6 posts from July 2007

July 30, 2007

Altruism and the Bystander Effect

Author_brad By Bradley Wright

Suppose that you’re at the local convenience store buying the usual—chips, soda, and, if it’s a good day, some Ben & Jerry’s, and there, in the middle of the aisle, is a body. Someone is lying unconscious, bleeding profusely.

What would you do?

According to social psychologists, there’s a good chance that you would simply step over the person and go on your way.

Don’t believe that anyone would do this? Well, that’s exactly what happened in Wichita, Kansas. On July 4th, LaShanda Calloway was stabbed during a robbery, and as she lay there bleeding to death, five shoppers just stepped right over her and kept on going. One of the people actually stopped to take a picture with a cell phone!

How could this happen? When this story was posted on the web, a number of readers wrote comments along the lines of “what is the world coming to?” and “people these days!” The police chief of Wichita exclaimed, “what happened to our respect for life?" But people weren’t always helpful in the past, either. 

In 1964, late at night in Queens, New York, Kitty Genovese parked her car and started to walk to her apartment when she was attacked and stabbed not once, not twice, but three times by the same assailant over a half-an-hour period. During that time she screamed for help on numerous occasions, and a total of 38 people heard her—some even watched the events outside their windows. Not a single person even called the police, let alone helped her, until it was too late and she was killed.

Social psychologists term this behavior the “bystander effect:” The more people present in an emergency situation, the less likely any given individual is to help. So, if you see someone in need, whether you help depends on if there are other people around. The more people nearby, the less likely you are to help. 

This happens for two reasons. First, having other people around in an emergency creates a diffusion of responsibility. We might assume that others will help, so we don’t need to. They may even be better qualified to help, we may presume, so we should let them intervene. Maybe they are closer to the victim or saw the victim before we did, so somehow they have more responsibility than we do.

Second, having bystanders around changes our definition of the situation. According to one of sociology’s core theoretical perspectives, symbolic interactionism, we make sense of our daily situations through our interactions with others. Especially when we’re in an ambiguous situation, we look to others to figure out how we should understand the situation and what we should do (and they’re looking to us to figure things out too). If in an emergency situation we see that nobody else is helping, we might think that we shouldn’t either. Maybe it’s not really an emergency, or maybe there is nothing that can be done. 

At this point you might be thinking that this is interesting, but it would never happen to you. Well, guess again. The bystander effect happens even when you’re aware of it. I know because it happened to me.

Two weeks ago some friends came over to go swimming. We have an in-ground pool, and two weeks ago a friend and her four-year-old daughter came over to go swimming. The girl couldn’t swim, so her mother put her in a life vest. But the life vest was too small, and it didn’t keep her head completely out of the water. After about paddling around for a while, the girl started to get tired, and, in the middle of the pool, she could no longer get her mouth above water. She couldn’t breathe and started to panic.

As this was happening, I was talking with the mother on the pool deck, and we turned to watch the girl. Now, if I had been alone, I would have just jumped in and pulled the girl out. Instead, I turned to the mother to see what she was doing. She looked calm (though I later found out that she wasn’t), and I thought maybe she was going to take care of the situation. So, we both stood there--for a very long 10 or 15 seconds before the mother jumped in. The girl was fine, though a little shaken. Afterwards I wondered why in the world I didn’t help, and then I realized what had happened: I gave responsibility to the mother, and I thought that maybe I was reading the situation wrong. Classic bystander effect.

The bystander effect also applies to bigger problems. Why have people been so slow to deal with global warming? Why have people ignored the AIDS pandemic in Africa for so long? Why do so few people care about stores selling products made in exploitive manufacturing conditions? We might think that the bigger a problem, the more likely we will be to do something about it, but, ironically, the exact opposite is true. If a problem affects many others, we’ll likely think that someone else should or will take care of it, or maybe we’ll see no one else doing anything and decide it’s not really a problem after all.

What then should we do? The next time you’re a bystander when someone needs help, don’t just stand by.

July 27, 2007

Families off the Deep End

Author_janis By Janis Prince Inniss

On July 2, a USA Today headline declared that “Troubled homes (are) better than foster care”. Florida has a particularly bad track record with children in its custody. Rilya Wilson and Courtney Alisa Clark are just two of the children that have made headlines regarding the failure of the Florida child welfare system to protect children in its custody. 

Wilson was 5 years old when she disappeared, but is believed to have been murdered more than a year before officials even realized she was missing. Clark was a two-year old, found in a Wisconsin home with a scalded, emaciated 11-year-old boy in the closet and his mother buried in the backyard! It was four months before her caseworker reported Courtney missing to the police.

Equally as disturbing are the typical descriptions of the behaviors of children in the child welfare system: 

  • She threw a desk at a teacher!
  • He was growing marijuana in their home!
  • She kept running away!

In the U.S., there are over 800,000 children in the child welfare system who have been removed from their parents’ homes due to abuse, abandonment, or neglect. Many of them display “externalizing disorders,” behaviors that make other people uncomfortable, in contrast to “internalizing disorders” such as depression and anxiety. 

Among people at various levels of the foster care system—case managers and their supervisors, agency heads, and a variety of service providers—the stories about “bad kids” and their “externalizing disorders” abound. In particular, case managers have tons of stories about the bizarre behavior of children in their caseloads. Their stories describe children who bite, spit, lie, steal, and punch teachers, foster parents, and police officers. 

But let’s consider the other side of the coin. How might you feel if you were raised in a neglectful or abusive home? And, what if, despite the problems in that home, you still loved your Mommy and siblings, so you still wanted to be with them? But the state came along and “rescued” you, separating you from your family. 

And what if you went from foster home to foster home, and were greeted with different rules in each home and sometimes abused in those homes? Or were bounced around between institutional settings and various foster homes? How well behaved would you be then? 

What if years passed and you still had not been reunited with your family? Maybe some of your siblings who cried quietly at night into their pillows were adopted by other families. What if their adoptive parents do not want you coming around or calling because of your behavior? 

Worst of all, what if you were the one who did something triggering the investigation of your home and you were initially glad to be rescued, and were told that you would go back home in a couple months when things were better? And what if two months became two years? How well behaved would you be then? How happy would you be?

Although not acceptable, the behaviors of these children can be understood as normal reactions to bizarre circumstances that may include living in families that are abusive and/or neglectful and being removed from those they love with little warning or preparation. Yet, in the world of child welfare, there is little or no acknowledgement that the many cases of depression, Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD), and oppositional defiant disorder (ODD) and other “mental illnesses” may be a result of (or made worse by) the experiences of these troubled children.

Poor parenting has long been a pet peeve of mine; although I acknowledge that to be even a mediocre parent takes hard work. Yet, as I have entered the world of child welfare, I have found that few people focus on what it takes to be a good parent. Though child welfare workers see many examples of poor parenting, many of them seem to ignore it and instead focus on the children and their negative behavior.

Nobody talks about these kids’ strengths or talents. When asked whether these children have ever experienced good times, there is telling silence. 

Why so much discussion about the behavior of these children? Why are attempts at protecting children so focused on “fixing” the children? Pathologizing children makes them abnormal and in need of fixing--an easier goal than attempting to change their parents. All too often, the child welfare system employs psychotherapeutic medications and institutions to respond to the behaviors of children. Except for the most egregious cases, the same methods cannot be applied to their parents. 

Both the use of medications and institutional settings—psychiatric hospitals, group homes and residential treatment centers—are costly and stigmatizing. Unfortunately, institutional placements are quite common. One study found that among seventeen-year-olds still in out–of-home care, three quarters had been in residential facilities, and nearly a half had been in inpatient psychiatric care at some point. Institutional placements are quite common: about half of all children go directly to these so-called “deep end” placements without first going to foster care. This is in spite of the social services mantra that children should be placed in the “least restrictive setting first.” Furthermore, there is little evidence that group homes and psychiatric hospitals are effective. 

At the same time, children in the child welfare system receive psychotropic medications at rates of two to three times other children. Yet few medications are approved for use with this population. Like institutionalizing them, the over reliance on medication and the over medication of children is related to the need to control children’s behavior for the convenience of the adults—foster parents, case managers, residential care managers, and teachers to name a few—around them. Parents, the usual champions of children, are often not available to question their treatment or are unable to do so.

Undoubtedly, children in child welfare have immense emotional and psychological needs and many may benefit from medication and institutional services. However, the very system meant to serve them compounds their problems by overusing these extreme measures. The system focuses too much on the misdeeds of these children and on the treatment of their behaviors and not enough on familial and social explanations for their behavior. These family and social problems are more complex-- and harder to fix.

July 12, 2007

Drinks, Anyone?

Author_karenBy Karen Sternheimer

I’m not much of a drinker, but apparently lots of other adults in my age group are. At least that’s what a nationally representative survey, conducted by the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA), found. 

This study is a rarity in that so much research about drinking focuses exclusively on teens, while this one specifically looked at adults’ drinking habits. My interest in this study was first piqued by an article in the Los Angeles Times, but I always recommend looking directly at the report itself rather than relying on a reporter’s interpretation of research. You can nearly always find something interesting that is left out of or distorted by the news. 

According to the study, which included an unusually large sample of about 43,000 respondents eighteen and over, people aged 30 to 64 are the group most likely to have abused alcohol. 

These are the supposedly solid middle years of maturity and responsibility, but less than a quarter of those the report calls alcohol abusers seek treatment. The authors point out that alcohol abuse contributes to other serious social and mental health problems. Nearly a third of adults surveyed reveal signs of alcohol abuse. Sounds like we have a serious social problem brewing, right?

But when I first visited NIAAA’s website, I noticed that much of the content concentrated on teen and underage drinking. Historically, concerns about alcohol and drugs center almost exclusively on so-called “problem populations,” groups previously singled out as a potential source of trouble. 

In the late nineteenth and early twentieth century, several states passed laws making drinking alcohol illegal—but only for African Americans and Native Americans. At the same time, many advocates of the temperance movement also feared new immigrants in cities, and blamed a wide variety of urban problems on the newcomers’ drinking habits. 

This movement, of course, resulted in Prohibition, which banned alcohol across the United States. Like Prohibition, anti-drug laws passed throughout the twentieth century were primarily motivated by fear of the people associated with substance abuse, rather than by concern for the health of the users. 

For instance, in the nineteenth century many middle-class whites living in rural areas routinely dosed themselves with “health tonics” that contained substances like cocaine. But cocaine became illegal due to fears that it caused African American men to become violent in the Jim Crow south, not because of the addiction problems the tonics created.

Young people became a “problem population” during the student movements of the 1960s and early 1970s. Restrictions on drug use, seen as part of the counter-culture, tightened. The Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA), created in 1973, was a part of this formal crackdown.

If you check out the "Alcohol Alerts" on the NIAAA website, you will see that we still focus on the alcohol use of those with the least social power. In addition to teens and young adults, the institute reports on alcohol use among minorities, women, and people with HIV/AIDS.

But back to the recent report. Guess who is most likely to have problems with alcohol: white men in middle adulthood, especially those who earn $70,000 or more.

Why no hue and cry over these drinkers? We know that men are much more likely to be arrested for drinking and driving, and according to National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) drivers aged 21-54 involved in fatal accidents are more likely to be drunk than teens and “underage” adults. So this population of drinkers does cause problems. 

Many children live with parents who abuse alcohol; the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) estimates that nine percent of American kids have at least one parent who has a serious alcohol problem. These children likely experience high levels of instability and perhaps become alcohol abusers themselves.

But white, middle-class men over thirty typically have more social power than the groups commonly targeted as problems. They also vote, and no sane politician is going to campaign warning of the danger some of these men cause and how we can control them.

And let’s not forget that alcohol is a huge industry that depends on well-off men to be their best customers. This industry can well afford the much-touted “We Card” programs because teens usually don’t have the money for the expensive stuff that their parents can buy.

We in America have an uneasy relationship with alcohol. On the one hand, we celebrate many happy occasions, conduct business deals, and mark holidays with a drink. Many people drink responsibly and never let alcohol or drugs impair their judgment or interfere with their lives.

And yet there are still vestiges of the old Puritan ethic hanging around, the same cultural strain that promoted temperance a century ago. Puritans believed in denying pleasure in favor of productivity, and in many ways we have not reconciled these two seemingly opposing forces yet. By focusing so much on trying to control those whom we think cannot control themselves, we can take the focus off of ourselves and our own confusion about where to draw the line between feeling good and being responsible. 

But if people who often hold leadership positions in our society can’t even control their own behavior, we are left to question not just drinking, but the social order itself. Why do you think we ignore many problem drinkers and focus so much on people under 21?

July 09, 2007

Interpersonal Interactions: The Erosion of Sociability?

Author_sally By Sally Raskoff

Have you ever noticed how people interact with one another in everyday settings? I was at a restaurant recently and the busy salad bar got my attention and awakened my sociological imagination. As people jockeyed for position and access to their favorite veggies, I noticed that how we take turns with people—especially those whom we do not know—can tell us much about the social setting in which we live. 

Sociologically speaking, turn-taking behavior involves a set of norms that guide our behavior and allows something as complex as society to exist. When those norms are followed, we have social order; when these norms are breached or otherwise disrupted, we have some chaos in our social order.

During my recent salad bar observation, I observed diners following some gender and age- related norms. Men, especially older men, let women go ahead of them in line if they arrived at the bar simultaneously. Some younger men jumped the line to get their plates full before their male peers. Most women held back and let others in, no matter who the other diners were. Most older people were more accommodating and let the younger people in, except for one much older man, who evidently felt he’d paid his dues and went right for the carrots. A middle-aged woman talking on a Bluetooth cell phone filled her plate, oblivious to others around her.

When people jumped the line, most reacted by scowling or shaking their heads to express their disdain; few people actually said something to the norm breaker. When two younger men elbowed in to get their croutons, the mostly older crowd shook their heads in a more understanding way, as if to say “Boys will be boys.”

The norms operating here, based on gender and age, reflect the power differences that different groups experience in our society. Overall, men were more assertive in their positions at the salad bar and women were more accommodating. Young adults were more forceful in filling their plates before others compared to the older people. Much research exists to document the primacy and privilege of men and youth compared to their subordinate counterparts of women and older adults. Thus, those with privilege were able to bend the typical norms of turn-taking and not suffer negative effects. 

When we notice norms operating in situations like these, there is typically some exception to the pattern, but this does not disprove the finding. For example, the one older man elbowed a younger woman because he felt entitled to his carrots. Thus, his gender privilege trumped his age disadvantage. The woman on the phone does present an exception to the pattern, but no behavior is ever 100% predictable, though. 

At the salad bar, the most pleasant interactions were between the women and older people. This was evident by the smiles and cordial words that they shared. 

I drove home from this setting pondering these norms. While driving, I quickly realized that the norms of turn-taking differ dramatically depending on the situation. Turn-taking norms while driving deal with merging into and out of lanes and at stop signs. It was very clear within a few blocks that pleasing or cordial driving was very rare no matter who was driving. Everyone wanted priority at the stop sign no matter who was on their right; drivers did not slow down to allow other cars to merge in front of them. 

At one freeway on-ramp, two lanes merge into one and several cars are all in the left lane, waiting to enter the freeway. As a car turns into the ramp and comes up the right lane, one of the cars in the left lane pulls out halfway and blocks their progress. One could interpret this in two ways, but both are attempts to repair a broken norm. 

First, the driver pulling out might have thought the other driver violated the turn-taking norm by jumping the line since all the cars on the left side patiently waited in line (even though there was another lane they weren’t filling). Second, the other driver might have thought the left driver was interfering with their turn since they blocked their path. Such interactions can lead to road rage incidents simply because people think others don’t follow the rules.

Social isolation in our cars gives us a feeling of omnipotence. We also do all sorts of things in our cars while driving that we would not do in the company of people. How many times have you seen someone picking their nose in the car next to you? This is not a rare activity.

Comparing salad bars and driving may seem an odd task. Certainly there are differences that impede such comparison. However, the main focus here, turn-taking norms, do apply to both situations and comparing the two helps identify what was going on with the cell phone woman at the salad bar. 

The physical isolation that technology affords us, whether through cars or cell phones, can erode the norms of interpersonal interaction. The woman on the cell phone at the salad bar is an example of this. While she was in close physical proximity to others, she did not interact with any people there. Others noticed her and saw her behavior as rather rude—she was the focus of some scowling facial reactions although no one dared ask her to get off the phone.

Sociology is a tool to make sense of everyday behavior. I’m happy to be part of this blog to share my observations and thoughts about how sociology helps us to understand the world. While I used norms and patterns of privilege and inequality to better understand behaviors at the salad bar and on the road, there are many other sociological concepts that could be useful for understanding these same situations. Be on the lookout in your daily life for patterns that you can analyze sociologically and don’t hesitate to try on a concept or two!

July 04, 2007

Deindividualization and the Monster within Us

Author_brad_2 By Bradley Wright

Right now, the Weekly Shopper sits on my coffee table. It’s a free weekly newspaper that contains advertisements for local businesses, usually with accompanying photographs of the smiling owners. It also has slice-of-life news stories with edgy headlines such as “families enjoy fishing derby” and “high school class graduates” and “new exhibit at library.”

What I like, however, is the section called “Speak Out.” Here people write in to express themselves about just about anything—from speed bumps to the war in  Iraq.

What’s interesting about this section is that what people write can be, well, rather nasty. A common theme is: “I am right and you’re an idiot,” as people write things they would not say in person.

Several weeks ago, someone wrote in suggesting that people should be required to pass a hearing test in order to receive a driver’s license (to make sure that they could hear sirens and horns honking). This week, however, a hearing impaired person wrote in to angrily denounce this suggestion. After citing his clean driving record, he scolded the previous writer: “How dare you… next time think before you make another comment that may offend someone.” 

Another writer told of going to a local restaurant with her three-year old-son, who is autistic. When the child started to act out, the family next to them moved to a different table. How did the mother react? She didn’t say anything at the time, but instead she wrote in to “Speak Out” to castigate the family, concluding “you should be ashamed of yourselves.”

Another writer complained about her boyfriend spending too much time playing on his X-box. As she put it, “my boyfriend is sweet and everything, but if he gets his hands on that controller, forget it. It’s an all-night thing. What happened to spending quality time together?” What does she do? Instead of talking to him directly, she writes to “Speak Out” to warn him, and all men, that if they play too much X-Box that they will probably “lose their women.” 

These types of no-holds-barred comments don’t appear only in small-town newspapers. A similar thing happens with student evaluations of professors. Now, I’m lucky because I my evaluations are usually positive (and hopefully not just because I serve cookies during tests). However, some professors are hit pretty hard. Various websites, such as ratemyprofessor.com and myprofessorsucks.com, allow college students to rage against their professors. When students don’t like a professor—watch out, because they will say some wicked things. Here are some actual examples.

  • "If there is no way to get out of taking him I suggest that you bring a coloring book for something to do that is worthwhile. May I suggest a Spider-Man one."
  • "I swear, she must have gotten her degree out of a vending machine."
  • "Made about as much sense as a dissertation about world peace written by a chipmunk on speed."
  • "Avoid her like a hippy would a war."

And the comments don’t stop with teaching ability. They often address the professor’s personal characteristics:

  •  "His facial hair makes him resemble the wolf dad in the movie Teen Wolf starring Michael J. Fox."
  •  "His insanely colored polo shirts will blind you."

Why does this happen? While the rest of the Weekly Shopper is filled with small-town, apple-pie optimism, the Speak-Out section can be plain mean. College students may be unfailing polite to their professors in person, but they can take potshots in evaluations.

The answer has to do with the fact that both Speak-Out and the student evaluations are anonymous, and as such they invoke a social-psychological process called “deindividualization.” When we are anonymous, we feel that we can act without social consequences. If no one knows who we are, then we feel as though we are not responsible for what we do.  We feel freed from social norms of behavior. We do things that we’d never do otherwise. Deindividualization strips away our social identity and frees us to act out our antisocial desires or to respond solely to situational cues. In fact, we don’t even need to be completely anonymous for deindividualization to work—being part of a group or in a uniform might be enough.

Deindividualization matters because it explains some of society’s most undesirable behaviors. The relative anonymity of driving a car can lead drivers to road rage. Large groups of people in a riot allow the individual to smash property and harm others. Hiding in the dark allows a rapist to assault a woman. Wearing uniforms allows prison guards at Abu Ghraib to abuse prisoners. Wearing costumes enable Ku Klux Klan members to promote racism while hiding their identities.  

Deindividualization also shows us the power of groups to regulate behavior. Day-in and day-out we are extraordinarily civilized people. We walk into a classroom and quietly sit where we are supposed to. We buy coffee by standing in line, greet the cashier, and pay for it. We don’t punch people every time someone bothers us. We don’t just grab somebody’s cellphone just because we want it (though we might if it’s the new iPhone).

Why are we so civil? There are lots of reasons—socialization, habits, social control—but one reason is that if people know who we are, we act differently. Take away that recognition, that individualization, and we become a different person. Out comes our inner-monster.


July 02, 2007

Murder and Statistics

Author_karen_2 By Karen Sternheimer

If you saw the national news on June 4th, you probably heard a frightening story. The FBI released their preliminary report of crimes that occurred in 2006. According to the report, murder is on the rise—up 6.7 percent in America's  biggest cities. Experts warned we could be in for a new crime wave, and offered explanations for the upswing. Should we be afraid?

Maybe. Or Maybe not.

Let’s consider the basic implication when we hear grim statistics like this: things really are getting worse, and there is a number to prove it. But in this case, and in many others, we only hear some of the numbers; maybe just one if it seems to tell a dramatic story. What else should we consider before deciding that America really is a more dangerous place?

First, fortunately, murder is one of the rarest crimes. Of all violent crimes reported to police in 2005 (which includes crimes like rape, assault, and robbery), only 1.2 percent of those were homicides. But we have a fascination with murder—think of what would become of network television dramas if shows like CSI or Law and Order weren’t on the air? We are attracted to popular culture that helps us to deal with the scariest parts of the human experience from a safe distance. But sometimes this focus can make us think that the world is a more dangerous place than it actually is.

Second, let’s get back to the 6.7 percent rise that the major news networks grimly reported. Based on ten cities with populations over one million, this number reflects approximately 194 more homicides than in 2005. No doubt, every homicide is a tragedy and has a ripple effect that goes way beyond the victims themselves, but this is a relatively small number when you consider the combined populations of those ten cities.

Just over 25 million people live in the nation’s largest cities, and according to these early reports in 2006 3,085 people were killed, or one-tenth of one percent of the population.

By contrast, nearly 95 million Americans live in smaller cities that experienced reductions in homicide. Cities with 50,000 to 99,000 residents actually experienced a 6.9 percent decline in 2006, but this rarely made it into the news reports.

Why the omission? Could it be that fewer people would be affected in smaller cities, and the national news media wouldn’t report on something that only impacts a small group? Actually, more people live in mid-sized cities than those with more than one million residents.

Bad news gets our attention. Consider this headline: “Murder Rises Three-Tenths of a Percent!” Not impressed? Apparently news organizations weren’t either, but that’s the overall change from 2005 to 2006 nationwide. This change translates to about fifty more homicides in a population of 300 million. Again, each murder is a tragedy, but three-tenths of a percent raise hardly suggests a major upward trend.

Hearing about rises in crime from year to year, no matter how remote, is still frightening--sort of like a reverse-lottery you don’t want to win. News reports have a way to stoke this fear. They are not lying when they say that we have experienced increases in homicides in three of the last four years. That sounds like an ominous trend, no matter how small.

But since spiking in 1991, both murder and violent crimes in general have plummeted. Even with the estimated increase in 2006, nearly 8,000 fewer people were murdered last year compared with the period when homicide rates were highest. The graph below gives you a visual perspective of the long-term trends, and how the mostly good news has been distorted.



It’s also important to keep in mind that we are not all at equal risk for being the victims of homicide. Murder victims are overwhelmingly male; despite the long-held beliefs of female vulnerability, fully 79 percent of those killed are male.

Nearly half of all of these mostly male victims are African American, yet African Americans comprise only about eleven percent of the total population. This means that African Americans are four times more likely to be killed than we would expect by chance. The odds of an African American male becoming a homicide victim (33.4 per 100,000 people) is six times greater than the general population (5.6 per 100,000), and eight times greater than for white males (4.4 per 100,000).

In addition to masking racial inequality, a big drawback to national data is that homicide is a local, rather than national problem. Some cities experienced major declines in homicides, while others, such as New Orleans, had large increases. Especially since the hurricanes of 2005, this city has faced many well-documented problems that can’t be generalized to the country as a whole.

New Orleans has traditionally been a city with a high poverty rate. Within cities,homicide rates also tend to be higher within areas with large concentrations of people living in poverty. While the FBI data contains information about the race of the victim and offender (but still uses the categories “white,” “black,” “other,” an issue for another column), there is no information on the income levels of those involved.

So do national murder rates matter at all? On many levels, not really. The numbers help us overlook the very real disparities in safety in our country, and they elide some of the major causes for these differences--such as racial segregation and the lack of opportunity many Americans experience.

National numbers aren’t totally useless, though. We can compare our figures to those of other industrialized nations to see that far more people are killed in the U.S. than in many countries around the world.

Seemingly simple numbers, like those presented in June 4th news reports, actually create more sociological questions than they answer. And the answers are invariably complex, varied, and probably don’t make easy-to-digest sound bites. What do you think the answers are?

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