12 posts from February 2008

February 27, 2008

Are Children's Psychotropic Medicines Green?

author_janis By Janis Prince Inniss

The number of children taking psychotropic medications has sky-rocketed in recent years. This increase is not evident across all categories of medications, but primarily due to the exploding numbers of children given atypicals– a new class of antipsychotic drugs. clip_image003

What is driving the increase? If the stigma associated with seeking and treating mental health has diminished, this is great news. If more children who need treatment for mental illness are receiving benefits from medications, that is more good news. There are, however, indications that this spike is less a response to the needs of children, than drug companies and physicians profiting from a lucrative—and until recently, mostly untapped—market.

The rise in medication being prescribed to children is taking place at a time when Medicaid and insurance companies have become increasingly less likely to pay for psychotherapy. Psychotropic medications, on the other hand, are reimbursable. This means that for financial reasons, parents seeking help for their children see talk therapy as less of an option than drug therapy. 

In order to understand these issues, it is useful to consider the role of the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (F.D.A.)—the governmental agency charged with regulating drugs. The F.D.A. approved the use of atypicals to treat bipolar disorder and schizophrenia in adults, but the drugs have become popular in the treatment of children. The FDA oversees marketing by drug companies, but not prescriptions by physicians. Therefore, in a practice known as “off-label” use, physicians are free to prescribe FDA approved medications for populations and conditions not approved by the FDA. Because many of the psychotropic medications that are prescribed to children have not been studied for children’s use, there are many unanswered questions about their effectiveness and side effects. Because children are continuing to develop, they can be particularly vulnerable to the sometimes very serious side effects of medications.clip_image006

Another issue is the over diagnoses and misdiagnoses of mental illnesses in children. For example, despite a tremendous rise in the number of children being diagnosed as bipolar, many mental health practitioners question the existence of this disorder in children. (Chapter Four of Frontline's “The Medicated Child” offers video of a five year old diagnosed with bipolar disorder; viewing it may give some sense of the desperation parents may feel about the behavior of their children and why they would be willing to try drugs despite their side effects.)

clip_image008Adding to the suspicion that financial concerns may motivate some diagnoses is The New York Times analysis of drug company financial relationships with psychiatrists in Minnesota (the only state that makes it mandatory to report such relationships). The analysis revealed that between 2000 and 2005drug company payments to doctors increased six-fold, to $1.6 million, while prescriptions for antipsychotics to children receiving Medicaid increased nine-fold. The doctors who received the most money from drug companies are the same ones who were most inclined to prescribe medications to children. Psychiatrists are not the only physicians who receive payments from drug companies, and some high prescribers receive no money from the companies. But the Times analysis found that between 2000 and 2005, psychiatrists received more money from drug companies than doctors of other specialties. For example, payments to psychiatrists in Minnesota ranged from $51 to $689,000, with a median of $1,750. 

clip_image009The relationship between drug companies and physicians is further complicated by the fact that drug companies finance research on their medications. In some cases the companies retain control over the data, leaving room for doubt about the truthfulness of their reports. 

It’s also important to consider the drug company budgets devoted to advertising psychotropic medications to the public. In 2000, money spent on such advertising skyrocketed to $1.5 billion—a six-fold increase from 1996. Television and other advertisements have armed parents with the names of medications for any number of disorders and some physicians bow to pressure from parents to provide a medication they have seen marketed. Much of the prescriptions for psychotropic medications are written by pediatricians who lack the expertise needed to treat and monitor children on these drugs. 

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It is hard to escape the profit motive in medicating children; these drugs are not cheap and their manufactures earn billions. Figures of what Medicaid spent in only two states illustrate the kind of money at stake: In 2006, Medicaid spent $27.5 million for atypicals for children in Florida, while Minnesota spent $7.1 million in 2005

Drug companies reap billions of dollars with “off-label“ prescribing, so there is little incentive for the companies to learn more about the impact of their medications on children. And how much of this increase in medication, is an unwillingness of some parents and teachers to accept what is in fact normal—if highly challenging—childhood behavior? There does not have to be an either/or choice—psychotherapy or medication—in responding to the mental health needs of children; research conducted by the National Institute of Mental Health indicates that a combination of psychotherapy and medication is best for some mental health issues faced by children. 

February 24, 2008

Social Movements and Your Attention Span

author_brad By Bradley Wright

There are countless social movements in society, and they want you to pay attention.

In a social movement, a group of ordinary people come together to advance a social cause, and there are countless movements in society. In the early twentieth century, women activists banded together to promote women's suffrage —the right to vote. In the 1960s, the civil rights movement promoted justice for African-Americans. The anti-nuclear movement protests the development of nuclear energy. Mothers against Drunk Drivers advocate tougher laws against drunk driving.

A common goal of most social movements, whatever their focus, is to get the public’s attention. Sociologists understand this via resource mobilization theory-- how being in the public’s eye helps movements accomplish their goals. It brings in workers for the cause, it helps collect money, and it might result in changed laws. In fact, more than a few social movements have as their explicit goal raising public awareness about their cause. For example, the National Children's Cancer Society (NCCS—a worthy cause if ever there was one) explicitly states the importance of raising public awareness. They write:clip_image002

“Take action against a disease that has been ignored for too long. Raising awareness in your community about childhood cancer and the survivorship issues surrounding it is critical to our mutual mission. Awareness can inform and change minds. It can change public policy and raise more funds for crucial patient services. Awareness of the programs of the N.C.C.S. can give hope to families facing the chaos of a diagnosis of childhood cancer.”

As a result, social movements work hard at having distinctive approaches. The movement for breast cancer awareness has the ubiquitous pink ribbons. Not to be outdone, other movements have adopted their own ribbon colors. For example, white ribbons are for lung cancer and violence against women. Yellow ribbons are for deployed soldiers and suicide awareness. Blue ribbons are for child abuse and Hurricane Katrina. Purple is for lupus and showing religious tolerance. Green is for environmental awareness and Lyme disease. Puzzle-piece ribbons are for autism. Ribbons with the words “publish me” are for untenured faculty--okay, I made up that last one.

(As an aside, some have criticized ribbons and wristbands as “slacktivism”—doing things that make us feel good about helping others without actually spending any of our time or money in doing so).

In addition to distributing ribbons, social movements do lots of other things. They can hold demonstrations. The million-man march in 1995 brought hundreds of thousands of demonstrators to Washington D.C. to promote unity and political participation among black men. They also get celebrity endorsements. For example, People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) regularly features actors and actresses in their commercials, sometimes taking off their clothes (a time-honored method of getting attention). Sometimes they just advertise on television and in print, similar to a business seeking customers.

clip_image004There’s a problem, however—there is only so much public attention to go around, and there are a lot more movements wanting attention than there is attention to give. As such, movements compete with each other for the public’s attention. In this sense, groups like the National Children’s Cancer Society are fighting against not only the disease but also against other disease-related groups. If, for example, the Juvenile Diabetes Research Foundation does a particularly good job of raising awareness, then there may be less to give the NCCS.

This puts social movements in a bind. On one hand, they are probably sympathetic to the causes behind their competing social movements. I suspect that members of the NCCS are also against juvenile diabetes. On the other hand, these other groups are their competitors, taking resources from them.

It’s in this context that we can understand the following commercial. Pandarescue.org is group dedicated to saving 

wild pandas and their habitat. It’s a small group—I’ve never heard of them before this commercial, and so I imagine that they struggled with how to get their message out. They came up with this commercial that explicitly recognizes the resource mobilization model described above. As implied in this commercial, the problem for panda bears is not just deforestation and poaching, but also the public support for whales. Yes, Greenpeace and others portray whales as beautiful, noble creatures, but this video shows the shocking truth! (My guess is that baby harp seals and cute little kittens are also harmful for pandas. Hopefully future commercials will get at that as well).

 

Well, what did you think? In a way, I appreciate its honesty because I imagine that a lot of social movements think that they are more important than other movements. Still, it is so, so tacky. It certainly does exemplify the social mobilization theory of social movements.

February 23, 2008

Everyday Sociology Talk

Karen Sternheimer talks with Kristen Barber, editor of Narrating the Storm: Sociological Stories of Hurricane Katrina about what sociology can teach us about disasters like Katrina.

 

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What sociological issues do you think hurricane Katrina brings up? Post your comments and let us know what you think.

February 21, 2008

Off Track & On Display

author_sally By Sally Raskoff

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What do Paris Hilton, Nicole Richie, Britney Spears, Tara Reid, Lindsay Lohan, Courtney Love, Whitney Houston, Drew Barrymore, Winona Ryder, Kelly Osbourne, Michelle Rodriguez, Amy Winehouse, Fergie, Jessica Smith, Joanie “Chyna” Laurer, Carrie Fisher, Yasmine Bleeth, Brigitte Nielson, Mary Carey, Jessica Sierra, Angelina Jolie, Jaimee Foxworth, Melanie Griffiths, Wynonna Judd, Demi Moore, Tawney Kitaen, Kim Delaney, Samaire Armstrong, Tara Conner, Carnie Wilson, Kate Moss, Betty Ford, Mary Tyler Moore, Tatum O’Neal, Maureen McCormick, Ted Haggard, Tom Sizemore, Tom Arnold, Eric Clapton, Pete Doherty, Lou Gossett Jr., Macaulay Culkin, Mike Tyson, Charlie Sheen, Mel Gibson, Haley Joel Osment, Danny Bonaduce, Chris Rock, David Crosby, Ben Affleck, Robin Williams, David Bowie, Chris Penn, Jason Priestley, Mickey Rourke, Marc Jacobs, Leif Garrett, George Carlin, Elton John, Ozzy Osbourne, Robert Downey Jr., Ted Turner, Marshall “Eminem” Mathers, Michael Jackson, Dennis Quaid, Don Johnson, Martin Lawrence, James Gandolfini, Kiefer Sutherland, Vincent Margera, Brad Renfro, David Hasselhoff, Rush Limbaugh, Chad Lowe, Seth Binzer, Colin Farrell, Russell Crowe, Jeff clip_image006Conaway, Daniel Baldwin, and Lil Wayne all have in common? 

They are all celebrities and they have all had substance abuse problems that have put them into rehab or into jail. 

(Please note that this is not a complete list of celebrities with such problems; I wanted some room to write the rest of my blog, so not all are included. I chose just a representative group to include here.)

clip_image009What distinguishes the people on this list? 

They represent acting, music, comedy, sports, modeling, politics, religion, and “personalities” (or whatever category to which Paris Hilton, Nicole Richie, and their ilk belong).

How many of these people have gotten media attention for their substance use issues? 

Now, how many of them have gotten constant attention for their ongoing battle with their problems? The list gets smaller here and is dominated by women with the coverage of Paris, Nicole, and Lindsay taking the lead. Notice that there are plenty of men and women who have similar problems, yet the media lavishes most of its attention on the young women.

Compare the recent jail releases of Paris Hilton and Kiefer Sutherland. Ms. Hilton served almost five days in jail for a 45-day sentence; a media frenzy ensued when she went in, while she was there, and clip_image015when she was released to her home with a monitoring bracelet for 40 days (June 2006). Mr. Sutherland was released just after midnight (January 21 2008) after serving the entire 48-day sentence for a DUI and probation violation. Very little media were there to document it and while it did show up as news, it quickly disappeared.

clip_image018Why might this be? Why would society’s interest be obsessed with famous young women who are in danger of hurting themselves and others? 

One explanation involves gender stratification. We divide gender into two categories, men and women. We assign dominant and leadership qualities to men and subordinate and supportive qualities to women. Living in this patriarchal society in which men (as clip_image012a group) have power over women (as a group), the deviance of men and women tends to be treated very differently. 

The behavior of men, as members of the powerful group is usually only sanctioned when they deviate from their masculine role. Masculinity is defined by many characteristics, including aggressiveness and experimentation. Thus if men have substance abuse problems, these are to be dealt with quietly, as personal problems, since they do not violate standards of maleness. 

The behavior of women, as members of the subordinate group, is sanctioned when they deviate from the feminine norms. Femininity includes nurturing and assistance of loved ones, thus when women (especially mothers) have substance abuse problems, they are not living up to their assigned qualities and roles in society; a person ruled by an addiction does not focus on others or their needs. Thus addicted women’s behaviors are more deviant than that of men who have identical problems!

Add to this a society obsessed with youth and we have two lenses focusing in on young women in trouble.

What do Gia, Paula Yates, Marilyn Monroe, Billie Holiday, Brigette Anderson, Anna Nicole Smith, Dana Plato, Donyale Luna, Judy Garland, Janis Joplin, Heath Ledger, Christian Brando, John Belushi, River Phoenix, Ike Turner, Chris Farley, John Candy, Jimi Hendrix, Jim Morrison, Hillel Slovak, Ken Caminiti, Tim Hardin, clip_image021Elvis Presley, John Kordic, Rick James, Kevin Dubrow, Kurt Cobain, Len Bias, John Bonham, Keith Moon, Chris Penn, and Sid Vicious all have in common?

clip_image024They are all celebrities who died of drug-related causes. (Note that this is also not a complete list.)

There are men and women on this list, certainly. They represent some of the same categories as above: acting, music, comedy, sports, and modeling. 

Is the same media attention pattern occurring here? Are the drug-related deaths of young women more public than those of men or other women? This is not entirely clear: how many of these names do you recognize and why do you recognize them? If you remember their names but you aren’t really a fan, the media is probably responsible for the recognition. 

Count the number of men and women. Is there a preponderance of either men or women? Is there a difference in the number of women and men with whom you are familiar?

Oddly enough, when I tallied my lists of famous people who died from substance abuse, there were more men than women. How might we explain that?

clip_image027There might be more deceased women or more men in the public eye than I have found. On the other hand, my original list is rather large and I’ve double-checked most of the entries. (Remember that I didn’t use the entire list here so that I could have some room to write my own comments!)

If the pattern reflects a real phenomenon, then using gender theory again can enlighten us. 

The media attention to young women broadcasts images of their problems and behaviors. Men with the same problems (and women older than 29) also struggle, but usually do so out of the limelight.

If more men are dying from substance abuse than women, perhaps the men, in expressing (an extreme form of) their masculinity, are still conforming to their gendered expectations. They are still acting on their own initiative and taking charge, even if it is behavior that is harming them. 

Perhaps because young women have that spotlight, they are more likely to enter rehab (eventually) and clean up while the men, strugglingclip_image030 out there with much less attention, are more likely to push their bodies further and sometimes they perish from such “assertiveness”. 

Furthermore, sometimes sympathetic people bend the rules for the young women offer them many second chances. In contrast, others (men and other women) are forced by the letter of the law to sober up or go to jail. 

If you’ve ever seen the television shows Intervention or Celebrity Rehab with Dr. Drew , you’ve seen the challenges that people face when overcoming substance abuse and addiction. For famous people and the rest of us, it is the same difficult process of facing one’s life, choices, and outcomes and learning what you need to do better. However, celebrities have the amplified attention that fame brings.

February 18, 2008

Fiction Meets Fact: Juno and Teen Pregnancy

author_karen By Karen Sternheimer

I finally had the chance to see Juno this weekend after practically everyone has told me to go see it. Although I was miffed that I already heard all of the funniest lines on the commercials (but isn’t that always the case these days?), I found it to be a great movie and very different from the typical teen pregnancy morality tale. (Spoiler alert: I reveal some key plot points here, so if you haven’t seen it, go see it, and then come back and read this blog.)

Unlike the after school special genre I grew up on, this pregnant teen is not a “bad girl” or pariah—she is, after all, the character we are encouraged to most identify with. She is not the pregnant teen we have seen on Jerry Springer, Montel, or years ago on Ricki Lake, boldly promiscuous and claiming that she got pregnant on purpose, as the audience boos mercilessly.

Juno instead is everygirl, the girl who feels slightly out of place in high school (who doesn’t?) and finds the whole situation of adolescence a bit absurd. She is wise enough to know she lacks the maturity to be a mother or to make some of the decisions she now must make, but naïve enough to tell the infertile Jennifer Garner character (and potential adoptive mom) that she’s lucky not to be pregnant.

Juno isn’t the happy-go-lucky sexaholic many teens are portrayed as either. When she is offered flavored condoms at an abortion clinic by teen working at the reception desk, a repulsed Juno tells her she’s “kind of off sex now.” 

We see her deal with the judgmental stares of adults and peers at school and with an off-handed insult by a health care worker as she gets her first ultrasound. This film definitely does not make light of the fact that she is sixteen and pregnant, even if it does have its funny moments. Though the funny ads for the movie suggest otherwise, there are as many tears as laughs. Her pain is particularly evident after she gives birth and knows she won’t see the baby again. She weeps uncontrollably as the baby’s father holds her in the hospital.

I was surprised at first that her sort-of love interest, Paulie Bleeker (the father of the baby) isn’t a bigger part of the film. Played by Michael Cera of Superbad and Arrested Development, I thought for sure his great comic timing would be more central to the movie. 

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But this is part of the beauty of the film—he’s not pregnant, and his life apparently isn’t affected too much. Juno’s father is obviously angry when he finds out who got his daughter pregnant, but he’s also a little impressed. “I didn’t think he had it in him,” he says of the pale, skinny boy.

When she tells first Paulie, he does ask her “what do we do?” and seems to be supportive (and totally freaked out). But she convinces her parents not to tell his, and as her belly grows she reminds him that she is the one who has to deal with the stares and insults, not him. Juno doesn’t even tell him when she goes into labor because he has a track meet that day. 

In fact, the only time a classmate mentions to Paulie that he heard he is the father of the baby, he seems impressed. The equally scrawny classmate comments that he will stop wearing underwear to improve his sperm count.

The truth is, when teenage girls get pregnant, they are the ones who bear not just the child, but the scorn of those around them and the broader society. Girls are the ones who get called “sluts” or “whores.” The boy fathers might instead be called "players” or “studs." Promiscuity is largely seen as a female stain; but remember that while females have more to lose by getting pregnant, they can’t get themselves pregnant.

In contrast to this movie, most babies born to teen girls are fathered by adult men, so “teen pregnancy” often involves an adult too. Teen girls are highly sexualized by the society (and adults) around them. The modeling industry, for example, relies on barely pubescent girls told to pout for adult (mostly male) photographers and sexy becomes clip_image004defined as looking as young as possible.

But as Juno reminds us, teens are more than just naïve victims of the culture and society around them. As Janis Prince Inniss blogged about a few months ago, teen pregnancy rates are significantly lower than they were in past decades (despite a small increase in the last year data were available). Abortion rates have declined to their lowest level since 1974, and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has found that teens are less likely to be sexually active compared with the 1990s (about 54% of high school students had sex in 1991 compared with 48% in 2005). When they are they are much more likely to use condoms (up from 46% in 1991 to 63% in 2005).

Even so, we have a much higher teen pregnancy rate in the U.S. compared with other industrialized nations (a topic for another blog), and getting pregnant at sixteen isn’t a great idea. Juno shows us why without being too preachy or requiring the girl to constantly suffer for her mistake. 

February 17, 2008

Everyday Sociology Talk

Meet another blogger....

Karen Sternheimer and Sally Raskoff talk about some practical applications of sociology

February 15, 2008

New Research on Racial Ethnic Attitudes

author_cn By C.N. Le

These days, racial/ethnic relations seem to be at the heart of many of the most controversial issues in modern American society. These issues include the long-running debate about immigration (especially illegal immigration), racist imagery such as the noose recently pictured on the cover of Golf magazine, and issues surrounding Barack Obama's campaign for president.

I think it's useful for us to try to take a step back and look at these specific issues within a broader perspective. Understanding the social context that forms the framework within which each issue unfolds will increase our understanding of them.

With that in mind, let’s look at the results from two recent national-level surveys about the current state of racial/ethnic relations. Studies conducted by the Pew Research Center and New America Media each provide data on attitudes about different racial/ethnic groups in America. 

The Pew Research Center study generally concludes that among whites, blacks, and Latinos, large majorities of each group report that they get along "pretty well" or "very well" with members of the other groups. However, there are some differences -- black and Latino responses seem to be slightly less positive:

While 70% of blacks say blacks and Hispanics get along very or pretty well, just 57% of Hispanics agree. Meantime, some 30% of Hispanics say blacks and Hispanics get along not too or not at all well; this is the most negative assessment registered by any group in the survey about any inter-group relationship.

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It's important to note that although the 57% of Latinos who report good relations with blacks is lower than what Blacks report themselves, that 57% is still a numerical majority.

The Pew study also reports that generally speaking, those with higher education and income tend to report better cross-racial relations. Perhaps surprisingly, blacks living in rural areas tend to report better relations with whites than blacks who live in urban or suburban areas. Also, there were no significant differences in terms of attitudes by region of country. Finally (and most discouraging), younger blacks report worse relations with whites than older blacks do.

In general, I found the Pew study informative but with one significant drawback -- they chose to exclude Asian Americans from the study.

In my opinion, this omission is inexcusable at a time when the Asian American population is close to 15 million, in which Asian Americans are some of the most socioeconomically successful ethnic groups in the U.S., and when Asian Americans increasingly make up large proportions of the population of many states and majorities in many cities.

To remedy that, let's turn to the other national study on racial attitudes, from New America Media (NAM), in conjunction with Bendixen & Associates. This survey included Asian Americans, Latinos, and African Americans, but because it focused on attitudes among and between racial/ethnic minority groups, the study did not include whites.

I am impressed that the NAM study was conducted in multiple languages to maximize its overall validity and accuracy. A PowerPoint presentation of their major findings is also available for download. To summarize, the study notes:

[The poll] uncovered serious tensions among these ethnic groups, including mistrust and significant stereotyping, but a majority of each group also said they should put aside differences and work together to better their communities.

Predominantly immigrant populations - Hispanics and Asians - expressed far greater optimism about their lives in America, concluding that hard work is rewarded in this society. By contrast, more than 60% of the African Americans polled do not believe the American Dream works for them.

[Regarding tensions and mistrust], 44% of Hispanics and 47% of Asians are “generally afraid of African Americans because they are responsible for most of the crime.” Meanwhile, 46% of Hispanics and 52% of African Americans believe “most Asian business owners do not treat them with respect.” And half of African Americans feel threatened by Latin American immigrants because “they are taking jobs, housing and political power away from the black community.” 

[Nonetheless], the poll found “a shared appreciation” for each group’s cultural and political contributions. “Hispanics and Asians recognize that African Americans led the fight for civil rights and against discrimination, forging a better future for the other groups.”

I am saddened to hear that apparently, there is still a lot of racial tension and suspicion between Asian Americans, Latinos, and African Americans. I agree that important issues need to be addressed for these stereotypes to eventually be debunked.

Nonetheless, two points from the NAM survey stand out. The first is that as the Pew Research Center study generally showed, more educated and higher-race-2a income respondents are likely to be more positive about cross-racial attitudes and experiences.

With that in mind, it appears that the NAM survey did not disaggregate its responses by social class, and instead lumped everyone from all kinds of educational, income, and occupational backgrounds together within each racial/ethnic group. This categorization unfortunately distorts the findings a little bit.

But I am more disappointed in some of the wording of the questions in the NAM survey. For example, it asked Asian and Latino respondents whether they agreed with the statement "I am generally afraid of African Americans because they are responsible for most of the crime."

The wording of this question is biased, leading, and confusing. First of all, it asks two questions in one -- whether they are afraid of African Americans, and two, whether they agree that African Americans commit most of the crime. One of the key rules about questionnaire design is that you should only ask one question at a time.

Second, presenting the statement that African Americans "are responsible for most of the crime" is leading -- it should have just asked the question, "Do you agree or disagree that African Americans are responsible for most crimes committed" would have been less leading and more direct. The distinction between the two is subtle, but empirically important.

Another example of a poorly-worded and misleading question posed to African American and Asian respondents is the one that begins: "Latin American immigrants are taking away jobs, housing and political power from the Black community." Again, the problem here is that there are three questions combined into one -- whether Latino immigrants take away jobs, take away housing, and take away political power are all three distinct issues and questions that are unfortunately all rolled into one.

Taken together, these two questions may have distorted and exaggerated the overall level of racial tension between Asians, African Americans, and Latinos, especially considering most of the other findings in the NAM study, which generally showed a high level of willingness to cooperate with each other.

Specifically, 86% of Asians, 89% of African Americans, and 92% of Latinos agreed with the statement, "African Americans, Latinos, and Asians have many similar problems. They should put aside their differences and work together on issues that affect their communities."

Ultimately, that is the probably the most significant finding from the flawed NAM survey. Although some tensions and stereotypes still exist between Asians, Latinos, and Africans Americans overwhelming majorities of each group are willing to work together to address issues of discrimination and inequality that they have in common.

Both the Pew and NAM studies offer useful and interesting data, but the shortcomings in their fundamental design compromises their overall value.

February 12, 2008

Valentine's Day: Barrier or Conduit to Romance?

 

author_janis By Janis Prince Inniss

clip_image002A few days ago, my husband asked, “What date is Valentine’s this year?” Date, not day! How would you feel if your spouse or significant other asked that question? Would it be grounds for divorce? Confirmation that he or she is an insensitive and uncaring lout given that everybody knows Valentine’s is February 14th

Not only do we (well, except my husband) know the date, but we know the “signs” that communicate Valentine’s: candles, Cupid, red roses, and boxed chocolates. It is the cultural event of romance! Last year the average American spent $120 on Valentine’s Day for a total of $16.9 billion. Valentine’s Day is the number one sales day for florists; almost three quarters (74 percent) of all Valentine’s Day rose purchases are made by men for women. Many men propose on this day, and restaurants are booked solid long in advance. Valentine’s Day is about passion, romance, and “true love.” 

clip_image004Valentine’s Day seems to originate from a Roman fertility festival called Lupercalia that was celebrated on February 15. During the festival young women would place their names in a container and single men would draw the names of their companion for that year. Many of these pairs got married. St. Valentine, the Christian priest for whom the day was named, was martyred in A.D. 270. Some legends indicate that St. Valentine was executed for marrying Roman couples despite the edict by Emperor Claudius II not to do so; being married and having a family was thought to interfere with military service. In 498 A.D., the Roman Catholic Church proclaimed February 14 St. Valentine’s feast day as a way to do away with Lupercalia because the pagan tradition reveled in romance - and the church held that marriage and romance should remain separate. 

Do you think that everyone falls in love? It’s natural as we mature, right? Western ideas about love, romance and marriage are relatively new, actually. Today, the mere thought of a loveless marriage is enough to make us shudder, but this was very desirable in earlier centuries.

Until the 1800s, marriages in the U.S. and Europe were often arranged by parents and other family members on the basis of pragmatic and economic issues such as property. Another primary purpose of marriage in these days was to rear children; if romantic love was considered at all, it was usually a secondary consideration. It is a modern, Western idea that marriage should be based on love and that young people should choose their own mates. 

Romantic love and its relationship to marriage have always been shaped by large cultural and societal influences. Even today romantic love is not a natural or universal experience across the world. Although many countries have similar Valentine’s Day celebrations, some Hindus and Muslims in Eastern countries—many of which continue to have arranged marriages, in which prospective partner opinions may or may not be taken into account—have been fiercely opposed to clip_image006celebrating Valentine’s Day. With its emphasis on romantic love and passion, the celebration is perceived as a Christian/Western affront to Eastern values. 

In some societies where marriages continue to be arranged, the Valentine’s Day focus on romance and public declarations of love is considered at odds with or even offensive to that society’s values. In contrast, in modern western societies we expect happiness and fulfillment in marriage, and we don’t mind proclaiming those expectations publicly. 

What does passion and romance mean to you? How much of your definition of romance is based on what you see in the mass media? How much does what you see in mass media influence what you think about and expect on Valentine’s Day? Do you measure your significant other’s efforts based on those depictions? Considering how highly scripted this high holy day of romance is, is there room for individual expressions of love? Based on what I see all around me, I would expect my husband to not only know when Valentine’s Day is, but to appear before me on February 14th with some token goodies (the aforementioned candy, flowers), and maybe even some diamond, heart-shaped jewelry! 

clip_image007Valentine’s Day is the ultimate symbol of the passion and romance that we expect from relationships today. Paradoxically, many depictions of romance are hard to measure up to, given the heavy market emphasis on fantasy. It is difficult to feel positive about your partner and relationship—especially in relationships that are not going very well—when we compare ourselves and our mates to what we see in the media. We have to find realistic ways to make our marriages and relationships fulfilling, and that takes the year-round practice of responding to our partners’ needs. Like a garden, a marriage or other relationship cannot be tended one day a year. 

I appreciate romantic gestures, but expect them all year and don’t expect them to come only in red, heart-shaped packages. What’s meaningful to me? A regular supply of grocery store flowers—and groceries, since I detest grocery shopping!

February 11, 2008

Everyday Sociology Talk

Meet the Bloggers


Karen Sternheimer and Janis Prince Inniss discuss how they became interested in sociology

February 09, 2008

Getting a Job: Weak Social Ties and On-Line Connections

author_brad By Bradley Wright

Last summer my wife was looking for a summer job, and she did the usual things—read the employment bulletins and sent out applications. Ultimately, though, she got a job through an acquaintance. We see this person a few times a year, and she heads up an administrative unit here on campus. My wife applied, got the job, and we all lived happily after.

This story illustrates the somewhat cynical mantra of all job seekers that it’s not what you know but who you know. Sociologists call this phenomenon the strength of weak ties.

A “weak” social tie, in every day language, is an acquaintanceship—someone with whom you are familiar with but not too close. In contrast, a “strong” tie would be a good friend or close family member, someone with whom you interact a lot. An “absent” tie would be someone who you know but don’t reclip_image004ally have any kind of relationship with.

In a famous sociological study, Mark Granovetter interviewed several hundred business people and asked them how they got their jobs. Seventeen percent reported learning about their jobs from a close friend (strong tie), 28% reported learning about it from someone they barely knew (absent tie), and a full 56% of the respondents reported learning about it from an acquaintance (weak tie).

It’s a bit of a paradox: Why are acquaintances, people we sort of know, more important in the job search process than our close friends and family? Our strong ties, after all, care about us more and would be much more willing to help us.

The answer, according to Granovetter, is that weak ties are a unique social resource: they connect us with a wider set of social networks than do social ties. clip_image008Your acquaintances each have their own strong ties—family and friends to whom they are very close to. Through your acquaintances, you gain access to their strong ties—and to the social networks to which they belong. All social networks offer various resources, such as information about job opportunities, and so by connecting with a greater number of social networks, via weak social ties, you gain access to more possible employment opportunities. 

Strong ties, in contrast, connect us with fewer social networks. Your best friend in the world would probably do anything for you, but chances are that the two of you know many of the same people. As such, it’s not that your close friends and family don’t want to help you in a job search; it’s just that they have less to offer because you probably already know about most of the contacts that they would offer. You already share many of the same networks with them. So, there’s a trade-off. Strong ties are more willing and available toclip_image006 offer help, but weak ties typically have more resources to offer.

In this context, it’s interesting to think about the many social ties created by the Internet. About a year ago, I started blogging, and through that I have had contact with dozens, if not hundreds, of people with similar personal and research interests as mine. Likewise, most college students have Facebook accounts in order to keep track of their friends and make friends with their friends’ friends (got that?). As a result of this on-line networking, this generation may have more casual social ties than any before.

The question, then, becomes the nature of these online ties. Granovetter studied fairly conventional acquaintances—people you see in person at places like the work place or social gatherings. Online acquaintances are different. If I met some of the people I know from online, I don’t think that I would even recognize them. Yes, we’ve exchanged many comments on our blogs, and I know a fair amount of information about them, how they think, what they do, but I’ve never met them in person.

Would these on-line ties be as useful in a job search? The answer is… I don’t know. The focus of these on-line relationships is social networking, getting to know each other pretty much for the sake of getting to know each other. The interactions with these people tend to be more social—what you’re doing, what interests you share in common. I’m not sure how often instrumental concerns come up. In everyday conversation, it’s easy to drop in the information that you’re looking for a job, but it might fit in more awkwardly in online interactions.clip_image010

Perhaps more importantly, though, is that the social networks and resources offered by online connections are often too distant to be of much value. For example, one of the people I interact with online lives in Kenya. Now, he may know of great job opportunities for me, and be very willing to help, but unless I’m willing to relocate to Africa they don’t do me much good. This maybe why in-person acquaintances remain so important—by virtue of meeting them face-to-face, you occupy the same physical location, at least briefly. Chances are, therefore, that the social resources they have to offer would also be close and thus of greater value.

So, do you want to get a job? Make sure to let your acquaintances know since they may be very helpful. Your online connections might be as well, but probably not as much.

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