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Archive for the ‘Sociology’ Category

Growing Wall Street Protests Could Affect Policies, Elections

The anti-Wall Street protests spreading around the country have caught the eye of T.V. Reed, a professor of American Studies at Washington State University and author of The Art of Protest: Culture and Activism From the Civil Rights Movement to the Streets of Seattle. At the request of the WSU Discovery blog editor, he has filed this post:

The Occupy Wall Street movement is growing very rapidly. It is now in more than 70 cities across the US. Whether it will continue to grow depends, I think, on three things.

First is whether the mainstream media will grow tired of the protests, as they tend to do over time. The parallel right-wing movement of the so-called Tea Party was helped immensely by advocacy coverage from Fox News.

Wall Street protest picture courtesy of Flickr and

A second issue is whether the movement can spread to unions. Conservative media have claimed that labor unions are behind the protests. That is not true. But it could become true given that unions have been so much under attack in the past few months by Republican politicians. Unions are one of the few significant forces that have organizing networks and a liberal-progressive constituency. The Occupy Wall Street movement at present is dominated by students and other youth. Historically, the combination of students and union members has led to very powerful movements. That combination nearly brought down the government of France in 1968, and it was at the heart of the success of the 1999 Battle of Seattle protests for greater justice in globalization processes.

A third factor is whether the movement can hone its message. Movements typically begin with very broad, amorphous agendas. But they grow when they can focus on certain clear objectives. In this case, I think the overall objective is to counter the rightward drift of US politics in general and President Obama in particular over the last couple of years. The current message—that the government is only working for the wealthiest 1 percent of the population, and what about the rest of us, the 99 percent?—will need to be translated into more specific demands.

In the end, the movement could affect tax policies and the upcoming presidential campaign while acting as a check on the Tea Party.

The Tea Party was started by right-wing politicians like Dick Armey, but with help from Fox News grew into a real movement that has emboldened Republicans to move further to the right in policy. The Occupy Wall Street movement has the potential to reverse this movement, pushing the president and Democratic politicians back toward their liberal-progressive base. The policies most immediately impacted will probably be efforts to return tax levels for the wealthiest Americans to the pre-Bush era level and to support the President’s new jobs bill. But the wider impact is likely to be on the presidential campaign.

President Obama is by nature a centrist who leans to the left. But he has governed lately as a centrist who leans to the right. As he enters campaign mode, he has already shown signs of moving back toward the center-left, and this movement is likely to further his move in that direction.

But social movements historically go beyond mere legislative change. They empower ordinary citizens to take on the bigger picture. And in this case the bigger picture has been the steadily widening income gap in the US in which a few continue to become fabulously wealthy while the rest have stagnated or lost ground. As Warren Buffett, the billionaire and advocate of taxing the rich, recently pointed out in response to conservative claims that Democrats want “class warfare”: “There’s class warfare, all right, but it’s my class, the rich class, that’s making war, and we’re winning.”

He meant this latter point figuratively, but in fact people are dying in the US due to things like inadequate medical care and nutrition, and millions of ordinary Americans understand this. How many are ready to join this particular protest of these conditions remains to be seen.



Mild Upset in the Facebook “Idol” Vote App; Update Appended

Loyal readers will recall the Discovery blog last week extolling the wonders of a Facebook application accurately predicting the losers of “American Idol” for three weeks straight. John Tarnai and Danna Moore, leaders of the Washington State University Social and Economic Sciences Research Center, explained that this made sense. Whether they voted by phone during the show or by web on a Facebook fan page, said Tarnai and Moore, the survey’s self-selected participants are coming from the same highly motivated pool of “Idol” fans.

Now comes the upset.

Image courtesy of Idol Fanatic and Ribbit

Based on 1,700 votes cast through Facebook’s Idol Fanatic fan page, this seemed like the outcome after Tuesday’s Shania Twain-themed performances:

Crystal – 30.9%

Lee – 19.9%

Casey – 14.4%

Aaron – 13.6%

Siobhan – 12.5%

Michael – 8.6%

But on Wednesday’s results show, the bottom three were Casey–not Aaron–plus Michael and Siobhan. Siobhan–not Michael–was voted off.

We asked John Tarnai if the difference between Michael and Siobhan, or Casey and Aaron, might be accounted for by the survey’s margin of error.

John’s response:

“This is very interesting, especially that the bottom three on the show were also part of the bottom four on the Facebook survey.  Unfortunately, since neither the Facebook sample nor the voting on the show is from a probability sample, you cannot use the margin of error to explain the difference.  The margin of error is only accurate for probability samples.  For self-selected samples such as Facebook and the Idol show, there is no way to assess the true margin of error.

“However, if you did use margin of error, the appropriate one to use would be the total 1,700 vote sample, or plus/minus 2.3 percent.  It’s possible that the voting on the show came closer to the actual performance than the Facebook votes, which may have caused some people to switch their votes.  That’s my take on it.”

If it’s any consolation, the Idol Fanatic-meter proved more reliable than the dozen prognosticators tracked by the Los Angeles Times “American Idol” Buzzmeter. Only one of them, Steve Gidlow of In Touch Weekly, saw Siobhan heading for the door. Eight predicted Michael would be gone.

Update: One possible explanation for the Siobhan upset is a snafu in which the wrong phone number to vote for her was posted on her Facebook page. It turns out those votes went to Aaron. The error has launched a petition drive to get her reinstated. Chances are justice will come in the form of Aaron getting voted off after Sinatra night. Here are the latest numbers:

Crystal:  33.7%

Lee:  31.3%

Casey:  12.2%

Michael:  11.9%

Aaron:  10.9%

Early Word on “American Idol” Winners

Tis the season of America’s favorite white-knuckled adventure in opinion gathering: “American Idol.” Each week sees a blend of hype and talent reaching a crescendo as—obligatory drum roll and slow pan of contestant close-ups, please—a would-be star gets voted off the show.

Such viewer anxiety need not be. The Idol Fanatic Facebook page has an application through which fans can vote for their favorite contestants. So far the page’s 1,600 members have perfectly predicted the week’s winner and bottom three.

Researchers in Washington State University Social and Economic Sciences Research Center, the largest university-based survey research center in the Pacific Northwest, explain how this could happen.

“This isn’t really what we would consider a phone poll; instead, it is a self-selected survey,” says Director John Tarnai.  “That is, people self-select themselves into the survey, which I think probably explains why the Facebook page can predict the winners.  In both cases, it is people who are interested in ‘American Idol’ and the contestants who self-select themselves into the survey.   The fact that some people use the telephone and others use a Facebook page or texting is less important than that they are interested enough in ‘American Idol’ to want to send in their votes.”

The operating principle is what Danna Moore, the center’s associate director, calls saliency—the strong interest of the voting viewer. The stronger the interest, the more likely the act of voting.

To keep with this Tuesday night’s theme of “inspiration,” you might say both the phone and the Facebook voters are inspired. You might also say, as does Moore, that neither method makes for a legitimate survey, as it doesn’t reflect the broader population.

“It does not tell you anything about the portion of people in the population that had no opportunity to participate as they aren’t watching the show,” Moore says. “. . . Chances are that people not watching the show would be very different and they are also not asked to vote.”

That may be fine for the show, which has close to 30 million viewers and voters. But it may not be the best measure for the winners.

Says Moore: “The big question is: Will people selected on the show by these methods be true winners or successful in the long run when the whole population votes with their dollars and buys albums over time?”

(For more on that, note how Clay Aiken, season two runner-up, has outsold winner Ruben Studdard by nearly two to one.)

So far, the Idol Fanatic page and its blog have held off on announcing results ahead of the show. But starting Wednesday, they will be announcing results before the results show starts on the East Coast at 3 p.m. PST, said spokesperson Andrea Ragni.

A New Look at Spotted Owls and Timber Dollars

Logging truck

The export economy of logging was already leaving the Olympic Peninsula when the spotted owl arrived. Adam Fagen photo courtesy of Flickr.

The dust has settled from the Pacific Northwest timber wars of the 1990s, but the perception still lingers that the endangered species listing of the spotted owl was a job killer.
Look again, says Annabel Kirschner, a professor in Washington State University’s Department of Community and Rural Sociology.
Writing in the latest Social Science Journal, Kirschner says the owl listing and subsequent logging reductions did not significantly increase unemployment and poverty on Washington State’s Olympic Peninsula.
Her analysis shows the peninsula was already hard hit by changes in the timber industry when harvest limits in spotted owl habitat began in the 1990s. More than timber limits, the industry restructuring continued to affect poverty in the ‘90s. Meanwhile, Native American and Latino populations were significant and often overlooked factors in the peninsula’s poverty and unemployment.
“During the spotted owl debate, almost no attention was paid to the presence of minorities on the peninsula,” Kirschner writes. “…This is a weakness of much poverty research in rural areas, and this finding emphasizes the importance of considering the presence of these populations in rural areas when considering well-being.”
The paper certainly paints a different picture of the controversy. Back in the early ‘90s, media coverage focused on loggers and businesses who posted signs saying they were “supported by timber dollars.” But in Kirschner’s analysis, the region is increasingly supported by service industries, increasing education levels, a near doubling of commuting opportunities, and retirement incomes. Meanwhile, those in the most dire straits are Native Americans or Latinos, whose population grew by more than 140 percent in the ‘90s.

Kirschner, A.R. Understanding poverty and unemployment on the Olympic Peninsula after the Spotted Owl. The Social Science Journal (2010), doi: 10.1016/j.soscij.2009.11.002.