Shove Me In The Shallow Water Before I Get Too Deep. Did we actually need hard evidence that we’ve turned into a celebrity-centric culture? Evidence abounds before our eyes and other senses every day. It isn’t even fair to call it anecdotal; the evidence is so prevalent and dominant.
But along comes definitive, (apparently) data-supported evidence – from the grave no less! Sociological researches at the University of South Carolina analyzed obituaries published in the NY Times from the same randomly-selected days in the years 1900, 1925, 1950, 1975, and 2000. The researchers ranked the attention given to the deaths of individuals in certain occupations in each year group. Obits of entertainers and athletes rose from 7th ranked in 1900 to 5th in 1925 to 3rd in 1950 and 1st in 1975 and 2000. This group accounted for 28 percent of all published obits by the year 2000.
During this same period the obits for prominent figures in manufacturing and business dropped by half. Similarly, obits for religious figures fell from 4th place in 1950 to last in rank in 2000. The researchers actually found no published obits (within the 20 dates sampled) for a religious figure in 2000.
Now, there could be some compounding factors involved, no doubt, and I’m not sure if the SC researchers tried to account for factors such as the rise of a the professional athlete and celebrity classes as major occupations in the latter half of the 20th century. This could be coupled with a similar decline in U.S. manufacturing jobs and those following a full-time religious vocation. It would be interesting to delve into this further.
But I really get a chuckle out of the scramble from sociologists and psychologists to explain some facet of modern human behavior – in this case, celebrity worship. With them it always boils down to evolution and something our cavemen relatives did, or didn’t do. In this instance, their speculation on a survival-driven instinct to pay attention to whatever the top-dog in the cave was up to. "Hey, look at Grog, he has his finger up nose. Me do same." So how many cavemen exactly did they interview to reach their academic conclusions and subsequent pontifications on this topic? I’ll bet it wasn’t a statistically valid sample.
More direct is an explanation by consulting psychologist James Houran quoted in a similar Live Science article: "Celebrity worship, at its heart, seems to fill something in a person's life," he said. "It gives them a sense of identity, a sense of self. It feeds a psychological need.”
There was a time when most of us found that our Christian faith and associated understandings filled that “something” in our lives, not Justin Bieber, Lady Gaga, or Peyton Manning. It seems that our obits simply reflect our preference for wading in the shallows.