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Sociological Imagination: Night as Frontier
Sociological imagination can bring new understanding to daily life around us. Sociologist Murray Melbin has likened social life in American cities during the late nighttime hours to social life on the frontiers of the old west. In his view, there are many similarities between the social and behavioral patterns of people in cities at night and those of people on the frontier, among them the following: (1) the population tends to be sparse and heterogeneous, (2) there is a welcome solitude with few social constraints, (3) there is more lawlessness and violence, and (4) interest groups emerge that have concerns specific to the night or the frontier.
One of Melbin’s most surprising assertions is that both in the city at night and on the frontier, there is more helpfulness and friendliness than in other times and places. He attempted to substantiate this view by conducting four tests of Boston residents’ helpfulness and friendliness at various times during the 24-hour cycle. Melbin found that between midnight and 7 AM, compared with other times during the day, people were more likely to give directions, to consent to an interview and to be sociable with a stranger. Apparently, when aware that they are out in a dangerous environment (the night or the frontier), people identify with the vulnerability of others and become more outgoing. By drawing on the sociological imagination, Melbin’s intriguing study helps us to view nighttime social activity as different from and not necessarily more threatening than activity during normal hours.
WEB Du Bois: The Sociologist
Social scientists are gradually recognizing William Edward Burghardt Du Bois as a sociologist rather than as a figure in historical events. It is certainly understandable given his fascinating life. He was born in Great Barrington, Massachusetts, February 23, 1868. A Phi Beta Kappa graduate of both Fisk and Harvard universities, Du Bois actually received two bachelor’s degrees. In his graduate work at Harvard, he arranged to spend two years studying with Max Weber in Germany and eventually became the first black person to be awarded a PhD from Harvard (1895). Upon graduating, he found that no white college would hire him and he received his first academic appointment at all-black Wilberforce College outside Dayton, Ohio. This was the first of many times during his life that Du Bois felt he received second-class treatment from white academe in general and the sociology establishment in particular.
During his career, Du Bois, in more than 20 books and 100 scholarly articles, pioneered both in historical studies of the black experience and in sociological explorations into African American life. His argument, expressed with passion in The Souls of Black Folk (1903), that an educated black elite, the talented tenth, should lead blacks to liberation contrasted sharply with his contemporary Booker T. Washington’s emphasis on industrial training for blacks and virtual silence on the questions of social and political equality. It is clear that in both his sociological perspective and his actions he typified the conflict perspective.
One of his first major works was The Philadelphia Negro, which was the result of two years of funded research that allowed him to have the somewhat trivial title assistant in sociology at the University of Pennsylvania. The purpose of his research was to enlighten the powerful movers and shakers of Philadelphia on the plight of black people. He clearly had a social reformer goal not unlike that of Jane Addams, who is also often overlooked as a sociologist. While it would not be regarded that novel today, Du Bois sought to show that the problems were not rooted in the heredity of the black people, but in their social environment. While he was critical of the rich of Philadelphia, he did believe with some reservations that they had the capacity for benevolence. He conducted the entire study personally, collecting the data and walking the streets of Philadelphia’s Seventh Ward. He felt that the problems of blacks stemmed from their past servitude and in this early work he was unwilling to look at the capitalistic system as being responsible for the continuation of the subordinate position of African Americans in urban America.
Clearly, Du Bois became impatient for white movers and shakers to bring about change. He quickly sought to empower the talented tenth of which he wrote. With the aim of ending racial discrimination, Du Bois founded (1905) the Niagara Movement, a forerunner of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), which he helped organize in 1909 and for which he edited the periodical, The Crisis, from 1910 to 1934. For decades this was essential reading for all those interested in the fate of the African American people. Du Bois resigned from the NAACP in 1934, following a dispute in which he argued that blacks should expect segregated schools and other institutions to serve them even as they struggled to eliminate the racism that had created them. He wrote, "Of all the civil rights for which the world has struggled and fought for 5,000 years, the right to learn is undoubtedly the most fundamental. The freedom to learn has been fought by bitter sacrifice. And whatever we may think of the curtailment of other civil rights, we should fight to the last ditch to keep open the right to learn, the right to have examined in our schools not only what we believe, but what we do not believe; not only what our leaders say, but what the leaders of other groups and nations, and the leaders of other centuries have said. We must insist upon this to give our children the fairness of a start which will equip them with such an array of facts and such an attitude toward truth that they can have a real chance to judge what the world is and what its greater minds have thought it might be."
Du Bois’ view that Africans, freed from their colonial status, should help determine the world’s destiny was scarcely more appealing to civil rights leaders in the US than his pragmatic approach to segregation. He returned to the NAACP in 1944 after a 10-year absence, but was forced to resign in 1948 when his association with the cause of world peace, his expressed admiration for the USSR and his articulate condemnation of racial oppression at home and abroad made him a liability to the organization in a time of political reactionism and anticommunist hysteria.
It is difficult now to imagine that Du Bois became a pariah in many quarters of the black community (and that he remained unknown to whites) throughout the 1950s. Du Bois spent his last years in virtual exile, but he lived to see advances in racial relations in the US and the coming of independence, which he had helped to make possible, to much of Africa. At the age of 93, Du Bois joined the US Communist party before renouncing his US citizenship and becoming (in 1963) a citizen of the west African nation of Ghana. He was at work on a monumental study of African culture, the Encyclopedia Africana, at the time of his death. Du Bois’ principal scholarly works, other than those already mentioned, include The Suppression of the African Slave Trade to the United States of America, 1638–1870 (1896), The Philadelphia Negro (1899) (see the new edition with an introduction by Elijah Anderson published in 1996 by the University of Pennsylvania Press) and Black Reconstruction in America (1935). His autobiography appeared in 1957.
Sociologists and Their Theoretical Preferences
A sample of 168 US members of the American Sociological Association was asked to identify their primary theoretical perspective. The conflict perspective had the most adherents. Few respondents regarded biological factors (ie, sociobiology) as important. Grouping the responses yields the following results:
The conflict, functionalist and interactionist perspectives cover about 60% of sociologists’ primary theoretical approaches.
In their effort to understand social behavior better, sociologists rely heavily on numbers and statistics. How large is the typical household today compared with the typical household of 1970? If a community were to introduce drug education into its elementary schools, what would be the cost per pupil? What proportion of Baptists, compared with Roman Catholics, contribute to their local churches? Such questions, and many others, are most easily answered in numerical terms that summarize the actions or attitudes of many persons.
The most common summary measures used by sociologists are percentages, means, modes and medians. A percentage shows the portion of 100. Use of percentages allows us to compare groups of different sizes. For example, if we were comparing contributors to a town’s Baptist and Roman Catholic churches, the absolute numbers of contributors from each group could be misleading if there were many more Baptists than Catholics living in the town. However, percentages would give us a more meaningful comparison, showing the proportion of persons in each group who contribute to churches.
The mean, or average, is a number calculated by adding a series of values and then dividing by the number of values. For example, to find the mean of the numbers 5, 19, and 27, we add them together for a total of 51. We then divide by the number of values (3) and discover that the mean is 17.
The mode is the single most common value in a series of scores. Suppose we are looking at the following scores on a 10-point quiz:
10 10 9 9 8 8 7 7 7 6 6
The mode — the most frequent score on the quiz — is 7; While the mode is easier to identify than other summary measures, it tells sociologists little about all the other values. Therefore, we use it much less frequently than we do the mean and median.
The median is the midpoint or number that divides a series of values into two groups of equal numbers of values. For the scores above, the median, or central value, is 8. The mean is 7.8 (86 (the sum of all scores) divided by 11 (the total number of scores)).
In the US, the median family income for the year 1994 was $38,782; this indicates that half of all families had incomes above $38,782, while the other half had lower incomes. In many respects, the median is the most characteristic value. Although it may not reflect the full range of scores, it does approximate the value in a set of scores. Also, it is not affected by extreme scores.
Some of these statistics may seem confusing at first. But think about how difficult it is to study an endless list of numbers in order to identify a pattern or central tendency. Percentages, means, modes and medians are essentially time-savers in sociological research and analysis.
One final term we need to define is statistical significance. In normal English, "significant" means important, while in statistics "significant" means probably true (not due to chance). A research finding may be true without being important. When statisticians say a result is "highly significant" they mean it is very probably true. They do not (necessarily) mean it is highly important. When you have a large sample size, very small differences will be detected as significant. This means that you are very sure that the difference is real (i.e., it didn't happen by fluke). It doesn't mean that the difference is large or important. Tests for statistical significance are used to address the question: what is the probability that what we think is a relationship between two variables is really just a chance occurrence? If we selected many samples from the same population, would we still find the same relationship between these two variables in every sample? If we could do a census of the population, would we also find that this relationship exists in the population from which the sample was drawn? Or is our finding due only to random chance?
Tests for statistical significance tell us what the probability is that the relationship we think we have found is due only to random chance. They tell us what the probability is that we would be making an error if we assume that we have found that a relationship exists. We can never be completely 100% certain that a relationship exists between two variables. There are too many sources of error to be controlled. But we can estimate the probability of being wrong if we assume that our finding a relationship is true. If the probability of being wrong is small, then we say that our observation of the relationship is a statistically significant finding. Statistical significance means that there is a good chance that we are right in finding that a relationship exists between two variables.
Unobtrusive Measures: Monitoring of CB Prostitutes
John Luxenburg found that the citizens’ band, or CB, radio has been known to assist automobile and truck drivers in many respects, including sexual solicitation. At Buddy Park, truckers’ slang for an interstate rest area in Oklahoma notorious for prostitution, the air waves carry conversations between prostitutes and prospective customers. On one busy evening, the following conversation was monitored. The handles (air names) have been changed to protect the anonymity of the unknowing participants in this use of unobtrusive measures.
Baby Doll (prostitute): “What’s happening out in Buddy Park?”
River Rat (trucker): “Oh, there ain’t much goin’ on there. Ah, how you be doin’?”
Baby Doll: “I be doin’ fine.”
River Rat: “I be sittin’ down in the rest stop, if you ain’t got nothin’ to do.”
Baby Doll: “Come again?”
River Rat: “I’m sittin’ down at the rest area, if you ain’t got nothin’ to do.”
Baby Doll: “What truck are you in?”
River Rat: “Look for the green trailer.”
Baby Doll: “I hope it’s not a waste of my time.”
From this conversation, it is apparent that the prostitute is able to be selective. For more specific directions and signaling, the prostitutes usually get an exact location within the test area and ask the driver to blink his lights. The prostitute then approaches the cab of the truck and discusses price. Clearly Luxenburg used nonreactive measures in her research. Do you consider them ethical or not?
Content Analysis of Coverage of the Rodney King Beating
Sociologist Ronald N. Jacobs examined media coverage following the severe beating of an African American motorist, Rodney King, by members of the California Highway Patrol and the Los Angeles Police Department (LAPD) on March 3, 1991. Unknown to the police officers, the event was videotaped by an amateur cameraman who subsequently sold the tape to a local television station. Interest in the incident diminished about a month after the release of the Christopher Commission report on July 9, 1991, but exploded again in April 1992 with the return of not-guilty verdicts for the four police officers who were indicted for the beating. By the end of the crisis, Police Chief Daryl Gates had resigned, Mayor Tom Bradley had decided not to run for reelection (for the first time in 23 years), and the city of Los Angeles had experienced the most costly civil disturbance, or riot, in the nation’s history.
In order to analyze the discourse concerning the Rodney King case, Jacobs examined all articles appearing between March and September 1991 in the daily Los Angles Times (357 articles) and the weekly Los Angeles Sentinel (137 articles). The Sentinel is the largest African American newspaper in terms of circulation in Los Angeles, while the Times has by far the largest circulation of any newspaper in the region. Both papers presented a similar narrative or construction of the events. They showed a “drama of redemption” pitting the heroic acts of local government (the mayor and the city council) against the antiheroic ones (Gates and the LAPD). The Sentinel, however, typically posited the black community as an heroic actor while championing democratic ideals. Employing a style common to the African American press, the newspaper invoked the ideals of American society while criticizing that society as it actually existed.
The Christopher Commission was very critical of the LAPD and particularly critical of Police Chief Gates. Both newspapers spoke in positive terms of the Commission’s work and its conclusions. The Los Angeles Times saw the commission as giving the community and various government units an opportunity to come together and learn from the tragic events. The Sentinel expressed similar sentiments, but did not construct its version as a bridge toward legitimization of local government leaders. The Sentinel saw the concerns over police brutality as a justification for the long-standing criticisms of law enforcement made by the African American community.
Émile Durkheim has spoken of the collective conscious of a society. However, analysis of the discourse concerning the 1991 King beating reveals that the incident was socially constructed as several different problems in several different public spheres. On the basis of content analysis of the Los Angeles Times coverage, the Times constructed the issue as a problem of police brutality, of factionalism, and of political divisiveness. In the Los Angeles Sentinel, the incident was constructed as a problem of police brutality, of white insincerity and of the need for African American empowerment. The Times saw the beating as the beginning of a crisis, while the Sentinel saw it as part of an ongoing narrative about civil rights and police brutality. This content analysis of the two newspapers’ perspectives appears to support Stephen Hilgartner and Charles Bosk’s public arenas model of social problems, which argues that problems can be viewed differently and recognizes multiple public spheres for debating such issues.
Interactionist View of Sidewalk Behavior
Erving Goffman offers a new look at sidewalk behavior, drawing on the interactionist approach.
When we sit behind the wheel of a car and begin driving, we are confronted immediately with many rules that govern our behavior. Society provides us with reminders of these rules — traffic lights, stop signs, speed-limit signs, white lines marking lanes and, ultimately, police officers. Interestingly, pedestrians also abide by a certain mutual understanding of proper behavior in traffic. We may not have read a book about the rules of the sidewalk or been formally taught them, and we do not need to worry about getting a ticket for walking too fast. Nevertheless, we have learned certain social standards for pedestrian behavior that are part of our culture.
Traffic on the sidewalk sorts itself into two sides going in opposite directions. The dividing line is near the middle of the sidewalk, yet it can shift quickly when traffic bunches in one direction. As in vehicular traffic in the US, pedestrian movement tends to stay to the right side of the dividing line. Those who are walking more slowly generally stay nearer the buildings, while those in a hurry are nearer the curb.
The workability of such lane rules and of rules for passing is based on two subtle practices, externalization and scanning. When we externalize, we use body gestures to show people the direction in which we are heading. Scanning involves moving our line of sight to observe people coming in our direction and to confirm the forward progress of pedestrians immediately ahead of us. A person's scanning range is usually three or four sidewalk squares if the street is crowded and more if few walkers are present.
In order to avoid small objects and unpleasant or contaminated spots, we practice sidestepping. George Orwell observed an interesting example of this practice in Burma. An Indian prisoner was walking between two guards on the way to his execution. He came near a small puddle and sidestepped out of the path for a moment in order to avoid it. This little act points out the often unconscious nature of sidestepping.
If a collision with another pedestrian seems imminent, we attempt to create immediate eye contact. The hope is to quickly indicate a new route and avoid a collision. This is a common practice when people are crossing a street at a busy intersection. It can be argued that, given such pedestrian routing customs, the individual effectively becomes a vehicular unit. He or she is expected to conform to many unstated, yet socially agreed upon, standards.
Interactionist Approach to Reducing Social Conflict: Robber’s Cave Experiment
Social psychologists Muzafer Sherif and Carolyn Wood Sherif and their colleagues created three summer camps for boys (in Connecticut, upstate New York and Robber’s Cave, Oklahoma) in order to see how group harmony could be established or reestablished. Although somewhat different experiments were conducted at each camp, the central findings were identical.
Boys aged 11 or 12 were chosen from different schools to attend what they thought was a typical summer camp. Upon arrival, the boys were separated into two groups — the Eagles and Rattlers. They were occasionally brought together to compete. As the competition grew fiercer, physical encounters and raids followed. Intergroup conflict, even though experimentally created, clearly led to mutual disrespect between the two groups just as it does in society.
The question of greatest interest to Sherif and Sherif was how to reduce conflict. Appeals to higher values were found to be of limited value, just as be good to your neighbor messages do not remake society. Conferences between group leaders did not work; when some boys who were leaders agreed to stop the hostilities, their followers showered them with green apples feeling that they had given up too much. (White, black, Hispanic and American Indian leaders who compromised also encountered antagonism.) When the two groups of campers were brought together in highly pleasant situations, such as meals with special desserts and movies, food and garbage fights took place. (Similarly, in society, when both majority and minority groups interact in rewarding circumstances, such as receiving federal aid, group competition continues.)
Sherif and Sherif finally succeeded in reducing conflict by introducing a common task, a superordinate goal that needed to be reached. A superordinate goal is an objective of great significance that overshadows other aims. For example, the experimenters told the boys that the water supply had been mysteriously cut off; only if everyone helped could the source of the cutoff be located. A series of such events brought the boys together with no sign of the previous hostility. Interviews with the boys verified that a reduction in intergroup conflict had occurred; instead of selecting their best friends almost exclusively from their own group, Eagles chose Rattlers and Rattlers chose Eagles.
Other studies using adults, sometimes in multiracial groups, have had similar results. However, great care has to be taken in generalizing from this type of study. First, Sherif and Sherif note that the goal cannot simply be a common goal that either group could attain on its own. The superordinate goal must be a compelling one for the groups involved and unattainable except by joint effort. Second, it is not enough to manipulate words and make people think that intergroup cooperation is necessary; common efforts and a concerted plan of action are also necessary. Third, the research setting does not make clear what would happen if the superordinate goal is not reached. Research needs to be conducted to see if each group would blame the other, leading to a rise in tension, or if mutual sympathy would improve relations. In terms of the larger society, the Robber’s Cave study cautions us against optimism about the effectiveness of appealing to higher values, holding brotherhood conferences, or rewarding everyone equally. Furthermore, the likelihood of positive change is nil so long as blacks and whites view life as a zero-sum game, a game in which someone’s gain is automatically someone else’s loss. (A federal grant to an Italian neighborhood, for instance, may be seen by blacks as less money for them.) In our society, competitiveness is difficult to escape. Superordinate goals would have to be identified and made attractive to everyone. To achieve this would, admittedly, require a restructuring of a society whose very foundations often encourage racism.