10 posts from December 2008

December 28, 2008

A Paradox of Public Education

author_sally By Sally Raskoff

I’ve just been asked to cut more Sociology classes from our spring schedule. It’s the second time we’ve pared classes from our spring schedule and unfortunately I had to comply with the administration’s request. We’re not losing students – in fact, we grew by 8% this fall semester – a rate unheard of in recent years. That 8% growth happened even though we were turning students away because we had no room for them in our classrooms.

Why cut classes when we have “too many” students?

The answer is our state budget is being slashed and we are a public institution. Our charge as a community college is to serve the educational needs of our community. Yet this mission is becoming increasingly impossible. Our community is clamoring for various types of education, and in turn we provide a large variety of courses and programs. Yet we have to cut classes to help our state balance its budget.

In the long run we are in a no-win situation.

Generally, we are funded based on previous years of enrollments – paid per student at different rates for different types of courses. Our district gives us targets to grow at a particular rate every year – typically 2-3%. If we make the same enrollments as in previous years, our budget remains the same. clip_image002

When we have students trying to enroll in closed classes, we typically add classes because this allows us to grow and meet the district (and state) imposed growth targets. If we go over those targets, we don’t get any additional money for that “unfunded growth”. (Despite the fact that the students’ fees go straight into the state coffers.) We do have to pay the instructors and other staff because they are teaching those courses, and this situation will put us into deficit.

Here's the paradox: when we have fewer enrollments, we also go into deficit because we have fewer students. In this situation, we are expected to pay the excess money back if that same pattern lasts more than a year. As you might imagine, because of this system we often face deficits.

Alternatively, when the state cuts the education budget, our budget is cut back and we are forced to cut classes, since that’s the only control we have over our budget. Cutting classes means fewer faculty jobs and less need for other staffing, so our labor costs decline. Note that cutting classes, faculty, and staff also means that we lose students since we won’t offer classes in which they can enroll. That in turn can create a deficit for us because we may not reach those targets I mentioned earlier.

Are you getting a sense of how convoluted this system is? Even though this semester we had 8% enrollment growth and had scheduled our same spring courses with some anticipated growth we are now cutting that schedule by at least 10%, and probably more.

Because of the state of our economy, we know that we will have more students appear at our doors next spring and the following fall, not to mention our winter and summer intercessions. The 8% growth this semester was due to the economic problems that will most likely continue for some time. Our transfer clip_image002universities have also announced they will limit their enrollments, thus forcing more of their students to take classes with us. We anticipate that we will have many more potential students than we had already expected.

The problem is – we won’t have any classes for them to take!

Education is a societal institution that ensures our future by sustaining our society and enabling it to thrive. One crucial step out of a recession is to (re)train people and get better matches between people, skills, and jobs – a process that is best done in schools such as community colleges. No matter how we restructure our economy, education will continue to be a key component of our society’s infrastructure. Cutting educational budgets at any level is not an effective way to solve local, state, national, or international budget issues – it actually hampers our ability as a society to be flexible and respond to the demands of a changing economic and cultural environment. The capitalist imperative to ensure cheap labor through an under-educated underclass is an old policy that does us no favors in our as-yet-to-be-identified re-structured economy.

Conventional wisdom suggests that people who want to get ahead should work hard and go to college. But what if they do and there are no classes for them to take? What do you think this tells us about the realities of public education in the U.S. today?

December 24, 2008

The Meaning of Christmas

author_janis By Janis Prince Inniss

Christmas celebrations as we know them have a long and varied history. And even today, Christmas is celebrated in many different ways around the world. For a taste of Christmas worldwide, have a look at the CBS photo essay about Christmas in several countries.

When I lived in Antigua, I learned that one tradition there on Christmas Eve is for people to hang out downtown until late at night, many doing last minute Christmas shopping. Throngs of people—mostly teenagers, I think—would line a few major streets. It reminded me of Carnival. In Guyana, the entire Christmas Season (and that’s what it was referred to as) meant it was time for masquerade bands. These clip_image002groups of merrymaking bands wander neighborhoods, drawing crowds.

They feature stilt walkers, Mother Sally and a Mad Bull or Mad Cow. The Mad Bull or Cow is really two people costumed to look like a cow, with the person in front wearing a cow head mask, using the horns to butt people, and the other person serving as the back of the cow, kicking at their audience. I found them frightening as a child, and the heavy drums and flutes that accompanied them heightened my terror. Christmas in Guyana also meant “putting away the house” an expression meaning redecorating. New furniture (or at least spruced up furniture), new curtains, along with heavy cleaning are all essential at Christmastime. In fact, most people are awake past midnight decorating so that everything is fresh for the unveiling of their newly “put away” house on Christmas Day.

Special food and drinks like Pepperpot, Garlic Pork, sorrel, mauby and ginger beer are all enjoyed at this time. And as in many other countries, special decorations, Father Christmas and gift gifting are central to Christmas in Guyana.

But when I was in graduate school, I asked myself why I celebrate Christmas. At the time, I laid claim to no religion in particular, although I was not anti-religious. I attended no church and don’t recall praying on a regular basis. So, I wondered why celebrate Christmas? I had, and still have, wonderful memories of Christmas from my childhood. Apart from the special food and drink, spying the dollhouse that was to be a surprise for me is a treasured memory, as is saving to buy my parents gifts, and successfully hiding gifts for my Mum. I also remember having visitors and helping Mum to serve hors d’oeuvres on special trays. Having soda! And Nat King Cole’s voice. All of these are part of my Christmas memory book.

But fast forward to the days when I was in graduate school and had my own over-priced apartment in Los Angeles. Thinking about the reason for doing so, rather than simply doing it because I always had, why was I celebrating Christmas? The question for me hinged on with what other particularly Christian activities was I involved? Christmas celebrates the birth of Jesus Christ, the principal figure in Christianity. And so given that I was not involved with anything particularly Christian, I was trying to take part in Christmas merely to enjoy its goodies—food and fun. Since moving to the U.S., I had been spending hundreds of dollars on Christmas presents for lots of friends and relatives. Each year, there was a feeling of uncontrollable spending and gift exchanges. (Don’t misunderstand. I was living what seemed like a fairly decent life but that didn’t make me a practicing Christian; people of the major world religions and even those without are doing the same too.) 

J0354720 As a baby, I was baptized Christian and while I did not grow up attending church, I had become rather interested in the institution when I was about eight, and took up Sunday school in earnest. I don’t remember how long that interest lasted but in my late teens I became interested in religion and started going to church again. All of my church-going up to that point had been in Guyana and Antigua, but when I came to the U.S. for college I stopped going to church—that was yet another area of life to try to navigate in a new society, and I let it go.

I didn’t really know much about Christianity actually. So why was I celebrating Christmas? How much of my Christmas celebration was based on the purely consumer aspects of it? It’s clear why Christmas is beloved by retailers; they earn as much as three-quarters of their annual profit at this time! But why should I love it or celebrate it? And why do you celebrate Christmas, if you do?

What meaning is there in your celebrations, if any at this time of year? Is it important to you to know the origins of traditions? Does it matter if they are related in a traceable way to that which you are celebrating? Left to your own devices—can you imagine not having the advertising blitz that we see late in the year that direct us to the “must buy” gifts of the season—how might you and your family celebrate? Consumption has become a part of the Christmas ritual in North America. How much of the meaning of Christmas is tied to shared consumerism and the objects we consume?

December 22, 2008

A Modest Proposal to Save Journalism

author_karen By Karen Sternheimer

Do you read the newspaper regularly? In all likelihood you do not; according to a 2006 Pew Research Center for People & the Press poll, the majority of the public no longer reads newspapers on a regular basis. Print journalism has reached a critical crossroads, its future uncertain.

You might have heard that the Tribune Company has filed for bankruptcy. Among its many entertainment holdings, the company owns the Chicago Tribune (founded in 1847), Los Angeles Times (1881), Newsday (1940), the Baltimore Sun (1837) and the Hartford Courant (1764). The Tribune Company is not alone; nearly every newspaper has been forced to lay off staff and cut back on its coverage. The New York Times has had to mortgage its headquarters, and CNN recently fired science reporter Miles O'Brien and several producers in an effort to consolidate staff.

I have watched with sadness as my local paper, the Los Angeles Times, has eliminated its extensive Sunday book review section, its Sunday opinion section, and reduced its magazine from a weekly to a monthly. It is a shadow of its former self of just a few years ago.

So what, you might be thinking, doesn’t the Internet and television provide our news in the digital age? Newspapers might seem like relics from the past, but they are part of a social institution that is vital for any democracy. If you take a look at the founding dates above, newspapers have been with us for a long time, some even longer that the republic itself.

For those that adhere to the structural functionalism model of social institutions, the decline of newspapers might seem like a benign shift in the reordering of society. Functionalists see society as a system of interrelated parts, each serving a purpose, and could conclude that print journalism no longer fulfills a unique, meaningful purpose. Like a free market economist, a functionalist might argue that print journalism should be allowed to disappear because it has not remained competitive in the marketplace. Newspapers are slower forms of communication than television and the Internet, which can provide news updates almost instantly.

Whether we read their work in print or online, written news must not fade away. In-depth coverage and investigative reporting are time consuming and thus costly but necessary for transparency in government and other important institutions.

You might have noticed that many of our major social institutions have nearly collapsed recently. From our entire banking system to the auto industry, the economy isn’t faring so well. The government hasn’t operated so smoothly either (I’m thinking Hurricane Katrina here, for starters), and the education system is struggling.

But we don’t just let these vital institutions collapse, and we shouldn’t let quality journalism die either.

Without the so-called fourth estate there is no democracy. Newspapers play a central role in investigative journalism. Television and the Internet can too, but too often television can focus on emotional immediacy and lacks analysis. Journalism can be great online, yet all too often much of the “news” is more about entertainment value than it is about providing meaningful coverage (for an example go to the CNN website front page).

For years, media critics have expressed concern about growing media monopolies, as conglomerates like the Tribune Company and others (like Time Warner, Disney, News Corp. and Viacom) bought out their competitors. As fewer corporations own more and more newspapers, television networks, movie studios, book publishers, and other forms of media, those with competing views will find themselves unable to compete with media giants. With more pooled reporting and less competition to get a story, journalism itself might not pursue stories as aggressively. clip_image002

We are seeing that these corporate behemoths do not always work from a business standpoint either. Sociologist Max Weber argued that while large bureaucracies could efficiently accomplish tasks through division of labor and established hierarchies, he also warned of the iron cage of bureaucracy, a rigid and limiting outcome of bureaucracies. It is very possible that these large corporations lost sight of the initial purpose of journalism as profit becomes the central goal rather than producing quality products.

Just as we don’t expect education and government to turn a profit, perhaps we shouldn’t expect journalism to either. But reporters, editors, and other staff need to get paid, so here’s my modest proposal: operate newspapers like non-profit organizations that perform a public service, and give them full non-profit tax-exempt status. Without shareholders to appease, publishers could get back to the business of reporting and stop worrying about profits. Newspapers could hold fundraisers and benefits, just as museums do.

I write this from the perspective of a sociologist, not a business consultant (but I have lots of opinions if anyone at the Times is interested). A reduced op-ed section means fewer academics have the opportunity to share their research and overall perspectives with the general public. More importantly, journalism is the social institution that challenges others to keep their promises and uphold their responsibilities. When it is at its best, journalism creates an informed citizenry, and the more knowledgeable the public is, hypothetically anyway, the better its institutions work.

December 19, 2008

Status Symbols

author_janis By Janis Prince Inniss

clip_image002A few years ago when I bought my newest car—not new, just new for me—I had the following thought: How do I see myself in my new wheels? I loved (and still love) this car, enjoy driving it, and like the look of it, but it struck me that I could never see myself in it! So imagine if I could afford, and bought a car for $40,000, $60,000, $80,000 or more. Regardless of the price, I would never be able to see myself in it. But is the point of buying certain items to see ourselves with them or is it for others to see us with them?

Owning and making known that you own brand named items is all the rage; designer items fly off the shelves, even in hard economic times. Gucci, Coach, Hermes, Burberry, Dolce & Gabbana goods are must haves.

I’m more of the mindset that wearing any label on the outside of my clothes is advertising for that company. And while I’m not necessarily opposed to advertising a brand, I really want to be compensated if I do so. Companies have a pretty sweet deal – free advertising from the people who wear their labels emblazoned on their chests and elsewhere. It’s not enough to have Versace glasses, those looking at you should know that you own Versace by looking at the name of the slain designer on the frame. Many of us value these status symbols and want to display them to any one observing us. But why?

Status symbols telegraph to others what we can afford to buy. They tell you that, for example, I can afford these designer jeans or shoes. They say that I can afford to dress my baby in designer duds and shoes, or that I can afford this expensive car and boat. Because we know how others will interpret these status symbols, many of us are willing to put ourselves into considerable debt to pretend that we can afford things that we truly cannot. Do you know people who can barely afford to put gas in their swanky cars (even before the prices of gas skyrocketed)? Or who own cars they cannot do simple maintenance on because it’s too pricey?

clip_image004But what about in the really rarefied air breathed by millionaires? Do the same symbols that I am familiar with indicate status in their world? Surely if I can afford to pay for Coach shoes on sale, or at least go into debt for them and pay for them over the course of several months (I do work in academia, not exactly the most financially lucrative career), the items that I am aware of and can try to attain are not the same as the ones that billionaire Oprah Winfrey can. And what about the status symbols that are popular among “mere” millionaires, of whom there are far more?

Expensive, limited-production cars are popular with millionaires and billionaires. Jerry Seinfeld’s and Jay Leno’s affinities for expensive cars are well known, for example. And they each own several such automobiles. Leno’s owns more than 100 cars! And Seinfeld has a specialty – Porsches! He owns one that costs $700,000. (This car does not meet emission standards so he can’t drive it, but hey, we know he owns it.) What other symbols do the very wealthy display? According Richard Conniff in his book on the rich, the  symbols among the rich change often to keep the rest of us from catching on and attempting to catch up to them! In any case, would I even recognize any of the less than obvious indicators of wealth even if they were under my nose? I wouldn’t know a Cy Twombly painting if I saw a wall-sized one, but his work was named one of the most expensive among living artists, and it would be recognized by many who can afford such pieces.

Status symbols are one way—a quick, short-hand way—of telegraphing who we are--or at least who J0300495 want people to think we are, based on what we have. Take one look at my designer label ensemble and you’ll form one impression of me. If I trotted out my clearance sale Coach purse purchased at the outlet mall, in certain circles I would get some points. But in more affluent circles that purse would be a giveaway, and so would my car, home, and my clothing. 

Do people buy expensive goods so that others will appreciate that they can afford them? Or do they buy them for their own enjoyment and interest? Both, of course, are likely to be true and the two motives are not mutually exclusive. However, in this consumerist culture, it might be fair to say “we are what we have”. How do you think status is displayed in other societies?

December 16, 2008

Gender in Politics

author_sally By Sally Raskoff

With the historic presidential election of 2008, many might believe that racism is over, and some might be tempted to think that sexism is also a thing of the past.

A sociological perspective on these issues shows us that race and gender are still used to differentiate people, although the sexist and racist dimensions may be more hidden than they were in the past. Yes, we have made much progress, but if history teaches us anything, it is when we step forward that we are also very likely to fall backward.

The public discussions of Sarah Palin, Hillary Clinton, and Michelle Obama give us plenty of examples of how stereotypes and generalizations are sometimes used to subtly or not-so-subtly denigrate women who seek positions of power.

As John McCain’s running mate, Governor Sarah Palin (R-Alaska) was disparaged as ignorant, even stupid, an attractive former beauty queen “whack job”, who was also greedy for designer clothes. Her news interviews demonstrated an apparent lack of information and understanding of national and international issues, but among both supporters and critics her looks dominated much of the discussion about her.

The Republican Party announced that they funded a spending spree of $150,000 for her campaign trail wardrobe of designer clothing.. That subsequent press reports stating that she hadn’t asked for the clothes and that she gave the clothes back or donated them didn’t dispel the negative impressions of the initial story. Tina Fey’s depictions of her on Saturday Night Live (and Palin’s appearance on the show) kept the stories alive and also provided another venue to call attention to her attractiveness. News pundits referred to her as a “hot hockey mom,” a label she herself inspired with her “lipstick” remarks. ("You know, they say, the difference between a Hockey Mom and a pit bull? Lipstick.")

By linking her beauty to a powerful breed of dog considered by many to be aggressive, she also relied on traditional notions of masculinity in her candidacy. Her image as a rugged Alaska hunter was just as central to the campaign as her image as a mother and former beauty queen was.

Senator Hillary Clinton (D-New York) has had many years of public attention and scrutiny. During the Clinton presidency, she gained public condemnation for her interest in policy and public support for talking about the White House pets, recipes, and raising children. Her biggest public approval ratings came when she became the scorned wife and stayed with her spouse when his extra marital sexual liaisons made the headlines – not surprising since this was conforming to role expectations many still have for women.

Since the election, Michelle Obama has been praised for her fashion sense and for mixing clothing from both high-end stores and lower-end bargain chains. But during the campaign, she was sometimes described as unattractive and angry – two words that signal tremendous disapproval when they are assigned to a woman (especially to a black woman). A New Yorker cover depicted both of the Obamas as terrorists (in a cartoon that was supposedly as satire, depending on your point of view), but she was the dominant figure, wearing combat boots, holding a weapon, and sporting a 60s-style Afro.

The cover cartoon reminds us that throughout the campaign Michelle Obama was the victim of both racial and gender stereotyping . While Palin and Clinton are stuck with the gendered stereotypes about intelligence (or the lack of it) and the sanctions about stepping outside women’s traditional social roles, their patriotism and identity as Americans was never in question.

Historically, black women have been subject to a complex array of stereotypes, and unfortunately Michelle Obama is no exception. Comments about Michelle Obama that deserve scrutiny include vaguely negative remarks about how her mother will come to the White House to “raise” the girls, and sharper criticisms that she supposedly “hates America” because of her “angry militancy”.

In response to a caller who “knew” about Obama’s anger and called her a “militant woman” Fox News host Bill O'Reilly said, "I don't want to go on a lynching party against Michelle Obama unless there's evidence, hard facts, that say this is how the woman really feels." He has subsequently apologized for his statements, but mentioning lynching as a response to anything much less someone being labeled as angry or even militant is as obvious as racism can get.

Michelle Obama – who has a bachelor’s degree in sociology, by the way – is a Harvard-educated lawyer and former health care executive, yet the press has been focused more on her personality and her body than on her considerable accomplishments. Post-election, there is even more focus on her clothing choices, her legs, and her workout ethic. Notably, she has softened her public image by telling reporters that she plans to be "first mom."

So in 2008 three women in the political spotlight have been caricatured: one as a hot ignoramus who hunts, one as a political shrew who stuck by her man, and one as an angry militant who has fashion sense. All are subject to stereotypes about gender, and those stereotypes detract from what should be a focus on their qualifications for the positions they seek.

December 13, 2008

Fine Chocolate and Altruistic Behavior

author_brad By Bradley Wright

I came across a story that captures essential elements of the human existence—helping others and fine chocolate.

The Quichua people live in the Ecuadorian rain forest, and they grow cacao (the beans from which chocolate is made). For many years, they struggled along, selling these beans for 20 cents a pound to a middleman who then sold them to a large chocolate maker. They wanted to make more money from their cacao, but they didn’t know how to make that happen.

Along came Judy Logback, a woman from Kansas who was volunteering with an organization promoting biodiversity. The first thing she did was arrange for them to take the beans to market themselves, where they got a full 48 cents a pound! (It’s good to be the middleman). This was good, but after several years the Quichua people wanted even better—they wanted to make and sell their own chocolate. clip_image002

Ms. Logback hired an expert to teach the cacao farmers how to ferment their own beans, and she found a chocolate maker in the United States to create a formula for them. Yet another American loaned them money and hired Swiss chocolate makers to teach them how to make fine chocolate.

As a result of this assistance, the Quichua formed a chocolate cooperative that includes 850 families. The cooperative buys the cacao beans from the families for a full $1.95 a pound—a long way from the meager 20 cents they started with. They make chocolate at their own factory, and it is sold at Whole Foods Markets under the name “Kallari,” and it is praised as “smooth, rich and straightforward.” (Come to think of it, I would like to have those characteristics myself).

In this story, the hard work of one volunteer dramatically changed the lives of thousands of people: ‘“Judy really sacrificed a lot for us,” said Elías Alvarado, Kallari’s director of production and natural resources. “The people in the communities really love her for what she has done.’”

What Ms. Logback did probably represents an instance of altruism — helping others without expectation of getting rewards for oneself. Why did Ms. Logback, or anyone for that matter, act altruistically? We could attribute altruistic behavior to people’s personality; e.g., she is a loving, caring person who gives to others. This is probably quite true, but sociologists who study altruism have found a variety of social factors that affect whether or not we help others.

For example, sociologists have found that the more people who could help in a given situation, the less likely that any one person will offer to help. So, if you’re there watching someone in need, you’re less likely to do something if there are other people watching too. Sociologists call this a bystander effect, and they explain it as the result of diffusion of responsibility.

If we see others around as well, we might think that they are going to help, or that they are better able to help, and so we don’t do anything. The end result could be a bunch of good-hearted people standing around, doing nothing to help. (For a truly horrifying example of this, read about Kitty Genovese). So, perhaps Ms. Logback wouldn’t have helped the Quichua if there had been other aid workers working with them.

clip_image003Another factor involves how we explain why people need help. It’s not just enough for us to see people in need, we have to think of them as deserving of help.

Various sociological studies have found that we’re less likely to help someone if we think they don’t deserve it or if the problem is their own fault. One classic study involved a “confederate” (someone helping the researcher, not a Civil War reenactor) falling down on a subway. Sometimes the confederate acted like he/she was drunk, other times they did not, and the researchers then watched how quickly people went to help the fallen person. Sure enough, the subway riders were much less likely to help the fallen person who appeared drunk. It turns out that how we determine why someone is in need affects whether we help them. Perhaps Ms. Logback would have been less helpful if she had viewed the Quichua as somehow responsible for their own poverty.

Finally, people are more likely act altruistically if they see others acting altruistically. This is called the modeling effect, and it suggests that we learn from others, or at least are inspired by them. Studies have found that if we see a person put money into a charity box, we’re more likely to do so ourselves. Perhaps Ms. Logback watched other people in her organization do good work for indigenous peoples, and that led her to try the same herself.

Helping others is a matter of the soul and the heart, but it is also influenced by a variety of social factors. The social conditions of any given circumstance might determine whether you do the right thing and live a life with fine chocolate.

December 10, 2008

The Office

author_karen By Karen Sternheimer

Do you now, or have you ever worked in an office? If so, you might like watching The Office as much as I do. Aside from its quirky characters, faux documentary style and offbeat plot lines, The Office is a window into some sociological aspects of work.

When you work with people on a regular basis, they can become a sort of second family. Sometimes our coworkers see us more than family members do, and might even know more about us than some of our closest friends.

On The Office, the Steve Carell character, Michael, often refers to his staff as a family. Managers can go to a lot of trouble to help workers feel like part of a group, and of course this isn’t just so everyone makes new friends. If people have a sense of commitment to each other, rather than just to a paycheck, they might be more productive. That’s why companies spend untold amounts of money on office parties and retreats in order to promote a sense of cohesion. clip_image002

Coworkers can move from being people that we have to deal with on a limited basis in order to earn a living, to what sociologists call primary groups, or people who experience ongoing relationships with one another that can be very influential.

I worked in several offices before becoming a professor, and on several occasions my coworkers became my closest friends. Like the work at the fictitious Dunder Mifflin paper company on The Office, the work I did was often mundane and unfulfilling, and the mini-dramas of coworkers was the only thing that helped pass the time. In one office I worked at, I had three or four coworkers who were just as bored as I was, and we bonded over the absurdity of our daily tasks. We all worked in different areas of the office and had experiences with different aspects of the organization. One day, we thought it would be fun to all have lunch together and comment on our observations (okay, I really mean gossip).

We all became close friends, talking on the phone after work, meeting up for dinner, going to lunch together and hanging out on weekends. We developed code names for our coworkers (and ourselves) ranging from cartoon characters and Disney icons to infamous criminals and unique combinations of obscenities. One of my friends panicked when he couldn’t remember the actual name of a coworker with whom he had an upcoming meeting and called me on my extension to ask if I remembered her real name. Fortunately for him, I did.

If this all sounds immature and mean-spirited to you, I admit, it was. Just like on The Office, pettiness and gossip can dominate a day’s work when the job itself offers little mental stimulation (which is why I love being a professor now). This reflects Marx’s concept of alienation, or when workers feel little or no connection to their work. He originally described alienation as something that happened to people working in factories who saw little or no economic gain from the products they produced. We can certainly apply this idea to more contemporary forms of work, like selling things in a retail job but earning the same wage whether you sell $1 or $1,000 dollars worth of merchandise. With limited opportunity for workers to make unique contributions in their jobs, they might feel more like cogs in a machine than valued employees.

And yet some of the shenanigans featured in The Office also happen in places where people truly like their work and feel that their skills are being well used. I worked in one such office years ago, where most of the employees were well educated and had a significant amount of responsibility and autonomy. But much like in The Office, we had a supervisor who had a knack for irritating the employees, in particular by constantly reminding everyone of his superior position.

As occasionally happens on the sitcom, we had moments of bonding when our self-centered boss did something we found absurd. For instance, once the boss and I had a meeting and presentation with an important client. The boss let me know, in front of the client, that after the presentation I could leave because I was not invited to have lunch with them. When I told the others, they laughed at the unique ability of this person to look for opportunities to be rude. On a business trip a colleague and I ran into the boss in the hotel lobby with a client. Again, the boss told us that they would be having dinner and we would have to make other plans. My coworker and I looked at each other and laughed, knowing we’d all have a much better time without them there.

My office was located the furthest from the self-important bosses’ office, so coworkers would often come by to vent and laugh at some absurd interchange they just had with him. The boss once told me that my coworkers had complained that I “distracted them” too much and I should stop talking to them because they weren’t as productive as I was. I knew as he spoke that it was a lie, that my coworkers were friends outside of the office and they would never have gone to the boss they distrusted. But by blaming me for the quality of other people’s work, the boss could find an easy target. As work becomes central to who we are, our sense of self can become intertwined with our performance as workers and/or managers.

Having a bad job or obnoxious boss is no excuse to do bad work or to goof off on the clock. And yet as social beings, we look for ways to forge ties with our fellow workers. Some of these ties involve managing the stress of a dead-end job or domineering boss. Just as it is on The Office, sometimes what goes on at work is a way to pass the time that we have exchanged for a paycheck. As some occupations require people to work longer hours, relocate away from other friends and family, and as others delay marriage and child rearing for later years, the people at the office become even more important in our lives.

December 07, 2008

Why Drink The Kool-Aid? Jonestown Thirty Years Later

author_janis By Janis Prince Inniss

I spent my earliest days in Guyana, a small county with the distinction of being the only English speaking country in South America. Thirty years ago Guyana gained a new and dubious distinction as the site of the murder/suicide at Jonestown, the tragedy that may have generated the phrase “drinking the Kool-Aid”.

Shortly before the tragedy, my family and I went to a performance at the Guyana National Cultural Centre. Performing in the variety show were members of The People’s Temple, the name of the organization formed by Rev. Jim Jones! The name of the show is long gone from memory, as is much of the content of the program that night. But I do remember being very impressed by the American children and youth who performed. Until then, I had never seen children who were such professional performers, or who seemed so self-assured. Recently, as I watched CNN presents: Escape from Jonestown I saw a clip of a musical extravaganza put on by members of The People’s Temple that reminded me of that night many years ago.

Almost thirty years to the day, I still remember my mother picking me from school, looking rather forlorn. She looked pained as she explained to me that there had been a mass suicide, and that the children we had seen perform were probably among those who died at Jonestown! Those animated American kids? With their large, self-assured personalities! I was shocked. Everywhere in Guyana, all anyone seemed to talk about was Jonestown. More than 900 People’s Temple members had drunk a cyanide-laced beverage and ended their lives on that November 18th in 1978; this number includes 303 children who were killed when cyanide was given to them by syringe. The cover of Time magazine is etched in my mind, with the images of so many bodies that they seemed to litter the landscape, face down, arms strewn around each other, many clad in jeans and brightly colored t-shirts.

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Where was Jonestown? Mum explained that it was in the jungle. Why would Americans go all the way to a South American country they had probably never heard of with Rev. Jim Jones? It is widely reported that Jones’ behavior had become more and more erratic before leaving California. There were reports of violence against those who were “disobedient” to Jones and threats against those who wanted to leave the temple, so why would hundreds of people choose to move to a new continent with him?

For most Americans, visiting the capital city in a developing county is probably quite shocking and not remotely like anything they’ve experienced, so living in the jungle of Guyana must have caused the Jonestown members great culture shock. Although I grew up in a city in Guyana, I was very taken aback to see and use my first latrine and was horrified by number and size of mosquitoes awaiting me when I had my first trip to the countryside at about age ten. I imagine that Jones’ followers must have been surprised at--and none to happy with—the conditions in the “paradise” Jones promised. And given that many of those who moved to South America with Jones were poor, it’s likely that this was their first international trip—and possibly the first time many had even been on a plane.

In November 1978, California Congressman Leo Ryan flew to Guyana to investigate Jonestown. On his first night there, Ryan said, “I can tell you right now that clip_image003from the few conversations that I've had with some of the folks here already this evening that whatever the comments are, there are some people here who believe that this is the best thing that ever happened in their own life.” Cheers to this statement lasted for more than a minute according to reporter Soledad O’Brien. Only fourteen of nearly a thousand chose to “defect” back to the U.S. with Ryan; why, when help arrived, did Jones’ followers not seize the opportunity to be saved? (Congressman Ryan was gunned down by Jones security guards and remains the only U.S. congressman to be assassinated while in office.)

The People’s Temple/Jonestown was a cult. Who was drawn to it? Many were people who were dissatisfied with life. Jones was charismatic and charming. His passionate preaching, which included speaking in tongues, probably appealed to his largely African American congregation; in 1970s California he appealed to liberal whites as well. Jones and his followers rejected racism and capitalism and espoused socialism and racial harmony. Increasingly, they saw themselves as different from the rest of American society and the economic and racial equality within the group must have been intoxicating to members. By 1978, they were isolated in the jungles of Guyana with an increasingly paranoid leader, who routinely held suicide drills; followers came to believe that their deaths were revolutionary.

At some point, all religions were new and seemed strange. Jesus was a charismatic leader with teachings that were unusual in his time and he was crucified. What are some differences between a cult and an established religion?

December 04, 2008

Rehab, Labeling, and Deviance

author_sally By Sally Raskoff

Your favorite television shows can be useful for applying sociological concepts and theories. Sometimes it’s easier to look at other people’s lives than it is to analyze than something in your own life.

This occurred to me as I watched the beginning episodes of the second season of “Celebrity Rehab with Dr. Drew” on VH1. We all know people who struggle with addiction whether it be caffeine, alcohol, other drugs, chocolate, sex, shopping, or gambling, yet using those personal examples can be difficult as our emotions may cloud our perceptions of what is occurring. clip_image002

Since sociology courses are not “therapy” it may be wise to use examples that are further from one’s own life. “Celebrity Rehab” provides many opportunities for us to further develop our sociological imaginations.

On this “reality” show, actors, models, musicians, and other celebrities come to Dr. Drew and rehab and attempt to kick their habits. In this second season actor Jeff has returned – he had been a participant in season 1 but had left the program – and his girlfriend Vikki has checked herself in as well. Actor Gary has a mission and has come to share his tales of sobriety to inspire others. Model Amber is also among the second season participants. Like Sean, the son of a famous person, she has come to quit her opiate addiction.

Dr. Drew discusses each patient on season 2:

Self-perception is a particularly salient concept to analyze here since many of these people have agreed to come to rehab because they have realized that they have can no longer live with their addiction. Charles Horton Cooley’s "looking glass self" –that our self perception rests partially on how we think others perceiveclip_image002[5] us—is fascinating to consider for these celebrities. They are volunteering to be on television to show their addictions, therapy, and many other personal details with the public. The show airs long after it is filmed, so they have no idea of how they will be depicted or what will air, and they have no control over that. Like our own "looking glass selves" we never really know how other are really perceiving us, but we make internal judgments and those assessments are based on our own perceptions, thoughts, and feelings about ourselves and others.

This process is rarely conscious; if we feel shame then our assessments are likely to fuel this shame and guilt and all other such negative emotions that accompany low self-esteem.

Many of these celebrities are living out what Robert K. Merton called "self-fulfilling prophecies", or false assessments and beliefs that can become true if we believe them and act as if they were true.

To some extent we expect actors, models, and children of famous people to abuse drugs and alcohol. The mantra “Sex, Drugs, & Rock ‘n Roll” makes addiction almost a job requirement. Thus many who go into these lines of work, or who are members of famous families, the addiction cycle becomes fulfilled as life continues.

Each participant in Celebrity Rehab gives different reasons for why they became addicted to their particular drug of choice. Yet most have in common traumatic childhood events, neglectful or abusive histories, and plenty of emotional and physical pain -- commonalities with all addicts and many other people. Most of them also mention specifically their social context as part of the reason for their addiction: the actors speak of drugs offered to them on their jobs, the model speaks of drugs to stay thin and alert for work then to bring them down to sleep, and the child actor says that partying was the only vocation expected of him.

People who use or abuse illegal drugs (or misuse prescription drugs) are violating a norm and exemplify Primary deviance. When Gary and Jeff talk of earlier cocaine use and Amber mentions her prescription drug use, it’s obvious they know this is problematic or deviant behavior. Amber mentions that her mother taught her how to use – and they used together -- which makes you wonder if she was aware of the deviant nature of drugs when she first began to abuse them.

Secondary deviance moves a step beyond primary deviance: As a result of breaking a norm, an individual is labeled as deviant and then conforms to that label and thinks of him or herself as deviant. (Or others think that they are). For example, the Celebrity Rehabbers talk about themselves as addicts and the problems they have as a result of those addictions.

Gary talks frankly about his cocaine addiction and seems proud that he is “thirteen years sober.” Jeff talks about his back pain and subsequent pain killer addiction, and in the first season of the show he discloses early childhood abuses that provide another level of rationale for numbing himself (albeit ineffectively). Amber and Sean are upfront about identifying themselves as addicts who are there to try and break the cycle of addiction. While they all accept the label of drug addict, Gary is adamant about identifying his problem as in the past.

Jeff’s girlfriend, Vikki, seems to move from primary deviance into secondary deviance when she admits that she needs help for her problems related to drug use. In the first season, it was clear she was using but wasn’t aware that it was a problem. When she checked into rehab, she seemed to accept that label. On the other hand, perhaps this decision had more to do with staying with Jeff as he participated on the show.

Gary’s insistence on his sobriety is a great example of tertiary deviance-- when we reject or transform the stigma associated with the deviant label and redefine it as a positive phenomenon. He sees himself as a member of the therapeutic team who is there to inspire and redeem. That he “uses medicinal marijuana for his asthma” among other substances doesn’t seem to bother him. Dr. Drew tries to point out, carefully, that any substance use means he is not sober and that Gary is a patient not an employee, but this message doesn’t sink in.

While Gary’s brain damage due to earlier events could be a factor in his thinking, his repeated insistence on this role suggests that he has redefined his addiction as an experience through which he can inspire others --thus turning this negative identity into a positive role. He visibly bristles at being equated with the others who are there to kick their addictions, as he firmly believes he has already done so himself.

Television shows like Celebrity Rehab can provide some ways to both practice applying sociological concepts and to identify how these concepts and theories can be of use.

What other TV shows would you recommend for fleshing out sociological theories and concepts?

December 01, 2008

Sampson & Laub's Age-Graded Life-Course Theory of Crime

author_brad By Bradley Wright

When we moved to Connecticut with our five-year-old son, we wanted him to make friends. Unfortunately, we didn’t really know anyone in town, so we randomly selected two kids from his class to invite over for a play-date. Well, it went just fine, but what I remember best about it was my impressions of the two kids. Even though they were just kindergartners, they acted very differently.

One kid was quite prosocial—he was polite, listened to my wife and me when we gave the kids instructions, and overall he was “nice.” The other kid, though, was a bit of a scamp. He wasn’t mean-spirited, but he used rather rough language (at least for a kindergartner), and he would periodically act out by being too rough with my son and the other boy.

Fast forward ten years, and the nice boy is one of my son’s best friends. We see him on a regular basis, and he remains a really good kid. The other kid got kicked out of school a couple of times, and we’ve lost track of him. The last I heard from my son, he was in some sort of legal trouble. Hopefully, though, he’ll be able to straighten things out and make a good life for himself.

This story echoes an observation made by Lee Robins, a psychologist who studies crime. She noted that all antisocial adults were antisocial as children; however, not all antisocial children grow up to be antisocial adults. This observation provided important insight for theories of crime. It holds that very few “good” kids get involved in crime and other forms of antisocial behavior as adults. Once prosocial, always prosocial. In contrast, some “bad” kids grow up to be antisocial, criminal adults, but others do not. In statistical language, being antisocial as a child is a necessary, but not sufficient, predictor that a child will be antisocial as an adult.

My son’s friends support this observation. The nice, well-behaved kindergartener remains so now that he’s a high school kid. This illustrates the stability of prosocial behavior. The kid who got into trouble, however, seems to have continued to do so, but we’re hoping that he’ll work things out. This illustrates antisocial behavior continuing into adulthood, but, according to Robins’ observation, there is hope for change.

Rob Sampson and John Laub used this observation to anchor their age-graded, life-course theory of crime. They developed this theory using some of the most fascinating data ever studied by criminologists. In the 1940s, Sheldon and Eleanor Gluck conducted a longitudinal study of troubled boys in Boston. These boys were in their early teens and had already been in trouble with the law and put into reform school. The Glucks collected extensive records about the boys and studied them through adolescence. The study was put aside until Sampson and Laub found their data boxed up in the basement of the Harvard Library.

clip_image002Sampson and Laub reconstructed the data and followed-up with the original respondents, who were then around 60 years old. Sampson and Laub found out that some of the troubled boys ended up in trouble with the law for the rest of their lives, while others lived very conventional lives and had no legal problems. This variation fit with Robins’ observation, and it lead Sampson and Laub to ask why some of the troubled kids turned out well and others didn’t.

clip_image004Their answer used principles of life-course development. Specifically, they found that the troubled kids who got straightened out experienced some sort of turning point—an event or life circumstance that pulled them out of their criminal lifestyle and into a more conventional pattern of behavior. Such turning points included military service, employment, and marriage. Military service provided structure and discipline for the reform school boys. Employment and marriage provided stability and the need to walk the straight-and-narrow if they wanted to keep their jobs and marriage.

What’s important about this theory is that it brings together social influences on crime, such as family and employment, with psychological predispositions. This social psychological approach to crime adds some of the best features of strictly psychological and sociological approaches, for it acknowledges personal differences in criminal propensity, but it also makes a place for society to overrule, or at least counteract, these propensities. This gives some hope that the troubled kid who came over to our house that one day will find the right job or partnership to turn his life around.

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