Actually doing something with sociology


Making New York a better place through sociology? Apparently, it can be done. In 1975, Fred Kent (a former student of the wonderful W. Whyte) created Project for Public Spaces. His job? Take time-lapse films of public urban spaces with an eye to improve them. Better than any theory would be massive amounts of data. After all, rather than over-generalize Putnam’s “bowling alone” or agree too hastily with Turkle’s “alone together” thesis, he might be able to just study a spot and improve it with data and experimentation.

Kent challenges Turkle, in particular, stating that her sometimes casual observations about connection are simply no replacement for time-stamped, time-lapse data on human interaction. What’s missing, he says, is historical perspective. To avoid nostalgia for the past and the inevitable retrospective bias and attribution errors as we “remember” the past, we just need data and rigor.

Kent found some of Whyte’s old footage with an eye to recreate the research to achieve a time-place-specific reproduction for sake of comparison. Here is what he found:

… mobile-phone use, which Hampton defined to include texting and using apps, was much lower than he expected. On the steps of the Met, only 3 percent of adults captured in all the samples were on their phones.

People may decry human disconnect, but, according to Kent, 3% does not make sense as a rough count for the social armageddon that we are supposedly heading toward thanks to too much texting. Instead, he research reveals that people are more public, that is, they hang-out in public more than they did during the previously captured time period that Whyte recorded. Kent also noticed one big change: more women, many more of them. As he (nicely) puts it:

Across the board, Hampton found that the story of public spaces in the last 30 years has not been aloneness, or digital distraction, but gender equity. “I mean, who would’ve thought that, in America, 30 years ago, women were not in public the same way they are now?” Hampton said. “We don’t think about that.”

See NYT story about all this here.

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