Sunday, April 22, 2018

James Comey, and the complexity of values

Previously published in the Terre Haute Tribune-Star, 22 April 2018

I don’t know whether to admire former FBI director James Comey or feel sorry for him.
Last June I sat glued watching Mr. Comey testify before the Senate Intelligence Committee. It inspired me to write an essay about what was going on, revealed by his testimony.
This essay is more about Mr. Comey as he morphs, unwittingly, into “committing sociology” (a derogatory phrase originated by columnist George Will). Mr. Comey’s remarks, ahead of the release of his book, make many sociological claims about American values.
Here is just a brief part of an interview that captures what Mr. Comey has been saying recently:
STEVE INSKEEP, NPR: Why have you focused in some of your comments on what you view as the moral fitness of the president to be president?
JAMES COMEY: Because I'm very worried that — and one of the ways I hope to be useful is having people realize that there's something above our normal fights. We fight like crazy in this country about guns and about social issues and taxes and immigration. And that's as it should be, and it's always been that way. But there's something we all have in common, which is a core set of values that is us as America — right? — freedom of expression, freedom of religion, rule of law, equal protection of the laws, the truth. We hold these truths to be self-evident. It's the fourth word of that sentence.
My initial reactions to Mr. Comey were: is he just now realizing this; has he been living in a cloister? And, he sounds like a conservative.
So, what about Mr. Comey’s sociology? He is asserting that a society must have in common a core set of values, a kind of glue, that holds a society together; a common sociological view, from the mid-19th century to the mid-20th century.
As research into societal values continued there were some inconvenient findings that posed a serious problem for Mr. Comey’s view of the necessity for a “core set of values.” And that finding and reality is that whatever core set of values one might identify for a society, individual members of that society do not necessarily hold them. They might hold one or two, or even the entire core, but individuals differ from each other in terms of their values and from the “societal core set.”
We sociologists also know that individual values are reflective of the company folks keep and are around. So, significant social groups have individuals that share (some) similar values. Religious folks share some values that non-religious folks do not. Catholics share values different from Protestants. Liberals share values different than conservatives. But, even within those groups, there are differences. See how conservative Catholics are responding to the liberal Pope Francis.
What are values? Sociologically, values are broad abstract principles that we internalize and then guide our decisions about what is good or not. So, one American value is freedom. Whatever increases freedom is usually a good thing among Americans. But so is security. We value security in our homes and so forth but those values actually conflict. Conflicting values is not unusual either.
Also from 19th century sociology we come to a different understanding of “deviance” or behavior that violates the norms and values of a group. It’s deviance from those norms and values that is shaking Mr. Comey. Deviance can play a very positive role in reasserting societal values. Why? Because our response to the deviance can reinforce the rightness and goodness of those values. So, if Mr. Comey were one of my students, I’d point out that President Trump is not so much a threat to our values, but he is a deviant to them (truth, justice, and the American way). As far as a threat, however, if Americans don’t respond to punish the deviant (punishment for President Trump might be to ignore him) that suggests those are not strongly held or important values.
In short, deviants are not the threat but an opportunity for us to reassert “our” values. The threat lies with non-response to the deviant. Or, it’s an indication that the values are not perhaps widely held (or held anymore). And that Mr. Trump is not viewed as a deviant and not violating closely held societal values.
One value that I do think is quite American is “winning.” And that is not enshrined in our Constitution, but no question, America likes winners and punishes losers.

Wednesday, April 11, 2018

Demographic shifts disrupt majority-minority status

Previously published 7 April 2018 by the Terre Haute Tribune Star

Over the last month or so, I have read and heard stories about the changing demographics of the United States. The term “minority-majority” is common in those reports. Even Wikipedia has an entry for majority-minority: “A majority–minority or minority–majority area is a term used in the United States to refer to a jurisdiction in which one or more racial and/or ethnic minorities (relative to the whole country's population) make up a majority of the local population.”
A search of the term produces many reports, especially over the last two years with headlines such as “10 percent of U.S. counties now majority-minority,” “US to be majority-minority by 2044,” “post-recession generation to be majority-minority.”
I guess it makes for good headlines to use such terms but it certainly isn’t helpful as the United States’ demographics change. Indeed, it is this kind of headline and framing that drives the uneasiness that is driving so much of the reactionary policies of our current politics.
In a racist society that constructs in-groups and out-groups based on physical or cultural differences, the dominant group, which may be a numerical majority as in the United States, will predictably be unnerved and feel threatened as “minority” groups gain more equal status, including numerically. For such groups, “equality” feels like discrimination.
My issue with the use of “majority-minority” is that it encourages that fear of greater equality.
Think about what the use of “majority-minority” assumes; it assumes that any white person has more in common with any other white person than any person of “minority” status. This line of thinking reduces all white folks to essentially the same things just as it also reduces others to the same-but essentially different than white folks. Indeed, constructing things in that way, makes it even harder for individuals to rise above the simplistic, inherently racist categories to create meaningful and positive human relationships, or for those who must see some kind of economic value in everything “social capital.”
The use of “minority-majority” also assumes that all “minorities” are the same, too. Adopting this usage forces the assumption that all minorities are the same. African-Americans are not the same as Latin/a Americans nor are they the same as Chinese Americans. The paradox is that using minority-majority actually pushes minority members to view each other as more similar than to the majority.
If demographic patterns hold out, whites will go from a majority to the plurality. Whites will still be the largest single racial/cultural group. To the extent that “white” preferences for foods, entertainment, fashion, and so forth are homogeneous, their market power will continue to dominate, because the “minority” is indeed not homogeneous in their preferences. Many share similar preferences that white folks do.
I suspect this is not the first time in our history that “whites” faced a similar demographic situation. (Of course we did not have the 24/7 media coverage of such things then.) From 1820 to 1860 the U.S. population almost doubled, and that doubling came from immigration. 31 million people immigrated to the U.S. in that 40-year period. And, given who was considered “white” then, many of the people who today are considered white were not then — the Irish, Eastern Europeans, Greeks, Italians and others.
Over time, however, definitions changed and they became “white.” Don’t be surprised if current racial definitions change and these trends change. Of course that means those currently “white” will be joined by some who are not considered “white” now. This, too, is predictable when such racial/cultural classifications signify inequalities individuals will look to “move” up into the dominant groups.
It is up to us. For me, the “dominant” group in the United States are its citizens. It’s too bad that is a minority viewpoint.

Sunday, February 18, 2018

Secularization in America? Not so fast

Previously published in the Terre Haute Tribune-Star, 18 February 2018

Is America becoming secular like the rest of the western industrialized world? Most scholars of this topic would say yes as well as, I think, most people would. A recently published paper, using the same data that others have used to conclude that secularization is occurring, comes to a different conclusion.
People vary in their commitment to things, whether it be politics, being a fan of a sports team, a volunteer in the community or religion. Scholars generally divide people into three broad groups based on their religious commitment: little to no commitment/practice (the secular); moderate; and intense. How these categories are specifically defined may differ by study, but generally they show the same thing. Other western industrial countries show an average reduction in the proportion of religious practitioners as well as intensity. This seemed to be the case for the United States as well, until Professors Schnabel and Bock published their article last November ( /november/SocSci_v4_686to700.pdf).
They disaggregated, meaning break out different groups from the whole, the “not religious,” the moderately religious, and the most intensely religious. While it is true that when aggregated it does appear that Americans are becoming more secular, as the cliché goes, the devil is in the details.
Periodic U.S. data from 1989 to 2016 shows an increase in the proportion of no affiliation with religion, from just under 10 percent to 20 percent. Among those with moderate affiliation, a decline from about 57 to about 42 percent. But among the intensely affiliated, virtually no change from 1989 to 2016 at about 38 percent. These trends suggest that “secularization” is occurring among the moderately affiliated only. The intensely affiliated seem unaffected.
Church attendance shows a similar pattern. There is a drop in sometime church attendance of about 6 percentage points and an uptick in never attend of the same with those who attend multiple times per week holding steady at about 9 percent.
A similar pattern holds for one’s view of the Bible, a steady third view the Bible as the literal work of God, while those who view it as inspired by God but not literal declined by about 5 percentage points and those who view the Bible as a book of fables, increased by 5 percentage points.
Examining prayer, however, shows a different but revealing pattern. Those who do not pray or pray once a week or less are remaining steady at about 22 percent, but those who pray sometimes have dropped from about 52 percent to 48 percent. However, those who pray multiple times a day has increased from about 22 to about 30 percent. This suggests that the movement in praying is from sometimes to multiple times a day, not to less praying.
The authors conclude, contrary to most others, that America is an exception to the otherwise secularizing trends found in other western industrial countries. While the authors admit that it would be possible to just call this an American path to secularization, they prefer to conclude that America is becoming increasingly polarized religiously between the intensely religious and the (more) secular.
The authors argue that this is happening due to the increasing politicization of religion, especially among the most intensely religious. This has turned off the moderately religious, a form of backlash to the increasing politicization. Ultimately, the authors conclude: "… although religion is simply becoming less salient in other societies, it remains important in the public sphere and central to cultural divides in the United States. Therefore, rather than following the pattern we would expect on the basis of the secularization thesis, American religion remains persistently and exceptionally intense."
An implication of this research is that although the portion of the U.S. that is intensely religious has remained constant, in order to do so means that their absolute numbers are growing. The U.S. population has grown by more than 76 million people during the study period (1989-2016). If the intensely religious amount to about 38 percent of the U.S. population, then they have grown by almost 29 million over that period. That is 29 million highly likely conservative voters.
With the growing secularization of the rest of the population, we may find that the intensely religious do find themselves to be a minority in an otherwise secular nation. How will an otherwise secular nation view and treat the significant (and probably more politically powerful than their numbers would otherwise suggest) intensely religious?
Thomas L. Steiger is a professor of sociology and director of the Center for Student Research and Creativity at Indiana State University. Email

Monday, January 29, 2018

Diversity, inequality and foundering public trust

previously published in the Terre Haute Tribune-Star, 28 January 2018

Last week I examined whether economic inequality could be undermining US democratic values and concluded yes.  Economic inequality, however is a liberal concern.  This week I examine a conservative concern, the growing diversity of the population.

Last October Pew Research Center published a 38 nation study on support for democracy (  The US data suggests that Americans overwhelmingly support representative democracy, bolstering the claim that this is an America value.    However, only 51 percent of Americans indicated they trusted the national government to do what is right for the US and even fewer, 46 percent, are satisfied with the way democracy is working in the United States. 

Seventeen countries are considered high-income by Pew so I focused my comparisons there on economic inequality and will use that same subset to look for any relationship with cultural diversity.  I am eliminating Chile because its overall support for representative democracy is only 58 percent, about 20 points less than the next lowest.

I am using two similar indices of cultural diversity, one that focuses on different languages and then another that focuses on other features of a society.  The two indices vary from 0 to 1, with coefficients closer to one indicating greater diversity and those closer to 0 less  Both the indices and background on them can be found here:

The first thing that stands out is that the US is not the most diverse country on the list, which is probably contrary to what most believe.  We are second, after our neighbor to the north, Canada.   They edge us because Canada has more languages spoken than do we.  But North America is considerable more diverse than the other nations in the subset. 

Canada is more diverse but shows greater trust and confidence in its national government than the US.  The following countries show virtually no diversity, with indices at less than 0.1:   Greece, Germany, Israel, Italy, Japan, Netherlands, Poland, and South Korea.  If conservatives are correct, that higher levels of cultural diversity reduce social capital, and thus trust and confidence in government, we should expect those countries to show lower levels of trust and confidence in their national governments.  The Netherlands and Germany are not diverse but they show the highest trust and confidence in their national governments lending support to the conservative view.  However, except for them, the other non-diverse countries show rather low trust and confidence, with scores ranging from 13 to 57 percent.  The most diverse countries, Canada, France, Spain, UK, and US vary from very high trust and confidence (Canada’s high trust and confidence to Spain’s relatively low trust and confidence).  There does not appear to be any strong relationship between the diversity of a country’s population and the trust and confidence in its national government. 

These countries are in the top half of diversity of the 16 countries examined:  Canada, Spain, US, UK, France, Hungary, Sweden, and Australia.  From the same list, the top half of the countries in terms of economic inequality: US, Israel, Canada, UK, Greece, Poland, Spain, and Italy.  Canada Spain, UK, and US are on both lists.  Canada is the most diverse and tied for fourth most economically unequal but has the highest trust and confidence in its national government.  The US is the most unequal and third most diverse but only about half of its people trusting or having confidence in the national government.  The UK is fourth most unequal and the fifth most diverse and similar to the US in terms of its people’s trust and confidence in its national government.  Spain is the second most diverse and tied for fourth in terms of inequality but with very low trust and confidence in its national government (it is important to note that Spain was experiencing significant political conflict around the time these data were collected).  Ignoring Spain, you can see a pattern; high inequality and high diversity seem associated with lower trust and confidence in national government. 

Perhaps if cultural diversity appears to be a basis for inequality (racism) this contributes to lower trust and confidence in government.     

Monday, January 22, 2018

Faith in democracy shaken by economic inequality

Previously published in the Terre Haute Tribune-Star, 21 January 2018

I believe that increasing economic inequality in the United States may be undermining our values supporting representative democracy. 

In October 2017, Pew Research Center published a 38 nation study on support for democracy (  The US data suggests that Americans, as much as anything we ever do agree on, overwhelmingly support representative democracy.  Such high levels of agreement suggest this is an American value. (This shouldn’t be surprising).  However, only 51 percent of Americans indicated they trusted the national government to do what is right for the US and even fewer, 46 percent, are satisfied with the way democracy is working in the United States.  Maybe high levels of distrust and dissatisfaction are characteristic of those who highly support representative democracy.

Twenty-three other nations who either had the same or more support for representative democracy  were similar (76-85 percent supporting).  These are nations who we can say share our values with respect to representative democracy.  Ten of the countries differ from the United States in showing more trust and more satisfaction with their national governments than the US (I define more as showing at least 56 and 51 percent trust and satisfaction).  The rest are either similar or show significantly less trust and satisfaction.  What accounts for these differences in nations with similar political values?

Pew offers little comparative analysis regarding these differences except that higher income countries tend to be more supportive of representative democracy, and those whose party is out of power are less satisfied and less trusting.  But, that doesn’t explain countries with political divides, like Germany, Sweden, and Canada who still highly trust and are satisfied with their national governments. 

Seventeen countries are considered high-income by Pew so I focused my comparisons there, although I eliminated those countries that did not enjoy at least 70 percent support for representative democracy.  I compared two measures of economic inequality, one focused on income inequality and another on wealth inequality.  A Gini coefficient varies from 0 to 1.0; scores closer to one indicates greater inequality and the closer to 0, greater equality.   I used two calculations of the Gini (using different data sources), one from the World Bank and the other from the CIA.  Wealth inequality, notoriously hard to obtain current data for, is from 2000 and calculated by the National Bureau of Economic Research.  Both charts can be found here:

The two Gini coefficients for US income are .41 and .47 while for wealth it is .84.  Four countries, Canada, Germany, Netherlands, and Sweden, show similar support (or more) for representative democracy and also are high income, developed countries but show much higher trust and satisfaction in their national governments.    Their Gini coefficients for income inequality vary from a low of .25 to a high of .34.  Similarly for wealth, they vary from a low of .65 and a high of .74.
Other developed, high income countries with similar support for representative democracy and similar trust and satisfaction with their national governments to the US are Australia, Israel, Japan, and the UK.  This group shows more income inequality than the previous group, Gini coefficients ranging from .32 to .43 but with wealth inequality about the same, .55 to .70.  To me, this suggests that there may be a tipping point where economic inequality, the data here suggests income inequality specifically, begin to undermine trust and satisfaction with a country’s national government, even when representative democracy is still highly supported.

There are five other countries with high levels of support for representative democracy (at least 70 percent) but who are low (35 percent or lower) on trust and satisfaction with their national governments (France, Greece, Italy, South Korea, and Spain).  Generally, these countries show similar levels of income inequality as the previous group of countries but more wealth inequality.  It is also important to note that each country with the exception of France was facing significant scandals or economic troubles during the time of the survey.  France was conducting a national election for president which might affect the trust and satisfaction data.  Examining trends of inequality leading up to time when Pew conducted this study might tell us more.

One thing stands out.  The US is the most unequal among the high income countries.  And only about half its citizens trust or are satisfied with the national government.  Which future is preferable?  The political climate of Sweden, the Netherlands, Germany and Canada, or France, Italy, South Korea and Spain?

Sunday, December 10, 2017

Culture still at heart of harassment claims

Previously published in the Terre Haute Tribune-Star, 10 December 2017
Are we at a “cultural turning point” with the seeming constant eruptions of sexual harassment claims against media moguls, celebrity journalists and politicians? Not so fast.
It’s instructive to look at the last “cultural turning point” on sexual harassment 26 years ago. Don’t know what I am referring? The Anita Hill testimony during the confirmation hearings for Supreme Court Justice nominee, Clarence Thomas. And to get an idea of how cultural turning points can turn in unexpected directions, go find former VP Joe Biden’s, a liberal, questioning of Anita Hill.
What are the lasting “cultural” changes of the Anita Hill testimony? Early on it created an industry of corporate training. Then it was correctly aimed at changing behavior of men in the workplace by changing the workplace culture. That gave way to training that was aimed more at protecting the employer from lawsuits. I was, for a time, on a local level, part of that industry. I was sought out to give seminars on sexual harassment. I pointed out that they should take something away from the fact that they had invited a white male to do this for mostly white male audiences. I did my best to dash the usual kinds of defenses one can expect to hear in situations like that. My time as a sought-after presenter on sexual harassment was short-lived. I imagine that some in those audiences felt that if we have to listen to a “feminist” then we might as well get one in a skirt.
Ultimately I’d say the lasting legacy of our last cultural turn is a society — a society with more information available to them than 26 years ago — that is largely ignorant of what legally sexual harassment is (despite all that training) and a blissful blindness that “this stuff doesn’t happen anymore.”
One reason it doesn’t seem to happen anymore is because of employment contracts that prohibit making public such claims. Those employment contracts, related to arbitration, are in front of the Supreme Court this term. I’d argue those kinds of employment contracts are one of the lasting effects of our last cultural turn. Will the new turn lead the Supreme Court to limit the use of arbitration even in the face of unlawful behavior where it has been successfully used to keep these claims private (meaning out of court)?
What is the cultural turn that some think this moment is causing? Listening to women? More corporate training? Greater workplace equality? Holding men accountable for sexual harassment and assault? If polls can give us some window into that, “liberals” might respond that way, “conservatives” not as much. That sounds more like cultural war than cultural turning point. Recent polls suggest 71 percent of likely Republican voters do not believe Roy Moore’s accusers.
Research I cited during my short-lived stint in the sexual harassment corporate training industry still holds true. It’s not men per se that are the problem, it’s the culture of the workplace and some easy signals of potential problems are: 1) male dominated workplaces (especially when the workplace is 75 percent or more males); 2) females in disproportionately subordinate positions; 3) workplaces, regardless of composition, with no women in upper managerial positions or in ones only with authority over other women.
These are just signals, as much a result of workplace culture as the cause of it. And even in workplaces that do not fit these statistical profiles, if the culture includes an adherence to stereotypical roles (such as in meetings, women always serve as “secretary” or women serve men coffee or are associated with food, or the organization of parties, etc), these also contribute to an “enabling” culture for sexual harassment.
That was pretty much then, today we can add a lack of policies stating such behavior is potentially fireable and clear and understood channels for people to report sexual harassment (and other gender-based biases in the workplace).
It’s not enough to only pay attention to industries with celebrities with “known” victims like Gretchen Carlson or be shocked when our known “friends” like Matt Lauer are involved. The “turn” must also extend to industries full of people we don’t know, like the restaurant business. Journalist Tracie McMillan embedded herself in the industry and wrote a book about its rampant sexual harassment and sexual assault in 2012 (before the #MeToo movement and current media attention).
There are far more women working in kitchens and serving us food than there are women journalists, entertainers, and certainly elected officials.

Sunday, October 1, 2017

Demonstrating what free speech is all about

Previously published in the Terre Haute Tribune Star, 1 October 2017

I'm an unapologetic defender of free speech. However, free speech doesn't mean free pass. Colin Kaepernick is today's example of one using their platform to speak out on a controversial topic and to challenge the status quo and be harshly punished for it. He's unemployed in an industry that is desperate for his skills. He’d be better off had his offense been to beat up his girlfriend or to abuse his kid (those talented players are still employed and will play). Instead, Kaepernick broke no laws, indeed he acted within a constitutionally protected area, like those who wish to brandish a firearm. Except, those protections only protect you from the government, not your private sector employer.
And I agree with all of it. I think it's unfortunate that Kaepernick is not playing. But that's the system. Thankfully, our Supreme Court has upheld protections against flag burning when government has tried to criminalize it. I hope it never tries to criminalize a private actor from responding to public speech, whether it be with more speech or a firing.
President Trump is probably not breaking laws by encouraging NFL owners to fire those who decline the ritual of standing during the national anthem but it's a mistake similar to what President Obama did with criticizing the police in the Henry Louis Gates incident. I think Obama realized it and offered the beer summit for those officers to discuss it along with Gates. It was six months into his term and it was an admission of a mistake. Perhaps President Trump will do something similar.
Free speech is threatened. Not by bullies like Trump or corporate entities who fire folks who say controversial things that employers disagree with (Google, NFL, various media outlets) but from within. A Brookings study surveyed college students and their views and understandings of free speech. The findings are "concerning." I find myself more in agreement with conservative than liberal students. I'd urge my colleagues to read the results of this paper and think hard about what they convey to their students. Silencing racists, misogynists and heterosexists will not win the rhetorical, symbolic or political debates. I find too many students able to recite but not reason.
Disagreement is not the same as offending. But that distinction seems to be dissolving and it has a corrosive effect on speech. Disagreeing is how we strengthen our arguments. We must read and understand what the "other side" says in order to craft our arguments. Not shout it down or pass administrative rules to silence it. Our public universities should be raucous and not for the faint of heart. It should be about challenging everyone. Private colleges are the enclaves of "like me," not public universities because "we" are for all including atheists and fundamentalists, racists and anti-racists, the misogynist and feminist, capitalist and socialist. If our students think disagreeing is offending then we have a silent campus. And that should outrage the faculty.
Richard Spencer, a prominent leader and spokesperson for the alt-right wanted to speak at my alma mater, the University of Florida. As a student there in the '70s it was a cauldron of free speech and an important part of my education. UF turned Spencer down. I wrote as an alum that UF should welcome his controversy as an opportunity. UF changed course in face of a threatened lawsuit but has a lot of lawyerly language to no doubt create "outs" for them as they negotiate with Spencer.
Another alma mater, Virginia Tech, is in the news for what the basketball coach did with his team who failed to follow the required robotic response to the national anthem. When did the Star Spangled Banner become only about vets and the serving military? In any case they serve so people can stand or sit during the national anthem. But Coach Williams used more speech to try to convince his players to do what he wanted. That’s better than a threat like President Trump is urging. President Trump is no defender of free speech.
I'm sure Richard Spencer has a search engine that identifies every time his name appears on the internet. I disagree with all that you say and stand for. But I'll defend your right to say it to the end. ISU has a banquet facility for hire, rent it and speak here. You'll find many in the community sympathetic to your beliefs. And I think ISU needs to demonstrate what free speech is all about.
Thomas L. Steiger is a professor of sociology and director of the Center for Student Research and Creativity at Indiana State University. Email
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