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Sociological Thoughts

Thinking about assigned seats and anomie (redux)

By March 26, 2024No Comments

This is a post from back in March of 2022, when we were still in the thick of the pandemic and there were only 150 subscribers out there! But also re-posting because it’s about one of my favorite sociological concepts—anomie—which tells us that we really like being told what to do do much more than we think we do. Enjoy!

When we first came back to in-person teaching in the early days of the pandemic, the dean suggested we use assigned seats to make contact tracing easier. Then we decided that covid magically wasn’t transmitted in classrooms which meant no contact tracing and the whole assigned seating idea fell away, like so many of the deeply necessary and urgent things the pandemic threw up at various points only to be quickly discarded.

I never did assigned seating. Anyone who’s been teaching long enough knows that you don’t need assigned seating. At the end of the first week of classes, students have assigned themselves a seat and that is mostly where they will stay for the rest of the semester. That seat will become so much their seat that if someone else dares to take it, shady looks will be exchanged. I’ve never seen a conflict over seats come to blows, but I have seen students apologize and get up out of a seat that is clearly not theirs.

In a country like the United States, where we believe we’re all about the FREEDOM, how do you explain how quickly people impose assigned seating on themselves? We don’t want to wear masks or get vaccines or be prevented from buying an assault rifle, but we sit in the exact same seat every day, even though no one makes us.1 Why?

The answer is anomie, the handy-dandiest of sociological concepts.

New York Times writer David Leonhardt used anomie this week to explain the rise in crime and other disordered activity (like car crashes) since the pandemic began. It’s one of those ideas that’s especially counter-intuitive in an individualistic, (supposedly) freedom-loving country like ours.2

Anomie (ann-oh-mee) is a concept that comes from Emile Durkheim’s famous study of suicide rates. Durkheim was trying to put sociology on the map as a discipline and make a case for why it is not the same as psychology. Understanding society is about more than understanding a million individual psychologies. Society is a real thing in an of itself, not reducible solely to individual minds.

We think of suicide as something deeply individual, but Durkheim looked at how societal factors can impact suicide rates. Specifically, periods of rapid social change can result in an increase in suicide rates. This is because in these situations, norms change so quickly that people don’t know what they’re supposed to do. We experience widespread anomie, or normlessness—the disorienting sense that the status quo has collapsed and all bets are off. Sound familiar?

Anomie does not feel good. It turns out that in many, many ways, we like having a concrete sense of what we’re supposed to do. Rules are comforting, just like sitting in the same seat every day. Norms make life easier, reducing the cognitive load on our brains. When we have to spend a lot of time trying to figure out what the hell we’re supposed to be doing (wearing a mask, not wearing a mask, going to restaurants, not going to restaurants and on and on), it gets very exhausting. It’s uncomfortable.

Suicide is the most extreme escape people turn to in situations of increased anomie. Drug and alcohol abuse increase. Followed by crime. Anomie is often twinned with a lack of social cohesion. We feel both a lack of norms and a lack of connection to other people—adrift and alon

In his essay, David Leonhardt notes how unsatisfying an answer to the problem of increasing crime anomie is. Welcome to sociology, David. The usual, knee-jerk reaction to crime is more police.3 Or harsher sentencing. Neither of those solutions shows much evidence of working. Increased policing can reduce crime, but only for certain segments of the population and it’s often at the cost of the lives and freedom of those at the bottom of the social hierarchy.

How do you fix anomie? What law can you pass? Where do you invest your resources? How can you give people a better sense of what the norms are, especially when even the experts don’t agree? How do you help people feel more connected and integrated into a society that is increasingly fragmented?

It’s not impossible to make concrete steps to decrease anomie, but it’s not easy. This is the curse and blessing of sociology—everything is a little more complex than you first assumed. The pandemic has certainly been a period of rapid social change and it might take us a while to find the way back to the comfort of our assigned seats.

What do you think? Do you think that the pandemic created a sense of anomie?


Thanks for reading, lovely people! And for those new subscribers. Please let me know what you think in the comments and like and share and all the things.

1

Does this same phenomenon apply outside classrooms? I don’t know. The boards I’ve belonged to in town haven’t seemed to follow this rule, though there is a general geographical pattern. People don’t sit in the exact same seats, but they do sit in the same general area. Time must be a factor. When you only meet once a month, no one stakes a claim to a seat. I’d be interested to hear how this plays out in other workplaces settings, though.

2

We love our freedom and don’t give a shit about other people’s, is what I mostly find. Freedom from being forced to wear a motorcycle helmet, but not freedom to access medical care or play sports if you’re a trans person. Freedom to call any insane lie the truth, but not the freedom for kids to read whatever books they want. Which is all fine, just stop saying it’s freedom that you care about.

3

Incidentally, the rising crime rates were exceptional because for the past few decades, the trend had been toward a decrease in crime. Since the pandemic, crime rates have gone back down again. Low crime rates do not correlate one bit with a decreased fear of crime, which is mostly unrelated to actual crime rates. Remember that Trump ran on an anti-crime platform, but the crime rate was not increasing at that time. Crime is one area where facts don’t matter so much as what people can be convinced to believe. And even as crime rates fell over the past several decades, funding for police did not. And as always with crime, you’re more likely to be a victim if you’re poor or a person of color, which is a whole special level of hypocrisy for politicians who stoke fears about rising crime rates. They’re really trying to scare rich and middle class white people, even though white people are generally not the victims of rising crime rates. If you want more of these stats broken down, check out this.

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