning interactions. Second, they are overburdened with administrative duties. This time commitment reduces their time spending on doing research, writing grants, and teaching their students. Third, tenure tracks are disappearing. That means most newly minted Ph.Ds. would see themselves joining the underclass of the higher education industry. They will become ever more precarious, and suffering from economic anxiety, and also metal health issues. Research has shown that economic anxiety tremendously affects one’s perception of oneself, and negatively affects family life (for example, see Carrie Lane’s A Company of One, or Allison Pugh’s Tumbleweed Society).

In short, the survey from Chronicle of Higher Education provides the reader with a nuanced understanding of what college professors think about their teaching. Therefore, it reinforces our common beliefs about professorial duties. However, the survey does not situate itself among the sea of change in higher education. The positive findings that it shows does not cover the myriad of challenges and structural forces that shape professors’ life in the current economy. This survey does not at all serve as a beacon of light where Ph.D students and adjuncts look for in the age of anxiety and uncertainty. As American higher education is going through structural crisis, this survey does little to cheer the most important workers of the industry up.

 

 

Venture Labor vs. A Company of One

In my orals reading list for sociology of work, two books: Venture Labor by Gina Neff, and  A Company of One by Carrie Lane, share many similarities that are worth a critical review essay. They both write about tech workers’ experiences  in the 2000s, and the effects of the dot-com boom and bust on their personal lives. The authors look at workers’ experience in the so-called “New Economy.” The first book was written by a organization sociologist, and the other by a cultural anthropologist. Venture Labor asks the questions why did people leave their jobs to work for high tech companies which went burst immediately after a short time; and why did they exhibit entrepreneurial behavior in their jobs while not being entrepreneurs themselves? Among many questions Carrie Lane asks in her book, the one that summarizes it all is how did unemployed white-collar tech workers make sense of their unemployment? In other words, Neff focuses on the decision making process before the dot-com bust, while Lane focuses on how individual workers cope with effects of the dot-com burst.

In order to answer the questions that each scholar poses, they did interviews, and ethnography in two centers of the tech industry in the early 2000s. Neff conducted her fieldwork with startup workers in Silicon Alley in New York City, and Carrie Lane in Dallas Texas. The different locations gave different contextual answers to seemingly similar research questions.  In answering their questions, both employ cultural theory, and cultural interpretation of their interview data. Neff uses a political economy approach in study the tech workers, and Lane is interested in how the macro neoliberal ideology has an impact on how an individual sees the world. In many ways, their central concern is the relationship between the self and society in the realm of work.

Each author contributes to their respective field of studies. Carrie Lane uses the concept “A Company of One” as a theoretical framework to explain how unemployed white-collar workers make sense of their unemployment, their financial loss, and their adjustment to life after lay-off. Each individual employs career management to navigate their companies of one. Each of them manage their own career trajectories independent of any company or corporation. Lane uses this concept to explain how her workers make sense of the effects that unemployment had on their family lives, on their understanding of themselves as an employable person, a worker, and a partner. Each person is responsible to manage their own careers is what the term suggests. However, Lane is also able to provide the reader with nuanced understanding of the strategy. The term is full of contradictions.

On the one hand:

Career management is a life raft to which displaced tech workers can cling amid the roiling sea of insecure employment and prolonged joblessness. Seeing oneself as an independent company of one (rather than a discarded employee) can bolster the optimism and self-esteem of job seekers while providing them with tangible strategies for finding employment. Casting secure employment as a situation of foolish, emasculated dependency provides some protection against the emotional upheaval of an unexpected layoff or prolonged job search. Conceptualizing job seeking as just another kind of job allows tech workers to retain a resilient sense of self-worth and professional value in the prolonged absence of paid employment.

During the period of unemployment, individual workers lead their own job searching process, and they conceptualize it as another job. They are the leaders of their own lives. They manage their own company whose brand is themselves. This management technique helps them to remain optimistic about their employable future. Lane shows throughout her book that it is a way that white-collar workers justify their downward mobile career trajectory. It is also a way for workers to internalize economic uncertainty of the New Economy.

But on the other hand,

[Career management] can just as reasonably be imagined as a stick with which they are beaten, and with which they beat themselves, as they try to stay afloat. To see it one way without also seeing the other is to sacrifice a fuller view of these job seekers and the cultural logic they inhabit. Despite tangible and often painful losses, the ultimate cost of career management lies in its naturalization of the losses.

Workers blame themselves for their economic losses, and sometimes their inability to find a job, whose financial reward was similar to what they had before. Career management places responsibility and agency to the workers instead of the structure. Workers find all resources they could in order to get themselves out of their dire situation without making any structural claim. They barely ask for government supports, or government intervention into their joblessness problem.  They go to job seekers networking event in order to find job leads, and network with other job seekers, hoping that social networks could help them out of their situation. Most would eventually figure out that socializing with other job seekers would not give them a job, and they would quit in the end. In other words, this cultural logic shifts responsibility away from corporations and government, and makes workers themselves think that they are responsible for their financial security during economic downturns.

Similar to Lane, Neff also comes up with a cultural answer for her question. The term that she comes up with is “venture labor” which is what the workers exhibit in driving innovation, and company flexibility. It is “the investment of time, energy, human capital and other personal resources that ordinary employees make in the companies where they work.” This particular concept is used to explain how companies and the tech industry were able to socialize economic risks. Neff argues:

This behavior is a part of a broader shift in society in which economic risk shifted away from collective responsibility toward individual responsibility. In the new economy, risk and reward took the place of job loyalty, and the dot-com boom helped glorify risks. Company flexibility was gained at the expense of employee security.

All workers exhibit entrepreneurial behaviors regardless of whether they were entrepreneurs or not.  Neff also traces larger structural and cultural changes that enable this particular kind of risk-taking behavior:

Three economic forces increased the level of economic risks people bore in the late 20th and early 21st centuries: the increasing “financialization” of the American economy; rapidly changing valuations of work, products, and services within the new economy; and the widespread diffusion of flexible work practices.

These forces come together at the beginning of the 21st century, and they enable startup workers to stomach risks. They leave their stable jobs, work for small startups in Silicon Alley. That is to say, Venture Labor examines how startup workers frame their risk taking behavior. In the process, Neff finds three different types of narratives, which workers use to justify their risk-taking behavior. She calls them creative, financial and actuarial strategies of risk management.

Table 3.1 on page 94 summarizes three types of risk-management strategies:

summary of Gina_1

These strategies are employed by workers to flexibly adjust, understand and rationalize the “economic uncertainty they face.” The financial strategy people “evaluate their companies for their potential as lucrative investments, accounting for risk in expressly financial terms, and actively assessing the financial potential of their labor as an investment in their companies.” Being able to calculate their worth, values, and their tangible contribution to the companies, these people fit in the Internet millionaire stereotype. People who employ the creative strategy for risk emphasize the fact that creative projects have risks associated with them. Therefore, taking risks is a part of their labor. Finally, those who use the actuarial strategy for risk calculate risks for each position, each project that they occupy/ work on. They hedge against risks, and even when or whether the market crashes. Put it differently, they do not invest everything in their company like the financial type, but diversifying their work and position in order to avoid risks.

By creating three ideal types of how tech workers conceptualize and frame risks, Gina Neff gives the concept “venture labor” contours and depth. These types help readers imagine how people actually perform this type of labor in real life, and how they would justify their behavior.

Even though each author approaches their subjects of study differently by calling them “a company of one,” or “venture labor,” they share many things in common. Both argue that during economic downturns, networking would not help workers much.  When their networks become homogenous (that is, when everyone in the network is like them, unemployed), then networking would not help workers to find a job. The authors both argue that economic downturns expose various assumptions that previous network scholars made about the social power of networking.

In conclusion, the two books are great monographs of how workers in the tech industry make sense of their world. Lane writes a compelling story about how neoliberal ideology affects how workers make sense of their world. Neff analyzes various structural and cultural reasons where workers internalize entrepreneurial behaviors, whereby they would take more risks. As we see that the tech industry is expanding in every city, these two books should be must-reads for sociology of work, tech and society, and cultural sociology.

Busy-ness and Setbacks

The month of March flew by, and I do not feel that I accomplished much over the period of 31 days. However, there were lots of activities that I took part in, and in the moment of each activity I did not feel that I wasted my time.

First I started out thinking that I would finish my orals test by March 20th. It did not happen. I had cold feet, and sent an email to my committee, and informed them that I would postpone it permanently. That did not sound like good news. I am also not particularly proud of having done this. The decision to postpone it affected my other activities including writing this blog. It took me almost two weeks to get over the feeling of unpreparedness, and incompetency. I did not have enough time to brainstorm any idea for a dissertation project. So my dissertation process is being postponed now until I could feel that I would pass the test without any difficulty.

At the beginning of the month, I made a promise to myself that I would write one blog post a day. I tried. The promise was broken by half after the exam got postponed. Yet in total, I published 13 posts out of 31, or 42%. That was not an extremely terrible result. In a lot of ways I did slightly better than the month of February.  It was still an improvement! Writing consistently every day was a challenge even when I write about my personal experience instead of about academic arguments.

On the brighter side, I presented a preliminary idea at a professional conference in my field: Eastern Sociological Society. After my presentation, I did not have much time to linger around to listen to people’s ideas, and swap contacts with colleagues. Instead I took an early bus home to New York, and resumed my orals preparation activity.  Still meeting a couple of new colleagues, listening to new ideas still made me feel like I belong to the larger organization of professional sociologists. In addition, it was a good experience to present my ideas, and got some encouragement.

A highlight of the month was the visit to Atlanta. I got a royal treatment from friends, and former professors there. They took me out for foods. They took me out to visit places that I never visited before. I did a Sunday drive through some of the most beautiful neighborhoods in the city with friends. How much I miss those Sunday drives in New York! The weather was good, and I felt good about myself each time I visited the city.

The most productive activity I engaged in was participating in an accountability writing group at school. The group was comprised of graduate students from different disciplines such as social work, social psychology, and French. As participants we had to submit 10-page writing every three weeks. When we did not submit our own writing, we had to write peer review comments for those whose writings were being critiqued that day. This activity gave me a different understanding of academic writing. Of course it takes more time for academic writing than personal blogging because academic writing requires some level of research, and some rigorousness in terms of argumentation. However, the basic is the same: as long as you practice it on a daily basis, you will figure out the formula, and will sustain your argument from one day to another. That was a great lesson that I learned from being a regular attendant of this accountability group.

 

Amazon’s Interface Change on Prime Pantry

Lately because I was so stressed out with my orals exam, I started shopping more on Amazon Prime particularly in the Prime Pantry section. Sometimes I would get very good deal, and if the total purchase is more than $35, they would ship it for free to my apartment. That is a good deal because honestly every week it would cost me more than $100 for grocery. Yes, grocery in New York is expensive. I acknowledge that Amazon does not treat its workers well, and that it is moving heavily into the monopoly direction. Yet like many Americans and consumers in the 21st century, I face a dilemma: If I choose to not make Amazon a behemoth, I should quit the platform, but since I am overly stressed, and did not want shopping to become another source of anxiety, I should reduce my various grocery trips to one Amazon shipment. It is surprisingly a common dilemma for many American households who do not have extra disposable income, and extra time to shop locally.  This dilemma has been a source of moral contention between me and myself, between me and my partner. On the one hand, I feel guilty giving more money to Amazon. On the other hand, I am very tired of going to various stores in New York, and feeling like I am overcharged for grocery items. After I awhile, I resorted to pure cost-analysis calculation, which is that I would save money instead of being stressed out about whether my individual action makes me feel good morally. In other words, I keep shopping on Amazon on a weekly basis.

Last weekend however I noticed a difference on Amazon Prime Pantry platform. When I searched for raisins, I could no longer see the cost associated with each item. The search came out on Amazon.com showed up as follows:

Screen Shot 2019-03-31 at 14.51.54.png

Before, one could search for an item, and see the price immediately. So an individual shopper compare brands, price, and whether there was any discount for each item. Now all the benchmarks are gone. I can no longer see the price for each item. In order to find out how much each item costs, I now have to click on each one, remember how much it costs, come back and click on others, then and compare the prices. This is simply inconvenient for a shopper like me. It’s possible that it’s just a test that Amazon.com changed its interface for Prime Pantry items only. However, it could be also a new strategy that the company has. Maybe it wants customers to spend more time on its website to compare the price, quality, and reviews.

What priorly brought me to Amazon, namely information transparency, has become somewhat more inconvenient to get at. Instead of saving my shopping time, the lack of information on the first search page makes me feel like I need to spend more time on the website. Now it takes twice the amount of time to shop for the same number of items. This inconvenience pissed me off for an afternoon. Yet it was still not strong enough to drive me away from the platform. I wonder when I will leave this platform altogether.

Vanishing New York

Last Saturday, when the spring just started, I went out to the park, and stayed out side for as long as the sun was out, and the air was warm. Later in the afternoon, I suggested to my two buddies that we could grab a glass of beer at my favorite German beer garden in my neighborhood. I fell in love with this beer garden almost 4 years ago when I first moved to New York. The first time I had a beer there, I chatted with the owner, a German gentleman from Bonn. I savored its flammkuchen, or German pizza. My weekly order for snacking at the place up until last Saturday was pretzel and bratwurst. I would order glass after glass of Hefeweizen without feeling guilty about its calorie content. I have introduced it to all of my friends. At one point when hanging out with my buddies there, I  had too many beers and too many pizzas to the point that I ran out of cash to pay. I ended up shamelessly asking a stranger at the next table for $5. It was embarrassing, but funny at the same time.

When we all arrived at the restaurant last Saturday, we saw this sign:

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After reading the close-down announcement, I fell like a part of me was gone. The expression “vanishing New York” had never been something that I was familiar with. I just moved to New York about 4 years ago, and I am still in a honeymoon with it. I embrace the high speed of change in this city. I embrace seeing something new and impressive that I encounter in this city.  Yet this particular farewell with my favorite restaurant made me rethink about my experience. Parts and pieces of New York are vanishing. I do not know what drove my favorite restaurant out of business. I could not explain the reasons why the owner closed it down other than the rent has become too expensive. Many things in New York just disappeared out of a sudden like this place. Because of the fleeting nature of everything in New York, I suddenly feel the urge to take pictures of everything that I encounter. I am hoping that at least I can capture something in my unreliable memory.

Automation and the Pain of Eating Out – Example from La Guardia Airport

A couple of weeks ago, when I flew to Atlanta to visit friends, I took a flight out of La Guardia (LGA). Because La Guardia was a much smaller airport than JFK, it took a lot less time to wait in line for the security. Thus I had a lot more time to spend inside the airport. However, since it was also a much smaller airport, there were a lot less things to do. One thing I had to do was to feed myself because the flight was around noon, and I had not had breakfast that day.

Then I discovered that other than a take-out deli-style restaurant, other restaurants at La Guardia had tablets for ordering. When I spent some more time to explore a few gates, I recognized that these tablets were also installed at various waiting areas. They looked pretty much like this one:

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Since I wanted to have a similar to eat-out experience at the airport, I had no choice but go into one of those restaurants where one must order with a tablet.

First, a waitress came out and greeted me: “How can I help you?”

I answered: “I need a table, and I prefer not to sit at the bar.”

Then she led me to a small table back near the kitchen, and away from the lobby which led to various gates at La Guardia. In many ways, that was ideal because I could stay away from foot traffic. As soon as I sat down, she started to explain how the tablet worked, and how at the end I could paid using my credit card at one of the credit card shaped tool next to the table. Suddenly what I saw was that my dinning out experience became more like a practicing cashier experience.

I had a brief time working as a waitress at a couple of restaurants in Berlin, and this dinning experience reminded me of everything I did not like about the job. First the tablet gave me a lot of options, and the waitress was not there to explain any of the options. I was a busy flight passenger, I did not have the time to go through all lunch options to figure out which one was the best for me. Oftentimes, when I eat out, I would look at a few options on the menu that I like, and then ask the waiter/waitress which one should I choose because it could be up to the chef that day to make something excellent, or it depends on the quality of ingredients that day. The server is oftentimes my best friend in deciding. In sociological terms, waiters and waitresses  are cultural intermediaries in these instances. They shape my taste, and eventually my consumption and how I spend my money. In case of the tablet waitress, there was no more cultural intermediary to consult, I would be my own waitress, deciding for myself which would best suit my time, budget and consumption. But the information given to me by the tablet was incomplete at best. Therefore, at the moment when I scrolled through various options on the tablet, I became instantly info-glut, and overwhelmed. My mind was paralyzed.

Furthermore, the tablet was up in front of me for the entire time that I came into the restaurant. After using it for about 10 minutes, I became irritated. In the time period, I was trying to cut down my screen contact time because I was going through a digital minimalism experiment. My goal was to cut down screen time, cell phone time in particular. In another blog post, I argued that urbanites, especially in New York, are increasingly over exposed to screens. I call this process “ubiquitous computerization:” that is, one is exposed to digital technology 24/7 even when one sleeps. Now my dinning out experience is also not exempt from this process. I am not a doctor, but I am aware that looking at a bright screen for along time is not good for my eyes. Plus, I do not have money to buy those blue light blocking glasses that potentially could help me deal with more screen time, and still protect my eyes. Then I finally decided to walk out of the restaurant because I could not bear the aesthetics of the tablets and their blue light that attacked my eyes and drained my mental energy.

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In many ways, I walked out because I was annoyed, irritated, and tired. I did not at all think about health consequences of looking at the bright screens of a tablet. Yet now reflecting upon the experience, I felt that I should be more aware of health consequences of those devices.

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However my experience seemed to be one of the extreme. The popular media, particularly the New York Times, gave me the impression that most travelers enjoyed having iPads installed all over La Guardia.  The idea is that customers of flights could instantly access information about their flights. They could use this time at the airport to entertain themselves. However, the experience sounds awfully lonely to me. Ipadization of La Guardia airport seems to contribute to the process of alienation of the self from society even more. The man in the New York Times article is a businessman. And he seemed to be enjoying using these tools for his business purposes. Somehow the image of  Ryan Bingham (played by George Clooney) in the movie, Up in the Air, came to my mind. Despite the convenience of business class seats, and various amenities Ryan gets at all airports, he ultimately travels alone, and feels lonely most of the time. If Ryan is the average, the stereotypical traveler for Airport designers,  maybe getting a meal via an iPad, and spending time more with an iPad instead of anybody else would be ideal. Instead of feeling lonely, he would be wired to the Internet, and maybe eventually he could chat with a female bot to spend his time, and get a dose of emotional connection with an AI chatbot.

Regardless of my experience, and my opinion, the trend is clear. We are all wired, and connected now. Ubiquitous computerization is here to stay. We are connected 24/7 through personal laptops, cell phones, and now free amenities at public transportation stations, and travel hubs. Digitalization is now transforming every aspect of our life: work, play, and leisure.

Digital Decluttering or Digital Withdrawal?

A few weeks ago, I read, and wrote a review of the book Digital Minimalism  by Cal Newport. The author argues that in order to live a fuller life, one should optimize for non-digital activities. The book lays out the arguments for why minimal use of digital technology is important, why not having too much contact with cell phones, screens makes one happier. It also provides a roadmap for a decluttering experiment.  That was precisely what I did. I followed the plan, and cleanse digital junks out of my cellphone, and emails. This blog post summarizes my decluttering experience.

First, I deleted almost all social media apps: Facebook, Twitter, Instagram. Those have been called  “weapons of mass distraction.”  Yet because I was not really addicted to those apps in the first place, I did not see any significant change. The app that gave me the most headache was Mail app, pre-installed in my iPhone. Before, I checked and answered emails every five minutes. Now, if I need to check emails, I open my laptop, and get access to them from my computer. Sometimes I still check emails on my cell phone. But instead of going to the normal email app, now I open Safari browser, and read emails from the website. It really slows down the effort, and sometimes the process discourages me reading and answering emails altogether.

Then I even go further to do deep cleaning of my mailbox. I un-subscribed to almost all un-important newsletters, or mailing lists that gave me no essential information; they simply flooded my mailbox with unnecessary information. By removing myself from emailing constantly, and freeing my inbox from unnecessary information, I suddenly have so much more free time. Theoretically, I can use this new free time to focus on my essential work which is to write my research papers, and reading for orals. Deep work needs deep concentration.  However, what I am going through could only be described as “emptiness.” Before I felt so busy like a businesswoman. Now I need to find a reason to find an email to answer to. Information stops flooding my consciousness altogether. I need to go to the New York Times website to read news.

From behaving like a digital addict, now I suffer from digital withdrawal. Now I open my emails 10 times a day, refresh the web browser every half an hour, and I still don’t receive new emails anymore. Before I could never read through all of the emails that I received on a daily basis. Now I don’t have anything coming at me, and I don’t know what to do about it. I feels like I am not pursued by people/companies any more. Suffering from digital withdrawal isn’t a comfortable feeling. I am still trying to fill the void of digital emptiness.

In Digital Minimalism, Cal Newport also suggested that after deep cleaning, one can also  re-introduce digital technologies into one’s work flow, and life activities. But one should only introduce essential tools that help one to improve the quality of life and work.

Newport suggests the following:

After the break, I determine what is important, and add back into my life. The three criteria to make sure that a technology is critical and necessary for my well beings are:

  1. It serves something that I deeply value
  2. It is the best way to use technology to serve this value
  3. It has a role in my life that is constrained with a standard operating procedure that specifies when and how to use it.

Having thought carefully about these criteria, I did not re-install anything that I deleted. I only dowloaded and installed a few new apps that restrict my cell phone use even further. For example, Moment gives me reports on how much time I spend on my phone. My goal now is to pick up the phone less than 25 times, and less than 1.5 hours in total a day. I was surprised by how many times I picked up my phone a day before the Mail app was deleted. It came around 50-60 times, and I often spent more than 2.5 hours on various applications.

The experiment has not been all liberating because I am still going through digital withdrawal. Sometimes I feel completely disconnected with the world. That is a very uncomfortable feeling. I recognize that I have “the fear of missing out,” which I never thought that I had. This revelation made me contemplate about the relationship between the self and society with regard to digital technology. How has digital technology altered one’s understanding of oneself in society? This is a question that needs some social theory to answer, and as of now I will just pose it as a question without any concrete answer.

The experiment nudges me to think deeper about minimalism in general as a philosophy. It basically means that one can cut down un-essential things in life in order to live a more fulfilling life. On a personal level, only cutting down my digital consumption already frees up my mental space, and I have more time to focus on important activities that bring me joy, happiness, and also success. I wonder whether this philosophy of “everything minimalism” can be applied to organizations and institutions. For example, can universities cut down on unnecessary, symbolic programs such as huge football teams, building new dormitories, etc, so students do not have to acquire unnecessary students’ debt for higher education? Can a society as a whole pursue a minimalist philosophy? Is it anti-capitalism, or is it simply a necessity in modern society.

Injuries & Stress

Before my first day at graduate school, one alum in my program mentioned in an email to me, saying that graduate school is a long period of time in one’s life. It would take somewhere between four to ten years. A lot of marriages could not even last that long. The average length of a US marriage that ends in divorce is about seven years, while the average length to finish a PhD in sociology is about 6.5 years. Many things can happen during this period. People fall sick many times. It seems that they fall sick more often during stressful periods such as qualifying exams, and job talks.

Yesterday, I woke up early and started preparing for my morning run (I am training for a half marathon). While brushing my teeth, and putting on my running gears, I tried to do some stretching for my neck muscles, and relaxed different joints. Then I shook my head, and strained my neck muscles. Originally I thought it was not serious, so I headed out for a run anyway. After about 15 minutes, the pain migrated to my brain, and my legs felt weak. The pain sensation somehow migrated throughout my body, and made my breath shorten. No longer able to bring myself to jog, I headed straight home, and made myself a tea instead. Throughout the morning, I felt clumsy. The pain did not disappear. It seemed to intensify after a while.  It affected my ability to take in information, and process it. I could not think straight, or remember what I read.

This incidence reminded me of how I sprained my ankle in the fall. One day I was going down the stair case (I live in a walkup), I fell on my right ankle, and sprained it pretty hard. I thought it was not serious, but I went to the doctor’s any way. They gave me a cam walker boot, and made me wear it for a week. That day I also had various meetings, and the boot followed me around. I felt like an incompetent person that day. Whenever I talked about anything, my pain would spread all over my body. Regardless of whatever I feel toward an argument or a fact, pain was the only thing I expressed. As a knowledge worker, I highly value my ability to think. On that day, I just could not even think. I could only feel, and pain was the primary emotion I had.

The two incidences shared something in common, which needs to be further interrogated. One morning I woke up, and shook my head. My neck got hurt. I stopped thinking properly. One thing I walked down the staircase, fell on my foot. My ankled sprained, and my brain hurt when I tried to think too hard. What is it this common cause?

My suspicion is that it is stress. I have been under a lot of stress since I started preparing for the qualifying exam. So I came up with the following hypothesis:

 Under chronic stress, people are more prone to injuries

Scientists have conducted research to look into the relationship between stress and injuries. Many have shown that the they have complicated relationship. It depends on a person’s genetic makeup, the level of stress, and the type of injuries. In my case, probably stress made my muscles tense up. So when I moved any part too hard, they are more prone to be displaced. Chronic stress can cause harms to various muscles:

Both tension-type headache and migraine headache are associated with chronic muscle tension in the area of the shoulders, neck and head. Musculoskeletal pain in the low back and upper extremities has also been linked to stress, especially job stress (American Psychological Association).

Being in front of a computer to read, write and do literature review, I do put a lot of burden on to my shoulders, neck and head. It seems that if I do not correct my sitting position, in a long run, I will suffer from various back and neck problems.

While permanent pain and neck injuries seem to pretty far-fetched to my situation,  the minor injuries I have gotten actually affected my ability to do my job well. As a knowledge worker, I place significant importance on my ability to think, read and write. These minor injuries do not affect my non-productive activities such as cooking, doing laundry or even joking. They really reduced my ability to concentrate, and focus on engaging in a sustained argument. In other words, they directly affect my productivity. In order to be prolific, and stay productive as a scholar, I ought to avoid both severe and minor injuries. While severe injuries are rare events, minor injuries could be avoided by lowering stress level.

One important issue that these minor injuries bring to the fore is the fragility of human body. I suddenly recognized how fragile I am, and that my body has limits. Sometimes I could not push it too far. Doing exercise, and taking care of it well through having proper nutrition are all what I am doing now. Yet, I also need to pay attention to my psychological health. The body and the mind are intimately connected. At times, when I could not pinpoint any cause of my injuries, I explained away by the aging factor. The common expression would be: “Well, my body can no longer do the things that I used to be able to do.” Now I don’t really think it is the right answer to my problem. Aging is just a way I normalize my injuries. There is actually a concrete cause that gave rise to these health-related issues that I could potentially solve with help from friends, family, and doctors if I pay enough attention to the underlying causes.

In a nutshell, stress seems to be a big elephant in the room for any Ph.D. student. If one wants to maintain a sane life during this long period of time, one ought to take care of one’s physical, mental, and also emotional health. Regardless of how one wants to accelerate the PhD process, it is more sustainable in a long run to take care of one’s own body.

 

Running at Piedmont Park in Atlanta

As announced a week ago, I already signed up for the SHAPE’s women half marathon in Manhattan. It will take place in four weeks, and I do not feel ready. Everyday when I wake up there is one less day to go, and more miles to run. In What I Talk about When I Talk about Running, Haruki Murakami documented that prior to his New York Marathon, he ran consistently up to 200 miles a month for three months before the event. Sure, my race is half of the distance that Murakami signed up for. I still think that I need to train for it. As of now, I feel that I need to have a huge excel sheet (I grew up with an accountant. We think with excel sheets) where I document where I run, and when I run prior to the marathon in April.

Last week, New York was icy cold. Hence I had a reason to not go out for a run on a daily basis. Instead, I stayed at home, wrote reflections on my notebooks, and composed blog post after blog post. Then I had an opportunity to go to Atlanta for a few days to stay away from the cold, and also visit friends. It was such a change!

Atlanta was so ready for the spring. The moment I landed, I noticed that trees already started blossoming. Japanese magnolia flowers were dotting neighborhoods with their purple and pinkish flowers. What I also recognized this time was that Atlanta was so green. There were so many more trees, and parks, and lawns than in New York. I also miss my favorite southern magnolia trees.

One afternoon, after having some light lunch at a friend’s house, I decided to go for a run lest I won’t be able to run once I get back to New York. My favorite place to run is always parks. So I decided to head to Piedmont Park in Midtown Atlanta to run. I thought that it would be like Central Park where many urbanites would run in the afternoon especially on a Friday. However, I was wrong. What I found was that there were not that many people who were training with me. I found a few people walking their dogs, a few teenagers taking pictures of the beautiful parks, and some going on a walk. “What is going on here?,” I asked myself.  How could the park be so quiet?

I thought that it was the nature of Piedmont Park was quietude. My guess was that Atlantans were not much into their public parks like New Yorkers. So I brought up this observation to a couple friends the following day. To my surprise the answer was that most runners in Atlanta now prefer to run on the Beltline. It is a unique redevelopment project in Atlanta which is  based on railroad corridors that formerly encircled Atlanta.

Get-Connected-Map-2016.jpgIt is not yet completed, but a lot of it has been put to use since I was in college. Essentially, it is a pedestrian and cycle only road that encircles the city of Atlanta. According to the map above, it cuts through Piedmont Park. When I was running at Piedmont, I saw many people running on the Beltline. My Atlanta friends were very happy, and proud of this accomplishment of the city. They thought that it was one of the most ingenious redevelopment projects that Atlanta, specifically a student from Georgia Tech, came up with. When completed, it will connect 45 intown neighborhoods via a 22-mile loop of multi-use trails, modern streetcar, and parks. Its shape, its ideas, and its sociability, and potential to connect urban neighborhoods in the era of disconnection give us hope. The Beltline seems to symbolize connectivity, community, and sustainable development. If I could, I would definitely conduct research about this particular redevelopment project. I wonder how it has impacted different communities. This project is still in progress for sure. Yet this just offers an amazing opportunity for people to explore a large-scale redevelopment project on community development, and social cohesion. I wonder what it really does. Why don’t people write about it? Why urban sociologists do not grasp this chance to examine something that is so grass-roots like this project? I think I would definitely want to write about it. 

I wonder whether Atlanta will soon organize a marathon on the complete Beltline around the city. I would love to sign up for this run. As of now, I need to tally up my miles for the run in Central Park that I will have in the next few weeks.

 

Persistence: Necessary Virtue for Researchers

I just dusted off a research project that I conducted almost three years ago, and I am in the process of revising it for publication. This process has created pain, and some unnecessary recalling of fading memory. While struggling through this pain, and trying to normalize my article writing experience, I suddenly had an epiphany moment about research, writing, and my collaboration preference.

First, doing research and writing articles for publication are akin to training for a long-distance run, or losing weight. They all require daily practice, and consistency. If one wants to participate in a marathon, one should start training every day for months in advance. Running only 6 or 8 miles every once in a while does not help to with progress, or improving performance. I also have failed in many of my weight loss attempts because I simply lost track of my calorie count and or my exercise after the first few weeks, then I would go straight back to my former unhealthy habit of drinking beer before going to sleep, or snacking on ice-cream while watching a documentary. After a couple of weeks, my body bounces right back to where I started, and refuses to change. In other words, there is no positive outcome if the efforts are sporadic or inconsistent.

Similarly, doing research, and writing papers for publication require constant attention, and persistence. One cannot start a project, leave it aside, and come back to it three years later like I do. During the three years period, many things have changed, and that I forget my research questions at the beginning. My research interests have also changed in the mean time. It is absolutely a bad practice. Now I do not want to come back to a body of literature that no longer excites me every morning.  What this experience has taught me is that one should start and finish a project in a timely manner.  Each project should have the right to my full attention.

Regardless of how I feel like a loser in putting aside this project for so long, I will pick it up, and complete it. The idea of an unfinished paper bothers me a lot even though it seems to hinder the progress of my dissertation proposal writing. Whatever the case is, I will finish this paper, and submit it for publication in timely manner.

Second, having learned that I have tendency to put off writing up research findings, it seems necessary that I should find a writing partner, and an accountability group when it comes to finishing a project. At some point during one of my daily runs last week, I decided that I would never conduct another solo research unless it is my own dissertation project. I have recognized that I work awfully more productive when I work with another researcher. Something about the group configuration that forces me to stay on track, and stay productive. Hence, since that painful experience of having conducted my research alone, now I almost always ask to have a research partner before embarking on a new research project. Maybe I will do solo research in the future, but first I need to finish my first project in order to move on to the next one.

In conclusion, this writing experience has taught me that I need to start a project, and finish it in a timely manner, and that I need an accountability partner in order to keep myself on tract, and that I prefer from this moment on to work in a research group.

3 Things I Wish I Knew Before Grad School

When I was an undergraduate student, my only goal was to go to graduate school. I did not inquire too much about how much a professor made, or what a professorship entailed. Somehow I thought that I was smart, I did not have so much money, and I was attracted by the title doctorate, so graduate school seemed to be right for me. My questions for graduate school then had less to do with how to succeed in graduate school, and become a professor. They had more to do with how to get in, and where to get in.

Now having been in graduate school for almost four years, I wished I had talked more to graduate students, newly minted professors, and  senior professors before embarking on this journey. I should have attended professional meetings such as American Sociological Association or Eastern Sociological Society annual meetings and learned about how papers got produced. Also questions such as how much a typical professional sociologist makes, and how many hours do they work per day, what constitutes their workflows are too important to not be asked. Yet I had no idea what question to be asked, or how to ask a question, or to whom my questions should be raised.

Now looking back I wish to know more about graduate school, especially what it entails to be a professional sociologist, how this job affects my daily life, and my relationship with people around me. Particularly in terms of work flow, I wish know three things: Writing, Writing, and Writing.

Undergraduate term writing is bad training.

My undergraduate major was in mathematics and history. For history, I had to write quite a few papers every semester. Yet, I always seemed to pull them off by binge-writing them a week or two before the due date. I always wrote something because somebody asked me to write those papers. The rubrics of how the papers were graded were always clear. I also had writing tutors, and writing partners to help me with the editting throughout four years. I was not the most brilliant writer, but I could write term papers.

In graduate school, term paper writing skill was the worst thing that I had learned. Why? Because after having written term papers for four years, I accumulated a bad habit and a wrong mentality that one could binge write, and that would be fine. Being a scientist in any field  means that one should write on a daily basis. Binge-writing is exhausting, and un-healthy. Binge-writing makes one hate writing.

What should have I learned about writing in college then? Fiction and non-fiction creative writing. Why? This type of writing requires one to sit down and learn how to be comfortable with one’s own creation. Creative writing is not something one can binge over night. Oftentimes, it takes a long time to brainstorm, and gestate. The skill developed over a long period of time would help one cultivate the right mindset about writing: everything needs to be in moderation.

When I complain about my relationship to writing, my therapist suggested that sometimes I need to vomit words out. I don’t want to feel so disgusting, and violent toward my writing. My approach is more gentle, and I would love to have a strong, understanding relationship with my writing. Over a period of three and a half years, my writing has evolved from the binge mentality to moderation mentality: that is, I write everyday now, instead of writing whenever there’s a stroke of inspiration.  Inspiration comes and goes everyday, but it comes in a very small portion. Often my writing inspiration does not announce its entrance. It walks by me like a beautiful fashionista on 5th Avenue. I need to quickly take mental notes of how it looks like, and try to recreate the image of it when I have a moment to sit down in front of a computer.

My relationship with writing has developed significantly, and my philosophy about writing has changed 100%. I am no longer binging. I can no longer binge write in graduate school. And binge writing makes me hate my creation, and myself. Therefore, one needs to know that writing papers in graduate school is different from writing papers in college. One should not binge, but should think about it as a piece of creative writing.

Authenticity is more important than original.

I have written about writing authentically vs. writing an original piece. Yes, despite the general belief that one needs to be an original thinker, when it comes to writing, just write a genuine piece. Do not overshoot for originality. Do not create unnecessary more pressure for oneself when it comes to writing. Authenticity is the key to open all writing doors. If one becomes more comfortable with oneself, and one’s writing, graduate school would become an incubator for both great thinking, great writing, and authentic ideas instead of original ideas.

Writing is your day job. 

Now I learn what a day job of a professor is: writing. One has to become familiar and comfortable with writing on a daily basis. At least 30 minutes of writing a day is advised for early graduate students, then the dose increases to 1 hour a day, and when one becomes more advanced, it would go up to 4 to 5 hours a day. That is a lot of writing. And it is exhausting. Thus binge writing is no longer an option. One has to really develop a nice relationship with writing.

Elizabeth Gilbert in Big Magic suggests that one can charm writing by dressing up for it; inspiration would come. Other people suggest that one should show up for writing. What they mean is to sit at one’s desk at the same time everyday, and work with one’s writing. Now it has become clear to me that writing itself is a character in my life. I am supposed to develop a healthy relationship with it. It is more akin to my intimate partner than a dependent co-worker. Writing sometimes has a rough day. Other times it’s whimsical and moody. So my best bet is to have strong communication with it. My writing is like a teenager now. It has some identity issue, yet it is full of potential. Thus constantly communicating with it, and getting feedback from it are necessary.

In summary, I wished that I knew that I would have to develop a strong relationship with my own writing in college in order to succeed in graduate school. Binge writing is bad, and it should not be a skill or mentality taught in either college or graduate school. Authenticity is important, and one should stop worrying too much about originality. Writing is a character, and one needs to understand one’s own writing thoroughly and intimately in order to enjoy the collaborative process with one’s own ability.

Not in use – Cafés Lie in Wait for Gentrifiers?

Since I moved to Harlem almost two years ago, I started to notice that a couple of cafes never became opened.  Then I started looking around, there are other beautiful buildings that are empty, and not housing anybody as well. This phenomenon raises various questions about housing value, and gentrification. For one, the in-progress cafes suggest some form of commercial gentrification, while the empty beautiful buildings suggest some form of speculative real-estate development activities.

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Walking on the main culinary street in my neighborhood, Frederick Douglass, I have seen that many new stores, cafes restaurants are popping up. Now we have a place to paint, and drink. It’s called Paint N Pour NYC. Last week when I walked by, I saw many adults tentatively draw on canvases. They wanted to let their inner child come out. They were bringing out their own Big Magic (to borrow Elizabeth Gilbert’s term). Yet, it felt very gentrifying to me. Then strolling another block northwards, I saw a real estate agency that was trying to help potential customers to find apartments and brown-stone houses in both Harlem, and elsewhere in New York. Real estate brokers are very active in Harlem. They have tried to brand the neighborhood as SOHA, a practice that has become commonplace and also controversial for many district neighborhoods in New York. Residents in Harlem fought tooth and nail to remove this name out of real estate agency’s listings, and branding. They succeeded in killing it from commercial purposes, yet I still hear it at times from local residents.

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One thing everyone can agrees on is that Harlem is gentrifying fast. I see new street names popping up every few weeks. For example, the building in front of my apartment building occupies technically an entire triangle-shaped block. Yet it is empty. Now it is called Matthew S. Turner Triangle. Something does not feel right about having an empty building occupy a fancy triangle.

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My feeling is that there is something that have to do with both commercial gentrification and residential gentrification in all of those processes and signs that one sees in Harlem. How do Harlem residents feel about these fast changes? 

It seems that landlords create not-in-use store fronts to bring in wealthy, hip, rich, young new customers for the buildings that they own. In the mean time, the city government  gives license for these places to run but without enforcing and checking when they should open. My former landlord in Harlem seemed to appreciate new restaurants, new resources that new residents bringing into the area. However, I am not sure if that other people would share the same feeling with her.

 

Writing on WordPress is a Form of Procrastination

Since reading Big Magic by Elizabeth Gilbert, I have recognized that there is a huge contradiction in how I create writing pieces. One the one hand, I love exploratory writing where I can freely put out my thoughts to the world. This blog is the main platform where my opinion is expressed. On the other hand, I hate writing structured pieces such as a 3000 word report of data analysis. Originally I assumed that if I did exploratory writing well, I would be able to produce scholarly writing without any difficulty. What became apparent was that even when I mastered the first form of writing, the second does not become any easier. Lately following Gilbert’s advice about being a prolific writer, I started to be able to write a blog post on a daily basis. The prolificity model that she promotes has worked on me. Then another realization hit me: I procrastinate by producing on WordPress. How can I explain this contradiction?

Because my work requires a lot of researching and writing, writing on WordPress seems to be compatible to what I am supposed to do on a daily basis. It is no longer a hobby. My mind started to think about writing on WordPress as a part of my work flow. This is dangerous. It is procrastination. At the inception of this blog, it took me a lot of time and effort to think about a topic to write, and oftentimes one blog post took me a week or two to complete. Writing on WordPress was simply for me to practice my writing skills. After a period of one and a half years, I gradually shifted from writing reflection on my laptop, to write reflections, and suggestions for the wider audience on my blog. Something about the act of sharing my writing to the wider audience makes the blog a more appealing platform than writing my own diary. 

In many ways, this blog has help me achieve one goal, which is that my writing has improved a lot since the first post. It now takes a lot less time now for me to conceptualize one blog post, and write it from the start to finish. Yet I still suck at other aspects of blogging such as public sociology, audience engagement.

How come writing on my blog is so much easier than writing for a professional audience? I thought that more constraints could be liberating? Blog is a free-format writing, it should be more difficult. In the past year, I struggled writing a book review of only 400 words to submit to a journal, yet I would freely write 2000 words for a book review that I self publish on WordPress. My content creation activity on WordPress is emotionally and psychologically fulfilling. I derive some benefit from being a creative producer of some content where I can be in charge of the production and distribution process. However, all the financial gains do not go to me, but to WordPress because they can reap the advertisement money that my readers would see when they read my blog.

On WordPress, in order to be a content creator, and distributor, and using WordPress for free, I need to create something, while the financial benefit will not go to me anytime soon unless my blog is wildly successful. Given the focus of the blog (mostly on sociological topics including inequality, automation, immigration, urban consumption, or personal topics including going through graduate school, or running) I don’t think that it would be a super popular blog. Therefore, I do not think that I can monetize or have any economic gain via writing on WordPress. In a sense my graduate school, is subsidizing me to contribute to the growing enterprise of WordPress because I get paid from my school to do free intellectual activity on WordPress.

If I am strictly a rational economic actor, I should write to publish in professional journals more. They help me in a long run with my career prospects. Yet, I am addicted to writing and publishing on WordPress. What explains this addictive behavior?

One reason could be that I can freely create without having to censor myself, or having the fear that what I say is not intelligent enough, or not theoretical enough. What I express on this blog is solely my opinion, and it feels genuine. This is the freedom of form, and technical frameworks of WordPress allows that keeps me coming back to write more.  Even though most of my blog posts don’t attract a large number of audience, I feel that my urge to create something is expressed. Most of my readers do not comment on my writing, or engage with my opinion on certain topics. Thus, this blog is not really about initiating a discussion, or changing the discourse around certain topics.

Still what is it about this act of writing that makes me so addicted? Whenever I go out for a run, the first thing I want to think about is what are some ideas that I can explore on my blog. What will my next post be about? How should I write about it? This production cycle occurs to me almost on a daily basis. It has almost become second nature to me now. I wish that I have mastered a similar production cycle for my research work. How can I continuously brainstorm for the next research project, and how can I churn out something that feels genuine, and right, and good within the cycle of 24 hours? This is very challenging. How can I create the same flow in my professional life?

Despite various difficulties in my professional life, I have started to make some progress. For example, I wrote a Welcome to New York letter (the student edition) for a professional conference in sociology in the summer. The editor said my piece was charming. That comment really made my day. She clearly recognized the authenticity of that letter. Even though it took me two weeks to finalize the letter, I am now happy that I actually wrote it. Indeed authenticity is also a secret ingredient to lure the Big Magic in my profession to me.

Even though I have been spending too much time writing on WordPress, which would financially benefit somebody else instead of myself, I am gradually seeing the various benefits that it brings to me. Do I regret that I am spending more time on this blog than on my professional writing? Yes, but not entirely. I now actually wish that there are more platforms for me to express my opinion, and churn my thoughts into written pieces.

 

Signing up for Marathons

Over the weekend, I signed up for two races: one is the Shape’s women half marathon in New York on April 15th, and the other is the Philadelphia Marathon in the third week of November. After my announcement that I would start running, and training for races, suggestions of where to run, and which race to participate began to trickle in. Many told me to run for the world famous New York Marathon, or the Boston Marathon, both of which have a lottery system. I entered the lottery for the New York Marathon this year, and did not get it. So maybe I’ll have more luck next year. Currently, I am also looking for a third race to run in the summer. If you know of a summer race that will take place somewhere in the Northeast, please let me know in the comment section.

After I signed up for the two races, I found my motivation for training. My schedule has been busy lately. It has to do with preparation for the orals exam which will take place in the next three weeks. The only way that I prepare for the test is to read constantly for at least 6 hours a day. Every day I would fill out my schedule with reading from sun rise to sun set. Sometimes I become too lazy because reading takes a lot of mental energy. Then my body does not want to move. I just sit on a couch in my living room, which is connected to the kitchen. When I read, I drink coffee, or tea. When I feel hungry, I go to the kitchen, make some food, and then get back to reading. My body feels lethargic. My muscles often fall asleep. Basically I have stopped running for almost two weeks. The number on my Fitbit app does not look good. I average around less than 5 miles a day in terms of walking. That does not look good.

When I signed up for the races, I recognized that I need to be back in shape, and train for the races. Right before the snowstorm hit New York on Sunday, I saw a two hour window to run. So I put my shoes on, and headed to Central Park. Contrary to my expectation, the park was full with runners, joggers, cyclists, and of course tourists. We all tried to take advantage of the last hours when one could still see the sun, breath the fresh air.

It started out as a good run. I decided to not listen to any music. Instead, I followed advice from Digital Minimalism by Cal Newport that I should spend time to indulge in my own thinking. I figure if I run for an hour, and not listen to any music, I could do a lot of thinking. I used it for my intellectual development, my creative work, and creative living. I did precisely just that. I headed out without my regular Mp3 device. Instead I started running, and focused on my thought. I wasn’t easy at first because without earphones, my ears started picking up chatter around me, car noise, and other kind of noises. In other words, instead of the rosy pictures that I usually pain on this blog about running at Central Park, in reality I experienced all kind of noise pollution. These noises were not at all conducive to productive thinking. Yet I still enjoyed my run, and at some point started to brainstorm ideas for the next blog posts. In the end, within an hour, I came up with a few blog ideas, and eventually I did write them down for future use.

In the first 2.5 miles, nothing extraordinary happened. Then when I made a U-turn to go home, my left knee gave up. It started to hurt, and running was no longer an option. I started to walk, and slowly walked home instead. The walk was not the most productive time for thinking because my knee reminded me how fragile and limited my body was. My knee constantly reminded me of the pain instead of being a part of my body which I could rely on. I spent the rest of the exercise thinking about why my knee started to hurt at that exact moment? Did I put too much pressure on it?

Here are a few hypotheses that I came up with:

(1) My right knee started hurting the day before. Therefore, during the run I needed to shift the weight to my left knee, after a while the left knee gave up because of too much weight and pressure.

(2) I overkilled the run because I had not trained at all for the previous 7 days. I should not have run for 3 miles straight after many days not doing anything.

(3) I did not have the right shoes. My Nike shoes were good for walking, but not for running. I should buy myself a new pair of shoes that are appropriate for long distance running. In other words, I can buy stuff to fix my knee problem.

(4) My friend, who is a long-distance runner, suggested that because I did not warm up properly before running, my knees hurt. He sent me an article that specifies that runners need to warm up before each run, so that they don’t get any injury in a long run. Furthermore he gave me a formula for each exercise: 15 mins warming up, 60 mins running, 10 mins cool down. I contested that it would too much time. He argued that it is worth it because 85 mins of exercise could reduce all the stress that one accumulates during the course of one’s PhD career.

Three out of the four hypotheses (No. 1,2 & 4) have to do with my laziness, and cutting-corner mentality. I want to not put in the work, but want to reap the joy and benefit of long distance running. What they all point to is that I need to take this activity seriously, and that I can reduce the amount of time running, but increase the time warming up, and preparing my body to handle the demanding tasks of running almost 6 miles an hour. This requires a change of mindset. The other hypothesis has to do with how I treat my feet, and the financial investment that I need to put in in order to become a serious and committed runner. In other words, of course running does not require a lot of financial investment like yoga, or cycling, or fencing does, one still needs to put in some  minimum investment. One needs the right shoes, and sometimes right pants, and shirts. This change only requires some financial investment. In other word, it is a problem that has a market solution.

Over the course of only one day, when I registered for a couple of races, and after my knees got some minor injuries, I learned a few new running lessons: (1) If I set a solid deadline, I would put more time and effort in training; (2) in order to run in professional races, I need to take it seriously, which requires two changes: physical and emotional. I need to maintain my body well in order for it to perform well before, during and after the races. I also need to protect my feet, and have the right form when running in order to avoid injuries. Hopefully from now until the first race on April 15th, my body will not get any injury, and that I can breeze through the 13 mile competition.

Authenticity as a Way to Think about Scholarly Creativity

I don’t often think about the word “authenticity” when it comes to scholarly writing. My understanding is that scholarly work has to be original. Thus scholarly writing has to be also original. However, most of the times, when I talk about an idea, someone has done some “proprietary phrase coining” already: that is, they have already claimed certain idea, certain concept, and christened it with the most esoteric phrase ever. I often feel like I have no original thought, or have no potential to contribute to scholarly literature that I am consuming ever. I feel trapped.

Last week, when I wrote a review for the book Big Magic by Elizabeth Gilbert, something changed. Gilbert suggested that one should keep creating because it doesn’t matter whether somebody has created it before. What matters is that it feels genuine because it is created by you and not somebody else. The concept that she evokes is authenticity.

This got me thinking about the dull activity of writing literature review. By definition literature review is not original. It is a summary of prior research. I never got myself to do it right. I never get excited when I have to repeat what I know. I detest it to be honest. I cry my heart out every single time. I wonder whether somebody can teach me a hack so I can crack the code of literature review in sociology. It is a pain in the neck. It is the necessary chore like doing laundry but no body wants to do it. How can a scholar do it beautifully, and gracefully? Every time when I engage in a new project, I think that literature review is that which really holds me back. I ask myself: how can I read all the work, understand the fundamental ideas, yet I utterly fail to produce a summary of prior research and their findings? I feel ashamed of myself every time this happens.

Gilbert provides a different understanding of what it means to create and what it means to write. To Gilbert, a creative person has a burning desire to create something. It doesn’t have to be original, novel, or ground-breaking. As long as this person produces something that she desires to make, she is a creative person. This definition really gave me some relief. Being a scholar is to be original. This tremendous pressure has made me feel like a loser every time because I don’t feel like I am such an original thinker. Every single time when I thought of doing something new, some other scholar has already done it. Yet having read so much interesting sociology literature, I am burning with the desire to contribute to the field. Honestly I love sociology, and I want to make a dent in this world through this field. Suddenly something clicks. Gilbert’s advice suddenly makes sense.

By Gilbert’s definition, I am a creative person. I want to create something within the field of sociology. I am burning with the desire to write something, to create some research, and test hypotheses. Yet, a couple of things that are holding me back are literature review, and figuring out a good research question. In terms of literature review, I might not be able to write the most comprehensive summary of literature ever, but I can write an authentic one because I am the only one who sees the world that way. It will read like a paragraph written by me. That is more important than having a world-shaking literature review. This idea really gives me some hope.

Then I look more into the history of this idea, “authenticity.” In my field, sociology, I remember reading about”urban authenticity.” The concept was being used and scrutinized by Sharon Zukin in Naked City. Last time when I applied her conception of authenticity to urban consumption, I learned:

If authenticity is a state of mind, it’s historic, local and cool. But if authenticity is a social right, it’s also poor, ethnic and democratic.

The concept has to do with social right, poor-ness, ethnicity, and democracy in the urban context of gentrification. Yet in her book Zukin traces the historical development of the concept. It meant pretty differently at the beginning:

In Western culture the idea of authenticity arose between the ages of Shakespeare and Rousseau, when men and women began to think about an authentic self as an honest or a true character, in contrast to an individual’s dishonesty, on the one han , and to society’s false morality, on the other…. Men and women are authentic if they are closer to nature – or to the way intellectuals imagine a state of nature to be – than to the institutional disciplines of power.

Zukin establishes the intellectual history of the concept “authenticity,”  and shows that it arose somewhere between the ages of Shakespeare and Rousseau. Furthermore, she emphasizes that Rousseau changed our understanding of what an authentic individual is: to be closer to nature and further away from “corrupted or artificially constructed” institutional life of society.

Why should I feel that my piece of writing is authentic? Why should it be more productive and fulfilling than original? How can I make a claim of authenticity? What does it take to produce something that is authentic? How does it make a difference? Is it just another way to say the same thing?

I am not 100% sure how to answer those questions. One thing I know for sure is that the idea that whatever created by me is authentic because I was the one who brought it to life is enough. It does not matter if it is similar to my neighbor’s writing. It’s my own creation. I should be proud that I own it. Then I move on, and create something new. Maybe out of 10 authentic things, I will get one original thing, but the creative momentum is there. I am not bogged down by the tremendous pressure of being original all the time. No one can be original all the time. But everyone can be authentic 100% of the time. This is the beauty of this formula.

Digital De-cluster: Apps-Cleansing

Last week I wrote a review of the book Digital Minimalism by Cal Newport, which gave me some ideas about how I can make my life more simple so that I can focus on doing important things to my professional and private life. To summarize, the main idea is relatively simple: whatever digital tools you don’t need, eliminate it, and do not regret that you have left it out of your life. Do not internalize the fear of missing out is the big message. In Newport’s own words, the definition of this philosophy is as follows:

Digital Minimalism is a philosophy of technology use in which you focus your online time on a small number of carefully selected and optimized activities that strongly support things you value and then happily miss out on everything else.

Newport suggests three steps to take in order to de-cluster one’s digital life:

  • Step 1: Define your technology rules
  • Step 2: take a 30 day break
  • Step 3: reintroduce technology

Before taking those steps, I needed to figure out for myself what is important to my life at this point, and what are my goals. My conclusion is that I want to claim back my time and attention for three important tasks: (1) to get enough time to study for my oral exams; (2) to be able to focus to be creative with my writing; (3) to claim time for my hobby: running. With those three goals in mind, I started to clarify each step in more details.

In the first step, I defined for myself what optional technologies are. They include Twitter, Facebook, and all gossiping news channel on the Internet. I deleted all the apps that take too much of my attention. Almost all of them are social media apps including Twitter, Facebook, and Skype. I recognized that if I really need these platforms, I could go to their websites, and get information from there. Surprisingly all Amazon apps (Amazon Prime, Amazon Now, etc.) were also deleted. I discovered in the previous months that I spent way too much time on Amazon looking at consumer goods, and spending way too much money on unnecessary items such as sweet almond oil one extra pair of tooth brushes because they were on discount. Deleting Amazon helps me to get back my precious time, and preserve my little amount of money in my saving account. What is even more surprising is the biggest culprit of them all: EMAIL! Emails do really make me feel stupid, and be “enslaved” to other people’s demand.

The act of deleting these apps already made me feel so liberating. In order to de-cluster even more in the realm of emails, I started to unsubscribe to all mailing lists that I do not read, which keep crowding out my email space, and make me feel guilty that I do not read them. Yet, I know that this is only temporary because I will subscribe to many more in the future. That means I need to do an email purge periodically. Or the act of de-clustering should be done every once in a while. One should build it into one’s work flow. Maybe one should do de-clustering every other month, or once every quarter. Declustering also means re-evaluating one’s priorities in life in relations to work, and personal happiness.

Even though Newport suggests that one should take a 30 day break from technologies (which do not critically affect one’s professional life), I think a 2-week experiment could already tell whether his tips work. Therefore, I give myself a two week trial, and see if I can keep following his advice. This week is only the first week, that means I am only half way through step 2. In one week, I will report what happens in the next seven days, and what apps/ digital platforms that I think are necessary to re-introduce into my life.

In the past one week, the experiment has shown me that I have somewhat gained some independence from my iPhone.  Without the email app on it, the phone serves a few simple functions including texting, calling, and sometimes reading news. I feel less attached to it.

I especially need a period of uninterrupted time to study for my orals exam. Thus, this de-clustering experience really helps me to squeeze out some extra time for work, and gain me some peace of mind to focus on what is essential for my intellectual life.

What I find so powerful about Newport’s suggestion is that I am allowed to ignore the unessential things, and that I can be unapologetic about ignoring them. This is the “POWER OF IGNORANCE.” One is happier, and more focused when one’s ignorant really. In the age of info-glut, ignorance is a good virtue. One does not need to know everything. Wikipedia needs to know everything. Human beings should live an examined life, feel productive, and be able to contribute to society. I feel empowered by this. I no longer pay attention to trivial things. I don’t feel like I need to know everything.

One question after deleting those apps is how to use my time productively? Newport suggests that I can spend it on being not connected because unconnectedness is actually good for my mental and psychological well beings. For example, I could spend time alone, exploring my own thought, being uninterrupted by other people’s thoughts and opinion. That is to say, I should seriously spend time on giving credits to my own original thoughts. As a knowledge worker, I cannot agree more. He basically argues that my opinion and originality matter, and that in order to acknowledge their values, I need to spend time more with them, and more for them. Walking around the neighborhood, or in the park alone is one of the ways in which I can spend time on my own feet with my own thoughts.

This advice suddenly gives a different function into my daily walk and run. Normally I conceptualize that running and walking are physical exercise whereby the main focus is on my physical well-being. Hence, I often listen to a podcast or music to keep a fast pace rhythm, or to not have to focus on my thoughts. Now Newport changes this practice. He suggests that I should redirect these exercises functions: from physical to intellectual. I stop listening to podcast or music when I run in Central Park, and when I take a long walk from home to City College to teach. Cal Newport mentioned that he lives about a mile away from MIT when he was in grad school. To my amusement, and also surprise, I also live exactly 1 mile away from City College. This makes the walk to the college the more enjoyable, and more intellectual. This week, I spend the time to think about what I would talk with my students about,  how can I improve their learning experience, or how I can formulate the introduction to an academic paper that I am writing. I start to enjoy my walk all the more. Thinking does not require me to sit still at a cubicle with pen and paper. Thinking can happen anywhere as long as I can focus my attention. I have been doing it wrong all along by wasting my short attention span on listening to millions interesting podcast on the Internet, and taking my eye off the ball.

Overall, the experience has been delightful. By participating in the two-week self-imposed experiment, I learned a lot more about myself, how I spend time, and what my priories at the moment were.When the goals became more clear, I could adjust how I would achieve these goals, and how I could cut down on unnecessary activities. In exactly one week, I will report how I feel after the entire experiment, and what I think about the digital minimalism philosophy.

 

 

 

Ubiquitous computerization: The Case of New York

If you have seen Black Mirror season 1, you probably still remember episode 2 where character Bing is surrounded by TV screens 24/7. He lives in a world where everybody is surveilled, and measured constantly. It feels as if he was living in a reality TV show all the time.

Image result for black mirror season 1 episode 2

When I watched this episode the first time, I wondered what it felt like to be surrounded by TV screens 24/7. Later on I learned about the concept “ubiquitous computing,” which refers to when computing appears every time, every where, in any location, and in any format. In many ways, we are already experiencing this ubiquitous computing with portable devices such as smartphones, Apple watch, and Fitbit. We are connected 24/7. Our personal data is collected constantly.

Suddenly, on the way to work in the past few days, I realized that New York City is experiencing intensifying ubiquitous computerization. LinkNYC kiosks appear everywhere.  They help New Yorkers to connect with free Wi-Fi service instantaneously. And the Internet speed is exceptionally fast. Who wouldn’t want to use that? Increasingly, New York City is investing in tech infrastructure, and other social infrastructure in order to lure tech companies. Thus an intensification of technological infrastructure is inevitable.

image.jpgThe city is increasingly more connected. Inside the subway system, one sees more screens.

CAADE57B-2866-42E0-BB1B-4BB10902E034.jpeg

So in addition to screen time from one’s computers, smartphones, and other electronic devices, one is now surrounded with more screens, planted by the city government in an attempt to modernize New York, and to make this city ever more connected.

Yet this attempt to make New York more and more connected should be met with healthy criticisms.  One the one hand, I see that there is an intensification of technology in our daily life. On the other hand, I do not see how cosmetic technological fix would make any meaningful change to solve an analog problem. Take the subway system for example. How can seeing more screens being put inside the subway station would fix the out-dated train system that has not gotten any new investment for decades? What one needs to fix the mass transit crisis in New York is not some new screens, but just solid century-old mechanical engineering. New Yorkers deserve clean stations, safe and functioning trains. Those bare minimum requirements have not been met for decades. Yet once the crisis broke out, the city and particularly its IT department wants to beautify those stations by exposing New Yorkers to more screen time. I don’t see how getting more screen time would improve the basic transportation needs for New Yorkers.

This experience leads me to think more about how tech would be able to “disrupt” or “change” or “make the world a better place.” Without doubt, technology has been able to enhance our experience in various aspects of life. Yet it has not been able to replace material production, and the core services such as transportation, which are still provided pretty much by human. In other words, I am questioning how the tech industry can substantially change the world if other infrastructure have not been well-designed, and well-implemented.

Another concern that I have about ubiquitous computing is its impact on our psychological health. In the book Digital Minimalism, Computer Scientist Cal Newport makes the point that in order to ensure our productivity, and happiness, we should limit our screen time. It is an important idea for workers and parents nowadays. I am already connected 24/7 via my smart phone. I am also connected to the world via the Internet through my laptop, which is often been carried around on my purse. Now, even when I go to work on the subway, and take a walk in my neighborhood, I can hypothetically be connected via LinkNYC, or other types of screens. This ubiquitous connection makes me feel dizzy, and stressed. No wonder why whenever I feel too stressed, and unwind, I want to get away to the Catskills or somewhere upstate New York, where big screens leave space for forests, creeks, and big sky. In other words, with ubiquitous computing, city residents are experiencing even more intense pressure on their mental and psychological well beings.

I wish there are more places in New York like Central Park where one can stay away from connectivity. In Manhattan, Central Park is the only place where LinkNYC has not intruded yet. It’s the last piece of land near where I live where I can still breath fresh air, and smell morning grass. This following map shows the coverage of LinkNYC.

nyc_payphones_map.png

Originally, when I first watched Black Mirror, I thought ubiquitous computing was  science fiction. After only a couple of years, with the increasing presence of various devices in my surrounding including voice assisted tools such as Alexa, Siri, and smarter and smarter smartphones, I realize that this idea is becoming reality. However, one does not really know what the unintended consequences of this idea are to our wellbeing and happiness.

Hacker Culture Becoming Mainstream?

While writing review of two books: The Mastermind and Bad Blood, I noticed that organizations described in them consciously employed hacking as main ways to solve problems. In the case of the Mastermind, the entire enterprise where Paul le Roux built was centered around hack culture. He figured out various loopholes in the American health care system, and exploited those loopholes to sell painkillers on the Internet. In Evan Ratliff’s words, le Roux often hacks his way out of a situation:

Typical of Le Roux, the plan was kind of hack. Just as he had exploited a hole in the American healthcare system to sell painkillers, he planned to take advantage of a dysfunctional government to exploit the resources it couldn’t harvest.

Sitting in his headquarters in the Philippines, he could mobilize more than 1,000 employees across the world to work for his many companies. He hacked his way into becoming a mastermind of the dark web. In Bad Blood, Elizabeth Holmes’s team of engineers, and scientists at some point had to buy Siemens’s industrial blood testing machine, took it apart, and did reverse-engineering, hoping that they could shrink the German engineering  device into a portable size. They wanted to hack their way to success.

Hacker culture started out as a subculture of people who enjoyed “the intellectual challenge of creatively overcoming limitations of software systems to achieve novel and clever outcomes.” That is to say, originally it was confined pretty much among software engineers, and computer scientists. However since 1990, tech companies have been growing very fast, and drawing a huge swath of creative workers for employment. Companies such as Google, and Facebook encourage their workers to play while at work. They have become powerful organizations where their work culture is revered, and influential. From the periphery of the economy in Silicon Valley, they are now influencing politics, media, culture, and education. In other words, their work culture is increasingly becoming mainstream. Hacker culture is no longer a sub-culture.

Gradually the tech industry is now spreading all over the United States, and also around the globe. Companies such as Google and Facebook are no longer just sitting in the Bay Area. They have offices all over the world. They are going to main street of every city. In New York, they are closer to Wall Street, than to universities. Their workers are now bringing their creative vibe with them to every corner of the city. In a few years, I wonder whether schools, and universities will adopt this culture as a way to move forward in the twenty-first century. Will schools organize “hack” events where students identify loopholes in some systems, given it’s school system, food systems, healthcare systems, etc. Then they will think about a way in which they could monetize their hack by coming up with a solution to manipulate the loopholes that they identify. It seems the more loopholes the better for a hack culture. Will regulations and system designers learn from those hacks, and work with hackers to identify problems, and help them solve problems?

Hacker culture seems to be no longer contained in the tech world. It seems to spread outside of that confinement, and is inserting its influence in other industries. Put another way, hacker cultures is becoming mainstream.

Book Review: Big Magic – Elizabeth Gilbert

What do artists do when they are not inspiring, and having no new ideas for the next project? is the question that Elizabeth Gilbert attempts to answer in her self-help guide Big Magic. I read this guide with an eye for tips and stories about how one can lead a creative life on a daily basis especially when one has no big ideas in mind to turn them into successful projects. The author as a novelist, a writer writes from her own creative experience. She advocates for a creative living, within which an artist, an author can keep creating what they love most without being burdened by their art. In other words, in order to create something original, one needs to lead the life of a creative person. That is when “Big Magic” happens.

I have learned quite a few useful advice from this book. One is that I need to hone my skills daily even if I do not have any single idea that could potentially turn into a book project or something significant. The idea is that one needs to spend time with one’s craft as much as one can. Over time, one would accumulate enough knowledge, and skills in order to perform a task with speed, light, and also delight.

Second, one ought to talk to one’s fear. Creative and fear go together. They are strange bed fellows. Yet whenever one starts a new creative project, fear would creep in. Fear comes in different forms and shapes. The fancy version is perfectionism, while the normal version is anxiety. Two models of writers that Gilbert examines are perfectionism model, and prolificity model, and she advocates that one should be prolific rather than perfectionist. This is a common advice that one would receive if one is a working writer in the 21st century, where more is better than less. Her example of a perfectionist writer was Harper Lee, the author of To Kill a Mockingbird. Lee never wrote anything after the success of her novel because after the peak, there is only one way to go. Gilbert wish that Lee had written more regardless of the quality of the work that she produced after her novel. The idea was that one should “write and publish ruthlessly, and abandon it. Unapologetic about your creativity, and where it would lead you.” There is so much confidence, so much force in Gilbert’s advice. Everyone should roll out like a ball, and once your creativity is unleashed, never try to contain it ever again.

Another idea that I think is very important for burgeoning artist, writer is to define oneself, and claim one’s identity. As a teenage sociologist, I am still not comfortable with my professional identity. Therefore, I have trouble creating something, and put a label sociological on it. From now on, I will say

I’m a sociologist

And

whatever I create is sociological.

Gilbert states:

Speak it. This proclamation of intent and entitlement is not something you can do just once and then expect miracles; it’s something you must do daily, forever…. I’ve had to keep defining and defending myself as a writer every single day of my adult life – constantly reminding and re-rending my soul and the cosmos that I’m very serious about the business of creative living, and that I will never stop creating, no matter what the outcome, and no matter how deep my anxieties and insecurities may be.

I will claim my identity, and identity of my work on a daily basis. I will assert my ownership on it. This is the only practice that could help me assure that I am doing what is right for me, my career, and also my creative force in me.

One of the most strange advice that I think Gilbert gives is to be in a love affair with your creativity. “Stop treating your creativity like it’s a tired, old, unhappy marriage and start regarding it with the fresh eyes of a passionate lover.” Having a love affair means that one can squeeze every single moment out of a day to have time with this affair. Do I love sociology and writing that much in order to squeeze every single moment out of my day to spend time with them? I think my love for them is growing, but it is the kind of arranged marriage love, where love, compassion, respect are growing with time when two people have spent sufficient time to know about each other. Gilbert said no, you should not have that kind of slow-brewing emotion toward each other. You need to embrace your creativity with passion, with energy, with intensity like having an affair. This sounds scary to me because in my mind I know that an affair is something that is fleeting, something that is not sustainable. Maybe fleeting is the right feeling because every creative project is a fleeting affair. After one project goes, another one should comes right in. Anyhow, I think I get this. I will put force into each project, and embrace them with all time, emotion, and energy that I have in order to produce one that I am passionately in love with.

As an academic, I work from home more often that I’d like to. Lately I have moved my work station to school library where I feel as if everyone is watching me. I should stop goofing, and start focusing on my writing, or my reading. The presence of other student fellows makes me feel conscious about my work ethic. Gilbert suggests that one needs to dress up to charm one’s creativity. Do not wear pajama. Do not look sloppy. Put on a nice dress, put on some make up, put on some perfume. Everything nice is good. Let’s go on a date with creativity.  I swear to God, if this trick works, I will dress the best in my home office to create some sociological imagination from now on. No more pajama at the writing desk, no more peanut butter and pickle when I cant find inspiration. I will go out on a date with my creativity every time when I get to the work table. It sounds like fun, and it sounds like I’m embracing my collaboration with my creativity.

Being able to create something meaningful and beautiful is a choice and a privilege. Gilbert helps me to think about my relationship with my creative feeling and thinking. She suggests that one should treat creativity like how one treats a dearest friend because the relationship is the most stable one especially for a creative person. Without love and care, this relationship would not last. Therefore, one needs to embrace it, care for it, and grow it.

 

Book Review: The Mastermind by Evan Ratliff

Sometimes I ask myself, why people especially men are obsessed with action movies, and thrillers? What is that in hyper violent scenes that mesmerize the masculine mind? Yet, I recently found myself completely captivated by one such case: Paul le Roux  through the mesmerizing book: The Mastermind by Evan Ratliff. The book hooked me from the very beginning when it opens with the mysterious murder of Catherine Lee, a real estate agent in the Philippines. Then Evan Ratliff introduced me to the world of criminals, law enforcement, and trans-border pharmaceutical and drug business. Even though it is not a work of fiction, I feel like I was introduced to a new world that I would never experience myself in real life. I felt the urgency of each scene, the severity of each action taken by the characters. The question of why one gets captivated by thrillers became less mysterious to me. The reason is that one’s adrenaline gets pumped up when the story gets unraveled.

Similar to how John Carreyrou reconstructs the case of Theranos  in Bad Blood, Even Ratliff tells the story of how Paul le Roux made money via selling painkillers online to American customers, and how his organization was brought down. The two books are similar in telling a story of how an organization became so successful in a short period of time, and then dismantled because of their illegal practices, and their disrespect for customers’ health consequences. Yet, Theranos was a legit company with an unrealistic product, while Paul Le Roux’s RX Limited was illegal by design. The case of RX Limited cautions the readers about the dark web, where technologically advanced criminals can manipulate the Internet, and exploit users’ weaknesses, and legal loopholes to make money.

Paul le Roux created a sophisticated network of companies that spanned many countries. The network he created was called RX Limited. He exploited loopholes in American healthcare system to sell painkillers online for American customers. Paul was not an American passport holder. He’s born in Zimbabwe, raised briefly in South Africa. He operated his entire operation from his home and office in the Philippines where law enforcement could be bribed, and politicians could be bought.

How could a South African men operating his business from the Philippines could run a huge network of pharmacies, call centers, and manipulating doctors to sell painkillers to American consumers? He used the Internet. He recruited doctors, pharmacies, employees, and advertised to customers via the Internet. This one-man empire was so expansive, and impressive that everyone had to agree that he’s really a mastermind.

If Paul le Roux’s greed stopped at only selling painkillers to Americans, his case would not have been so news-worthy.  “He made money from pharmacies, and then he decided that he wanted to make more money, fast,” one of his employees confessed. He wanted to be bigger, and operated more in the realm of illegal. He became internationally famous, after having earned millions of dollars from selling painkillers to Americans, and expanded his business to other criminal ventures such as selling arms, trading narcotics, and killing his own subordinates. These deeds were enough to make him one of the most infamous criminals of the twenty first century. And not surprisingly, American Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) was after him.

What was most surprising about his story was that after being captured by the DEA, he turned himself in as an informant. In other words, he willingly cooperated with the US government, so that his subordinates could be captured as well. Evan Ratliff argues that this event really changed the course of how Paul le Roux was tried, and how this case was so different from other cases. Normally law enforcers would capture subordinates, hoping that gradually they would be able to capture the boss sitting on top of the pyramid. In this case, the pyramid was reversed. The drug enforcers captured the boss first, and then used the boss to captures the underlings. By doing so, they government created an air of secrecy around the case, which made Evan Ratliff’s reporting to be both valuable, and unexpected. At courts, defendants and their lawyers often quoted his reporting as if they were truth because the boss was under American government’s protection and was not available as witness.  In other words, the man who created the entire empire, the one who knew most about the entire case was not available to testify. Thus, everybody had to use hypotheses, and reconstruction of the story by a journalist to make their case hurt. This is a perverse dilemma.

The book reads like a detective story with many surprising twists and turns. It started out with a story of a painkiller online drug law, to various mission impossible of a criminal king, and finally it ends by exposing various problems associated with American criminal justice system. As a sociologist, I read it with an eye toward social problems, and the book is filled with social, structural problems to keep my mind engaged. There is the problem of regulation on the Internet. There is the question of transnational organization. Closer to home is the question of what American criminal justice system actually does. Does it want to protect its own citizens, or does it want to fish international drug lords out of their water?

In short, the book is full of thrilling details, which could help it make a blockbuster movie. All the elements of lust, greed, violence, and betrayal in this book promise that movie goers would have a mesmerizing and unsettling experience. More importantly, after one finishes reading it, one has to ask questions about the rise of the Internet, the fragmented nature of organization in a global economy, and the logic and purpose of law enforcement. Those are difficult questions to answer, but the book has successfully raised them to the reader.

 

Book Review: Digital Minimalism

Struggling to get off Facebook addiction has been on of my problems for along time. I remember joining Facebook sometime after high school. It was  useful because it helps me to connect with friends, and find long-lost connections. Increasingly, it has become a tool which my parents use to keep updated about where I go, and what I do without having to ask where I have recently spent time. However, in college I started to be aware of my addiction to Facebook. During exam time, I would de-activate my account. At that time, I did not even have a smart phone. Therefore, I only checked Facebook feeds using a computer. Still it was a huge struggle. Then I read Deep Work by Cal Report, which suggests that in order to be a knowledge worker, one needs to stay away from digital distraction including social media, and emails. They are only there to distract. They don’t contribute to the base line of intense intellectual work. That was a brilliant advice. I started to turn off my cell phone during classes, and during work. Yet I was still hooked to Facebook until this very winter, when I decided to not check Facebook for weeks in a row. This purposely not checking Facebook has helped me claim back time to do something else more productive. Then Cal Newport published a new book: Digital Minimalism .

The book  is a non fiction, popular book, yet Cal Newport uses evidence from the most recent research on online communications and behavioral psychology to back his arguments. It starts with an observation that “social media is new tobacco.” Put it differently, social media are addictive, and it is not unintentional. He claims that tech companies encourage this behavioral addiction from users. The two mechanisms that these companies can keep users on their platforms are intermittent positive reinforcement and the drive for social approval. One is how the platform is designed, while the other has to do with the fact that as social beings, we yearn for social approval. Exploiting this combination by using designs, and algorithms that keep us spending numerous hours on their platforms is what social media companies are doing. This mindless spending time on these platforms and other digital distractions is bad for our productivity, happiness, and social relations, Newport claims. Therefore we have to claim back our happiness, freedom, and productivity by systematically rethink about our relationship with digital communication tools.

Newport’s solution is “digital minimalism,” which is a philosophy, and as a practice. He writes:

Digital Minimalism is a philosophy of technology use in which you focus your online time on a small number of carefully selected and optimized activities that strongly support things you value and then happily miss out on everything else.

In other words, one needs to be mindful of what is essential, and what is not. There are more distractions in the online world than what one wants. Therefore, one needs to be selective of what one is doing online (both with a computer, and with a smart phone).

Why digital over-consumption is bad?

Because it affects our psychological well-being, and destroys high quality communication. Citing various psychology and behavior research, Newport argues that digital over-consumption, and digital communication via text messages, facebooking, and tweeting increases our anxiety level. One can say that we are living in the age of ultra-anxiety because of the ubiquitous of the Internet. Everywhere one turns, there is a device that is connected to the Internet. We have to make a conscious decision now to stay off-line. And being constantly connected is not a good thing for human psychology.

It affects the quality of our communication, and friendship. Having one or two friends with whom one can rant for hours about a bad relationship, bad boss, or the traffic is better than being connected to 1000+ “friends” on Facebook, whose attention to you is less than 30 seconds. It is a trade off between quality and quantity. It seems to be counter-intuitive to think that in order to be happier, one needs to limit one’s friend circle. Newport argues that it is a natural process. Once one puts a cap on how many people one can care about, the number of such people would drop naturally.

The more conversation you want to have, the fewer friends you will have: Conversation-centric communication requires sacrifices. If you adopt this philosophy, you’ll almost certainly reduce the number of people for which you can uphold this standard will be significantly less than the total number of people you can follow, retweet, “like,” and occasionally leave a comment for on social media, or ping with the occasional text. Once you no longer count the latter activities as meaningful interaction, your social circle will seem at first to contract.

Because communication is so essential to human need, we have figured out how to do it right for a long time. Communication technology has really changed how we communicate, and thus changed our relationship with communication itself. If one wants to claim back our quality relationship, we need to claim back our ownership of time and of the ways we communicate because

You cannot expect an app dreamed up in a college dorm room, or among the Ping-Pong tables of a Silicon Valley incubator, to successfully replace the types of rich interactions to which we’ve painstakingly adapted over millennia.

At the end of the day, we can participate freely on various platforms such as Google, Facebook, and Twitter because these platforms sell our attention. This attention seeking economy wants to get as much time out of our days as possible.

Our time = Their money

Cal Newport doesn’t go quite far as critiquing capitalism, and the form of capitalism that these tech giants are creating. This topic will be discussed in future post when I review the book The Age of Surveillance Capitalism by Shoshana Zuboff. In that book, the author analyzes the new economic logic of our time where this attention-seeking quest has lent itself to a new form of capitalism. Cal Newport only suggests that we should contain our own behavior, and not give away our precious time and happiness to the tech giants.

He then advocates us to spend time alone, contemplate about life, and not be distracted by anybody including books, digital technology, and even our friends, and family. This is essential to a good life according to him. He argues that throughout history, intellectuals including Aristotle, Schopenhauer, Kant, Nietzsche have done that. They lived a happy and productive life. I think that Newport is biased in this argument. As an academic, and an author, his main activity is intellectual work. This is not necessarily the same for other people such as a housewives, a plumber, and a nurse. I agree that everyone needs down time for oneself: maybe to wind down after a long work day with a beer with friends. That is also fine to me. Besides, I don’t entire buy in the argument that Schopenhauer and Nietzsche actually lived a good life by constantly contemplating about life on their own. It’s a romantic interpretation of an intellectual’s ascetic life.

In short, by explicating what “digital minimalism” is, Newport advocates for a life without much distraction. It is a more balanced, and happy life when digital technology does not take charge of our lives. I agree with him that we need to de-cluster our use of technology,  and reclaim our time and attention to people and activities that truly matter to us.

More Women Colleges should Provide Computer Science Majors

The tech world does not have many women. There’s a pressure to hire more women in tech startups. The tech world is still a man’s world is a general perception. Sexism is rampant in this world, and it’s difficult to talk about. There are fewer tech startup founders to be women than men. They are not in the leadership position. Women represent only 26% of professional computing occupations. When one looks on the Internet about this topic about women and tech, one see titles such as “Where have all women gone,” or “4 Reasons why you might fail to attract women in tech“. These titles suggest that the lack of women in tech is epidemic. It is natural, yet man-made. It deserves some explanation. However, I would like to offer some remedy to this problem in this blog post instead of analyzing it like how I would normally do to a social phenomenon.

I think women’s colleges could solve some part of the problem. Women’s colleges in the United States typically focus on liberal arts education. That is to stay, students would become well-rounded. This is a very good thing because they have the ability to think broadly. They read well, write well, and dare to become leaders, dare to fail. Those are important skills and quality of a leader, of a worker, and colleague that one would want to have.  However, because of the focus on liberal arts, some colleges do not spend their resources in building their computer science department. My alma mater, Agnes Scott, is an example. The school does not build an in-house computer science department, but out-sources it to other techie schools around by providing a dual degree in engineering and computer science with Emory University, which is 15 minutes away. This I think is a de mistake that my alma mater made for its students. Why? Because the dual degree is expensive for students. If there’s no in-house computer science department, students do not cultivate a culture of thinking that computer science is something that could be learned, but something that they are not supposed to learn. Having a computer science department signals that the school is supporting women in the tech industry, and that it’s willing to train a workforce for this growing industry.

Curious to see if other women’s colleges have made the same mistake like my alma mater, I looked to see if others provide computer science major at all. Following the Forbes’s list of best 10 women’s colleges in the United States, I created this following table:

No. College Computer Science Major 
1 Barnard College Major, Minor
2 Bryn Mawr College Major, Minor
3 Cedar Crest College Not clear (possibly yes)
4 Mills College Major, Minor
5 Mount Holyoke College Major, Minor
6 Simmons College Major, Minor
7 Smith College Major, Minor
8 Spelman College Major, Minor
9 Sweet Briar College Major, Minor
10 Wellesley College Major, Minor

So the top ten women’s colleges do provide computer science as a major or minor. That is good news. But the question is whether the tech industry actually invests in these programs, and have built a pipeline between these programs and their workforce. This is an empirical question that one needs to figure out. If anyone has some information about this, please let me know.

Why do I think the tech world should focus on women’s colleges when they want to solve their women’s problem? This solution even though counter-intuitive, I think is necessary. My solution is that in order to combat sexism, and implicit bias in hiring, and working in the tech world, young women should first be socialized in a safe environment where they see other women learn coding, programing, and becoming leader of their future industry. Sociologist Daniel Kleinman (2009) argues that when there are explicit measures to promote female participation in labor force in hard sciences such as astrophysics, women tend to fare better. That is to say, if explicit measures would help combat implicit biases in male dominated industries such as tech and astrophysics. The tech world because it has developed too fast does not provide explicit measures to attract and retain women in the workforce. In other words, implicit biases run rampant in the tech world. Women’s colleges are one environment in which implicit biases against women are turned on its head. Therefore, young women are socialized in an environment where they are trained necessary skills to become workers, thinkers and leaders in this particular field. I think this should not be taken lightly by women’s colleges, and the tech industry.

In a nutshell, combating sexism, and the lack of female workers in the tech industry is a multifaceted problem. One of my small contribution to this debate is that women’s colleges should step up to the game to train the next generations of workers, and leaders in this field. The reasons are two-fold. One is that women’s colleges offer an environment where young women can stay away from implicit biases that typical computer science programs often have. Two they are training women not just to become engineers, but well-rounded workers, and leaders that will benefit the skewed world of the tech industry.

 

Perks of Running in Central Park

Studying for the orals test is a solitary endeavor, one that requires a lot of sitting in one place and digest knowledge. My work in general is already like a desk job that doesn’t my moving around too much. This is bad for my well being. In order to combat my inactivity, and sluggishness, I run for at least 3 times a week, and one hour each time. This turns out to be a brilliant idea because I now can monitor how much I can run for one hour. In What I Talk about When I Talk about Running, Haruki Murakami also does the same: running one hour each time, for at least 6 days a week. Living in New York City, and having a busy graduate student life, I dont think I can run 6 days a week. So I try my really best to wake up early 3 days a week and run. Murakami said that he could run up to 6 miles in an hour. I timed myself, and I could only run up to 5.2 miles an hour. One reason for my slow speed in comparison to him is that I run in Central Park, whose hills really slow down my speed. If I persistent enough, I think I might be able to increase my speed up to 5.5 or 5.7 miles an hour.

Running in Central Park early in the morning is such a joy. One sees the entire city wakes up, and heads to work. The sun is rising from behind the Upper East Side. The city starts to run faster, and louder. Dogs and babies also run with their custodians and parents. This is a refreshing scene that is different from a normal New York scene that one encounters on a daily basis. In this blog post, I will talk about the perks on running in Central Park that I am obsessed with.

The air is fresh: Central Park is a rarity. It is a huge greenery located in one of the most crowded, and hectic plot of lands in the world: Manhattan. Living in Manhattan is both a blessing and a curse. One has countless possibilities to enjoy various cultural activities that the city has to offer. Yet, one is constantly surrounded by noise, and people. Finding some quiet moments for oneself is such a challenge. However, it is not impossible. I find my quiet time, my meditation in Central Park. Running has become a meditative experience for me. When I run in Central Park, I think of myself being transported to a big space where my eyes can really screen the landscape, and stare out to a distance. The air is fresh, and the trees are kind. I could take a deep breath in Central Park, and enjoy my early morning moments without any interruption from police siren.

The view is amazing: If I have time during the weekend I would run the entire inner circle of Central Park. That route is 6 miles, and it would take me almost 1.5 hours to finish. Then I would encounter the most breath-taking views of Manhattan that I never thought existed before. Early in the morning, coming down from Central Harlem, I could see park workers start their days. They drive pickup trucks with equipment inside to clean the park, and trim the trees. Then I turn westward to the Upper West Side route. Running along this side, I see a few landmark buildings such as the Museum of Natural History, and a few other buildings that I dont know their names. After passing the Museum of Natural History, I start to see signs of Midtown. Office buildings, and hotels in Midtown are very different from those on the Upper West Side. There are more modern-looking buildings that are completely covered with glass. While the Upper West Side is the residential area, Midtown is mostly commercial. Therefore, one can feel the corporate-style architecture. Yet, it’s also a commercial center, so there are a lot of interesting LCD lights covering those buildings. Heading toward this direction at sunset is the most fulfilling experience ever. One sees the lights to start glowing in the dark.

Image result for central park inner circle run

After passing the Midtown area, I run alongside of 5 Avenue, or the Museum mile. I can see from afar Guggenheim Museum, the Copper Hewitt Museum, the Frick Collection. They make me feel so much more cultured just by being able to recognize the buildings. There are significant more tourists on this side. If I run in the afternoon, sometimes I run alongside with horse carts. My favorite section of this part is running behind the MET, and then seeing the fresh water at Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis Reservoir. I love water. If I could I would buy a house next to the water front. Water calms me down. After seeing all the man-made wonders such as the MET, the Guggenheim Museum, and various other skyscrapers, I only want nature. Water is that nature for me. I want a piece of mother nature back in my run.  My run ends with seeing golfers in Central Park practicing early in the morning or late in the afternoon. And the final touch is seeing a group of teenagers practicing ice-hockey at Lasker Rink near 110th street. Whenever I see the boys, I feel that my run is complete.

Brilliant encounters: Nobody knows whom you would encounter in New York. Central Park makes these encounters even more interesting. A couple of weeks ago, I saw a women running in her hijab. I was not awed by the fact that a running Muslim woman. What I was delighted to see about the scene was that her running hijab was so beautiful, and practical especially in the winter. I myself wanted one of those. She was proudly running alongside with all the hipsters of New York, whose armed themselves from head to toe with Nike shoes, Fitbit, Ipod, and $200 running pants. Running is also a show of branding. It’s not cheap to buy a pair of New Balance shoes that cost $150. The winter running gears are even more expensive. When this woman ran in her simple white running hijab, without any brand on it, I felt so much better about myself, and about the sport that I was engaging in. Running does not require lots of resources. Everyone can run, and everyone should claim their right to run in Central Park.

In a nutshell, I have found myself a hobby that calms my mind, and boosts my energy. It such a great exercise for the mind and the body. I thank my friends who have encouraged me to keep it up.

 

 

 

Public Sociology: Podcast as an Effective Medium

In the previous blog post with the title We are All Public Scholars Now,  I argued that most sociologists have agreed that doing public sociology is desirable, and that the Internet has significantly lowered barriers to entry to disseminate scholar work, and to voice their expert opinion. Furthermore, I raised various issues that are associated with Twitter as a platform to engage with the publics. Twitter offers instantaneous access to public debates, but scholars can also get into polarized debates because of social network effect. In this blog post, I would like to focus on another platform where sociologists can also engage in public sociology: Podcast.

The five main ways that I have seen scholars engage with the public, and disseminate their work are as follows:

1. Public lectures

2. Traditional media (newspaper, talk shows, popular books)

3. Blog

4. Social Media (Tweet, Facebook, etc.)

5. Podcast.

Among those five categories, the first two are “conventional.”  Scholars have given public lectures, and talked to traditional media since the inception of the university as an institution. Increasingly I have seen that scholars write more popular books than academic books to engage with well-read audience who are not necessarily academic-oriented. Even when writing scholarly books, they try to eliminate academic language such as “As XYZ writes,” or “XYZ argues.” They try to stay away from those rigid academic language that does not flow in a normal conversation. For example, Richard Ocejo in his latest book Master of Craft, tried to “break the frame of writing academically,” and avoid “the academic shorthand.” These practices challenged him “to explain our concepts in other language and not rely on what we take for granted” (Scholars’ Conversation: Richard Ocejo).  Increasingly it has become blurring between scholar writing and popular/creative non-fiction writing. This shows that scholars have incorporated the idea of public-facing sociology into their knowledge production process.

The next three categories among the five categories only started with the rise of the Internet. Blogging has been a popular form to engage with the blogsphere. Increasingly more scholars start to use Twitter as a place to disseminate their work. Because scholars have used the first two ways to engage with their various publics, there has been an established protocol about how to disseminate their work via these routes. A scholar needs some credentials, which establish that they are an expert in certain field. Besides, there are various gatekeepers such as TV managers, anchors, and other network personnel that could facilitate or prevent a scholar to disseminate their work and engage with the public. With the rise of the Internet, and the decreasing barriers to entry to various platforms such as blog, social media, and podcast, scholars can now disseminate their work quickly, and cost-effectively.  They can avoid the middleman problem, and totally stay away from institutional gatekeepers that sometimes might not want them to voice their opinion.

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Sociologists Arlene Stein and Jessie Daniels in their book Going Public gave a timely advice to social scientists about how to be more of a public scholar, engaging with different publics using digital technologies. In the book, they emphasize that writing concisely, clearly, and not using jargon is the foremost important requirement for a scientist to engage with the public. Then they explore various digital technologies, and how they change the way scholars are doing their work. They give detailed descriptions of how to start and maintain a scholarly blog, or a Twitter account, and whether Facebook is a problematic platform to maintain scholarly presence. However, they do not mention anything about podcast as a communication tool to engage with the wider audience. This book is telling. Social scientists have written blog posts, written for the New York Times, yet few of them maintain a podcast where they could directly communicate with the wider audience. Why don’t we embrace this particular medium?

One reason has to do with the time cost of maintaining a well-run podcast. It takes a lot of time, and work to create and maintain a podcast. Even though social scientists have not come out and talk about their burnout problem as much as physicians do, they are nevertheless burdened with lots of administrative work on top of their heavy teaching load, and doing research. Maintaining a podcast? No thank you very much. Just the idea of starting a podcast, and making sure that people are listening to the podcast, and that it runs well is overwhelming to any busy scholar.

However, there are some good sociology podcasts out there such as the Annex, or Thinking Allowed. Both of these podcasts are exceptionally well-run by veteran sociologists in the English speaking world. I have written a review of the two podcasts on this blog about a year ago, and one can find out more about it here. SozioPod from Germany also does such a great job in bridging the communication gap between social scientists and the publics about social issues in the German speaking world. Those examples show that other than cost/benefit reason, there must be another reason that podcasting is a difficult market to crack for social scientists. It could be inherent to graduate school training that we all receive.

When writing a blog post, for the New York Times, a popular book, or simply tweeting, the main skill that one needs is to be able to communicate effectively in the written forms. In contrast, podcasts require a completely different skills set: story telling, conversational reaction with the host, some humor. In other words, the podcasting repertoire is completely different from the scholarly repertoire. In order to become a good scholar, one needs to think and write mostly. Even though teaching is a part of a professor’s work, it is not the main criterion where one’s evaluated as a scholar. The image of a socially awkward professor still comes to mind when one thinks about a serious scholar. Most of us are introverts who read more than playing with our peers outside during our childhood. During our grad school training, we become even more introverted because of the solitary nature of our work. Podcasting requires more than just knowledge. One needs to step outside of one’s comfortable introvert zone to talk to the audience, and to maintain that long-term connection.

In a nutshell, one does not get trained to become a good podcaster in grad school. This explains why most scientists have chosen to become public scholars on platforms such as blogs, and social media. There is “a skill consonance” between being a scholar and being able to maneuver those platforms. While there is “a skill dissonance” between being a scholar and being a good podcaster.  Therefore, even though the cost to enter the podcasting world has significantly reduced, scholars still have not moved into this space with a rapid number to engage with the wider audience.

 

 

 

We are All Public Scholars Now

Sociologists have been talking about doing public sociology for almost two decades. Since Michael Burawoy’s 2004 ASA Presidential Address, these scientists have been trying various ways to engage the public (broadly defined). Burawoy states that “the challenge of public sociology is to engage multiple publics in multiple ways.” In other words, we have different publics to engage. One target audience is the scientific community at large. That is to say, we have to do scientific work, which is theoretically rigorous and empirically rich, and that our findings could stand the falsification test. Another target audience could be the community in which we do research. More often than not sociologists give voice to an underprivileged, disadvantaged group that is difficult to reach. Our research thus must first and foremost benefit them. The third group could be policy makers who might listen to what we have to say about their work, and how to make their work stronger with our tools. And lastly it is the general public.

Most sociologists are convinced that we should communicate with people outside of academia. The rise of fake news, increasing attacks against public intellectuals from far-right activists, and America’s general anti-intellectual culture urgently plead for sociologists’ involvement in public debates. In the past decade and a half since Burawoy’s public address, sociologists have been taking up on the call. Some use blogs as a platform to engage with the wider audience. Some tweet. Some talk to the mainstream media. Some start writing popular books instead of academic books. The goal is to reach as wide and as far as technology allows. In this particular blog, I would like to address a few issues when professional sociologists attempt to engage with the wider public via digital tools such as social media, and blogging. In other words, I am taking up the issue whether digital technology has enabled sociologists to become better public intellectuals. What are the advantages and disadvantages? What should one be aware of when using various digital tools to popularize one’s own opinion, and scholarly work.

Before going into the topic of social media and scholarly work, I would like to address different approaches toward social media within the academe. Academia is an  established institution where different generations of scholars do research, teach generations of students, and train new scholars. Because of its heterogeneity, the reception of digital media has been varied, especially when it comes to using digital media to disseminate one’s own work. In general, there are four different groups:  (1) digital natives, (2) digital embracers (or early adopters), (3) digital opportunists, and (4) digital rejecters. These four categories constitute a spectrum. Everyone can be placed somewhere between a digital native, and a digital rejecter.

Digital natives are those who came of age during the digital revolution. Most people who were born around the birth of World Wide Web   in 1991  are considered digital natives. They often take for granted that they could find the answer to almost everything on the Internet, and that they spend much of their childhood and adulthood learning how to take advantage of the Internet, and contribute to its hegemony. This generation also came of age not questioning much about their privacy online while sharing their personal data via Snapchat, Facebook, etc. Almost everyone has a Facebook, or Instagram, or Snapchat account. They freely share their personal experience on the Internet.

Digital embracers or early adopters are those who came of age before the World Wide Web revolution. Yet since they are early adopters of technology, they understand the advantage of the Internet, and seamlessly incorporate digital media, and technology into their work, and daily life. However, since they came of age before the revolution of the Internet, they experienced what it meant to have privacy, and to separate between Internet life from their personal life. In other words, they might not necessarily share everything on their Internet from the pictures of their debutante to their baby shower. The Internet might be a place to share work, but not life. There is a separation between work and life, and between real life and the Internet.

Digital opportunists are those who are not frequent Internet users, who go in and out of the Internet as they see fit. In other words their relationship with the Internet is rather instrumental. They only use it when they need it. They don’t really contribute to the digital culture, or help it to spread.

Digital rejecters are those who reject the Internet. In other words, individuals in this category refuse to acknowledge the advantages provided by the Internet, or they insist that without the Internet they could do their work and run their lives as usual.

Sociologists who fall under the first three categories might use the Internet to engage with the public.  Many have written blog to bring sociological reasoning, and methods to the blogsphere. One of the most successful sociologists who uses such method is Philip Cohen of University of Maryland. His blog Family Inequality is widely circulated and respected. There are other blogs run and maintained by sociologists that also get a wide readership. I myself use blog as a template to jot down my thoughts, think about social problems that I experience, and brainstorm my research ideas. In other words, I think out loud via blogging. As a young scholar, whose professional identity is not yet formed and shaped, I feel my engagement with the readers on the blogsphere is rather limited because I have not yet claimed my expertise in any particular sub-field.

Recently I have seen that more and more sociologists use Twitter as a platform to disseminate their work, and engage with the public. In one of the professionalization lecture series on writing articles that I went to, the speaker encouraged everyone to use Twitter, and make the world known that their article is published. Her advice stopped at article dissemination. Other senior colleagues who are more adept at tweeting suggest me to engage in public discussions on Twitter, and get connected to other scholars on this platform. Many have embraced its effectiveness in creating a public discourse around a social issue, and how quick one’s tweet might get attention of the entire community and the Internet. However, others also have raised issues about being attacked by the far-right on the Internet when discussing controversial topics around white supremacy.

Being a public sociologist on Twitter is a very different kind than being a public sociologist using the blog medium. The blog format is rather static, and it seems that in blogsphere, writers and readers communicate in a more traditional way. On the contrary, Twitter enables information to be disseminated quickly, and also attacks to come quickly.

Among the four different types about scholars and digital technology, they have different relationship with the Internet particularly when it comes to privacy. I conceptualize that leisure activity and family information are considered as private information, while work is considered as public information for public sociologists. Given these proxies, I came up with this following table that summarizes behaviors of different groups towards their privacy and their work.

Work Leisure (family)
Digital Native Online Online
Digital Embracer Online Partly online
Digital Opportunist Partly online Partly online or nothing online
Digital Rejecter Nothing online Nothing online

Clearly, digital natives, being raised and grew up with the Internet have put so much of their information online before they became a public sociologist. That means they have established some online identity on the Internet before it became a place where they disseminate their work. Therefore, the Internet contains a mixed bag of personal and public information for them. For example, most of people who were born after 1991 have a Facebook page where they put their pictures during college years, going to a frat party with their buddies. Now a decade later, they become a young assistant professor. Students could Google their names, and figure out their partying pictures in college. How would they take their public sociology about sexual assault on campus seriously after having seen that they were also participating in that culture in college? The Internet has potential to undermine one’s credentials.

Digital embracers seem to be able to separate the two spheres a bit more clearly. They experienced a world without the Internet before, and know what it means not putting too much personal information on the Internet. I have met various digital embracers who strictly use the Internet for their professional identity. Nobody knows whether they are married, or having children from using Google alone.

Similarly digital opportunists only put enough information on the Internet so long as it benefits their professional work. In other words, they are selective in choosing the type of information to put out for the public.

Finally digital rejecters do not want to have any of their information being circulated online.

Now Twitter makes dissemination of scholarly works even more complicated when journalists are scouting on Twitter for information. Under the current pressure when most newspaper no longer makes money, fewer journalists actually go to the field, but more of them go to the Internet. Sociologist Angèle Christin in her 2017 article Algorithms in practice shows that journalists are required to use predictive analytics software to see how their articles fare for online readers. This creates a situation where journalists are prone to the whim of social media readership while writing their articles. Now one sees that journalists would go directly to Twitter and look for politicians’, experts’, and celebrities’ opinions on certain matter rather than call them up and ask them critical questions about the issue at hand. Taking someone’s Twitter at face value, and sometimes out of context could be dangerous. For one, a spiral of one’s tweet could amplify a rather trivial point. Second, whether a tweet would become spiral is a function of Twitter’s algorithm and the Twitter’s public. No-one knows what Twitter’s algorithm prefers. But Facebook’s scandal regarding to the 2016 election is telling. It is clear that Facebook algorithm prefers sentimental feeds and downplays feeds that actually deal with important social issues. Social scientists studying social media and society have learned that these platforms could potentially have a polarizing effects on American populace. This face has implication for the scientist who wants to disseminate their work on Twitter. If Twitter prefers to spread sentimental Tweet, and if the scientist wants to reach a wider audience, (s)he might choose to disseminate more sentimental tweet. This creates a vicious circle where the scientist is caught in engaging in contentious debates, which might not be necessarily productive for the scientific community nor the public.

Social scientists disseminate their scholarly work on Twitter should be mindful of two aspects: social network effect, and Twitter’s algorithm. Social network effect as a concept is rather ambiguous. Some define that the effect means that one’s behavior could be predicted if their friends’ behaviors are known (What is the Social Network Effect? – Youtube). Twitter uses this principle in designing their algorithm. This algorithm might want to predict whether you want to read certain kind of Tweet, and/or disseminate certain kind of information based on your prior tweeting behaviors, and your network information.

In conclusion, social media and the Internet have made it easier to engage in public sociology. However, how one should choose to engage with one’s audience is subject to various factors including the type of platforms, and the topics at hand. As a digital native, I am more concerned with how to draw a line between public and private information more than how to disseminate my work. In other words, the challenge is not that one should not take advantage of the Internet to become a public sociologist, but the challenge is how to transition to use the Internet for work instead of for play.

 

Why do Advisors Mentor Graduate Students at All?

One of the perpetuating puzzles of graduate school in social sciences is why it is so unstructured, and that graduate students feel lost all the time? On the one hand, there are lots of brilliant minds, being concentrated in a small institution (the university). On the other hands, we have a phenomenon that these brilliant minds cannot go through a graduate program in a timely manner, despite having a host of other brilliant minds who are supposed to be their supporters, and advocates.

One answer to this puzzle is that advisors do not  do a good job mentoring their students, and showing them how to graduate on time with flying colors.  Students thus are left alone to figure out how to become a member of the academe. In the process, they accumulate stress, debt, and frustration of having their dreams not realized.

Many critics of graduate school training have written about this phenomenon. They both describe it, and prescribe solutions to solve this problem. Karen Kelsky in her book The Professor is In decries that as a community, scholars, advisors, and professors, fail to mentor the next generations. Therefore, she came up with a market-oriented solution: creating her own consulting (for-profit) business to guide novice scholars (graduate students) through the process. Karen Kelsky’s example demonstrates two failures: (1) the academe’s failure to have an accountable system, whereby advisors are supposed to guide their students. As of now the student-advisor relationship is relatively informal, whereby the student can ask for the advisor’s help, and consultation as the advisor sees fit. There is no formal mechanism to stay that the advisor must do such and such, otherwise their salary will be deducted. In a sense, one can blame the tenure system that facilitates this particular phenomenon, whereby students in graduate school have to do most of the work, while advisors can choose do whatever they see fit with their scholarly agenda, administrative ambition, and personal life. Despite the success of Karen Kelsky’s business, I am also not entirely sure if market solutions would help solve this issue.

This mentor-mentee expectation mismatch dilemma is not only the social sciences problem. Other fields experience it as well. For example, Philip Guo, an Assistant Professor in Cognitive Science, after his PhD published an eBook called The Ph.D. Grind that documents his doctoral experience at Stanford in computer science. One would assume that since he was at one of the best computer science departments in the world, and that he came in with funding, and that Stanford is one of the most endowed universities in the world, his experience would be less grueling, and less frustrating than others. However, Guo shows that even though he had a head start in the PhD game, he became frustrated with the isolating experience in grad school. It became even more frustrating when advisor-advisee relationship did not work out.

Most of Guo’s experience was about trial-and-error where his research ideas did not work out, or his chosen advisor would not help him progress in his program. However, as he became more mature as a scholar, he also started to experience the joy of being a researcher who had ownership of his innovative ideas, and conducted ground-breaking research. One of those moments happened at Microsoft Research in Seattle where he worked as a summer intern with other more senior scholars. The difference between Microsoft and Stanford was that at Microsoft he worked with a mentor who would check on his progress on a weekly basis. This experience single-handedly changed his view about research. At the end of the day one needs to put one’s own labor into the research product. There must be some feedback loop to realize one’s progress, and see whether the eventual goal will be researched. At Stanford where one worked in a silo, grad students and professors alike, he did not feel any progress. At Microsoft Research, he felt that there was a formal structure between mentor-mentee, where they had a binding social contract to contribute to a research project. That was the moment he recognized how one could see the end of an open-ended research project, and how to work with a hands-on advisor.

There are two points pertaining to Guo’s advisor-advisee experience at Microsoft Research in comparison  to that at Stanford that one should pay attention too. One is the changing structure of knowledge production in the United States (Kleinman & Vallas, 2001). Guo’s experience shows that industries have adopted the academic model of knowledge production. That is, they give knowledge workers (researchers) more flexibility to work on projects that they are compelled to do, without the tenure, and service requirements that come with tenure. In the meantime, universities have adopted corporate practices in measuring outputs of knowledge workers (professors, and graduate students). This changing structure suggests that researchers in industry increasingly experience more flexibility, while researchers in academia increasingly experience constraints and market pressures. From the standpoints of work/life balance, and  work satisfaction, it seems that researchers in industry have experienced more gain, while researchers in academia have experienced more control, and stress. Thus, the advisor-advisee relationship in industry could potentially work out well because in general people are less stressed, and less concerned with administrative tasks, and more focusing on their research. Thus,  more productive and meaningful relationships could be formed and sustained.

The debate about advisor-advisee relationship often asks why advisors don’t do more for their students. This question presupposes that it is in the interests of the advisor to mentor, and guide their student well. However, what if the incentive structure is working against students’ interests? That is, what if there is no incentive whatsoever for advisors to mentor their students? The question then becomes why should any advisor take time and mentor their student at all? When one thinks about the tenure system, one sees that there is absolutely no incentive to spend time, and mentor graduate students. This is not a part of one’s tenure package. As a scholar, one is only evaluated based on how much one has published. That means knowledge output is more important than who was involved in the process.  Thus, the advisor-advisee relationship is not a part of the equation.

Jeffry Sallaz’s recent article on labor process in a post-Fordist labor regime is very illuminating in explaining why advisors in graduate school do not tend to mentor their students.

Sallaz

Basically, he shows that in the Fordist regime of labor process, workers experience the regime of responsible autonomy where they experience work through the learning game and the reward game. That means workers learn what is expected of them in the job, and if they fulfill the expectation,  they will be rewarded. In the current work regime (Post-Fordist regime), workers only experience the learning game without any reward. That means, workers constantly learn new things, but do not get any reward even if they do the job well, or master the rules of the game. This comparison is very illuminating if one conceptualizes a professor as a worker in a permanent pedagogy regime. Professors now have to constantly work with new students, who have amazing ideas, and some also fail to produce any interesting research. Yet, they are required to sign onto a social contract that says they should advise them without receiving any concrete reward. Logically, they would choose to minimize their mentoring time to move on to either the next student, or to focus on their own research projects. Helping a novice researcher with lots of questions would not give them any reward in a short run. In other words, it is very much the advisor’s good nature to mentor a student because there is no requirement for them to be a good mentor. On the contrary, the system is built in such a way that they should spend as little time mentoring students as possible because they would not reap any tangible rewards.

Now do I have any solution for the issue: advisor-advisee relationship in graduate school? Somewhat. One is restructuring of academia where professors do not have to over-do services, and that they could focus on being a good academic which is to produce good research, and train the next generations. I believe that if professors are not overworked, and stressed out with successive teaching, and service requirements, they would have more time for their graduate students. The other solution is that there should be an incentive system that is built in each program to facilitates student-faculty collaboration. This would help increase the quality of graduate school experience for graduate students, while giving advisors the necessary incentives to spend more time mentoring the next generations of scholars.

Henri Lefebvre: The Production of Space

The book that I am currently reading to prepare for my exam in urban sociology is The Production of Space by Henri Lefebvre. The core idea of the book is that there are different modes of production of space: natural space and social space. As a Marxist thinker, Lefebvre looks at a space and its production through a three-part dialectic between every day practices and perceptions, representations and the spatial imaginary of the time. He argues that space is a social product (based on value and the social production of meanings) which affects social practices and perceptions.

My particular takeaway from Lefebvre’s writing is his conceptual triad of the production of the social space.

In a nutshell, there are three levels of analyses for each social space: the actual space (physical), discursive (representation), and lived space (via human experience). The physical space (or the abstract space in Lebfevre’s term), is constructed by various actors (kings, lords, and architects). In modern society, these actors are developers, state, and architects. Representations of space refers to discourses about a social space. For example, there is so much discourse around the building of H2Q in Queens, New York by Amazon and the media. However, this space did not even exist until this very moment. A couple of days ago, Amazon announced that it canceled the plan  to build any new headquarters in New York City, which caused strong reactions from the city, and its residents. Regardless of whether the space exists or not, the discourse about it exists independently of its physical presence. Finally, the representational space is a lived experience of people who interact with the space. In other words, for each social space, there is a lived (phenomenological) component of it. If there is no such lived experience, the space should not be considered a social space.

Lefebrve conceptualizes a space from three points of view: physical, mental and social. This is the beauty of his triad. Despite its seemingly easy conceptualization, Leberve’s theory is not easy to digest, when one first reads it. Instead, I went on Youtube, and looked for a Lefebrve 101 video to really comprehend his writing. Here’s what I found:

If you are like me, being unfamiliar with Lefebre’s philosophical writing, YouTube offers a whole range of videos that could help you with your intellectual developments.

 

Gender as a Social Structure

While reading work on sociology of work, international immigration, and urban sociology, I started to pay attention to gender as a main social identity that shapes one’s experience in this world. Being a man, a woman, a gay, a lesbian, or a transgender can significantly shapes the outcome of one’s life chances in many aspects of life. This realization has pushed me to make a more critical dive into gender as an important identity.

What is gender?

One definition that I have encountered is that gender could be considered as a social structure, which Daniel Lee Kleinman interprets as follows:

At the most general level, there are no formal rules defining gender relations. Instead, they are typically informal but deeply entrenched, and create a stratified system in which, in general, women experience more constraints and men more opportunities (Kleinman, 2005).

Kleinman understands gender relations as a function of daily interactions between the two sexes that make up a social system whereby outcomes of women in various aspects of life are worse than that of men. In other words, these relations make up a black box where once two individuals go through it, the woman would get a worse off outcome, while the man the better one.

When using this definition to understand the current rape controversy in India, where many women sued their ex-lovers in court, and alleged that their ex male partners raped them during their relationship. Most of the cases were consensual sex. Thus the court could not charge any man on the account of rape. However, when I read the Guardian article about the case, my first question was why did these women have to take the desperate measure to bring their ex-lovers to court for a crime that they did not commit?

Some of them were forced into doing so because their families forced them to sue the men.

When parents discover their unmarried daughters are in a sexual relationship, their horror at potential “dishonour” to the family name leads many to make spurious allegations of rape, having first bullied their children into submission. (The Guardian)

Families could not stand the fact that their daughters were sexually liberal, and having sex before marriage. Therefore, in order to save their “honor,” they force their own daughters to lie in court.

This rape controversy provides a lens to interrogate gender relations in India. There are at least three group of actors that are involved in those alleged rape cases. One are the women who choose to (1) lie in court about their ex-lovers, (2) slander the integrity of their ex-lovers, which could harm their reputation, and thus could cause substantial economic and social damage to their lives, (3) damage their own reputation, and thus their own economic and social prospects. Given all the potential harms of their actions, they still chose to go to court. That means they are willing to risk (1) the judge announces that they lied, (2) everyone will terminate their social relations with them because they are liars, and having had sex before marriage. Regardless of the court’s decision, the one guaranteed outcome is that the men’s reputation is completely destroyed.

In general, in any patriarchy women would come out of a negotiation, and get the shorter end of the stick. It’s clear that they suffer from some form of injustice. In the context of India, they use the formal channels to correct these injustices under the false promise that they would get some back. As the analysis above suggests the only thing they get back is to destroy the men’s reputation at the risk of destroying their own reputation. Rape as a legal battle would destroy both sides, especially if no-one commits any crime.

Is there any other place in society where they get back the injustices that men have incurred upon their bodies, and their moral values other than at court? Is it the court’s responsibility to arbitrage gender negotiations of a patriarchal society in which the court is embedded? Would the court come up with any effective measure to correct those injustices, or reinforce the mechanisms through which those injustices are inflicted on women’s bodies and mind. Why do women choose to go to court other than any other place? Does it mean that Indian court system is actually fair and effective?

These cases of false rape raise more questions about Indian society than it could answer. They open the door of the family. It is the social institution where symbolic violence on women’s bodies are inflicted. When I think about how India could solve the gender inequality issue, I think the institution of family should be killed first. It is single-highhandedly the most powerful, most penetrating institution that makes both men and women make decisions that are harmful to their bodies and their future. In the above rape cases, most women were forced into making those decisions because their families made them do so. Who are the family, and whose honor is it here? My guess is that it is the father’s honor that the daughter destroyed if she has had sex before marriage. In other words, the one single person in the family that would make the decision is the father, and everyone else in the family unit collaborates with him to force the daughter to destroy herself, and her ex-lover in court. In the process of modernizing its society, I personally believe that India would have the most difficulties modernizing its family institution.

Currently the labor force participation of women in India is 26.97% while that of Laos, a much poorer and smaller country is 76.97%, or of Myanmar, also a much poorer country is 51.09%. Even its poorer South Asian neighboring country, Bangladesh, has 33.19% of female labor force participation. This figure is telling when one thinks of who has the upper hand in the economic inequality in terms of gender in India. If women do not work, as a social group their average income and wealth would be much lower than that of men. Having no economic power means that they would not have power in many other realms in life such as health care, education, and political power as well.

Dowries are considered as illegal in India, yet families still expect them. Why does this practice still persist?  Dowry is a gift, often money that the bride’s family basically gives the groom’s family. So while the groom’s family gets both tangible monetary dowry and  free human labor (in this case the future female domestic worker, the wife), the bride’s family loses a daughter, and a significant sum of money. How could a marriage system be set up in such a way that the outcomes are heavily tilted towards the man’s family? What can the woman gain in this situation? Nothing but a false promise of protection of a patriarchy, and institutional legitimacy of the family.

At a general level, all the informal practices in India really give men opportunities while imposing myriads of constraints on women. That comes as no surprise if more men graduate from college than women, and more men enter the labor force than women. How is it possible to intervene? What can an individual do to change this situation? What can a society do to change this situation?

 

 

 

 

 

 

Putting Down Roots

The above scene is my favorite from Leon: The Professional. This is the last scene when Mathilda Lando (Natalie Portman) put down roots for the plants that she and the Italian hit man Leon (Jean Reno) carried around before Leon’s death. The plants are symbolic for the kind of life that Leon was living. Regardless of where he lived, what kind of danger he was in, he must water the plants, and must carry them around. There were only a couple of things that were dear to Leon: one was the plants, and the other Mathilda. At one point, Mathilda asked if Leon would put down roots with her somewhere. Being a hit man, who might die any day, Leon was not afraid of anything, but he was obsessed with his plants, and he must save them. Before meeting Mathilda, the plants were his only possession. He took care of them well. After Mathilda entered his life, he found some meaning in life, and started to look forward to creating a life with her. However, in the end, Leon died, but the plants and Mathilda lived. Once Leon was gone, the plants more or less represented him. Mathilda decided to put its roots down on the yard of the boarding school yard where she went to after all the killings, and chasing were gone. The act of putting down its roots marked a clear departure with the past. Instead of trying to become a hit woman, following Leon’s footsteps, she decided to go to school, and live a normal teenage girl life. She put down roots to guide her future.

While watching the scene I asked myself whether I have been brave enough to put down roots somewhere. At that point I was still thinking that the decision could wait. Yet I could foresee how that particular decision would affect my thinking  and feeling about various issues in life.

In my professional development, am I comfortable enough saying that I have put roots down in sociology? I can say that I can now comfortable cal myself a sociologist. I am actively becoming and passively molded into a social scientist. Now the next question is in which sub-field (or sub-fields) have I become rooted in? Somewhere between sociology of work, urban sociology, and international immigration. How about where I would do my field work, and what is the research question? Somehow I have decided that I no longer want to travel for fieldwork. It requires too much. And the return is not really worth it. Despite the fact that cost-benefit analysis is categorized as neoclassical economic thinking, I believe that it is one of the most effective ways to think about how I should make a decision. I have recognized that going overseas for my fieldwork is no longer worth it, and that I should either stay at home to do research, or do research that does not require lots of traveling. Call me lazy, but spending time to get to know a place well is a gamble where I do not know what the reward would be. Given the time frame that I have for the PhD program, it is such a high-risk/uncertain return venture that I would take if I were to conduct an international/comparative research.

At the end of the day, my decision is that I will do research in New York City that requires little or minimal traveling. The more I get to know New York, the more I realize that it is full of wonders, surprises, and paradoxes. It is a place which would take years and years for me to know it well. So I think to myself: well, maybe I can start with my dissertation project. There it is, my decision has been narrowed down to New York.

The beauty of watching a classic movie is that each person gets something out of it. My take away from Leon: The Professional is that it forced me to deliberately think about where I want to settle, and what is the implication of being rooted in a place. This decision has given me a sense of direction and clarity for the next couple of years in my life.

 

 

Assimilation vs. Isomorphism

I am currently reading for my orals exam, which is considered as a qualifying exam in my PhD program. The idea is that after this exam, I am certified by three experts in  different sub-fields of sociology that I’m qualified as a sociologist. In a lot of ways it is a rite of passage in my profession. It is the ritual that hundreds and hundreds of PhD students in sociology have gone through. And I will participate in this particular moment in less than a month. Similar to other rituals, and rites of passage, there is a lengthy preparation period, which has been giving me lots of stress and anxiety. At the end of the day, it’s a test, and having been in school for the past 20 plus years, I should be familiar with these processes. Yet, I am still not. Excitement and anxiety come and go at times.

One thing I know for sure is that I am enjoying reading literature in three different sub-fields of sociology that don’t often communicate with each other. Every once in a while, I would spot an interesting pair of concepts that talk about the exact same idea, but are used differently for different phenomena, entities. The pair of concepts that struck me the most are “isomorphism” and “assimilation.” These two are important concepts in economic sociology and international immigration respectively.

Isomorphism is the concept that best captures the process of homogenization… It is a constraining process that forces one unit in a population to resemble other units that face the same set of environmental conditions. At the population level, such an approach suggests that organizational characteristics are modified in the direction of increasing compatibility with environmental characteristics; the number of organizations in a population is a function of environmental carrying capacity; and the diversity of organization forms is isomorphic to environmental diversity.   (DiMaggio & Powell, 1983).

In a nutshell, isomorphism describes a process of becoming similar to each other among organizations that are operating in the same environment (broadly defined).

While assimilation is the concept that describes the process of becoming similar when an immigrant group moves to a new society. The idea is that over time, over the course of a generation or more, the immigrant group started resembling the host group in various respects. This term has brought forth fierce debates about whether it is still the right term to describe how a diverse group of immigrants coming from Asia, Latin America, Africa adjust their lives in America when the concept the “host society” has become more difficult to define. Many people have proposed to jettison the concept. However, in defending its analytical utility, and its “returning” Rogers Brubaker argues:

In the general the abstract sense of  assimilation is becoming similar – becoming similar in certain respects, that obviously have to be specified. Indeed, the use of some such notion – if only to pose certain questions about patterns of ‘integration’, ‘adaptation’ or ‘incorporation’, terms that have been preferred to ‘assimilation’ in many recent discussions would seem to be analytically indispensable. Here I simply wish to underscore that it is this understanding of ‘assimilation’, this normative and analytical concern with the nature and extent of emerging similarities in particular domains between populations of immigration origin and ‘host’ populations, that I see ‘returning’ in recent years.

Brubaker underscores the process of becoming similar between the two populations: the immigrants, and the host population. He does not specify what aspects of their lives have become more similar. This particular aspect is defined by other researchers. One can compare many dimensions such as spatial distribution, socioeconomic measures, income distribution, intermarriage, etc. In many ways, they will look a lot alike on paper after a few generations.

When juxtaposing the two concepts, I start to recognize that the concept isomorphism makes me understand the fundamental assumptions of assimilation so much better. What assimilationists have been trying to argue all along is that when the host and the immigrant population live in the same socioeconomic and political environment, they will eventually become similar. Which organization becomes similar to which organization is not specified in the concept of isomorphism. The concept only describes a process that occurs among all organizations within an organizational field. It does not specify power-relation among organizations. On the contrary, it is clear that the underlying assumption in assimilation theory is that the immigrants become more like the host. Assimilation doesn’t happen in the opposite direction. The overwhelming consensus when talking about immigrant incorporation is that the immigrants should become more like the host. The power dynamics is clear. Nobody has ever tried to make the host become more like the immigrants.

Then I start to think about different possible scenarios where the host and the immigrants interact differently. What if the uni-directional homogenization process does not happen? What if it is a multi-directional kind of becoming similar process? How about the situation when the environment changes because of immigrants. In other words, there is a balancing act, a salsa-like dynamic between the host and immigrants rather than the kind of uni-directional assimilation force between the two population. Many scenarios can take place.

Host Immigrants
One-way Assimilation Host Immigrants -> host
Dynamic assimilation -> environment change Host changes Immigrants change
Reverse assimilation Host-> immigrants Immigrants

The table above outlines three different scenarios when the host and immigrants interact. The first scenario is the classic uni-directional dynamic where the immigrants start looking like the host after a long time living in the same social environment that the host has created. This is what assimilation scholars have been arguing, and a myriad of scholarship has been produced to prove the point that regardless of one’s belief, evidence shows that clearly immigrants start to look like Americans in terms of housing preferences, socioeconomic achievement, and even cultural preferences after a couple of generations. The second scenario shows a kind of dynamic relationship between the two population where power is not clearly tilted toward one side. I accept that in the United States and other Western European countries, there is a strong pressure to assimilate for immigrants, simply because most immigrants come from countries with less economic and political powers than the countries that they migrate to. However, what if people migrate in mass from a country with more or less similar economic and political power to the host country? And that they migrate in a significant number? Would this scenario then happen after a generation or two? I wonder whether there is a scenario in history when this mutually homogenizing process took place. Finally the last scenario shows a possible outcome when the host society actually changes so much in the direction that benefits the immigrants. This clearly reminds me of colonization. It is no longer assimilation, but coercive changes that are imposed on a population by another foreign power. So clearly we have language for these processes. But other than the first scenario, nothing would be called assimilation.

By comparing two concepts: isomorphism and assimilation, I have come to understand better the underlying assumptions of each theory, and also how to apply them in context. In many ways, the unit of analysis actually matters here. What is the thing that one is looking at matters. What is the given power dynamics of the field that one is looking at?

Anyhow, I am very much enjoying my orals preparation process. It is stressful, but sometimes brilliant insights also come when I make concepts interact.

 

 

Post-Fordist Work Floor

One of the great things about preparing for my orals exam is to read sociological literature that I would have never read if it is left to me to decide what is interesting. Every once in a while, I would stumble upon a research paper whose analysis and conclusions ring true to my ears.“The transformation of work revisited” by Steve Vallas and John Beck is one of those papers.

They study the organization of work in relations to technological changes. The authors challenge flexibility theory when it comes to manual workers. The theory suggests that in the new area of technological development, manual workers are required a higher level of skill; there should be “an expansion of craft discretion, presaging a synthesis of mental and manual functions within the automated plant;” and a shift from bureaucratic control to organizational commitment as the principle that undergirds  the new structure of work.

In order to test whether the above-mentioned claims are true, they conducted a research at four paper mills across the country. What they found is very illuminating. In contrast to what post-Fordist theorists predict about the empowering effects of automation toward manual laborers, Vallas and Ford found that Fordist principles remain stubbornly the organizing principles of work in paper mills. Workers are not really empowered. They experienced higher level of control by managers, and engineers.

The paragraph that rings true the most to me is the following:

Standardization of decisions. A further way in which shoopfloor life has been reconfigured centers on the ways in which analytic functions and decision-making powers have been distributed. Recall that post-Fordist theory expects the process of work restructuring to reallocate a portion of these tasks downward, blurring or even transcending the traditional division between mental and manual labor. We find little evidence of such a trend. Instead, our research indicates that the dominant tendency has involved a pattern of tightened constraints upon manual workers’ judgement rather than the “relaxation of constraints” that flexibility theory foresees. 352

Once a new technology is introduced to the workplace, work relations are reconfigured. In the case study, power falls into the hand of those who know how to operate new machines.   There is no trickle down effect where manual workers start to take charge of the machine. Instead they experience more constraints, and their knowledge becomes less valuable.

This analysis is similar to what we hear nowadays about how computers make doctors feel frustrated, and how their authority is threatened by programmers who know little about how to cure patients, but teach them how to operate information machines. This following excerpt from the New Yorker’s “Why Doctors Hate Their Computers,” shows this sentiment well:

On a sunny afternoon in May, 2015, I joined a dozen other surgeons at a downtown Boston office building to begin sixteen hours of mandatory computer training. We sat in three rows, each of us parked behind a desktop computer. In one month, our daily routines would come to depend upon mastery of Epic, the new medical software system on the screens in front of us…..Our trainer looked younger than any of us, maybe a few years out of college, with an early-Justin Bieber wave cut, a blue button-down shirt, and chinos. Gazing out at his sullen audience, he seemed unperturbed. I learned during the next few sessions that each instructor had developed his or her own way of dealing with the hostile rabble. One was encouraging and parental, another unsmiling and efficient. Justin Bieber took the driver’s-ed approach: You don’t want to be here; I don’t want to be here; let’s just make the best of it.

Physicians are leaving their professions because of burn-out, computerization, and McDonaldization of care. Their prestige and authorities are constantly threatened by new technological innovations. It seems the flexibility theory would predict that technology would empower doctors in a way that their patient outcomes would improve when they take advantage of the inevitable changes. However, life is messy, and technological advancement has not been a smooth process. Many digital adoptions in the health care industry prove to be provincial and create more bureaucracy. For example, each hospital buy a different Electronic Health Record service (EHR). If you have your dental done at a dentist’s, you have some health information in their system. But this same piece of information might not be merged to your electronic health record at your general practitioner’s office. This proliferation of servers has created a digital nightmare for doctors instead of creating an easy solution to document their patient’s health.

Again, Vallas and Beck’s paper is classic in a sense that it asks an important question: how does work organization change when a new technology is introduced to a work place? This question is more pertinent today than ever before because of the speed at which technology has been changing. How would AI change work relations in big and small firms? Where can one study this change? Should companies have in-house AI experts, or should they contract the services out to another company? These are important financial, and political questions that each company has to deal with in an age of data abundance.

What I Talk about When I Talk about Running

One advantage of spending my winter break in Southeast Asia, and South Asia was that the temperature was a lot milder than in New York. That means I could run, and train for a half marathon. One of my goals this year is to attend the SHAPE women’s half marathon on April 15th. That is my first real challenge, and I have about three months to train for it. Currently I can complete a half marathon in 2.5 hours. That is pathetically slow. But I can say that at least I can run 13 miles without having to walk any bit.

Since the weather in Vietnam was  decent, and I did not have much academic work to do, I tried to wake up every day at 5AM, and run around the park near my parents’ home there. The park is called Thu Le Park. I recognized that I love running in the park. In New York, I run along with horses, and tourists in Central Park. In Hanoi, I located the nearest water, and greenery places to run. I hate running along side with cars, and non-running people on the walkways in general.  I am not a misanthrope by any means. But running alongside them distracts my mind. Running has become a meditative experience to me. Hence, I would like for my mind to focus on myself, and my experience more than the quintessential urban experience of being engulfed with various kinds of pollution (air pollution, noise pollution, light pollution, etc.). Whatever I can do to minimize any contact with one of those forms of urban life would be ideal. The park in Hanoi is also a functioning zoo. Sometimes I would see monkeys, birds, and elephants waking up, and zoo workers coming early to clean the walkways.

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Thu Le Park in Hanoi

Another advantage of running in Hanoi is that the park there is significantly flatter than Manhattan, especially flatter than Central Park. Unlike streets outside of it, Central Park is very hilly. It made a morning run a lot more tiring than it should be. When I first started out, and I could not understand why I couldn’t manage my breath. I thought that I was weak, and that my body was not built to run long distance. This time in Hanoi running on more or less a flat area, I was able to complete a 5-mile run on the first try. That was pretty decent given that my body was still going through jet lag. Moreover, after the run I felt that my body was full of energy for a long day of catching up with friends, doing some sightseeing, and shopping. That wonderful feeling of having more energy than usual appeared strange given how much I dreaded running in the morning at Central Park. Essentially I love running in the morning; I just hate running on a hilly surface. 

Everyone would agree that traveling broadens your horizon in a way that reading alone does not provide you with the same experience. In New York, most of my time is spent in the office reading some high social theory articles, accumulating knowledge through reading, asking questions, and doing some more research. Traveling gives you experiential knowledge. You talk to people, you eat their food, and you see what they see on a daily basis. This phenomenological experience is more effective because it etches each encounter on your mind, your body, and also your subconsciousness. Reading alone only affects your mind, not your heart, and other senses.

While traveling, my biggest constraint is that I did not have a lot of lone time. That meant reading was no longer an option. In order to contemplate on some philosophical writing, I need an extended period of time alone with the arguments, and facts to digest through the logic of the text at hand. All I carried during the two week trip in India and Myanmar was the book What I Talk about When I Talk about Running by Haruki Murakami. I enjoyed this singularity tremendously. There was only one book, and I did not need to choose between it and something else. Every day before bed, I read a few pages. The memoir offered me insights about how to become a long-distance, committed, long-term runner.

Haruki Murakami talked about how he became a runner, while at the same time becoming a novelist. He ran in many different places all over the world. He answered many questions I had in mind when I started out: what sort of diet one should follow? When is the best time of the day to run? How many miles per day should one run to train for a marathon? Most importantly he showed me the kind of limits that a human body could reach. Prior to reading the memoir, I never thought of myself running continuously for two hours. Now I could, and each time I would be able to finish a 10-mile run. That is an impressive result given the fact that I only started running seriously two months ago. The act of running is all about an effective communication between mind and body. Similar to Murakami, I am very comfortable with boredom. I would never mind spending time on my own for days after days sitting at my desk and staring at a blank page. Now being in a PhD program for almost four years, I have become used to being alone in my thinking, writing, and sometimes arguing. Somehow I can relate to his experience so well. He does not promote people to follow any strict diet plan. He trains himself according to how his body reacts. Dieting and running are as intuitive as breathing and sleeping. Thus, one should not follow Mr. John’s plan, or Ms. Kelly’s 12 week training. Once that realization came to me, I felt free, and started running as I please, and when my body allows me to run. Now running at Central Park has become not only a routine, but more like a sacred activity where I do it for a selfish reason: for myself, and myself only. That somehow feels really good.

New York weather has not been so clement. It was cold, windy, and dry in the past week. My training plan therefore has been interrupted. Yet, I am content that my body gets some rest in the meantime. Once the sun is out, I promise I will run at least 1 hour a day. It has been a wonderful experience so far, and I am blessed that I have a strong body to run everyday.

 

Winter Traveling: Myanmar, India & Vietnam

Similar to the last winter break, I bought an air ticket out of New York City as soon as the semester was over. However, unlike last year I did not arrive in Vietnam completely burnt-out. Instead, I was more relaxed, and felt eager to spend a good break with my family, with whom I barely spent enough time for the past decade. Our plan was to visit Myanmar, and India over the break.

While traveling, I was too occupied with the logistics and sight-seeing of the two countries, so I did not blog about the experience. Meanwhile WordPress is now totally blocked in Vietnam. Over the course of one year, it appeared that freedom of expression has been grossly diminished in Vietnam. First, in May 12, Vietnam’s legislature voted on a national cybersecurity law, which basically required global platforms such as Facebook, Google, and others to store data of Vietnamese users in Vietnam. From the point of view of the Vietnamese government, it was an attempt to manage the digital sphere. In many ways, they are attempting to censor social discussions on global platforms that are not entirely regulated by their law and legislation. Second, dissidents in Vietnam have been constantly threatened by government officers. Instances of dissidents being beaten in public spaces are well documented. In other words, having a contrarian point of view, or being critical of what the government is doing for the economy, and society is never a right. It is something that Vietnamese citizens are doing with caution. Having observed the worsening situation in Vietnam from afar for awhile, I was not surprised that I could not blog about my experience there. Hence, I had to wait until I come back to New York to write about my Asian winter break.

One thing I learned during the one month long experience was that Southeast Asia and India are two big too travel for only a winter break.

We started our adventure in Yangon, where we attended a local wedding. One of my best friends from college invited us to her brother’s wedding. My friend was Chinese ethnic, and her brother also got married to a Chinese ethnic there. I was delighted to attend the first Chinese wedding reception in my life. The bride and groom were beautiful, full of energy, and the party was really fun. My family and I both enjoyed the ceremony, and the food. On top of all the delicacy from Myanmar, I was sitting at a table with a few people from Mainland China, and a few Burmese Chinese. They made great interlocutors because of their diverse experience. More importantly, I had a chance to practice my elementary school Chinese. Regardless of the language barrier, food and wine lubricate the conversations extremely well.

Then we did lots of sight-seeing, visiting as many temples as we could manage in a week. Myanmar is the most impressive Buddhist country that I have been to in the past decade. All of us were amazed by the golden temple structures that we saw, the history that we heard, and how kind each and every Burmese was. People were friendly, and really hospitable to us. We also learned about the Rohingya issue from a Burmese point of view, thus understood that it is such a complex social and political problem that took root back in the British colonial time.

 

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One of the largest temple in Yangon.

Saying goodbye to the land of golden temples, we spent more than a week in India, visiting New Delhi, Mathura, Agra, and Lucknow. Each city offered us with different historical sites, and cultural heritage. Our hosts in India, as devout Hindus, showed us their sacred sites, introduced us to various Krishna mythology, and taught us what a joyous and happy life they lead following Krishna. We were exposed to how Indian elites in New Delhi partied at New Year’s. My aunt and mother wondered why Indians did not have fireworks to celebrate New Year’s Eve, but individuals would pay hundreds and hundreds of dollars to get entry to private parties in the capital of India. The level of extreme inequality that we experienced on the streets of New Delhi was unmatched, comparing with all places that we have been to. Then, we visited some of the most holy sites of Hinduism in Mathura, a city in between New Delhi and Agra. At one temple in Mathura, our hosts told us the story of how Muslim invaders back in the day restructured a Hindu temple into a mosque, and built a mosque on top of the original Hindu temple. Yet in contemporary time, Hindu nationalists want to destroy the mosque to rebuild a bigger, and larger Hindu temple on the original foundations of the holy site. Whether this act is acceptable is a hot button issue in contemporary India. And this is a wide-spread religious conflict because there are many holy sites that are affected by such strong Hindu nationalist sentiment. My family, situated squarely in the agnostic category, could not comprehend why this debate has become a national issue. They were simply surprised by the fact that Indian politics gave religious conflicts a priority over economic development.

 

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Ladies meditating under Indian sun at one of the temples in Mathura

Finally, we routed back to Vietnam, where I spent an entire week just to recover, and eat as much as I could. Now being back in New York, I am still recovering from all the flights, the foods, and the tiredness in my muscles. The trip wore me out physically, but mentally I felt so much happier because I have visited those places with my family, learning about Burmese and Indian history, their historical and contemporary struggles and conflicts. All in all, it was time well spent, and I have no regret about it.

 

Capitalism in the Age of Robots

My friend, Larry Liu   recently sent me a talk titled “Capitalism in the age of robots: work, income and wealth in the 21st-century,” where Adair Turner, chair of the Institute for New Economic Thinking at Johns Hopkins University, summarizes his ideas on how work automation and artificial intelligence will create long term economic impacts. One can find his talk, and his paper here.

In many ways, Turner pays minimal attention on social costs of automation. His primary concern is economic impact of work automation. In other words, the underlying assumption is that work is inherently important, and increasing productivity is desirable. Sociologist C. Wright Mills showed us sometime in the middle of the twentieth century that work in the ancient time used to not be desirable. Noblemen in ancient Greece did not engage in physical activities. Instead they preferred to spend their time doing leisurely activities, while their slaves would perform strenuous labor tasks. The turning point was during Martin Luther’s time.

With Luther, work was first established in modern mind as “the base and key to life.” While continuing to say that work is natural to fallen men, Luther…. added that all who can work should do so. Idleness is an unnatural and evil evasion. To maintain oneself by work is a way of serving God. With this, the great split between religious piety and worldly activity is resolved; profession becomes “calling,” and work is valued as a religious path to salvation.

White Collar – C. Wright Mills.

Not trained as a sociologist, Alair Turner takes it as a given that one should be employed because work is intrinsically good for individuals and society. Despite not having delved deeper into what work means, and how society should reorganize itself once automation becomes ubiquitous, Turner offers a list of arguments to show how society would operate, and what economists do not account for if work automation becomes a reality. The paragraph that I agree with the most is the following where Turner talks about the pace at which automation will occur.

Of course the fact that automation will eventually become possible still leaves the question of when: and the fact that automation is physically possible does not mean that it will be immediately introduced. That will depend on the relative cost of robots versus employees, and on relative wage rates in the developed and developing worlds. Provided wages remain low enough in developing economies, automation may therefore be delayed far beyond the point when it becomes physically possible.

Turner suggests that automation is a reality, and that it takes time to make ubiquitous automation to happen. The reason is that sometimes we don’t need to automate certain services simply because human labor is relatively cheap. It means that economically speaking there is no economic trade-off between using human labor and robots in various industries. However, what if using robots instead of human beings was an ideological position, where economic and political elites both push for, then would one see the transformation of society to complete automation? Sometimes economic reasoning is not sufficient in explaining certain behaviors. For example, Walmart’s anti-union position, and its tactics of shutting down an entire store to fight union organizers, and labor strike in the United States have been more ideologically motivated than economically motivated. Similarly if China and the United States for example enter an artificial intelligence and automation race, both countries might accelerate the automation speed for an ideological reason more than an economic reason.

Another part that I particularly agree with Turner is that automation might exacerbate income/wealth inequality:

For many years in most developed economies, public education policy has tended to reflect an instrumental and narrowly economic philosophy: better education and skills deemed desirable because they will raise the productivity growth rate, provide the skills which business needs, and offset rising inequality of outcome. In a world where rapid productivity growth can be driven by a very small number of highly talented people, where still higher productivity growth should not be the key objective, and where better skills alone will not solve the problems of rising inequality, this focus is severely misplaced.

He points out that the educational system has long been predicated upon the fact that the more educated the work force is, the higher the overall productivity level. This taken-for-granted assumption will no longer hold true in a highly automated society where the only few highly skilled, and talented people of the world would drive up productivity level instead. The majority of the people will not be able to do bring about productivity changes. Therefore he advocates:

We should refocus education around three objectives (i) equipping as many people as possible to lead fulfilled lives even when humanity’s need to work has largely disappeared ;(ii) ensuring that inevitable inequalities of outcome do not create ever more severe inequalities of opportunity between income groups and regions (iii) empowering people to be equal and active citizens, equipped as best possible to distinguish fact from fiction, to respect other people’s arguments, and to understand the complexity of the challenges we face, in a world where one disadvantage of ever more powerful information technology is the impetus it has given to fake news and the manipulative reinforcement of initial prejudices.

He seems to suggest that education will be totally different when work is no longer needed. Most people should learn to lead a “fulfilled life” instead of a productive life. Education and democracy are also linked. One learns to become an engaged and active citizen at educational institution since work will has disappeared by then.

Overall, Turner offers a way for economists, policy makers, and many people a way to think about how to re-organize various social institutions when work is no longer available for majority of people. As social scientist, I agree with many of his points, yet I would like further investigation on possible social costs of automation, and how society could reduce those costs on multiple levels.

 

Boys in White: Physicians Then and Now

The most fulfilling aspect of preparing for the oral exams (the second qualifying exams in my PhD) is to go back in time, and read the most important sociological work that has influenced generations of researchers. The book that I am reading now is Boys in White by Howard Becker and colleagues. This book is about medical students, and their becoming doctors: i.e. their training in medical school. It uses sociological theory, and social psychology theory to look at student culture, how medical students change during their medical school. Partly the book was motivated by the desire to reform medical education in the middle of the last century. It was reported that medical interns in hospitals were overworked. The authors were right in studying how medical students collectively think and experience their education. Therefore, in order to reform the institution, their experience and perspective should be taken into account. In a nutshell, this book is about medical students, and their culture in the institutional context of medical school.

There are many takeaways from the book. My most important one is that the authors used the concept “perspective” and operationalized it as the way to understand students’ experiences during their training. Students exhibited different perspectives at different stages of their training. Most of these students were highly motivated because the training took a long time, yet at the end they would be initiated in one of the highest-status professions in the United States. In other words, this profession has been associated with prestige. The authors showed how students internalized this prestige, and created boundaries between themselves as doctors in training, and other related professions such as technicians, and researchers.

While reading the book, I kept thinking constantly about contemporary issues that medical doctors have to deal with. For one, the health care industry in the United States is undergoing through serious crises. The insurance companies are almost all private. Many people dont have insurance to visit doctors. Doctors do not spend time much with patients because their time is structured in a way to ensure their paycheck by insurance companies instead of the quality that their patients receive. Another issue is that in an effort to digitize patients’ health records, doctors are now spending more time dealing with computers than with real patients. Furthermore, most EHRs (electronic health records) are discrete because there are different companies that provide services to host these records. In other words, in terms of health data, it is a hot mess that doctors are required to participate in for the common good of their profession, yet the efficiency and transparency of their act are monitored, and oftentimes monetized by other institutional actors.

A recent article on the New Yorker titled “Why doctors hate their computers” by Atul Gawande quoted a research:

A 2016 study found that physicians spent about two hours doing computer work for every hour spent face to face with a patient—whatever the brand of medical software.

That is they spent twice as much time doing extra patient visit work to document what the patient’s health conditions were instead of actually working with them to improve their health. It is not the doctor’s fault according to the article, but the computer system that many hospitals have installed to keep themselves up-to-date with technological advancement in the field. In many ways, doctors now are required to do things that were not relevant to their medical practices, and that they were not trained in medical school to do “secretarial work” of documenting their patients’ health records. Many would want to believe that with technology, one could become more productive. In this case, technology eats doctors’ time, and potentially could create mental blocks, burnout, and other work-related health issues.

Physicians in the United States are leaving their profession because of high level of burnout,  in a recent New York Times Oped, Dr. Siddhartha Mukherjee quotes another study:

In one study, 42 percent of doctors reported feeling burned out. The worst affected were obstetricians, internists and intensivists — doctors in subspecialties that require work in emergency-oriented conditions, and those who confront frequent lawsuits, and those who require constant documentation, surveillance and billing. The least affected were plastic surgeons and ophthalmologists — doctors who inhabit procedure- or skill-oriented domains. The most common reasons listed for burning out were the overwhelming strains of bureaucracy and paperwork, the vast quantity of time spent at work and a lack of respect from administrators and employers. Lack of adequate compensation was fifth on the list. Among doctors, too, it seemed, resilience and survivorship tracked along the same essential dimensions: meaning, mastery and autonomy.

Again the amount of paperwork, and bureaucracy that have been created by both technology, and insurance companies really drive doctors to the edge. Like other industries, the ballooning of the management class whose interest is different from the doctors’ interest also causes a huge problem. In many ways, I can see similarities between medical doctors and college professors, whose jobs are inherently people-oriented, yet the administration, managers push them to do extra bureaucracy work that has little to contribute to the bottom line of the quality of their work, but helps to sustain, increase prestige, and preserve the interest of the institution. In so many ways, I can see these two professions are losing out their prestige, power, their voice, and oftentimes suffering from stupid decisions collectively made by their managers.

Another issue that I think most severely affected young physicians is school debt. Many of them can have up to half a million dollars in debt when they leave medical school. A part of this debt ballooning phenomenon has to do with the profess of financialization of everything in the US. Physicians, like lawyers, now have to choose their specialties based on the potential incomes that that specialty promises to pay them in the future when debt is taken into account. Circling back to Becker’s and his colleagues’ work, I wonder how this quintessential late capitalism feature of a professional education has affected their physicians’ lives, and their perspective?

On the one hand, I see the starting point of erasing prestige of the medical profession. Additionally, medical school has become more of a financial decision than a calling. On the other hand, I can see promises of high return to the career choice once digital health revolution becomes more mature. At this point, I am eager to see both transformations, and setbacks of the profession by technological innovations, and financial instruments.

AI Application in Health Care

Recently the buzz about how AI can change hospital care caught my attention. The heath care industries all over the world, in the US, the UK, Japan, and China, all are experimenting with how to use big data, and machine learning into predicting and preventing disease. Furthermore, medical technology companies are trying to create new machines, and sell them to hospitals. The AI race in hospital care has started.

While the news is all exciting, most articles talk about the future of AI in hospital. There are few articles that talk about a direct application of AI in treating patients, which has clear impact on doctor-patient care. The only one that I found so far is called TREWS, a machine learning application developed by Suchi Saria, a computer science, and health informatics scientist at Johns Hopkins University. The application can predict whether a patient has sepsis faster than real doctors. The Johns Hopkins University has used it in their clinical practice, but stopped because it did not show any real impact in terms of patient care. Currently Duke University Hospital will implement it, and we will have to wait to see its impacts on doctor-patient care.

In the meantime, I think Dr. Suchi Saria’s work is pretty impressive. To learn the gist of what TREWS is, one can take a watch of this TED talk:

Training for Marathon

Over the Thanksgiving dinner last Thursday, I talked with a group of friends about the New York Marathon. My host intimated that he had participated in it many times. It was almost a ritual for many years, until his knees became weaker, and could no longer run a long distance. Ever since he switched to cycling, which was less taxing to his aging body. It was  his enthusiasm that charmed me. I decided at the dinner table that I would give it a try. Maybe one day I could also participate in the New York Marathon. Other two guests, who lived in Philadelphia suggested that I should first aim for a half marathon at the Philly Marathon because it would be easier than the New York one. Each had their own opinion about how to train for a marathon, and whether it was a solitary endeavor, or a social event. My host suggested that it would be mostly a one-woman show with some group activities in between until the race. By the end of the dinner, I was convinced that I should give it a try. Besides, I also received an old Fitbit as a gift to track my training. The following day, instead of rushing to a store for Black Friday sales, I rushed to the Central Park for my first training section.

At 8AM the following day, I put on some running gears, headed southward to Central Park. As soon as I stepped outside of the apartment building, the cold hit my internal organs. First, I was under-dressed. The temperature was a lot lower than expected. My lung took in so much cold wind that at some point I felt as if it would have been chilled to below 40 degree had I stayed outside for too long. Even after 15 minutes of jogging, my legs didn’t warm up. They were surrounded by freezing winds without any appropriate protection. My ears also felt numb. After only 20 minutes, I decided to go home because my body could not really bear the outside temperature with less than appropriate clothing. I jogged home. My mileage was pathetically low: 1.8 miles.

The second day went a bit smoother, I put on the warmest coat that I could find in my closet. My head and ears were protected by a light wool bean hat. The problem then became overdressing! Yet I was protected. Headed to the Central Park at 8 o’clock in the morning, I joined many other New Yorkers running with me. Contrary to what my friend said, I was actually running with people, lots of people: old people, young people, teenagers, athletes, even dogs. Suddenly from a solitary activity I found solidarity with lots of co-runners. I didn’t need to know them in person, but I feel a connection immediately because I was doing something similar to what they were doing. The affinity reminded me of the concept “social infrastructure” coined by sociologist Eric Klinnenberg. As intuitive as the term suggests, any infrastructure that brings people together is social infrastructure. In his new book, Places for People,  he suggests that it is glue that binds people and communities together. Furthermore, a commitment to build these places is essential to have a cohesive and civil society. In my case, Central Park was the essential social infrastructure where my lone endeavor of training for a half marathon inadvertently became a social event which I started looking forward to every day. The social aspect of running inevitably drew me into this training and commitment even further.

While enjoying the atmosphere of Central Park on a beautiful Saturday, I ran so far off track, and found myself on the east side, near all the big museums. A sign of the Cooper Hewitt Museum suggested that I should turn back before it was too late. I headed home and completed my first 5-mile run. What a triumph!

Feeling a part of a bigger movement was not exclusive to Central Park alone. When I got home, I skyped with a friend who is currently living in Singapore. I told him that I just went out for a run and completed 5 miles that morning. While my PhD life has been boring lately because I am preparing for orals (a second exam in my PhD), which means there is a lot of lone reading time, his life in Singapore was also not at all exciting. Yet when we started changing the topic to my trying to run for a half marathon, the conversation suddenly became lively, and full of energy. Unbeknown to me he is also a runner and would participate in a half marathon run in a week or two.  He started sending me information about dieting, how to avoid injuries while running, and how to let my body rest sufficiently each week. We were encouraging each other to run more often. I asked him on how to fund-raise for some of the causes that were dear to me. This topic bonded us. Half way across the world did not feel like a long distance. I felt as if he was still my friend whom I met while in college: still full of excitement, and wanting to try new things every day. I felt better informed after talking to him about my goal, training plan, and diet regime, etc.

Since then I have been jogging 3 miles every other day, with a rest day in between. I now sleep like baby and feel so much happier with my body. Sometimes as an academic I just forget what my body can do to me. I often overwork my brain without giving sufficient attention to other parts, and the body as a whole. The positive energy I feel after a run reminds me of the Interaction Ritual Chains thesis, where sociologist Randall Collins proposes that “successful rituals create symbols of group membership and pump up individuals with emotional energy, while failed rituals drain emotional energy.” This predicts that individuals would engage in interactions where they gain the most emotional payoffs. Any activity that could be done socially would have some emotional return. To me, I am now engaging in running, and I can relate to other runners regardless of their level. Running makes me happy. Any interaction with a runner promises some level of satisfaction.

After the talk with my friend in Singapore, I became convinced that I could take part in a 10K run in less than a month. My goal is not to be the fastest runner. It is simply to finish the race, and prove that with persistence 10K is achievable. My PhD journey is oftentimes likened to a marathon.  One can run, but it doesn’t mean that one can run for 26.2 miles over the course of 5+ hours. It is a strenuous process which requires one to zoom in on a singular goal which is to cross the finishing line. I am enjoying my PhD life. But since I have crossed the half point of my journey already, I am actually looking forward to increase the speed, and finish the run in a timely manner.

 

 

Societal Transition from Production to Consumption

Shopping teaches us how to live in a market society.

Points of Purchase, Sharon Zukin

Tomorrow is Thanksgiving, and after the dinner is over, many households in the United States would get themselves in the cars, go to the malls, stand in line, wait for super sales on Black Friday across the country. I dread black Friday shopping. I dread shopping in general. Sometimes I could not understand why people enjoy going shopping, and buying items that they dont even use. It is a waste of time, and resources to me. If I have time, I would prefer to consume a good book in a quiet corner of my house with a cup of coffee, or matcha tea. As Thanksgiving draws closer, I ask myself the question of why Americans keep religiously going to Black Friday sales despite many reports about accidents that happen on that day.  The more important questions are what is the nature of consumer society that America finds itself in, and when America made a transition from a production-oriented society to a consumption-oriented society. As a sociologist, I go to the literature of my discipline for an answer. Specifically, I read texts that deal with the changing nature of political economy, and also the changing nature of consumption. This blog post aims to answer the two questions: what is the nature of American consumption society, and when did it start becoming the main organizing principle?

First, it seems that the post-industrial society helped to usher in the consumer society. Once society no longer revolves around production, and manufacturing factories were shipped overseas, it moves to the realm of consumption.  This organizing principle affects how individuals experience themselves, and express themselves. The switch happened somewhere in the 60s or the 70s. From a Marxist point of view, all workers are consumers, but not all consumers are workers. We, workers, need to consume in order to make the capitalist economy function. In the documentary Inequality for All, former secretary of labor, Robert Reich makes the point that when the middle-class are strong they they consume; their consumption creates jobs, thus strengthening the economy. In contrast, if the returns of investment are disproportionately reaped by the management and capitalist classes, they do not consume as much, and cannot create as many jobs. The extra cash that they don’t spend will be saved to speculate on other assets as they see fit. In other words, they will take out cash that could be invested in productive sectors of the economy, and put it into as speculative sectors such as real estate, or stock market. This is not good for the economy in general. Consumers have power to change the course of the economy, and strengthening the middle class are the central message. Reich seems to focus explicitly on the middle class, and the term consumption is synonymous to  the middle class. Yet, how the consumer society came into being is certainly a more complicated picture than just the expansion of American middle class.

The sociologist Sharon Zukin has written many books that focus on the question of  political economy changes, and their impacts on individuals and their relationship to society. One book of interest where she talks about the transition from a production-oriented society to consumption-oriented one is Landscapes of Power. In this book Zukin  examines different urban spaces that symbolize the material reality and power dynamics of the market economy.  One example is Detroit, a rustbell city, and another example is Disney Land, a dream land of a consumer society. Another book, Points of Purchase  goes deeper into the lived experience of individuals in a consumer society. She specifically zooms in on the act of shopping, how it shapes the self, and its relationship to society. Shopping places tell a story of urban consumption, and they are not innocuous spaces where every customer is treated with the same level of respect. They are also dark places that reflect social biases and prejudices.

Since the nineties, shopping has become our principal strategy for creating value….With the shift of the economy toward consumption, and our weaker attachment to traditional art forms, religions, and politics, shopping has come to define who we, as individuals, are and what we, as a society, want to become.

Sharon argues that the American way of life in terms of shopping changed in the 90s. We hang out at the mall. Shopping malls replace traditional public institutions such as churches and libraries. Consumers have an illusion of democracy where they feel as if they share the same space with people from different classes. New York epitomizes this idea. Every single block in Manhattan is covered with businesses on the first floors. Tourists and New Yorkers alike are spending more of their time in commercial venues than spending time with their friends and families at public squares, parks, or museums. One gain cultural capital via learning what to shop and how to shop. In the twenty-first century, when everyone has a cell phone in their pocket, shopping becomes an effortless act of finger typing, and swiping on the smartphone screens. Shops might not be physically available, but shopping is ubiquitous.

Another book that I read recently that deals with the working class in a consumer society is Working for Respect, which I wrote a book review here. Currently I am re-reading it with a reading group, and other members have pointed out many arguments that I missed in my first reading of the book. We have been talking about the power of consumers over workers in forcing the company to acknowledge its responsibility to the workers. At one point we talked about how nowadays consumers have more power over the company than workers. The case in point is Walmart. Given how anti-union Walmart is, and that Walmart has a way to organize workers in a way that each worker is replaceable. Even if 20% of Wal-Mart workers go on strike, the company could still function, and the workers might risk losing their jobs at the end. In this day and age, if consumers boycott the company, it might be a more effective bargaining tactic to change work conditions for workers. One can see various examples in real life. For example, fair trade coffee where consumers are supposed to pay more, such that the profits can go directly to coffee growers in the developing world. This type of consumption ethics is prevalent in a consumer society.

I have come to realize that I my relationship with shopping has been complicated. I used to hate shopping for clothing because I had trouble with my body image. Now I enjoyed shopping for clothes a little bit more as I figured out quite a bit about my taste, how to negotiate with shop keepers, and what to buy for which occasions. More importantly, being financially independent plays a large role in changing the relationship with shopping. I dont need to ask for anybody’s permission to buy a dress. It seems I am gradually incorporated into this consumer society of America.

Book Review: 10 Arguments for Deleting Your Social Media Accounts by Jaron Lanier

After the 2016 presidential election in the United States, and the Cambridge Analytica scandal in 2018, many people have started leaving social media including Facebook, Twitter and Instagram en masse. However, social media culture, like hook-up culture on campus, affects everyone regardless of whether they opt in or not. I myself have thought about quitting social media many times, yet I never successfully made the transition. I simply have too many accounts. My life is too reliant on social media. The system of social media accounts is too convoluted that as an individual if I delete all, I would fee empty. I am afraid of that void. While looking for some ways to rationalize the decision to be less connected in this networked world, I picked up the book Ten Arguments for Deleting Your Social Media Accounts by Jaron Lanier to learn how he justifies the decision to delete all social media accounts.

In a nutshell, the book “argues in ten ways that what has become suddenly normal – pervasive surveillance and constant, subtle manipulation – is unethical, cruel, dangerous, and inhumane.” In other words, Lanier suggests that in totality a system of all social media accounts has become “unethical, cruel, dangerous and inhumane.” Therefore, one should not participate in it, support its existence, and its reproduction.

The ten arguments are summarized on the back cover as follows:

Argument one:  You are losing your free will.

Argument two: Quitting social media is the most finely targeted way to resist the insanity of our times.

Argument three: Social media is making you into an asshole.

Argument four: Social media is undermining truth.

Argument five: Social media is making what you say meaningless.

Argument six: Social media is destroying your capacity for empathy.

Argument seven: Social media is making you unhappy.

Argument eight: Social media doesn’t want you to have economic dignity.

Argument nine: Social media is making politics impossible.

Argument ten: Social media hates your soul.

He works out the argument one by one using the term BUMMER which stands for “Behaviors of Users Modified, and Made into an Empire for Rent.” It is “a machine, a statistical machine that lives in the computing clouds.”  There are two main parts to his definition of BUMMER: modification of users’ behaviors, and rent seeking endeavor.

How do social media companies modify users’ behaviors? This question leads Lanier to give us a brief overview of what behaviorism is, and how this approach has become very influential in social media companies. In brief, behaviorism is a scientific movement that studied ways to train animals and humans. It arose before computers. Behaviorists focus on the environment where certain behaviors are produced, and reproduced. The implication is that when the environment is changed, the behavior is also changed.

What is rent-seeking? This is an economic term that describes one’s activity to increase one’s share of existing wealth without creating new wealth. This behavior can have harmful effect to the economy because of poor allocation of available resources.

In many ways, social media companies seek rent by offering a free platform for users to exchange information while altering their behaviors via algorithmic manipulations. Since users’ behaviors can be manipulated via these platforms, they can be also manipulated by other factors such as their social networks, bots, and foreign intelligence agencies during elections, etc. The one sharing place on the Internet that Lanier believes to not have been colonized by corporate interests is podcasts. I share his view on this, and have blogged about the democratization effect of podcasting, where individual broadcasters can reach out to their audience directly, instead of going through various distributional channels that are known to be biased, and dominated by a certain group of people. Lanier suggests that it is possible to corrupt the podcast space. However, given the current technology, it is very difficult.

I am buying into various arguments that Lanier brings up to convince each individual to quit social media. From a sociological point of view, Lanier is setting up a system of arguments to show detrimental effects of social media to each individual in a society. It is also harmful to society at large when each individual is easily manipulated.

On the macro-level, Lanier is right that social media as the whole has done more harm than good to society. Yet, on a personal level, I feel so conflicted about deleting one account at at time. For example, I belong to the Facebook generation. Everyone keeps in touch with their friends (childhood friends, college friends, backpacking friends, etc.) on Facebook. It is a casual place to strike a conversation. Now if I close Facebook permanently I dont know what my friends are up to. Keeping in touch with them will be more difficult. Even my parents follow me on Facebook to get a glimpse of what I do sometimes. Then my Twitter account is explicitly used for academic purposes such as following eminent public sociologists, whose ideas, and insights are relevant to my work. Now if I get rid of this channel, I feel as if I dont know what my field is talking about any more. The fear of losing out is taking over my thought processes. Then should I trust Lanier at all if he has never started a social media account to start with?

As a scientist, I see that the book comes short because it only presents a rough sketch of ten arguments with not much substantial evidence. Call me dogmatic if you will, but I would prefer some rigorous research to tease out each one of the ten arguments that Lanier makes. He presents many theories,  hypotheses, insider’s information, and sometimes good stories. These hypotheses could be tested in the real world. For example, Argument Five states that “social media is making what you say meaningless.” The logic is that when everyone can broadcast their own opinion, the meaning of what one says decreases significantly.  From a neoclassical economic point of view, this makes sense because when there is more supply of words/ messages, the price (here is meaning) of what one has to say should reduce. But how can I see this in real life? Is there a way to quantify meaning? How do I know that social media is the main factor that causes quality of conversation and messages that I broadcast to decrease? Or is it a general trend in an info-glut society, and social media is just one of the many tools that inundate each individual with information? There are too many confounding factors to have a conclusive statement about effects of social media on meaning. That said, I still agree with Lanier that social media plays a decisive role in eroding real and meaningful conversations.

In conclusion, the little book called Ten Arguments for Deleting Your Social Media Accounts gives social media users a lot of ideas why they should leave these platforms at least for a brief period of time. As an insider, a computer scientist, and someone who cares about the effects of digital technology on society, Lanier gives us much insights to appreciate. As a social scientist, I think this book contains many valuable hypotheses to test. That is to say, one can use this book as a guide to come up with some extensive research agenda that examines effects of social media on society.

Gemeinschaft vs. Gesellschaft

Gemeinschaft is old; Gesellschaft is new as a name and as a phenomenon.

Community & Society, Ferdinand Tonnies

When Amazon announced that it would build one of its two second  headquarters (dubbed H2Q) in Queens, New York, Queens residents got really upset. Many condemned Major Bill de Blasio and Governor Andrew Cuomo. The reason being that politicians would subsidize a corporation to create very few jobs, while one social consequence would be a destruction of communities. In other words, in order to gain some handful number of jobs, politicians are willing to give up prime real estate, and livelihood of thousands of people. Most likely, they would be displaced once highly-paid Amazon employees move into their neighborhoods. New York’s newly elected congresswoman, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, has spoken out about  Amazon’s building its second headquarters in Queens. She represents the voice of the community, and says that the community is not happy about this decision from both Amazon, and the politicians of New York. Screen Shot 2018-11-17 at 11.07.48

As a sociologist, I wonder what the community in this context means. Not trying to be a post-modern theorist, and deconstructing every word that Ocasio-Cortez uses, I just want to sociologically, and theoretically understand the concept “community” being used in political discussions in the United States. This concept is being used frequently both in the scientific discipline of sociology, and used in common daily discussions. The context that I hear the most from media has to do with activism. Activists would call the Asian American community, black community, LGBTQ community, etc. The idea is that these people share some well-defined identity, and they can work together to solve a common issue. Each individual can be a part of various communities for as complex human beings we have different social identities. When I was living in Vietnam, and in Germany, I did not hear this concept being used much. I wonder whether in those two countries, social identities are less fluidly defined. Anyhow, as a sociologist, I went back to the history of my discipline, looked up the concept, and tried to think through how I could use the concept “community” rigorously.

The concept community in sociology can be traced back to the German sociologist, Ferdinand Tönnies, who in 1887 defined the concept in a book called Gemeinschaft & Gesellschaft. Roughly translated, Gemeinschaft is community, and Gesellschaft is society. Specifically, he defines:

The theory of Gemeinschaft starts from the assumption of perfect unity of human wills as an original or natural condition which is preserved in spite of actual separation. This natural condition is found in manifold forms because of dependence on the nature of the relationship between individuals who are differently conditioned.

Whereas,

Gesellschaft, an aggregate by convention and law of nature, is to be understood as a multitude of natural and artificial individuals, the wills, and spheres of whom are in many relations with and to one another, and remain nevertheless independent of one another and devoid of mutual familiar relationships.

Tönnies divides social groupings into two categories according to social ties. In a Gemeinschaft, social ties are often strong. Therefore, there are unity, and intimate connections between members. One can think of a family unit as a community, where everyone is caring for each other, and maintains an interest in each other’s well beings. In contrast, a Gesellschaft is comprised of weak ties, and social connections are mostly defined by abstract social contracts instead of concrete social intimacy. Members are dependent on one another in a Gemeinschaft, while they are independent from each other in a Gesellschaft.

An individual is an social atom, and is living for himself instead of for other people in a Gesellschaft.

In Gesellschaft every person strives for that which is to his own advantage and he affirms the actions of others only in so far as and as long as they can further his interest.

Social relations are of instrumental use for an individual in a Gesellschaft. He uses these connections to “further his interest”. 

However, when we comes back to the original example, where Queens residents voice their frustration through Ocasio-Cortez, they speak with a sense of unity. They are not using Ocasio-Cortez instrumentally as an individual should do in a Gesellschaft of New York City. What this example shows is that within a Gesellschaft, there are many Gemeinschafts. 

As I am preparing for my oral exam in urban sociology, I cannot help but ask: why do sociologists especially urban sociologists care about the distinction between Gemeinschaft & Gesellschaft? One answer could be that because a Gemeinschaft can bring people together because of its unity, while Gesellschaft gives its members flexibility to move up, and out of their various Gemeinschafts. Weak ties are not always bad. That is why one of the most famous sociology papers is titled “Strength of Weak Ties.”    Despite the fact that technology may have change the former communities, it helps to form new communities.  As human beings, we desire for intimate connection, and a sense of belonging. Therefore, the concept Gemeinschaft will never get old. 

It would be a fool of me to say that I understand everything that Tönnies outlines in his book. Instead, I looked for some video that explains the concepts more clearly with visual illustrations. One very good YouTube video that I found is the following one, which is appropriate for any undergraduate sociology course:

10 Reasons to Watch The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel

What does one do for fun outside of work? I kept asking myself this question fairly often lately. Hobbies are important to one’s character building and help maintain work/life balance, and keep one sane amidst all the political, social, and cultural insanity. Recently I pay more attention to my soul, and start spending time to carve out some hobby such as creative writing, learning another language, and also watching TV shows. Before, whenever I had a five minute break, I would read another piece of news, or acquire some information from a non-fiction book. I felt guilty binging on TV shows. Now not so much! I stop feeling guilty about binging on TV shows, as well as ice-cream. One can slack off, and these slack off well-spent times can help one rejuvenate, and feel happy about life.

One show that I finished lately is The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel The show is about Midge Maisel, a housewife in 1958 in New York City who discovered a knack for stand-up comedy. I highly recommend it to everyone. This blog post will outline aspects of the show that I love.

  1. It’s about standup comedy

It showcases the creative and mundane aspects of being a performer. How does one write jokes? How can one conquer stage fright? And how does a woman handle work/life balance & a hobby?

The topic is culturally topical. Standup comedy has become a very popular entertainment form, springing all over the world. Netflix has aired many standup comedy specials. People loves standup comics. However, this cultural phenomenon is not universally true, but seems to be confined to the English-speaking world. When I was in Germany this past summer, I asked my German friends if they attend standup comedy shows at all, or if this form even exists as a form of entertainment. They told me that it is not popular, and the German-speaking world has the equivalent of political and social commentaries. It is cabaret, which is not quite the same as stand up comedy. Cabarets are too tense sometimes, while standup comedies are much more light-hearted and up-beating.

Mrs. Maisel’s story is about a particular moment in American standup comedy history: female standup comics entering the scene. In the 50s and the 60s, comedians started to add social satire into their acts, and also pushed the boundaries of what was acceptable as subject matters of their performance. Many comedians were arrested for obscene language on stage. Mrs. Maisel made some allusion to this turning point in the history of American standup comedy in the early episodes.

2. Music

The show is a period drama of American life in the late 50s. There are many upbeat jazz songs of the period being featured in this TV show. When I was an undergraduate student, I loved history. Everything that had to do with historical period would be my obsession. How did people talk? What did they hear? How did they experience the streets? How did they dress? How was food used to taste like? This show not only gave me a peak into what life was like for a small group of New Yorkers back in the late 1950s. It gives me some sound and visual stimulation. Since Amazon bought the show, it provided viewers with various information that one needs. When one clicks on the upper left corner of the screen, information about the cast, songs, settings, would popup. Sometimes I just wonder what the song title was, and there it was popping up on the upper left corner of my screen, and I can figure out the name of the song. That was a brilliant invention. That’s pretty interactive. Then I would takeout my cell phone, open the Amazon Music App and add the song to my current list. My obsession with knowing what is going on, and the convenience of various apps, devices channel me into an Amazon world. Now Amazon supplies me with films, music, and books.

3. Choreography

What is interesting about the show to me is that it uses musical techniques such as choreographed movements of cast, the lyrical way of talking, and clothing. These musical elements are really effective in telling Midge’s story. 

4. Color

Instead of having something dark and bleak, this show has all  colors. The show pops. Midge wears very bright clothes. Every sequence is accentuated. I could hardly imagine how New Yorkers nowadays wear colorful clothes like women in the movie. However, this accentuation of reality works. This aspect reminds me of the French Movie, Amelie, where the use of bright colors really transports viewers into the dreamy Paris of Amelie. Similarly, Mrs. Maisel transports us to the creative world of Midge, whose mundane life might be full of elements for creative thinking, and good jokes.

5. Jokes

Of course, as a standup comedy, one should payattention to the jokes. I got so inspired I wanted to attend stand-up comedy clubs,workshops myself.

6. It’s relate-abe

After separating from her husband, Midge works as a counter girl in the cosmetics section at B.Altman department store . At one point I stared intensely at my laptop screen, and asked is it the building that I am working in. Indeed, CUNY – the Graduate Center inherited the beautiful building, and has transformed it from the best department store of New York into an institution of higher learning. My experience of my own school has been transformed. Every time when I enter the main entrance, I think of a group of salesgirls dancing in front of me, and trying to sell me lipsticks.

In conclusion, it is a light-hearted, and upbeat show to make everyone love New York, and the various cultural institutions it has to offer. New York is a creative laboratory for creative thinkers. This show makes the city even more relate-able to aspiring young comedians. Enjoy it everyone!

Seattle: A City of Possibilities

Early in the fall, I had a chance to visit Seattle for a weekend. It turned out to be a wonderful trip. I got to enjoy the hipster scene in downtown Seattle at night, visit the iconic Pike Place Market, indulge every single third culture coffee drip in the town, poke around the artisanal food scene, microbreweries, and of course consume marijuana like a real tourist. Furthermore, I got to catch up with a long-time friend, who happened to attend a conference in town, and made some new friends along the way. There is nothing better than enjoying a nice city with a group of interesting people.

At the end of the trip, I was asked to write a blog post about the wonderful and mighty Seattle. The question being raised was: Would you move to Seattle? Without any hesitation, I answered yes. However, the blog post has been delayed for quite a while because I wanted to think through my decision, or thinking with my fingers as my writing professor would call it. Why did I say yes then, and have I changed my mind now?

Seattle skyline is beautiful with the iconic Space Needle to be the signature of its urban landscape. It reminds me of another iconic tower that is dear to my heart: the TV tower, Fernsehturm, in East Berlin. On the background, the majestic Mount Rainier dominates the landscape. The mountain on the background of Seattle reminds a visitor of the relationship between the iconic Mount Fuji and the city Tokyo. It is a perfect marriage of urban landscape, man-made structure and the almighty and beautiful natural landscape. On Elliot Bay, the giant Great Wheel reminds one of the London eye. Moreover, Seattle’s rainy weather resembles London’s weather so much. Then hilly  streets that lead to the bay make one wonder whether one is lost in San Francisco. In short, Seattle has various endearing features of all great cities in the world.

On the flight to Seattle, I happened to sit next to a New York retiree lawyer, who grew up in Seattle. When being asked what should one do in the city, she answered by telling her childhood stories growing up next to the Pacific Ocean. Her dad was a military man, involved briefly in the Vietnam War. They ended up moving to the Pacific Northwest because he got a job building the navy in Seattle back in the late 60s or early 70s. I gathered her childhood was cheerful, and Seattle has been a stable home base. She was on her way back to visit her family members. At one point, she took out her iPhone, and showed various pictures of the house where she grew up. It was a ginormous  suburban house right next to the ocean, with mountains on three sides. Her story charmed me immediately, and in on the 5 hours flight, I filled in the rest her stories with my own imagination. Imagine how awesome it would be to live in Seattle: going to the bay in the afternoon, and swimming every once in a while. Why wouldnt one want to live there?

During the weekend, I enjoyed various seafood dishes in the City. Having heard that Bainbridge, an island off the coast of Seattle, had a little town feeling, I spent a day to go there, and walked around the town. The ferry ride across the bay was beyond description. I wanted to just move straight to this part of the world.

Then I also visited Bellevue, an upscale, expensive area where most tech companies have their head quarters there. My various Lyft drivers were accidentally turned into tour guides because I asked questions about their impressions of each neighborhood. They talked about their communities, properties price, social problems in Seattle caused by the tech industry. They brought me closer to what is actually experienced by the local residents. Many of them are driven out of the city because of skyrocketing real estate price.

Homelessness is a big issue. Many volunteered to be homeless to protest again increasing home price caused by the tech industry. They talked about how Amazon negotiated with the City to not have to pay corporate taxes. They talked about deteriorating infrastructure because the city doesn’t have enough money to build new roads. They talked about the differential power between tech giants, the city and the local residents. Seattle is a social laboratory for me as a social scientist. There are so many problems to analyze, and to find solutions for. It seems that I would find myself some social problem to solve if I end up there one day.

The question is not so much about whether I would move to Seattle.  Essentially it is about whether I  would trade New York City for Seattle?

In the past three years living in the city, I have become a happy New Yorker. The city provides both: chaos and order. New York has both the past and the future. New York has the part of immigration history that I dearly love. New York has literary institutions, museums, cultural institutions.My mind is constantly stimulated by intellectual exchanges with a diverse group of people. In other words, New York is full of culture; whereas Seattle is full of nature, and possibilities.

New York is layering up like an onion. After one peels a layer, there are million more layers to peel. I am still loving New York. The more I live here, the more things about New York I find out, and the more I adore it. The love for New York is only deepened over time. It is not love at first sight. My affection and appreciation for New York is like a feeling for good wine. The more one is experienced with wine, the more one is appreciative of a good old wine. New York is a full-bodied, smooth red wine. It has complex taste that is never appealing to teetotalers, but is a must for a wine connoisseur because of its layering of taste. One can be frustrated in this city, but this frustration  arises out of care, and deep connection to to the city.

Would I still move to Seattle? Yes, when I feel that I can leave New York, when I want to have a house, and when I want to raise a family. I think Seattle is a great place for somebody in their thirties, but as of now, I am enjoying my life as a New Yorker.

New Urbanism: Nostalgia for Communities

Technology reinforces the idea that local communities are archaic, even while making their image more available.

Landscapes of Power, Sharon Zukin

While studying for my oral test in urban sociology, I spend much of my time thinking about the concept “community,” and various conflicts between community and capital/market, and the state.  In the blog post about urbanism, which  describes the study of the urban, and inhabitants in the city. That implies that urbanism also studies different communities that are formed in the precinct of a city. Studying community is such an important part of urban sociology that the main sociology journal which focuses on urban sociology is called City & Community . In this blog post, I aim to explore the concept new urbanism, and how new urbanists conceptualize “community.”

Wikipedia defines new urbanism as:

An urban design movement which promotes environmentally friendly habits by creating walkable neighborhoods containing a wide range of housing and job types. It arose in the United States in the early 1980s, and has gradually influenced many aspects of real estate development, urban planning, and municipal land-use strategies.

The definition suggests that it is an urban design movement, which turns away from suburbanization, and promotes environmentally friendly neighborhoods. It started out in the 80s, and has had influenced on urban planning, and land-use strategies in the United States since. The key idea here is the concept “walkable.” What does it mean by having a walkable neighrbood? As opposed to what?

By digging a bit deeper, I figured out that this entire notion of walkable neighborhood is directly opposed to the idea that an urban neighborhood is built for cars. Prior to 1980s, cities were centered around cars, and the highways. Jane Jacobs had to write a book called The Death and Life of Great American Cities in 1961 to defend an urban way of life that would be threatened by cars, and constructions of highways in the city. She saw that Greenwich Village, her urban village would be destroyed by cars. There would be no more sociability on the streets because cars would stop people walking, and converting pavements where neighbors meet one another into driveways where drivers shout at each other instead. It took two decades for Jacobs’s ideas to get into urban planning institutions, and architecture schools. Starting from the 80s, urban planners and architects proposed that urban design needed to take human life as a center of the picture. Hence, the promotion for walk-able streets, and cities. In other words, life needed to be on display.

New urbanists want to bring human factors into the city. They want to promote communal life of previous eras. There was a deep sense of nostalgic feeling about communities, and what has been lost due to the rise of modern technology such as cars, and phones. Thus, they went out of their way to build cities that display precisely that which they yearned for: commercial activities on streets, and walkable neighborhoods. However, one criticism they face is that that this movement still promotes urban sprawl, but uses the nostalgic imagery of the previous eras.

To look at how attractive the idea of  walkable cities is, one can watch the Ted talk Walkable Cities by Kent Larson, Principal Research Scientist at MIT Media Lab:

Larson points out rightly that small cities, and walkable cities are desirable. They help us to feel larger, and that humans matter. He advocates to have people and human life to be the center of city  planning. However, gradually his talk becomes how autonomous vehicles to solve mobility problems rather than how city planning can do a better job at facilitating human interactions, which are the core of the sociability issue. In many ways, the promises of a walkable city become a transportation and car industry’s solution instead of a structural and ideological change in thinking how one should live a better life in a city.  If a city is to follow Larson’s suggestion to build more autonomous vehicle that would help with traffic within a city, the lack of human interactions still remains as a problem. One still feels isolated as a city dweller.  A social problem cannot really be addressed technically if the ideology about urban life is not changed. At the end of the day the technical problem is how a city can be designed, and re-designed to accommodate the most people in the most environmentally sustainable way. In that process, new urbanists would hope to build spaces where human interactions can take place. In order to answer the question how can this challenge be solved, we should take a look at what cities most people adore, and would like to live in.

The philosopher Alain de Botton offers a solution to make a city attractive.

In this video, de Botton is very much concerned with the aesthetics of a city, and how one can organize a city based on aesthetic principles. Coming from a humanist’s point of view, de Botton shows us an ideal city where human beings are at the center of any urban design. He argues persuasively that when one looks at many modern cities nowadays, one sees corporate interests above all. This display of corporate power is a testament to our current societal interests despite the fact that we do not like to admit that corporate interests have trumped all other interests. His solution of how to bring people into the center of the urban planning picture is holistic. It requires a concerted effort of different groups of people: public policy makers, urban planners, architects, transportation engineers, and more importantly city dwellers themselves. In other words, city planning, and how to create a live-able built environment should not be left only for technocrats. It has to be a social and political project where different interest groups can voice their opinions. According to this prescription, Larson’s solution is one-sided, and incomplete at best.

In conclusion, this new urbanism movement is a reaction to the previous development of big cities which value cars more than people. The idea of walkable cities looks to the past for inspiration about how a community should live. However, in practice the domain of how to change the lived environment in the United States is pretty much left to technocrats such as urban planners, architects, and transportation engineers, who design the city according to what they think as best for human interactions, and to display human life.  In other words, “community” as a concept is evoked to justify urbanization, and commercialization of certain spaces.

Investigative Journalism in the Age of Trump

I have written a review of Bad Blood by the journalist John Carreyrou of Wall Street Journal. His book documents the rise and fall of Theranos, a medical tech startup. After having written the review, and read more about Carreyrou’s work. Then I wondered what investigative journalism is, what it takes to become an investigative reporter, how do they work, and what their role is in the age of mis-information.

The first time I seriously thought about the fancy term – investigative journalism – was when one of my roommates shared that she aspired to become an investigative journalist. At first, I thought when most journals were struggling because of the Internet and the rise of social media, becoming a journalist was a bad idea. Stable jobs were a rarity, and all journals had been going through serious financial crises, and corporate restructuring. After reading Bad Blood, reading about John Carreyrou, Chris Hedges, and other high-profile investigative journalists, I have changed my mind about journalism in this day and age. Specifically, I have become to admire them more because their work really has social impact while it is not oftentimes well compensated financially.

What is investigative journalism?

Wikipedia provides a general definition of the profession:

Investigative journalism is a form of journalism in which reporters deeply investigate a single topic of interest, such as serious crimes, political corruption, or corporate wrongdoing. An investigative journalist may spend months or years researching and preparing a report. Practitioners sometimes use the terms “watchdog reporting” or “accountability reporting”.

The topic of interest often deals with crimes, political corruption, and corporate wrong doing. That means, their topics must be of interest to a wide audience, and that their reporting has an influence on both the public, the population, and public policy. In terms of length of investigation, it can take for months or years. This is literally like a research project that one does in graduate school. Theoretically it can take even longer than graduate school work. In many ways, investigative reporting is akin to scholarly work.

These reporters are also called “muckrakers,” which references reform-minded American journalists in the Progressive Era. In other words, investigative journalism as what we know to day is very much a part of American history.

How much do investigative journalists get paid?

According to Paysacale.com, the median income of investigative journalists is $62,034 per annum. That means they get paid a little bit more than regular journalists, whose average income is $52,162 per annum according to Glassdoor.com. In New York City, journalists earn a bit higher salary than the national average. They earn on average $75,151 a year (also according to Glassdoor.com).

My roommate who had a legal training. She’s obviously qualified to become an investigative journalist. However, her income would be so much lower if she decided to become a journalist instead of a corporate lawyer.

Why investigative journalism important?

Because it helps to strengthen and maintain a healthy democracy. Its function is to reveal the truth, to root out facts which people want to keep hidden, to re-establish fairness. In era of info-glut, and mis-information, investigative reporting is more important than ever because it can lead to social change.  Movies such as Spotlight, and books such as Bad Blood show that journalists in the quest of revealing the truth, they have to take risks when dealing with powerful individuals and institutions.

What does it take to become  an investigative journalist?

A stock answer would be to obtain a degree in journalism. For example, one can get an associate’s degree, bachelor’s degree, or a master’s degree from colleges, and journalism schools. One can also become an investigative journalist from different routes such as obtaining a law degree, or a bachelor degree in another field. For example, John Carreyrou, the author of Bad Blood, actually got a bachelor’s degree in political science and government. So it is not necessary that one needs a degree in journalism to do investigative reporting.

As a sociologist, I am curious to know about the reporters’ jobs in the age of mis-information, post-truth and fake news. How do they assure the public that what they are reporting is the truth, and how do the convince the public about their credibility when the president of the United States blatantly calls them to be fake news, and discredit them on national TV. As an avid reader, my safe choice is to first go and read some important investigative reporting in forms of books, and long reads.

Below is a list of books and documentaries that would give one an entry into the genre of investigative journalism. Some books are biographies or autobiographies that help to bring the reader into the world of investigative reporting. Many journalists here specialize on war reporting. Another source that one can learn about how important good journalism is in this day and age is the TV show, The Fourth Estate on Showtime. If you have any recommendation, please drop me a line of suggestion in the comments section.

Thinking aloud: An Inquiring Technique

While taking a walk with a friend in my neighborhood, I lent him my ears, listening to various problems that bothered him at that moment. Issues ran from a mathematical equation, to his relationship with his advisor, to his various job applications. Naturally I offered my thoughts on each of those issues. However, at the end of the conversation, both of us recognized that he didn’t really need any of my advice because at best I had partial information. There was no way that my thoughts or advice could be of any use to him. As an opinionated young woman, my impulse was to sprinkle my opinion on anything that I hear, while my friend only wanted to think aloud.

The incidence nudged me to inquire further into think-aloud as a thinking, writing, and teaching technique.

What is think aloud?

Merriam Webster Dictionary defines the phrase as to say one’s thoughts so that other people can hear them. For example, No, I wasn’t talking to you. I was just thinking aloud/out loud.

Collins Dictionary suggests that  if you think aloud, you express your thoughts as they occur to you, rather than thinking first and then speaking.

Both definitions suggest that first, the speaker instantaneously articulates a thought that occurs to him/her rather than carefully processing it before giving the information to the listener. Furthermore, the role of the listener is not so much as to listen tentatively and engage passionately in a conversation because the other person might not be in a dialogue mode. In other words, the listener was just there for companionship instead of being a co-thinker.

Thinking aloud could also be referred to a research protocol, where researchers gather data in usability testing in product design and development. My conception of the “thinking aloud method” relies on the same strategy:

Think-aloud protocols involve participants thinking aloud as they are performing a set of specified tasks. Participants are asked to say whatever comes into their mind as they complete the task. This might include what they are looking at, thinking, doing, and feeling.

Research participants simultaneously perform a task and verbalize how they cognitively perform the task in their head. In other words, in contrast to explaining how one does something after one thinks through the issue, one is articulating immediately how the thought process goes. As a perfectionist, I often think through an issue before articulating how I think about it. The idea of spontaneously coming up with a solution is foreign to me.  However, I have encountered this method in various situations.

The first time when I took a calculus class in college, the professor suggested that whoever could solve the problem could go up to the black board, show the class how  the equation could be manipulated, and articulate along what she did. I was able to quickly figure out how the equation could be manipulated on a piece of paper at my seat. However, when I got to the board, while showing my classmates visually how each step should be performed, I was tongue-tied. No word came out of my mouth even though I knew the perfect answer. The reason wasn’t that my English was bad. Simply solving a mathematical equation was a quiet and thinking endeavor for me. My prior grade school education in Vietnam taught me that mathematical thinking was individual thinking. The only thing one needed to do was to get an answer right. I was never asked to show anybody verbally how the equation could be manipulated step by step as I solved it. Mathematics was not supposed to be social. However, in an American college classroom context, learning was social. Simply it was a different learning exercise that I encountered. I was dumbfounded by my silence.

Apparently, in the two above situations, thinking aloud was a social exercise to help one think through a problem. In my friend’s situation, he was trying to think through his various professional and personal problems, however he preferred to think through the problem by verbalizing it. While in the second scenario, I encountered a thinking-aloud exercise that required students to articulate their thought processes while solving a problem. I didn’t understand it so much as a thinking aloud exercise, what I did was really thinking fully, and then re-telling, and justifying each step. In a way, thinking aloud is used in various contexts to stimulate one’s thought processes. As a scholar, I see that this technique is very helpful for many purposes. One can utilize it in at least three situations in the academe where this technique would be useful: formulating a research project, solving a problem, and teaching students a concept.

Formulating a research project

How can one articulate one’s thought processes to form a meaningful research project? The problem with graduate school is that it’s a lonely process. Many a times, one conceptualizes that it’s one’s own journey. However, it is not true. Most research projects are team efforts. Of course, the author of a dissertation is responsible for most of the work. But without a whole crew of advisors, peers, editors, and other scholars, the work could never be materialized. In this process, many experienced researchers would help a junior researcher to formulate a project by asking probing questions. These questions trigger various thoughts, dormant knowledge, and working hypotheses. In other words, the thinking-aloud method is already implicitly used in graduate school. Formulating a dissertation research is similar to formulating a novel. In writing either document, an author has to make millions of decisions. Thinking aloud brings in the social aspect of this seemingly solitary process.

Solving a problem

Creative thinkers solve problems that might not have answers, or nobody has yet figured out the answers. Therefore, in order for them to push the boundary of knowledge, they need an extra push, and support. Thinking aloud makes this process more humane. Instead of hiding oneself in the woods, and thinking through a problem. It is more productive to talk to people who share the same passion. They might be able to offer some insights, and nudge one along with one’s creative thinking. Thinking aloud is particularly helpful when an idea is vaguely forming in one’s head. Like a sculpturist, the thinker’s job is to add contours to this idea: that is, to add depth to a two dimensional object, or to add shape & substance to a non-material one. Thinking aloud adds vocabulary to this idea. The more one does it, the more the idea becomes more complex, and grasp-able.

Teaching

In many ways, teaching involves reverse engineering. I often find myself explaining what the author of a particular research did to my students. However, the better part of the teaching process is to explain what could have been done differently, or what could have not been done right, or whether there are alternative explanations.  This pedagogical imagination stimulates both my own thinking, and my students’ desire to learn more. In teaching, sometimes I ask students what the author does, and how could they do things differently. I let them talk, and come to their own conclusions. Instead of giving a lecture, I let other students wait until a particular student can think through the very question they ask, and give them counter-questions to complexify the issue, until they reach their own conclusion. This feels so satisfying when a student feels that they grasp a concept or knowing how to solve a problem. However, obviously this method would not work for a classroom of 100 students. It is very much a seminar style, where I can pay attention to each student’s thought processes. In other words, this method is appropriate for a small-class setting.

Potential conflict

The relationship between the speaker and the listener in the process of thinking aloud is symbiotic, yet this form of thinking could cause conflicts if both parties are not aware of what their role is in the relationship. The speaker is processing some thoughts, and trying to give an idea some flesh, and structure while the listener’s role is to facilitate this process by asking clarifying questions. In many ways, the speaker is not interested in the listerner’s opinions or advice about a particular topic of interests. Most important to the relationship for the listener is to ask questions. However, this subtlety is difficult to detect in daily interactions because as human beings we think our opinions matter. Having our opinions discounted hurts our feelings. Sometimes the first party, the speaker is simply not aware that they are thinking aloud. Hence the listener, the sidekick in this scenario has to do the work, figuring out whether they are playing the sidekick roles for a brief period of time. In order to avoid this confusion, and potential conflicts, the speaker should be aware that they are interested in exploring some questions, and would like to get some ideas, feedback from the other party. If this is clear from the beginning, the interaction would be meaningful and productive for both sides.

In conclusion, thinking aloud is a technique that anyone can employ for daily problem solving. To a knowledge producer, scholar, and a pedagogue, it could be utilized to formulate a problem, solve it, and teach others how to solve it.

What is Urbanism?

Currently I am preparing for a qualifying exam in urban sociology. The plan is to get it done by February of 2019. In the course of preparation, I have been reading many classical and contemporary texts in urban sociology. One question that arose along the way is what is urbanism? It’s a central concept in many disciplines that have to do with the urban such as urban planning, architecture, and of course urban sociology.

With the question in mind, I started looking for the answer on Wikipedia, texts in my disciplines, and even YouTube.

First and foremost, Wikepedia defines “urbanism” as:

the study of how inhabitants of urban areas, such as towns and cities, interact with the built environment.

The definition suggests that it is a study, and it looks at the interaction between mostly human and the built environment.

Now, to break this definition even further, I searched the concept on Youtube, and listened to people who seem to understand the concept, who would explain it to me visually.

This is an interesting video that I found, even though it doest really directly explain the concept:

Having done some Internet searching, I go back to the classical text in my discipline that defines the concept and rigorously defines, and operationalizes it. The text is

Wirth, L. (1938). Urbanism as a Way of Life. American journal of sociology, 44(1), 1-24.

Wirth attempts to explain the emerging phenomenon of urbanization in the United States at the turn of the twentieth century. He argues that city, and the urban are not only a place that a lot of people live, and work, it exerts more influence than that. There is culture in a city.

The influences which cities exert upon the social life of man are greater than the ratio of the urban population would indicate, for the city is not only in ever larger degrees the dwelling-place and the workshop of modern man, but it is the initiating and controlling center of economic, political and cultural life that has drawn the most remote parts of the world into its orbit and woven diverse areas, peoples, and activities into a cosmos.

His description of life in the cities makes us think about the galaxy. The relationship between the city to towns is likened to the relationship between the sun to planets. It seems that the city attracts town people, and at the same time the city radiates energy, and influence to town people. There is more to a city than just its infrastructure, and the sheer numbers of inhabitants. When people live next to each other, there are interactions, from which there arise social problems, and sometimes social magic.

In order to formulate his sociological theory of urbanism, Wirth defines a city as

a relatively large, dense, and permanent settlement of socially heterogeneous individuals.

In many ways, the definition is relatively flexible in terms of size, density. However, one important criterion is that the city has to be inhabited by a heterogeneous group of people. Heterogeneous here is broadly defined. People can be different in their racial, class, cast, and occupational identities.

Then Wirth goes on explaining what his theory of urbanism is. He suggests that from a sociological point of view:

The central problem … is to discover the forms of social action and organization that typically emerge in relatively permanent, compact settlements of large numbers of heterogeneous individuals.

He then points out three important characteristics of a city: large number of inhabitants, density, and heterogeneity. Those are the main focus of his theory of urbanism. From each characteristic, there would be corresponding hypotheses to explain how the city reproduces itself, and how each characteristic would affect individuals living in the city.

In conclusion, he suggests that empirical research on the urban should pay attention to the three characteristics. And he sketches various approaches that one can take:

Urbanism as a characteristic mode of life may be approached empirically from three interrelated perspectives: (1) as a physical structure comprising a population base, a technology, and an ecological order, (2) as a system of social organization involving a characteristic social structure, a series of social institutions, and a typical pattern  of social relationships; and (3) as a set of attitudes and ideas and a constellation of personalities engaging in typical forms of collective behavior and subject to characteristic mechanisms of social control.

An urban sociologist can study many things in a city: from infrastructure to social institution to attitudes and ideas. That is to say there is a rich landscape of possible empirical research topics for an urban sociologist. This text is promoting a development of a sub-field in sociology. Since the publication of this text, urban sociology has evolved, and indeed many have taken his suggestions to study infrastructure (roads, buildings), social institutions (churches, urban schools), and ideas (culture). One thing that I know for sure is that the field is huge, and one has to make an effort to distinguish oneself from myriad other urban studies scholars.

 

 

 

Ambi-dependent self: A paradox

I have a weird obsession with reading especially when my mind is troubled with something. One time When I had fight with my mom during my teenage years, I became very angry. My reaction was unexpectedly violent. It was a surprise to both me and my mom. I could not believe that I lost my composure. The day after, instead of talking to my friends, my relatives about it, I googled the symptoms, and tried to figure out on my own what it was that made me become so angry at my mom. I read for half a day and concluded that my behavior resulted from some cognitive and emotional dissonance. I probably had experienced  some unreasonable request from my mom. Possibly I had expected respect and privacy, and my mom had not delivered it. A violation of teenage privacy was the source of emotional dissonance because I had expected that after having lived together for almost two decades, my mom must have figured out how to handle my introspection. Somehow, my expectation was never transmitted properly to my mom. Regardless, the complicated relationship between my mom and me was a big part in triggering my disturbing behavior, and I was surprised by how much I was primed for a behavior that was categorized as disrespectful.

Now as a young scholar who is trying to figure out my scholarly identity, I constantly ask myself questions like What kind of scholar I am? What is my singular identity that people would remember ? It is the idea that a scholar’s name is attached to a particular idea, a school of thought. For example, Freud is remembered to be a psychologist who interprets dreams. He’s known for concepts such as Oedipus complex, transference, etc. I would like to become a scholar like Freud. That is to say, when another scholar articulates my name, they are reminded of concepts that I come up with. Yet, I am not there. This scholarly identity is still a work in progress. Sometimes I conceptualize it as a sculpture. The core of the work is there, but its shape is not yet formed. Maybe it would take years to create a contour and depth to it. To tame my anxiety, I picked up a book to understand my dissonance.

The book is The Girl at the Baggage Claim by Gish Jen. I have written about Gish Jen’s influence on my thinking as a writer on this blog before.  The book I picked up this time is not a novel. It is categorized as a work of social science. In many ways it is a full-blown version of her 3-essay book:  Tiger Writing,  where she uses the concepts “interdependent self” and “independent self” to explain different approaches of Eastern and Western artists, particularly writers. The Girl at the Baggage Claim uses similar concepts “interdependent self” and “independent self” to explain different approaches in the East and in the West for everything. Basically it is a book about the different world views, and how these different inner worldviews of individuals would lead to different approaches and outcomes in various fields: commercial, scholarship, arts, etc. As a talented writer, Gish Jen deftly creates a metaphor of an avocado pit to describe a Western self, and a flexi-self an Eastern one. The book is about how these selves behave and approach things differently. As the metaphors suggest, a Western self, an avocado pit is the core of a person. It is tangible. It is not visible, but it contours seem to be definable.  It is the authentic self that everyone aims to get at and understands it themselves. The Sociologist Sharon Zukin in trying to define the concept authenticity, traces the concept back to the time period between the ages of Shakespeare and Rousseau, the period

when men and women began to think about an authentic self as an honest or a true character, in contrast to an individual’s dishonesty, on the one hand, and to society’s false morality, on the other. Naked City

 

Both Gish Jen and Sharon Zukin argue that an authentic self is what defines every individual in the West. It speaks about the nature of a person. In order to get at this self, an individual needs to take time to discover who he/she is. That is the reason why one goes on various quests such as traveling alone, participating in self-discovery journeys to give this avocado pit contours and depth. In contrast, an eastern flexi-self is developed in relation to other social actors in social context. In other words, the flexi-self is relational while the authentic self is static.

Using Gish Jen’s concepts, I can see through my struggle more clearly. First, why am I struggling? Because I am living in a culture that values the authentic self rather than the relational self. That means in the process that I construct, create, develop and find out my authentic scholarly self, I need to get at the bottom of my intellect. It is an individualistic quest. It requires rugged individualism to announce that a particular self is mine, to claim it, and to tell the world about that self concisely, and to remind the world about it consistently. However, a cognitive dissonance is inevitable because I was born and raised in a flexi-self culture, where a self is defined relationally. That is, I can only understand my self in relation to my peers within a social context. That is, this self is not a clear object with definitive contours. It is malleable like water, which would take the shape and form of the environment that it is in. Sometimes it is completely amorphous. Gish Jen argues that there are pros and cons to both models. The independent self could excel really well when given abundant opportunities. However, we, particularly Americans, live in an avocado-pit cult, which makes everyone to over-exaggerate the importance of their ability, and their role in society. This culture creates an obsession about one’s own image. One quality that is never praised is humility, the ability to appreciate that one’s contribution is minimal in comparison to the collective achievement. Therefore, being allowed an independent self is refreshing. In praise of the interdependent self, Gish Jen argues that it’s freeing to not have to stand out sometimes. It’s freeing to take off your guard to be a unique individual on earth sometimes. It’s freeing to not be interesting for a while. Boring-ness is allowed, and un-interestingness is allowed.

Still how can I solve my conundrum after having learned that I have both selves constantly competing for domination within me? My puzzle is that I know clearly that Western society and my profession require me to get at my avocado pit self, while my upbringing and background preconditions me to think that that my self is malleable. So what is the right way to think about my scholarly self-discovery?

Gish Jen doesn’t offer much of a solution despite providing plotted out myriads of analyses to show how different the two selves are. Her solution is rather an abstract concept than a clear roadmap. She offers the concept: ambidependence. An anmbidependent self I suppose is a person who is flexible in both forms of self: independent and interdependent.  This theoretical person has both traits: knowing when to be a unique individual, and knowing when to be a good teammate, knowing their social position in relation to people and context around them. She argues that in a global world, the number of ambi-selves is growing.  She argues that they are more flexible. Thinking about her solution from a sociological point of view, this concept bridges between the two worlds: the East and the West. It is the position to fill “a structural hole,”  in a Burtian sense. In many ways, I am moving back and forth between the two worlds, two distinct cultures. I am one of those individuals who are conditioned to develop the ability to fill various structural holes. However, the flexibility of being able to move between two worlds, to code-switch in various situations only become second nature, once I figure out the two structures, and move my way flexibly in both of them. As of now my challenge still remains. I am trying to fit in the avocado-pit cult within academia, and my interdependent self is holding me back. The mainstream culture of American academia keeps reminding me that it’s me who must be interested in a research project; it’s me who will conduct the research; it’s me who will write the book; and it’s me whom a dissertation project and research agenda will occupy for years to come. At the end, yes I am an ambi-dependent person, but I live in an avocado-pit society. In order to pursue a career whose development path is relatively established, I ought to give up some parts of my interdependent self at one point or another to make the path less painful. The more I resist against the established path, the more dissonant I would feel toward my professional development.

Personal Hobbies & Character Building

Lately I have talked with friends, family members, and graduate school mentees about the importance for having a hobby outside of work, school, and family. Why is it so important for an individual character development? The concept hobby comes up again and again in all of my discussions about how to be satisfied with oneself and with one’s life. The central question around all of my conversations is how can one feel content and happy alone independent of negative influences around?

I caught up with a Vietnamese friend, who attended Agnes Scott at the same time as I did.  Our conversation revolved around how come both of us have various recent unpleasant experience with our middle-aged mothers. We concluded that our mothers who are about to retire from their jobs are experiencing through some forms of mid-life crises. My mom’s problem is that she doesnt know what she would do when she’s a retiree. She does not have a stable hobby. Her social support system is mainly comprised of extended family members. Her friends from college and high school do not live in the same area, and work the same job as she does. When I was still living at home with her, she barely spent time with friends of her own. Most of her time was spent on kids, and extended family members. My friend’s mom displayed similar behaviors: that is, she has sacrificed too much for her family, and has not had time to discover her own desire, interests, and herself. In other words, both of our mothers have never had time to discover her true selves. Therefore, when they have extra free time without any social obligations attached, they could not figure out where to find meaning independent of their family or work. I suggested my friends to to encourage her mother to develop a hobby, something that she does for fun independent of her family. Our observation is that our parents’ generation growing up in Vietnam during the Vietnam War did not have leisure time and material wealth to pursue an individual hobby. Now it’s the time of consumption, and of globalization, they should pursue a hobby to enrich their lives, and feel content with their situations.  Of course, both of us valued the Rousseauian version of the authentic self, a true self that sets an individual apart from the crowd. It is the version of  the self that our parents were never taught to embrace. We could not fully explain to our mothers that what they were lacking in their upbringings or what the society has shaped them into who they are now; yet we know that encouraging our mothers to pursue a hobby of their own during their free time is the right thing to do. This quick conclusion made me think deeper about the role of personal hobbies in shaping individual characters in a long run.

While advising junior students how to best spend their time in graduate school, I often tell them to  pursue a hobby outside of school such as joining a choir, participating in a cycling club, doing salsa or swing dance. I personally believe that graduate school should be thought of as a full-time job instead of an all-encompassing activity that consumes one’s life completely.  Hobbies help one with work/life balance, and maintain one’s mental health for a long marathon which is called graduate school. In Grad Skool Rulz, Fabio Rojas suggested that graduate students should pursue an outside hobby that is independent of school work. It helps one remain sane to engage in productive intellectual work. I completely agree with this suggestion. Yet after having given people this abstract advice, I stumbled upon the question: what is my real hobby outside of school? I seem to be interested in many things, but I ever do one thing passionately, for a sustained period of time.

In order to answer that what question, I want to solve the why question first. Why is hobby important?

It enriches one’s life and helps to separate work and personal life for many people. It is the leisure concept in economics here that undergirds my understanding of how one could use one’s time. The more one works, the less leisure time one has to dedicate to other things such as family, hobbies, and going out. As a graduate student in their 20s, one is not often expected to perform family duties, and obligations. That means leisure time is often used for social activities, and personal hobbies. If anyone has problems with work/life balance, having a defined hobby would help. It is my way to police my previous time, and protect my mental health in graduate school.

Hobbies develop one’s character. It is about the self. One finds that one behaves differently in at a board game than at a music concert or in a trial. The idea of enriching one’s soul, one’s character is important here. Other than being a worker, a graduate student, a human being is a complex social phenomenon. I want to know a person when I approach them at a conference more than just what research they are conducting at the moment. When I was in college, I took an upper level mathematics class called Differential Equations. The professor was brilliant. I remember that his problem sets were oftentimes very difficult, and every time when I took a midterm or a final, my brain would be fried.  I would crashed after the 3-hour take-home exam. However the content that he taught is now completely oblivious to me. All the sophisticated polynomial equation manipulations just went out of my brain at the moment that I received my college degree.

What I remember most about my college math professor is his passion for designing cross-stitch patterns that bring together both his mathematical insights, and the art of cross-stitching. He designed cross stitch pattern using iterated function system. He created a software to generate those patterns for cross-stitch enthusiasts. In my last week of college, I advertised on Facebook that I was selling my knick-knacks including a cross-stitch kit because I was moving overseas.  My brilliant math professor, Larry Riddle was one of the first who showed up at my move-away sale, and bought the entire kit. I sawhappiness in his eyes when he saw the kit with lots of cloth, needles and threads. His eyes were sparkling with ideas of how to use those materials. He has won many creative awards from the American Mathematical Associations for those designs. It was the moment that I felt like I could relate on a personal level with the brilliant, yet reserved math professor. In many ways, I don’t remember much of his professional identity other than that he taught me Differential Equations. Yet I remember vividly that he’s a creative cross-stitch enthusiast. Whenever I think about my college experience, I thought of his buying my cross-stitch kit, and I could relate to him.

Hobbies are the magic glue that bind people and create a community of hobbyists. Alienation in modern society is one of the main themes in sociology. One is alienated by various factors such as work, technology, and distance. Sociologists often seek to understand how to counter this process of alienation. To me, having a hobby is definitely one solution. One can enter both online and offline communities where people share their enthusiasm about something. There are myriad of outlets to communicate and show your enthusiasm of doing something that is completely independent of other material and social gains . There are both online and offline communities for one to join. I am in many ways lucky because I live in New York where there is virtually a community for everything.  But what is exactly my hobby?

I always thought that I did not have one. Having to write this very blog post  made me I sit down, and think through how I have spent time in the past three and a half years in graduate school. What has become apparent is that I have spent a lot of time both alone and in group learning languages. Since I started graduate school until now, I have started learning three new languages: Chinese, French, and Hindi. My German level has also increased significantly because I have read more German literature and acquired broader vocabulary. The definitive answer is learning foreign languages. I am happy learning any new language. It is both challenging, and exhilarating.

Without any teacher, I can learn a new language by reading textbooks, and listening to audio tapes on my own. When I go to a polyglot gathering, I feel like I belong. People are so nice, and talk to me instantaneously in whatever language that I want to practice. I just feel pure happiness as I could spontaneously shifting from one language to another. For the past four months, in preparation for my qualifying exam, I have stopped learning languages. I have not learned any new words. I missed it very much.

Why did I never think of learning languages to be a hobby? I thought that having command of a foreign language contributes directly to the outcome of my academic productivity. In other words, I thought of learning language very instrumentally. Learning languages is a means to an end, which is to have a better academic career. However now I recognize that I am happy learning languages independent of my intellectual project. Learning languages is definitely a mental activity. Unlike crocheting, cross-stitching, and fixing bicycle, this activity requires brain power. That is the reason why I counted it to be work-related activity. But now I understand that I am happy doing it voluntarily and happily. That means learning languages is a brainy, intellectual hobby that doesn’t give you any tangible product. A person who paints could create a painting, a hobbyist ceramicist could produce china cups, etc. I don’t produce tangible products. I produce sounds and words, and maybe a meaningful conversation. Because the products have been so intangible and difficult to measure, I have pigeonholed it into the work-related activity category. Now I have seen that it is really a built-in part of my life, and that I miss it so much when I don’t do it. I recognize what a character building activity it  is to my essential self.

I have heard many stories from sociologists about what a cool sociologist Howard Becker is. Despite not having read much of his work, I am aware that Howard is a very versatile and talented man, whose intellectual and personal interests cover a wide range of activities. Many people have suggested that because of his wide range of interests, he has been able to produce many sociological monographs that cover many fields. I am hoping that one day I can turn my obsession with language into a book project.