Proposal for a Ph.D. Thesis in Sociology The University of West-Central X
The sociology of children’s play spaces is such a well-mined field that it might even be characterized as a veritable minefield for potential dissertation writers. Horizontal and vertical studies abound, as do methodologies, which range from (unsurprisingly) the concrete to the theoretical, and from studies of single play spaces, to comparative studies of multiples.
Play spaces that have come under analysis extend from the U.S. to dozens of other nations. These analyses comprise everything from blogs to multi-volume studies. Seven have won prizes, major and minor, and three have appeared on Best Seller Lists. In short, this is a field where the neophyte sociologist may wisely fear to tread.
(See Appendix A: “The Literature of Play Spaces”)
Playground X, Preliminary Observations:
My rationale for venturing into this minefield is that I have discovered a play space that strikes me as possibly unique. Since I, myself, have no children or grandchildren, I should point out that my initial encounter with Playground X was purely serendipitous. One day last spring, on my way to the College library, I stopped there for an hour, to eat a snack and read the newspaper. The rest, to paraphrase, is Sociology.
What I observed that day has prompted thirty-seven return visits, over the course of eight months. These visits have included Saturdays and Sundays, as well as various weekdays, seasons, and phases of the school calendar, all of which may be presumed to have affected my observations of Playground X.
(See Appendix B: “Calendar of Visits”)
In the course of these visits, I tried to observe the activity in Playground X from multiple vantage points: five different benches (both shaded and in the sun), all four fences (against which I leaned), and several trees (against the trunks of which I also leaned). My decision to employ multiple vantages was informed by Rene’ Destouches’ seminal monograph, “Viewer Makes Vision: Vers une theorie de la dynamique de point de vue dans descriptive Sociological Analysis” [“Viewer Makes Vision: Towards a Theory of Viewpoint Dynamics in Descriptive Sociological Analysis,” 1992].
(See Appendix C: “A Map of Vantage Points in Playground X”)
What I observed during these thirty-seven visits seemed both typical and remarkable. Typical were the activities of the children (climbing, miscellaneous ball sports, races, tag, etc.). Remarkable was the demographic diversity of the population, as well as the quality of the interactions among its constituent groups (child to child, child to adult, and adult to adult).
Testing My Initial Observations:
To test these “eyeball” observations, I proceeded to collect unsystematic anecdotal evidence from two-dozen adult informants, obtained by means of commonplace conversational gambits: “What do you do for a living? … You look Asian… What country is your family from? I bet you work in a lab or hospital.” On average, my sample comprised 38.7 % percent of adults present during my thirty-seven visits.
Of course, I could only ask such intrusive questions after some preliminary “ice-breaking,” which featured disclosures of my own: “A grad student… 23 years old… married… originally from YY… breaks between classes… lunch hour… half-Nicaraguan, half-Jewish.”
The Diversity of Playground X:
I have defined the demographics of Playground X in terms of multiple determinants, including geographic origin, socio-economic status, education, ethnicity, race, and religion. With regard to every such determinant, Playground X exhibits remarkable diversity.
Take, for example, socio-economic status. My sample ranged from people of striking achieved status and the ascribed wealthy (also notable possessors of cultural capital), to the working poor, all the way down to social service dependents, and even two representatives of the absolute poor.
Most striking, perhaps, was the fact that my small sample included at least one representative each from groups known for deep-seeded animosities: Jew and Palestinian, Indian and Pakistani, Korean and Japanese, Republican and Democrat.
The ages of my sample population proved similarly diverse, ranging from millennials to baby boomers, octogenarians, and even a nonagenarian or two. As for the children, they also appeared to range, predictably, from neonates to teens.
Once I had collected the sample, it was time to make a preliminary assessment as to whether it was representative. To do so, I had recourse to multiple documents: census and home and automobile ownership data, accessed at municipal offices; and school records, generously provided by administrators of the combined elementary and middle- school complex contiguous to Playground X. Using standard statistical measures, I determined that my sample was, indeed, representative of the larger population of the feeder neighborhoods of Playground X.
(See Appendix D: “The Demography of Playground X”)
Preliminary Behavioral Generalizations:
My observations and research have yielded two important preliminary behavioral generalizations:
–Interactions among the children of Playground X seem remarkably free from alienation and from accidents and strife of many types, ranging from Weberian and Marxian conflict, to random verbal sparring, shoving matches, and fistfights. In this busy playground, in which several dozen different-sized sets of children, plus singletons, might, at any moment, be simultaneously engaged in a multitude of energetic activities, I never witnessed a single serious accident or altercation.
–Adult interactions appear to be equally benign. I observed not only abundant amalgamation, but a complete absence of various forms of coercion, including discrimination, cultural imposition, and rank differentiation, among shifting adult sets ranging in size from two to ten.
From these patterns, a central question emerges: how do all these people, both children and adults, get along so well?
Playground X appears to be a powerful manifestation of the Principle of Cumulative Advantage, stemming from multiple independent variables, including size of the population (small); self-selection (the apparent absence of criminals and social deviants); repeated positive contact under controlled circumstances; role modeling; informal sanctions; and positive re-enforcement.
Methodology for Further Study:
I will attempt to define, and to go beyond, my preliminary hypothesis by means of a micro-level analysis drawing upon the methodologies of a host of eminent researchers, past and present, some of which I list here, in no particular order:
–Walter S. Hunter’s General Anthroponomy
–Kurt Lewis’ force-field analysis
–emergent norm theory
–Erving Goffman’s dramaturgical analysis
–Elfriede Schlesinger and Wynetta Devore’s study of multicultural work places
–Kanter’s Location theory
–the Matthew effect
(and among more recent analyses):
–Stanley Greenspan’s Playground Politics
–the work of Holloway and Valentine, and of Donald Rasmussen.
I also anticipate that my study will both validate and extend Gordon Alport’s famous Contact Hypothesis (which, as you know, states that hostility among disparate groups is reduced by enhanced contact).
(See Appendix E: “Preliminary Bibliography.”)
Like several of the researchers listed supra, I plan to include the behavioral determinant of size. How might my findings differ if, say, instead of a small city like ours, the playground under examination were located in a Consolidated Metropolitan Statistical Area (CMSAO), such as New York, Houston, or Los Angeles?
A Few Caveats:
To anticipate, although I could not identify a single powerful authority figure, either juvenile or adult, on any of my observational visits; and although I observed several other causalities known to foster harmony, including a remarkable level of bi-culturality (or even multi-culturality); strong prevailing norms, amounting almost to a paradigm, of cooperation and pluralism; a virtual absence of retreatism, and of scapegoating and other forms of stigmatization; muted prestige rankings; highly infrequent resort to negative sanctions, but frequent bestowal of positive ones; and a marked absence of gender stratification; I would nevertheless be surprised if further research did not reveal at least a few subtle patterns of dominance and subordination. After all, it is well established that “peaceable kingdoms,” such as that of Playground X, never lack internal systems of social stratification!
And lest I appear to be describing an illusory Utopia, I intend to pose two further questions: whether such harmonious microcosms of society as Playground X practice, to any significant degree, Groupthink; and to what extent, if any, we can attribute the apparently egalitarian harmony of Playground X to –God forbid! —Demagoguery!
And, Finally, Lest We Forget:
Common sense warns us to keep in mind that a significant portion of the marked harmony of Playground X may stem from a very obvious, hitherto unmentioned cause: PLAY! To venture a completely unscientific opinion (pace the self-styled “tension release theory”), these children simply have no leftover energy for posturing, bullying, and the like.
Y.Y., B.A., M.A.
University of West-Central X
Feb. 20, 2018
First Reader Reaction: Whew! Mr. Y. really covers the waterfront. Whether he could actually complete this insanely ambitious study is probably an actuarial question: life expectancy. Cut, cut, cut!
But what the heck, why not let him have a go? It’s his (and his advisor’s) funeral. And I do like the topic (not to mention his zeal, increasingly rare in this day and age). In fact, I’d enjoy reading, say, a short descriptive article on the Socio-dynamics of Playground X. (If he really finishes the thing, I can always read his Abstract.)
Second Reader Reaction: What a poor schlemiel! Why doesn’t he just pick a more dissertation-friendly topic, and write an article about Playground X later, after he gets tenure somewhere? Or he could turn his data over to me, and I’ll write it!
Seriously, I like Mr. Y., and I think he has a future in the field. (He got an “A-“ in my Pro-Seminar last year). Let’s give him the go-ahead. His advisor can help pare down the unwieldy superstructure, and deal with methodological flaws in the proposal (such as Y’s assumption that the sample adult demographic also applies to the juvenile population).
(BTW, he’s a decent writer. I found the proposal lively and amusing.)
Departmental Decision: YES, but with caveats, as noted.
K Rasmussen – Childhood, 2004 – chd.sagepub.com
Note: “Rene’ Destouches” is not an actual scholar.
Nonfiction by Ron Singer (www.ronsinger.net) has previously appeared, e.g., in Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, ducts, Evergreen Review, The Georgia Review, opendemocracy, Pambazuka News, and The Wall Street Journal. His eighth book, Uhuru Revisited (Africa World Press/Red Sea Press, 2015), is available in about 100 libraries across the U.S. and beyond.