7 posts from April 2010

April 29, 2010

Anatomy of a Neighborhood and the Struggle of a Nation

new sally By Sally Raskoff

A few years ago, I visited the fascinating city of Atlanta for a conference. The three photos below are the view from my hotel room – we were located in the downtown and a vibrant, bustling, urban city.

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I joined a conference-led tour of Martin Luther King, Jr.'s (MLK) neighborhood. As we boarded the bus, we shared our excitement at seeing such an historic site. As we moved through downtown, our tour guide asked us to notice how the freeway divided the vibrant downtown from the neighborhood. The photo below shows the freeway, downtown to the left, the MLK neighborhood coming up to us from the right. Things definitely felt different once we passed under the freeway.

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Once in the neighborhood, our tour progressed from the family home (1), to other homes in the neighborhood (2), the Historic Ebenezer Baptist Church down the street (3), The King Center and Dr. King’s Tomb (4), and the National Park Visitor Center (5).

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Standing at the home, looking up and down the street – what do you notice? (the next photos marked with “1”) Can you see how close it is to downtown as the high rises peek over the homes?

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Down the street and around the corner, you can see that the condition of homes in the neighborhood varies tremendously. The Historic District Development Corporation (HDDC) has been very active in revitalization while retaining the historical flavor of the area. Our tour guide had worked with the HDDC and lived in this neighborhood.

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Seeing such historical places brings a sense of awe, but also a realization that these buildings are just buildings.

On the tour when you hear what happened here, and what is still happening here, it gives one pause. Seeing historical sites can make history more real but it also helps one connect with the struggles that occur at these sites. There is a newer Ebenezer Baptist Church across the street from this one – in which MLK’s mother was shot to death in 1974.

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Once you step onto the grounds of the King Center, you see the tomb and its pool from many different vantage points. You can’t avoid seeing it. The physical setting clearly tells you that this is a cemetery, a resting place. Thus people behave very differently in this space than they do outside the gates and across the street.

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Stepping across the street to the National Park Visitor Center, your perspective is enlarged as you see monuments to peaceful protest of injustice around the world, the Gandhi statue and International Civil Rights Walk of Fame.

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After I took the tour I had a much better sense of the history of this place. Hearing the park ranger’s anecdotes about the King family when touring the house, seeing how the neighborhood is so compact with the homes and churches in close proximity, and identifying how the neighborhood was separated from the city center by the freeway helped me to better understand some of the nuances of this particular part of Atlanta’s --and our country’s-- history.

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Freeway construction has separated and in some cases destroyed vibrant African American communities in many other cities, like Detroit, Los Angeles, and New York.

My trip to Atlanta gave me new appreciation for the ongoing struggle that we have to live up to our ideals. Equality and justice for all are certainly good ideals for which to strive but that doesn’t mean it’s been easy to achieve them.

While conflict sometimes erupts about how to best maintain historic areas such as this, it is paramount that such sites are both available to the public but also remain as livable areas. There are many other historic areas that we have already lost or that are in danger of being lost.

How might the issues represented by this neighborhood resonate or connect with other communities? Does the oppression that African Americans faced historically equate with the situation of others who are protesting a lack of civil rights or representation now?

April 26, 2010

Thinking About Stereotypes

todd_S_2010a By Todd Schoepflin

Do you know what the following have in common?

  • Conan O’Brien
  • Camping
  • Bob Marley
  • Mad Men
      • Funny or ironic tattoos
      • 80s Night
      • Not Having a TV

Did you know they all are things that white people like? Well, at least that’s the case according to the website stuffwhitepeoplelike.com. For the record, I am a white person. I do think Conan O’Brien is funny. I used to enjoy camping when I was in my 20s. And I like Bob Marley. (Is there anyone who doesn’t like Bob Marley?) I’ve never seen an clip_image002episode of Mad Men and I don’t have any tattoos. You couldn’t pay me to go to an 80s night at a club or bar, and you couldn’t pay me to get rid of my television.

But I’m just one white person, and obviously my experiences and tastes don’t speak for all white people. There are approximately 200 million whites in the United States alone, and you couldn’t reduce them to a list of stereotypes, could you? I guess if you’re Christian Lander, you could. He created the website stuffwhitepeoplelike.com and was awarded a book deal based on the website’s popularity. One article I read estimated that his book deal was worth $300,000. Not bad for compiling a list of stereotypes.

He also is on the lecture circuit. The website lists his upcoming speaking events at colleges around the country. Lander, who is white and grew up in Canada, has talked about how he started the blog as a joke. If you listen to Lander talk about his website, it’s apparent that his purpose is not to disparage whites. Rather, he’s just satirizing them and indulging in some good-natured mockery.

This led me to wonder, when it comes to stereotyping, how much does intent matter? Is stereotyping acceptable if the purpose isn’t to insult the group being stereotyped? And does it matter who is doing the stereotyping? How would people respond if a white person blogged about things that black people supposedly like?

Oh wait, that’s happening on a website called Stuff Black People Like. The author explains that the blog is meant to be funny and satirical and that he is not a racist. He says: “But sadly where I live it is not very diverse. Many many white people. Stupid ignorant ones at that.” Some of the posts are about being good at sports, making fashion statements, and liking soul food.

There is also a website called Stuff Asian People Like. There are posts about ramen noodles, techno music, and karaoke. According to the website, the entries are “written by Asians, about Asians” and the goal “is to simply point out cultural and social truths over light-hearted humor in order to build up the Asian community and not tear it down.”

We can define stereotypes as assumptions about what people are like. They are generalizations about a group that are simplified and do not acknowledge differences between members of that group. I am torn about how I feel about the websites I have mentioned. On the one hand, I don’t like them because they promote stereotypes. Nor do I find them to be funny or insightful, but that is my subjective opinion. On the other hand, I enjoy other forms of media that use stereotypes in satirical ways (The Simpsons and Family Guy are two examples).

I don’t like when people are reduced to stereotypes, but satire can be an effective means of challenging our notions about people who belong to a particular group. Do you think that stereotyping is harmless (or at least not harmful) if the intent is not to insult, or degrade, the group being stereotyped? Or, do you think all stereotyping is harmful to some extent?

Whatever your view about stereotypes happens to be, I think it’s important that we examine our own assumptions about groups that differ from our own, and that we reflect honestly about how we stereotype in the course of our lives. I take pride in having an open-mind and resisting generalized views of groups, but upon reflection I recall a specific time in my life when I was operating with a stereotype.

Several years ago, a student was struggling in one of my courses. He rarely attended class, did poorly on exams, and wouldn’t come to office hours to discuss his performance in my class. He wasn’t the first student to earn low grades in my course and he won’t be the last. But for some reason I devoted a lot of energy trying to determine why this particular student wasn’t succeeding in my class. The course ended without him changing his habits or exhibiting more effort. All signs seemed to indicate he didn’t care about succeeding in my course.

So why was this surprising to me? Upon serious reflection, I realized the source of my bewilderment: the student was Asian-American. I had fallen prey to a stereotype that all Asian-Americans are academically gifted and earn high grades. Had it been a student of any other racial or ethnic background, I sincerely believe I wouldn’t have thought so much or so long about why he was blowing off my course. But by virtue of his membership in a specific racial group, I assumed he should do well in my class.

I didn’t see him as a student, I saw him as an Asian-American student. It’s okay to recognize differences between students, but difference shouldn’t translate to inequality. In this case, I wasn’t treating all students equally. Assuming that a particular student is “better” than the others is both unfair to the student and to the students’ peers. As a teacher I cannot and must not assume that a student should perform in a certain way because of their race. Students must be treated fairly based on their individual ability and work ethic, not based on their group membership.

Does this story leave you wondering if I carry assumptions about white students and African-American students? I can understand if it does, but I am sure that my stereotyping was limited to Asian-American students. Most of the students I have taught in my career have been white and African-American, and students from both groups have occupied the entire spectrum of academic ability and effort. Students from both groups have been spectacular, and students from both groups have been less than spectacular.

However, I haven’t taught a lot of Asian-American students because enrollment of Asian-Americans at the university where I teach is very low. My story about the young man I stereotyped is, in a sense, also a story about the first time I noticed that an Asian-American student hadn’t done well in one of my classes.

Reflecting further back in my life, my peers in elementary school, middle school and high school were, for the most part, white and African-American. So my exposure to those racial groups has always been high. In contrast, I haven’t known nearly as many Asian-Americans and Latinos as classmates and students. Perhaps my limited exposure to Asian-Americans in educational settings left me susceptible to a stereotype about their academic ability. In the case of Latinos, I can honestly say I’ve never held preconceptions about their academic ability. Maybe it’s because there’s a stereotype that “all Asians are smart” but that stereotype doesn’t seem to exist for whites, African-Americans, and Latinos.

I learned a lot from the time I stereotyped a particular Asian-American student. And since that time, my expectations have been the same for all students, with no assumption that some students will perform better than others based on which racial or ethnic group they belong. For me it was a case of “live and learn,” and an important reminder that all students are on par with each other, with no group expected to do better or worse than another.

April 22, 2010

Downward Mobility

KS_2010a By Karen Sternheimer

As I recently blogged about, a few weeks ago I was interviewed for a television news show. Many people have asked me what the experience was like, and if there are any hidden perks to being interviewed.

Respectable journalists don’t pay for sources, so there’s no money in being interviewed on the news. But often times the news agency will send a driver to pick you up to take you to their studio. In LA letting someone else do the driving can be a real relief from the near constant traffic, so I happily oblige this service when it’s offered. clip_image002

There are several car services that companies contract to shuttle people around. Typically a well-dressed driver arrives in an immaculate Lincoln Town Car, perfectly adjusted to the climate. The cars sometimes come stocked with bottled water and candy and the seat is set back much further than in regular sedans, adding extra distance between driver and passengers. Drivers tend to be extremely courteous and know exactly where they are going. Usually they arrive to pick you up a few minutes ahead of schedule so as not to keep their passengers waiting.

Waiting drivers are conspicuous, even in LA, and people often wonder who the big shot with their own chauffeur might be. I always find it a bit amusing that I am the “VIP” on occasion.

Less than twenty-four hours after my last chauffeured ride I found myself sitting in a Laundromat waiting for my clothes to dry. I hadn’t been to a Laundromat in many years, but since the washer and dryer in my building is out of commission, there I was. I went from having my own driver to fishing for quarters. I had to laugh at my rapid move down the cultural hierarchy ladder.

I could find this experience funny because I don’t normally lead a limousine lifestyle. For someone who does, the transition might be very difficult. It would represent a significant degree of downward mobility.

Downward mobility occurs when someone experiences a significant decline in income, wealth, or occupational prestige, either from their previous position (intra-generational mobility) or in comparison with their parents’ status (inter-generational mobility).

For instance, CNN recently covered stories about people who were “over-qualified” temporary census workers. One woman had been laid off from a high-earning job with investment banking firm Goldman Sachs. Not only was she earning far less money, she also had significantly less status in her job. Many people who have lost their jobs during the recession have likely experienced intra-generational downward mobility and must adjust their lifestyles—and identities—accordingly.

We can study large-scale mobility patterns in several ways. In their classic 1967 study, Peter Blau and Otis D. Duncan studied more than 20,000 men, comparing their economic status with their fathers’ to determine what factors led to mobility. Income tax data can also be useful; we can look to see what proportion of income the bottom twenty percent of the population (or the lowest quintile) has at any one time, and compare that percentage over time. We can also see if people move to a higher or lower income quintile over time; movement either way suggests mobility has taken place.

A central tenet of American life is that upward mobility is a function of education, hard work, and determination. In other words, we tend to think of upward mobility as primarily the outcome of our own efforts. How accurate is this perception? The Pew Charitable Trusts, a nonprofit, nonpartisan think-tank has explored this and other important questions in depth. According to the Pew Project on Economic Mobility, there is some good news:

  • Two-thirds of Americans have higher incomes than their parents.
  • Children born into the bottom income quintile are more likely to surpass their parents’ income than children from any other income group.
  • Eighty-two percent of children born into the bottom quintile have greater family income than their parents, compared to 43 percent of children born into the top quintile.

However, some of the realities about social mobility are not as positive, according to the Pew Project:

  • One’s rank on the income ladder is highly influenced by that of one’s parents’.
  • As adults, 42 percent of children born into the bottom quintile, and 39 percent born into the top quintile end up in the same quintile as their parents.
  • Economic growth has been unevenly distributed in the past few decades, with the most rapid growth concentrated in the top of the income distribution.
  • Median family income in the top quintile grew by 52 percent over the last generation, compared to 18 percent in the bottom quintile.
  • More than 50 percent of individuals who start in the bottom income quintile remain there 10 years later, and 70 percent remain below middle income status.
  • Despite notable changes in the U.S. economy, this immobility at the bottom has remained unchanged since the 1980s.

All of this should not deter anyone from pursuing higher education, working hard, and striving to improve one’s economic situation. It’s just not always easy, especially for those at the bottom of the economic ladder. Those at the top have become accustomed to significant income growth, and experiencing downward mobility might be jarring if their lifestyle shifts significantly.

Fortunately for me, I am used to driving myself around town (in an economy car, no less) and my experience with a driver was more of a fluke than anything I’m likely to grow accustomed to. In reality, most people experiencing downward mobility now are not those who have to learn to drive themselves or do their own laundry, but people who now have to figure out how to pay for the gas and detergent to meet their basic needs.

One sociological lesson the recession has taught us is that for many people, downward mobility is caused by changes in the economy, called structural mobility, rather than by a personal failure. The American ethos about hard work and success sometimes helps us forget this very real possibility.

April 19, 2010

Putting a Face on Immigration

new janis By Janis Prince Inniss

The year I started high school, my family moved from a city in Guyana, to the capital, Georgetown. I remember that we often had no running water on the second floor of our home—the dwelling floor. The lower floor was a car porch and laundry area.

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At right is a picture of the house taken many years after I lived there, but it looks a lot as I remember it. There was no enclosed area on the ground floor when I lived there though.

This means that showers were rare, or maybe even non-existent. Not that this entitled us to have poor hygiene. On the contrary, it simply meant that showering came with a built in workout: We would fetch buckets of water from the pipe downstairs and have a “bucket bath”. This required special skill as the water was usually very cold because there were no hot water pipes. My strategy was to moisten a washcloth, add soap to it, wash my body with the cloth, and then quickly rinse with the freezing water. Sometimes, Mum would add some boiling water to my bucket to take the chill off which meant a more leisurely rinse.

The first high school I attended was called Queens College and it was in Georgetown, Guyana. I loved my high school. In fact, years later, I chose my college based on that name and attended Queens College, City University of New York. (Obviously, I was lucky that this bizarre method of choosing an institute of higher education netted me a fine one.) The number of international alumni organizations that have sprung up for Queens College suggest that my love for it isn’t unique. For example, there is a South Florida Alumni chapter (here is their Facebook page), a New York alumni chapter, one in the United Kingdom, and a chapter in Toronto. Considered the top school in the country for decades, QC produced many who have met great success in their careers. Of the few people I kept tabs on, I know that my class of fewer than 30 students produced at least two Ph.Ds, an engineer, a physician and a host of other professionals.

In either my first or second year at my beloved Queens College—the one in Guyana—I was sent to participate in mass games. Have you ever heard of mass games before? I hadn’t either, until then. According to Wikipedia the definition of mass games is:

a form of performing arts or gymnastics in which large numbers of performers take part in a highly regimented performance that emphasizes group dynamics rather than individual prowess. Because of the vast scale of the performance, with often tens of thousands of performers, mass games are performed in stadiums, often accompanied by a background of card-turners occupying the seats on the opposite side from the viewers. Mass games are typically used to emphasize themes of political propaganda.

Today, this description of mass games sounds about right to me. But at the time, I had no idea what was going on other than I had to spend hours out of my school day at a stadium practicing mass games. As I recall, I spent lots of time waiting around to be trained by the first Koreans I had ever seen. And my role, I think, was to turn pages in a large book. I remember at least one scene was that of our Prime Minister’s face—himself a QC graduate. I don’t remember how long the rehearsals for mass games continued, but I do recall that the color of my skin under my stud earring was significantly lighter than the highly tanned skin elsewhere on my face by the end of it.

Here, I’ve described but two aspects of my life in Guyana. Bathing without running water and spending time away from my favorite school preparing for mass games.  None of these were concerns for me as a child; in fact, I have very fond memories of growing up in Guyana. But think of how these experiences might seem to a concerned parent. The parent might worry that it’s hard for the child to maintain good hygiene and worry that the child is not spending each school day being educated. The child might not notice difficulties with obtaining basic food items like flour, milk, rice, and regular power outages, but most parents would.  Some of these parents end up emigrating to a more prosperous country that offers more opportunities for their children.

What are your predictions about the number or portion of foreign born people living in the U.S. today? I look forward to the answer from this year’s census (discussed here by Karen Sternheimer). What we know from the last census is that there were 28.4 million foreign-born people estimated to be living in the U.S. and that they represented about 10.4 percent of the U.S. population. Many predict that immigration reform will be the next issue U.S. politicians address.

Now, as in years past, much of the public discourse around immigration features rhetoric about “people coming to take away/over my schools/money/housing”; in other words many think about the factors that continue to pull or draw immigrants to the U.S. I offer a slice of life from a somewhat recent immigrant for you to consider some of the factors that push migration. What weight, if any, should the issues raised by stories such this, have on the subject of immigration?

April 14, 2010

Cupcakes and Cursing

new sally By Sally Raskoff

Have you noticed the plethora of both cupcakes and cursing lately? It seems there’s a new cupcake store in every shopping center and all the news media can discuss are the nasty diatribes that people are having with each other, whether in political arenas or in their neighborhoods.

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The growth of cupcake businesses have been impressive, yet one writer is predicting the end of this trend. If you’ve visited one of these stores, you know that these are no ordinary cupcakes. Red Velvet, Espresso Ganache, Cranberry Orange, Chocolate/Vanilla Swirl are just a few of the amazing creations in one of my local shops. The Food Network has a reality show, Cupcake Wars, in which cupcake bakers compete against one another. The blogosphere is even filled with cupcake bloggers at sites like http://bakeanddestroy.net/, http://cupcakestakethecake.blogspot.com, and http://www.cupcakeactivist.com/.

On a seemingly unrelated note, the debate and reaction to health care reform legislation reached new lows in public decorum. From our elected officials aiming personal barbs at each other to those people making threatening calls to the offices of elected officials or neighbors, it seems like our society is getting rather scary. I’ve had former students contact me to discuss why the debate over health care got so rancorous and downright mean.

Seen sociologically, I’d like to suggest that the plethora of both cupcakes and cursing are related!

We are living in a time of tremendous social change. While our power structure is still intact, the people running it look a bit different. With a president who is African American, a speaker of the house who is a woman, and a few Congress-people who are gay – some of our politicians now hail from groups that have previously been underrepresented. (Whether or not those people are doing things differently from those who still hold the majority of the power positions is not a topic for this particular blog.) People are clamoring for equal rights in marriage and in some states they already have access. Our economy is in tatters and the promises of rebuilding have not yet netted any gains for most people as both joblessness and mortgages remain high.

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Sociologically, what happens in times of tremendous social change? Normlessness!

Anomie is a wonderful word for a terrible situation. With social change, the norms that typically operate to keep society functioning smoothly stop working. When social conditions are changing, there is pressure to change the norms, yet society doesn’t change rapidly enough and those new norms don’t often appear in time to reshape social expectations about what our behaviors should be.

Bringing in Marx's critique of capitalism, we can see that our capitalist economy is having trouble generating profit since it has exhausted its sources of cheap labor and materials (world wide, mind you). As our financial system struggles to keep looking for sources of profit and we don’t work toward restructuring the economy into something that would resolve these problems, people continue to get laid off, educational systems struggle to provide classes and programs, and the news media keep telling us about these real problems and many others that are not necessarily probable threats.

We are a nation scared, afraid of everyone else out side our borders and afraid of each other. The cursing is a sign of anomie, as we no longer trust, well, anyone. Different social strata put their trust in different societal entities: some trust law enforcement, some the government. imageEven the trust levels of different areas of government have oscillated in interesting ways 

As you can see, trust in the legislative branch of government has taken a dive in the last decade!

The Southern Poverty Law Center reports increases in hate groups and extremism, something that often happens during economically troubled times.

As I mentioned in a previous blog, Republicans and those on the more conservative side of the political spectrum are getting more conservative. With all of this increasing divisiveness, mistrust, and frustration, people are lashing out at each other and at their elected officials.

It is time I brought the cupcakes back in: what is one of the most affordable (to make) and comforting (to consume) items that you can think of? For many of us, it would certainly be cupcakes. The explosion of cupcakes can also be interpreted as a sign of how we are responding to the anomie that characterizes our society right now. We need comforting in cute small packages!

Cussing out a politician and eating a yummy cupcake may be some of the most visible ways that we are acting out to express our anomie, our frustrations with the social changes and situations we have around us and our lack of guidelines on how to get out of this mess.

April 05, 2010

Sociology Meets The Bachelor

KS_2010a By Karen Sternheimer

A few weeks ago, I was asked to appear on 20/20 to discuss the group dynamics that might emerge while filming a reality show like The Bachelor. I’m always pleased when a sociological perspective is included in popular culture, particularly since we Americans traditionally view things from an individual perspective.

The segment’s correspondent, Chris Connelly, asked me several very interesting questions about group dynamics and why people might behave in ways that they might not in a different situation. As with any program, time constraints permitted only some of our discussion to air, so this post will expand on our conversation. The main question Connelly asked me was, What sort of group dynamics emerge when people are isolated from their regular lives, as they are on shows like The Bachelor?


When people encounter a situation they are unfamiliar with, they will often try to create order. Sociologist Harold Garfinkel studied how jurors must figure out how to organize their deliberations in the absence of specific rules about how to do so. Likewise, when people enter a situation such as a reality show, where there might not be specific rules about how to interact with other participants, they might use other reality shows they have seen to guide their behavior.

People who choose to be on a show like The Bachelor are likely to be somewhat savvy about “unscripted” programming and therefore probably know what sort of reality “characters” get the most screen time. As one of the show's producers admitted, many contestants aren’t necessarily there to find true love, but to get on television. In a tough economy like this one, appearing on a reality show could put someone on the fast-track to celebrity and perhaps to a career of sorts that involves simply being themselves (like Heidi Montag and others).

And of course candidates for the show aren’t selected because they are necessarily good matches for the Bachelor/Bachelorette. They tend to be people who look good in bathing suits, have a bit of an exhibitionist streak, and who might be somewhat emotionally volatile. Conflicts will emerge when you combine these factors with free-flowing alcohol. And of course a television show without drama is not likely to stay on the air for very long.

In some ways shows like these bear passing resemblance to dynamics in cults and other total institutions, a term sociologist Erving Goffman coined to describe organizations that essentially run a person’s life, if only for a short time. When someone participates on The Bachelor, they live in a spectacular mansion and must cut off contact from the outside world (contestants report not even knowing that Barack Obama was elected president while in the house). They cannot talk about what went on during the show until after it has aired either.clip_image002

Their time is structured by producers, and they feel lucky to be chosen to spend time alone with a central figure that the other participants fawn over. To be selected by this (sometimes) charismatic figure at the end of the show signifies specialness. This dynamic is not unlike the way cult figures interact with the group’s leader. To the outside world, a cult leader might seem really creepy and strange, but in the context of a total institution, their attention might imply salvation.

In the context of The Bachelor, it is normal for the anointed one to have sexual rendezvous with multiple women, and for the women to have friendly conversations with each other in which they compare notes about those encounters. Separated from trusted others, such as friends and family, who might in normal circumstances weigh in on their romantic lives, the experience seems okay. While in our daily lives we might have many things to define our identities, such as school, our work, and our relationships with friends and families, little else defines contestants during this process but how well they fare with the bachelor/bachelorette.

Just as psychologist Philip Zimbardo found in the Stanford prison experiment, in a short period of time people will change their behavior to conform to the expectations of those granted powerful roles. Connelly asked me why people seldom want to leave, and I suspect the answer is similar to Zimbardo’s findings. No, The Bachelor is not a prison, or even a mock prison, but the context is very powerful here. Participants live in a fantasy-like setting, don’t have to go to work, and can spend their evenings in beautiful formal wear. They might travel to exotic locales and have dinner with an impossibly perfect sunset as the backdrop.

I know, so far this sounds like the opposite of Zimbardo’s experiment. But the point is that people often become somewhat passive when others have defined the situation for them. And the situation on The Bachelor is that being chosen as “the one” by the bachelor is the super ordinate goal, even if one is miserable in the process—or really doesn’t care much for the bachelor as a person. In the prison experiment, people adapted to their roles as prisoner and guard too well, and soon let go of their normal inhibitions and began acting accordingly. It is likely that people on a show like The Bachelor would soon behave in ways they might not normally too.

There are many other interesting sociological aspects to The Bachelor and similar shows, including issues pertaining to gender, the “happily ever after” fantasy of love and marriage, and the celebration of consumption. What sociological issues do you see in this and other so-called reality shows?

April 01, 2010

Donating Mansions

new sallyBy Sally Raskoff

A recent article in the Los Angeles Times noted that many officers in the Salvation Army are living in houses owned by the organization. The organization keeps and maintains these homes rather than sell them so that their employees, who earn very low wages (around $25,000 per year), have a place to live when they transfer them around the country. They live in these homes rent free, in part to compensate for their low pay.

This article created an outcry since the houses mentioned in the article are large, expensive, and located in affluent neighborhoods. The first printing of the article mentioned that the 87 homes and condos the Salvation Army owns are worth 4 billion dollars, although that was later corrected to $52 million.

Why the outcry? Reaction seems to circulate around the issue that this nonprofit organization should not be housing people in mansions, since it appears financially irresponsible and at odds with their reputation of “sacrifice and service”.

The image of nonprofit workers – especially those who work for charities such as the Salvation Army and may themselves be eligible for help from the organization – is not one of mansion dwellers. When one considers their very low salaries, one does not expect an address to a multimillion-dollar mansion.

One might expect nonprofit organizations to sell off donated properties and not to invest in real estate. The word “non-profit” suggests all sorts of assumptions about financial issues. Yet all it means is a specific type of incorporation that bars profit sharing – those who run the organization cannot pocket any profits that are generated.

We expect that organizations to which we donate money will not be run as for-profit corporations, that they will not try to generate profit nor will they give any employees financial benefits. These assumptions suggest a misunderstanding about how any organization survives, especially when it gets to a certain size.

Many organizations have looked to non-profits to model their ways of doing business. Assuming that non-profits are imagenot businesses is a mistake. They must operate as businesses in our economic context if they are to succeed. The Non-Profit Times looks very similar to the Wall Street Journal and other newspapers for general management and business.

We do hold non-profits to a high standard, and track and rate them based on how much of their donations and assets are devoted to their mission. Websites like Charity Navigator Charity Navigator and Charity Watch provide easy access to some of that information. 

The Salvation Army rates high in financial management by most of its evaluators. A recent post on the Chronicle of Philanthropy website challenges the outcry about its real estate holdings by pointing out that housing is needed to accommodate their employees’ frequent moves, as they are regularly assigned to relocate by the organization.

How can sociology help us understand what is happening here? Sociology asks us to look at societal phenomena and ask a series of questions, among them, who benefits?

Who is benefiting from this situation? Clearly, the employees have very nice places to live. The organization’s need to house their employees is addressed. They also benefit from having their own employees live in the homes to keep them inhabited and maintained so they don’t have to leave them empty or rent them out to outsiders. These homes are much more likely to retain their value with insiders inhabiting them! They also have solid investments that can be a buffer for those years in which donations decline.

Do donors also benefit? Their donations can be put toward the main mission without being sidetracked into housing or other administrative costs. Do the beneficiaries of the organization benefit from this arrangement? If over 80% of the income is spent towards services for them, one might say so.

Does the newspaper benefit from running the story? Definitely yes, since there was such a reaction to it. Any readers are good readers even if they are upset about the article.

Who does not benefit from this situation? The public face of the Salvation Army perhaps. Why? The public reputation for a charity (or any business) is important to sustain donations and support. If people get a sense that their money is not being used for the mission, donations and support disappear.

Why did they cooperate in this story and let the newspaper take photos of the opulent housing? Your guess is as good as mine, but perhaps they wanted to build a reputation for taking care of their employees and for the donated properties.

The images of rich housing provided for charity workers brings up expectations that those workers should live in conditions similar to that of their clients. People often feel that those who do “good work” do it for the intrinsic meaning, not for some extrinsic reward. This alone may explain much of the outcry and reaction to the story. What should be the reward for people who dedicate their lives to serving others in need?

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