Sunday, July 28, 2013

Global Warming or Polluted River? Environmentalism in the Press

Those of us following the international news media could easily be led to believe that the environmental case followed most closely by the media is global warming. We have seen reports on withdrawing glaciers and a lake around the North Pole, as well as interesting plot twists around accusations of skewed research reports and contra-scientists funded by foundations linked with the Koch brothers (see my earlier post). Fascinating stuff, but much of the discussion around environmental issues takes place in the local newspapers, not on CNN. What gets covered in the local news media?

Research by Kenneth Andrews and Neal Caren in American Journal of Sociology shows that local news media has a completely different agenda, and one that helps us understand why it is important to remember that news media are organizations, not just some random collection of journalists. Organizations have a market niche that they cater to. For news media, the niche is their audience, and local news media knows that local issues like a polluted river, tourism, employment, and economic growth will play better. So if you think the press is biased toward global warming, you are probably viewing the global press (they like global issues because they have no local ones); if you are viewing the local press you likely have seen a lot less about global warming.

But the insights on press-as-organization continue beyond this one. The news media don’t investigate as much as you might think; instead stories are brought to their attention, often by social movements campaigning for or against something. Essentially, news media are offices receiving inquiries for attention. Whether social movements actually get media attention depends on how organized they are: media organizations are better at dealing with organizations than with people, so movements led by formal organizations are more successful. (So, the highly organized conservation movement in the USA is the reason that rare butterflies can stop developments.) Not only that, social movement organizations that have conventional and uncontroversial protest tactics get more press attention than those who choose unusual protest tactics. This may sound counter-intuitive, and is surely disappointing for the social movements that choose unusual tactics precisely to gain attention, but a petition is easier to understand and write about than, for example, trespassing on an industrial development site.

As consumers of news, we should remember how the news are filtered by these criteria, which are unrelated to the importance of the issue, and are not even particularly well related to its newsworthiness. They simply reflect how a media organization works more easily. And if you are considering starting a social movement, the advice is clear: be organized, be large, be conventional, and be local. If you can’t be local (maybe you care about global warming), link your cause to local issues.

Saturday, July 20, 2013

Raising Entrepreneurial Children: Folklore and Fact

A Wall Street Journal article offers some advice for parents who want their children to become entrepreneurs, and who are wondering how to raise them. Advice on raising children is not frequent in the Wall Street Journal, so it caught my attention. The advisors are Arthur Blank, co-founder of Home Depot, Pierre Omidyar, founder of eBay, and Jim Koch, founder of Boston Beers. All are very successful entrepreneurs. Let's take a look at how they fare as child-raising advisors.

The full list of advice is to make the children, adventurous, dependable and stable, observant, and team players. Not all of those can be validated by evidence, but team player can be, so let's focus on that one. The advice is to get children involved in team sports at an early age order to instill the values and lessons from winning and losing, as well as that of working together as a team. OK, this sounds intuitive. But many intuitive ideas are wrong, and we know that this advice comes from entrepreneurs who draw from their own experience, as well as observation from others. But of course their own experience is much more powerful. So, if we view the background of their advice scientifically, it is based on a small number of observations, and they weight one (their own upbringing and venture) much more heavily than others. Any social scientist would say that it would take luck for them to be right in their advice.

Were they lucky? I currently do research with Marc-David Seidel and Dennis Ma that answers the question. We have data on what activities youth were engaged in at early ages (10-11 years) as well as later on (15), including sports. We can distinguish team sports and sports without a team structure. The distinction is interesting because sports offer different experiences: risk taking, winning and losing, working together as a team, taking instructions from a coach. We were interested in team sports because our intuition was the opposite of that of the entrepreneurs: Because team sports involve coaching, they are mini organizations that may prepare children better for employment than for entrepreneurship.

The evidence was interesting. Involving children in team sports early reduces their wish to become entrepreneurs. As we expected, it makes them comfortable working with others, which is what they would do in a job, as a paid employee. The entrepreneur, at least initially, needs to be comfortable working alone. But children who were involved in team sports at the age of 15 were more likely to aspire to entrepreneurship. We suspect that the age difference has to do with the shift in decision making between 10 and 15: the youth who is involved in team sports at age 15 has probably decided to do so on his or her own, so it is a result of some personal characteristics related to entrepreneurship. The child who does team sports at the age of 10 is probably put there by the parents. When tracing these children forward to adulthood we found that in the early 20's, those who were involved in team sports at ages 10-11 had no more or less entrepreneurial income than others, but those involved in sports at age 15 had more entrepreneurial income (barely measureable, but enough to prove a relation). And what about non-team sports at age 10-11? No relation to entrepreneurship.

I don’t usually give advice on how to raise children, but I can summarize the evidence. Getting your child into a sports team at an early age puts him or her on path to become an employee. Letting children do some non-team sport (skateboarding, anyone?) has no effect. Make your own call on whether you want your child to become an entrepreneur, please, but this is what to do or not to do.

Haislip, B. 2013.7.13. “How to Raise an Entrepreneur.” Wall Street Journal, Asia Edition.
Seidel, M-D, Greve, H.R., Ma, D.G. 2013. “Leaving the Herd. The Deviant Roots of Entrepreneurship.” Working paper, University of British Columbia and INSEAD.

Sunday, July 14, 2013

Murder by Structure: When Social Networks Kill

I just saw NBA star Derrick Rose give thoughtful responses to a CNN interviewer asking about the murder spree that is currently hitting Chicago: 506 murders in 2012, of which around 400 were thought to be gang related. Rose, who is from Chicago and knows the neighborhoods hit by gun violence and murders, put the blame on poverty, as well as the increasing gap between the poverty that many experience and the lifestyle and success they see others have.

Explaining deadly violence is important because it is the start of reducing it. Violence is more deadly when the weaponry is better, so availability of large-capacity magazines and assault weapons leads to more murders. Chicago is actually a restrictive city in that respect, which may reduce the murder rate, but probably not much because Chicago is in the gun-friendly state Illinois, which recently made it harder for cities to regulate weapons. Poverty has been noted as an explanation before, because murders often occur while people commit crimes of enrichment such as robbery or car-jacking.  

Murder has many causes, and the ones above are among them. But let's move on to new research on a different killer: social networks. This is research from Chicago by Andrew Papachristos, published in American Journal of Sociology. The idea is simple and radical: just like a social network of individuals with friendly connections form a gang, so does a social network of gangs with hostile, neutral, or friendly connections form a larger social structure. This is important because it influences not just a murder rate, but also who is the killer, who is the victim, and when does the murder happen.

Gangs have territories. Gangs have status rankings. And gangs have members who defend territories, try to maintain and increase status, and react to provocations and threats from other gangs. Murder is one way that individuals serve the gang goal of control and status in their territory, and defense against other gangs that seem threatening. In fact, because the territories are stable, challenges are reciprocated, and murder invites revenge, there is a stable structure of violence between gangs that includes reciprocal murders. But the murder rate between pairs of gangs is not just determined by territory: it is shaped by their history of violence. Because murders are reciprocated, the history becomes a stable structure of repeated, reciprocated murder. Murder by social structure.

There is no management punch line in this story: the point is that we see organized behavior in all areas of life, including some that end in death. Social networks are an organizing principle, and they are seen in and outside formal organizations. From sociological research we know that they can affect life from conception (sexual networks) to death (gang networks).  And many things in between.