Saturday, June 29, 2013

Scholarly Minutiae

I just finished attending an academic conference, and I was struck (once again) by the minutiae with which we academics concern ourselves. And we wonder why much of what we do is so out of touch with the real world.

To be sure, some of these minutiae are important, but a lot of us (and I've been guilty of this as well) simply pursue minutiae for minutiae sake. Not for any furtherance of knowledge in such a way that would benefit the world in some way.

Friday, June 28, 2013

Faith, Hope, and Charity: Religion and Generosity

I recently noted that in terms of charity and volunteering, people of faith contribute far more of their time and money than do their secular counterparts. Moreover, this is true for both religious and secular institutions. That is, not only do people of faith contribute more of the their time and money to religious institutions (e.g., churches, synagogues, Habitat for Humanity), they also contribute more of their time an money to secular institutions than their secular counterparts ("How Religion Benefits Everyone, Even Nonbelievers"). See also "Religious Attendance Relates to Generosity Worldwide".

However, rates of and reasons for giving within and across faith traditions do differ, and why they do is the subject of a new study by Carolyn Warner, a political scientist at Arizona State University, along with her colleagues Adam Cohen, Ramazon Kilinc, and Christopher Hale ("Religious Institutions and Generosity: Catholicism and Islam"). Carolyn is also featured in a recent Research on Religion podcast, hosted by Anthony Gill ("Carolyn Warner on Religion and Generosity"). Here's a brief description of the interview:
Why and how do religious groups motivate generosity? We visit with Prof. Carolyn Warner (ASU) who is involved in a multi-national, cross-faith, and interdisciplinary investigation exploring why religious individuals give money and volunteer time to help others. As part of a larger team of scholars, she has conducted interviews with Catholics and Muslims in France, Ireland, Italy, and Turkey using both person-to-person interviews and an experimental design to see if there are differences across these to faith traditions. She and her team discover that Catholics tend to be motivated by “love of God” whereas Muslims are moved to give out of a “duty to God.” This sheds light on whether organizations need to provide close monitoring and sanctioning of volunteer behavior or whether individuals can be counted to be generous on their own.
For a more detailed description of the podcast or to listen to the podcast, follow this link ("Carolyn Warner on Religion and Generosity") to the Research on Religion website. You can also download the podcast from iTunes.

Tuesday, June 25, 2013

Do What You Like. Like What You Do. Really?

I was behind a car today with a license plate frame that said, "Do What You Like. Like What You Do.", and I thought, "Really?" Does the person driving this car really believe this? Does anybody? I understand the motivation lying behind the saying. We all should be free to pursue our dreams, and we should resist those who attempt to place limits on that freedom. But freedom has its limits. We can't just do anything we like. In other words: Do we really want racists to lynch African-Americans? Do we really want misogynists to beat their women? Do we really want terrorists to blow up innocent bystanders? Those are things that racists, misogynists, and terrorists like to do, but do we really want them to do what they like? I don't think so. Or, at least I hope not.

Sunday, June 23, 2013

Weak Ties, Family Ties, and Business Success

In what is now considered a classic study, the sociologist Mark Granovetter (1973) found that people were far more likely to have used occasional personal contacts in finding their present job than by other means, and of those personal contacts, most were what Granovetter called "weak ties."  More precisely, he found that although 19% used formal means and another 19 percent directly applied for their job, approximately 56% found their jobs through personal ties, of which 83.4% were people they saw occasionally or rarely. This led Granovetter to conclude that when it comes to finding jobs, our weak ties are often more useful than our strong ties. Why? Because our weak ties (i.e., our acquaintances) are less likely to be socially involved with one another than are our strong ties (i.e., our close friends).

Imagine the pattern of social ties suggested by this argument (see the graph above) and take any individual in the network. He or she will most likely have a collection of close friends, most of whom know one another. This same individual will also probably have a collection of acquaintances, few of whom know one another. But these acquaintances, in turn, are likely to be embedded in tightly knit networks of their own. According to Granovetter, weak ties are important in terms of the overall network structure because they form the crucial bridges that tie these densely knit clusters of people together. In fact, if it were not for these weak ties, these clusters would not be connected at all.

Indeed, Granovetter argued that while not all weak ties are bridges, all bridges are weak ties. This is because of a process captured by what he referred to as the forbidden triad (see the graph below). Imagine that the ties between A and B and A and C are strong, and that initially B and C have no relationship with one another. In the short run the strong ties that run from C to B through A will function as a bridge between C and B. However, in the long run a tie will form between C and B (this is known as triadic closure) because A regularly interacts with B and C and odds are that in the long run B and C will meet and a tie will form between them. The resulting tie may be strong or weak, but the end result is that the ties running between C and B through A will no longer function as a bridge between C and B. Put differently, our close friends’ close friends are likely to at least become acquaintances and possibly even friends. While Granovetter conceded this was something of an exaggeration, he noted that research suggests that this holds true most of the time, meaning that weak ties are much more likely to form bridges than are strong ties (Onnela et al. 2007).

Granovetter’s argument suggests that whatever is to be diffused – whether it is job information, influence, resources, trust, etc. – it will reach more people and travel a greater social distance if it passes through weak rather than strong ties. It also implies that actors with few weak ties are more likely to be “deprived of information from distant parts of the social system and will be confined to the provincial news and views of their close friends” (Granovetter 1983:202). Their lack of weak ties “will not only insulate them from the latest ideas and fashions, but it may also put them at a disadvantage in the labor market, where . . . knowing about appropriate job openings at just the right time” is paramount (Granovetter 1983:202).

Granovetter did not argue that strong ties were of no value. He also noted that although weak ties provide individuals with access to information and resources beyond those available in their immediate social circles, strong ties have greater motivation to be sources of support in times of uncertainty. Indeed, there "is a mountain of research showing that people with strong ties are happier and even healthier, because in such networks members provide one another with strong emotional and material support in times of grief or trouble and someone with whom to share life’s joys and triumphs” (Stark 2007:37).

Granovetter's study has implications beyond finding jobs. For example, Brian Uzzi (1996 - one of Granovetter's former students), found that a mix of weak and strong ties proved beneficial to the long-term survival of apparel firms. The firms he studied tended to divide their market interactions into two types: “market” or “arms-length” relationships (i.e., weak ties) and “special” or “close” relationships (i.e., strong ties). He found that although market relationships were more common than embedded ties, they tended to be less important. Embedded ties were especially important in situations where fine-grained information had to be passed to the other party, and when certain types of joint problem-solving were on the agenda. According to Uzzi, embeddedness increases economic effectiveness along a number of dimensions crucial to competitiveness in the global economy: organizational learning, risk-sharing, and speed-to- market. He also discovered, however, that firms that are too embedded suffer because they lack access to information from distant parts of the social structure, rendering them vulnerable to rapidly changing situations. This led him to argue that firms should seek to maintain a balance of embedded (strong) and market (weak) ties. In support of this he found that firms with high levels of embedded ties or high levels of market ties were much more likely to fail than were those that maintained a balance between the two.

A recent Freakonomics podcast ("Why Family and Business Don't Mix") seems to confirm Granovetter's study (although it doesn't mention Granovetter, Uzzi, or weak and strong ties). It references a study that found that strong family ties appear to depress economic activity.
We study the role of the most primitive institution in society: the family... We show that strong family ties are negatively correlated with generalized trust; they imply more household production and less participation in the labor market of women, young adult and elderly. They are correlated with lower interest and participation in political activities and prefer labor market regulation and welfare systems based upon the family rather than the market or the government. Strong family ties may interfere with activities leading to faster growth, but they may provide relief from stress, support to family members and increased wellbeing. We argue that the value regarding the strength of family relationships are very persistent over time, more so than institutions like labor market regulation or welfare systems.
I suspect that one reason why family ties negatively affect economic productions is that they crowd out (suppress) the formation of weak ties, such that family businesses lack enough weak ties (or market ties, to use Uzzi's term) so that they have access to information that is vital to their success and survival.

  • Granovetter, Mark. 1973. "The Strength of Weak Ties." American Journal of Sociology 73(6):1360-80.
  • Granovetter, Mark. 1974. Getting a Job. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
  • Granovetter, Mark. 1983. "The Strength of Weak Ties: A Network Theory Revisited." Sociological Theory 1:201-33.
  • Onnela, Jukka-Pekka, Jari Saramaki, J. Hyvönen, Szabó. G., David Lazer, Kimmo Kaski, J. Kertész, and Barabasi, Albert-Laszlo. 2007. "Structure and Tie Strengths in Mobile Communication Networks." Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the USA 104(18):7332–36.
  • Stark, Rodney. 2007. Sociology. Belmont, CA: Wadsworth Publishing Company.
  • Uzzi, Brian. 1996. "The Sources and Consequences of Embeddedness for the Economic Performance of Organizations: The Network Effect." American Sociological Review 61(4):674-98.

Saturday, June 22, 2013

Summer's Here! Time for Home-Made Ice Cream

Every summer, my Dad would make home-made ice cream, often on the 4th of July or on other special occasions. The recipe he used yielded great ice cream, but it was labor intensive, which is why when he came across a simpler recipe a few years ago that made ice cream that was just as good, we happily switched. Here it is (Ida's Vanilla Ice Cream -- I have no idea who Ida is):
  • 4 eggs beaten very well
  • Add 3 1/2 cups of sugar, 1 cup at a time, beaten at a moderate speed
  • Gradually add 2 quarts of half-and-half, mixed at a moderate to slow speed (otherwise it splatters everywhere!)
  • Add 2 teaspoons of vanilla extract and 1 pint of heavy whipping cream to the concoction and mix at a moderate to slow speed
  • Pour into and freeze in a 5-quart ice cream freezer (see figure up and to the right)
If you like Coffee Ice Cream, when adding the vanilla extract and whipping cream, also add 5 tablespoons of instant coffee. Starbucks "Via" packets work quite well. One is usually enough, but two gives a little more bite. Another variation is Oreo Cookie Ice Cream. Here, when adding the vanilla extract and whipping cream, add 7-10 crushed Oreo Cookies to the mix. Another recipe that a friend (Sandy Mitchell) gave us is known as the 6-3's (or the 3 fruits):
  • 3 oranges (juiced)
  • 3 lemons (juiced)
  • 3 bananas (smooshed)
  • 3 cups of sugar
  • 3 cups of milk
  • 3 cups of heavy whipping cream
  • Pour into and freeze in a 5-quart ice cream freezer

Thursday, June 20, 2013

Good News on Bad News Parents

I've written previously on Dance moms and Little League dads behaving badly ("Dance Moms Behaving Badly" "Little League Dads Behaving Badly").  Some leagues are now taking matters into their own hands ("Youth Leagues Try to Rein In Bad News Parents"). In one of the more humorous (but still serious) attempts, the Buffalo Grove park district, a suburb north of Chicago, has posted new signs at their ball fields that state (italics added)
  • This is a game being played by children
  • If they win or lose every game of the season, it will not impact what college they attend or their future potential income
  • Of the hundreds of thousands of children who have ever played youth sports in Buffalo Grove, very few have gone on to play professionally. It is highly unlikely that any college recruiters or professional scouts are watching these games; so let's keep it all about having fun and being pressure-free.
  • Imagine how you would feel if you saw a parent or coach from the opposing team cheering for your child when they made a great play. Then envision what kind of person you would think they are for doing that. You can be that person.
  • Referees, umpires and officials are human and make mistakes, just like players, coaches, and you. No one shouts at you in front of other people when you make a mistake, so please don't yell at them. We do not have video replay; so, we will go with their calls.
  • The only reason children want to play sports in because it is fun. Please don't let the behavior of the adults ruin their fun.
Gotta love it. Nothing like a little sarcasm to make a point.

Tuesday, June 18, 2013

Mainline Denial

The United Methodist Reporter recently ceased publication. Although not an official United Methodist Church publication, the Reporter has covered the denomination's activities for 166 years. Part of its demise was due, no doubt, to the switch from print to on-line publications.  However, I doubt that's the only reason. I suspect that it is also the result of a much larger trend, not just for the United Methodist Church, which is the largest mainline Protestant denomination, but for all Protestant mainline denominations: Unlike their more theologically conservative counterparts, mainline denominations have been shedding numbers in droves. In terms of raw numbers, they have been losing members since the 1960s as the two graphs below illustrate. The first plots membership numbers for the United Methodist Church; the second, membership for the other six mainline denominations (data downloaded from the Association of Religion Data Archives). One doesn't have to be a statistician to see that for the last 50 years the trend has been downward.

However, in terms of a proportion of the population, mainline denominations have suffered much longer and steeper declines. Indeed, there's strong evidence that the decline began for some mainline denominations (e.g., Congregationalists, Episcopalians, Presbyterians) as far back as the 18th century (see graph below--from Roger Finke and Rodney Stark, "The Churching of America: 1776-2005").

Part of the decline is due to the fact that the demand for theologically liberal religion is not as great as it is for more conservative forms of religion. To illustrate this, imagine (see the graph below) that the demand for religion in the US as following a bell curve, with groups such as the Amish and others most people haven't thought of on the right and mainline denominations on the left, with a number of thriving groups (e.g., Southern Baptists, Four Square Gospel) in the middle (to be sure, for mainliners those groups in the middle seem conservative but mainliners would be mistaken if they thought they represented the theological mainstream).

Mainline leaders appear to be in denial about this, however. I've heard more than one explain away the losses in a variety of ways. For example, I heard a United Church of Christ (UCC) denominational leader argue that since UCC membership patterns mirrored those of a more conservative denomination, theology clearly had nothing to do with it. Unfortunately, this leader had cherry picked his comparison case and ignored all of the other conservative denominations that are growing (and the fact that there are far more conservative denominations than liberal denominations). Another common explanation is that mainline denominations aren't the only denominations that are declining; so are conservative ones. However, as I pointed out in a previous post, that isn't the case ("The Myth of Evangelical Decline"). For better or worse, evangelicalism is alive and well in the US.

So what should mainline leaders do? Well, instead of pretending that decline isn't happening or trying to recapture lost market share (an unlikely proposition), they should focus on ministering to those in their theological niche, providing them with the concepts and narratives that allow them to live faithfully as Christians in today's world.

That said, while theology is almost certainly one factor, another may simply be the reluctance of members of mainline churches to invite family, friends, and acquaintances to church. Their reluctance probably stems from a sense that "inviting" sounds too much like "evangelizing," but as I pointed out in a recent post ("Why Do Some Churches (and Synagogues, Temples, Mosques) Grow?"), successful movements (religious and otherwise) recruit through social ties. To be sure, it probably makes sense to first invite friends to less threatening events, such as choir concerts, church picnics, or forums on popular books (e.g., The Da Vinci Code), contemporary issues (e.g., poverty, violence) or historical events (e.g., Japanese Internment). But inviting friends is necessary if churches, synagogues, temples, and mosques want to grow.

Thus, while it's unlikely that mainline churches and denominations will be able to compete numerically with their more theologically conservative sisters and brothers, they can probably do a lot better than they currently are if they'd simply focus more energy on inviting friends and family to church.

Sunday, June 9, 2013

Why Do Some Churches (and Synagogues, Temples, Mosques) Grow?

Although there are few phenomena that social scientists would consider "sociological laws," one that is as close to being a law as any is this: successful social movements, whether they are religious or secular, recruit through their social ties. People are much more likely to join a church, mosque, synagogue, temple, social movement, etc. if they already know someone who is a member than if they don't. Thus, successful faith communities take advantage of this fact.

One of the earliest studies on recruitment was John Lofland and Rodney Stark’s study of people converting to the Unification Church (more commonly known as the Moonies). A woman named Young Oon Kim, who had come to California from Korea where she had been a university professor, started the local Moonies group in Berkeley, California. When she first arrived, she spoke at a number of public events, but these did not yield a single convert. Instead, her first three converts were close friends of hers whom she had first gotten to know after she'd become a lodger with one of them. Her next converts were their husbands, followed by friends from work, old friends, relatives, or people who first formed close friendships with one or more members in the group. As Stark later noted, when he and Lofland first began watching the group, it “had never succeeded in attracting a stranger." Moreover, Stark and Lofland witnessed a number of people who were sympathetic with the group’s doctrines, but in the end they did not join because they had numerous ties with people who disapproved of the Moonies. This led Stark and Lofland to conclude that the people who ultimately joined the Moonies tended to be those whose ties to group members exceeded their ties to nonmembers.

In another study, Rodney Stark and Bill Bainbridge looked at the role that social ties play in recruiting people to the Mormon Church, which keeps very good records of their missionary efforts, and Stark and Bainbridge were provided with data for all missionaries in the state of Washington during 1976–1977. As it turns out, Mormons recruit through various means: They go door to door, follow up on referrals, and meet potential recruits in the home of a relative or friend:

Degree to Which a Mormon Friend or Relative Took Part in the Recruitment Process
Percent of All Missionary Contacts That Resulted in Successful Recruitment

None (door-to-door canvas by missionaries)
Covert referral (name of Mormon who suggested contact is not used)
Overt referral (name of Mormon who suggested contact is used)

Set up an appointment with missionaries
Contact with missionaries took place in the home of Mormon friend or relative

As you can see from above table, when missionaries go door to door, their success rate is only 0.1% (that's 1 in 1,000). Referrals provide a somewhat higher rate of success (7% for covert referrals and 8% for overt referrals). Their highest rates of success, however, occurs when Mormons invite non-Mormon friends and relatives into their homes to meet Mormon missionaries. In those instances, missionaries enjoyed a success rate close to 50 percent. This suggests that the best strategy for conversion is not cold-calling but forming friendships with non-Mormons. Stark and Bainbridge note that an article in the Mormon Church’s official magazine provided detailed instructions on how to recruit new members, and a recurring theme was the importance of building close personal ties with non-Mormons. It also explicitly instructed its readers that they should downplay or avoid discussing religion while forming these ties. Only later were they to bring up that they were Mormons. “Another way of looking at these findings is that missionaries do not serve as the primary instrument of recruitment to the Mormon faith. Instead, recruitment is accomplished primarily by the rank and file of the church as they construct intimate interpersonal ties with non-Mormons and thus link them into a group network."

Shortly after the Stark and Bainbridge study appeared, David Snow and his colleagues highlighted essentially the same dynamic: Successful social movements, religious or otherwise, recruit primarily through social networks of friends and families. As you can see from the table below, all of the groups they studied, except the Hare Krishna, recruited over 50 percent of their members through either kinship or friendship networks with several recruiting over 90 percent of their mem- bers through such networks. The lone exception was the Hare Krishnas. Why? Because the Hare Krishnas demand exclusive participation from their members and require them to sever all extra-movement ties. Thus, they have no social networks outside of the group through which they can recruit, and this forces them to recruit from public places. That is why they are so small and why growing social movements must maintain (and recruit through) open social networks.

Mode of Recruitment
Recruited Through Social Networks
% Recruited Outside Networks
% Relatives
% Friends & Acquaintances
Sills (1957)
March of Dimes
Murata (1969)
Dator (1969)
White (1970)
Gerlach & Hine (1970)
Harrison (1974)
Catholic Pentecostal
Bibby and Brinkerhoff (1974)
Leahy (1975)
Judah (1974)
Hare Krishna

Subsequent studies have replicated these findings. Doug McAdam found in his study of "Freedom Summer," which recruited college students across the nation to help register African-Americans to vote, that the primary reason why students either participated in the summer program or not is whether they had a tie to someone who was going or was somehow involved in the Civil Rights movement. And in the 1990s the Presbyterians discovered that approximately 85 percent of congregational members stated that they joined the particular church to which they belonged because they already knew someone who was a member. And finally Marc Sageman found that 83 percent of the individuals who joined what he calls the global Salafi jihad joined through some sort of social tie.

So, what's the moral of the story? If churches, temples, synagogues, and mosques want to grow, current members have to invite their friends and family members to worship services and other activities.  Of course, this will strike some as a form of evangelism (and, in a certain sense, it is), but if you're proud of what your faith community has to offer, why keep it a secret? It simply doesn't make sense.

  • Lofland, John, and Rodney Stark. 1965. "Becoming a World-Saver: A Theory of Conversion to a Deviant Perspective." American Sociological Review 30:862-75.
  • McAdam, Doug. 1986. "Recruitment to High Risk Activism: The Case of Freedom Summer." American Journal of Sociology 92:64-90.
  • ________. 1988. Freedom Summer. New York and Oxford: Oxford University Press.
  • McAdam, Doug, and Ronnelle Paulsen. 1993. "Specifying the Relationship Between Social Ties and Activism." American Journal of Sociology 99:640-67.
  • Sageman, Marc. 2004. Understanding Terror Networks. Philadelphia, PA: University of Pennsylvania Press.
  • Snow, David A., Louis A. Zurcher, and Sheldon Ekland-Olson. 1980. "Social Networks and Social Movements: A Microstructural Approach to Differential Recruitment." American Sociological Review 45:787-801.
  • Stark, Rodney, and William Sims Bainbridge. 1980. "Networks of Faith: Interpersonal Bonds and Recruitment to Cults and Sects." American Journal of Sociology 85(6):1376-95.