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Tag: social science

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Readerlinks are back!

This article on McDonald’s as a community space resonated with me because I see these kinds of groupings in small towns when we drive cross-country. It’s the only time we eat in McD’s, and we don’t always go inside. But when we do, whether it’s small-town Kansas, Oklahoma, Missouri, Nevada, or Wyoming, we’ll often see tables of old people, moms with kids, or some other community group having a meal together.

For America’s graying cohort, often sectioned off by age at places like senior centers, the dining room of a fast-food restaurant is a godsend. It’s a ready-made community center for intergenerational mingling. The cost of admission is low—the prices beckon those on fixed incomes—and crucially, the distance from home is often short. And that’s just one demographic.

In spite of the plastic seats, the harsh lighting, and in many cities, the semi-enforced time limits for diners, people of all sorts can sit and stay and stay and stay—at birthday parties, first dates, father-daughter breakfasts, Bible-study groups, teen hangs, and Shabbat dinners. Or at supervised visitations and meet-ups for recovering addicts. For those who crave the solace of a place to call home that is not home, a fast-food dining room offers it, with a side of fries.


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ReaderWriterLinks

I found this article in Wired really interesting, not least because I’ve been working on “unquantifying” my life (the quantified life is one in which you track your behavior, health, etc. to try and improve outcomes). I hadn’t heard of the “nocebo effect” before but it makes sense:

“The body’s response can be triggered by negative expectations,” says Luana Colloca, a University of Maryland neuroscientist and physician who studies placebo and nocebo effects. “It’s a mechanism of self-defense. From an evolutionary point of view, we’ve developed mechanisms to prevent dangerous situations.”

For Golden, a 38-year-old patient advocate who began with an Excel spreadsheet and later used specialized apps, tracking initially helped her provide better information to her doctor. But she became focused on every possible factor that could make her headache worse. “I’ve seen people become very obsessed with it. I was at one point,” she says. “What did I do at lunch? What did I do at dinner? It can be all-consuming.”

The symptom tracker doesn’t just reveal your highs and lows. It produces a state of anxiety—and possibly more pain.

As always, I’d like to see more studies and the underlying data, but it’s an interesting finding.


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Review: Godsend by John Wray

This is a recent release in the US and will be published in January 2019 in the UK. It has received rave reviews from two critics I respect and frequently agree with, Dwight Garner at the New York Times and James Wood at The New Yorker. I wasn’t familiar with the author, but it is his fifth novel and he’s won various writing awards. I was intrigued by the book because I’ve been doing research and writing on why young women are attracted to Islamic extremist organizations like ISIS. I co-authored and presented a conference paper with an undergraduate student and we’re trying to figure out what direction to take it for revision and then submission to a journal. It’s a difficult topic to research because what systematic data exist are usually proprietary, and the topic combines psychology, sociology, and political science. I thought a novel could shed some interesting light on individual motivations and help me think about the project in a different way. Sometimes fiction can illuminate in ways social science can’t, and this seemed like one of those times. 

Godsend cover

Godsend is a relatively short book in terms of word and page count. The print version is 240 pages. The story is inspired by John Walker Lindh, the young American from California who converted to Islam, went to fight with the Taliban, and was captured, tried, and sentenced to prison in the years after 9/11. Wray was commissioned by Esquire to write a story about Lindh and went to Afghanistan in 2016 or thereabouts to find people who knew him. (This background should have been a red flag for me. As someone who does qualitative research, interviewing people 15 years after the time you’re interested in is not likely to get you factually accurate information, especially about a notorious individual.) While Wray was there, he heard a rumor about a girl who had also joined the insurgents. He was never able to pin down concrete information about her, even whether she really existed, and she was variously described as American, Dutch, or English (he doesn’t say she was white and/or non-Muslim, but that’s implied by the comparison to Lindh). He abandoned the feature story and decided to write a book about a girl using some of Lindh’s backstory.

The novel opens in late 2000 or early 2001 and introduces us to Aden Sawyer, an 18-year-old who lives in Santa Rosa, California. Aden is preparing to leave home and fly to Pakistan to study Islam at a madrassa. She is leaving behind a life she is completely alienated from: her parents are separated, her mother is an alcoholic, and she has no friends. Her father, an Islamic Studies professor, mentions that he can get her a deferment, presumably for her college admission, but she is determined to go. Aden is accompanied by her friend-with-benefits, Dexter Yousufzai, whose family is from Pakistan via Dubai and who has found the madrassa through his connections. 

You might be asking how a young woman can attend an all-male madrassa in rural northwest Pakistan, and you’d be right to do so. Aden has this all figured out: she has shaved her head, acquired native garb and will be binding her breasts with an Ace bandage. As a romance reader I felt right at home. Aden has also been studying Arabic since she found the local mosque and converted to Islam, but she doesn’t speak Urdu or Pashto. She’s also very recognizably Western, given her fair skin, cultural ignorance, basic Arabic, and non-exist vernacular skills.

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