Halloween

October 30, 2006
Posted by Jay Livingston
They were lined up down the street to get into Ricky’s this afternoon, all the last-minute costume buyers. Costumes are bought nowadays. Almost nobody has a homemade costume, even kids. In more and more areas of our lives, we are now consumers where we used to be producers. Fewer meals cooked at home, more eaten in restaurants or bought in a store and microwaved. Nobody has the time, buying is so much more convenient, and besides, the people who specialize in making these things make them better than we can. My neighborhood grocery store sells pumpkins already painted with faces. You don’t even have to carve your own.

The odd thing is that even though the costumes are better, they’re not as much fun. I’d rather open my door and see kids in costumes their parents patched together from odd clothes and stuff they had lying around the house. A professional ninja or princess costume doesn’t just substitute cash for creativity, it depersonalizes; anybody with the $34.99 can have the same costume (made in China). And many do. Stores have sold out of the popular costumes.

I like to think of holiday celebrations as islands of community, where things are personal, created and controlled by the group of people involved. But Halloween (and perhaps other holidays) is becoming standardized, controlled by the costume industry. It had become McDonaldized.
So it’s not just the witches and vampires that come out at Halloween; you can also see social trends and themes, like McDonaldization. Parental protectiveness is another. Back in the day (my day at least), kids went out trick-or-treating, and parents stayed home. Now, trick-or-treaters making their rounds have parents following along lest some stranger kidnap their child. And at the end of the night parents inspect the kids’ haul for suspicious looking treats. We’ve all heard the stories about razor blades in apples, LSD on decals, poison in candy.

Twenty years ago, sociologist Joel Best investigated all the reported incidents of “Halloween sadism” that he could find in the press, and he concluded that Halloween sadism is best seen as an urban legend. He’s updated his research and found nothing to change his original view. Yet parents still go out of their way to guard against unknown, sinister evildoers who would harm their kids. No doubt, many of these are the same parents who buy their kids a skateboard or put a swimming pool in the back yard.

Mendacity

October 27, 2006
Posted by Jay Livingston
“Mendacity,” says Big Daddy in “Cat on a Hot Tin Roof.” I was channel surfing tonight and watched some of the 1958 film version on TCM.

The few Tennessee Williams plays I’ve seen all follow the same pattern: the principle characters, usually a family, are all hiding important facts about themselves; they have agreed not to see the obvious truths and to let one another live these lies. Then something happens — an outsider not in on the game arrives or some event blows someone’s cover — and the whole fabric starts to unravel. Pathetically or viciously, they begin to reveal one another’s secrets, and the characters must face what they had tried so long to avoid. Big Daddy’s cancer, Blanche’s promiscuous past, what really happened on that fateful day long ago, etc. The plays leave you wondering how these characters will go on with their shattered lives now that they no longer have the fictions— the lies and mendacity— which kept them afloat for so long.

The real-life play of the White House and Iraq seems to be following a similar dramatic arc. A majority of Americans have long since concluded that the war was a terrible mistake, a mistake based at best on faulty intelligence and at worst on outright mendacity. Now, the Administration itself can no longer maintain the false facade. Generals have been giving grim assessments, and these have made it into the news. Even the president admits that things are going badly, that we can no longer “stay the course,” and that some kind of change is required. If the Democrats win control of Congress, they will be in a position to investigate and reveal even further unpleasant truths that the Republicans have suppressed. The folks in Washington have begun to resemble the characters in a Tennessee Williams play.

The troubling difference is that when the play is over, you leave the theater, and you don’t really have to worry about what will become of these characters. They have no existence beyond the end of the last act. But while the voters may ring down the curtain on the characters who brought us this war, the disaster that they created in Iraq will remain.

Maybe Tennessee-Williams-style plot is typical of American culture, maybe not. But many observers have noted out characteristically American preference for not thinking so much about the past but rather looking optimistically to the future. We also tend to view the world as a story, and we don’t like difficult or unhappy endings.
So this election or the next one in 2008 will be The End of our drama. The show is over and we can head for the exit. Troops will be withdrawn, and the media will lose interest in what happens in some strange and complicated foreign land. But in real life, the war will have consequences far into the future — for our economy, for our position in the world. The trouble is that Americans in 2010 or later may not be able to see the connection between those problems and the events of 2003-2006. The Iraq war? That play closed a long time ago.

Who's to Blame, Who's in Control, Who Is the Accused?

October 26, 2006
Posted by Jay Livingston
An Islamic priest in Sydney, Australia, Sheik Al Hilaly, had some controversial things to say about rape recently.
If you take out uncovered meat and place it outside on the street, or in the garden or in the park, or in the backyard without a cover, and the cats come and eat it ... whose fault is it, the cats or the uncovered meat. The uncovered meat is the problem. If she was in her room, in her home, in her hijab, no problem would have occurred.
There’s a history to the story. In 2000, several Muslim men were convicted for a series of gang rapes of white women. They received very harsh sentences. Whites were angered by the rapes; some Muslims, like Sheik Al Hilaly, were angered by the sentences:

She is the one who takes her clothes off, cuts them short, acts flirtatious, puts on makeup, shows off, and goes on the streets acting silly. She is the one wearing a short dress, lifting it up, lowering it down, then a look, then a smile, then a word, then a greeting, then a word, then a date, then a meeting, then a crime, then Long Bay Jail, then comes a merciless judge who gives you 65 years.
The story reminded me of the 1983 gang rape in New Bedford, Massachusetts — the incident that became the basis for the 1988 film “The Accused,” with Jodie Foster as the victim— and not just because it raises the question of who is being accused. In New Bedford, as in Sydney, the rapists were from an ethnic minority. They were first-generation Portuguese. But the Portuguese are a fairly large ethnic minority in that area, and many turned out at organized marches in support of the rapists.

One woman was quoted in the paper as saying, “I am Portuguese and proud of it. I’m also a woman, but you don’t see me getting raped. If you throw a dog a bone, he’s gonna take it — if you walk around naked, men are just going to go for you.” Nearly identical to the Sheik’s cat analogy 23 years later. And a Catholic priest, foreshadowing today's Muslim priest, said, “The girl is to blame. She led them on.”

There’s much to be said about the element of ethnic relations—dominant culture and minority group— but it’s the “blame the victim” idea that interests me. To put the blame and responsibility on the women you have to assume that men just cannot control themselves. They act purely on the basis of instinct, like animals.

This view of men may seem to contradict the image of Muslim men who are so controlled that they keep a strict diet, avoiding pork and alcohol, pray five times a day on cue, and willingly live under other constraints that we would find intolerably oppressive. But the contradiction is only apparent. It’s not a question of the presence or absence of control but where that control is located — inside the individual or outside in the situation and the group. In stable, traditional societies, life’s situations are predictable and under control. People can rely on the others around them to keep their impulses from leading to dangerous actions. But in modern, mobile individualized society, we don’t have the comfort of these external restraints. We have had to develop an elaborate set of internal controls that will keep us in check regardless of the situation.

For people with less internalized controls, it must seem incredible that people can live in a world filled with so much sexual stimulation and opportunity and yet not take action. So they fight sexuality wherever in becomes publicly visible, as when John Ashcroft, US attorney general in the first years of the Bush administration, had a cloth draped over the exposed breast of a statue in the Justice Department. The slightest hint of sex might cause men to lose control.

But the conservatives, Muslim and Christian, are fighting a losing, rear-guard action. They are right that sexual mores are becoming more liberal. There’s more sex in the media, especially with the Internet. Clothes are more revealing than ever. (Two summers ago, the Times had an article on back-to-school shopping
mothers and their teenage daughters in the liberal New York suburbs. The fashions preferred by the girls ran towards what their mothers referred to as “hookerwear.”)

The change, as with so many other fashions, seems to have filtered downward through the social class system, starting near the top. Co-ed dormitories, for example, appeared first at elite schools in the early 1970s; now it’s hard to find a campus that doesn’t have them. And along with the liberalization, the reliance on internal controls seems to have followed the same paths of diffusion through the society. How else to explain the decline in rape over the last fifteen years?

In the short run, the sexual conservatives may win a few rounds, passing a law here or there. But younger people do not share their attitudes, and over time, the rigid external sexual controls will become sort like Buicks, heavy and bulky mechanisms possessed by fewer and fewer people all getting grayer and grayer.


Starbucks as the Habermasian Public Sphere?

October 23, 2006
Posted by: Yasemin Besen

This weekend New York Times had an interesting article on the new marketing of Starbucks coffee chains as coffeehouses. The stores are marketed not as uniform, standardized assembly lines of coffee, but as local and community based cultural spaces, where books, movies and music are discussed. Recently, they have sponsored the “Salon events”, where community based, not so mainstream authors, musicians and artists read their books, sang and talked while sipping coffee (I can’t deny enjoying Jonathan Lethem’s book reading). This new positioning of Starbucks as a local, cultural space, where intellectual rational conversation takes place reminds me of Habermas.

A student of Frankfurt school and a critique of capitalism and its discontents, Jurgen Habermas, he developed the concept of public sphere in The Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere (1962), where he explores the role of individuals in the practice of democracy and social change. He defines public sphere as "made up of private people gathered together as a public and articulating the needs of society with the state." People conglomerating in pockets of society, through dialogue and discussion, have the power through discussion, to critique, mainly the discontents of capitalism and voice their opinion. This rational, critical discourse is the very essence of democracy. Public sphere, in the Habermasian sense, started to emerge in the 18th century with voluntary associations, literary groups and organization and most importantly coffeehouses.

Now we see a very different form of the coffeehouse: a national chain of “coffeehouses” that market the public sphere as a consumption item to be enjoyed with a tall, skim, no foam latte. I wonder if Habermas could predict the public sphere of cool discussion would itself be commodified, packaged and sold along with the music, books and the coffee that makes the public sphere possible.

My Ethnocentrism

October 22, 2006
Posted by Jay Livingston

What you’re reading on your screen right now probably got there via a broadband connection. Nobody uses phone modems anymore; everybody’s got DSL or cable broadband, right? And the US is way ahead of other countries on this score, right?

Wrong. A former chair of the FCC, William Kennard, noted in a Times op-ed piece yesterday, “Since 2000, the United States has slipped from second to 19th in the world in broadband penetration, with Slovenia threatening to push us into 20th.”

I must admit that I was surprised . . . not this time, since I'd heard this before. But I was surprised when I first read about this a few months ago, when the US had just fallen out of the top ten. I had just assumed that the US had more technology than any other country.

I guess the lesson here is that even social scientists can fall prey to ethnocentrism — the “we’re number one” mentality. (When Bush, in one of the 2004 Presidential debates, said, “America’s health care system is the envy of the world,” nobody challenged him on it.) Or was I falling victim to the sampling error of personal experience. After all, I have high-speed access —at home, at work, at Starbuck’s— and so does everybody I know.

Or maybe my assumption was that Capitalism, the Market, the Invisible Hand, would work best; companies smelling profits would all be intent on bringing the latest technology to as many people as possible.

So why has the US fallen so far down on the list from its earlier high rank? Kennard gives us a pretty good clue: “Studies by the federal government conclude that our rural and low-income areas trail urban and high-income areas in the rate of broadband use. Indeed, this year the Government Accountability Office found that 42 percent of households have either no computer or a computer with no Internet connection.”

Most of the countries that have higher percentages of their populations with broadband are more urbanized than is the US. Iceland, probably not the country that pops into your mind when you think of high-tech and the Internet, ranks third. But it’s over 90% urban. Sweden, Belgium, the UK, and others — all are more urbanized than the US. And broadband providers can reach more people when those people live closer together in cities and not on farms.

But income also matters. Canada’s percent urban is the same as that of the US, but it’s in the top ten on broadband. The same is true for Norway and Japan. But in these countries, the people at the lower ends of the income distribution are not as far away from middle and upper incomes as are the poor in the US. On income inequality, we're number one.

Maybe I was only half right about US capitalism (and capitalism generally). Yes, it’s a very good system for producing more and better stuff. But when it comes to distributing that stuff, the invisible hand deals the good cards to the players with the large chip stacks and is content to ignore others.

Narrowband is all right for text, but that's not where the Internet is going. For things like music and video roadhogs of the information highway you need broadband. So when you’re creating that video to upload to YouTube, you might think about adding a soundtrack in Slovenian.

Asking About Housework

October 20, 2006
Posted by Jay Livingston
The working mother — how does she find the time? Did being a worker mean that she would spend less time being a mom? A new study by Suzanne Bianchi finds that contrary to expectations some years back, work did not reduce the time mothers spent with their kids. In fact, parents — both moms and dads— are spending more time with their kids than parents did in previous generations. What’s been cut back is housework. (NPR did a longish (16 minute) report on the study — an interview with one of the authors, calls from listeners— which you can find here.)
There’s much to be said and blogged about Bianchi’s findings, but I want to make one small methodological observation, something I’ve mentioned to students. Some questions have a built-in “social desirability” bias. Suppose you want to know about reading habits. It’s socially desirable to have read more books (at least I hope it still is), so if you ask “How many books do you read a year?” or “How many books did you read last year?” you’re likely to get something higher than the actual number. Instead, you ask, “Did you read a book last week?” A person who never reads a book might be reluctant to say that he hadn’t read a single book last year. But there’s no social stigma attached to not having read a book last week.
The same thing goes for housework and parenting. Ask me how many hours I spend on housework and childcare each week, even though as a good friend of social research I’d try to be accurate, I’d probably try to be accurate on the good side. So as the Times reports, “Using a standard set of questions, professional interviewers asked parents to chronicle all their activities on the day before the interview.” (The study notes that we dads are doing more of both than fathers of only a few years ago.)
(More later. Right now, I have to put the wash in the drier, start making dinner, and help my son with his homework.)

The New York Walk

October 16, 2006

Posted by Jay Livingston

The New York Walk last Saturday. Here we are, some of us, after lunch, sitting on a bench in Tomkins Square Park in the East Village.

(Left to right: Yasemin, George, Tracy, Marisella, Nila, Laura, Jay)


Some of the people on that bench have been doing this walk for thirty years; others were first-timers. That difference became a theme running through my mind for much of the afternoon, for I realized that a lot of the time, even when our eyes were focused on the same sights, we weren’t really seeing the same thing.

My first inkling of this came soon after we left Port Authority. Our first stop was a flea market on a closed-to-traffic block of 39th St. One of the booths was selling old magazines, and two of our younger walkers and I were leafing through them looking at ads and photos from the 1950s and 60s. For the twenty-year-olds, this was history. Even though these girls pointed out the style elements that had come back into fashion, they might as well have been looking at pictures of Marie Antoinette. But for me it was memory, not history. I knew those clothes, those news stories, those celebrities. They were part of my biography. C. Wright Mills says that sociology is about the intersection of history and biography, and here it all was on W. 39th St.

The same was true of New York geography. If you see Times Square for the first time, it’s very impressive— the buildings, the lights, the tourists. But I wasn’t seeing just those things. I was also remembering what it used to look like ten or twenty or thirty years ago. I wished that I could have shown these kids pictures so that they too could understand the transformation and think about how it had happened.

Sometimes the historical juxtapositions are there for all to see. The New York Public Library at 42nd and Fifth, one hundred years old—broad steps and stone lions outside, and inside the feeling of something vast and solid. You can’t help feeling that you’ve walked into another century. In the reading room upstairs (what library today would have such high ceilings on an upper floor?), on the long, oak tables, you don’t see many books, just flat-screen computer monitors.

Grand Central, too, is nearly a hundred years old. The main room looks and feels largely unchanged, but downstairs, the old walls house a food court with several interesting fast-food restaurants.

(Officially it’s called the “dining concourse” so as to distinguish it from the food court at a suburban mall.) The most fascinating thing for sociology walkers seemed to be the “whispering gallery.”

From Grand Central, we took a very crowded subway down to Astor Square. Tower Records nearby is going out of business. The name says it all: they are a victim of technological change. The change from records (LPs) to CDs was minor; you still have to buy some physical object in a store. But with CDs giving way to MP3 downloads online, it's game over.

The East Village is a study in urban transformation. Here are Laura and Nila at Pommes Frites, a hole-in-the-wall on Second Ave at 8th St. that sells nothing but French fries. Lots of them. As much as 1000 pounds a day.

It’s Nila’s first time here, but Laura grew up just a couple of blocks away long before gentrification came to the East Village. Back in the day, Pommes Frites would have been unthinkable here. And the trendy and pricey restaurants you see now at every corner down here — fuggedaboudit.


Death, Statistics, and Politics

October 13, 2006

Posted by Jay Livingston


It’s hard to wrap your mind around large numbers, especially when they refer to things you’re not familiar with. I remember when my son was learning about dinosaurs in kindergarten (when did dinosaurs became such an important part of the early curriculum anyway, and why?). I couldn’t really grasp the difference between “165 million years ago” and “65 million years ago,” even though a difference of 100 million years is a long time and even though it made quite a difference for the dinosaurs— a difference between being dominant and being extinct.

A couple of days ago, the British journal The Lancet published a study estimating that 600,00 Iraqis had died from violence since the U.S. invasion three and a half years ago. That works out to 470 deaths a day, every day. The confidence interval was broad, so the low-end estimate was “only” 420,000, a number which still sounds incredibly large. (That confidence interval also means that the upper-limit of 790,000 was as likely as the low-end figure.)

Obviously there are political implications in the Iraqi death rate. Arguments in favor of the war would seem a bit weaker if the blessings of liberty which the US invasion brought to Iraq also included far more violent death than Iraqis suffered under Saddam. Here’s President Bush at a press conference the same day.

QUESTION: A group of American and Iraqi health officials today released a report saying that 655,000 Iraqis have died since the Iraq war. That figure is 20 times the figure that you cited in December at 30,000. Do you care to amend or update your figure? And do you consider this a credible report?

BUSH: “No, I don’t consider it a credible report. Neither does General Casey and neither do Iraqi officials. . . .But this report is one -- they put it out before. It was pretty well -- the methodology is pretty well discredited.

QUESTION: So the figure's 30,000, Mr. President? Do you stand by your figure, 30,000?

BUSH: I, you know, I stand by the figure a lot of innocent people have lost their life.

Bush is, of course, wrong. The methodology (“cluster sampling”) has not been discredited. Even so, many people find it hard to imagine the 470-a-day figure. Yes, the news carries reports of violent death every day, but the numbers are smaller. Today’s news reports eleven killed at a satellite TV station. Sometimes the numbers are as high as 50. But 470 every day —is that plausible?

Yes. The news rarely reports on the killings outside of Baghdad, and it rarely reports on isolated killings of smaller numbers of people. Baghdad (about violent 100 deaths a day) is the largest city, and it holds 10% of the Iraqi population. But there are many, many other cities; some of them even make the news reports occasionally — Fallujah, Baquba, Ramadi. Blogger Juan Cole notes that the authorities in Basra admitted last may that people there were being assassinated at the rate of one an hour, 24 a day. And none of those deaths was reported in the US news (or any other Western press).

You can’t use news stories to arrive at statistical estimates. That’s why you need science-based techniques like cluster sampling. The results may at first seem hard to imagine —science always has a hard time when it comes up against “common sense”— but it’s also hard to imagine such a thing as “165 million years ago.” Which may be part of the reason that most Americans don't believe in evolution either.

AK-47s -- "Not uncommon"







October 9, 2006

Posted by Jay Livingston


Another school shooting, this one in Joplin, Missouri. The shooter was a thirteen-year-old Columbine wannabe. Fortunately, the gun jammed after the first shot, which was fired at the ceiling, so the only damage was a burst water pipe.
Living in the Northeast, I sometimes forget what the rest of the country is like. What really struck me was not that it was another school shooting— like most other good Americans, I’ve gotten used to these. It was these sentences from the AP story

The student left, and officers arrested him behind a nearby building. Police described his weapon as a Mac-90, a replica of an AK-47 assault rifle. . . . .
Jones said the gun belonged to the boy's parents. Farmer said it is not uncommon for people in the area to own assault weapons.
Not uncommon! Lots of folks have them. I wonder what they use these military assault rifles for.

It’s also interesting that these latest school shootings have not brought any calls for stricter gun laws. Polls consistently show a majority of Americans in favor of stricter gun controls. But gun laws, especially in the last 15-20 years, have basically been written by the NRA, even though these policies reflect a minority view. Most of the country has come to accept these laws as inevitable and therefore not worth talking about. In the latest spate of shootings, very few, if any, of the news reports on these shootings asked the NRA to defend its position. It’s as though the issue, for better or worse, has been settled and that the availability of very deadly weapons is sort of like the weather, a condition nobody can do anything about.

The CBS news website has a nice interactive map — click on a state and see a brief description of its rules on gun licences, sales, etc., and its rate of firearms deaths. New York and New Jersey have about 5 gun deaths for every 100,000 residents. States in the West and South, with more guns and fewer gun laws, have gun death rates double or in some cases triple that.

http://www.cbsnews.com/stories/2000/04/17/eveningnews/main185126.shtml

Small Town Life

Posted By: Yasemin Besen
It was no "art": I found Friday Night Lights pretty formulaic. However, what I liked about the show was the depiction of small town life. The show takes place in a small Texas town, where high school football is the main activity: not professional, not college: high school football.
Football is a central activity that creates social cohesion in a small community. It's also the source of pride and town identity in a deprived town. Football is the way to relate to others in town, but it's also the way out of it. In small towns, where economic opportunities are limited, the only way for social mobility is through football. While not many benefit from it, it's the ideal that keeps many from questioning the existing economic structure. Focusing on themes like social cohesion, inequality, small town life, rather than following a formula, would have made it much more interesting.

Friday Night Lite

October 4, 2006
Posted by Jay Livingston
I watched the first episode of “Friday Night Lights,” the new NBC show about high school football in a Texas town. The New York Times critic had given it a rave review, repeating words like “great” and “art.”
 
Art it may have been (the Times critic was especially impressed by the show’s sound editing, an artistic touch that viewers like me aren’t likely to notice, and not the sort of thing to make us want to tune in next week). But great? It was about football, about teenagers playing a football game. As such, it played on one long-standing idea in American movies and TV: all moral questions, all questions of character, can be settled in a contest. Typically, the story sets out some difficulties for the hero —conflicts with the society, conflicts with some other person or organization, conflicts within himself. It all leads up to some climactic confrontation. Usually the hero wins, occasionally he loses. But the outcome doesn’t matter so much as the nobility of the fight, for win or lose, the hero has fought, and that seems to resolve all issues. The classic example is the old Western with its quick-draw shootout, which resolves issues like economic conflicts between ranchers and farmers over land use. But sports and games figure prominently, especially one-on-one contests like boxing. Rocky is the obvious example, but there are lots of other fight films, and many of them have this same quality: the match seems to melt all problems no matter how complicated, no matter how seemingly unrelated to the match itself—problems between a man and a woman, a son and father, friend and friend.

My own list includes movies about everything from airplane dogfights to chess. Some are classics (“The Hustler,” which ends in a pool match, or “On the Waterfront,” which ends in a fistfight between a worker and a union boss), and many are best forgotten (“The Cincinnati Kid,” which ends in a poker game, or “The Karate Kid” and many, many, others).
More recently — and I guess this will be true of “Friday Night Lights”— the hero is not so much an individual as a team, as in all those “coach” movies. But the assumption is the same: getting ready for the big game and then playing it leads to triumph over all internal or external obstacles in life.
Last night’s episode of “Friday Night Lights” clutched at one other American cliche— the Hollywood Ending. The team is down by ten points with three minutes left; their star quarterback is taken off the field on a stretcher, possibly paralyzed for life with a spinal injury; the substitute quarterback muffs play after play. At this point, I turned to my son, who was watching too, and said, “If they win this game . . .” Guess what. No, you don’t even have to guess. You know. You’ve seen so many American movies that you know what happens.
Again I am reminded of what the Iranian immigrant in “The House of Sand and Fog” says (see the Sept. 27 entry in this blog) — Americans always wanting the sweet taste.

The Magic of Plagiarism; the Plagiarism of Magic

September 30, 2006Posted by Jay Livingston
You can’t copyright a joke, you can’t copyright a magic trick. So what do you when another performer steals your stuff?
Eric Walton is a magician. He’s doing a show, “Esoterica,” at a theater down on E. 15th. But some of his act resembles a show another magician, Ricky Jay [photo on the right], did a few years back. The Times ran a story (here) on the on the controversy.















Jules Fisher, the Tony Award-winning lighting designer, who is also an amateur magician . . . .sent an e-mail message to Mr. Walton saying the presentation of the Knight's Tour “so closely approaches its inspiration as to border on plagiarism.”
“Does performing an existing effect, or variation thereof, confer upon the performer of it ownership of that effect, or the exclusive and perpetual right to all subsequent interpretations of it?” Mr. Walton asked in his message. “On this point you and I are obviously in disagreement.”
This was of some interest to me because many years ago, I was hanging around with magicians, thinking that there might be something interesting and sociological there. In survey research, you start with an idea, then you get data to support it. But I was doing ethnographic research, where you often begin with the “data,” usually a group of people in some setting, not sure exactly what you’re looking for but with the sense that, as I once heard William H. Whyte say, “If I look at something long enough, eventually I’ll see something nobody else has seen.”
I wasn’t as successful as Whyte. I never did figure out a framework for my observations with the magicians. I don’t even know where my fieldnotes are now. But on the topic of plagiarism, I do remember this: When magicians talk among themselves, when they demonstrate tricks for one another, they are unusually scrupulous about giving credit where it’s due. Much like academics, they footnote everything. They’ll say things like, “The routine combines Gene Finnell’s Free Cut Principle with the plot from Dai Vernon’s Aces.” They are especially careful to footnote the specific “moves” (sleights) that they use in a trick. “This is an extension of a coin change by Dr. E. Roberts in Bobo,” (Bobo being the author of a classic book on coin magic.)
The problem is that you can’t do this kind of footnoting in a performance. In the first place, it comes close to disclosing secrets of how the trick is done. But more important, the audience doesn’t care. They want to be entertained, not informed. What’s important to magicians — authorship, originality— is not important to the audience. I remember once seeing a street magician in New York who had taken most of his act from another street magician I’d seen a couple of years earlier but who had since moved on. He finished his little seven-minute show and passed the hat for donations from the small sidewalk crowd. The crowd was pleased. But I, as a sort of magician or at least someone in the know, resented his stealing the other guy’s act, and I had the feeling that real magicians would too. As the crowd dispersed and the magician turned back to arrange his props for the next show, I approached him and mentioned something about the other magician. “Oh yeah,” he exclaimed, “he’s my idol. I’ve patterned my whole act after his.” And for some reason, I felt that made it okay. I think other magicians hearing this would have had the same reaction. They might not have admired him; they might have looked down on his lack of originality. But his footnoting would have legitimized his act.
Eric Walton cannot get up on stage and say, “A lot of what I’m going to do tonight I took from Ricky Jay.” I suppose he could mention Jay in the notes in the Playbill. And he did, in a way. It turns out that Eric Walton had given an interview to a website where he said that Ricky Jay had been a source of inspiration to him. However, after others noted the similarity of the shows, Walton asked the website to remove that quote.
If students plagiariaze papers, they can be given an F for the paper or even the course. They can even be tossed out of school. If writers plagiarize, they can be sued for real money. But if a performer steals someone else’s act, he is subject only to informal social control