7 posts from August 2007

August 31, 2007

Role Conflict

author_brad By Bradley Wright

Let me tell you a story about a college student who saved the monkeys and got to hang out with Pamela Anderson.

Justin attends the University of Connecticut. He is also into animal rights. Now, saying that Justin is “into” animal rights is like saying Paris Hilton is “into” clothes or Donald Trump is “into” money (or bad hair). Justin is an animal rights activist. It’s not uncommon to see pictures in newspaper of him leading some protest or another. Heck, he even has animal-rights themed tattoos across his body.


In the last few years, Justin has been protesting the University of Connecticut’s use of monkeys in medical research. Apparently, an on-going medical experiment would buy monkeys, drill holes in their heads, stick metal rods into their eyes, and then start destroying parts of their brains to see what would happen. When he learned about this, Justin started protesting, holding press conferences, and sending letters to the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA)—the government agency that overseas animal use in experiments. When Justin could document violations of government policy, the USDA would send a warning letter to the medical researcher conducting these experiments. Eventually, the medical researcher gave up, saying that he was “voluntarily” terminating his study, but it’s clear that Justin single-handedly stopped the experiment.


In recognition of Justin’s achievements, PETA (People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals) gave him an award as the national animal-rights activist of the year, and a Hartford Courant story about the ceremony shows Justin smiling, with his arm around noted PETA supporter, actress Pamela Anderson. Maybe they just smiled for a photo-op, maybe they danced the night away—who knows?—but there they are together in the picture.

There’s a problem, though. All this recognition has come at a price for Justin—he says that his grades have suffered. This makes sense. It’s hard to study for a midterm when you’re chained to a laboratory’s fence or to write a paper when you’re writing press releases.

Justin’s dilemma, the trade-off between getting good grades and advancing animal rights, points to the concept of role conflict. As I wrote about in my last blog entry, roles are social positions that hold expectations for what we do. Each one of us holds multiple roles, and sometimes the expectations of our roles are mutually incompatible—they can’t all be met. This often happens to college students. As a student you should study for tomorrow’s midterm but as an employee you have to work tonight. As a son/daughter you should go home for the three-day weekend but as a friend you should go to the concert with your friends. As a boyfriend/girlfriend you should go out for dinner with your partner but as a dorm resident you should go to the floor’s intramural game.

The more roles one serves, the more often this role conflict happens, and it causes various problems. Role conflict can be stressful. Trying to manage the demands of different roles takes energy and time, and it can be overwhelming. People often get sick when they have too many roles to fulfill. For example, it’s a common sight during finals to see students sniffling away with a tissue box next to their bluebook.

Another consequence of role conflict is deviance. The expectations of any given role can be thought of as norms—like the laws of our country—and violating these norms can lead to punishment. If you show up late for work because of class, you can be fired. If you neglect your boyfriend/girlfriend to play intramurals, you might be dumped. If you go home to your parents’ house instead of going out with your friends, they might not invite you next time.

Usually we think of deviance as a part of who a person is. “This person likes to break rules,” “That person is a criminal;” but from the perspective of role theory, deviance is a function of the roles we serve, not of who we are. So, put anyone into incompatible roles, and the resulting role conflict will turn them into deviants of a sort. Take a nun in a convent, give her contradictory role expectations, and you have someone violating norms—a deviant.


This is not to say that people are helpless against role conflict; in fact, we do lots of things to successfully manage role expectations. We make detailed plans for out days and write them down in little books or PDAs—as a way of fitting everything in. We change one role make it fit with another. We read books and take seminars on how to manage our lives.

Still, as Justin found out, role conflict is part of life, and sometimes there is just no way of getting around it… at least not if you are going to hang out with Pamela Anderson.

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August 10, 2007

Segregation's Lingering Legacy

author_karen By Karen Sternheimer

Did you attend a segregated high school?

If, like me, you went to public school after the landmark 1954 Brown v. Board of Education ruling, your answer should be no…but is it?

The reason I ask is that I just attended my high school reunion. I never would have thought of my school as segregated when I was growing up. But while everyone ate dinner, I took pictures of all of the tables and found that nearly every one was segregated by race. 

Looking back, I did not observe any overt racism at my high school. This does not mean that none existed, but it would have been shocking for anyone to use j0414104the “n” word or to exclude anyone based on their race. Of course, as a white person, I might not have been as attuned to racism as my classmates of color  were.

Yet there we were, years later, grouped by race, much like we were in the school cafeteria, come to think of it. Just as in high school, no one had an assigned seat; we could sit wherever we wanted. So why did race seem to predict where one might sit?

It would be tempting to think that segregation is simply a matter of choice, that people feel more comfortable with those that have similar backgrounds and look more like them. But this would be a superficial answer, and a very incomplete explanation.

I grew up in an upper-middle-class suburb just outside of Cleveland, Ohio. Everyone, regardless of race, could afford the relatively high price of housing and property tax that came with the zip code. Nobody was bussed in from another area, and many, if not most, of our parents had managerial-level positions or owned their own businesses. 

My hometown is a great example of the persistence of institutional racism, a form of racism that is so deeply embedded into the structure of society that it is nearly impossible to see unless you look for it. This form of racism requires no individual bigots; and it can exist even in a community of people who hold very egalitarian ideas about race, as I’d like to imagine my classmates do. 

If not individuals, what produces institutional racism? And why might people seemingly choose to sit only among people of their own race? census schoolbus-th

We often form friendships with people who live closest to us. In spite of post- Civil Rights Era laws that forbid overt discrimination in housing, Americans are still very likely to live near people of their same racial or ethnic group. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, housing segregation increased for both Latinos and Asian Americans/Pacific Islanders between 1980 and 2000. While it decreased nationwide for African Americans during this time, they are still more likely be clustered within homogeneous neighborhoods in our nation’s cities. This is especially true for Mid-western industrial cities like the one I grew up in. 

Before the 1968 Fair Housing Act, residential segregation was legal in the United States, and it continues after the rules were supposed to have changed. In my hometown, many African American families lived within a particular subdivision. A major thoroughfare divided their homes from the rest of the community.

But residential segregation like this didn’t come about simply because people preferred to live near those of their race, a frequent assumption. “Redlining” was a policy in the postwar era deemed that neighborhoods with significant numbers of African American residents were unfit for economic investment. In order to obtain loans, whites often moved outside of these designated areas, and racial ethnic minorities found few options but to remain in these segregated communities. 

Racial steering—the practice of selling properties in “white” communities to whites only—all but assured that segregation would remain, even after the 1968 Fair Housing Act outlawed the practice. Recent studies featuring similarly matched pairs posing as homebuyers found that the practice still persists in spite of the fact that it is illegal. 

It is likely that when my classmates’ families purchased their homes in the 1960s and 1970s, they were steered into a particular neighborhood. I observed this happening myself recently, when a family member was house shopping. The realtor actually noted that she could lose her license for saying so, but said she wouldn’t recommend a particular neighborhood that had been “changing” in recent years.

Realtors are not the only ones that helped maintain segregation. Racial covenants, property titles that forbade the sale of land to African Americans (and often to people of Mexican or Asian decent as well) were legally abolished in 1948. But as recently as 1990, nearly forty percent of whites reported in a nationally representative survey that they should have the legal right not to sell their property to blacks if they didn’t want to.

Overall, the most segregated regions in the U.S. today are the Northeast and the Midwest. African Americans in particular are most likely to be segregated in Detroit, Milwaukee, and New York. But in spite of its reputation for tolerance, San Francisco remains America’s most segregated city. In the nineteenth century it was among the first U.S. cities to introduce an ethnic zoning ordinance aimed and curbing where Chinese immigrants could locate their laundry businesses.

Housing segregation creates a ripple effect wherever it exists. People in highly homogeneous areas are less likely to have regular interactions with those in other racial-ethnic groups. A 2000 study found that in Los Angeles, a white person had only a six percent chance of interacting with an African American person in their neighborhood; whites had a fifteen percent chance of interacting with a Latino person in their neighborhood. Kids then have less of an opportunity to play with kids from other racial ethnic groups in their neighborhoods.

And segregation is not simply the result of economic inequality, as my hometown example demonstrates. A 1993-1994 study found that in Los Angeles average rent payments for whites and African Americans were only 49 dollars apart, and more recent research continues to find that income has a surprisingly limited influence on housing patterns and race.

Segregation takes a higher toll for African Americans and Latinos, who are census blackhistory-thmore likely to attend failing schools and have more obstacles to overcome to achieve economic success. When a 2001 Gallup Poll asked whether respondents believed that Americans all have equal job opportunities, 53 percent of whites agreed, while only eighteen percent of African Americans and 46 percent of Latinos agreed.

Although some of the biggest gains of the Civil Rights Movement involved the freedom to attend neighborhood schools, many of America’s schools remain highly segregated. After courts began enforcing desegregation orders, many white children began attending private schools, effectively resegregating manycensus high school 04-07-6-10a-th  public schools. The recent U.S. Supreme Court decision makes it harder for schools to try and create more racial diversity. This will means that America’s schools will likely continue de facto segregation. While different from de jure segregation, which the law imposes, de facto segregation often has a similar effect.

Schools with the highest percentage of low-income kids of color are more likely to be severely overcrowded and have buildings in need of significant repair. These schools also tend to have the highest turnover of teachers, who may have only emergency teaching credentials. American schools have a long pattern of investing less in the education of children of color, a trend that could worsen after this year’s Supreme Court decision.

But sometimes the outcome is more subtle. Students may attend the same high-quality public schools as white children do, but may not be afforded the same opportunities, even when they have similar abilities as white students. 

These are just some of the hidden elements of institutional racism that may impede some peoples’ life chances, or simply perpetuate racial divisions in the United States. My reunion is an example of housing discrimination’s ripple effects, even though it became illegal almost forty years ago. Its effects may be subtle or even look like personal preferences, but institutional racism can be even more pernicious than a bigot’s taunt. At least we can identify a bigot when we see one.

Photos courtesy of the U.S. Census Bureau

August 09, 2007

Role Theory

author_brad By Bradley Wright

One of my favorite theories in sociology is role theory because it explains so much of what we do and don’t do in everyday life. It even explains why students don’t have pizzas delivered in the middle of class. 

A role is a set of expectations held by others about what we are supposed to do when we are in a given social position. For example, if you’re the secretary of a student organization, you may need to take notes during meetings, contact other members regarding events, and keep track of peoples’ dues. Likewise, if you work as a server at the local Mexican restaurant, you are expected to greet customers, take their orders, refill the chips and salsa, check in with them throughout the meal to see if they need anything, and collect their money. You do these things not because of who you are, but because these are the duties of the position. In sociological language, the expectations that you will do what you are supposed to do in a role are called norms.

clip_image002Role expectations are not just behaviors but emotions and feelings as well. As a server, you greet customers with a corporate-imposed greeting such as: “Hi, I’m Taylor, and I’ll be taking care of you tonight.” (At this point, I usually ask them to go wash my car or something, but they never do…) The role of a server requires you to be cheerful an interested. Don’t really feel that way? Doesn’t matter: You need to do it anyway. Imagine in you greeted customers with an angry snarl or sat down and started telling them all your problems. If you weren’t fired right away, you would at least have a manager instructing you in how to “properly” treat customers.

Roles have remarkably detailed and complex expectations for our behavior. You could fill a thick instruction manual for all the roles we act out. Let’s take a simple situation—what students are supposed to do in a college classroom. Sounds easy, right? There are actually many, many rules that you’re supposed to follow, and if it seems easy, it’s only because you know them already.

In a classroom, you are supposed to:

· Walk into the room—not run, crawl, dance or do handsprings into it.

· Talk with other students quietly—not yell greetings to them as you might if you saw the same person in a different situation. “Hey, you &#@*!, how the &#($)@^ are you doing!” won’t cut it.

· Sit in your chair facing forward. Don’t stand; don’t sit in front, facing the class (this is reserved for the professor); don’t put your feet up on somebody else’s desk.

· Look like you’re paying attention. Even if you’re bored out of your mind and ready to collapse into a deep sleep, face the general direction of the professor and keep your eyes open. Don’t lay down on the floor, put your head on your backpack, and take a nap. (Hey, if I have to be awake for my classes, my students do too!).

· If you have to say something, you raise your hand until acknowledged by the professor. Don’t just yell out, “Hey you, I’ve got something to say.” There are even norms on how to raise your hand! Lift your hand shoulder height and keep it mostly still. Don’t wave both arms frantically.

clip_image004Over the years, I’ve had various experiences in the classroom that have indicated the power of these norms. In one class I had a student with a learning disability who would often do the “wrong” thing in the classroom. He would ask questions that were off topic. He would sometimes interrupt me during lecture with his comments. He would get really enthusiastic when talking. These behaviors didn’t bother me (professors are usually pretty happy just to have someone participate in class), but the other students were scornful of his violating classroom norms. At first they would roll their eyes and maybe snicker, but after a few weeks they would laugh out loud at him. Not the “we’re having fun” laugh, but the “you’re an idiot” laugh. He could tell what was going on, and after a few weeks, he just dropped the class.

Last semester I taught an evening class in a large lecture hall that holds 330 students. Since it was a two-and-a-half hour class, the students got hungry and usually brought food with them. One evening, a student forgot, and so at the start of class he asked if he could order a pizza. I thought it was a great idea, so I said sure. Well, about 30 minutes later, I was halfway up the stairs on one side of the classroom (I walk around a lot when I teach), and the class burst in to laughter. I looked back, and there in the front of class was this student paying a very confused Domino’s delivery person.

According to role theory, most of us are hardcore, rabid conformists. Whether it’s answering a telephone or ordering a coffee or getting married or playing softball or walking down the street or sending an e-mail or just about anything else, we conform to role expectations. They guide much of our lives, both in and out of the classroom. 

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August 08, 2007

Class Consciousness

author_karen By Karen Sternheimer

A few months back, I got a letter saying that I had won the lottery. No, not that kind of lottery. Not a scam lottery either. I won the kind that gives you a week of jury duty.

So I dutifully showed up at the courthouse to fulfill my civic obligation.

“Jury duty?” a woman asked as I walked out of the parking structure. She must have seen the papers in my hand. 

“Yep,” I answered.  j0178190

“Me too,” she said. “Have you been here before?” she asked. I said no; she said that she hadn’t either.

As we waited in the long security line to enter the courthouse, I noticed that we were among the few white women there. And although she was significantly older than me, our appearances were somewhat similar in other ways: the open-toed shoes revealing manicured feet, slightly cropped pants and short-sleeved shirt under a light sweater. We both carried a tote bag with that day’s Los Angeles Times sticking out. We were “class” mates.

j0411815There were other clues too. The courthouse was located in a working-class neighborhood, where she (correctly) presumed I did not reside. 

“How long did it take you to get here?” she asked.

I said not too long, maybe thirty minutes. “From the west side?” she (again, correctly) guessed, and then asked me which streets I took to get there. In Los Angeles, the west side is synonymous with being at least middle class, if not affluent. 

Once she confirmed our similar class statuses, she complained that she didn’t see any suitable restaurants in the area for lunch. I mentioned that there was a snack bar, and she said there was probably nothing healthy there. I told her that I had the same thought the night before and brought my lunch with me.

Social class is an interesting and sometimes complex sociological concept. Based on more than just how much money you have or where you live, it includes things like educational background, occupational prestige, and whether most of your money comes from income earned from a job or from inherited wealth. And as some sociologists argue, cultural preferences may also provide markers about class membership (like what kinds of food you eat and the sort of clothes you wear). 

Once we got through security and into the courthouse, we found that the jury room was packed; my new friend and I sat next to each other. In such a crowded space it was all too easy to overhear the numerous conversations taking place. Many revealed the class status of the conversant; a group in front of me discussed how many days their employers paid for jury duty—not an issue for a professor on summer break, a business owner, or someone who does not need to be in the labor force at all. 

One of the people in front said he was a mail carrier. In his conversation with the women beside him, he compared the post office’s policy to the transit authority’s jury duty policy, as he used to be a bus driver. His neighbor mentioned that her friend drives a bus too; from their conversation I learned that wages are much lower now than they had been when the man drove a bus, and that finding a good job with a strong union was tough these days.j0411833 

Aside from profession, income, neighborhood, and food preferences, our entertainment choices can also be used to demonstrate class status. As the jury room television played Jerry Springer, the lady next to me mentioned under her breath that she couldn’t understand why anyone would watch such “trash.” Later, someone changed the channel and put on an afternoon soap, much to the dismay of the people in front of us.

“Who do they think they are, changing the channel while people are watching?”  one woman asked. A man nearby her got up and changed the channel back to the raucous talk show (about who the real father of a teen’s baby was). A woman on the other side of me also shook her head and muttered, “I can’t believe these people” when it became apparent that the people in front of us really wanted to watch the show.

Now how did my new neighbors know that I wasn’t I die-hard Springer fan? Okay, I’m not, but why would they presume that they could criticize the show and not offend me? 

My status cues suggested that I wouldn’t be someone in Jerry’s fan base, but instead someone who reads the newspaper daily (an increasingly small demographic). Plus they overheard me talking to an old grad-school classmate, coincidentally on jury duty too. From our conversation they could surmise other reasons that I would be an unlikely fan of the show: I have an advanced degree and work as a professor.

Some of my neighbors displayed their class status by distancing themselves from the show. And the people in front of me did the same thing in a different way. “Her mother didn’t raise her right,” one of the women said of the Springer guest, who (supposedly) had no idea who the baby’s daddy really was. “Mm-mm,” she shook her head, “my momma would have whooped my butt if I was running around with all those guys.” 

Part of establishing class lines includes differentiating ourselves from others, either those we somehow feel superior to (because of what kinds of popular culture they enjoy, in this case) or those we think might feel superior to us (“who do they think they are?”). j0336341

But Americans rarely discuss class, maintaining the illusion that we live in a classless society. The mythology of the American Dream tells us that anyone can rise to the top, provided they work hard. Even our use of the word “class” denotes individual, rather than collective realities. Saying someone has or doesn’t have class is a reflection of their behavior, not a reference to our system of stratification.

Americans often have an easier time noting the impact of race and racial discrimination than we understand the persistence of economic stratification. This is especially challenging because race and class have been so entangled in American life (which is why I purposely haven’t touched on issues of race in this essay). 

Maybe that’s because we seldom have opportunities to mingle with people from other social class levels outside of the workplace, and at work stratification may seem normal. Even jury duty, a seemingly perfect possibility for a cross-class gathering, generally excludes those at the top and bottom of the socio-economic scale. 

Those at the bottom may not be registered to vote or have a driver’s license, and therefore would be excluded from the pool of potential jurors. Also, people earning minimum wage with no vacation time or benefits might not lose their job if they go on jury duty, but they probably would not get paid and thus could be excused for financial hardship reasons. And as for the wealthy, the threat of a $1,500 fine for failing to appear might not be a big deal (that is if they couldn’t use connections to get themselves excused in the first place). 

At the end of the day, the jury room supervisor let us know that none of us would be needed on a case, and we were free to go. I said goodbye to my “class mate,” knowing that I would probably never see her again. But I will probably encounter many other “class mates” like her in the future, as America remains in many ways more segregated by class than it is by race.

August 07, 2007

Balancing Sexism and Ambition

author_sally By Sally Raskoff

Recently, I was in a bookstore and overheard a person contemplating buying a Martha Stewart publication. But she seemed conflicted. She had said that she didn’t want to “add to Martha’s empire,” but clearly the publication piqued her interest.

Martha Stewart is certainly not the only strong, assertive business woman of her generation to be castigated. I immediately thought of Barbra Streisand. Ms. Streisand hadn’t been convicted of white collar crime as has Ms. Stewart, but when Barbra was in the business of creating movies, she was harshly criticized for supposedly being a very difficult person to work with (as well as all the colorful terms often used to describe strong and assertive women). Both her professional skills and personal characteristics, not to mention her physical attributes, were evidently fair game for critics. 

Her movies drew acclaim and audiences, but the criticism ran unabated. She made amazing movies in part because she exhibited behaviors that were she male, would have been credited for her success. Her reputation as a strict taskmaster kept people working on their craft and brought her movies in on time and on budget. She had a vision for each of her creations and ensured that her cast and crew brought that vision to light. Many male directors exhibit the same control and command yet are lauded for being consummate directors, not castigated as difficult people. 

Many other women have experienced this same double standard. Have you ever heard a friend or relative complain about a female boss differently than a male boss? Are the behaviors of female managers framed or interpreted differently than that of male managers? Occupational sexism is nothing new, yet it changes form in interesting ways at different time periods and locations.

Two movies, one from 1988 and one from 2006, illustrate some of the changing views we have on women at work and women in management. In Working Girl, Melanie Griffith stars as Tess, a working class but intelligent and ambitious secretary who (with the help of Harrison Ford) finally works her way into a junior management position, no thanks to her manipulative boss, Sigourney Weaver. At the end of this movie, Tess shows up for work at her new job and confuses her secretary for her new boss. Once that confusion is cleared up she demonstrates that she will be a benevolent boss who can get her own coffee. 

2006’s The Devil Wears Prada is an update on the ambitious intelligent young woman story, albeit set in a different industry than Working Girl. Anne Hathaway plays Andy, who gets a job as assistant to the assistant of Meryl Streep’s “Devil” boss. Like Melanie Griffith’s Tess, Andy learns much on the job, changes her appearance as she learns the norms of the workplace (and this new social class level), and eventually prevails and feel accepted and successful at work. However, in this happy ending Andy leaves the “devil” and her job at the end of the movie, to go “back” to being “herself” and gets another job in which she can keep her original boyfriend, social group, and ideals. Although her new job is more in line with her educational preparation (Andy went to college, unlike Tess), it remains to be seen whether she can balance this job with her personal life. Looking at these movies, they reflect the conflicted and confusing attitudes we have about women, work, and power in our respective eras. 

Andy, the more current heroine, keeps her man and jettisons the job, eschewing the “trade-up,” exactly the opposite of what Tess had done. We seem to have moved from an era in which women were encouraged to “have it all” to one in which, once again, women must choose between work or family. In The Devil Wears Prada, young women are concerned about paying too high a price for achieving their work goals, especially if work changes their personal life. 

The enemy in both movies is radically different as well: Tess has to work her way through the jungle of male oppressors (including Kevin Spacey in one of his first roles), while Andy’s challenges are the many women who work at the magazine or model for it—her only friend is the sassy style director played by Stanley Tucci. Thus, the problem for women in the workplace changes from sexist men to catty women. 

The remark I heard in the bookstore and these popular media examples of gender in the workplace suggest that not only are women held to a different standard than men are, but that women are also encouraged more than men are to factor in personal and family considerations when they make decisions about their careers.. Does research reflect these conclusions? 

Recent studies and Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) data do show that women have been moving into managerial occupations over the last forty years. Women are in charge of more people today than they were in prior years. More women were working in managerial and professional specialty occupations in 1995 (48.0%) compared to 1975 (34.8%). BLS data from 2006 show that figure is up to 50.6% (Download raskoff_sexism_tables.doc ). However, that same data shows that men are still more likely to hold higher management positions. Women in management also earn less than the men, and the differences in earnings magnify in the higher levels of managerial occupations. Many studies show that women who hold management jobs—especially high-level management jobs—are less likely to be married and to have children than are their male counterparts. 

This does not mean they don’t get married, but it may mean they don’t stay married. Sociologist Mary Blair Loy studied women’s devotion to work versus family and found that older women tend to see a conflict between work and family, but many younger women blend the two and alter their expectations and practices in both areas. 

Though many attitudes about women in the workplace have evolved positively over the years, it remains true that women in management are often subject to a double standard: if they are competitive or aggressive they may be successful, yet derided as unfeminine. Women who employ a more cooperative and nurturing style of leadership may be considered acceptable leaders of other women, but not necessarily of men. Increasingly, business schools are acknowledging the success of this style of leadership, yet it is still often reserved for lower levels of management or female dominated firms. Popular magazines have addressed this too; a recent issue of Self magazine featured an article on how to “Feel happier at work” by trading in the old ways of thinking (“It’s all about you” and “Be ruthless”) for new ways of thinking (“Be humble and empathic” or “Be nice”).

Are women who devote themselves to work like Martha, Barbra, and Tess doomed to live life solely in their profession at the expense of a rewarding personal life (unless they stop working)? Men at the top often have wives to take care of their social and personal lives—a benefit unavailable to most women. Are women like The Devil Wears Prada’s Andy who change their ambitions so that they can divide their devotions among different aspects of life, doomed to achieve less in their work lives if they are placed on a Mommy Track or otherwise not seen as fully competent as their male peers? 

There are no easy answers or solutions—except maybe in the movies. In the Legally Blonde movies of 2001 and 2003, Elle succeeds in work, gains a respectful and supportive significant other, and also retains her busy social life, but she is often missing focused ambition. Her work goals arise from frustrating personal issues and, no matter the challenge, she remains herself and gets the job done. Can we accept Elle for herself and see her success as the result of her hard work or do we laugh at the mere idea of a blonde pink perky young woman as intelligent and able to reach her goals (once she has some)? In the Legally Blonde universe, Elle accepts people for who they are no matter their personality, intelligence, gender, race/ethnicity, sexual orientation, or devotion to work, family, or both. This is no easy task out here in the real world.

August 05, 2007

Does Finger Size Reveal Sexual Orientation?

author_sallyBy Sally Raskoff

Do you think you can tell a person’s sexual orientation just by looking at them? A recent New York Magazine article by David France suggests that there are physical characteristics that indicate one’s sexual orientation as straight, gay or lesbian. Lately, research has focused on such markers as a person’s finger length, fingerprint density, the direction that hair swirls on one’s head, and left or right handedness. 

According the researchers France cites, finger length, or, more specifically, the ratio of the second digit (index or pointer finger) to the fourth digit (ring finger), can indicate sexual orientation for both men and women, although in opposite patterns. Men with a smaller ratio (index fingers are shorter than their ring fingers) would indicate a heterosexual orientation while men with a larger ratio (index fingers longer than their ring fingers) would indicate a homosexual orientation. Alternatively, women with a larger ratio, those deemed heterosexual, would have longer index fingers and women with a smaller ratio (index finger shorter than their ring finger) would be lesbian.Left-Hand-F1x 

Did you stop reading here to look at your fingers or your hair? I did when I first heard the story on NPR’s Talk of the Nation.

The article has received a lot of media attention (including from Comedy Central's The Colbert Report) which seemed to assume that these patterns are real and reliable. Thus the public who hears about this research might assume that one can identify people’s sexual orientation by their relative finger lengths and hair swirls. 

Left-Hand-M1 As a sociologist, this news story has me wondering what the researchers actually said and, if indeed these are valid and reliable findings, how strong are these supposed patterns? 

Looking up related peer-reviewed research on my campus library’s webpage, I found many articles relating to these issues. Many of them do find statistically significant differences in these characteristics between those who identify as heterosexual, gay, or lesbian; but it took me a while to find the details on the strength of these patterns. But depending on the characteristic in question, the significance of these patterns is not overwhelming. 

Let’s start with handedness. A study published in 2003 by Richard Lippa found that homosexual men have an 82% greater chance than heterosexual men of being non-right handed (left handed or ambidextrous). This is a statistically significant difference based on his research finding that 11.4% of heterosexual men and 19.0% of homosexual men are non-right-handed. His findings for  women were not significant. 

Regarding the finger length issue, studies have found differences depending on gender, ethnicity, and which hand one is looking at. A comprehensive analysis of this research published in 2005 highlights that in the five studies they analyzed, there is more variation in the finger length ratio among heterosexual people than there is among homosexual people.

Many of these studies are done to assess whether genetics or in-utero conditions have a greater effect on human development. Another study of finger length used a sample of identical twins (who of course have identical genes) to assess the role of genetics versus the “prenatal environment.” The researchers tested seven twin pairs who were “discordant” for sexual orientation (one twin was heterosexual and the other homosexual in orientation), and five twin pairs who have “concordant” (the same) sexual orientation. Their findings did indicate a statistically significant difference in ratios for both the left and right hands, with the heterosexual twins having greater ratios between their second and fourth fingers than their homosexual twins. 

If you look closely at the twin data, however, you’ll see that the differences in ratios are not overwhelming. In the analysis of data from five previous studies, the ratios for each gender group were also not overwhelmingly different across sexual orientation groups.

All in all, my journey into the actual research did show that there are some interesting physical differences across groups. However, those patterns can easily be misinterpreted and applied in inappropriate ways. Just because the researchers found statistically significant differences does not mean that having a particular finger ratio indicates homosexuality. For example, in the handedness study, while gay men may have a higher chance of being non-right-handed compared to straight men, it does not follow that left-handed men are gay-- keep in mind that less than 20% of men in either group are non-right handed! 

Studies on finger length ratios and the other characteristics alleged to be associated with sexual orientation are vulnerable to the same kind of interpretation error. If you look at your index and ring fingers and assess which is longer, does this indicate your sexual orientation? Some people might Left-Hand-F2 question their sexual orientation once they hear of this research and identify their own finger ratio. However, this is a misuse of this research and a misinterpretation of the data. While many straight men and lesbian women may have shorter index fingers relative to ring fingers, there will be plenty of straight men and lesbian women who have comparatively longer index fingers. Likewise, there are many gay men and straight women with same length or longer index fingers, there are also gay men and straight women with shorter index fingers.

When I see news items that mention relationships like these, I know that it’s a good idea to see what the researchers actually said and if the public hears the same story. The media’s job of translating the scientific world for the public is a difficult task and is sometimes impossible considering the lack of scientific expertise of most reporters, restrictions on time, the need to avoid scientific language, and the wish to have the simplest explanation of very complex phenomena. Since the media is often more concerned with generating the most sensational headline than it is with relaying information accurately, it is imperative that we educate ourselves to assess research studies ourselves and to identify the most accurate information in them.

Having established that there are statistically significant patterns in finger length, does this mean that homosexuality creates different finger lengths? Or that finger length ratios create homosexuality? Remember, these studies cannot support a strong causal relationship between these characteristics and homosexual orientation because of the high levels of variation within groups. This brings to mind an important phrase you may have heard in sociology or other classes: correlation is not causation.

August 02, 2007

Mixing the Salad Bowl: The Future of Chinatowns

Author_cn By C.N. Le

Why do you think that so many American cities have areas known as Chinatowns?

Chinatowns first appeared in California during the mid-1800s, and most assume that it was because the Chinese immigrants who came to the U.S. instinctively wanted to seclude themselves from the rest of American society.

In fact, the real reason why Chinatowns first appeared was just the opposite --
Chinese immigrants were forced to live in their own secluded neighborhoods and had no choice.

You see, after the Gold Rush ended and the Transcontinental Railroad was complete, many white workers viewed the Chinese immigrants who had helped build that railroad as a threat to their own job security. chinatown2-1

These views were very similar to those of contemporary Americans who worry about whether Mexican immigrants will affect their job prospects or wages.  These paranoid and racist sentiments fueled an anti-Chinese movement that culminated in the 1882 Chinese Exclusion Act, which marked the first time in U.S. history that one ethnic group was singled out and forbidden from coming to the U.S. The Act also forbade Chinese immigrants who were already here from becoming U.S. citizens. 

Other local and state laws restricted where the Chinese could live, what
jobs they could have, denied them a public education, and prevented them
from marrying whites.  In other words, it‘s not that the Chinese didn’t want to assimilate into mainstream American society. They weren’t given the option.

In the face of this overwhelming hostility Chinese immigrants had no other choice but to form their own ethnic enclaves -- the first Chinatowns. These Chinatowns at least allowed the Chinese to make a living among themselves, honed their small business ownership skills, and ultimately promoted greater ethnic solidarity among the Chinese.

In the eyes of most Americans, these Chinatowns were at best curious outposts where visitors could experience a "taste of the exotic" and at its worst, filthy ghettos overrun by subhuman heathens from a mysterious and faraway land.  Because of these popular stereotypes, for much of their existence, Americans basically left these Chinatowns alone.

But that began to change when starting in the 1970s, many Chinatowns around the country (most notably in New York City and San Francisco) began to flourish and expand as large numbers of Chinese immigrants began arriving in the wake of the1965 Immigration and Nationality Act.  As more Chinese immigrants moved in and ethnic businesses opened up, these Chinatowns almost single-handedly revitalized many largely abandoned urban downtown areas.

However, as the Christian Science Monitor reports, their recent success has started to lead to their undoing -- as downtown areas become hip, fashionable, trendy, and desirable again, many Chinatowns are fighting for their existence in the face of overwhelming demands for their land and grand development plans. In Boston, for example:

Residents of [Boston's] Chinatown next door see the 20 acres - called the "Chinatown Gateway" on zoning maps - as their best chance to develop much-needed affordable housing and alleviate a severe housing crunch.  But the city's redevelopment authority has dubbed the area "South Bay" and envisions a new downtown district with upscale apartments, hotels, and offices.

This struggle in Boston is the latest land squeeze that is changing the nature of Chinatowns across the United States. As America's downtowns become hip again, urban real estate is becoming so valuable that ethnic enclaves find it increasingly difficult to survive as the first stop for new immigrants, most of whom have few skills and speak no English.

Once a fixture in most major US cities, many Chinatowns are no longer littlesaigon1-1 magnets for new arrivals. San Diego's Chinatown is now a historic district. A coalition in Phoenix is trying to save the last remaining Chinatown structure from becoming a luxury apartment building. Four of the Chinese enclaves in the ten largest U.S. cities - Los Angeles, Chicago, Houston, and Philadelphia - are now commercial areas. Dallas, which never had a historic Chinatown, designated a retail center as "Chinatown" in the 1980s. Other Chinatowns in Seattle, Detroit, San Francisco, and Washington, D.C., are today primarily tourist spots.

Urban development will ultimately win out, and as part of that trend, Chinatown will become a tourist destination, predicts Michael Liu, a
research associate at the Institute for Asian-American Studies at the University of Massachusetts at Boston.  "The question is, who will this new Chinatown benefit?"

Are Chinatowns like the one in Boston destined to fade away into the pages of Americans history?  To be honest, the picture is not encouraging.  As history shows, just as the spread of capitalism around the world fundamentally transforms many societies and economies, gentrification and urban/suburban development has leveled many historic neighborhoods. 

At the same time, Asian Americans have increasingly achieved socioeconomic parity with the majority white population -- and in some instances, have surpassed them. Many Asian Americans are now moving into mixed or predominantly white affluent neighborhoods and other social settings. Asian Americans attend college at a higher rate than any other ethnic group, and their family incomes are also significantly higher than those of other minorities.

Asian Americans are increasingly integrating themselves into the American mainstream.  As a result, many may no longer have a strong attachment to traditional ethnic enclaves like Chinatowns.  While
they may still have a strong sense of their Asian identity, they also want to enjoy the fruits of their hard work and live outside of traditional urban Chinatowns.  For many Asian- and Chinese Americans, there is less demand for what Chinatowns have to offer.

The increasing development of suburban ethnic enclaves has created an interesting new version of the old Chinatown. Chinese and other Asian American residents get to enjoy the amenities that affluent suburbs can provide while at the same time they can also enjoy the company and social-psychological comfort of having large numbers of co-ethnic neighbors.

In fact, many suburban Chinatowns and other Asian-majority communities now exist around the country, including Monterey Park and its surrounding cities in southern California; Sunnyvale and its neighboring cities in northern California; and Flushing, Bayside, and Palisades Park and others in the New York City metropolitan area.  As these ethnic enclaves within suburbs continue to flourish and attract even more residents, they stand as perhaps a new model of assimilation in contemporary American society.

As American society continues to become more globalized and transnational, the definition of what it means to be an American is changing and expanding.  The new, emerging picture includes room for those who may not have been born in the U.S., who may not be white, and who might prefer to live in a co-ethnic enclave, but who nonetheless consistently make valuable contributions to American society, culture, and economy.

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