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This Week in Sociological Perspective, video
Economists talk money. Politicians talk government. On This Week in Sociological Perspective we talk money, politics, and everything else that makes the world go ‘round, offering insight on society, public affairs, and news of the week. Guest authors join your host, UC-Berkeley Professor Samuel Roundfield Lucas, to transcend the headlines through fascinating research in sociology.

Feb 6, 2014

This Week in Sociological Perspective, for the week of Thursday, February 6, 2014

Segment 1 – "New Fed chief Janet Yellen let’s a long career of breaking barriers speak for itself"; Washington Post

Segment 2 – Professor Emily Huddart Kennedy on downshifting motives and effects

Segment 3 – "Push for Preschool Becomes a Bipartisan Cause Outside of Washington"; New York Times

Selected Keywords: Janet Yellen, hiring, cultural match, downshifting, preschool expansion, Republican governors


Hello, and welcome to This Week in Sociological Perspective.

This week we will discuss bipartisan politics and the effort to increase access to pre-school. We’ll have an interview with Professor Emily Huddart Kennedy on the phenomenon of downshifting.

Segment 1

But we begin with an article in the Washington Post published on February 3, 2014, titled "New Fed chief Janet Yellen let’s a long career of breaking barriers speak for itself."

The report chronicles how Professor, well, actually, new Fed chief Janet Yellen, when she entered economics, when she graduated from Yale in economics with a Ph.D., she was the only woman in her class. And how throughout her career she’s often encountered situations where she’s been breaking barriers, and struggling against the assumptions of people who are sitting in judgment of her. This is an important sociological phenomenon, but it also presents an occasion for considering a sociological dilemma.

On the one hand, on average, we know that people of different categories think and act differently. Sometimes those differences are very small, in fact, they often are very small. But, they do exist.

On the other hand, it’s easy to over-emphasize the difference those slight differences, or even existing differences of the average behavior or position or way of thinking of one group of people versus another, because we also know that people are not determined by their categories. That is to say that you have people in category A that think and act the way the average person in category B acts and thinks, and you have people in category B who think and act in the way that the average person in category A acts. What this means is that the categories that people occupy or to which we assign them do not determine or even tell us very much about them themselves. They are still individuals.

Now, Professor Lauren Rivera, a sociologist, has found that in hiring, hiring authorities, so, in a company or in an organization, tend to look for cultural match, either explicitly or implicitly, or subconsciously. So what that means is that when people are hiring the tendency is that like hires like. Now, we’ve heard this before, in work with Denis Trapido, Professor Trapido at University of California-Irvine, and there’s a lot of research on this.

What it also means is that institutions are composed of roles. So, a person, while they have their own socio-demographic characteristics, and even their own political or ideological or religious beliefs or commitments, they’re constrained by the particular role that they are charged with fulfilling. So, while people are not automatons and they aren’t completely constructed by their roles, they aren’t completely bound, they are largely constrained. That is to say, the person who occupies the role of Fed chief, there are just some things that person will not be able to do. Even things that might be economically defensible, they may not be able to do, because the role does not allow for them to do that.

Now, this, there’s two ways to go about this, or there’s two important points to make about this. First, breaking barriers is important because we for too long had a society that only some people have been occupying positions of power. So, it would be completely misleading to imply this isn’t important. One thing that makes it important is the concept and the phenomenon of role modeling.

That’s where people, often younger children, young adults, people in college, look to the people who are older than them, the people who are already in positions of power, who are already professors, who are already administrators, who are already CEOs, who are already coaches in sports, who are already on the judiciary, who are already governors and Senators and members of Congress and mayors, to figure out what kinds of occupational trajectories are possible for them, what kinds of careers are truly open. So, if that’s occurring, and we, evidence suggests it is occuring, then, it’s incredibly important that we broaden the number of people of different categories who are occupying positions of importance, power, influence in this society.

But we should not go so far as to presume that that by itself will create some major transformation in societal functions or societal organization such that they work better for the wider set of people. Because it is very unlikely that someone who will radically change any given role will be placed in that role. This is in part because of what Professor Rivera has shown about cultural matching.

So, one thing about news reports is you see news reports of breaking barriers, groups, individuals who are the first of their category to occupy a position. It’s interesting and it’s important, but we should also ask, "When they’re breaking this barrier, are they planning to change policy? Is there some sense where the policy direction or the underlying assumptions or the power, or the something is going to be changed, altered, modified, expanded, contracted, by virtue of their particular insights that come, in part, not in whole, but in part, from their being of a category that is not commonly, or not ever at that point, been in that position." That would truly be breaking barriers, if people who really have more expansive or critical understanding of the institutional role to which they’re about to be appointed are appointed to that position.

Now, I can’t say, I don’t know, I do know Janet Yellen, I don’t know her well, I can’t say if this is such a case, but I can say this: We see these breaking barriers stories from time to time. The question to ask is, "Are we just breaking a socio-demographic barrier, or are we truly expanding the set of people who will be served by the institutions of this society?"

Segment 2

I connected with Professor Emily Huddart Kennedy recently to discuss her paper that was published in Sociological Forum. It’s a co-authored paper, with Harvey Krahn and Naomi Krogman, and the paper is titled "Downshifting: An Exploration of Motivations, Quality of Life, and Environmental Practices." Let’s see what she had to say.

Samuel Roundfield Lucas: Alright. So, okay. Professor Emily Huddart Kennedy. Welcome.

Professor Emily Huddart Kennedy: Thank you.

Lucas: So, your paper. The first question I have to ask is – what is downshifting?

Professor E,ily Huddart Kennedy: Yeah. Downshifting is this idea of making a voluntary long-term lifestyle change that involves earning less money while gaining leisure time.

Lucas: So is that, that sounds similar to voluntary simplicity?

Professor Emily Huddart Kennedy: Voluntary simplicity involves a bit more of a conscientious effort to reduce one’s environmental impact where the idea of downshifting is more strongly oriented towards leisure time.

Lucas: So which leads to who created this downshifting behavior?

Professor Emily Huddart Kennedy: Yes.

Lucas: It doesn’t seem like, it doesn’t seem, I mean I haven’t heard a lot of people, maybe they’re using other terms or whatever, it’s interesting I’m not so sure I’ve encountered someone who has said they’ve downshifted or thinking about downshifting. So who is doing this activity or, yeah?

Professor Emily Huddart Kennedy: Well, the idea was first coined by Amy Saltzman in the early 90s. In 1992. And it was capturing this idea that there were people who were working part-time by choice or quite a few parents, either the mother or the father more frequently the mother, would choose to stay home with kids even though they did have a place in the labor market. It’s certainly, there are various studies mostly from the U.S. but also from Australia and England and now from Canada that shows that roughly a quarter of the population would be trying to increase their leisure time at the expense of their income. Because most of these studies are quantitative it’s often difficult to tease out, you know there certainly might be voluntary simplifiers within that group of downshifters and that’s harder to tease out with a survey.

Lucas: So are the people who downshift, I mean does it work? I mean they’re still embedded in the same environment or do they move a, they just change jobs? Do they stay? What strategies are they using to engage in this, to enact the downshifting?

Professor Emily Huddart Kennedy: Right. So these are all the questions that were intriguing to my colleagues and I. Specifically that, you know, once they are embedded in a place – a neighborhood, a job, school system – that there isn’t a whole lot of flexibility in terms of say, how to improve their environmental impact or how to create stronger social networks. That is the idea of downshifting. That you can consume a little bit less perhaps. Have more leisure time. Make less money, but be happier. Have a better impact on the environment. So it really sounds like one of these win-win and win situations.

Lucas: A quadruple win!

Professor Emily Huddart Kennedy: Yeah.

Lucas: Well, you talked about the double dividend in your paper. What is the double dividend?

Professor Emily Huddart Kennedy: So the double dividend is this idea that you can consume less, work less, have a better impact on the environment but that that’s not going to involve any sort of trade-off for your quality of life. The problem with the double dividend is that it hasn’t actually been empirically tested and the reason that I was interested in this study is more broadly I’m interested in how people respond to environmental issues.

So one thing in particular is this frustration that people tend to respond to say, a collective action problem. You know, a problem that’s created by multiple actors in society has impacts on multiple actors in society where people are responding to these collective action problems in a very individualistic way. And even though downshifting is a bit more significant or involves a bit more effort than say, taking a cloth bag to the grocery store, it’s still another one of these individualistic responses to a collective action problem.

So specifically, we’re interested in the fact that on the one hand downshifting is, it’s interesting because you know, I walked into a bookstore one time and there was a whole shelf full of books on living more simply and working less and being happier. It is something that is popping into public consciousness to a certain extent. So, clearly there are people challenging this work and spend lifestyle or what we would think of as the American Dream, but can we respond to it in an individualistic way? Can we actually have a positive environmental impact and a stronger or higher quality of life with an individualistic response? That was what we wanted to test in this paper.

Lucas: So just to clarify, I’m a little. When you say collective action problem, like concretely what would be an example of a collective action problem as opposed to a, the opposite kind of problem? You mentioned, I imagine, well I should just.

Professor Emily Huddart Kennedy: Sure. So, you know, say if you had an individual level problem it might be a financial one or not knowing where to send your kid to school or something. Maybe you don’t like your doctor. A collective action problem might be something like labor laws. You know, a work week that is too demanding. From the environmental standpoint, a lot of people look at climate change as a collective action problem. Something in the way that our society runs on a day-to-day basis is producing a level of greenhouse gas emissions that the earth can’t support. So that is a collective action problem in that it is created by multiple actors in society and it affects multiple actors in society.

Lucas: So do you take an individualistic response to a collective action problem it, could I?

Professor Emily Huddart Kennedy: You and your…

Lucas: I didn’t quite hear. What did you? Yeah.

Professor Emily Huddart Kennedy: Well, it’s somewhat of a category error. The units of analysis aren’t the same.

Lucas: So, which leads to the question, does it – so the people who are downshifting are expecting to have greater leisure time, right? Or subjective satisfaction. Did you find that that was the case?

Professor Emily Huddart Kennedy: No. I’ll also add that the literature expects that they will also have a lower environmental impact. So, we didn’t. We found that on two measures of quality of life, one is sort of your satisfaction with time use and one is a sense of quality of life overall, but there were no differences between downshifters and non-downshifters and when there were, the downshifters were less satisfied than non-downshifters.

Lucas: So how do you explain their, that they don’t get what they were looking for or that they get the opposite of what they were looking for? I know, I mean this may not be something you specifically studied, but even speculating why the evidence is pointing in that direction.

Professor Emily Huddart Kennedy: Well speculating on it, it’s that they are trying to downshift in a culture or a social fabric that is not downshifting. So I think what this is pointing to is this limit of an individualistic response. If you are one person in your neighborhood that’s trying to downshift, you’re still having to live in a car-dependent society. So you’re still having to drive to grocery stores, schools, various errands. It might be that most people in your neighborhood are either working or away from their homes or stuck inside their homes, so you’re not meeting more people. You’ve made a trade-off to your income so all of a sudden your finances have taken a hit, which can be stressful.

And, so many of these people who are downshifting, so about 40% of our sample downshifted to stay home with children, which for anyone who has been home with children, it doesn’t tend to be the most relaxing.

Lucas: It has other positive benefits, but it’s not an increase in your leisure time by any means.

Professor Emily Huddart Kennedy: Exactly. And there’s also this myth or maybe it’s not a myth, but this sense that if you have more leisure time it’s going to make you happier. I mean, there’s so many factors there. How is that leisure time distributed? Is it just 30 minutes a day where you have some more leisure time? That might be just 30 more minutes of TV that someone’s watching. If it’s entire days at a time, certainly you could do more with that. You could volunteer or take up a satisfying hobby, but often the way leisure time is distributed is in tiny parcels of time that you can’t do that much with.

Lucas: So what factors seem to be associated with, in other words, who downshifts? I mean you mentioned that people are downshifting to have more time with their family and more time with their children. Does that mean, does that tell us who is downshifting or are there other factors that are leading people to downshift?

Professor Emily Huddart Kennedy: So we were looking at people who were not downshifting for retirement age. So that would obviously be a large proportion of the population that in some ways is forced to downshift and the fact that so many people chose to downshift after having young kids suggests that a large proportion of the downshifters are also young parents, primarily female, and the other, the bulk of downshifters in terms of an age range tend to be between about 35 and 45. The second most popular response to why someone is downshifting is because they were just not willing to accept the stress of the paid work force and wanted to either move away from it altogether or join the work force more on their own terms by let’s say, starting a business or working part-time.

So downshifters seem to be people who have the financial and also education and wherewithal to make this choice and the financial buffers to actually make it work for them.

Lucas: Another question is, it sounds like, so one thing I was thinking of as I read the paper is that you have an economy where for some people downshifting, I mean downshifting if you have financial difficulty. If you are at the bottom of the distribution of earnings, you’re earning less, you’re more in poverty than – the question would be how can you escape poverty as opposed to how can you buy less? Are, you know, it’s a little, these two things seem to be contradictory or they are at least a little difficult to reconcile. How, you know, is this really an issue just for the people who are in this go-go-go high level economy or is it also something that people basically at all levels of the economic distribution, poor, wealthy, in the middle are confronting?

I don’t know if your data allows you to address that, but even your reading of the literature or your sort of understanding of it as you started on the research would be, you know, I’m interested in your response.

Professor Emily Huddart Kennedy: Well, these data certainly wouldn’t support an answer to that. The range of income was about 46 to 150, I think. So there were very few low income families in our sample. Juliet Shor, who did a very large sample size study in the U.S. in I believe 1998 and 2003, did actually find that downshifting occurs roughly a quarter of the population and fairly consistently across different levels of income. So low income families were just as likely to downshift as high income families.

Lucas: Interesting.

Professor Emily Huddart Kennedy: Her explanation for that was that high income families are often also high debt families and may have just as much to lose in terms of prestige or being accustomed to a certain lifestyle than low income families. And that was what I think was surprising of her study.

Lucas: So another issue is, well another factor I noticed in your analysis is that household structure seemed to matter. It mattered, if I am understanding correctly, that the people who are married are more likely to, that families, households where they’re married were more likely to downshift than households where there’s only a single adult. Is that correct?

Professor Emily Huddart Kennedy: It is. That’s correct. Yes. So that sort of suggests to me that to downshift you do need to have a financial buffer and you need to know that someone is going to be the breadwinner and that it is a very privileged response to an issue. You know, whether the issue is you don’t feel like you have enough leisure time or whether the issue is you don’t feel that your work is satisfying. It’s certainly not a response that’s acceptable to the entire population.

Lucas: So the downshifters are primarily, they’re taking this individualistic response to a challenging, stressful economy. I guess it is one way to put it and feeling a loss of other opportunities they would like to pursue with family, leisure, but you were also wondering whether this would have an impact on environmental sort of pro-environment behaviors. So did you find any? What was the evidence on that particular score?

Professor Emily Huddart Kennedy: Well again, we used two measures of pro-environmental behaviors. One was an index of sustainable transportation. So, how often someone would use the bus or walk or cycle rather than using a car. The other was a collection of household behaviors–hanging your laundry to dry, buying local foods, things that are trying to reduce the impact of your household.

So I’ll just back up a bit. We also asked an open-ended question as to why people were downshifting and there wasn’t a single person in our sample who said they were downshifting for environmental reasons. They said they were downshifting for quality of life reasons. As I mentioned, there were no benefits to quality of life, statistically. When we looked at environmental behaviors, the downshifters were no more likely to engage in sustainable transportation behaviors than non-downshifters, but they were more likely to engage in household behaviors than non-downshifters.

We have this paradox where they’re not actually motivated by environmental aims or at least that’s not their stated primary motivation, but that is the one area where downshifters are out-performing non-downshifters. And, again, it’s not having what we would see as a systemic response to environmental issues, it’s this very private household level response which is in keeping with downshifting, which is also a private response.

Lucas: So what do you make of their action you found effects on private household pro-environmental behavior, such as, I can’t remember the list but things like hanging the laundry out to dry rather than using a dryer but you didn’t find it for things like biking where you go or taking public transportation or something like that? Why this? What might be the reasons for this distinction in one having an effect and not in the other area?

Professor Emily Huddart Kennedy: Well, we compared two different neighborhoods. One that is a residential area that is far from the city with very few amenities nearby and the other a more centrally located neighborhood where you could presumably walk to most of your basic needs. And it was that, sort of which neighborhood you lived in, that was explaining whether or not people were engaging in these sort of sustainable transportation behaviors.

So no matter how much leisure time you have, you are still at the mercy of the social structure that you were living in. How your neighborhood is designed, how far it is from the city, whether there are shops and services nearby – that’s what is going to impact your transportation behaviors. Everything really outside of your household.

Lucas: So it sounds like one of the implications of this analysis is that there’s some things people can do, but I think you may have said as well, I may be repeating it, but there are limits to the impact. So if that’s true, what’s the next step? I mean if you downshift and you can’t, and this is sort of a larger big picture issue, if you downshift and it looks like there’s no statistically discernible positive impact on the quality of life that you were seeking, what’s the next step? I mean, what might one do or what might a collection of ones do?

Professor Emily Huddart Kennedy: That’s a difficult question. There’s this idea called the environmental imagination that really fascinates me. So it’s this, it refers to the various ways that as a society we can dream up or imagine having an impact on the environment for the better. So you have individual solutions, community organizing, and institutional reform and we’re very good at dreaming up individual responses to environmental issues. If you look up any of these top 10 or top 50 things you can do to save the planet, they are primarily individualistic. It’s a bit easier to come up with community organizing strategems than institutional reform, but at a very basic level thinking about what it is making it more difficult for you to lower your environmental impact. If it’s making it more difficult for you, it’s probably making it more difficult for hundreds or thousands or millions of other people.

Then trying to talk to others about where it is that you have, what power do you have to try to change that or try to address that barrier because there’s, you know I don’t want to go too far off topic, but there are so many problems with this individual response to environmental issues and one of them is that individuals don’t tend to be the largest source of, you know, greenhouse gas emissions. That tends to be industry. So rather than feeling guilty and self-regulating in your own home trying to make it more a public statement. Writing letters to the editor, getting involved in school systems, getting involved at your workplace and speaking of being more confident in speaking in the public sphere about these barriers that affect us, you know not just me personally but others that I know. So just being more confident in speaking publicly about these barriers rather than feeling guilty about what we can’t do.

Lucas: The finding is also the opposite of what I would have expected when you downshift that you get the other things it’s a wonderful, I look forward to seeing additional work that you will probably, you do have other planned work on this topic?

Professor Emily Huddart Kennedy: Yes.

Lucas: So I look forward to seeing it unfold…

Professor Emily Huddart Kennedy: Yes, I do. Yes.

Lucas: And hopefully it’ll make a difference. So, thank you.

Professor Emily Huddart Kennedy: Thank you. Thank you so much for inviting me on the podcast and I really enjoyed speaking with you.

Segment 3

In a news article titled "Push for Preschool Becomes a Bipartisan Cause Outside of Washington" on February 3rd, 2013, the New York Times reported that Republican governors,

contradicting their congressional peers and looking for a popular social policy to embrace, have begun to join Democrats in pushing to expand preschool.

Preschool is intriguing because it is one kind of investment, and one thing we know theoretically and empirically is that early investment pays off. Two diametrically opposed theoretical positions, that of Pierre Bourdieu, a sociologist, and Gary Becker, an economist, come to the same conclusion: Early investment pays off.

Pierre Bourdieu argues that early investments, early development of children, is extremely difficult to go beyond, it provides a foundation that cannot be eradicated, and sets the trajectory that is very difficult to alter.

Gary Becker’s work on human capital theory has shown that early investments are important because the earlier the investment, the greater the chance to make later investments that capitalize on the early investment, as well as the earlier an investment is made, the longer time one has to obtain returns on that investment.

Empirical research confirms these findings. Research on the Perry Preschool program, which was an experiment done in the 60's, showed that there are major benefits, both privately and publicly to early investment. Clive Belfield and his colleagues found that for every one dollar of cost to the Perry Preschool program, there was $12.90 worth of savings.

Now some scholars and others have questioned the Perry Preschool study and other similar studies because they are based on small samples. The problem is that small samples actually make it harder to find effects, not easier, especially if you consider a range of several different small studies. The reason small studies are harder to find effects is that the effects have to be bigger to be observed above just random chance. So, the Perry Preschool research is much more indicative of gains that might be obtained through early investment such as preschool.

On the other hand, we have to note that mandating preschool will not dramatically reduce inequality. Findings from research on effectively maintained inequality, a theory of the intransigence of inequality and how changes such as a public policy that creates or were it to create universal preschool will not undo inequality.

Even though we know, or there is good reason to believe, that mandating preschool will not dramatically reduce inequality, it is still important to recognize that preschool can matter. Inequality isn’t everything. The evidence indicates that preschool can raise kids cognitive development, improve their later school performance, reduce teen pregnancy, and reduce crime.

It’s much too early to say whether this political move by the Republican governors will create policy change. But the theoretical and empirical work suggests that this policy change is long overdue, at least if one wants a population poised to realize their full potential.


And that’s This Week in Sociological Perspective. Next week we will have two new news stories as well as another interview with a researcher on new sociological research. ‘Til then, say, hope you have a wonderful week, and we’ll see you next week on This Week in Sociological Perspective.

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