go buy some damn sand, already

I live in an awesome old neighbourhood with lots of kids and a tiny park that connects my street with the next street over. It’s a great place to gather, and in good weather, sometimes it seems like the whole neighbourhood is out there. Of course, being Canada, we also flood an ice rink over the grass in the winter, this being a distinctly manly job for the dads – real fire hoses are involved. It is not uncommon for people to put toys out in the park to share, and for quite a while now, there have been two sandboxes with shovels and such that people have decided to share with everyone.

Here’s the thing: there isn’t any sand in them anymore. Clearly, at one point, there was someone with a baby who minded the  sandbox, adding sand when it got low. My guess is that this particular parent stopped adding sand when their baby grew out of playing in the box. Since then, loads of babies have been born, they love to open the cover of the sandboxes and scrape around the bottom of the box, probably dreaming of someday making a sandcastle. I can’t for the life of me understand why all the (solidly middle-class, car-owning, fancy-stroller pushing) moms who take their kids to the park don’t simply buy a damn bag of sand to put in there. Five bucks, what’s the big deal? Free riders, I understand, but if there isn’t anything to ride, that is kind of lame.

And with all the hullabaloo about the health care debate, the issue seems kind of the same to me. I don’t even live in the U.S., and I have great health care, but this is an issue I care about, so I’ve already sent multiple letters to my representatives there in Iowa where I still vote. I’ve seen the polls that show a large majority supporting health care reform and the public option, and of course, I’ve seen the crazy lie machine in action trying to reframe the debate into “Ooga! Ooga! Scary Russia Hitler!” and for the most part succeeding.

And then I wonder, where are all these people who support health care reform, and why aren’t there big marches on the capitol and sit-ins and media blasts and outrage on a daily basis? Yes, I have training: cycles of protest, information overload, culture of cynicism, I know, I know. But, you know, this is important. Something really great could be put into place that helps people for decades and centuries to come. Medical bankruptcy could be a concept that seems as distant as polio. Or not. Just about everybody seems to prefer watching to see what happens to taking a role in making stuff happen. Perhaps so they can roll their eyes and have their cynicism proven right. Not much of a reward, if you ask me.

9 thoughts on “go buy some damn sand, already”

  1. I’d love to make a long response to this as it’s my theoretical area, so to speak, but no time. So a couple of fast and incomplete comments.

    I’m wondering whether you’ve put sand in the box and why or why not. Might illuminate what is at stake. There’s a huge “diffusion of responsibility” literature in the study of helping behavior that is also relevant to the collective action literature.

    Re health care protests, I’m personally wondering if I should do more, but am already under water due to disparities work and coming back to teaching. It is a social movements generalization that mobilization escalates when your side loses a major election. This has happened pretty often before. Reagan’s election really energized feminist organizations especially, and the left more generally. Conversely, mobilization is always more problematic when your side is in office. There’s a literature on this too.

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  2. I have bought sand in the past, and I have considered getting sand recently, even though Kid doesn’t use it, but I haven’t partly because I am waiting to see if anyone else will, and partly because I would have to arrange some help with the lifting (but I have gone so far as to plan out how to get that help in my head – you can see this is really bugging me).

    I love being part of a community where people place things out to share, and since I usually take a more structural approach to understanding the world, it has taken me by surprise to see how little has to change in a place for that to disappear. Perhaps just one or two people shifting into a different part of their lives, and that’s all.

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  3. I have bought sand in the past, and I have considered getting sand recently, even though Kid doesn’t use it, but I haven’t partly because I am waiting to see if anyone else will…

    Your own motivations are diffusion of responsibility in a nutshell. Even with a more structural view of the world, surely it isn’t difficult to see that the structure as it is currently conceived doesn’t create a self-enforcing situation in which the sand is replenished. As such, it is necessary to rely on volunteers to provide the sand who, in turn, probably feel taken advantage of if they continually replenish the sand without reciprocation by other users. It’s the exact same problem, to name one of a million other examples, as why office/dorm/communal kitchens tend to quickly become disgusting even if some individuals are willing to clean it at first.

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  4. Trey: Yes, absolutely. But the point is that it switched. The sandbox was routinely filled, the park was routinely filled with toys that individuals donated, and now it is not. Just like that. And the only thing that changed are the individuals involved. I find it frustrating because, having been there longer than the newer parents, I see the potential that a little bit of effort can produce, and they don’t even seem to see the possibilities because they haven’t experienced it.

    *Sigh* now I have to buy the sand, I suppose. For the neighbourhood!

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  5. Back when you (Tina) bought sand the first time, were you aware of others buying it before you? Did people talk about sand-buying and who’d done it, or was it just secret elves in the night with nobody knowing who’d done it?

    Theory would predict that you knew others who bought sand and that people discussed it. The old experimental literature on the classic prisoner’s dilemma and related games almost always easily found the cooperative solution if they could talk to each other, but not if they couldn’t.

    What was happening in the system just before the collapse? Had some people repeatedly dumped sand while others rode free? Was there a gap among children, a period when there happened to be no children of the age to play in the sand box? (Two different conditions which could be predicted to lead to a collapse in the system.)

    It would be interesting to follow the dynamics. Several lines of theory (decelerating production functions, adaptive learning models) would predict role differentiation, as some specialize in contributing and others in free riding. Then as the contributors either leave or get alienated, free riding come to dominate.
    As your comment implies, turnover among residents could have led to the departure of the contributors and replacement by people who did not have children of the right age or lacked the appropriate social ties to get socialized by the previous generation of contributors.

    As trey says, collapse of collective goods provision almost inevitably happens in a communal kitchen unless there is explicit organization and a system of sanctions, because the “contribution” is relatively costly and has to be made again and again (daily) and the externalities of others’ actions (the unwashed dishes) impose large costs on contributors and make it harder for them to wash even their own dishes.

    But the sand box is structurally different from a communal kitchen. The good has high jointness of supply. Any individual parent ought to dump sand in as long as her own child’s sand-use exceeds the cost of sand-acquisition. Not putting sand in does not add externalities to the system, it doesn’t make the sand provision problem worse.

    But the simple structure of a high-jointness situation can be countered by implicit norms about whether to do that or not. If nobody else is putting sand in the box, newcomers might get the idea that doing something like that on your own is the wrong thing to do, a non-normative act like walking down the street of a big city picking up trash while wearing business clothes. Or, perhaps, it never even occurs to them. If they don’t have sandboxes in their own yards, they may not know where you go to buy it, etc. In theory, if there are children of the age to use the box and their parents still believe that sand play is a good thing, a little bit of organizing activity would be enough to get the system rolling again.

    You seem to say this with “they don’t even seem to see the possibilities because they haven’t experienced it.”

    Interesting case. Oh, are you saying that toys have stopped being donated, too?

    There is actually another possibility, that the new people actually are less interested in having their children play communally with others in a public space. cultural shift.

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  6. Hmmmm…no, I don’t think there was much talk of sand-buying, but it may well be that all the talk happened during the day while I was working and I just missed it.

    And the sandboxes are well used, which is what drew my attention to it in the first place. It’s a sad sight to see so many babies and toddlers scrape about in the dirt and wood chips, so I don’t think that’s it.

    Of course, the winters are always a big break in routine, so that, plus some kids with sand-filling moms passing out of sandbox time might be enough to break this fragile system.

    Now I have my own social experiment to do. I got some sand, and Husband and I will fill those boxes tomorrow. We’ll see if we can’t jumpstart another round of cooperative engagement.

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  7. If people don’t know who did it, they might think it was a municipal service. Or the same elves who magically turn dirty underwear left on the floor into clean underwear in dresser drawers.

    We’ll all be interested in the outcome.

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