Editorial Board: Editor: George H. Conklin, Emeritus, North Carolina Central University Robert Wortham, Associate Editor, North Carolina Central University Board: Rebecca Adams, UNC-Greensboro Bob Davis, North Carolina Agricultural and Technical State University Catherine Harris, Wake Forest University Ella Keller, Fayetteville State University Ken Land, Duke University Steve McNamee, UNC-Wilmington Miles Simpson, North Carolina Central University William Smith, N.C. State University
Editorial Assistants John W.M. Russell, Technical Consultant
Volume 10, Number 1
Dead Men Do Tell Tales:
Timothy J. Bertoni
University of South Carolina
Although the specific names will vary, everyone can recite from memory, a list of famous or infamous figures from the past – Genghis Khan, Napoleon, Sir Isaac Newton, Madame Curie, Galileo, Thomas Edison, Alexander Graham Bell -- people whose names live on because of the notable achievements or discoveries they made. But we also recall others such as P.T. Barnum, Sally Rand, Annie Oakley, and "Buffalo Bill" Cody, people known largely for their "celebrity." This raises the question: Have we always been obsessed with celebrity and celebrities, or is this a product of the increased disposable income and leisure afforded by advancing industrial technology? To address this question, we develop a quantitative measure of the cultural attention directed toward celebrities and achievers, and use it to explore trends across the 20th Century.
Advancing industrialization has produced concomitant trends of increasing technological productivity and declining rates of population growth. Together they have produced a more than thirteen-fold growth in real per capita wealth and income in the United States since 1870 (Nolan and Lenski 2009: 219). Anecdotally, this increasing income "surplus" appears to have enabled the population to shift its attention away from issues of survival and subsistence and toward leisure, entertainment, and amusement – more secular "hedonistic" pursuits. At the same time, science, technology, and secular ideologies have greatly undermined and eroded the influence of theistic religions (Nolan and Lenski 2009: 237).
Increasing per capita wealth and increasing leisure time (1) have offered the opportunity for more people to indulge in more hedonistic urges and pursuits, and, this, in turn, has created a growing number of occupations that cater to these pursuits. We believe that, together, these trends may have fundamentally transformed American culture.
If they have, we would expect this transformation to manifest itself in observable "collective representations" (e.g., Durkheim 1895), and, a reasonable place to look for evidence of this is in the popular mass media, more specifically, editorially-chosen and prominently-featured published obituaries. If the cultural importance of secular hedonism has increased, we would expect that there would be a concomitant increase in the relative proportion of "celebrity," (e.g., athletes, actors, entertainers), and a decline in religious (e.g., clergy) and "producer" (e.g., scientists, industrialists, and inventors) obituaries. Such a trend (social fact) would reflect either a shift in the editorial judgment of the press, since featured obituaries reflect editors' twin judgments of the individual's "importance" and of the potential reader interest in them, a shift in the relative numbers of people employed in these occupational categories, or some combination of the two.
The pursuit of pleasure, hedonism, has unquestionably been an aspect of all human societies. But its form, direction, and scale have varied greatly. (2) Art history suggests that religious art, music and ceremony dominated entertainment in the middles ages, while secular activities predominate in advanced industrial societies today. This shift is not simply a shift in individual tastes, but an institutional shift organized around a growing market economy, political liberty, and slowing population growth. In our opinion, the growing prominence of, and attention directed toward, entertainers, actors, and star athletes is merely a collective representation of this underlying socio-cultural change.
We hypothesize, therefore, that with advancing industrialization and the growing economic surplus it produces, there will be a growing proportion of obituaries for secular hedonistic occupations and a declining proportion of obituaries of religious, scientific, and industrial figures. We will test our hypothesis with data obtained from the New York Times -- "The Newspaper of Record."
Focusing on the long-term trends in hedonism, the literature basically develops two themes. The first is the decrying of increasing materialism and the immorality of secular hedonism by theistic religious theorists (e.g., Davidson 1974, Brown 1996, Sorokin 1941, Goudzward 1979, Banowksy 1969). The second theme is recognition of the creation of a "new class" from the growth and spread of wealth in capitalistic market economies. The latter tradition traces its roots back to Thorstein Veblen's (1958) The Theory of the Leisure Class, in which he describes the role, tastes, and habits of this "new class" (1899), develops further in C. Wright Mills' critique (1958), and culminates in John Kenneth Galbraith's (1958) extrapolation of it. Mill's found Veblen's account historically dated, and lacking in appreciation of the power achieved by such classes. Galbraith argued that there no longer simply was a leisure class, he argued we had become a leisure society.
More recently, in The Romantic Ethic and the Spirit of Modern Consumerism (1987), Colin Campbell sought to update Weber's "Protestant Ethic, by positing a hedonistic theory of social action in the tradition of micro-sociology. He sees an emotional, as opposed to a rational, ethic driving consumerism. How people feel is increasingly more important than how they think. In this view, romantic feeling, not rationality, is the mechanism that drives the market economy. Hedonistic feelings lead individuals to select goods and services that provide pleasure, and this produces consumerism.
During the middle ages in Europe, as in many agrarian societies, institutional religion was/is a significant component of the power elite. Art, music, and drama all, for the most part, reflected religious themes. In modern advanced industrial societies theistic religious institutions play much less of a public role (Outram, 1995; Lenski, 1966; Mills, 1956; Swanson, 1967). But as Durkheim so eloquently argued (1912), rather than disappearing, the religious impulse may simply have been redirected. In the modern industrial age theistic religion is apparently being supplanted by more secular substitutes (e.g., Marxism, environmentalism) which serve a number of public functions that older religious institutions once did (Crichton 2003) in the public sphere. (3)
To avoid confusion, it is worth emphasizing that our argument and hypotheses differ markedly from the time-worn "secularization prophecies" that were recently granted last rites by the preeminent religious scholar Rodney Stark (1999, 2011). He argues, quite convincingly, that they predicted the end of religion, specifically, the end of belief at the micro-social, individual level, a view upon which we are agnostic. We are not addressing individual religiosity, or church attendance, but rather a fundamental shift in the culture, similar to what Stark terms a macro version of secularization, the deinstitutionalization of religion -- "...a decline in the social power of once-dominant religious institutions…" -- that he considers inarguable (1999:251-252). (4)Arguable, or not, we hold that it should be tested with empirical data, and that is what we propose to do.
Measures and Methods
We will test our arguments with three sets of hypotheses. The first hypothesis in each set is the "weaker" form, which merely posits proportional changes in the obituaries of people in certain occupational categories. The second is the "stronger" form, which posits, further, that the change is greater than the change in the relative numbers of people employed in such occupations. Thus, support for the second would imply that the change is the result of greater (or lesser) importance and attention being accorded to the activity/occupational category, not simply changes in the relative number of people employed in them.
• H1a: As industrialization advances the proportion of celebrity obituaries will increase.
• H1b: Celebrity obituaries will increase at a faster rate than the increase in celebrity employment.
• H2a: As industrialization advances the proportion of religious obituaries will decrease.
• H2b: Religious obituaries will decrease at a faster rate than the decrease in religious employment.
• H3a: As industrialization advances the proportion of business and manufacturing obituaries will decrease.
• H3b: Business and Manufacturing obituaries will decrease at a faster rate than the decrease in business and manufacturing employment.
Data to test the hypotheses were gathered from The New York Times obituaries and Statistical Abstracts of the United States. We first briefly review a special feature on "notable deaths" in 1852 (published in January of 1853), and then sample obituaries for the years 1900, 1925, 1950, 1975, and 2000. Since the U.S. is argued to have crossed the industrial threshold about 1870 (Nolan and Lenski 2009: 197), we have a snapshot of the state of affairs in a late pre-industrial phase and a systematic sample of changes across succeeding phases/degrees of industrialization. By tracing the distributions of obits over time, it may be possible to trace the state of these social facts through this period.
In the January 1, 1853 feature, "The Dead of the Year," the New York Times categorized notable deaths for the year 1852 into 11 categories: Authors/Scholars, Statesman, Jurists, Physicians/Men of Science, Artists, Army/Navy, Revolutionary vets, Divines/Missionaries, Royal Personages, Persons otherwise remarkable, and Notable women (see Appendix A). The editors also included the deaths of Europeans and included the months of November and December of 1851.
The only clearly "celebrity" occupation identified in the 1853 categorization was "Artists," and there were 78 of them. Some additional, apparently celebrity, occupations are found in the categories of "Persons Otherwise Remarkable" totaling 161, and "Notable Women" totaling 44. The Religious occupations are noted by "Divines and Missionaries" whose number totaled 99.
To produce a comprehensive yet manageable data set, we randomly selected twenty days out of each year 1900, 1925, 1950, 1975, and 2000 and matched the selected days over time by calendar year, month and day. We coded the obituaries for those days published in the section "notable deaths." Although The New York Times is a "paper of record," which means they have recorded the names of all the deaths in the city and state of that day, the "notable deaths" vary in number and length across the years.
We developed a method of classification for this study based on the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (DNA). The Oxford Dictionary has a comprehensive and well-developed system for dividing and subdividing occupations. In total, the dictionary lists 25 general categories and a hundred subcategories. Of these, we have chosen six categories to represent the celebrity occupations: "Art, Film and Broadcasting, Music, Sports Games and Pastimes, Theatre and Live Entertainment, and Travel and Exploration." These categories are celebrated in society for their ability to generate status, money, and influence and for the fact these occupations have little or nothing to do with subsistence, or subsistence technology. For religious figures, we use the category: "Religion and Belief."
We gauge the importance of secular hedonism (the pursuit of pleasure, free from religious influence) in terms of the occupations of people whose obituaries are recorded in The New York Times. Secular hedonistic occupations are classes of jobs whose occupants sell their labor to the population based on the secular amusement and/or entertainment they provide. We will use the combined proportion of obituaries of individuals categorized as non-religious entertainers, celebrities, and athletes as the indicator of the prominence of secular hedonism in the culture.
Because the categories were not strictly comparable with those used for the later dates, we did not calculate percentages or ratios of obits to occupations for 1852. Nonetheless, the rankings of these obits are of interest.
The "Persons Otherwise Remarkable" category ranks first, military (our combination of "Army and Navy" and "Revolutionary Veterans") second, and "Religious Divines and Missionaries" rank fourth behind "Authors and Scholars." "Artists," the only category resembling our hedonistic category, ranks seventh.
Table 2 shows the stark contrast in the trends of hedonistic and religious obituaries. Secular hedonistic obituaries steadily rise in rank across the twentieth century. They are seventh in 1900, fifth in 1925, third in 1950, and first in 1975 and 2000. In fact, by 2000 they were 28 percent of the total, seven times what they were in 1900, and the most recorded for any single category in the 100 year period. In contrast, religious obituaries fell from fourth to last in rank; after increasing slightly in 1925 and 1950, they plummeted to 3 percent in 1975, and actually reached zero in 2000, the lowest count in any category in the hundred year period. Ignoring our category "Remainder," which contained a number of relatives of well-known individuals, but lacked information on occupation, (5)the proportion of obituaries in "Business and Finance" halved over the century; they ranked first in 1900, 1925, 1950; second in 1975, and fourth in 2000. "Manufacturing/Industry," like religious obits, increased slightly through 1950, and then dropped precipitously by 2000.
*p<.05 (one-tailed difference of proportions test compared with 1900 categories).
These overall trends in the distributions of obituaries, thus, provide substantial support for the "weaker" form of our hypotheses – celebrity obituaries increase dramatically, and religious and producer obituaries plummet.
To test our "stronger" hypotheses we first assemble data on the distributions and trends in employment over the period. Table 3 shows the proportion of workers in the focal occupations according to the U.S. Census.
Note: 1900 N=29,155,923; 1925=45,697,756; 1950 N=60,421,261; 1975 N=91,613,000; 2000 N=136,592,300;
Although they constitute a very small proportion of the employed in all years examined, religious occupations decline, and hedonistic occupations increase modestly over this time period. (6)Not surprisingly, given the dramatic technological advances and increases in financial activity, manufacturing and industry employment declines substantially and business and finance increases. While these shifts in religious and celebrity employment are consistent with our argument, more importantly, these data will allow us to test the "stronger" versions of our hypotheses. Namely, that the increase in celebrity obituaries will be greater than the increase in celebrity employment, and the decline in religious and produce" obituaries will be greater than the declines in their employment.
To test these hypotheses, we calculate the ratio of the percentage of obituaries to the percentage of the workforce employed in these occupations. A ratio of 1.0 indicates that the percentage of obituaries featured in The New York Times is directly proportional to the percentage employed in those occupations; a ratio greater than one, indicates that these occupations are "overrepresented," and a ratio of less than one, indicates they are "underrepresented."
We calculate these ratios in two ways -- first, using obituary and employment data for the same year, and then lagging the employment data 25 years. Since we lack cohort data, the second ratio is an attempt to detect patterns possibly obscured by the fact that the notable deaths reported in a given year are very likely those of people with substantial careers, and thus are of individuals who came from an earlier, perhaps very different, cohort/occupational distribution. Tracking these ratios over time will indicate whether an occupational category is increasing or decreasing in cultural prominence.
As Table 4 clearly shows, celebrity obits increase dramatically over the time period sampled. Already overrepresented in the early years, the contemporaneous celebrity rate soars from 6.2 to 31.4, and the lagged rate from 10.2 to 27.8. Both end figures constitute the highest ratios for any of our focal occupations, in any year.
**Lagged Ratio = percent of obituaries in category in Time 2 (e.g., 1925)/percent employed in category in Time 1 (e.g., 1900).
Almost directly mirroring that trend of increase in celebrity prominence, is the precipitous decline in the prominence of religious obits. The contemporaneous ratios for religious obits, although quite high, and increasing modestly through 1950, decline dramatically in 1975, and then, literally, "fall off the table" in 2000. The lagged ratio shows a smoother steadier decline. And, since there are no religious obits in 2000, both trends end with a zero figure. (7)
Both ratios for business and finance reveal a substantial and sustained decrease in prominence, but the contemporaneous and lagged ratios for manufacturing and industry, which indicate substantial underrepresentation and increase marginally in 1950, are basically unchanged over the full period.
H1a is strongly supported. Celebrity
obits increase in all years, reaching 28 percent in 2000, the largest percentage
for any category in all times examined.
H2a is substantially supported. After increasing modestly from 1900 to 1950, religious obituaries plummet to zero in 2000, the only occupational category, in any year, to have zero obits.
H2b is substantially supported. Religious obituaries, highly overrepresented in 1925 and 1950, drop substantially in 1975, and as noted above are zero in 2000.
H3a receives some support. Manufacturing obituaries peak in 1950, but by the end the century are only a third of the level they were and its beginning. Business and finance obituaries basically hold steady (or increased slightly) from 1900 through 1975, but then drop substantially in 2000. (8)
H3b receives mixed support. Greatly underrepresented overall, the trend in contemporaneous and lagged ratios for manufacturing and industry is essentially flat, while both ratios for business and finance steadily and substantially decreased across the time period examined.
These results show substantial support for our predictions. Most striking are the concomitant increases in celebrity, and declines in religious obituaries, documenting the increasing secularization and hedonism of American culture, together with its shift away from concern with issues of subsistence. The magnitude of these trends is seismic. While the Greeks may have looked to their gods for guidance and entertainment, we turn increasingly to our celebrities -- entertainers and athletes.
As a result, the power of celebrities has also dramatically increased. As Mills (1958: 4) wrote, "If such celebrities are not at the head of any dominating hierarchy, they do often have the power to distract the attention of the public or afford sensations to the masses, or, more directly, to gain the ear of those who do occupy positions of direct power." Additional evidence of celebrities gaining access to power are the notable careers of Ronald Reagan, Arnold Schwarzenegger, and the influence of U2's Bono and Oprah Winfrey, just to name a few. The author Alan Schroeder (2004) details more of these relationships of celebrities with political power in his book Celebrity-In-Chief. These elites with their increasing influence, and public attention, have filled the vacuum created by the declining influence of (theistic) religious elites and other institutions. In the process, "factoids," "sound bites," "infotainment," and "arguing heads" have blurred the line between news (information) and entertainment and replaced reasoned debate (to the extent it existed anywhere outside our imagination) with noise and distraction.
One unanticipated result revealed by our analysis, however, was the astronomical rate for the literature-journalism-publishing obits. We did not predict, nor did we expect this. Our best guesses of why this occurred are that this may reflect journalists reporting disproportionately on this category because of their greater knowledge and appreciation of friends and colleagues in their industry. But we are open to the possibility that this reflects a real change in their prominence in popular culture, perhaps, in part, due to the celebrity gained by Woodward and Bernstein when they helped topple a sitting President with their reporting on "Watergate."
Another interesting trend worth commenting on is the decline of military obituaries. Military obituaries were prominent in 1852, 1900 and 1925, but then declined dramatically thereafter. Although it is sheer speculation, this too might be viewed as a correlative of the decline in cultural interest in "producers," matters of subsistence, and (literally) survival.
We also encountered an interesting, and somewhat "oxymoronic," product of these concomitant trends of declining (traditional) religiosity, increasing hedonism, and the advance and spread of electronic communication. We found that some religious thinkers/entrepreneurs had constructed a doctrine of Christian hedonism, which held that the pursuit and enjoyment of God was the ultimate purpose, and produced highest pleasure, of life (Piper 2003)! And there was the brief evanescence of religious broadcasting in the 1970s and 80s that saw the meteoric rise of a number of celebrity religious leaders who developed large followings and amassed great fortunes (e.g., Jim Bakker, Jimmy Swaggart), before ugly scandals and viewer ennui burst the Televangelist "bubble." (9)
Finally, it has been suggested that an alternative explanation for rising hedonism, as we have measured it here, is that hedonism is just being "outsourced." Hedonism itself is not on the rise, rather, individuals, instead of producing their own music, art, and films, are now buying it on a market and thereby are creating and financing entertainment and sports celebrities. There is undoubtedly some truth to this, however the spectacular increases in more personalized, individual hedonistic activities and paraphernalia (e.g., YouTube, Facebook,Wii, podcasting, blogging, "flashmobs") suggest that consideration of this dimension further might only serve to magnify the trends observed here, for these venues and technologies of self-entertainment were not available in the past, even for the wealthiest and most privileged members of society. Their very existence, thus, further supports our argument.
In advanced industrial societies more people are able to purchase secular pleasures and thus sustain a vast and differentiated secular hedonistic industry. More people are more engaged in pursuing a greater variety and volume entertainment and are less concerned with issues of subsistence and mere survival. Hedonism has been discussed by thoughtful people as early as ancient Greece, where it received its name. But in the past, it has been viewed largely a matter of individual choice. While we do not reject the importance of such micro level processes, in this study we have taken a more macroscopic view, taking seriously Durkheim's argument that social facts have an external objective reality. Our findings of increasing celebrity, and declining religious and producer, obituaries document a macro-social trend of increasing hedonism and declining religiosity, at least in one advanced industrial society. As we noted above, we believe our argument differs dramatically from the secularization thesis so strongly critiqued by Stark, but should he, or others, disagree, the evidence presented here would suggest that reports of its death are greatly exaggerated.
Some examples will illustrate:
Authors/scholars: Jan. 8 In Philadelphia, William Grimshaw, author of Elementary Histories, aged 70.
Physicians/men of science: December 10.-In Germany, J. Wenzel, Prof. of Mathematics. Jan.5- In England, Johnson Jex, a famous mechanical genius, aged 73.
Artists: Nov.20- In London, Mr. Sapio,
a noted tenor singer, aged 59.
Persons Otherwise Remarkable: April 26- In Maryland, David Schiver, a prominent and public spirited citizen, aged 85. Oct.- In England, Lord Dynever, aged 87.
Notable Women: May 14-In Paris, the sister of
General Moreau, aged 82.
Employment in the 11 occupational categories was obtained from the sources below. U.S. Bureau of the Census, Historical Statistics of the United States, Colonial Times to 1970, Bicentennial Edition, Part 1 and 2, Series D 233-682 "Detailed Occupation of the Economically Active Population" were itemized by number, the later versions 1972 to 1980 and 2001 were not itemized by number. Years 1920 to 1930 and 1972 to 1980 where added together and then divided in half to reach the 1925 and 1975 year totals.
Armed Forces used Series Y 904-916 Military Personnel
on Active Duty 1789 to 1970.
(1). According to Caplow (1991), between
1885 and 1935, the industrial work week in the United States declined from
more than 60 hours to less than 40 hours. It remains in that range today
but the amount of leisure time available to the adult population has greatly
increased, largely because of three factors—diminishing length of the work
year, the diminishing time required for household chores, and an increase
in the lifetime ratio of leisure time to work time because of later entry
into the labor force, increased life expectancy, and earlier retirement.
(2). There is no universal or unchanging
category of things that people find pleasurable. For example, a student,
or desk-bound industrial worker may seek out rock-climbing as a pleasurable
diversion, while a nomadic hunter-gatherer might view a rock face as an
unwelcome "obstacle" and simply walk around it.
(3). An extreme example of this
"displacement" may be represented by the multi-billion dollar industry
of the National Football League which, not surprisingly, plays most of
its games on Sunday. The teams' thousands of fans congregate around collective
representations (totems) and enact, often carefully choreographed, rituals
and ceremonies in stadiums and tailgating parties each week (e.g., Bellah
(4) The news calls my attention to this
as I work on revising this paper. "Discovery" of a few-year-old speech
by a Republican candidate for President in which he mentions "Satan" as
a cause of evil, is greeted with stunned disbelief and incredulity by the
mainstream media. Such a reaction is inconceivable if, instead, he had
pointed to a secular ideology such as "Capitalism" or "Marxism."
The only "religious" argumentation that currently appears to be acceptable
in the public arena is some variant of "environmentalism" or one of its
offshoots (e.g., "sustainability").
(5) The category "Other" ranked first
in 1900 and 1925, and second in 1950 and 2000.
(6). See Appendix B for of Coding Census
(7). While the zero figure is quite dramatic,
it obviously doesn’t indicate that such persons are non-existent or extinct,
only, perhaps, that they are so rare as to be missed in a small sample
such as ours.
(8). The fact that the (second)
of industrialization -- 1900 to 1950 -- centered on technological inventions
in the fields of transportation, communication, synthetic materials and
exponential growth of military technology, might explain the spike in manufacturing
obituaries in 1950.
(9). As noted above, the "secular
religion" of environmentalism/sustainability may be absorbing these, (e.g.,
see: Michael Crichton) and others, seeking a secular religiosity in advanced
industrial societies (e.g., see Crichton 2003).
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*Our names are listed alphabetically; we thank Gerhard Lenski for his decades of guidance and inspiration, and the reviewers and George Conklin for their insightful comments and criticisms that improved this paper.
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