7 posts from June 2010

June 29, 2010

Sex, Research, and Public Spaces

todd_S_2010b By Todd Schoepflin

Did you hear the one about the sociologist who watched men having sex in park bathrooms? Sounds like a setup for a joke with a bizarre punch line, doesn’t it?

Unless you’re a student of sociology, in which case it probably sounds familiar, because you know that’s what sociologist Laud Humphreys did in the course of his research. Humphreys, well known for his 1970 book Tearoom Trade, not only observed men having sex, but followed them to their cars to record their license plate information and then used a contact in a police department to obtain their home addresses.

A year later, he went to their homes (having altered his appearance so as not to be recognized) to supposedly conduct a medical survey. Basically, Humphreys used deception throughout his research to obtain information about the men’s lives and lifestyles. Although he gathered interesting information about the men he studied, he used unethical means to do so.

It’s interesting to think about whether Humphreys violated the privacy of these men when he observed them in restrooms. Humphreys watched the most private behavior that occurs between people, but the sex took place in public restrooms. So is it a violation of privacy to watch people who are having sexual relations in public space?

It’s important to remember that Humphreys was studying sex as a form of social interaction.  One thing that really interested him was the role of silence in these sexual encounters.  Participants rarely uttered a word in most of the encounters he observed.  When words were spoken, they were few, in some cases only a greeting or an utterance of “thanks” when the sex was completed. Silence served a vital function because it guaranteed anonymity for the participants and reinforced the impersonality of the situation.

Think about it: in an intimate situation, you want to get to know someone.  You talk to them and want to learn personal details about them.  But these men wanted sex without obligation or commitment. For this reason, a park bathroom was the perfect place because it provided the type of environment that suited the lack of personal involvement these men desired.  Furthermore, Humphreys suggested that in this type of setting, with fast and impersonal sex being the most important ingredients, great expectations weren’t in play. In other words, the men he studied didn’t have the highest standards for partners in terms of image appearance, personality, age, or other characteristics that people tend to focus on when they are searching for intimacy.

Humphreys discovered that men of all types came to the tearooms for sex: married, unmarried, some with heterosexual identities, others with homosexual identities, blue-collar workers, white-collar workers, all interested in what Humphreys referred to as “kicks without commitment.”  Some men were regulars, stopping at a tearoom on the way to or from work.  “One physician in his late fifties was so punctual in his appearance at a particular restroom,” Humphreys wrote, “that I began to look forward to our daily chats.” Keep in mind that Humphreys earned the trust of the men by serving as a lookout, promising to alert them of unwelcome intruders. He never identified his real purposes for being there.

The restrooms where Humphreys did his research were in Forest Park in St. Louis. The busiest bathrooms, he noted, were isolated from recreational areas. Ideally, then, children weren’t likely to go to them after being at a playground. Activity in the tearooms peaked at the end of the workday, so it was especially convenient if men could park their cars close to a restroom as they drove home from work. 

image For comparison, I took a picture of the bathroom building and the men’s entrance at Delaware Park in Buffalo when I last took a walk in the park. The building is a stone’s throw from an expressway, but there is no parking available close to the building. And the building is just a few steps away from where people rollerblade, bike, walk, jog, and play soccer. I honestly don’t know if any homosexual activity takes place in the men’s bathroom (or heterosexual activity, for that matter) but it doesn’t seem isolated enough for sexual activity.

In all, Humphreys provided insight into many sociological issues, including the rules that govern the process of impersonal sex, the kinds of men that frequent tearooms, and how men related their behavior to the rest of their lives. What is your opinion of Humphreys? Do you think he was an innovative researcher with a sharp sociological eye? Was he a creep in desperate need of an ethics seminar?  How would you describe him and his research? Finally, when it comes to studying people in public places, do you think sexual behavior is off limits?

June 24, 2010

College Degrees and Social Mobility

KS_2010a By Karen Sternheimer

Are you currently or about to be a college student? A recent college grad? If so, you probably hope that your college degree will help you in the job market. According to the Cooperative Institutional Research Program (CIRP)’s annual study of college freshmen, in 2009 78 percent of college freshmen said it was very important or essential to be well-off financially. This isn’t a big surprise during economically hard times. But does a college degree help you move up economically?

A recent Los Angeles Times article posed this question, noting that “a diploma is no longer seen as a guarantee of a better job and higher pay.” In light of the rising costs of a college degree, which Sally Raskoff recently blogged about, it is worth exploring whether going to college is still linked with upward mobility.

As you can see from the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) unemployment data below, more education means a greater likelihood of having a job. The recent recession impacted construction work and retail positions especially hard, so it’s not surprising that those with less education who might be more likely to work in those fields would have higher unemployment rates. Having a bachelor’s degree instead of only a high school diploma essentially reduces the odds of unemployment by more than half.

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BLS data also show that more education means higher median income, as the graph below details. People holding advanced degrees have the highest median weekly income, but notice the big jump between earnings of those with some college and those with a college degree.

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Seems pretty straightforward so far: going to college means earning more money. But when we look at earnings by education and gender, the picture becomes a bit more complicated. Education has a more modest impact on women’s weekly earnings. The BLS data show that men out earn women at every education level and that women with college degrees earn only slightly more than men without four-year degrees ($45 a week).

Women with advanced degrees actually have a lower median income than men with only bachelor’s degrees; likewise, women who have attended some college earn less than men with only high school degrees. For women, a college degree might yield less income than it does for men, but it still provides a boost compared with those without degrees.

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The Times story notes that the percentage of bachelor’s degree holders in professional and managerial positions has declined over the past several decades, and future job growth is expected in the service sector. Jobs like customer service, food servers, and healthcare aides don’t tend to pay very well in contrast to professional and managerial jobs: in April 2010, the median weekly income of someone in a management-level position was $1,068 compared with $476 in a service job, according to the BLS. When you consider that service sector work is more unstable and subject to seasonal ups and downs, there is an even greater disadvantage.

So what does this mean for an aspiring college student or recent college grad?

You could choose your major based on the job prospects it carries. A 2009 Forbes magazine article lists the top ten majors with the lowest unemployment rates:

Accounting

Mechanical Engineering

Electrical Engineering

Computer Science
Business Administration

Economics/Finance

Information Systems

Computer Engineering

Management Information Systems

Marketing

Bear in mind there are likely people with degrees in these disciplines who are still looking for a job. But what if nothing on this list appeals to you?

Choosing a major only based on potential income virtually guarantees you boredom at school and on the job. I haven’t been shy about touting the marketable skills that a sociology degree brings, and a college degree is worth very little if it doesn’t enhance your personal skill set and interests.

The bottom line: college degrees matter. On average, your income will be higher and your chances of being unemployed will be lower if you have one. But keep in mind that a degree does not guarantee a permanent position in the middle class. With more people holding bachelor’s degrees than in the past, (11 percent of Americans 25 and older had a bachelor's degree in 1970, compared with nearly 30 percent today), there is more educated competition in the labor force than there was a generation ago. As the Brookings Institution recently reported, many middle-class families experience an “income rollercoaster” due to shifts in the economy.

A degree is like having a life vest while sailing: it’s really important to have, but it will not always save you. The rising costs of a four year degree may make earning one a bigger challenge, particularly as colleges raise tuition and fees. It’s likely that a degree has never been more economically important, but it is vital to be realistic about your earning potential, especially if you are going into debt in the process. Graduating with massive student loan debt could offset the income gains a degree brings.

June 21, 2010

No Backstage Pass: Student Presentations of Self to Professors

new janis By Janis Prince Inniss

Dear Class,

When I was creating my syllabus, I forgot to mention that there is one more exam covering everything we did for the semester—yes, it’s cumulative—and a 20 page research paper. I know that this is the last week of class but could you please excuse me? Pick whichever reason you like best from the following to excuse my lapse:

A. My child had a fever and I had to take her to the doctor and then to the hospital and I didn’t get any sleep at all that night. And my dog was hit by a bus. Plus, my computer was acting funny. I think it has a virus. (If you’re taking an on-line course, add this: I was having trouble getting into Blackboard and Blackboard kept kicking me out.)

B. I was focused on my career and really needed to get some other work done to make sure I get promoted.

C. I really didn’t understand that I was so supposed to put all of that in the syllabus. It’s so hard trying to figure out months beforehand what I’m going to do with a class. The university wants us to hand in the syllabus long before the class even starts. I didn’t expect all of this to be so hard. I’m really good at all the other things I do and get really good evaluations on all of my other work.

D. This is the last class I’m going to teach. I’ve always got good evaluations for all the other courses I taught and I really don’t want this class to bring down my overall evaluation grade.

E. I just need an extension. That way I can add this information to the syllabus and nobody will have to know that it wasn’t there when you first got it.

Do you think I have ever told the student version of any of these to my professors? In earning four degrees, I have taken about seventy university courses so I’ve had ample opportunity. I’ve pulled a few all-nighters, pecking away at a typewriter trying to finish papers on-time. I trudged to the library in snow to do research. I was up until 2 and 3 o’clock studying for exams. Eventually, I realized that the students hovering around my professors were not asking questions clip_image002[6]about the materials but instead were explaining why they need an extension on this or that assignment. An extension? I thought a deadline was …well, the point after which you might as well drop dead as far as your professor is concerned. I didn’t realize it was only a suggestion. I wasn’t familiar with the ritual of negotiating a new deadline or alternative assignment.

I complied because that’s what I knew. I was lucky in that though, because, let me let you in on a secret that your professors may not have told you: Most of us have worked very hard to complete our own degrees, and have done so despite a variety of personal problems, challenges, and frustrations. In fact, many of us struggle to meet deadlines (teaching, writing articles, books, conducting research) that cause us stress. So when you tell us your personal problems in the hopes that we will extend deadlines, it can be infuriating to us. When you go on about how good your grades are, but show little or no evidence of how you could have possibly attained those grades, we don’t feel sympathy for you. We feel frustration. And we tell each other jokes about the most outrageous excuses that our students give us. (We don’t use your names though.) It suggests that you don’t understand the concept of impression management. For sociology students, this is particularly egregious because the concept was developed by sociologist Erving Goffman.

Impression management is an awareness of how others view us and how we can manipulate that perception and ultimately shape the way others treat us. Goffman differentiated between front stage and back stage behavior. Front stage refers to our public persona, our “onstage” roles. Front stage is what we want others—our audience—to think, know, or feel about us. Back stage is our private self; the dressing room at the back of a theatre where we put on make-up, get dressed, and prepare before entering the front stage.

clip_image002Back stage: You tell your friends/spouses/significant others about your burdens and why you really need to pass this class without really doing the work.

Back stage: We—faculty—talk about bizarre student excuses.

Front stage: You ask questions of your professors and make comments to them that illustrate how hard you are working to earn a good grade. You find ways to let them know that you’ve done all of the readings, exercises, and other assignments, even if they’re only “recommended”.

Front stage: We teach. And we act like we believe unbelievable student excuses.

As at a theatrical performance, the ”audience” should not be permitted to go back stage. Create an impression that you are a serious student, even if it is only an impression. Otherwise, make your excuse as good as this one in the video below....

Visit msnbc.com for breaking news, world news, and news about the economy

June 16, 2010

Why Are Meetings So Frustrating?

new sally By Sally Raskoff

Do you find workplace meetings frustrating? I’ve been feeling frustrated with meetings a lot lately.

Meetings are an organization’s way of making group decisions. Individual decision-making is so much easier. For example, I’ve decided to write this blog on frustrating meetings! Done!

But meetings require including the opinions of others; their viewpoints must be heard and discussed and that takes time. And patience.clip_image002

When power enters into the equation, meetings can be much quicker but just as frustrating.

Those with power move things along when they run things, share their opinion, or make a decision. This can be speedier, yes, but frustrating if you don’t agree, couldn’t give input, or if your input is discounted or ignored.

Some people with power participate in collaborative meetings, but their power is typically still in play. It’s hard to ignore the boss if they are in the room with you.

My graduate school mentor told a great story that he had experienced. The way I remember it, he and many others were sitting in a room discussing the topics at hand and a decision had to be made. Everyone was sitting in the same type of chair around the room; since no one was at the head of the table or in a bigger chair than others it was a very level playing field. Everyone spoke their piece, stated their opinions, and voiced their concerns. The discussion went all the way around the room until the last man spoke up and shared his opinion on the matter. At that point, everyone nodded and agreed that his was the correct decision. This person was Carl Rogers, an eminent psychologist whose work on group processes is well known. His status and power lifted him above a level hierarchy despite the efforts to flatten it.

clip_image002[7]True collaborative work or shared governance is tough and slow.

This is especially true if the groups sharing the process are culturally heterogeneous. If the group is culturally homogeneous, the similarity of culture can be helpful in avoiding miscommunications. With heterogeneous groups, the likelihood of someone not fully understanding another is increased above and beyond the typical personal miscommunications that can plague any group.

One reason the Spanish Mondragon Cooperatives, a federation of workers who co-own the corporation, has been so successful is that their cultural homogeneity supports the groups’ cohesiveness.

In-group and out-group dynamics might also affect a meeting’s dynamics. If you are part of an in-group, you might identify with that group and feel loyalty towards it. Thus, if a member of your in-group makes some points during the meeting, the other members of that in-group will probably agree with and support that point. If you’re not a member of that group, you can get quite frustrated, especially if that group’s members are in the majority. If an out-group is dominating the meeting and your in-group members are in the minority, you can feel very disempowered.

Have you ever sat in a meeting and wondered why you were getting frustrated? What other sociological dynamics might have been occurring?

June 11, 2010

Hoarding and the Sociology of Consumption

KS_2010a By Karen Sternheimer

If you ever want to be sure you don’t snack while watching television, tune into a show like Hoarders on A&E or one of the several other shows about compulsive hoarders and the unbelievable messes they live with. The team that comes to clean their homes will invariably discover some really gross stuff—particularly if the resident has pets—that aren’t conducive to eating while watching.

At the same time, the people profiled are typically in immense emotional pain, which can be hard to watch. I know people who hoard and have seen up close how difficult it can be for them to try and go through their stuff. I also know the frustration of spending hours helping them clean up only to see the piles return within days or weeks.

Hoarders tends to focus a lot on the psychological problems of its participants, as the American Psychiatric Association lists compulsive hoarding as a symptom of Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder (OCD) and is considering classifying compulsive hoarding as a separate diagnosis. While it’s unclear exactly how many Americans are compulsive hoarders, estimates suggest that somewhere between 1.3 million to 3 million people collect too many items, have difficulty in disposing of and organizing things to the point that stuff takes over their living spaces and interferes with their quality of life.

It’s easy to watch Hoarders in judgment, see the piles of trash and think the subjects should just get over it and clean up. Watching the cluttered lives they lead make it tempting to see the hoarders as oddballs who are totally different from “normal” people.

Watching this show got me thinking about what sociological factors likely play a role in hoarding in addition to psychological disorders. After all, in a society where we are all encouraged to consume our way towards happiness and acceptance, it’s not a big surprise that many people are afraid to let go of their things, even things others might see as garbage.

The proliferation of self-storage businesses attests to how much stuff many of us collect. One in ten American households rented a storage unit in 2007, and the United States is home to about 86% of the world’s self-storage facilities. As you can see from the ad below, accumulating stuff appears totally normal, and only a problem if not stored properly. We have also built bigger houses to hold more stuff; as this National Public Radio (NPR) report details, the average square footage in American homes doubled between the 1950s and 2000s despite families getting smaller (home sizes actually decline for the first time in decades in 2009, likely due to the recession).

Consumption is critical to our economy as well. You might hear news analysts talk about consumer confidence—essentially how good we feel about the economy—and how it may impact consumer spending. Since more than two-thirds of economic growth is driven by spending, our economy is very dependent on people doing lots of shopping. If you recall the days after September 11, 2001, one of the things the president asked citizens to do was to go to the mall and to Disneyland. In large part our economic structure is based on us buying more, whether we have space for it or not.

Our consumer-based culture suggests that our possessions define us, that brands identify our social position and social status. Giving things is also the way we are encouraged to show others we love them on their birthday and special holidays. On some level it shouldn’t be surprising that those experiencing psychological problems have taken these values to extremes.

On one episode of Hoarders, a young man explained why he could not throw out an empty water battle or a soda can. His mother bought those for him, he said, and throwing them out would be just like rejecting her. Clearly very depressed, he knew that all of the clutter around him was interfering with his life, and yet he felt paralyzed to do anything about it.

While most people would not think of empty bottles in quite the same way, how many people store old gifts that they no longer use because of some sentimental value attached to the giver? I confess to this one. I have an item in my closet my grandmother gave to me a few years before her death—in 1986. So there is a very fine line between someone like me—sentimental yet orderly—and someone who assigns sentimental value to objects that clutter their living space.

Hoarding may fall on the extreme end of the consumption scale, but it is a spectrum most of us are on ourselves. In some ways, shows like Hoarders may help us see compulsive hoarders as completely separate from us, and help us avoid looking critically at our own consumption habits. Most of us might not live among piles of garbage…or do we?

June 08, 2010

Short Text Messages: Illusion over Substance

new janis By Janis Prince Inniss

I have discussed my anti-texting bias in previous posts, but I do recognize that texting can be useful. For example, I taught my mother to text when she was in her late 70s! Recovering from surgery meant to give her a sense of sound, Mum was down to one poorly performing ear. As she prepared to visit family by plane in another state, I realized that she would be virtually deaf upon arrival. My mind filled with worst-case scenarios of family attempting to pick her up at the airport, but being unable to locate her despite repeated calls to her cell phone or airport pages. Mum’s sight is pretty good, however, so I taught her to text a few hours before she departed. That holiday season, she kept me apprised of her activities with several texts per day; I got running commentary on her vacation and she got my responses without any problem .

Although I object to how expensive texting can be, I understand why people might find it useful. Texting allows people to ”say” things when they can’t speak; the advantages of this are obvious and often we are saying things we probably shouldn’t, to people we probably shouldn’t, and at times when we probably should be doing something else. Consider that text messages were allegedly a part of Tiger Woods’ extramarital affairs, are used by teachers who prey on their students sexually, and helped cause the downfall of former Detroit mayor Kwame Kilpatrick. The consequences of teen sexting have been widely discussed and debated. Less dramatic, but still in the same category of inappropriate use is texting someone while you’re in a meeting or in class.

People text while doing other things, such as watching movies, having conversations, eating, and working. (Note that research on multitasking indicates that the term more properly refers to doing more than one thing poorly.) That’s what one Wal-Mart cashier who texts at work is doing: While customers push their goods up to the cashier, he reads a text. And while I get my credit card out of my purse, swipe, and sign it, he types a text! (I’ve seen this particular cashier do this repeatedly, so I know he wasn’t doing it once in an emergency). People—teens in particular— are even texting and driving, giving rise to increasing numbers of car accidents due to distracted driving. (Oprah Winfrey has been raising awareness to this issue through her “No Phone Zone” campaign.)

About one third of teens send more than 100 texts per day—and this is the primary way that teens communicate (over phone calls, instant messages, emails, face-to-face, and social networking.) Why is texting so popular? Is it because it allows us to seem communicative, even when we really aren’t?

Let me give you a few examples. I have friends and family members who send annual Christmas Day text message blasts to everyone in their address books. It’s great to receive a holiday greeting, of course, but it feels so impersonal. (Is a blast text any less personal than a computer generated greeting card, electronic card, or an annual family newsletter sent to everyone?) A short telephone call, even voice message seems more personal to me than the blast.

Now that Mother’s Day seems to be cause for acknowledgment not only with those who mothered us, but all mothers we know (a post for another time), I have started receiving blast texts wishing me a Happy Mother’s Day; other so-called holidays also bring me blast texts wishing me a Happy Whatever! Given that the text senders and I don’t communicate on a regular basis, I think actual conversations such as “How are the kids?” “And your Mom?” “How are things at school?” would be real—or at least better approximations of—communication. A text message can give the illusion that we are communicating even when we are not.

Ever think about why someone is sending you a text rather than calling or visiting you? I do. Visits are not as convenient (or maybe even appropriate) as other methods of communication. But given that texts are inconvenient to type (at least for some of us) and that there is a 160 character limit, a text message provides a limited form of communication. This makes sense when we remember that we refer to as texts are technically “short message service”. Short message, not full conversation. As one among other modes of communication, texts are fine but if used too often they give the appearance of communication, in a medium that is by nature unable to support a substantive conversation. Texts can’t convey emotion to the extent that a voice or non-verbal cue can, which is why sensitive conversations are not as suitable for this medium. And given that people are often texting while attending to other tasks, how engaged can they really be with the person they are texting or with the people around them?

June 04, 2010

Ritual Season

new sally By Sally Raskoff

Rituals surround us at this time of year: awards ceremonies, commencement, marriages, and anniversaries. Add in some birthdays or baby showers and you have a lot of social events to attend!

Rituals are public behaviors that have tremendous meaning for us as individuals and for our society as a whole. These events announce changes in our lives, achievements, and milestones. Yet they do so much more.

Commencement is my favorite school activity (much more fun than committee meetings). We faculty dress in our gowns, each distinctive for the degree we have and the school where we earned it. The faculty and soon-to-be graduates march into the stadium, take their seats, listen to the speakers, text their family and friends, and savor the experience of sharing these moments. Once students start walking the line to get their diploma cover, shake the dignitaries hands, and wave at their loved ones in the stands, we faculty wave if they see us and remember their first day of class. Especially considering that many of our students do not make it to this point, this is a moment to appreciate the tenacity and perseverance of those who do.

Scholarship and awards ceremonies have the same flavor, as they are joyful events where people celebrate their acknowledgements from foundations and clip_image002grantors to support their education. At our college, the awards are also where we celebrate those students who are transferring to a four-year college or university. (Those students are not the same students who graduate with an A.A. degree.) As they are acknowledged by name, we hear which universities have accepted them and which one they will attend. That gives many in the audience a chance to yell out in support of their favored institution. (It’s obvious who are the UCLA and USC fans in the room.)

Among my family and friends thus summer, we will be celebrating a 25th wedding anniversary, a 30th birthday, a 40th birthday, and a baby shower. These are personal events yet we are compelled to celebrate them publicly. Why?

clip_image004The anniversary is mine. My spouse and I weren’t sure whether to have a party at all and haven’t yet decided on how big this party will be, but our family let us know that we need to have one. The birthdays are milestone birthdays although they are a little scary to those experiencing them. The baby shower is to welcome a new person into the world and to shower the new parents with supplies and support in their coming adventure.

What would happen if we didn’t have these events? Graduations without a commencement celebration; awards without public acknowledgement; milestone anniversaries and birthdays passing without notice, and babies changing their parents’ lives without support of family and friends? It sounds like a lot less fun!

These rituals provide a way for individuals to commemorate and appreciate their achievements and milestones. They give us motivation to do more and they help us appreciate what we have accomplished. Without them, life continues on a mundane or profane level, without any sense of how special or sacred those markers are. Achieving a degree or award, staying married, living longer, and creating life are all important behaviors for the individuals involved but also for society.

These rituals affirm that our behaviors are socially acceptable and worth striving for, and they connect to important social norms. Because rituals are shared and public, they reinforce those social norms for the participants and the observers.

Society’s stability is based on social norms and close social networks (among other things). Social rituals provide the social solidarity or social glue to keep us bonded to each other. These rituals reinforce awareness of what our society deems important, and provides some motivation to achieve those things.

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Commencement and awards ceremonies reinforce the norms of educational achievement, without which society would not have skilled labor and those who will work in the professions. Social bonds are also reinforced as the graduates are seen as a cohort and the alumni associations approach them about membership. Anniversaries, birthdays, and baby showers all reinforce social bonds among family systems and friendship networks. They also reinforce norms of family: clip_image008marriage and parenting.

One might look more closely at Erving Goffman's "Interaction Ritual" concept to see how we conform to expectations within these events. One could also analyze the many wedding-related rituals (e.g., showers, bachelor’s parties, rehearsals) to see how social norms, networks, and solidarity are involved in the creation of a new family.

In what social event have you recently taken part in? How are these or other sociological concepts and issues related to your event?

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