Brain Pickings

Posts Tagged ‘sociology’

17 JULY, 2012

A Vintage Love Letter to NYC’s Heat as the Ultimate Class Equalizer

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How the extremities of the thermometer bridge the most insurmountable of social barriers.

As New York enters a record-breaking heat wave this week, I was reminded of a wonderful passage from Manhattan ’45 (public library), titled thusly because it sounds “partly like a kind of gun; and partly like champagne,” by the Welsh historian and prolific travel writer Jan Morris* — easily the most beautifully written love letter to New York City since E. B. White’s iconic Here Is New York, one of my all-time favorite texts. Morris paints a portrait of the city as it was on June 25, 1945 — the day 14,000 American servicemen and women, the first contingent returning from the victory over Nazi Germany, sailed into New York aboard the British liner Queen Mary — reconstructed in 1987, when the book was originally published. In this excerpt from the closing of Chapter 4, “On Class,” Morris captures the remarkable unifying force of New York City heat, something to quietly celebrate as we brush up against sweaty strangers on the subway and exchange wistfully knowing nods.

[W]hen a heat wave left the whole city gasping and sweating, a powerful fellowship blunted the edge of the common misery, bridging the most insuperable linguistic barriers, or the most unclimbable social barricades, if only with a wink or a grimace.

Morris goes on to extend this amalgamation of difference into fellowship, driven by the forces of the city’s circumstance, to the very fabric of citizenship:

And anyway citizenship of this city in itself made for a bond beyond class. To be a citizen of Manhattan was an achievement in itself — it had taken guts and enterprise, if not on your own part, at least on your forebears’. The pressures of the place, its competition, its pace, its hazards, even the fun of it, demanded special qualities of its people, and gave them a particular affinity for one another. They were all an elite!

*Morris herself is very much a character worthy of New York City’s colorful spirit. Born as James Morris in 1926, the father of five children and a WWII vet, she had gender reassignment surgery in 1972 after eight years of medical transition. She had to travel to Morocco to have the procedure performed, since British doctors wouldn’t agree to do it unless Morris divorced the children’s mother, Elizabeth Tuckniss, which she refused to do. The two eventually divorced, but remained close and were legally reunited in a civil partnership in 2008, when Morris was 82. You can hear Morris in conversation with NYPL’s Paul Holdengräber.

Thanks, Chel

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03 JULY, 2012

Jesse Bering on the Adaptive Value and Neurochemistry of Heartbreak

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The science of why it’s possible to actually die of a broken heart.

This must be the season for fascinating books on the psychology and anthropology of sexuality, from the history of judging desire to the origins of sex. Now, in Why Is the Penis Shaped Like That?: And Other Reflections on Being Human (public library), research psychologist Jesse Bering — whom you might recall as the author of the excellent The Belief Instinct: The Psychology of Souls, Destiny, and the Meaning of Life, and who is a frequent contributor to Scientific American and Slate — examines the kaleidoscope of sexual taboos through the lens of science and psychology, from the evolution of body fluids to the politics of polyamory to the neurochemistry of heartbreak.

In one particularly fascinating chapter, highlighting studies that reveal a correlation between homophobia and repressed homosexual desire, Bering zooms in on the leaps of logic that permeate much of the rhetoric on homosexuality and the naturalistic fallacies that attempt to define notions of “normalcy”:

[I]t’s rather strange that we look for moral guidance about human sexuality from the rest of the animal kingdom, a logical fallacy in which what is ‘natural’ — such as homosexual behavior in other species — is regarded as ‘acceptable.’ It’s as if the fact that bonobos, desert toads, and emus have occasional same-sex liaisons has a moral bearing on gay rights in human beings. Even if we were the lone queer species in this godless galaxy, even if it were entirely a ‘choice’ between two consenting adults, why would that make it more reasonable to discriminate against people in homosexual relationships?

Beyond these philosophical problems with seeking out social prescriptions from a nature that is completely mute as to what we should do with our penises and vaginas, however, there’s an even bigger hurdle to taking polyamory chic beyond the tabloids, talk shows, and Internet forums and into standard bedroom practice. And that is simply the fact that we’ve evolved to empathize with other people’s suffering, including the suffering of the people we’d betray by putting our affable genitals to their evolved promiscuous use.

Heartbreak is every bit as much a psychological adaptation as is the compulsion to have sex with those other than our partners, and it throws a monster of a monkey wrench into the evolutionists’ otherwise practical polyamory.

Bering goes on to offer a kind of scientific anatomy of heartbreak, citing the familiar work of biological anthropologist Helen Fisher:

[T]here are two main stages associated with a dead and dying romantic relationship, which is so often tied to one partner’s infidelities. During the ‘protest’ stage that occurs in the immediate aftermath of rejection, ‘abandoned lovers are generally dedicated to winning their sweetheart back. They obsessively dissect the relationship, trying to establish what went wrong; and they doggedly strategize about how to rekindle the romance. Disappointed lovers often make dramatic, humiliating, or even dangerous entrances into a beloved’s home or place of work, then storm out, only to return and plead anew. They visit mutual haunts and shared friends. They phone, e-mail, and write letters, pleading, accusing, and/or trying to seduce their abandoner.’

At the neurobiological level, the protest stage is characterized by unusually heightened, even frantic activity of dopamine and norepinephrine receptors in the brain, which has the effect of pronounced alertness similar to what is found in young animals abandoned by their mothers. This impassioned protest stage — if it proves unsuccessful in reestablishing the romantic relationship — slowly disintegrates into the second stage of heartbreak, what Fisher refers to as ‘resignation/despair,’ in which the rejected party gives up all hope of ever getting back together. ‘Drugged by sorrow,’ writes Fisher, ‘most cry, lie in bed, stare into space, drink too much, or hole up and watch TV.’ At the level of the brain, overtaxed dopamine-making cells begin sputtering out, causing lethargy and depression. And in the saddest cases, this depression is linked to heart attacks or strokes, so people can, quite literally, die of a broken heart. So we may not be ‘naturally monogamous’ as a species, but neither are we naturally polygamous.

[ … ]

[O]ne of the more fascinating things about the resignation/despair stage is the possibility that it actually serves an adaptive function that may help to salvage the doomed relationship, especially for an empathetic species such as our own…. [H]eartbreak is not easily experienced at either end, and when your actions have produced such a sad and lamentable reaction in another person, when you watch someone you care about (but no longer feel any real long-term or sexual desire to be with) suffer in such ways, it can be difficult to fully extricate yourself from a withered romance. If I had to guess — in the absence of any studies that I’m aware of to support this claim — I’d say that a considerable amount of genes have replicated in our species solely because, with our damnable social cognitive abilities, we just don’t have the heart to break other people’s hearts.

Why Is the Penis Shaped Like That?: And Other Reflections on Being Human is excellent in its entirety, woven of Bering’s rare tapestry of scientific rigor and a powerful, articulate social point of view.

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29 JUNE, 2012

Powershift: Alvin Toffler on the Age of Post-Fact Knowledge and the Super-Symbolic Economy (1990)

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“We are interrelating data in more ways, giving them context, and thus forming them into information; and we are assembling chunks of information into larger and larger models and architectures of knowledge.”

More than twenty years ago, in 1990, writer and futurist Alvin Toffler, whom you might recall as the author of the Future Shock, penned Powershift: Knowledge, Wealth, and Violence at the Edge of the 21st Century (public library) — a visionary lens on how social, political, and economic power structures are changing at the dawn of the information age, presaging many of today’s cultural paradigms and touching on other timely topics like networked knowledge, the role of intuition, and the value of adding context.

In Chapter 2, titled “Muscle, Money, and Mind,” Toffler lays the foundation of his core argument — the idea that knowledge is becoming the key currency of a new super-symbolic economy, leaving behind the materiality of the industrial age:

Knowledge itself … turns out to be not only the source of the highest-quality power, but also the most important ingredient of force and wealth. Put differently, knowledge has gone from being an adjunct of money power and muscle power, to being their very essence. It is, in fact, the ultimate amplifier. This is the key to the powershift that lies ahead, and it explains why the battle for control of knowledge and the means of communication is heating up all over the world.

But it isn’t until Chapter 8, titled “The Ultimate Substitute,” that Toffler’s vision truly shines as he offers an elegant definition of the knowledge economy and the dramatic shifts in social currency that we’re only just beginning to see reach a tipping point today:

All economic systems sit upon a ‘knowledge base.’

[…]

At rare moments in history the advance of knowledge has smashed through old barriers. The most important of these breakthroughs has been the invention of new tools for thinking and communication, like the ideogram… the alphabet… the zero… and in our century, the computer.

[…]

Today we are living through one of those exclamation points in history when the entire structure of human knowledge is once again trembling with change as old barriers fall. We are not just accumulating more ‘facts’ — whatever they may be. Just as we are now restructuring companies and whole economies, we are totally reorganizing the production and distribution of knowledge and the symbols used to communicate it.

What does this mean?

It means that we are creating new networks of knowledge … linking concepts to one another in startling ways … building up amazing hierarchies of inference … spawning new theories, hypotheses, and images, based on novel assumptions, new languages, codes, and logics. Businesses, governments, and individuals are collecting and storing more sheer data than any previous generation in history (creating a massive, confusing gold mine for tomorrow’s historians.)

But more important, we are interrelating data in more ways, giving them context, and thus forming them into information; and we are assembling chunks of information into larger and larger models and architectures of knowledge.

Not all this new knowledge is factual or even explicit. Much knowledge, as the term is used here, is unspoken, consisting of assumptions piled atop assumptions, of fragmentary models, of unnoticed analogies, and it includes not simply logical and seemingly unemotional information data, but values, the products of passion and emotion, not to mention imagination and intuition.

It is today’s gigantic upheaval in the knowledge base of society — not computer hype or mere financial manipulation — that explains the rise of a super-symbolic economy.

Powershift follows Future Shock (1970) and The Third Wave (1980).

Image HT It’s Okay To Be Smart

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09 MAY, 2012

Going Solo: A Brief History of Living Alone and the Enduring Social Stigma Around Singletons

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“Despite its prevalence, living alone is one of the least discussed and, consequently, most poorly understood issues of our time.”

In the 4th century BC, Aristotle admonished:

The man who is isolated, who is unable to share in the benefits of political association, or has no need to share because he is already self-sufficient, is no part of the polis, and must therefore be either a beast or a god.

Indeed, the ancient world held exile as the most formidable form of punishment, second only to execution, though in Greek tragedies it was often regarded as a fate worse than death. For more than two millennia, this fear and loathing of solitary life endured and permeated the fabric of society. In 1949, Yale anthropologist George Peter Murdock surveyed some 250 “representative cultures” across history and geography, and concluded:

The nuclear family is a universal human social grouping. Either as the sole prevailing form of the family or as the basic unit from which more complex familial forms are compounded, it exists as a distinct and strongly functional group in every known society. No exception, at least, has come to light.

Yet our relationship with solitary life has undergone a radical shift in the recent past. So argues NYU sociology, public policy, and media professor Eric Klinenberg in Going Solo: The Extraordinary Rise and Surprising Appeal of Living Alone (public library) — an ambitious exploration of what Klinenberg calls the “remarkable social experiment” that our species has embarked upon over the past half-century, juxtaposing the numbers with the enduring social stigma around singleness.

Until recently, most of us married young and parted only at death. If death came early, we remarried quickly; if late, we moved in with family, or they with us. Now we marry later. We divorce, and stay single for years or decades. We survive our spouses, and do whatever we can to avoid moving in with others — even, perhaps especially, our children. We cycle in and out of different living arrangements: alone, together, together alone […] [T]oday, for the first time in centuries, the majority of all American adults are single. The typical American will spend more of his or her adult life unmarried than married, and for much of this time he or she will live alone.

Klinenberg paints an even more vivid picture by the numbers:

In 1950, 22 percent of American adults were single. Four million lived alone, and they accounted for 9 percent of all households […] Today, more than 50 percent of American adults are single, and 31 million — roughly one out of every seven adults — live alone.

[…]

People who live alone make up 28 percent of all U.S. households, which means that they are now tied with childless couples as the most prominent residential type — more common than the nuclear family, the multigenerational family, the roommate or group home.

To be sure, this trend is far from confined to the U.S. — the four countries with the highest rates of solo living are Sweden, Norway, Finland, and Denmark, where up to 45% of all households contain just one person. “By investing in each other’s social welfare and affirming their bonds of mutual support,” Klinenberg argues, “the Scandinavians have freed themselves to be on their own.”

Yet the sociocultural norms and dialogue around living solo haven’t caught up with these staggering statistics. As historian David Potter has famously noted:

In our literature, any story of the complete isolation, either physical or psychological, of a man from his fellowman, such as the story of Robinson Crusoe before he found a human footprint on the beach, is regarded as essentially a horror story.

Klinenberg puts it thusly:

Despite its prevalence, living alone is one of the least discussed and, consequently, most poorly understood issues of our time.

[…]

Unfortunately, on those rare occasions when there is a public debate about the rise of living alone, commentators tend to present it as an unmitigated social problem, a sign of narcissism, fragmentation, and a diminished public life. Our morally charged conversations tend to frame the question of why so many people now live on their own around the false and misleading choice between the romanticized ideal of Father Knows Best and the glamorous enticements of Sex and the City. In fact…the reality of this great social experiment in living alone is far more interesting — and far less isolating — than these conversations would have us believe.

Klinenberg goes on to explore the forces and factors that have sparked the transformative social experience of living alone, which has in turn changed not only the way we understand ourselves and our most intimate relationships, but also the way we structure our cities and orchestrate our economies, demonstrating that solo living affects the lives of nearly everyone in the social ecosystem. He points to four key developments driving this cult of individualism, championed by Emerson and Thoreau: (1) The wealth generated by economic growth and the social security provided by the modern welfare state (“Put simply, one reason that more people live alone than ever before is that today more people can afford to do so.”); (2) the communications revolution (“For those who want to live alone, the Internet affords rich new ways to stay connected.”); (3) mass urbanization (“Subcultures thrive in cities, which tend to attract nonconformists who are able to find others like themselves in the dense variety of urban life.”); (4) increased longevity (“Because people are living longer than ever before — or, more specifically, because women often outlive their spouses by decades rather than years — aging alone has become an increasingly common experience.”).

Going Solo goes on to paint a richer portrait of this age of the singleton, covering a number of complementary forces — including, perhaps most interestingly, the rising status of women and their assertion of control over their own bodies (“[I]n 1950 there were more than two men for every woman on American college campuses, whereas today women make up the majority of undergraduate students as well as those who earn a bachelor’s degree.”). What emerges is a powerful set of questions about some of our most fundamental assumptions about what it means to be a part of society and, ultimately, what it means to be happy.

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