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This Week in Sociological Perspective, audio
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.

Jan 30, 2014

This Week in Sociological Perspective, for the week of Thursday, January 30, 2014

Segment 1 – "Uber sued over girl’s death in S.F."; San Francisco Chronicle

Segment 2 – Professor Laura Beth Nielsen on law, morality, and Disney animated movies

Segment 3 – "Connection failed: internet still a luxury for many Americans."; The Guardian

Selected Keywords: Uber, internet regulation, property rights, law, morality, Disney, child development, digital divide, effectively maintained inequality


Hello, and welcome to This Week in Sociological Perspective.

We have a story this week on the digital divide, we also have an interview with Professor Laura Beth Nielsen of Northwestern University and the American Bar Foundation.

Segment 1

But we begin with a story published in the San Francisco Chronicle on January 27th titled "Uber sued over girl’s death in San Francisco." The incident that sparked the suit is that on New Year’s Eve a woman and two young children ventured into a crosswalk in San Francisco. They were hit by a driver of a vehicle, who, the driver was, was employed is unclear, was engaged with the Uber ride service. The driver has not yet been charged with a crime. Uber has claimed that the driver was not working as an Uber contractor at the time because the person was not, there was no passenger in the car. The lawsuit has claimed that the driver was a contractor with Uber and therefore Uber is liable because the driver was checking an app that Uber provides to find a potential fare.

The death of the child is tragic and there’s, it’s a very unfortunate situation. The incident provides information or opportunity to consider certain issues that Uber raises and that many other internet start-ups providing services that were traditionally provided in other ways, providing them with a new business model, to consider the implications of this from a sociological perspective.

Sociologist John Campbell of Dartmouth University points to the state, that is to say the United States or particular states in the United States, basically the governmental entities, as constructing property rights.

Now the right of an individual, or a company or corporation to provide transportation services such as taxicabs–that confers a property right on that, for that activity. To obtain that right companies make a trade. They take the right but they accept certain limitations in their work arrangements. Those limitations might be regarded as regulations.

Now regulation can protect the consumer and one of the motivations that, or at least the articulated motivations for regulations is to protect the consumer. In the particular case of taxi services, it would be difficult for a potential passenger to vet the trustworthiness of a potential driver or a potential driving situation. So, for example, a passenger might not be able to assess whether the, what the driving record is of the potential driver, the safety of the vehicle in which they will be riding, the existence of insurance for the ride, and the criminal background or lack thereof of a potential driver. This is even more likely to be the case, that a potential passenger will be unable to investigate a potential, or interrogate a potential driver for taxicab services, because many potential passengers are visitors to the locale in which they are obtaining the taxicab services.

Further, regulation can more or less assure a reasonable minimum of trustworthiness, and that’s why many, that’s one of the logics for why many organizations, many states, many jurisdictions impose certain regulations. They can insure a particular kind of driving record, they can insure, on the cost of fines and other punishments, a particular level of car safety. They can insure a particular level of liability insurance, and they can insure the past criminal record is not a concern.

But that’s looking at regulation from the side of the potential passenger. We turn it around and look at regulation from the side of the particular, of the potential driver, the taxi driver, the company for whom, for which they work, regulation can also be regarded as a way of preserving the value of the property right.

For example, because the state regulates and licenses the taxicab operators, the state can assure that there are not so few taxicabs available to work in a particular area that a potential passenger cannot find a taxicab. Because if that were the case, if there were not a sufficient number of drivers available, taxicabs available, the passengers, if they routinely encounter that situation, they would develop other means of getting around. Even visitors might find other ways of getting around by using the concierge at the hotel or prior arrangements before they arrive to understand what they might do, instead of relying on the unreliable taxicabs if there are not enough made available.

At the same time, regulation can assure that there are not so many taxicabs in operation that over-competition can threaten to wipe them all out. Because if taxicab drivers and their companies cannot make a sufficient amount of money to profit such that they can stay in business and provide the service but still earn a living, then taxicabs will eventually go out of business and companies will eventually go out of business and that will be costly for the service that’s being provided.

The interesting thing in this case is that Uber and similar companies threaten the property rights of existing companies. While providing virtually the same service with the slight tweak in that the way you might obtain the service, and they are typically unhindered by regulation that protects consumers and that protects the taxicab companies such that they can maintain the business and have it be a viable one.

So, one of the interesting things that this lawsuit will put on the table is whether Uber is just another taxicab company with a particularly different way of, for people to obtain the service, or is it qualitatively different even though it is providing the same services as other companies such that it is not subject and should not be subject to existing regulations.

It is unfortunate that a child is, has given their life and that has led to this lawsuit, it would have been more, it would have been more proper and more appropriate for this to have been evaluated prior to such an event. But it is the case that this event has motivated a lawsuit and a lawsuit should put into discussion just these issues.

So, as these issues unfold, both in the courts and perhaps in legislative action, it will be interesting to see how this plays out and whether the property rights of existing companies are given weight, or whether they are regarded as an anachronism such that it is time to move to a different model.

Segment 2

Speaking of moving forward, I connected with Professor Laura Beth Nielsen of Northwestern University and the American Bar Foundation to discuss her paper "‘Ahead of the Lawmen’: Law and Morality in Disney Animated Films 1960-1998." The paper is published in Law, Culture and the Humanities, and the authors are Laura Beth Nielsen, Nehal A. Patel, and Jacob Rosner. So, let’s see what she had to say.

Samuel Roundfield Lucas: So I sat down with Professor Laura Beth Nielsen, who is Associate Professor of Sociology and Director of Legal Studies at Northwestern University and Research Professor of the American Bar Foundation, to talk about her co-authored paper, "‘Ahead of the Lawmen’".

So, as I understand it you are asking, what’s the relationship between law and morality in Disney movies? So my question is, why ask that question? What is going on there? What’s at stake?

Professor Nielsen: Well, as you know, this is not really my primary area of research, but as a mom I was watching lots of these movies with my children and as a scholar of the legal profession who believes that the legal profession, although imperfect, can oftentimes work to enhance justice in major ways, I thought, I continued to see a pattern where law failed. Law just didn’t work and I began to think, especially since, like many children, my children wanted to watch these movies over and over again, and I started thinking, what is the message that is being reinforced here about whether or not law is on the side of the good, the right? So I kind of knocked around in my head for a long time and I used it as an example in class. And then Jake Rosner, who is one of the co-authors on the paper and who was an undergraduate at Northwestern, he came up to me after class and said, "I think you should write that paper."

I said "I’ve always been thinking about writing this paper" and he said, "let’s do it." So, it’s always fun to work with an undergraduate and show them what the research process is like. So off we went.

Lucas: So why? I mean, if the, I guess what I’m wondering is, we take it as just a given or at least it is so commonly understood that law is different. That it’s sort of, that it’s, for example, they say you know there is a difference between what you know and what you can prove.

Professor Nielsen: Right.

Lucas: So why is there, I mean what would it look like if law and morality were, I mean if they were in alignment? I guess that is one kind of relationship. If they were in alignment as opposed to what you, and what did you see in Disney? Were they in alignment in the Disney films?

Professor Nielsen: Mostly no. There were some, there were a few examples where they were in alignment, but for the most part law failed to get the right outcome. And one nice thing about studying Disney movies is the right outcome is really obvious. Right? These are moral tales that have been told. They are retellings of Hans Christian Anderson, parables. I mean, we know what the right outcome is. So that takes out one big area of the guesswork.

If they were in alignment what you would have is very boring movies that boys don’t want to go see. Little girls might want to go see them, but the research on little boys–and who knows if this is cause or effect–but they want to have an action scene. So you have to have sort of something action, there has to be a battle, that’s part of the formula, but the only way that it’s legitimate for that battle to have occurred is if the good guys have tried the non-violent ways of resolving the problem first. And one of those ways is law. But because of the need for the battle, it means law almost always fails to work.

Lucas: So one of the things is, I have not watched many Disney animated movies, given situations in my biography. So I found it fascinating some of the stories you were telling. The one of the, I can’t remember the name, it was the one under the sea who signed a contract. What was that? What was going on there? Is this a good example of the kind of things you saw in a series of different movies, or?

Professor Nielsen: It is. It’s really the most obvious example of law being completely devoid of all morality and it’s portraying law in a really bad light because the contract–so Ariel is in, the mermaid and she wants to convince Prince Eric to fall in love with her, so she makes a deal with the evil sea witch Ursula to trade her fins for legs and she can keep her legs if she gets the kiss of true love. I mean, you can talk about what it’s teaching little girls about what they aspire to but that’s somebody else’s research, but so there is a contract. She, the sea witch actively prevents Ariel from accomplishing the goal and so Ariel’s soul is going to forever be owned by Ursula the Sea Witch.

And her father, who has been not supportive of her love for Prince Eric, comes to rescue her. And he’s the most powerful man in the sea and you know, he is King Triton and when he shoots his trident at Ursula, she holds up the contract, it’s golden, and literally all of his power bounces of. So he, and she says, see the contract is legally binding and no one can do anything about it, even you Triton. So she sold body parts, that’s illegal. She’s 16, so she’s not an adult who’s able to contract. She promised her soul, which you can kind of think of as a slavery contract, right? She was going to own her forever, the Sea Witch was going to own her soul forever. And when justice in the form of Triton comes along, this technocratic version of law, what’s written on a piece of paper, no matter how under duress Ariel was when she signed it or no matter how illegal it was, it’s still binding. So that dichotomy was really the first one that really struck me as telling kids over and over, yeah law is a bunch of formalities and justice doesn’t enter into the situation because we all know Ariel is the hero. She’s our heroine.

Lucas: So do they have a, if the king Trident? What?

Professor Nielsen: Right.

Lucas: What’s his name?

Professor Nielsen: King Triton.

Lucas: Triton. Okay. King Triton uses his powers at the, throws his powers at the contract. The contract survives. So that’s the failure of law. So what does the, that’s the force of law. Does he act in any other way or does he just walk away?

Professor Nielsen: No. He offers himself. So she takes his soul, he becomes enslaved forever. But then Prince Eric, being the prince that he is, kills the witch with a boat.

Lucas: So what’s, I guess one of the issues here is that, what in a normal, what would in a different vision of what the story would be, the contract would just be declared null and void and then she would not, the witch would not obtain the soul.

Professor Nielsen: Right. So, if there was a contract it was, so there’s lots of things in cases about this like used during war when, you know, people are starving and you can’t enter into a contract. It’s considered unconscionable to enter into a contract where you are taking advantage of someone’s plight through no fault of their own or if it was revealed that she wasn’t of the age of majority or any of these other things that make a contract unconscionable. That’s what you spend a ton of time on in contracts class. In law school it’s learning what you’re allowed to contract for and what you’re not.

Lucas: So do you, I guess one of the issues then is whether, it’s interesting because I guess one could say, well you know, these are, I don’t know the age range of children watching these movies but pretty young, and so it’s really just entertainment. Is there any evidence that they are picking up any, are they being socialized? Are they being transformed by watching these kinds of and in what ways might there be? Is there any evidence about that?

Professor Nielsen: Well, so.

Lucas: I know that’s not your research, but

Professor Nielsen: Right. So we don’t have any direct evidence on this question, but we looked to the body of research about children in child psychology that looks at how children form their moral codes. And, it turns out kids who are in this target age range, 5 to 10 roughly, do have pretty sophisticated moral codes and there’s variation based on their life experience and what they know their parent, what they know to be true of their parents and whether they had been taught to believe in God.

So this is a moment when a moral code is developing. And, what sort made it interesting to me, I think, was that it was reinforced over and over that law cannot accomplish a moral goal. And, you actually see this trend in other movies. The part of my thinking about this came from some other work about vigilante movies and Westerns. So, like if you think about the Clint Eastwood movies where somebody kills his wife and he’s after them. There has to have been a failure of law, right? So, it always starts with the trial and the person gets off because the policeman didn’t read his rights. Oh, the policeman didn’t read his rights and so the case gets thrown out and that’s part of what allows us to root for the vigilante who normally should be the bad guy in a movie is that law has failed. So, other people have written about it in other genres of movies and I don’t know what the relationship is between popular culture. Is it just entertainment? Maybe. Is it worth thinking through? My children, whether they liked it or not, had to have it thought through because of what their mother does for a living.

Lucas: I see. Well, my sense and this also is based on no evidence, just talking to, anecdotally talking to students. A lot of students go into the law interested in making a difference. So it’s an interesting juxtaposition. You have at least a set of students going into the law viewing it as a means to, as you said earlier, to aid the introduction of real justice in our society. At the other time, but apparently some of them at least are coming perhaps with a history of watching these kinds of stories which would seem to suggest this is not a strategy for, not a place, that law is generally ineffective in pursuing certain moral ends. So it’s an interesting juxtaposition. I wonder what you would think about that.

Professor Nielsen: Well, I think you’re right. Lots of my students both at the undergraduate level and I teach in law school, they come to law because it is the place where the state says this is where we are going to accomplish justice. And by the time they get to undergrad and to law school, they’ve heard about Brown vs. Board of Education and the importance of that landmark case for desegregating American schools. And, part of what I think is, is feeding back these ideas of law is ineffective is similarly troubling stories about law’s lofty effectiveness. So a lot of what you’re doing in, when you’re talking about law is, saying, well let’s look, how well did it really work? How many schools in the United States are actually desegregated or relatively well integrated? Even though there might not be laws anymore, do we have school integration? Do we have non-discrimination in employment? And, so I think you get both sides of the story. So you get a story over here about law being completely ineffective and then you have sort of this aggrandized story about law’s transformative power and what I would argue is, what we really have to do is study law on the ground and how it’s affecting people and what they are doing to accomplish justice in their own lived situations.

Lucas: Well, this makes me wonder when you talk about law on the ground and people’s own experience of it. If people are entering, you know, legal situations or navigating a society with this understanding of, that the law is going in one direction and morality is leading you in another direction. I mean, could you speculate about what that means for their experiences or their, how they balance those?

Professor Nielsen: Well, I think you probably have a lot more powerful understanding of law if you’ve been pulled over, or attitudes about law if you’ve been pulled over by a policeman. If you feel you were pulled over by a policeman unjustly or if you think maybe, you know, have I been discriminated against in the workplace and nobody did anything about it. Or if you’ve been victim of a crime. That’s going to have a lot, I think proportionately that’s going to have a lot more of an effect than a Disney movie you may have watched 40 times when you were a youngster.

But, I think it’s worth sort of dissecting the ways in which we’re portraying law in all kinds of cultural objects, right? So you can think about this kind of analysis in novels, movies, television shows. And, what are we telling ourselves, because the relation, what are we telling ourselves and our kids? Because the relationship between culture and society is sort of this on-goingly interactive. And so, what we put out there becomes what’s real and then it gets reflected back in movies and film and books and all kinds of things. So I think it’s worth thinking about, but I’m going to have to make a very strong argument that this is driving people’s consciousness.

Lucas: Well it’s a fascinating line of work and I look forward to seeing both its influence in the discussion, as well as next steps along this line of work. Are you planning other additional work? We have like 15 seconds, but any additional work?

Professor Nielsen: I do. I tend to be, I don’t tend to do cultural analysis very much. This was sort of a fun side-line for me. My work tends to be more empirical. So, I’m not sure but I really did enjoy doing it and I’ve enjoyed the reaction from it. From my colleagues. So, I might. Who knows?

Lucas: So, well one more question. What has been the reaction?

Professor Nielsen: Well.

Lucas: In general, I mean.

Professor Nielsen: Well, you know, everyone asks sort of questions like you ask about how do we know how this really affects people and I don’t have a great answer for that. I have this other body of literature that I can say they show that what you see in the media affects how your sense of morality develops as a youngster, but also your parents and your church and all those things.

But it was fun to do. It engaged students. It provided, even though we didn’t put a lot about this in the article, it allowed a couple of undergrads to work with me to get experience coding something. So we said, okay there are these themes, let’s watch all these movies. So they had a research experience that they enjoyed and got a publication out of it. I do actually have another sideline project about the representations of justice in daytime reality court TV dramas. We have some data analysis, but that’s a little more complicated because those are real life disputes.

Lucas: Also with adults. So you’re seeing a fully formed sort of the clash of different perspectives at the same time.

Professor Nielsen: And what you will think is interesting, I think, is so all these judges, I hate these shows, I’d rather stick a stick in my eye than watch them but I can get grad students to do it for money, is that the judges have different personality types that are very racially and gender, very raced, gendered and sexual. So there’s like a black judge, I think his name is Joe Brown, who’s like I grew up in the hood and I know who’s lying! Then there’s the no-nonsense mom and then there’s the gay judge who wants the parties to like hug it out at the end. So all these notions of justice are mediated through the identities, these performative identities that the fake judges, which I think will give the wrong idea.

Lucas: Well, I’m looking forward to seeing what you come up with and I appreciate your spending some time with us today. I’d just like to thank you and I look forward to more quality research. And hopefully an impact on how we work together in navigating the law and constructing the law.

Professor Nielsen: Thank you. Thanks for having me. It was fun.

Lucas: Alright, thanks

Segment 3

Our final news report this week was titled "Connection failed: internet still a luxury for many Americans." It was published in The Guardian on January 26th, 2014. So, in essence, we will use the internet to highlight unequal access to the internet.

The report stated that 46 % of households with incomes under $30,000 lack home broadband access. And, one-third of those w/ incomes under $20,000 do not go online at all.

At the same time, 79% of teachers said they have students access or download assignments from online, and 76% of teachers said that they have students submit homework online. Teachers also reported that they use, the expect students to engage in online discussions, post their work online, and about a quarter of teachers reported that they expect students to use sharing, shared services for shared editing, such as google docs.

Now, one larger frame for understanding this arena, and many others, is provided by the theory of Effectively Maintained Inequality, or EMI for short. One common way to think about inequality is that some people have less than others. So, if that’s true, closing the quantitative gap would make those with less equal to those who originally had more.

The theory of effectively maintained inequality contests this simple story. Effectively maintained inequality posits that goods have both qualitative and quantitative dimensions. Thus, inequality is more complex.

Now, we can concretize this with a fanciful example. If having at least one dictionary at home conferred major advantages in school, the haves would be far more likely than others to have a dictionary in their household. However, if every child has a dictionary at home, the haves would obtain better dictionaries–for example, they’ll include detailed etymological analysis, for example. Once the have-nots obtain dictionaries, the advantage of a dictionary dissolves.

What we see in this fanciful example is the shift from a focus on consequential quantitative inequality, or what we might call "effective" inequality, to consequential qualitative inequality, or what we might call consequential, effective qualitative inequality.

Interestingly, research in at least a dozen countries has shown evidence consistent with the theory of effectively maintained inequality in educational systems. Not only in the United States, but in the UK, in Israel, in Australia, and several other countries, this dynamic has been found.

The implication of this dynamic is that reducing inequality and creating real opportunity for the poor is a much more difficult enterprise.

Now, we see this dynamic in the provision of internet services. At one time just having a computer was a major advantage. But eventually, having internet access became a major advantage. And, then, now we see, broadband internet access is a major advantage. With each one of these technological changes, we see changes in the implications for inequality.

When a computer was all that was needed, then the advantaged, socioeconomically advantaged had computers and the socioeconomically disadvantaged did not. As the socioeconomically disadvantaged may have obtained computers, then faster computers were more necessary. Once the socioeconomically disadvantaged obtained faster computers, internet access became more necessary. Once disadvantaged people obtained internet access, faster internet access was more necessary.

The implications of effectively maintained inequality are that this is a common dynamic, at least with respect to schools. And what it means for inequality reduction or for creating opportunity for people at the bottom, especially poor and near-poor children, is that you cannot solve that problem, you cannot provide true opportunity, if you focus on either quantitative inequality or qualitative inequality. But addressing both is extremely difficult; in fact, there is little research that has explicitly engaged the issue of how you address both quantitative inequality and qualitative inequality.

Now, the missing research notwithstanding, the theory of effectively maintained inequality implies that addressing both quantitative and qualitative inequality is the task, at least in the United States, for any individual or institution that wants to create real opportunity for the disadvantaged.


So, we’ll leave you with that this week. Next week we will interview Professor Emily Huddart Kennedy at the University of Alberta in Edmonton, Canada on her paper on downshifting. ‘Til then, that’s This Week in Sociological Perspective. Hope to see you next week.

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