Brooks Still a Sociologist

David Brooks has apparently not given up on sociology, as evidenced by his column this week. I'll put on my sociologist's hat and do my best to keep up. This week, David writes about one of his favorite things: cultural segregation. After doing lots of research, he puts forth the conclusion that political and cultural polarization in America are increasing, and that this effect is structural. This is because a) Americans are better educated and b) the information-based economy leaves people more flexible in choosing their residence.
To a large degree, polarization in America is a cultural consequence of the information age. This sort of economy demands and encourages education, and an educated electorate is a polarized electorate.

In theory, of course, education is supposed to help us think independently, to weigh evidence and make up our own minds. But that's not how it works in the real world...

Once you've joined a side, the information age makes it easier for you to surround yourself with people like yourself. And if there is one thing we have learned over the past generation, it's that we are really into self-validation.

I think he's right, but the point is a little too ambitious to try to get across in a single column, and leaves questions. Like why would education make people more radical? Maybe it's time for another treatise.

This clip highlights one of David Brooks' favorite ideas, his "social modules" idea. Basically, it states that American culture is on the whole remarkably unhierarchical, because it lacks a uniform basis for defining status. Bankers, lawyers, inventors, sports stars all populate America's elite, and likewise, no singular kind of excellence holds preeminence over any other. On the other hand, within any given endeavors, there are clearly defined criteria for achievement which in turn define status within that field. So America is modularly hierarchical. The problem with this is that it's a little too utopian. A preeminent sports star certainly has more status than a preeminent school teacher, and Brooks has to know this. What determines the differential value of various endeavors?

Here's an answer I would venture: Say there's a social role for both athletes and teachers. The value of each profession as a whole is determined by how much money it can bring in. Even if sports stars and teachers are equally valuable to a society, there are many more teachers than sports stars, and thus the benefits of that profession are spread thinner and individual teachers are valued less than individual sports stars.

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