Featured Research

from universities, journals, and other organizations

Dead men do tell tales: Sociologist used 100 years of obituaries as cultural barometer

Date:
August 14, 2012
Source:
University of South Carolina
Summary:
You know you're living in a culture of celebrity when the Twitter for the president of the United States ranks No. 6, trailing behind rock stars Justin Bieber and Katy Perry by millions of followers. But have celebrities always trumped achievers for public attention? A sociologist has used 100 years of New York Times obituaries as a cultural barometer.

You know you're living in a culture of celebrity when the Twitter for the president of the United States ranks No. 6, trailing behind rock stars Justin Bieber and Katy Perry by millions of followers.

But have celebrities always trumped achievers for public attention?

University of South Carolina sociologist Patrick Nolan decided to test the notion that public fascination with celebrities had grown during the 20th century while interest in achievers or producers such as scientists, inventors or industrialists and religious figures had waned.

Using The New York Times obituaries as a cultural barometer, he analyzed 100 years of obits from 1900 -- 2000, working from the newspaper's "notable deaths" section. The results of his study, "Dead Men Do Tell Tales: The Apotheosis of Celebrities in 20th-century America," appear in the summer issue of the sociological journal Sociation Today.

Nolan expected his theory to hold true, but what he didn't expect to find was just how strong the evidence would be.

"Most striking are the simultaneous increases in celebrity obituaries and declines in religious obituaries. They document the increasing secularization and hedonism of American culture at a time when personal income was rising and public concern was shifting away from the basic issues of survival," Nolan said.

"The magnitude of these trends is seismic. While the Greeks may have looked to their gods for guidance and entertainment, we've turned increasingly to our celebrities -- entertainers and athletes."

Nolan conducted the study with doctoral student Timothy Bertoni. After breaking down the 100-year time period into 25-year increments, they randomly selected 20 days from 1900, 1925, 1950, 1975 and 2000, matching the selected days by calendar year, month and day, and coded the obituaries.

The results were stark. Obits of entertainers and athletes steadily rose in rank across the 20th century, moving from seventh in 1900, to fifth in 1925, up to third in 1950 and first in 1975 and 2000, at which point they accounted for 28 percent of obits.

Despite a slight increase in 1925 and 1950 religious obits fell from fourth to last in rank. In fact, Nolan said there wasn't a single notable religious obit in 2000. A similar pattern was seen among manufacturing and industry-related obits, and business/finance obits "halved over the century," he said.

Comparing percentages of obits in the various occupations to employment in those industries revealed a disproportionate amount of celebrity obits in the fields of entertainment and sports. The finding clearly documented a trend toward secular hedonism, he said.

Nolan, who joined USC College of Arts and Sciences' faculty in 1979 and whose book "Human Societies" is the common college text for teaching macrosociology, said technological advances have played a major role in fueling public interest in celebrities.

"Technology has become so productive that we now generate a surplus. That is, a surplus in the sense that we produce more than what is needed to keep people clothed, fed and housed," Nolan said. "Surplus creates options. A person who once made $5 beyond their basic needs for food and shelter had to decide whether to save it or buy something. A person who makes more than $100 after paying their bills has more options. That's when thinking shifts from survival to how to spend one's time, including leisure activities. The economy has generated this potential."

Nolan said science-fiction writers of the 19th-century envisioned a future in which machines would free people from labor and dangerous jobs so that they could spend time refining their minds through literature and philosophy.

"It didn't work out that way. It's easier to lazily cater to our passions, pace and appetites," Nolan said. "Obesity wasn't a major problem 100 or 200 years ago. Then people struggled to get enough food. Now we're talking about banning 16-ounce sodas and cutting down fast-food in school cafeterias."

Nolan plans to continue his work on secularization in contemporary society by turning his attention to the secularization of religion.


Story Source:

The above story is based on materials provided by University of South Carolina. Note: Materials may be edited for content and length.


Journal Reference:

  1. Timothy J. Bertoni and Patrick D. Nolan. Dead Men Do Tell Tales: The Apotheosis of Celebrities in 20th Century America. Sociation Today, Volume 10, Number 1 Spring/Summer 2012 [link]

Cite This Page:

University of South Carolina. "Dead men do tell tales: Sociologist used 100 years of obituaries as cultural barometer." ScienceDaily. ScienceDaily, 14 August 2012. <www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2012/08/120814121045.htm>.
University of South Carolina. (2012, August 14). Dead men do tell tales: Sociologist used 100 years of obituaries as cultural barometer. ScienceDaily. Retrieved September 21, 2014 from www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2012/08/120814121045.htm
University of South Carolina. "Dead men do tell tales: Sociologist used 100 years of obituaries as cultural barometer." ScienceDaily. www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2012/08/120814121045.htm (accessed September 21, 2014).

Share This



More Science & Society News

Sunday, September 21, 2014

Featured Research

from universities, journals, and other organizations


Featured Videos

from AP, Reuters, AFP, and other news services

Sierra Leone in Lockdown to Control Ebola

Sierra Leone in Lockdown to Control Ebola

AP (Sep. 21, 2014) Sierra Leone residents remained in lockdown on Saturday as part of a massive effort to confine millions of people to their homes in a bid to stem the biggest Ebola outbreak in history. (Sept. 20) Video provided by AP
Powered by NewsLook.com
Climate Change Rally Held in India Ahead of UN Summit

Climate Change Rally Held in India Ahead of UN Summit

AFP (Sep. 20, 2014) Some 125 world leaders are expected to commit to action on climate change at a UN summit Tuesday called to inject momentum in struggling efforts to tackle global warming. Duration: 00:41 Video provided by AFP
Powered by NewsLook.com
Sierra Leone's Nationwide Ebola Curfew Underway

Sierra Leone's Nationwide Ebola Curfew Underway

Newsy (Sep. 20, 2014) Sierra Leone is locked down as aid workers and volunteers look for new cases of Ebola. Video provided by Newsy
Powered by NewsLook.com
The Cost of Ebola

The Cost of Ebola

Reuters - Business Video Online (Sep. 18, 2014) As Sierra Leone prepares for a three-day "lockdown" in its latest bid to stem the spread of Ebola, Ciara Lee looks at the financial implications of fighting the largest ever outbreak of the disease. Video provided by Reuters
Powered by NewsLook.com

Search ScienceDaily

Number of stories in archives: 140,361

Find with keyword(s):
Enter a keyword or phrase to search ScienceDaily for related topics and research stories.

Save/Print:
Share:

Breaking News:
from the past week

In Other News

... from NewsDaily.com

Science News

Health News

Environment News

Technology News



Save/Print:
Share:

Free Subscriptions


Get the latest science news with ScienceDaily's free email newsletters, updated daily and weekly. Or view hourly updated newsfeeds in your RSS reader:

Get Social & Mobile


Keep up to date with the latest news from ScienceDaily via social networks and mobile apps:

Have Feedback?


Tell us what you think of ScienceDaily -- we welcome both positive and negative comments. Have any problems using the site? Questions?
Mobile: iPhone Android Web
Follow: Facebook Twitter Google+
Subscribe: RSS Feeds Email Newsletters
Latest Headlines Health & Medicine Mind & Brain Space & Time Matter & Energy Computers & Math Plants & Animals Earth & Climate Fossils & Ruins