Category Archives: Me @ work

Framing social class with sample selection

A lot of qualitative sociology makes comparisons across social class categories. Many researchers build class into their research designs by selecting subjects using broad criteria, most often education level, income level, or occupation. Depending on the set of questions at hand, the class selection categories will vary, focusing on, for example, upbringing and socialization, access to resources, or occupational outlook.

In the absence of a substantive review, here are a few arbitrarily selected examplar books from my areas of research:

This post was inspired by the question Caitlyn Collins asked the other day on Twitter:

She followed up by saying, “Social class is nebulous, but precision here matters to make meaningful claims. What do we mean when we say we’re talking to poor, working class, middle class, wealthy folks? I’m looking for specific demographic questions, categories, scales sociologists use as screeners.” The thread generated a lot of good ideas.

Income, education, occupation

Screening people for research can be costly and time consuming, so you want to maximize simplicity as well as clarity. So here’s a way of looking at some common screening variables, and what you might get or lose by relying on them in different combinations. This uses the 2018 American Community Survey, provided by IPUMS.org (Stata data file and code here).

  • I used income, education, and occupation to identify the status of individuals, and generated household class categories by the presence of absence of types of people in each. That means everyone in each household is in the same class category (a choice you might or might not want to make).
  • Income: Total household income divided by an equivalency scale (for cost of living). The scale counts each adult as 1 person, each child under 18 as .70, and then scales that count by ^.70. I divided the resulting distribution into thirds, so households are in the top, middle, or bottom third. Top third is what I called “middle/upper” class, bottom third is “lower class.”
  • Education: I use BA degree to identify households that have (middle/upper) or don’t (lower) a four-year college graduate present. This is 31% of adults.
  • Occupation: I used the 2018 ACS occupation codes, and coded people as middle/upper class if their codes was 10 to 3550, which are management, business, and financial occupations; computer, engineering, and science occupations; education, legal, community service, arts, and media occupations; and healthcare practitioners and technical occupations. It’s pretty close to what we used to call “managerial and professional” occupations. Together, these account for 37% of workers.

So each of these three variables identifies an upper/middle class status of about a third of people.

For lower class status, you can just reverse them. The except is income, which is in three categories. For that, I counted households as lower class if their household income was in the bottom third of the adjusted distribution. In the figures below, that means they’re neither middle/upper class nor lower class if they’re in the middle of the income distribution. This is easily adjusted.

Venn diagrams

You can make Venn diagrams in Stata using the pvenn2 add-on, which I naturally discovered after making these. If  you must know, made these by generating tables in Stata, downloading this free plotter app, entering the values manually, copying the resulting figures into Powerpoint and applying the text there, then printing them to PDF, and extracting the images from PDF using Photoshop. Not recommended workflow.

Here they are. I hope the visuals might help people think about for example, who they might get if they screened on just one of these variables, or how unusual someone is who has a high income or occupation but no BA, and so on. But draw your own conclusions (and feel free to modify the code and follow your own approach). Click to enlarge.

First middle/upper class:

Venn diagram of overlapping class definitions

Then lower class:

Venn diagram of overlapping class definitions.

I said draw your own conclusions, but please don’t draw the conclusion that I think this is the best way to define social class. That’s a whole different question. This is just about simply ways to select people to be research subjects. For other posts on social class, follow this tag, which includes this post about class self identification by income and race/ethnicity.


Data and code: osf.io/w2yvf/

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Where preprints fit in, COVID-19 edition

I recorded a 16-minute talk on the scientific process, science communication, and how preprints fit in to the information ecosystem around COVID-19.

It’s called, “How we know: COVID-19, preprints, and the information ecosystem.” The video is on YouTube here, also embedded below, and the slides, with references, are up here.

Happy to have your feedback, in the comments or any other way.

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What happens next

Wouldn’t you like to know.

“The pandemic has exposed the messiness of science. … We all want answers today, and science is not going to give them. … Science is uncertainty. And the pace of uncertainty reduction in science is way slower than the pace of a pandemic.” —Brian Nosek

Microsoft PowerPoint - games of chance.pptx

click to enlarge

The math of probability is manageable, up to a point. In principle, you could calculate the odds of, for example (clockwise from top left) getting heads on the fake Trump coin, a novel coronavirus linking up to human proteins, surviving a round of Russian roulette, having someone with COVID-19 at your planned event, rolling 6-6-4-8-20 on the dice, have all the marbles fall under a normal curve on a Galton board, and then surviving a flight from New York to Los Angeles without hitting one of the thousands of other planes in the air. But that doesn’t mean we can tell where humanity will be a year from now.

Of course things are always too complicated to predict perfectly, but “normally” we bracket uncertainty and make simplifying assumptions so we can work with forecasts of say, tomorrow’s weather or next quarter’s economic growth — which are strongly bounded by past experience. These are “the models” we live by. The problem now is not that reality has become objectively harder to predict, it’s that the uncertainties in the exercise (those most relevant to our lives) involve events with such catastrophic consequences that a normal level of uncertainty now includes outcomes so extreme that we can’t process them meaningfully.

Once nominally predicable events start influencing each other in complex ways, the uncertainty grows beyond the capacity of simple math. Instead of crunching every possibility, we simplify the assumptions, based on past experience and the outcomes we consider possible. Today’s would-be predictions, however, involve giant centrifugal forces, so that small deviations can lead to disintegration. For example, if the pandemic further tanks the economy, which provides more unemployed people to populate mass protests, leading to more military crackdown and turning more people against Trump, it might make him lash out more at China, and then they might not share their vaccine with us, and an epidemic wave could overwhelm the election and its aftermath, giving Trump a pretext for nullifying the results. And so on.

To make matters more ungraspable, we personally want to know what’s going on at the intersection of micro and macro forces, where we don’t have the data to use even if we knew what to do with it.

Examples

For example, as individuals try to ballbark their own risks of covid-19 infection, and the likelihood of a serious outcome in that event — given their own health history — they might also want to consider whether they have been exposed to tear gas at the hands of police or the military, which might increase the chance of infection. In that case, both the individual and the state are acting without quantifiable information on the risks. For another example, Black people in America obviously have a reasonable fear of police violence — with potentially immeasurable consequences — but taking the risk to participate in protests might contribute to political changes that end up reducing that risk (for themselves and their loved ones). The personal risks are affected by policy decisions and organizational practices, but you can’t predict (much less control) the outcomes.

Individual risks are affected by group positions, of course, creating diverging profiles that splinter out to the individual level. Here’s an example: race and widowhood. We all know that as a married couple ages, the chance that one of the partners will die increases. But that relationship between age and widowhood differs markedly between Blacks and Whites, as this figure shows:

widowhood probability

Before age 70, the annual probability of a Black woman being widowed is more than twice the chance that White women face. (After that, the odds are higher, but not as dramatically so.) Is this difference big enough to affect people’s decision making, their emotions, their relationships? I think so, though I can’t prove it. Even if people don’t map out the calculation at this level (though they of course think about their own and their partner’s specific health situation), it’s in there somewhere.

For most people, widowhood presents a pretty low annual probability of a very bad event, one that might turn your life upside down. On the other hand, climate change is certain, and observable over the course of a contemporary adult’s lifetime (look at the figure below, from 1980 to 2020). But although climate change presents potentially catastrophic consequences, the risks aren’t easily incorporated into life choices. If you’re lucky, you might have to think about the pros and cons of owning beachfront property. Or you could be losing a coal job, or gaining a windmill job. But I think for most people in the U.S. it’s in the category of background risk — which might motivate political participation, for example, but doesn’t hang over one’s head as a sense of life-threatening risk.

temperature anonamlies trend

If not imminent fear, however, climate change undoubtedly contributes to a climate of uncertainty about the future. Interestingly, there is a robust debate about whether and how climate change is also increasing climate variability. Rising temperatures alone would create more bad storms, floods, and droughts, but more temperature fluctuation would also have additional consequences. I was interested to read this paper which showed models predicting greater change in temperature variability (on the y-axis) for the rest of the century in countries with lower per-capita income (x-axis). When it comes to inequality, it rains and it pours. And for people in poorer countries of the world, it’s raining uncertainty.

tempvar

What comes next

I wrote about unequal uncertainties in April, and possible impacts on marriage rates, and I’ve commented elsewhere on fertility and family violence. But I’m not making a lot of predictions. Are other social scientists? My impression they’re mostly wisely holding off. My sense is also that this may be part of a longer-term pattern, where social scientists once made more definitive predictions with less sophisticated models than we do now that we’re buried in data. Is it the abundance of data that makes predicting seem like a bad business? I don’t think that’s it. I think it’s the diminished general confidence in the overall direction of social change. Or maybe predictions have just become more narrow — less world revolution and more fourth quarter corn prices.

One of the books I haven’t written yet, crappily titled Craptastic when I pitched it in 2017, would address this:

My theory for Craptastic is that the catastrophic thinking and uncontrollable feelings of impending doom go beyond the very reasonable reaction to the Trump shitshow that any concerned person would have, and reflect a sense that things are turning around in a suddenly serious way, rupturing what Anthony Giddens describes as the progress narratives of modernity people use to organize their identities. People thought things were sort of going to keep getting better, arc of the moral universe and all that, but suddenly they realize what a naive fantasy that was. It’s not just terrible, it’s craptastic. …

I suspect that if America lives to see this chapter of its decline written, Trump will not be as big a part of the story as it seems he is right now. And that impending realization is one reason for the Trump-inspired dysphoria that so many people are feeling.

Social science is unlikely anytime soon to be the source of reassurance about the future some people might be looking for — not even the reassurance that things will get better, but just confidence that we know what direction we’re headed, and at what speed. I don’t know, but if you know, feel free to leave it in the comments. (Which are moderated.)

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Graduation remarks, 2020 edition: ‘We need you.’

Graduations are online this year. The good news is you can shop around for whatever speeches they want (Your choice: Barack Obama or Melania Trump). If you want one that’s under 5 minutes, with a 75/25 dark-uplifting ratio, aging leftist sensibility, a little sociology, and fair-to-middling production value, I offer this (transcript below):

Congratulations to the students graduating this year. You deserve to be congratulated for your accomplishments and the accomplishments of your family and community members as much as any other graduating class in history. Congratulations.

If that’s all you wanted to hear you can turn it off now. I won’t begrudge you. Because what’s next is going to be dark.

It’s common in graduation speeches to tell the promising graduates that the future is in your hands. That you will determine the course of our history in the future. I hope that is true. I sincerely hope that’s true. But I can’t promise you that, and neither can anyone else. Because we don’t know what’s going to happen next.

Humanity has gone through and is still going through a tragedy of unspeakable proportions. Millions of people have been sickened, many have suffered horribly, and hundreds of thousands have died, in the pandemic. And everyone has been disrupted, personally, economically, socially.

This virus travels the world on the backs of the healthy to infect and kill – among others – the old and the weak. The devastation has been worse in the United States than anywhere else, because of our systemic weaknesses, but now that it has set its sights on the poorer countries of the world, that likely won’t be true for long.

And that’s not the extent of our problems, of course. We’re in this predicament now because “normal” was already not on a sustainable path. Trump and the racist, nationalist horse he rode in on, the obscene concentration of wealth, climate change, guns, segregation, xenophobia, sexual violence, the degradation of our infrastructure, including science and science education, were all setting us up for this moment. Even if we can contain this pandemic, there is no sustainable normal to get back to.

And our tools for responding may not be up to the task. Our democracy is frail. Our discourse is polluted. Social media generates ever-expanding spirals of polarization, and it has displaced many of our other communication tools. Like journalism.

This pandemic will bring out more bad things. It will exacerbate inequality. It will lead people to shut down, and shut in, fear others, blame others. It has already put a damper on travel and social exchange across all kinds of boundaries, which has been a force for good – and that might last for a long time. And more people will suffer and die, many unnecessarily.

It could make bad things worse, if the economic crisis is long and deep, xenophobia rises, conflict flares up, war, political paralysis. No one can tell you these things are not very real possibilities.

But. In the contours of this crisis we can also see how to begin to make things better, how we could turn things around. If we make it possible, we could recognize the importance of collective action for global problems, including public health but also climate change. We can learn the importance of science and education. We can see the value of investing in social and material infrastructure, including the tools for public health. We might even learn the usefulness of government for saving us from the threats we face.

And you – You can still have great lives. Happy and productive and kind and generous and adventurous and doing the best you can. Which is what people have always hoped for. And you can do those things even if you can’t turn this all around. Look, people have made good lives in hard times before. You make life worth living by what you put into it, which is no more true in good times than bad.

And, we do need you. Even if you’re not not ready to invent this vaccine or fix our broken government. I hope you have your chance to do things like that, too. But before that we need you to figure out how we live with purpose and perspective. How we avoid turning inward and shutting down even as the physical distances between us grow. How to pull down barriers within our own walls. I hope you’ll help us, and yourselves, and the generations to come, figure this out.

Thank you. Good luck.

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The COVID-19 epidemic in rural U.S. counties

I’ve been working on the COVID-19 epidemic in rural U.S. counties, and have now posted a paper on SocArXiv, here: https://osf.io/preprints/socarxiv/pnqrd/. Here’s the abstract, then some figures below:

Having first reached epidemic proportions in coastal metropolitan areas, COVID-19 has spread around the country. Reported case rates vary across counties from zero to 125 per thousand population (around a state prison in the rural county of Trousdale, Tennessee). Overall, rural counties are underrepresented relative to their share of the population, but a growing proportion of all daily cases and deaths have been reported in rural counties. This analysis uses daily reports for all counties to present the trends and distribution of COVID-19 cases and deaths in rural counties, from late March to May 16, 2020. I describe the relationship between population density and case rates in rural and non-rural counties. Then I focus on noteworthy outbreaks linked to prisons, meat and poultry plants, and nursing homes, many of which are linked to high concentrations of Hispanic, American Indian, and Black populations. The growing epidemic in rural counties is apparently driven by outbreaks concentrated in these institutional settings, which are conducive to transmission. The impact of the epidemic in rural areas may be heightening due to their weaker health infrastructure and more vulnerable populations, especially due to age, socioeconomic status, and health conditions. As a result, the epidemic may contribute to the ongoing decline of health, economic, and social conditions in rural areas.

Here are COVID-19 cases in rural counties across the country. Note that the South, Mid-Atlantic, Michigan, and New England have the most (fewer in West and upper Midwest). When you look at cases per capita, you see the concentration in the South and isolated others.

F1 rural county cases maps

COVID is still underrepresented in rural counties, but their share of the national burden is increasing, as they keep adding more than 2,000 cases and just under 100 deaths per day.

F2 new cases and deaths

Transmission dynamics are different in rural counties. They show a weaker relationship between pop density and cases. This suggests to me that there are more idiosyncratic factors at work (prisons, meat plants, nursing homes), which are high concentrations of vulnerable people.

F3 population density and cases

These are the rural outbreak cases I identified, for which I could find obvious epidemic centers in institutions: Prisons, meatpacking and poultry plants, and nursing homes. These 28 select counties account for 15% of the rural burden.

F4 rural county selected cases

In addition to the institutional concentration, these outbreak cases also show distinct overrepresentation of Hispanic, American Indian, and Black populations. Here are some of the outbreak cases plotted against minority concentrations.

F5 rural county minority scatters

And here’s a table of those selected cases:

crt2

Lots more to be done, obviously. It’s a strong limitation to be restricted to case and death counts at the county level. Someone could go get lists of prisons and meatpacking plants and nursing homes and run them through this, etc. But I wanted to raise this issue substantively. By posting the paper on SocArXiv, without peer review, I’m offering it up for comment and criticism. Also, I’m sharing the code (which links to the data, all public): osf.io/wd2n6/. Messy but usable.

A related thought on writing a paper about COVID19 right now: The lit review is daunting. There are thousands of papers, most on preprint servers. Is this bad? No. I use various tools to decide what’s reliable to learn from. If it’s outside my area, I’m more likely to rely on peer-reviewed journals, or those that are widely citied or reported. But the vast quantity available still helps me see what people are working on, what terms, and types of data they use. I learned a tremendous amount. Much respect to the thousands of researchers who are doing what they can to respond to this global crisis.

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Maybe you could go to college this fall, but should you?

May 1 is the traditional deadline for paying a deposit for the fall semester’s tuition. These are my thoughts for the students facing the decision about whether to enroll.

49762678626_658e07c409_k

PNCohen photo / Flickr CC / https://flic.kr/p/2iPmJDG

Higher education leaders are in a terrible situation as they plan for the fall. They’re bleeding cash from lost tuition, grants, and state support. With every school facing the prospect of collapsing budgets – and an unknown number on the brink of closing down – presidents, provosts, and deans are trying to make the most important decisions of their careers without the basic information they need even about the very near future. And they’re doing it from home in Zoom meetings with colleagues in their pajamas, apple sauce stuck to their laptop camera lenses, and kids screaming in the background.

Pulling off a 2020-2021 academic school year will take billions of emergency dollars, brilliant logistics, and heroic public health efforts. And most of the public is pulling for them. As Christina Paxson, the president of Brown University, wrote the other day, “The reopening of college and university campuses in the fall should be a national priority.”

They may still make it possible for students to at least start the school year this fall. Heck, at the University of Maryland, where I work, they may need to come back in the fall just to get their belongings, which have been locked up since the university abruptly canceled their move-out plans and closed up the dorms after spring break.

But for students, the question isn’t so much will campus be open, but should they go even if it is? Higher education’s famously high opinion of itself (which I sometimes share), is remarkably resilient to assaults from reality. President Paxson wrote, “If they can’t come back to campus, some students may choose — or be forced by circumstances — to forgo starting college or delay completing their degrees.” To which students might be wise to reply, “And?”

We need to be square with students on some hard questions. First and foremost, will you and your family get your money’s worth attending school this fall? Paxson says universities must maintain “the continuity of their core academic functions.” But a lot of what students get out of college results from social interaction – in labs, classrooms, gyms, stadiums, student groups, and – yes – parties. What is college worth without all that? If it’s reduced to recorded lectures and stilted online seminars, the value starts to fall towards that of a public library card (which is of course very high, but it’s also free). But the price is the same.

Practically speaking, students need to ask, if the contact tracing app beeps and I’m told to spend two weeks isolated in my dorm room because someone in my class is infected, will I get my tuition back? What if it happens more than once? What if classes move back online altogether? What is my protection if I’m kicked out of my dorm and stranded far from home?

And students also should consider their alternatives, which, contrary to the aspirational assertions of some higher education leaders, do exist. What if they stay home this fall?

They could attend a community college, which at a fraction of the cost might provide a smoother online instruction experience (and transfer the credits later).

They could take advantage of the voluminous, and expanding, array of free online lectures and instructional videos (I post the lectures for my students on YouTube, because why not?)

They could do vitally needed local (or remote) volunteer work, helping the members of their communities who are unemployed, homeless, hungry, at risk, or themselves struggling in school.

They could engage in the make-or-break effort to save democracy in the elections this fall, maybe at least slowing the country’s accelerating slide into oligarchy – and increasing the odds that we come out of this crisis moving in the right direction as we confront our health care crisis, climate change, and the rising tide of nationalism. With mandatory social distancing, campus political campaigns might not be where their efforts are best placed.

They might have a better chance of working a paid job to help support their families, including laid off parents and dependent relatives.

The people who make the most of this disastrous year will be disciplined and focused on their own wellbeing as well as the greater good, working in coordination with supportive community members and close social networks. In the best of times, a great college experience helps train people to do just that, and provides the social context in which those skills can blossom. But in the coming disarray, there may well be better, more cost effective, strategies for students.

You will have to be self-disciplined and highly motivated to make it work, but that will probably be the case more than ever at school as well in the coming year. Normally I would extol the virtues of learning together as one of the advantages of attending school, but the comparative advantage of the on-campus experience this year may be drastically reduced.

We all want a successful higher education system, and with luck we may end up with one. But let’s not put this on students, not this year. Saving higher education is not your job.

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COVID-19 code, data, codebooks, figures

Every day for who knows how long I’ve tinkered with COVID-19 data and made graphs using Stata. Now I’ve condensed my tools down to several elements, updated daily, which I’m sharing:

  • A program that assembles the COVID death and case data, by date, at the county, state, and country level. To this I have added some population, income, and political variables. The program is here, along with the codebook it outputs.
  • The data file is here in Stata format and CSV format. It’s in long shape, so one record for each place on each date.
  • A Stata program that makes my favorite graphs right now (currently 24 per day). The Figures are stored here in PNG format.
  • The Stata scheme I use to make them look the how I like is here.

These files are linked to my laptop so they update automatically when I revise them. Yay, Open Science Framework, which is non-profit, open source, free to use, and deserves your support.

I hope someone finds these helpful, for teaching or exploring on their own. It’s all yours.

Here are a few figures from today’s runs (click to enlarge):

counties with any cases

deaths and GDP scatter

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Pandemic path dependence and the future

Someone paid me for an hour of my opinions about what’s happening and what might happen next. I’m not supposed to say who or why, but I can share what I think. These thoughts are distilled from that conversation, yours for free, courtesy of someone richer than both of us, with a few links and figures.

Pandemic path dependence

One way to think about what the pandemic will change is path dependence. Things we invest in now, the momentum we get now in all the changes we make, are likely to continue. The idea of going back is always a myth, but I think it’s especially the case with such a big change, so fast. For example, look what I did. They moved my classes online. I looked at the different video platforms that my university had subscribed to at that point – WebEx, Zoom, Google – I decided I liked Zoom the best. Zoom had the green screen option, so I invested in this green screen, which was only 20 dollars, but I rearranged this room and set it up – so now my first choice is Zoom for meetings. That’s not likely to change right away. So you think of all the changes we’re making like that, in terms of our consumer choices, or communicating with our family members, or other investments, and whatever we’re doing now is likely to continue.

On the path dependence idea, we’re in the process of finding out right now a lot of people who are redundant at work. When organizations start losing all this money, and they have to make drastic cuts that might become permanent, their choices will have to do with what everybody’s contributing right now. We’re going to discover that we do without what a lot of people are doing. So a lot of people are going to be restructured out of their jobs. There will be lot of turnover and change and uncertainty, and that wreaks havoc on people’s personal lives. People aren’t good at making long-term decisions under conditions of existential uncertainty. So if you don’t know where you’re going to be in the big picture in five or ten years – including career, family, and so on – it’s hard to make decisions like, Let’s get married, Let’s have children.

The US birthrate has been falling since the last recession, and hasn’t been coming back. I think that may be accelerated. I don’t think people will be rushing to have children, which involves a long-term, permanent, future orientation. In the US we have a lot of unplanned births, so those may still happen, but I don’t think more people are going to decide to have children and make other long-term decisions like marriage.

country fertilitiy trends.xlsx

People are asking, Will there be a baby boom? People are stuck together, they’ll have sex more and have children. That’s not really how it happens. Most people are planning. We have modern contraception. People don’t just have more children because they spend more time together. Long-term commitments may be undermined, and people making long-term decisions may be less common, up to and including marriage and childbearing.

2018update

Divorce, on the other hand, may be different. We were seeing a decline in divorce before this. Now there may be more people who want to get divorced right now, because of COVID, but fewer people who can. Divorce is logistically difficult. They may stay together because they can’t separate. That also means we are at risk of increased family violence and abuse. For some people, their families are happy and they’re doing well and they enjoy being locked up together, and it’s rejuvenating and so on – and for the people for whom family is not safe or comfortable, that could be getting worse and worse.

Unequal uncertainty

We already see the job loss and economic insecurity is divided by race, gender, and class. You can look right now at the people who compelled to keep working at personal risk – people in services, grocery stores, delivery people, medical providers, versus people like me, who can work from home. That makes me safer and that’s stratifying. We’ll have relatively more stability and security on the professional/managerial side of the occupational divide.

Slide16

There is also the issue of trust. Some of us are feeling like we must trust the government and scientists for our survival. And some of us are thinking, The government and scientists are terrible and we can’t believe anything they say. That divide was already happening, and I think it’s going to widen. That division is partly on education but also very partisan.

F3

Social division

We have a principle of fractal polarization, where if you take any group of people, no matter how small, we have the social dynamics in place to generate polarization among them. In politics, the division between Republican and Democrat, then within the Democrats, then within the Bernie movement, etc. And that’s partly social media and the way we communicate, where in order to get noticed you have to say something outside the margins, and that pushes the margins further and further apart.

On the other hand, some things could be unifying. Not just trust in science and the government, but also things like investment in public health and infrastructure. If you look at past crises, there are precedents for coming out of this with a unifying policy agenda, like investing in the healthcare system. We could end up with an even great majority for universal healthcare, and the expenses may not seem so large compared to what we’re going through now. The role of youth is important. We have seen big movements of young people, for example on climate change and gun control. Those things are still important, but we may see some of that energy swing to more health issues. We could have a unifying swing toward collective orientation on issues like that.

On technology

The organizations that have the resources now to innovate, that realize they have to in order to survive… for example, universities. They were already developing online education, and they just increased the speed of that greatly. So the investment is going to be there for that. And that may apply to other services, such as telemedicine. We’re going to continue having appointments with doctors online. A lot of them will continue providing those services even when it’s not necessary. And I think the same may also be true for social services, government services. There could be benefit for that, being able to drop services directly into people’s homes. That can help with people who are either socially or physically isolated, people with disabilities, people who can’t leave the house for whatever reasons. Things may end up getting better because we end up delivering services in those situations.

Global mobility

It’s hard to imagine that travel won’t be permanently reduced. Travel for work certainly will be, with all this investment in doing things remotely, in addition to the fear of traveling. We have, in academia, massive conferences multiple times per year, around the world. And in the next year or two we’re going to discover that we can have academia without those things. And those things are really expensive. And so it’s not clear, when we realize the budgets are permanently shrunk, that we’re going to spend money again on things that we did without for a couple of years.

The free moving upper classes that did work in different countries, that saw colleagues around the world, that vacationed in remote places – although that’s very unequal, it’s a positive influence on social life anyway. I’m afraid that will be reduced. That can contribute to nationalism and ethnocentrism.

On the one hand we’re realized our global interdependence in ways that are important. Ninety percent of ibuprofen in the U.S. comes from China. So if we all depend on China for our ibuprofen, we could learn from that that we’re all interdependent, or we could conclude, Wow, we need our own ibuprofen factories. Or the same with surgical masks. That can be bad in the sense of global divisions and isolation.

When staying in is prosocial

Trust in the government, or science, is not just about the faceless bureaucracy. It’s an investment in a kind of solidarity. If you follow a government directive, at your own expense, that is an expression of faith in humanity, to some degree (unless you’re acting out of fear of enforcement). It’s paradoxical that by isolating ourselves we’re contributing to the collective good. There is a group of sociologists who are trying to get us to use the term ‘physical distancing,’ partly because physical distancing is how we stick together, socially.

However, that might not be persistent. We will get used to the habits of staying home, and having services delivered, and entertainment delivered – not going to the movies, or go to bars to hear music. After we adapt (even more) to those things, so we are less inclined to pay more if we can do it at home, then when staying home isn’t for the collective good anymore, those habits may persist, and that could be bad.

Privacy

This is all undermining privacy, especially digital privacy. For example, if we end up embracing the Google and Apple app for contact tracing, but not trusting the government to do that, that pushes us in the direction of surrendering more digital privacy to tech companies. That was already happening, but it’s likely to go further, if people see it as in their interest to surrender their privacy more explicitly. To the extent there was at least a cultural niche of people who object, I think that will be weakened. People won’t be as reluctant to give that up after they’ve been through a period when turning over their personal information was important to their survival.

Local versus online community

If we’re all stuck in our homes, then the neighborhood becomes a very different concept. I’m an academic, I’ve been a professor at three different universities. I always subscribe to the New York Times, so in a way I live in a suburb of New York no matter where I am. If everything’s inside the home, then your neighborhood is your Zoom background, and the things you get delivered, and there’s already no local news anymore – so there is a sense that the local matters less. But people still want it to matter. When you get out of the house and see the people in your actual neighborhood, that’s still something important. So there’s a paradox, a good and a bad side to that. The idea that I can be in the same virtual neighborhood as people who are thousands of miles away is socially good, but on the other hand if it undermines my relationship with my actual neighbors that’s bad. I don’t know how to bridge that.

Threats

What could get worse? War. It might seem crazy for countries to go to war at a time when national boundaries seem to matter less and less. But with the instability this has cause, and with our reliance on technology, a relatively small thing can set off huge cascading events, including flipping the switch on something like war. Even if that seems ridiculous. How could we go to war with China? Everyone would lose. But big things can go wrong, and our dependence on technology makes it more possible for those catastrophic events. I don’t think that’s that likely, but I didn’t think this was that likely.

History

We already had a history problem. Obama was part of this story of social progress. Trump undermined that drastically. The same with the threat of climate change versus technological advances. Maybe history doesn’t have a direction. Maybe there is no arc that bends toward justice. Maybe there’s just a series of random events. This pandemic feeds that sense. That creates anxiety, and dread, but also opens up a world of possibilities for directions to change. That means extremism becomes more enticing to some people, because they think they can change the direction of history. But it might also mean we have more imagination for positive developments as well.

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Health disparities & COVID-19 lecture

For Social Problems, an introductory level sociological course, I gave a lecture that combines an introduction to health disparities and some issues of disparate impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic. It’s 23 minutes. Some slides and links below.

The first half describes the theory of fundamental causes (as I understand it), and has some basic health disparities examples. Here are some graphs:

Then I apply some of the ideas to what we know about COVID-19 impacts, and likely problem areas. Here is some of that:

The PowerPoint slides, with references in the notes, is up here: https://osf.io/d4ym3/.

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Family violence and abuse lecture, with COVID pandemic discussion koi

I recorded a video lecture on the subject of family violence and abuse, including intimate partner violence, rape, and sexual abuse, with some discussion of the COVID pandemic implications.

The 24-minute video is on YouTube here:

Related pieces that came out after I recorded this:

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