Social Limits are Real: they can End (or Save) your Life

(cross-posted in revised form from an ongoing column for the Kennebec Journal)

Part I: No Limits?

As part of my work in social media research, I follow the Twitter accounts of Maine’s elected officials, studying patterns in their public communications.

I wasn’t surprised to see graduation messages from Rep. Justin Chenette, D-Saco, in my feed this month; ’tis the season, after all, and local officials are regularly invited to speak.Maine State Representative Justin Chenette writes, "The only limitations, are the ones we set for ourselves

“The only limitations, are the ones we set for ourselves.”

“You can achieve anything you set your mind to.”

Ideas like these are commonly asserted: during the first half of the month of June 2016, the phrase “no limits” was posted to Twitter at a rate of more than 100 times per hour. That’s understandable.  The idea of no limits in life, of a plain of possibilities open wide before us, is a hopeful idea. It’s an inspiring idea.  It’s a popular idea.

Unfortunately, it’s also an incorrect idea.

Don’t believe me? Allow me to issue two challenges. If there really are no limits in life, try:

• Heading to Baxter State Park here Maine, then walking straight through the base of Mount Katahdin.

• Jumping so high into the sky that you launch yourself into orbit, without assistive technology.

No matter how much you wish, no matter how hard you try, you can’t accomplish these acts. We are all limited by laws of physics. Due to electromagnetic repulsion, you can’t walk through rock. Your legs just can’t generate enough kinetic energy to overcome the force of Earth’s gravity. Ignoring these limits can kill you.

Just as there are laws of physics, there are social laws that set limits in society. Consider the following image of a social network, in which circles represent people and lines represent relationships between them:

A spcial network of minority blues and majority reds

As you can see, there are two groups of people in this network: reds and blues. Sociologist Peter Blau considered the rate of “outgroup association” (the percent of all relationships by group members to people outside the group) and discovered a law: that smaller groups have a higher rate of outgroup association than larger groups.

The reds in the network have five relationships, two of which are to non-reds. 2/5 = 60 percent. The blues in the network have 10 relationships, two of which are to non-blues. 2/10 = 20 percent.

Go ahead, add and subtract as many ties from this network as you wish. You can’t make the pattern go away. It’s an inescapable law.

So what? Why does this social law matter? Stop thinking about reds and blues and start thinking about numerical minorities: women in male-dominated corporate boardrooms, immigrants in native-born communities, or black people in majority-white America. Due to math alone, no matter how much you wish it to be otherwise, such minorities will have contact with majority members more often than majorities have contact with minorities.

Because of this pattern, minority groups must devote more energy to knowing the habits of two cultures just to get by. The stakes for failure can be high. A woman who ignores male culture in the boardroom can lose a job. An immigrant who can’t speak the language loses business. When northerner Emmett Till whistled at a white woman in the South, he lost his life.

This is one social law, one inescapable limit among many in society. A sense of limitless potential may feel good to this year’s crop of graduates, but if that feeling is untempered by a reality check, the outcomes can be disastrous.

Part 2: Deadly Friendships

Sociology’s laws are subtler than the laws of physics, but they’re no less deadly.

For another example of sociological laws and their consequences, let’s consider Feld’s Law. Twenty-five years ago, sociologist Scott Feld demonstrated that on average, your friends have more friends than you do. This sounds impossible, but it’s true.

To show you what I mean, we’ll look at another social network.  In this network, circles indicate people and lines indicate friendships between them:

A simple social network used to demonstrate Scott Feld's maxim regarding friendship among friends.

Some people in this network, like Carol, have more friends than others, like Hal.  Popularity and unpopularity is a normal part of human social life.

Also, some members of this network are friends with very friendly people; Don’s friends have 3.5 friends of their own on average (Carol with 4 friends, Ed with 3). On the other hand, the average friend of Carol has just 2.25 friends (Al, Betty and Don with 2 friends each, and Gina with 4).  That sort of variation shouldn’t be too surprising either.  But as Feld found, things get strange when we consider the overall trend.

Take a look at the table below, which shows the results for each person as well as the overall average for all people. The average person in our network has 2.5 friends. The average person’s average friend has 2.9 friends. That’s exactly the sort of result that Feld’s law predicts.

A table adding up friends, friends of friends, and averages for each of these in a social network.

Go ahead, draw your own social networks and do the math for yourself. You’ll find that Feld’s law holds true for almost any network you can think of. That’s odd, but why should you care?

One reason to care is that Feld’s law explains that feeling many of us have that we’re less popular than our friends. Odds are, you’re right. Don’t take it personally; it’s just the way societies work.

Another reason to care is that Feld’s law is also true for any relationship in which people share something with one another. People share needles in the opiate epidemic facing not just the state of Maine where I work but significant swaths of the North American continent more broadly. People have shared sexual relations since the dawn of humanity. These kinds of sharing can also share deadly viruses like AIDS, hepatitis B and syphilis.

If you’re thinking of sharing a needle, Feld’s law tells us that on average, the people you share needles with share needles with more people than you do. Feld’s law tells us that on average, the people with which you have unprotected sex have unprotected sex with more people than you do. This means that even if you share a needle just once, even if you have unprotected sex just once, your chances of catching a killer virus are disproportionately high.

Understanding invisible social laws are crucial for getting by in life because they provide guides for safe and unsafe behavior, just as physical laws guide us while we climb a mountain or skirt a rooftop. When you support research to uncover sociological laws, the benefits aren’t abstract. Understanding how society works can save a life — and that life could someday be your own.

A Hashtag Crash: CCS2016, Meet CCS2016, CCS2016, CCS2016 and CCS2016

Visit the Twitter hashtag channel #CCS2016 for information on the 2016 Conference on Complex Systems taking place in Amsterdam this upcoming September. Well actually, isn’t #CCS2016 the hashtag covering the 2016 Canadian Crowdfunding Summit? Or, wait, does #CCS2016 refer to the 2016 Content and Commerce Summit meeting in Orlando, Florida? Or is #CCS2016 the hashtag for announcements regarding 2016 Comic Con Spain? Could #CCS2016 be a hashtag for a cinematography conference in Caracas, Venezuela?

The answer is yes, yes, yes, yes, and yes. The Twitter hashtag channel #CCS2016 has been used to promote all of these, a simultaneous indication of the popularity, bottom-up flexibility, and strategic difficulty involved in using the social media platform. #CCS2016 has been used beyond this, within the past year referring to events as diverse as a Brazilian country music festival, a high school spirit effort, a “Corporate Community Summit” and an academic conference on “Cities as Community Spaces.”

The graph below features all participants in the #CCS2016 hashtag channel from April 1 to 11, 2016. Every dot (called a node) represents a Twitter account that has made a post including the #CCS2016 hashtag. Every line (called a tie) represents an instance in which one Twitter account has mentioned or replied to another Twitter account. Together, these nodes and ties make up a springtime social network for CCS2016.

Social Network for Twitter accounts using the #CCS2016 hashtag from April 1-11, 2016

As you can see, this is a disconnected network.  The large dark blue network at the top of the graph consists of Twitter users discussing Comic Con Spain.  The smaller light blue network below it is beginning to grow after the announcement of an annual Conference on Complex Systems.  To its left are participants in the upcoming Canadian Crowdfunding Summit.  To the lower right are a handful of remaining nodes discussing less popular or timely representations of the title “CCS2016.”

Separate conversations are put in separate areas of this two-dimensional graph.  On Twitter itself, no such separation is afforded. The purpose of a hashtag is to provide a space that community members can visit when they have something to say, or have a desire to listen.  In this busy, muddied virtual room called “#CCS2016,” multiple conversations are taking place on top of one another.

Why don’t all these different groups use a different hashtag?  A social media marketer would advise always reviewing past use of a phrase before adopting it as a hashtag of one’s own, lest one be accused of acting as a hashtag crasher.  But regardless, lines of distinction in Twitter can help keep the conversation coherent.  Different users are speaking different languages: English, Portugese, Spanish.  This is a sorting mechanism.  A second sorting mechanism comes from the ties charted in the graph above: people with a particular interest in a hashtag are most likely to find out about that hashtag because they follow other people with the same particular interest.  This means relevant hashtag posts are most likely to appear in a user’s Twitter timeline.  Finally, popularity of particular uses for a hashtag may shift over time, as one event comes to a head and another recedes into the past.

At times, it’s a mess, but this is what civic democracy looks like.

Advising News, April 2016: Closing Windows and Wide-Open Opportunities

Dear Social Science Students,
Writing this advising newsletter to you on the last weekend of Spring Break, I’m watching the birds fly to the feeder at my kitchen window and pick out sunflower seeds.  It’s so exciting to see old “friends” come back who were gone from the feeder.  The chickadees were always there, even when the temperatures dropped below zero, but yellow finches, nuthatches and cardinals tell me Spring is here. As time passes at UMA, keep in mind that new opportunities are opening up while some windows are about to close! Keep the news items below in mind as you think about the future.
As always, I invite you to get in touch with me if you have any questions or need help making decisions about your path to graduation with a Social Science major.  My phone number is 207-621-3190 and I welcome your call.  You can also send me an e-mail message at  Finally, you’re welcome to drop by unannounced to my office hours, which are Wednesdays from 12-2 PM in Augusta Jewett Hall 122 and Thursdays 8-9 AM and 12-2 PM at University College Rockland.

Look Out! These Social Science Courses are Almost Full
We’re about three weeks in to registration season, and some courses are nearly full.  If you haven’t registered yet and the following courses are on your must-take list, don’t wait until summer.  Jjump on the opportunity now before it’s too late:
SSC 320: Research Methods in Social Sciences — this course has 28 registrants out of 30 slots — only 2 spots left!  This course does fill every year, it’s only offered in the fall, and it’s a requirement for all Social Science majors.  Jump in and register, especially if you think next year will be your last!
SOC 316: Criminology — this course has 23 registrants out of 30 slots — only 7 spots left.  This is a popular course because it pertains to a very practical topic, especially for the United States (did you know the U.S. has the highest rate of people in prison out of 222 countries around the world?  Source: online).
SSC 100: Introduction to Social Science — this course has 16 registrants out of 20 slots — only 4 spots left!  Like SSC 320, this course is a requirement for Social Science majors, and it’s a good one to take relatively early because the course tackles the challenge of showing how the wide variety of social science disciplines all matter put together.

Hidden Social Science Gems
Our social science major has some pretty typical courses — human development, social problems — that you might expect.  We also offer some pretty unusual courses that you might not find elsewhere.  Consider:
SSC 360: Qualitative Methods
It’s fair to say that in the social sciences, quantitative methods based in numerical representation of counts and categories is dominant.  But there is a a strong second tradition of qualitative research in the social sciences.  Assistant Professor Kati Corlew has this to say about the course she’ll be teaching in the fall: “Qualitative methods are a great way to explore a topic in great detail. Someone checking boxes in a survey may be thinking, ‘yes, but…’ or ‘not really, but close enough’ and we would never know it. Qualitative methods often have space for participants to push back and say their piece. Interviews, for example, allow people to tell their stories. But wait, how can gathering stories be ‘science?’ In this course, we’ll learn about the theories and requirements for creating scientifically sound, valid, and elucidating qualitative research. We’ll learn about the varieties, the exceptions, and the possibilities of qualitative research. And we’ll get to have fun — trying out qualitative research interviewing and observation in your own personal research topics. I can’t wait for this fall!
SOC 315: Deviance
Why be normal?  The very concept of “normal” and its counterpart, “deviant,” lie at the heart of this course taught by Associate Professor Lorien Lake-Corral.  If you’d like to take a walk on the wild side and examine why some things we do cross the border between acceptable and unacceptable, this is the course for you.
PSY 489: The Psychology of Evil and Humor
When you think “clowns,” do you see something funny, sad, … or downright creepy?  Have you ever noticed the stories we tell about one another, humor and evil sometimes are placed against one another, and are sometimes allies?  What are humor and evil for?  As Professor Ken Elliott explains, “This course is offered for students having a serious interest in understanding both malevolent behavior and humor as coping skills. Students will study these with an emphasis primarily on individual and secondarily on collective behavior.

Last Reminder: Apply for Graduation!
If you are ready to graduate this Spring or Summer, the deadline to apply for graduation was April 1st.  That was this past Friday!  If you have missed the deadline, it might not be too late; I urge you to call the UMA advising office first thing Monday morning (they open at 8 AM) to check in and see what’s possible.  The UMA advising office’s number is 207-621-3149.
I hope this information is helpful.  As always, please get in touch if you have any questions about registration and the road to graduation.  Enjoy the Spring!

Best Regards,
James Cook
UMA Assistant Professor of Social Science

Feeling Like a Fraud in the First Year of College (and why that’s OK)

When I ask students in their first year of college how they’re doing, I often get a pained look in response. it’s common for students to feel a bit (or maybe a whole lot) like they don’t fit, even like they’re a fraud, not a “real student.” Do you ever feel that way? Well, here’s a confession: I felt that way myself when I got started as an undergraduate student, and it took me some time to shake that feeling. It turns out that this kind of feeling is absolutely normal and even a kind of standard part of getting used to a new role. As Erving Goffman explains in his dramaturgical theory of social interaction (Goffman 1959), we are all in a sense playing roles on a public stage, trying to pull off our scenes, trying to remember our lines. Difficulty in performing a role like that of student doesn’t mean you’re a bad human being — it just means you need to be patient with yourself and give yourself a bit of time to practice your new role before you can feel like you’ve truly nailed it. I share my thoughts on this subject in the video below:

William Shakespeare shared this sentiment in two of his plays:

“Life’s but a walking shadow, a poor player
That struts and frets his hour upon the stage
And then is heard no more: it is a tale
Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury,
Signifying nothing.”
– Macbeth

“All the world’s a stage,
and all the men and women merely players:
They have their exits and their entrances;
And one man in his time plays many parts.”
– As You Like It

Goffman would agree with the second quote, but disagree heartily with the second quote. For Goffman, the lines we deliver and the successful scenes we accomplish in interaction signify a great deal. Indeed, the whole point of our strutting and fretting our hour upon the stage is to learn how to signify to one another. An undergraduate’s role in the first year is hard, because a college or university education involves a whole new way of signifying what matters, how it matters, and how we know what matters.

The bottom line? Feeling like a fraud in the first year of the undergraduate experience is not just normal; it’s actually OK, a sign of growth, a sign that you’re extending yourself into a new role. As the popular slogan goes, you just have to “fake it till you make it,” to keep practicing the new role until you get the part down well. A die-hard dramaturgist might say that there’s really no difference between someone who perfectly impersonates a success and an actual success.

Just keep practicing, keep pretending until the pretense becomes real. You can do it.


Goffman, Erving. 1959. The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life. New York: Random House

Advising News, March 2016: Great Courses, Timing Courses for Graduation, and a Must-Do-Pop-Up

Dear Social Science Students,

Can you feel Spring coming from where you are?  It’s sunny, it’s (almost) warm, and that means it’s time to start thinking about the future. In past semesters, I’ve relied on pro-active students to get in touch with me with question about advising.  Starting this semester, I’ve decided to actively reach out with periodic newsletters.  I’ll share important information about deadlines, extra-curricular opportunities, new courses and graduation strategies.
As always, I invite you to get in touch with me if you have any questions or need help making decisions about your path to graduation with a Social Science major.  My phone number is 207-621-3190 and I welcome your call.  You can also send me an e-mail message at  Finally, you’re welcome to drop by unannounced to my office hours, which are Wednesdays from 12-2 PM in Augusta Jewett Hall 122 and Thursdays 8-9 AM and 12-2 PM at University College Rockland.

Registration Starts Monday — Check Out These Two Crucial Fall Social Science Courses
Don’t forget to register for classes starting Monday, March 14!  Classes fill up fast, so be sure to put in your requests quickly.  There are a lot of super courses for Social Science that you might enjoy, but one is new and one is really important for majors.
  • SSC 320, Research Methods in Social Science, is absolutely necessary for you to graduate as a Social Science major, and it’s only taught once per year in the fall.  If you plan to graduate soon, please be sure to sign up for SSC 320 as quickly as you can, before the class fills up to capacity.
  • SSC 360 is a new course in Qualitative Research Methods being taught by Social Science faculty member Prof. Kati Corlew.  This course will help you practice systematic interviewing and observation skills, develop questionnaires and protocols for field notes, and apply scientific rigor in method to analysis of results.
  • This fall, I’ll be teaching SSC 320, SOC 316 (Criminology), and SOC 375 (Social Networks) in addition to SOC 101 (Introduction to Sociology), a course that most of you should have completed by the fall.  I’d love to have you in class!  Ask me a few questions if you’d like to know more about these courses.

Important: New Requirement When Registering
Staring this year, you’ll be asked to sign a Financial Responsibility Statement in MaineStreet on your ‘To Do’ list before you complete registration.  This is a legal agreement between the student and the University of Maine System explaining that you are financial obliged to pay back whatever loans you receive.  It may sound like a boring hurdle, but if you don’t agree to the statement before you try to register, you’ll be blocked from registering!  Please make sure you sign in to MaineStreet and agree to that statement.

Time to Apply for Graduation! DUE: April 1
Are you ready to graduate this Spring or Summer?  If so, you need to apply for graduation by April 1st.  To apply, visit on the web. Once you register for graduation you’ll receive cap & gown and ceremony information via email.

Looking for Scholarships? DUE: March 25
Unlike financial aid (loans that must be repaid), UMA scholarships are outright grants that you don’t have to pay back.  For a list of scholarship opportunities (more than $1,000,000 available), and to apply for those scholarships, visit  The due date for UMA’s easy Universal Scholarship Application is March 25.

I hope this information is helpful.  As always, please get in touch if you have any questions about registration and the road to graduation.

Best Regards,
James Cook
UMA Assistant Professor of Social Science

“Hello, My Name Is…”: Gender in Sims 4 Choices

Gender socialization involves first the limits presented by the messages that we are sent, second our reaction to those limits, and third our efforts to reinforce or change those limits. Gender socialization often happens through media, and one of the newest and most popular forms of media is the computer game.  To examine gender socialization in computer games, I’ve recorded a video that walks through the various options presented for the development of “male” and “female” characters in a very popular game called Sims 4.

As you watch the brief (6 minute) video of the results below, consider: what messages do the options for the two available gendered categories of “male” and “female” identity send us? What choices does the player have?  What choices does the player not have?


Here’s what I noticed during my walkthrough:

  • Most crucially, only two named categories are presented.  They’re labeled “male” and “female,” although really what’s being performed here is not explicit biological sexuality but rather social indicators of masculinity and femininity.  This is indeed about socialized gender, not strictly sex.  If we’re dealing with gender, would you say there more than two gender categories put on display in the Sims 4 character design feature?
  • Walks: Both Male  and Female  Characters may have a “Perky” or “Snooty” Walk…
  • For both Males and Females, a particular walk is labeled “Feminine”
  • For males, available voices are “clear, “warm, ” and “brash.”
  • For females, available voices are “sweet, “melodic, ” and “lilted.”
  • The female character shows a “romantic” trait by drawing in, bending, and turning.
  • The male character shows a”romantic” trait by placing legs apart, stepping forward.
  • Both male and female characters display identical “Bro” behaviors.
  • Male stylized character packages display a wide stance, a direct forward gaze and thorough coverage…
  • …except for the “Emo” package, which displays feminized characteristics in dress and bodily arrangement.
  • Some female stylized character packages display a somewhat wide stance and a direct forward gaze…
  • …but some draw inward and back, have an indirect gaze. Most are less covered by clothing.
  • Available tops for male characters  cover the torso thoroughly.
  • Available tops for female characters  are more likely to expose the torso …and present more alternatives.
  • Female full-body clothing options for characters expose skin, as do bottom clothing choices.
  • Male full-body clothing options for characters are less likely to expose skin, and present fewer choices.
  • Male bottom clothing options for characters are also less likely to expose skin, and also present fewer choices.
  • 33 accessory clothing accessory choices are available for female characters.
  • 14 accessory clothing accessory choices  (less than half) are available for male characters.

That’s what I noticed.  What do you see?

New Lesson Plan: Frame Alignment Operations in Political Testimony

I’m really excited today to roll out my second lesson plan for the political transparency website Open Maine Politics. has been mashing together census, social media, newspaper and legislative data for some time now, and now it’s time for me to turn my attention to education. As a professor of social science, I have a vision of political data as a source for learning about issues of representation, gender, framing, and social network formation — but up to now it’s all been in my own head. Sharing lesson plans for undergraduate university students (and upper-level high school students) is a labor of love.

So, I’m glad to introduce Lesson Plan Two: Frame Alignment Operations in Political Testimony, complete with:

  • References to Erving Goffman’s and David Snow’s theoretical work on frames and frame alignment!
  • Examples drawing from obscenity laws and Lenny Bruce on trial!
  • Primary Source Documents for students to find frames: testimony on bills before the Maine State Legislature!
  • An Interactive Padlet where students can post their findings!

Oh, what fun. Give it a whirl, and if you like the gist of it, please feel free to use the lesson plan in your own work with students (a nice link for attribution is all I need.)

Interdisciplinary Faculty Panel: What is Research? (11/3/15 at UMA)

Interdisciplinary Faculty Panel: What is Research?

Lisa Botshon, Professor of English
Rosie Curtis, Lecturer in Architecture
Sarah Hentges, Associate Professor of American Studies
Peter Milligan, Professor of Biology
Carey Clark, Assistant Professor of Nursing, Moderator

Tuesday, November 3, 12 Noon
University of Maine at Augusta Katz Library

Questioning EyesMembers of this faculty panel will discuss their answer to the question “What is Research?” from the vantage point of their own discipline, then present examples of their own current research projects. Moderator Carey Clark will encourage movement from multidisciplinary presentation to interdisciplinary discussion.

All members of the public and the UMA community are welcome to attend this faculty panel. Please encourage students considering or engaged in research projects to attend. Light refreshments will be served.

FMI: James Cook,, 207-621-3190

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