November 05, 2018

People are Different. People are the Same.

Jonathan Wynn (1)By Jonathan Wynn

We seem to be living through a particularly violent time and, by some measures we certainly are. Pipe bombs and recent gun violence are very likely tied to the midterm elections.

History is somewhat comforting. This weekend I turned to Stephen Pinker’s 2011 book, The Better Angels of Our Nature, which outlines the downward historical trend in violence. He notes that we might think from the news (eight years ago) that we live in a cold and violent time. Most people would instinctually feel that we are in a particularly violent time, even still. The opening chapter, however, paints a brutal, Hieronymus Bosch-style illustration of torture, murder, rape, and war through the millennia in order to set up that we, in fact and relatively, in a time of peace. One of the reasons why is what he calls a “cascade of campaigns” for basic rights over the last half of the last century: civil rights, women’s rights, children’s rights, gay rights, animal rights.

Violence is likely stoked by strong feelings of division. There is certainly a politics that seeks to divide, generate “us versus them” categories and some research shows that identity, more than issues, shapes these divides. Journalists will sometimes echo these sentiments, noting that there is some mythical tribe called “Real Americans.”

So, rather than looking at where there are differences, where do people live who are most like everyone else? What if we look at not the “Real Americans” but the “Real America?” Where are the places in the United States are demographically most like the rest of the United States? The answers might surprise you.

The author of a blog post for FiveThirtyEight crunched the numbers to find out what places in the United States are most “normal.” Normal is, for him, representative of our nation’s demographics. I found it particularly interesting that three of the top five places were along the Connecticut River—which I cross every day to work—and that #5 is my nearest metro area. Using the American Community Survey, using metropolitan areas greater than 500,000 in population, these cities are:

New Haven-Milford, Connecticut (93.2% similarity to the U.S. overall)

Tampa-St. Petersburg-Clearwater, Florida (91.6%)

Hartford-West Hartford-East Hartford, Connecticut (90.2%)

Oklahoma City, Oklahoma (89.4%)

Springfield, Massachusetts (89.3%)

New Haven, Hartford, and Springfield all were solidly Democratic in the 2016 presidential election. Tampa was slightly more Republican by a two-point margin and Oklahoma City was more Republican by ten points. Despite their demographic similarities, we can see that voter choices differed between these cities.

In sociology we differentiate between social boundaries (e.g., race, gender, sexuality) and symbolic boundaries (e.g., culture, status, tastes, etc.) as well. We do a good job of noting differences. We order people in groups. Categorize them. We do it by race, gender, age, immigration and migration status, and sexuality.

Students occasionally ask why it is that sociology focuses on divisions. Whenever it comes up I give a ready answer about inequalities, about understanding the differences will allow us to understand different experiences, and about how we can work toward an intersectional approach that seeks to bridge these disciplinary boundaries to get at how these inequalities interact with one another. (Here’s a great TED talk from Kimberlé Crenshaw on intersectionality.)

At the same time, sociology does look at the correspondences, parallels, and harmonies as well. Pierre Bourdieu, for example, writes of similarities, how class position in social fields create similar tastes and dispositions.

One of my favorite books of the last few years was Asia Friedman’s Blind to Sameness. Friedman studies two groups, the blind and transgendered, to look at how we as a society are quick to dismiss or miss altogether a great deal of similarity on issues of gender and sex. By looking at our “social perceptions,” Friedman finds that there are some things that we pay extremely close attention to, and other things that we are inattentive towards. We are likely to rely on visual data that can be, especially around issues of gender, ambiguous and we filter out things that are similar.

Friedman offers us a fantastic study, well worth your time. After the midterm elections, I suppose we might find out whether we vote based upon our similarities or if we will be blind to our sameness.

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