Caitlyn Collins: Take Your Child to Work Day

MotherhoodFor my mom, Take Your Child to Work Day happened a lot more than once a year. And they weren’t planned as part of a national “holiday” sponsored by the likes of Goldman Sachs, MetLife, and Chevron. They usually weren’t planned at all, and they weren’t a celebration.

Babysitters called in sick and daycare closed early. Schools had snow days, teacher planning days, holidays, and what seemed to be closed-for-no-clear-reason days. We ran a fever or caught a cold and needed to be picked up early. Or we were too sick to attend daycare or school at all.

So like mothers throughout the country, she hauled us to her office. I realize now, only decades later, the many ways she paid a price. Trying to keep us happy and quiet while she rushed to finish her work wasn’t Alyson’s idea of a quality learning experience for her kids or an ideal workday for her. These times filled her with dread, not joy.

And they weren’t always fun for us either. A child sick with the flu would rather be home than napping in an office during a conference call (not to mention that the flu is a health risk at work as well as at school). And a snow day spent cooped up at a parent’s workplace is a special kind of hell for kids.

This isn’t what the creators of Take Your Child to Work Day envisioned.

My mom would rarely have had to bear these panicked days if our system was set up differently. Work and family are largely incompatible in the United States. Women still to do most of the work involved in raising kids today. And benefits to support this caring labor are few and far between. U.S. society thinks of kids and families as private responsibilities. For instance, the U.S. is the only industrialized nation with no minimum standard for sick days and vacation days. The country stands alone as the only nation with no federal paid maternity leave (well, the U.S. and Papua New Guinea). The word “family” appears in nearly every country’s Constitution except the U.S.’ National childcare is the norm in other western market economies, but it’s not even a glimmer on the horizon here.

What does life look like for mothers elsewhere? Do all moms struggle like mine to schlep their children to work when plans go awry? Or are there other ways to organize work and care (that still involve donuts and snow days)?

My book, Making Motherhood Work (forthcoming 2019), explores the daily lives of working moms in four countries that offer very different policy solutions to work-family conflict and gender inequality. Using interviews with 135 women in Sweden, Germany, Italy, and the U.S., I consider how women perceive motherhood and employment in light of the available policies.

After five years of conversations, I realized that work-family conflict like my mom’s is not an unfortunate certainty for women everywhere. Life for all women and their families—regardless of income, race, region, faith, or migration background—can look different, and better.

The tradition of taking one’s children to work each April began 25 years ago with Gloria Steinem and the Ms. Foundation for Women. Then it was called “Take Our Daughters to Work Day.” Ten years later, it expanded to include boys and is now “Take Our Daughters and Sons to Work Day.” I see two big reasons to celebrate this day.

First, the original intent was to introduce girls to a wide variety of occupations. Encouraging girls and young women to dream big about their career aspirations remains a laudable goal. Our work organizations and labor market remain deeply unequal. Women still lag behind men in hiring, earnings, and promotions in the workplace—especially women of color. Many women remain clustered in female-typed jobs that are less prestigious with lower pay, which sociologists Maria Charles and David Grusky call “occupational ghettos.” And a woman has yet to hold the highest office in the country.

You can’t be what you can’t see. It’s important that girls meet women role models in all lines and at all levels of work. I witnessed my mother achieve her career goals, but others don’t get this privilege. Not all jobs are good jobs. The lessons a child learns visiting a parent who works as a bus driver are wildly different than those gleaned from a day at a parent’s law firm. Upgrading working conditions across the labor market would give children of all backgrounds more to aspire to, and better odds of achieving these goals with the resources necessary to survive and thrive.

Second, employers come face to face with the reality that workers have responsibilities outside of their jobs, and these commitments are very often to children. Recognizing employees’ childrearing responsibilities shouldn’t mean that these workers are seen as less capable and committed on the job as a result. Helping parents is good not only for families, but also for business.

I would like us to set our sets much higher than Take Your Child to Work Day. Let’s think more ambitiously and brightly about what it means to work and care and dream about one’s future in the United States.

Rather than asking girls to set their sights higher or for workplaces to accommodate families one day a year, what changes can be made on a national level to make the lives of all families better and happier? And what role can organizations play in making this vision a reality? Making Motherhood Work demonstrates that we need to overhaul our social policies and cultural attitudes about work and family if we really want to improve conditions for families.

So take your child to work today, or even someone else’s. Encourage kids to think expansively about their interests, especially those who too often aren’t encouraged to dream at all. Remind employers that you’re a better worker because of your family, not in spite of it.

But let’s also hold ourselves to a higher standard as a nation.

Moms like mine deserve better, and so do the country’s kids. And not just 1/365th of the time.

Caitlyn Collins is assistant professor of sociology at Washington University. Her new book, Making Motherhood Work: How Women Manage Careers and Caregiving, is forthcoming in January 2019. 

Eviatar Zerubavel on Taken for Granted: The Remarkable Power of the Unremarkable

ZerubavelWhy is the term “openly gay” so widely used but “openly straight” is not? What are the unspoken assumptions behind terms like “male nurse,” “working mom,” and “white trash?” Offering a revealing and provocative look at the word choices we make every day without even realizing it, Taken for Granted exposes the subtly encoded ways we talk about race, gender, sexual orientation, religion, social status, and more. A little book about a very big idea, Taken for Granted draws our attention to what we implicitly assume to be normal—and in the process unsettles the very notion of normality.

What is this book about?

This book examines how we separate the “special” from the “ordinary,” which we tend to assume by default. By drawing explicit attention to what we implicitly take for granted, it thus highlights the presumed normality of our social world. In so doing, it is actually designed to unsettle our very notion of normality.

The two opening chapters of this book are titled “The Marked and the Unmarked” and “Semiotic Asymmetry.” What do you mean by that?

I am essentially referring to the cultural asymmetry between what we consider special, or marked, and ordinary, or unmarked. It is the unmistakably asymmetrical semiotic arrangement whereby we have a special road sign indicating a curvy road ahead yet none for a straight one, parking spots and toilet booths specifically marked for the disabled yet none for the able-bodied. It is the asymmetrical arrangement whereby, unlike vegetarians, other dinner guests are rarely expected to notify their hosts in advance that they do eat meat, which is conventionally presumed.

This is a function of uneven distributions of semiotic “weight” between what we conventionally consider “normal” and “abnormal.” Thus, for example, while African and European ancestors are equivalent in terms of what they contribute to their American descendants’ genetic makeup, they differ considerably in their respective semiotic contributions to their racial identity, which is why we consider Barack Obama a black man whose mother was white rather than a white man whose father was black. By the same token, although bisexuality is a blend of both homo- and heterosexual dispositions, bisexuals nevertheless tend to be lumped with homosexuals rather than heterosexuals.

Whether or not we mark something is not just a matter of personal choice. Yet nor is anything inherently marked. As I demonstrate in the book, ordinariness (“normality”) and specialness (“abnormality”) are products of particular semiotic norms, traditions, and conventions we share as members of particular communities.

Does all this also skew the way we view people?

It certainly does, as suggested by the fact that when a character’s racial identity is not specified in a play or a script, white actors are more likely than non-white ones to be cast in that role. Furthermore, we have distinct cultural stereotypes of Asians, lesbians, and drug addicts, for example, yet rarely ones of law-abiding citizens, the mentally healthy, or the able-bodied. Such glaring asymmetry underscores the relative semiotic ease at which we construct stereotypes of cultural abnormality compared to those of cultural normality.

Does that also affect prejudice?

Of course it does. After the 1995 bombing in Oklahoma City, for example, no one demanded tighter security measures against Christian Americans! Nor do Americans expect “moderate whites” to publicly condemn mass shooters the way “moderate Muslims” are often expected to publicly condemn Muslim terrorists, even though mass shooters tend to be white. And had Donald Trump lived at the time of President Theodore Roosevelt, I am sure he would not have insisted that he produce his birth certificate, as his Dutch roots would not have clashed with Trump’s presumed notion of “normal” Americanness the way Obama’s African ones evidently did.

Does power play any role in all this?

Social dominance involves the power to set standards of normality and “other” whatever and whoever deviates from them. Moreover, it involves the privilege of being assumed by default and therefore the ability to protect a group’s assumed normality from being challenged. What allows a certain idea, practice, or identity to maintain its cultural dominance, in short, is the fact that it is conventionally considered “self-evident” and thereby taken for granted.

“Normality” thus helps establish as well as maintain social dominance. By marking something, we actually normalize what remains unmarked, thereby implying that it can be assumed by default. Marking femaleness, blackness, homosexuality, and disability, for instance, is thus inseparable from presuming the normality of maleness, whiteness, straightness, and able-bodiedness.

Furthermore, social dominance also includes the power to affect what others take for granted by essentially leading them to almost habitually make certain tacit assumptions without even realizing that they are making them.

Much of the evidence on which you draw in this book comes from language. Why?

Language offers us a window into the way we think. Furthermore, it also affects the way we think. It was the very act of labeling it sexual harassment, after all, that gave this hitherto preconceptualized phenomenon a cultural life!

Examining the words we use is particularly useful in helping reveal what we assume by default and therefore take for granted. Indeed, the extent to which we consider something ordinary, or “normal,” is inversely related to the availability of cultural labels to denote it. Its taken-for-grantedness is therefore evidenced in its semiotic superfluity, so clearly manifested in the paucity of words and phrases denoting what we conventionally assume by default. In other words, since what we take for granted is essentially presumed, it need not be explicitly articulated. Since romantic relations are conventionally presumed to be monogamous, for example, the term polyamory is in fact used much more widely than its conventionally taken-for-granted counterpart monoamory. The term biracial is likewise used far more widely than its nominally equivalent counterpart monoracial.

Therefore, as we encounter the term male nurse, for example, we need to also be able to “hear” the absence of its lexical counterpart female nurse. By the same token, as we encounter the term LGBT community, we need to also be able to “hear” the absence of the term straight community, which implies that, unlike being gay, to be straight is to have the option of disregarding one’s straightness. And when we hear the term Black History Month, we must likewise “hear” the absence of the term White History Month, a sad testimony to the fact that black American history is still regarded by many as separate from “American” history, and African Americans as tacitly excluded from the cultural category “Americans.” The same can be said of phrases such as “the best female tennis player in the world.” As Serena Williams reminds us, “do people say LeBron is one of the world’s best male athletes?”

What are your thoughts about social change?

In the book I address fundamental “assumption reversals” that often accompany major cultural changes. The recent change from an essentially passive to a pronouncedly active definition of consent in American sexual ethics (that is, from silence implying consent to silence implying absence of consent) is a perfect case in point. Such reversals are often manifested lexically. Although housekeeping used to be married middle-class American women’s most common occupation, the emergence of the term stay-at-home mom and the waning prominence of its contrasting counterpart working mom (yet rarely working dad …) thus attest to the decline in its presumed normality.

That is why we also need to attend to the semiotically subversive use of language. The term cisgender, for instance, is explicitly designed to cast transgender persons and people whose gender identity conforms to their birth-assigned sex as categorical equals. Putting “trans” and “ordinary” identities on an equal semiotic footing, in other words, helps normalize the former by subverting the latter’s presumed normality, which is also true of terms such as straight (with regard to gay) and neurotypical (with regard to autistic). Our conventional view of what is so “normal” as to be assumed by default, in short, need not be taken for granted as self-evident.

Eviatar Zerubavel is Board of Governors and Distinguished Professor of Sociology at Rutgers University. His many books include Social Mindscapes: An Invitation to Cognitive Sociology, The Elephant in the Room: Silence and Denial in Everyday Life, and Ancestors and Relatives: Genealogy, Identity, and Community. He lives in East Brunswick, New Jersey.

Matthew Salganik: The Open Review of Bit by Bit, Part 3—Increased access to knowledge


This is the third post in a three part series about the Open Review of Bit by Bit: Social Research in the Digital Age. This post describes how Open Review led to increased access to knowledge. In particular, I’ll provide information about the general readership patterns, and I’ll specifically focus on readership of the versions of the manuscript that were machine translated into more than 100 languages. The other posts in this series describe how Open Review led to a better book and higher sales.


During the Open Review period, people from all over the world were able to read Bit by Bit before it was even published. The map at the top of the page shows the locations of readers around the world.

In total, we had 23,514 sessions and 79,426 page views from 15,650 users. Also, unlike annotations, which decreased over time, there was a relatively constant level of traffic, averaging about 500 sessions per week.


How does these sessions begin? The most common channels were direct navigation followed by organic search. Only about 20% of the traffic came from referrals (following links) and social.


What devices were people using? About 30% of sessions were on mobile phones. Therefore, responsive design is important to ensure access.  


In fact, mobile was more common for users from developing countries. For example, in the US, there were about 6 desktop sessions for every 1 mobile session. In India, however, there were about 3.5 mobile sessions for every desktop session. Also, there were more mobile sessions from India than mobile sessions from US.  Here are the top 10 country-platform combinations.


Machine Translations

In addition to posting the book in English, we also machine translated the book into more than 100 languages using Google Translate. Of course, Google Translate is not perfect, but reading a bad translation might be better than no translation at all. And because Google Translate is getting better quickly, a few years from now machine translation might be a viable approach for many languages.

So, did these machine translations get used? No and yes. In terms of page views, no other single language had more than 2%. So, this seems to argue against the value of machine translation. On the other hand, if you add up all the page views in languages other than English it becomes a sizable number. The non-English page lead to a 20% increase in page views (65,428 English to 79,426 Total).


If you are considering Open Review of your manuscript, you might be wondering if machine translation was worth it. There were two main costs: adjusting the website to handle multiple languages and the money we had to pay Google for the translations. Now that we’ve open sourced our code, you won’t need to work about the fixed cost related to website design. But, we did pay approximately $3000 USD to Google for translations in August 2016 (I expect that the cost of machine translation will come down). In terms of benefits, they are not really clear. I don’t know if people actually learned anything from these machine translations, and I don’t think they did much to support the other goals of the Open Review: better books and higher sales.  But, it did certainly capture people’s attention when I said that the book was available in 100 languages, and it showed a commitment to access. Future authors and publishers will have to decide what makes sense in their case, but as machine translation continues to improve, I’m optimistic that multiple languages will be part of the Open Review process in some way in the future.

This post is the third post in a three part series about the Open Review of Bit by Bit: Social Research in the Digital Age. The other posts in this series describe how Open Review led to a better book and higher sales.

You can put your own manuscript through Open Review using the Open Review Toolkit, either by downloading the open-source code or hiring one of the preferred partners. The Open Review Toolkit is supported by a grant from the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation.

Matthew J. Salganik is professor of sociology at Princeton University, where he is also affiliated with the Center for Information Technology Policy and the Center for Statistics and Machine Learning. His research has been funded by Microsoft, Facebook, and Google, and has been featured on NPR and in such publications as the New Yorker, the New York Times, and the Wall Street Journal.

Matthew Salganik: The Open Review of Bit by Bit, Part 2—Higher sales

This post is the second in a three part series about the Open Review of Bit by Bit: Social Research in the Digital Age. This post describes how Open Review led to higher sales. The other posts in this series describe how Open Review led to a better book and increased access to knowledge.

Before talking about sales in more detail, I think I should start by acknowledging that it is a bit unusual for authors to talk about this stuff. But sales are an important part of the Open Review process because of one simple and inescapable fact: publishers need revenue. My editor is amazing, and she’s spent a lot of time making Bit by Bit better, as have her colleagues that do production and design. These people need to be paid salaries, and those salaries have come from somewhere. If you want to work with a publisher—even a non-profit publisher—then you have to be sensitive to the fact that they need revenue to be sustainable. Fortunately, in addition to better books and increased access to knowledge, Open Review also helps sell books. So for the rest of this post, I’m going to provide a purely economic assessment of the Open Review process.

One of the first questions that some people ask about Open Review is: “Aren’t you giving your book away for free?”  And the answer is definitely no. Open Review is free like Google is free.

Notice that Google makes a lot of money without ever charging you anything. That’s because you are giving Google something valuable, your data and your attention. Then, Google monetizes what you provide them. Open Review is the same.

In addition to improving the manuscript, which should lead to more sales, there are three main that Open Review increases sales: collecting email addresses, providing market intelligence, and promoting course adoptions.

Email addresses

After discussions with my editor, we decided that the main business metric during the Open Review of Bit by Bit was collecting email addresses of people who wanted to be notified when the book was complete. These addresses are valuable to the publisher because they can form the basis of a successful launch for the book. 

How did we collect email address?  Simple, we just asked people like this:


During the Open Review process we collected 340 unique valid emails address. Aside from a spike at the beginning, these arrive at a pace of about 1 per day with no sign of slowing down.


Who are these people? One quick way to summarize it is to look at the email ending (.com, .edu, .jp, etc). Based on this data, it seems that that Open Review helped us collect email address from people all over the world.


Another way to summarize the types of people who provided their email address is to look at the email suffixes (everything that comes after @). This shows, for example, which schools and companies are most represented.

Just collecting 340 email addresses was enough to significantly increase sales of Bit by Bit. And, in future Open Review projects, authors and publishers can get better at collecting email addresses. Just as Amazon is constantly running experiments to get you to buy more stuff, and the New York Times is running experiments to get you to click on more headlines, we were running experiments to collect more addresses. And unlike the experiments by Amazon and the New York Times, our experiments were overseen by Princeton’s Human Subjects Institutional Research Board.  

We tried six different ways to collect email addresses, and then we let Google Analytics use a multi-armed bandit approach find the best one. Here’s how they compared:


These differences are not huge, but they illustrate that Open Review websites can use the same kind of conversation optimization techniques that are common on modern, commercial websites. And I’m confident that future Open Review projects could be have an even higher rate of email sign-ups with additional design improvements and experimentation.

Market intelligence

In addition to collecting email addresses, the Open Review process also provides market intelligence that helped tailor the marketing of the book. For example, using a tool called Google Webmaster you can see which parts of your book are being linked to:


From this information, we learned that in addition to the book itself, people were most interested in the Open Review process and the chapter on Ethics. Then, when we were developing marketing copy for the book, we tried to emphasize this chapter.

Using Google Webmaster, you can also see which search terms are leading people to your book. In my case, you will see that 9 of the top 10 terms are not in English (in fact 48 of the top 50 terms are not in English). This is because of the machine translation process, which I talk about more in the post on increased access to knowledge. I was hoping that we would receive more organic search traffic in English, but as learned during this project: it is very hard to show up in the top 10 in organic search for most keywords.


In case you are curious, গবেষণা নকশা means “research design” in Bengali (Bangla).  

A final way that this market intelligence was helpful was in selling foreign rights to the book. For example, I provide this map of global traffic to representatives from Princeton University Press before they went to the London Book Fair to sell the foreign rights to Bit by Bit. This traffic shows in a very concrete way that there was an interest in the book outside of the United States.




Course adoptions

Finally, in addition to email addresses to help launch the book and market intelligence, Open Review accelerates course adoptions. My understanding is there is typically a slow ramp-up in course adoptions over the period of several years. But that slow ramp-up would be problematic for my book, which is freshest right when published and will gradually go stale over time. Given that the lifespan for this edition is limited, early course adoptions are key, and Open Review helped with that. I know of about 10 courses (list here) that have adopted the book in whole or in part during the Open Review process. This helped prime the pump for course adoptions when the book went on sale.

In this post, I’ve tried to describe the business case for Open Review, and I’ve shown how Open Review can help with collecting email addresses, gathering market intelligence, and speeding course adoptions. I think that purely on economic terms Open Review makes sense for publishers and authors for some books. If more people explore and develop Open Review as a model, I expect that these economic benefits would increase.  Further, this simply economic analysis does not count the benefits that come from better books and increased access to knowledge, two things that both authors and publishers value.

This post is the second in a three part series about the Open Review of Bit by Bit. You can also read more about how the Open Review of Bit by Bit led to a better book and increased access to knowledge. And, you can put your own manuscript through Open Review using the Open Review Toolkit, either by downloading the open-source code or hiring one of the preferred partners. The Open Review Toolkit is supported by a grant from the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation.

Matthew J. Salganik is professor of sociology at Princeton University, where he is also affiliated with the Center for Information Technology Policy and the Center for Statistics and Machine Learning. His research has been funded by Microsoft, Facebook, and Google, and has been featured on NPR and in such publications as the New Yorker, the New York Times, and the Wall Street Journal.

Matthew Salganik: The Open Review of Bit by Bit, Part 1—Better books

My new book Bit by Bit: Social Research in the Digital Age is for social scientists who want to do more data science, data scientists who want to do more social science, and anyone interesting in the combination of these two fields. The central premise of Bit by Bit is that the digital age creates new opportunities for social research. As I was writing Bit by Bit, I also began thinking about how the digital age creates new opportunities for academic authors and publishers. The more I thought about it, the more it seemed that we could publish academic books in a more modern way by adopting some of the same techniques that I was writing about. I knew that I wanted Bit by Bit to be published in this new way, so I created a process called Open Review that has three goals: better books, higher sales, and increased access to knowledge. Then, much as doctors used to test new vaccines on themselves, I tested Open Review on my own book.

This post is the first in a three part series about the Open Review of Bit by Bit. I will describe how Open Review led to a better book. After I explain the mechanics of Open Review, I’ll focus on three ways that Open Review led to a better book: annotations, implicit feedback, and psychological effects. The other posts in this series describe how Open Review led to higher sales and increased access to knowledge.

How Open Review works

When I submitted my manuscript for peer review, I also created a website that hosted the manuscript for a parallel Open Review. During Open Review, anyone in the world could come and read the book and annotate it using, an open source annotation system. Here’s a picture of what it looked like to participants.


In addition to collecting annotations, the Open Review website also collected all kinds of other information. Once the peer review process was complete, I used the information from the peer review and the Open Review to improve the manuscript.


In the rest of this post, I’ll describe how the Open Review of Bit by Bit helped improve the book, and I’ll focus three things: annotations, implicit feedback, and psychological effects.


The most direct way that Open Review produced better books is through annotations. Readers used, an open source annotation system, to leave annotations like those shown in the image at the top of this post.

During the Open Review period, 31 people contributed 495 annotations. These annotations were extremely helpful, and they led to many improvements in Bit by Bit. People often ask how these annotations compare to peer review, and I think it is best to think of them as complementary. The peer review was done by experts, and the feedback that I received often pushed me to write a slightly different book. The Open Review, on the other hand, was done by a mix of experts and novices, and the feedback was more focused on helping me write the book that I was trying to write. A further difference is the granularity of the feedback. During peer review, the feedback often involved removing or adding entire chapters, whereas doing Open Review the annotations were often focused on improving specific sentences.

The most common annotations were related to clunky writing. For example, an annotation by differentgranite urged me avoid unnecessarily switching between “golf club” and “driver.” Likewise an annotation by fasiha pointed out that I was using “call data” and “call logs” in a way that was confusing. There were many, many small changes like these helped improve the manuscript.

In addition to helping with writing, some annotations showed me that I had skipped a step in my argument. For example an annotation by kerrymcc pointed out that when I was writing about asking people questions, I skipped qualitative interviews and jumped right to surveys. In the revised manuscript, I’ve added a paragraph that explains this distinction and why I focus on surveys.

The changes in the annotations described above might have come from a copy editor (although my copy editor was much more focused on grammar than writing). But, some of the annotations during Open Review could not have come from any copy editor. For example, an annotation by jugander pointed me to a paper I had not seen that was a wonderful illustration of a concept that I was trying to explain. Similarly, an annotation by pkrafft pointed out a very subtle problem in the way that I was describing the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act. These annotations were both from people with deep expertise in computational social science and they helped improve the intellectual content of the book.

A skeptic might read these examples and not be very impressed.  It is certainly true that the Open Review process did not lead to massive changes to the book. But, these examples—and dozens of other—are small improvements that I did make. Overall, I think that these many small improvements added up to a major improvement.

Here are a few graphs summarizing the annotations.

Annotations by person: Most annotations were submitted by a small number of people.


Annotations by date: Most annotations were submitted relatively early in the process. The spike in late November occurred when a single person read the entire manuscript and made many helpful annotations.


Annotations by chapter: Chapters later in the book received fewer annotations, but the ethics chapter was somewhat of an exception.


Annotations by url: Here are the 20 sections of the book that received the most annotations.  In this case, I don’t see a clear pattern, but this might be helpful information for other projects.


One last thing to keep in mind about these annotations is that they underestimate the amount of feedback that I received because they only count annotations that received through the Open Review website. In fact, when people heard about Open Review, they sometimes invited me to give a talk or asked for a pdf of the manuscript on which they could comment. Basically, the Open Review website is a big sign that says “I want feedback” and that feedback that comes in a variety of forms in addition the annotations.

One challenge with the annotations is that they come in continuously, but I tended to make my revisions in chunks. Therefore, there was often a long lag between when the annotation was made and when I responded. I think that participants in the Open Review process might have been more engaged if I had responded more quickly. I hope that future Open Review authors can figure out a better workflow for responding to and incorporating annotations into the manuscript.

Implicit feedback

In addition to the annotations, the second way that Open Review can lead to better books is through implicit feedback. That is, readers were voting with their clicks about which parts of the book are interesting or boring. And this “reader analytics” are apparently a hot thing in the commercial book publishing world. To be honest, this feedback proved less helpful than I had hoped, but that might be because I didn’t have a good dashboard in place. Here are five elements that I’d recommend for an Open Review dashboard (and all of them are possible with Google Analytics):

  • Which parts of the book are being read the most?
  • What are the main entry pages?
  • What are the main exit pages?
  • What pages have the highest completion rate (based on scroll depth)?
  • What pages have lowest completion rate (based on scroll depth)?

Psychological effects

There is one last way that Open Review led to a better a book: it made me more energized to make revisions. To be honest, for me, writing Bit by Bit was frustrating and exhausting. It was a huge struggle to get the point where the manuscript was ready for peer review and Open Review. Then, after receiving the feedback from peer review, I needed to revise the manuscript. Without the Open Review process—which I found exciting and rejuvenating—I’m not sure if I would have had the mental energy that was need to make revisions.

In conclusion, Open Review definitely helped make Bit by Bit better, and there are many ways that Open Review could be improved.

I want to say again that I’m grateful to everyone that contributed to the Open Review process:

benzevenbergen, bp3, cfelton, chase171, banivos, DBLarremore, differentgranite, dmerson, dmf, efosse, fasiha, huntr, jboy, jeschonnek.1, jtorous, jugander, kerrymcc, leohavemann, LMZ, Nick_Adams, nicolemarwell, nir, person, pkrafft, rchew, sculliwag, sjk, Stephen_L_Morgan, toz, vnemana

You can also read more about how the Open Review of Bit by Bit lead to higher sales and increased access to knowledge. And, you can put your own manuscript through Open Review using the Open Review Toolkit, either by downloading the open-source code or hiring one of the preferred partners. The Open Review Toolkit is supported by a grant from the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation.

Matthew J. Salganik is professor of sociology at Princeton University, where he is also affiliated with the Center for Information Technology Policy and the Center for Statistics and Machine Learning. His research has been funded by Microsoft, Facebook, and Google, and has been featured on NPR and in such publications as the New Yorker, the New York Times, and the Wall Street Journal.

Matthew Salganik: Invisibilia, the Fragile Families Challenge, and Bit by Bit


This week’s episode of Invisibilia featured my research on the Fragile Families Challenge. The Challenge is a scientific mass collaboration that combines predictive modeling, causal inference, and in-depth interviews to yield insights that can improve the lives of disadvantaged children in the United States. Like many research projects, the Fragile Families Challenge emerged from a complex mix of inspirations. But, for me personally, a big part of the Fragile Families Challenge grew out of writing my new book Bit by Bit: Social Research in the Digital Age. In this post, I’ll describe how Bit by Bit helped give birth to the Fragile Families Challenge.

Bit by Bit is about social research in the age of big data. It is for social scientists who want to do more data science, data scientists who want to do more social science, and anyone interested in the combination of these two fields. Rather than being organized around specific data sources or machine learning methods, Bit by Bit progresses through four broad research designs: observing behavior, asking questions, running experiments, and creating mass collaboration. Each of these approaches requires a different relationship between researchers and participants, and each enables us to learn different things.

As I was working on Bit by Bit, many people seemed genuinely excited about most of the book—except the chapter on mass collaboration. When I talked about this chapter with colleagues and friends, I was often greeted with skepticism (or worse). Many of them felt that mass collaboration simply had no place in social research. In fact, at my book manuscript workshop—which was made up of people that I deeply respected—the general consensus seemed to be that I should drop this chapter from Bit by Bit.  But I felt strongly that it should be included, in part because it enabled researchers to do new and different kinds of things. The more time I spent defending the idea of mass collaboration for social research, the more I became convinced that it was really interesting, important, and exciting. So, once I finished up the manuscript for Bit by Bit, I set my sights on designing the mass collaboration that became the Fragile Families Challenge.

The Fragile Families Challenge, described in more detail at the project website and blog, should be seen as part of the larger landscape of mass collaboration research. Perhaps the most well known example of a mass collaboration solving a big intellectual problem is Wikipedia, where a mass collaboration of volunteers created a fantastic encyclopedia that is available to everyone.

Collaboration in research is nothing new, of course. What is new, however, is that the digital age enables collaboration with a much larger and more diverse set of people: the billions of people around the world with Internet access. I expect that these new mass collaborations will yield amazing results not just because of the number of people involved but also because of their diverse skills and perspectives. How can we incorporate everyone with an Internet connection into our research process? What could you do with 100 research assistants? What about 100,000 skilled collaborators?

As I write in Bit by Bit, I think it is helpful to roughly distinguish between three types of mass collaboration projects: human computation, open call, and distributed data collectionHuman computation projects are ideally suited for easy-task-big-scale problems, such as labeling a million images. These are projects that in the past might have been performed by undergraduate research assistants. Contributions to human computation projects don’t require specialized skills, and the final output is typically an average of all of the contributions. A classic example of a human computation project is Galaxy Zoo, where a hundred thousand volunteers helped astronomers classify a million galaxies. Open call projects, on the other hand, are more suited for problems where you are looking for novel answers to clearly formulated questions. In the past, these are projects that might have involved asking colleagues. Contributions to open call projects come from people who may have specialized skills, and the final output is usually the best contribution. A classic example of an open call is the Netflix Prize, where thousands of scientists and hackers worked to develop new algorithms to predict customers’ ratings of movies. Finally, distributed data collection projects are ideally suited for large-scale data collection. These are projects that in the past might have been performed by undergraduate research assistants or survey research companies. Contributions to distributed data collection projects typically come from people who have access to locations that researchers do not, and the final product is a simple collection of the contributions. A classic example of a distributed data collection is eBird, in which hundreds of thousands of volunteers contribute reports about birds they see.

Given this way of organizing things, you can think of the Fragile Families Challenge as an open call project, and when designing the Challenge, I draw inspiration from the other open call projects that I wrote about such as the Netflix Prize, Foldit, and Peer-to-Patent.

If you’d like to learn more about how mass collaboration can be used in social research, I’d recommend reading Chapter 5 of Bit by Bit or watching this talk I gave at Stanford in the Human-Computer Interaction Seminar. If you’d like to learn more about the Fragile Families Challenge, which is ongoing, I’d recommend our project website and blog.  Finally, if you are interested in social science in the age of big data, I’d recommend reading all of Bit by Bit: Social Research in the Digital Age.

Matthew J. Salganik is professor of sociology at Princeton University, where he is also affiliated with the Center for Information Technology Policy and the Center for Statistics and Machine Learning. His research has been funded by Microsoft, Facebook, and Google, and has been featured on NPR and in such publications as the New Yorker, the New York Times, and the Wall Street Journal.

Robert Wuthnow on The Left Behind

WuthnowWhat is fueling rural America’s outrage toward the federal government? Why did rural Americans vote overwhelmingly for Donald Trump? And, beyond economic and demographic decline, is there a more nuanced explanation for the growing rural-urban divide? Drawing on more than a decade of research and hundreds of interviews, Robert Wuthnow brings us into America’s small towns, farms, and rural communities to paint a rich portrait of the moral order—the interactions, loyalties, obligations, and identities—underpinning this critical segment of the nation. Wuthnow demonstrates that to truly understand rural Americans’ anger, their culture must be explored more fully. Moving beyond simplistic depictions of the residents of America’s heartland, The Left Behind offers a clearer picture of how this important population will influence the nation’s political future.

You argue that rural America’s politics cannot be understood in terms of economic problems, but require a cultural explanation. What do you mean by that?

What I learned from the research over the past decade in which my research assistants and I interviewed hundreds of rural Americans is that their identity is deeply connected with their communities. We cannot understand rural Americans by thinking of them only as individuals. They have to be understood in terms of their communities. I call these moral communities because people feel obligated to them and take their cues about what is right and good from their neighbors. These moral communities define their way of life. But these ways of life are slipping away. Population is declining, schools are closing, jobs are disappearing, and young people are moving away. Even families who are doing well economically feel the changes. They are having to commute farther for work and to conduct business. The major forces shaping society are beyond their control. People feel threatened and misunderstood.

Are you suggesting that Donald Trump appealed to this sense of displacement? Did rural voters win him the election?

Many factors went into the 2016 presidential election. Political analysts are still sorting them out. Rural voters did opt for Trump is greater percentages than urban voters. My research was less concerned with the election, though, than with understanding at a deeper level what people in small towns and on farms value and why they feel threatened. You have to spend time in rural communities and talk at length with people to understand this. You can go out as a reporter and ask them about politics. But ordinarily they don’t talk that much about politics. They live from day to day going to work, taking their kids to school, maybe volunteering for a local church or club, and maybe helping their neighbors. They see problems, but basically like their communities and want them to stay strong. If you just see rural Americans as voters, you miss the warp and woof of their daily lives.

When they did talk about politics, the people you studied seemed to be totally alienated from Washington. What troubles them about the federal government?

They voiced two major complaints about Washington: the federal government is distant and at the same time it is intrusive. Washington’s distance is both geographic (in most cases) and cultural. It is perceived as catering to urban interests. Washington bureaucrats don’t seem to care about rural America or even inquire about its needs. They seem to look down on people in small towns. Washington nevertheless intrudes on daily life through taxes, regulations, and unfunded mandates. Besides that, Washington deviates from small town residents’ notions of common sense. It strikes them that big bureaucracy is inevitably inefficient and ineffective.

From what you’ve learned about rural Americans, would you think they now have buyer’s remorse and will vote Democratic next time?

Some may. Current trade policies have hurt farm families. Rural hospitals and small-town schools are struggling. Nothing is being done to promote jobs in rural areas or to address the opioid epidemic. Rural people are certainly aware that President Trump is very different from them in terms of origin, wealth, and values. But many rural Americans have been Republicans all their lives and are unlikely to change their affiliations. In those locations, voting preferences happen in Republican primaries. Anger at Washington, as we know, can be directed at “establishment” Republicans as well as at Democrats.

You paint a largely sympathetic portrait of rural America, but you also say you heard things you disagreed with. Can you say something about that?

The most disturbing comments were ones with blatant racist overtones. These were not common but surfaced in reference to President Obama especially in the South. Comments about immigrants were more mixed than Trump’s anti-immigrant rhetoric might suggest. Farmers and construction companies often relied on immigrant labor. Sometimes small towns were happy to have newcomers and had done well adapting schools and service programs to immigrant families. Negative sentiment mostly focused on undocumented immigrants and Muslims.

How are rural churches faring these days?

Church-going still occurs at higher rates in rural communities than in cities. Depopulation has forced some congregations to merge or close. Clergy sometimes minister to congregations in several locations, much like circuit riders did in the nineteenth century. Membership may be declining and aging, but churches still provide vital community services, including assistance to the poor.

There are approximately 14,000 small towns in the United States and the rural population is estimated at somewhere between 30 and 50 million people. Surely you observed a great deal of variety.

Absolutely. The biggest differences are between towns of fewer than 5,000 people and towns with 10,000 to 25,000 people. While most of the smaller towns are declining, most of the larger ones are holding their own or growing. It also helps growth to be a county seat and located near an interstate highway. Towns with better climate and natural amenities are doing well too. Agriculture is the mainstay of small town America, but the most common jobs are often in social services. I was surprised at how many towns have small manufacturing plants. Many of these towns of course are struggling to prevent plant closings.

You grew up in a small town in Kansas. How did that experience affect your research? Did you find that things nowadays are dramatically different?

My hometown, like many small towns, is smaller than it was by about 50 percent. It is also more ethnically diverse. Farms are larger. People commute to other towns to work. Townspeople have had to work hard to keep the hospital open and build a new middle school. The ambience is a mixture of cautious optimism and concern. I found that it other places too. People are proud of their community. It’s home. But they worry. When a school closes or a large family moves away, it affects everyone. As one resident put it, “It tears at your gut.”

Robert Wuthnow is the Gerhard R. Andlinger ’52 Professor of Social Sciences at Princeton University. His many books include American Misfits and the Making of Middle-Class Respectability, Small-Town America, and Remaking the Heartland.

The Rage – and Resilience – of The Left Behind

The intense anger felt by many inhabitants of rural America became palpable to outsiders during the 2016 presidential election. But the values and anxieties fueling that anger had been prominent in rural life for decades. In The Left Behind: Decline and Rage in Rural America, sociologist Robert Wuthnow provides an unusually nuanced look at rural America’s people and communities, examining the sources not just of their rage, but of their resilience.

Wuthnow probes the stereotypes that urban and suburban Americans hold about rural people to reveal a more nuanced and complex population than his readers might expect.  The statistics showing rural communities’ decline don’t reflect that many rural populations are holding steady or even thriving, or that those populations are much more diverse and varied than many commentators realize. Rural people don’t all think or vote the same way. Yet many feel a deep fear that their communities are changing in ways they cannot control and do not benefit from.

As they have done for a hundred years or more, these communities look inward for resilience and solutions. Some changes they accept; some, they even welcome. But some they cannot stomach, responding with the deep rage that stunned much of the rest of the country in 2016.

Interrogating the now-common insight that rural residents vote “against their self-interest” (popularized in Thomas Frank’s What’s the Matter with Kansas?), Wuthnow shows that at the heart of rural Americans’ value system is their town, or what he calls their moral community. This community is held together by the values it shares, from greeting neighbors on the street to prizing independence – values that may seem incompatible to those who don’t understand their complexities. For example, the moral obligation to take care of one’s neighbors may seem to an outsider to conflict with the value of self-sufficiency or independence. But in fact, taking care of neighbors means that the town needs not look outward for help – therefore upholding, as a community, the value of independence.

The moral community is often tied together, at least in part, by a shared commitment to religion. While outsiders may scoff at this commitment, Wuthnow shows how necessary it is to sustain hope and faith when rural livelihoods are so often determined by forces outside their control, whether they be weather events, price controls, or factory closings. To so-called “values voters,” conservative politicians’ focus on social or cultural issues is not a trick or a distraction from economic issues. It is, rather, a reflection of what is important to the community.

Wuthnow’s subtitle, and the ideas with which many of his readers will approach the book, are about “decline and rage” in rural American communities. But The Left Behind is also a testament to the evolution and resilience of these communities. Wuthnow’s patient insights offer much to the urban or suburban reader, for whom understanding, rather than demonizing, rural communities is key. As Wuthnow points out, “Rural people… participate in the same society that all of us do—the one we all hope can work for our collective well-being.”


Rachel Sherman: How New York’s wealthy parents try to raise ‘unentitled’ kids

This article was originally published at Aeon and has been republished under Creative Commons.

ShermanWealthy parents seem to have it made when it comes to raising their children. They can offer their kids the healthiest foods, the most attentive caregivers, the best teachers and the most enriching experiences, from international vacations to unpaid internships in competitive fields.

Yet these parents have a problem: how to give their kids these advantages while also setting limits. Almost all of the 50 affluent parents in and around New York City that I interviewed for my book Uneasy Street: The Anxieties of Affluence (2017), expressed fears that children would be ‘entitled’ – a dirty word that meant, variously, lazy, materialistic, greedy, rude, selfish and self-satisfied. Instead, they strove to keep their children ‘grounded’ and ‘normal’. Of course, no parent wishes to raise spoiled children; but for those who face relatively few material limits, this possibility is distinctly heightened.

This struggle highlights two challenges that elite parents face in this particular historical moment: the stigma of wealth, and a competitive environment. For most of the 20th century, the United States had a quasi-aristocratic upper class, mainly white, Anglo-Saxon Protestant (WASP) families from old money, usually listed in the Social Register. Comfortable with their inherited advantages, and secure in their economic position, they openly viewed themselves as part of a better class of people. By sending their kids to elite schools and marrying them off to the children of families in the same community, they sought to reproduce their privilege.

But in the past few decades this homogenous ‘leisure class’ has declined, and the category of the ‘working wealthy’, especially in finance, has exploded. The ranks of high-earners have also partially diversified, opening up to people besides WASP men. This shift has led to a more competitive environment, especially in the realm of college admissions.

At the same time, a more egalitarian discourse has taken hold in the public sphere. As the sociologist Shamus Khan at Columbia University in New York argues in his book Privilege (2012), it is no longer legitimate for rich people to assume that they deserve their social position based simply on who they are. Instead, they must frame themselves as deserving on the basis of merit, particularly through hard work. At the same time, popular-culture images proliferate of wealthy people as greedy, lazy, shallow, materialistic or otherwise morally compromised.

Both competition and moral challenge have intensified since the 2008 economic crisis. Jobs for young people, even those with college educations, have become scarcer. The crisis has also made extreme inequality more visible, and exposed those at the top to harsher public critique.

In this climate, it is hard to feel that being wealthy is compatible with being morally worthy, and the wealthy themselves are well aware of the problem. The parents I talked with struggle over how to raise kids who deserve their privilege, encouraging them to become hard workers and disciplined consumers. They often talked about keeping kids ‘normal’, using language that invoked broad ‘middle-class’ American values. At the same time, they wanted to make sure that their children could prevail in increasingly competitive education and labour markets. This dilemma led to a profound tension between limiting and fostering privilege.

Parents’ educational decisions were especially marked by this conflict. Many supported the idea of public school in principle, but were anxious about large classes, lack of sports and arts programmes, and college prospects. Yet they worried that placing kids in elite private schools would distort their understanding of the world, exposing them only to extremely wealthy, ‘entitled’ peers. Justin, a finance entrepreneur, was conflicted about choosing private, saying: ‘I want the kids to be normal. I don’t want them to just be coddled, and be at a country club.’ Kevin, another wealthy father, preferred public school, wanting his young son not to live in an ‘elitist’ ‘narrow world’ in which ‘you only know a certain kind of people. Who are all complaining about their designers and their nannies.’

The question of paid work also brought up this quandary. All the parents I talked with wanted their kids to have a strong work ethic, with some worrying that their children would not be self-sufficient without it. But even those who could support their kids forever didn’t want to. Scott, for example, whose family wealth exceeds $50 million, was ‘terrified’ his kids would grow up to be ‘lazy jerks’. Parents also wanted to ensure children were not materialistic hyper-consumers. One father said of his son: ‘I want him to know limits.’ Parents tied consumption to the work ethic by requiring kids to do household chores. One mother with assets in the tens of millions had recently started requiring her six-year-old to do his own laundry in exchange for his activities and other privileges.

This mother, and many other parents of younger children, said they would insist that their kids work for pay during high school and college, in order to learn ‘the value of a dollar’. Commitment to children’s employment wavered, however, if parents saw having a job as incompatible with other ways of cultivating their capacities. Kate, who had grown up middle-class, said, of her own ‘crappy jobs’ growing up: ‘There’s some value to recognising this is what you have to do, and you get a paycheck, and that’s the money you have, and you budget it.’ But her partner Nadine, who had inherited wealth, contrasted her daughter’s possibly ‘researching harbour seals in Alaska’ to working for pay in a diner. She said: ‘Yes, you want them to learn the value of work, and getting paid for it, and all that stuff. And I don’t want my kids to be entitled. I don’t want them to be, like, silver spoon. But I also feel like life affords a lot of really exciting opportunities.’

The best way to help kids understand constraints, of course, is to impose them. But, despite feeling conflicted, these parents did not limit what their kids consumed in any significant way. Even parents who resisted private school tended to end up there. The limits they placed on consumption were marginal, constituting what the sociologist Allison Pugh in Longing and Belonging (2009) called ‘symbolic deprivation’. Facing competitive college admissions, none of the high-school-age kids of parents in my sample worked for pay; parents were more likely to describe their homework as their ‘job’.

Instead of limiting their privilege, parents tried to regulate children’s feelings about it. They wanted kids to appreciate their private education, comfortable homes, designer clothes, and (in some cases) their business-class or private travel. They emphasised that these privileges were ‘special’ or ‘a treat’. As Allison said, of her family’s two annual vacations: ‘You don’t want your kids to take these kinds of things for granted. … [They should know] most people don’t live this way. And that this is not the norm, and that you should feel this is special, and this is a treat.’

By the same token, they tried to find ways to help kids understand the ‘real world’ – to make sure they ‘understand the way everyone else lives’, in the words of one millionaire mother. Another mother fostered her son’s friendship with a middle-class family who lived in a modest apartment, because, she said: ‘I want to keep our feet in something that’s a little more normal’ than his private-school community.

Ideally, then, kids will be ‘normal’: hard workers and prudent consumers, who don’t see themselves as better than others. But at the same time, they will understand that they’re not normal, appreciating their privilege, without ever showing off. Egalitarian dispositions thereby legitimate unequal distributions, allowing children – and parents – to enjoy and reproduce their advantages without being morally compromised. These days, it seems, the rich can be entitled as long as they do not act or feel ‘entitled’. They can take it, as long as they don’t take it for granted.Aeon counter – do not remove

Rachel Sherman is associate professor of sociology at the New School for Social Research and Eugene Lang College. She is the author of Class Acts: Service and Inequality in Luxury Hotels. Sherman lives in New York

Andrew Scull: On the response to mass shootings

ScullAmerica’s right-wing politicians have developed a choreographed response to the horrors of mass shootings. In the aftermath of Wednesday’s massacre of the innocents, President Trump stuck resolutely to the script. Incredibly, he managed to avoid even mentioning the taboo word “guns.” In his official statement on this week’s awfulness, he offers prayers for the families of the victims—as though prayers will salve their wounds, or prevent the next outrage of this sort; they now fall thick and fast upon us. And he spouted banalities: “No child, no teacher, should ever be in danger in an American school.” That, of course, was teleprompter Trump. The real Trump, as always, had surfaced hours earlier on Twitter. How had such a tragedy come to pass?  On cue, we get the canned answer: the issue was mental health: “So many signs that the Florida shooter was mentally disturbed.”  Ladies and gentlemen, we have a mental health problem don’t you see, not a gun problem.

Let us set aside the crass hypocrisy of those who have spent so much time attempting to destroy access to health care (including mental health care) for tens of millions of people bleating about the need to provide treatment for mental illness. Let us ignore the fact that President Trump, with a stroke of a pen, set aside regulations that made it a little more difficult for “deranged” people to obtain firearms. They have Second Amendment rights too, or so it would seem. Let us overlook the fact that in at least two of the recent mass shootings, the now-dead were worshipping the very deity their survivors and the rest of us are invited to pray to when they were massacred. Let us leave all of that out of account. Do we really just have a mental health problem here, and would addressing that problem make a dent in the rash of mass killings?

Merely to pose the question is to suggest how fatuous this whole approach is. Pretend for a moment that all violence of this sort is the product of mental illness, not, as is often the case, the actions of evil, angry, or viciously prejudiced souls. Is there the least prospect that any conceivable investment in mental health care could anticipate and forestall gun massacres? Of course not. Nowhere in recorded history, on no continent, in no country, in no century, has any society succeeded in eliminating or even effectively addressing serious forms of mental illness. Improving the lot of those with serious mental illness is a highly desirable goal. Leaving the mentally disturbed to roam or rot on our sidewalks and in our “welfare” hotels, or using a revolving door to move them in and out of jail—the central elements of current mental health “policy”—constitutes a national disgrace. But alleviating that set of problems (as unlikely as that seems in the contemporary political climate) will have zero effect on gun violence and mass shootings.

Mental illness is a scourge that afflicts all civilized societies. The Bible tells us, “The poor ye shall always have with you.”  The same, sadly, is true of mental illness. Mental distress and disturbance constitute one of the most profound sources of human suffering, and simultaneously constitute one of the most serious challenges of both a symbolic and practical sort to the integrity of the social fabric. Whether one looks to classical Greece and Rome, to ancient Palestine or the Islamic civilization that ruled much of the Mediterranean for centuries, to the successive Chinese empires or to feudal and early modern Europe, everywhere people have wrestled with the problem of insanity, and with the need to take steps to protect themselves against the depredations of the minority of the seriously mentally ill people who pose serious threats of violence. None of these societies, or many more I could mention, ever saw the levels of carnage we Americans now accept as routine and inevitable.

Mental illness is an immutable feature of human existence. Its association with mass slaughter most assuredly has not been. Our ancestors were not so naïve as to deny that madness was associated with violence. The mentally ill, in the midst of their delusions, hallucinations, and fury were sometimes capable of horrific acts: consider the portrait in Greek myth of Heracles dashing out the brains of his children, in his madness thinking them the offspring of his mortal enemy Euryththeus; Lucia di Lammermoor stabbing her husband on their wedding night; or Zola’s anti-hero of La Bete humaine, Jacques Lantier, driven by passions that escape the control of his reason, raping and killing the object of his desire: these and other fictional representations linking mental illness to animality and violence are plausible to those encountering them precisely because they match the assumptions and experience of the audiences toward whom they are directed. And real-life maddened murderers were to be found in all cultures across historical time. Such murders were one of the known possible consequences of a descent into insanity. But repeated episodes of mass killing by deranged individuals, occurring as a matter of routine?  Nowhere in the historical record can precursors of the contemporary American experience be found. It is long past time to stop blaming an immutable feature of human culture—severe mental illness—for routine acts of deadly violence that are instead the produce of a resolute refusal to face the consequences of unbridled access to a deadly form of modern technology.

Claims that the mowing down of unarmed innocents is a mental health problem cannot explain why, in that event, such massacres are exceedingly rare elsewhere in the contemporary world, while they are now routine in the United States. Mental illness, as I have stressed, is a universal feature of human existence. Mass shootings are not. Australia and Britain (to take but two examples) found themselves in the not-too-distant past having to cope with horrendous mass killings that involved guns. Both responded with sensible gun control policies, and have been largely spared a repetition of the horrors routinely visited upon innocent Americans. Our society’s “rational” response, by contrast, is to rush out and buy more guns, inflating the profits of those who profit from these deaths, and ensuring more episodes of mass murder.

The problem in the United States is not crazy people. It is crazy gun laws.

Andrew Scull is Distinguished Professor of Sociology and Science Studies at the University of California, San Diego. He is the author of Masters of Bedlam: The Transformation of the Mad-Doctoring Trade and Madness in Civilization: A Cultural History of Insanity, from the Bible to Freud, from the Madhouse to Modern Medicine.

Cracking the Dress Code

The Extreme Gone Mainstream, by Cynthia Miller-IdrissPicture a right-wing extremist and what comes to mind? Do you think of a shaved head, a bomber jacket, tight jeans, and Dr. Martens boots with white laces? In The Extreme Gone Mainstream, Cynthia-Miller Idriss reveals that this image of a burly skinhead is becoming outdated. Instead, a new generation of clothing companies is marketing stylish and contemporary leisurewear laced with coded far-right symbology to youth in Germany and elsewhere. Miller-Idriss’s interviews with apprentice scaffold-builders from Berlin demonstrate that although these young workers could not always articulate the coded meanings of these symbols, they frequently associated the clothing with the far-right thanks to other contextual clues. Part of the intention of this coding is to evade stringent anti-Nazi dress codes in German public institutions while still signaling to other members of right-wing extremist subcultures. But what do these symbols look like? Would you recognize them if you saw them?

Numeric codes can substitute numbers for the corresponding letters of the alphabet, so that 1 stands for A, 2 for B and so on. The use of the combinations 18 (AH, for Adolf Hitler) and 88 (HH, for Heil Hitler) is sufficiently common that these numbers are prohibited on vanity license plates in Germany (p. 59). Other numbers conceal more arcane references—14 often appears as a substitute for the fourteen words in a quotation from American white supremacist David Lane. 168:1 compares the death toll in the Oklahoma City bombing to the execution of the bomber Timothy McVeigh. These codes can be used in combination—a t-shirt bearing the number 1488 does not necessarily commemorate the year of a historic event.

Graphics can similarly convey covert references. Images of palm trees or desert foxes hint at the North African military campaigns of the German Afrika Korps during the Second World War, under the generalship of Erwin Rommel, nicknamed “the Desert Fox.” References to polar expeditions or images of Antartica play on the idea of “the white continent.” Meanwhile images of Vikings or figures from Norse mythology draw on the Nordic heritage often claimed by white supremacists. The same may be true of script in the runic letters of early Scandinavian languages or symbols such as the Celtic cross.

Interestingly, the lexicon of right-wing extremist symbols sometimes stretches to encompass images traditionally associated with the left—the communist revolutionary Che Guevara, for instance, or the Palestinian keffiyeh, long associated with the Palestinian liberation movement – because of their rebellious associations. Mainstream brands can also find themselves co-opted by right-wing extremists, again allowing these extremists to signal to those in the know while passing undetected in daily life. Wearing clothing from Ansgar Aryan may be unambiguous, but what about a preference for New Balance shoes? (The N logo is used to suggest Nazi.) T-shirts from the British sportswear brand Lonsdale are favored because, worn under a half-zipped bomber jacket, the partially obscured logo reads ”NSDA”, lacking only the P from the German acronym of the Nazi party, NSDAP.

With this kind of deliberate ambiguity and game-playing prevalent, it’s easy to see why Miller-Idriss’s respondents struggled to explain the right-wing iconography of the clothing. It’s clear too that the less overt messaging and updated style of the new brands is reaching a market beyond extremist subcultures. Thor Steinar, perhaps the most successful, has high-street outlets in several European cities and can be found on the sites of online retailers including Amazon. Key reading toward understanding the global resurgence of the far right, The Extreme Gone Mainstream draws on numerous interviews with young people and thousands of historical and contemporary images to reveal exactly how the seemingly benign guise of everyday consumption is allowing extremist ideologies to enter mainstream German culture.

Cynthia Miller-Idriss on The Extreme Gone Mainstream

The past decade has witnessed a steady increase in far right politics, social movements, and extremist violence in Europe. Scholars and policymakers have struggled to understand the causes and dynamics that have made the far right so appealing to so many people—in other words, that have made the extreme more mainstream. In this book, Cynthia Miller-Idriss examines how extremist ideologies have entered mainstream German culture through commercialized products and clothing laced with extremist, anti-Semitic, racist, and nationalist coded symbols and references. Required reading for anyone concerned about the global resurgence of the far right, The Extreme Gone Mainstream reveals how style and aesthetic representation serve as one gateway into extremist scenes and subcultures by helping to strengthen racist and nationalist identification and by acting as conduits of resistance to mainstream society. Read on to learn more about how the extreme has gone mainstream.

Why did you write this book?
I stumbled across the new forms of commercialization analyzed in this book while I was sorting through photographers’ databases in search of a cover photo for my first book. I was immediately hooked—fascinated by how much had changed in German far right subculture since I had completed my prior fieldwork five years earlier. The skinhead aesthetic that had dominated the youth scene since the 1980s had all but disappeared, and was replaced with mainstream-style, high-quality commercial brands laced with far right ideology, symbols, and codes. I planned to write an article about it, but the project wouldn’t let me go. I literally found myself waking up in the middle of the night thinking about the codes, trying to disentangle their meanings and wondering whether youth even understood them. I felt compelled to understand it, and that’s what led to this book.

How does the coding work within the commercial products?
The brands and products encode historical and contemporary far right, nationalistic, racist, xenophobic, Islamophobic, and white supremacist references into iconography, textual phrases, colors, script, motifs, and product names within products that are essentially identical to other mainstream youth clothing styles. The code deployment carefully toes the line of legality in Germany, sometimes marketing directly to consumers’ awareness of legal bans of particular symbols and phrases.

How could a t-shirt enable extremist radicalization? That sounds like a stretch.
I get that question all the time. People are sometimes skeptical that clothing could be consequential for recruitment into or radicalization within far right subcultures. But I found that the iconography, symbols, and codes embedded in this clothing does exactly that. The clothes send messages about the ideal nation, set normative expectations for masculine behavior, disparage and dehumanize ethnic and religious minorities, and valorize violence as a means to achieve nationalist goals. They establish legitimacy within and provide access to far right scenes, signal political affiliation (allowing youth to find like-minded others) and act as icebreakers for conversations at school, in clubs, at parties, and in stadiums. They also act as conduits of resistance towards—and carriers of extremist ideas into—mainstream society, as youth wear the clothing in peer groups, around siblings, classmates, or work colleagues and help establish what is ‘cool’ or desired within and across subcultures. So yes: far right clothing and style can be a gateway to extremism.

Why do youth join extremist movements?
There is no single explanation for how youth become radicalized. But what I argue in this book is that extremism is not only driven by political or ideological motives but also by emotional impulses related to belonging to a group and resisting mainstream authorities. Traits and emotions like collective identity, belonging, heroism, loyalty, strength, and trust, resistance, transgression, hatred, anger, rebellion, and violence were clearly evident in the messages sent through the iconography and symbols in clothing and products marketed to far right youth. I argue that youth are initially attracted to extremist scenes for their emotional resonance, rather than for ideological reasons alone. Ideological indoctrination and radicalization come later.

You argue that clothes can create identity. What do you mean?
Most people understand that clothes express identity—we all make choices about what we will wear that say something about our personality, even if it’s simply that we don’t care at all about fashion. But for many young people in particular, clothing, fashion, and style is deeply intertwined with their identities and their exploration of those identities, as they play around with various subcultural scenes: goths, punks, skaters and others are all immediately recognizable by their styles. But there has been less attention to the ways in which consumption and style not only reflects identity but also helps to reinforce or even create it. Consumers can strengthen their eco-identities by “buying” green, for example, or their religious identities by buying halal or kosher food. Extremist style works the same way—I argue that the coded messages, symbols, and ideas being communicated not only reflect but also help to create and strengthen far right identity for these consumers.

Why should scholars read this even if they don’t work on the far right?
This book makes a critical intervention into mainstream sociological thought that should be interesting for a broad range of scholars, because the findings challenge conventional thinking about economic and material objects. While social scientists have long known that material objects hold symbolic power for communities (as Durkheim’s work on totemism showed, for example), economic objects have been locked into a narrower view as a result of the seminal influence of Karl Marx’s understanding of commoditization as exchange. I challenge the prevailing way of thinking by contending that commodities—economic objects—are not only the end results in an unequal production process, but are also cultural objects which carry emotion, convey meaning, and constitute identities. Consumer goods and material culture, I argue, are not only important for our understandings of inequality but also for how they may constitute identity and motivate political (including extremist) action.

You’re an American. Why do you study Germany?
I initially studied German as a way of connecting to my own lost family history—my great-great-grandfather emigrated from Germany in the late 1800s.  But once I lived in Germany, I became fascinated with how Germans confront the past and with the deep investments Germans make in combating the far right. But despite years of study, residence, and fieldwork in Germany, as an American I will always be an outsider in ways that inevitably impact my observations of cultural, social, and political phenomena. Any explanatory success I have in this book is due in large part to the formal and informal feedback and support I have received over the years from native German and European experts and colleagues. To my great surprise, they never blinked at this strange outsider who wanted to interrogate one of the darkest aspects of German history and contemporary youth subculture. It is my sincere hope that some of the findings in this book will be of some use to German scholars, activists, and educators who work to understand and combat far right violence every day.


Miller-IdrissCynthia Miller-Idriss is associate professor of education and sociology and director of the International Training and Education Program at American University. Her books include Blood and Culture: Youth, Right-Wing Extremism, and National Belonging in Contemporary Germany.