9 posts from September 2007

September 26, 2007

The Sociology of Conspiracy

author_karen By Karen Sternheimer

For the past six years, the anniversary of the September 11th attacks has brought introspection and examination into what happened on that terrible day. image 

A recent story in the Los Angeles Times charged that the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) did not have an adequate plan to deal with the threat of terrorism before the 2001 events. For those who read the 9-11 Commission Report, published in 2004, this new information should not be a big surprise. In all this, what remains hard to understand is how a band of timagehugs could penetrate the security of the world’s sole superpower.

Some people have such a hard time accepting this idea that they reject the notion that a terrorist cell was behind the attacks. Instead, they believe that both the devastation of that day and the explanation that followed was part of a grand conspiracy-- an American conspiracy.

The History Channel recently devoted two hours of programming to examine some of the claims of conspiracy buffs, many of whom passionately believe that the government was complicit in both the attacks and in a cover-up afterwards. Rather than discussing such claims (which have gotten more than enough attention on the Internet already), I find it more interesting to consider how common conspiracy theories are in popular culture. Why is this so?

Sociologists refer to conspiracy theories as a form of collective behavior, something that we engage in together that gains traction as it appeals to many people. Similar to urban legends, rumors, and panics, sociologists seek to understand how and why groups create meaning through claiming that conspiracies have taken place. 

The creation of the Internet has definitely helped grease the wheels of collective behavior. One of the most fascinating things about collective behavior is that it often starts from the grassroots level, from everyday people rather from those in positions of power. In fact, the very distance from the centers of power fuels conspiracy theories.

Let’s think about some other conspiracy theories: some people claim that the  Holocaust never happened; perhaps the most famous conspiracy theory is based on the premise that President John F. Kennedy’s assassination was the work of insiders.


The public’s willingness to entertain such theories differs tremendously. For most people, even questioning the reality that millions of civilians were murdered during World War II is incredibly offensive. But there’s something about Kennedy’s assassination that makes millions question the findings of the Warren Commission Report. Why does one conspiracy theory seem outlandish while another one seems plausible?

The imbalance of power is a key ingredient. It is not hard to believe that a powerful regime or dictator could slaughter a group of people with little or no social power, as sadly has happened over and over again in human history. 

But the opposite is much harder to believe: an individual or group with little power harming someone with significantly more power and status doesn’t make sense. It challenges what we think we know about the social order.

So the Kennedy assassination--apparently the work of a lone gunman who by all image reports was, to put it kindly, unsuccessful in his other ventures--seems hard to believe. That a charismatic, larger-than-life leader of the free world could be brought down by a “nobody” has fueled conspiracy theorists for over forty years. Although solid evidence refutes the idea of a conspiracy, I admit to entertaining this notion myself. I now see that I fell into the power imbalance trap too.

In my defense, I also grew up during the 1970s, when network television routinely featured programs about the Bermuda Triangle, Bigfoot, the Loch Ness monster, and other supernatural “secrets”. The Kennedy assassination was also a big topic during the decade that featured the Watergate cover-up and made many Americans question how much the government could be trusted. In the early 1970s, Skylab, a precursor to today’s international space image station, actually fell to earth (which is terrifying if you’re a kid!) and faith in the government fell as well. 

Flash forward more than 25 years, and you can see why people still might have trouble believing the government. The president's approval ratings have declined in recent years as the war in Iraq has become increasingly unpopular. Conspiracy claims make sense during a time when mistrust and anger toward the government run high.

And most of all, it is hard to accept that our powerful military could not protect us that September day. For some, it is easier to believe that our government is all-powerful (even if that power is abused) than it is to believe that the government is flawed. Our Cold War military build-up made us feel almost invincible, and September 11th challenged that assumption. In a strange way, conspiracy theories help prop up the belief in an all-powerful America. Perhaps clinging to this idea is less upsetting than facing what transpired that day.

September 20, 2007

Generational Knowledge Gaps

author_sally By Sally Raskoff

clip_image002Classes started this week at my campus. As I prepared for the first day, I realized that many of the students in my classes were quite young when pivotal moments occurred in our culture—events that I consider recent. For example, it was only six years ago that the events we now refer to as 9/11 took place. That means that many of my students were twelve or thirteen when that occurred. 

What perception would a young pre-teen or teenager have of such events, if any? I was very young when Kennedy was assassinated; a discussion of that event is less emotional for me than it is for my parents. I assume that some of my current students perceive events like 9/11 differently since they were at a much younger age at that time.

clip_image004We teachers tend to use cultural references or stories relevant to our own realities and prior experiences. I have a colleague whose references to Benedict Arnold go unacknowledged by students; I often wonder if my references have become dated too. When presenting information about the scientific method and defining data, I know that one of my hopefully (humorous references) to Data, the character on the Star Trek series, doesn’t get the laughs it once did.

Besides cultural references and historical change, the differences between generations can also be measured by how we use of technology. I recently took class on teaching online courses and was fascinated by how technology can be used for distance learning classes. Although I don’t think it is an appropriate mode of learning for everyone, I was surprised by the capacity for interaction. I also realized that some students might be quite adept at using such technologies, perhaps more so than some of the faculty who are setting up those courses. 

I’ve also been setting up a new computer system and transferring my old info into the new system. I’ve given up on Microsoft for the time being and gone Mac and wireless. The younger generation in my family congratulated me for this change—since now when they visit, their computers will log on easily from any room of the house. Prior to this, they had to disconnect the old pc from the modem and plug in, then complain about how slow it was.

All of these issues led me to ponder the generational differences in knowledge and how that can affect how we live our lives. The younger generation is certainly more ”plugged in” than previous generations were (since such technologies didn’t exist), and they have more knowledge at their fingertips. When our family gathers, those under 40 check their email via cell phones and notebook computers while those over 40 are often quite happy not to be connected and bothered. Those in their twenties always seem to have their BlackBerrys or other gadgets handy to share a phone number or go to the web for the answer to some question that we may be discussing. My father, in his eighties, is not enamored with ATMs and cell phones and he has me over to program his VCR, among other things. 

There is a lot of research (and personal opinion) on generations and their differences. In workshops on generational differences held on our campus, speakers alert us to the need to change what we do on campus to accommodate the different styles and experiences of younger people. The main gist of these workshops hinges upon identifying the different learning styles and preferences of Gen X, Gen Y, and the Millennium generation (i.e., students) from those of Boomers and other older generations (i.e., professors). While I appreciate the intent and enjoy trying such ideas, these presentations seemed more based on assumptions than research, so I am a bit skeptical about how useful they are. 

The work of William Strauss and Neil Howe (authors of Generations among other books) is well known. They hypothesize that generations have repeating features or personalities, albeit across very different historical circumstances. While I appreciate that there are patterns across history—in fact sociology and other social sciences study these patterns—I wonder about these types of theories.

Certainly, communication is made more difficult when we don’t have common cultural references that bond us together. Yet does growing up in different eras really create vast gulfs between us? One cannot assume that these generational patterns affect everyone in those cohorts in equal ways. Strauss and Howe refer to both the G.I. (born between1901-1924) and the Millennial (1982-2001) generations as civic generations, yet people born in other generations certainly volunteer and participate in other forms of civic behavior. (Otherwise, many nonprofit organizations would have perished by now!) 

As for technological differences between generations, is the preponderance of tech savvy young people (compared to older people) enough to warrant the conclusion that young people “get” technology more than older people do? 

People within any one group are often more diverse than theories suggest. For example, there are average height differences between men and women, but the range of height differences among men is too great to say that men are always taller than women. The difference between the tallest man and the shortest man is greater than the difference in height between men and women, on average. 

clip_image009With this in mind, might Gen X have diversity within their ranks, as would the Boomers? Might there be tech savvy Boomers who, while they didn’t grow up with the same technology, have changed their lives and are fully embracing—and understanding—the technologies we now have available? Also—might there be some Gen X’ers or Millennials who aren’t plugged in? 

My father, who never used a computer in his working life, does check his email daily and has many virtual conversations with other WWII vets. While he won’t be programming any software anytime soon, neither will many Gen Y’ers. My daughter first learned computers on the lap of her grandmother (see photo above).

When I hear theories that place people into groups, they may have some validity, yet not everyone in those groups conforms to those patterns. Do you think these generational differences are reliable patterns, or might they exaggerate the differences between us?

September 16, 2007

China Blues

author_cn By C.N. Le

For the past year or so, stories and articles about China have been prominent fixtures in the national news media, whether they relate to China’s continuing political emergence and human rights repression, hosting of the 2008 Summer Olympics, or contaminated and dangerous consumer products imported into the U.S. In other words, almost all of that media and public attention directed at China lately has been unflattering. 

To add more fuel to the fire, the Washington Post recently described the controversy surrounding the upcoming memorial to Martin Luther King, Jr. to be placed in Washington DC. Long overdue, a monument celebrating Dr. King’s life is scheduled to be completed and placed in The Mall, close to the other prominent monuments Washington DC is known for. That part is certainly not controversial. Instead, the controversy centers on the sculptor of the memorial -- he is from China:

For China’s artists, the selection of [Yixin] Lei as the lead sculptor for the project, to be unveiled in 2009 on the Mall, is a triumphant moment. It is a recognition of how  rapidly their status has progressed in the generation that has grown up since the repressive years of the Cultural Revolution.

Not everyone feels this way. Atlanta resident Lea Winfrey Young says the “outsourcing” by U.S. companies and organizations to China has gone too far this time. She and her husband, Gilbert Young, a painter, are leading a group of critics who argue that an African American -- or any American -- should have been picked for such an important project.

“Dr. King’s statue is to be shipped here in a crate that supposedly says ‘Made in China.’ That’s just obscene,” Winfrey Young says. By awarding the contract to a Chinese artist, the foundation financing the project has touched on sensitivities at the core of U.S.-Sino relations: nationalism, racism and worries about what China’s emergence as an economic and cultural world power means for America. . . .lei-mlk

In Lei’s hometown of Changsha, the capital of Hunan province, talk of the controversy in the United States draws not anger but bewilderment. Wasn’t it King’s dream to end all racism? Lei asked. “He has always dreamed that people from all over the world will not be judged by the color of their skin -- that we would all be brothers and sisters and enjoy equal opportunity. Now I have the luck to get this opportunity,” he said.

To be fair, I can understand where those who criticize the choice of sculptor are coming from. The Civil Rights Movement was a defining moment not only for American society and history, but particularly for the African-American community. It was a proud and shining instance in which they collectively showed their strength, determination, and pride after centuries of brutal oppression. Their most important leader of course, was Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.

Since he was the most visible public figure from such a socially significant time period and is an almost God-like hero to the many African Americans, I can see why so many people feel insulted that the sculptor for a monument to their leader was not “one of them.”

As someone who specializes in Asian American Studies, I can easily recognize that there are parallels in the Asian American community, such as in the examples of “yellowface” where White actors are cast to portray Asian characters, the most recent example of which was Brian Dennehy playing Kublai Khan . This “yellowface” casting is a very sore spot for many Asian Americans, as it should be.

At the same time, Lei’s supporters are absolutely right when they say that one of Dr. King’s most enduring legacies is that people should be judged not by the color of their skin but by the content of their characters. In this case, the sculptor was chosen for the quality and impact of his creative work. 

diversity9a In recent incidents about the sub-par and even dangerous quality of goods made in China, Americans certainly have a right to complain and to be wary of such Chinese “products.” But in this case, Dr. King’s memorial is not being “outsourced” overseas like it is some kind of t-shirt, toothpaste, or running shoe. The memorial is being created by a world-renown artist who happens to be Chinese.

Some of the same criticisms were leveled at Maya Lin when she won the competition to design the Viet Nam Veterans Memorial in Washington DC more than two decades ago. Many veterans were insulted and offended that the lead designer was not “one of them,” (a White male), or at least someone who fit the conventional picture of an “American.”

But as it turned out, the Viet Nam War Memorial is the most popular attraction in Washington DC and Maya Lin’s simple, elegant, and poignant design has proved incredibly moving and healing to millions of Americans from all backgrounds.

My sincere hope is that this issue does not turn into another wedge that will ultimately divide Asian Americans and African Americans. Dr. King’s legacy was to unite and integrate, not to accuse and vilify. With that in mind, I hope that the African-American community and all Americans in general give Yixin Lei the same opportunity to come through with an equally impressive tribute.

September 14, 2007

Football, Vice and Violence


author_sally By Sally Raskoff

As you probably have heard, Atlanta Falcons quarterback Michael Vick was recently suspended from the NFL for his “illegal, cruel, and reprehensible” behavior. It looks like Vick’s ownership and involvement with dog fighting and gambling has ended—or at least suspended—his football career.

The dog fighting ”ring” was located on Vick’s property, and apparently he personally harmed the dogs--especially those who didn’t win their bouts. Gambling on the dog fights was perhaps the biggest problem from the National Football League’s (NFL) perspective. But football is a sport in which bettors, both formal and informal, are found just about everywhere. Super Bowl pool, anyone?

The NFL Players Association general conduct policy states: “Engaging in violent and/or criminal activity is unacceptable and constitutes conduct detrimental to the integrity of and public confidence in the National Football League. Such conduct alienates the fans on whom the success of the League depends and has negative and sometimes tragic consequences for both the victim and the perpetrator. The League is committed to promoting and encouraging lawful conduct and to providing a safe and professional workplace for its employees.” [Emphasis added]

clip_image004The billions in football profits depend on the public remaining confident that the games are fair contests, and on teams and players not alienating the fans. I find it interesting that the policy above mentions the consequences for the victim after the concerns for integrity, confidence, and alienation. There have been several players suspended for gambling: Paul Hornung and Alex Karras had bet on NFL games and thus missed the 1963 season and Art Schlichter left the field in 1983 because of substantial gambling debt. Joe Namath was forced to sell a nightclub because gamblers might be patrons. 

The suspensions in the NFL run the gamut from substance abuse and banned substance (steroid) use to assault, battery, and domestic violence. The Vick case has garnered much press due to its unique combination of vice and violence. 

clip_image006Most media reports about the case focus on the gambling angle rather than on the violence. This was puzzling to me—until I looked at it through a sociological lens. At first glance, the gambling seems rather peripheral since betting on dog fights, or profiting from letting others do so, certainly isn’t equivalent to fixing a football game. The two are apples and oranges; betting in one arena doesn’t assume betting—or fixing the outcome—in the other. The violence seems more disturbing to me than the gambling. After all, reports indicate that Vick killed losing dogs with his own hands.

Using one’s sociological imagination to understand the news media’s emphasis on gambling highlights the importance of our societal institutions. Why would gambling be a larger issue in media discussions than the violence? Both topics are ratings magnets, yet they are not equally emphasized in this case. Marx and Weber remind us to identify who benefits from emphasizing gambling over violence. The “ruling elite” or the powers-that-be are interested in keeping our economy and financial markets healthy, and football is certainly a huge financial enterprise. To chastise and emphasize the gambling aspect of the Vick case could be an attempt to repair any alienation or loss of confidence in the NFL and its teams. 

Why, then is the violence angle not given as much air time? It is not trivial that violence is linked to gender—which is one of the pillars of our societal structure. clip_image008The gender order that currently structures our definitions of men and women links certain traits to one gender or the other. Aggressiveness and violence are linked to masculinity, a pattern not lost on current theorists of sports and masculinity. Aggressive and violent behavior is called upon or otherwise seen as functional in the service of or for protecting the family (or team) from outside threats. When men exhibit such behavior outside of these situations, the sanctions vary and are sometimes clip_image010very minimal. For example, domestic violence is a major cause of injury and death for women. But most of our institutions, including the justice system, don’t have any effective remedies for it. (Restraining orders are not always effective nor do they prevent violence.)

There is no shortage of links between violent behavior and male athletes, particularly those in football. (Mentioning OJ Simpson here seems too obvious a connection.) Even at Harvard University, a recent incident involving domestic abuse and intoxication led to the football team captain’s suspension. While some of the recent NFL suspensions have been for domestic violence, most suspensions rest with violations of banned substances, substance abuse, or assaults involving the police. Those who are suspended for domestic violence often return to the field in a relatively short time, sometimes after mandated anger management courses. 

clip_image012The violent behavior of football players is not taken as seriously as violent behavior in an average person; it is rationalized as a residual or echo of the behavior they need on the field to win their games. Thus it is excused either as a typical male behavior or as one honed to perfection by elite football players. 

The bottom line is that real violence is de-emphasized or ignored in favor of potential gambling crimes because the former is seen as natural or inevitable while the latter is a threat to the profit margin. Our capitalist economy drives the news media to reinforce our norms of gender and of consumer behavior. In the Vick case, gambling, or vice, outsells violence because it threatens profits.

September 12, 2007

Who's Your Professor?

author_brad By Bradley Wright

It’s the end of summer—the nights are starting to cool off, friends have returned from vacations, the Red Sox and Yankees are fighting for the playoffs—and this can only mean one thing. It’s time for college students to start having to listen again to their professors.

This makes it a good time to reflect on just who your professors are. One answer is that professors are different from you in various ways, and these differences affect the education that you get.

First off, we’re old(er). Graduate school usually takes five to eight years, and many of us take time off before graduate school (some I heartily recommend, by the way). As such, most professors start in their thirties—almost double the age of entering freshmen. Furthermore, being a professor is a *great* job and not physically demanding--chalk isn’t really that heavy, so we tend to stay with the job until we’re pretty old. This is especially true for those of us who aren’t particularly good at saving money, since we probably won’t afford to retire.

What does our “old” age mean for students? Professors come from a different generation, and each generation has its own values and way of looking at things. The oldest generation still teaching in large numbers is the baby boomers—part of the population explosion after World War II who went through the crazy days of the 1960s. They started off as radical Because of these generational differences, professors and students share different cultural references and ways of communicating. We professors are constantly referring to things that students either don’t know about or don’t care about. Students practically have to translate what professors are saying as if it were in a different language. This is especially true in the humanities and social sciences, including sociology, which centers on social and cultural analysis.

Second, we professor types tend to be liberal. In the general population, there are moderately more liberals than there are conservatives. By some counts, the Democratic Party has between a third to a half more members than the Republican Party does. As a group professors are overwhelmingly liberal compared with the general population. For every one professor who self-identifies as a conservative, eight are liberal. This imbalance is even more pronounced in the social sciences, where every conservative is matched by an estimated fourteen liberals. Many, and perhaps most, sociology students will never have a sociology professor who has conservative views.

What are the implications of this difference? If you listen to us, we’ll probably make you more liberal. In fact, some professors (especially in sociology) see this as part of their teaching mission. Others try hard to be neutral in our presentation of ideas, but it’s hard to imagine that our own beliefs remain completely hidden—no matter how hard we may try.

Is this good or bad? It probably depends on your political perspective: You’d probably like it if you’re liberal and dislike it if you’re conservative. The important thing, though, is to be aware of the political assumptions, and the possible resulting biases, of your professors.

Third, we’re much less religious than the general population of students we teach. A recent study of American professors found that they affiliate with religion less often than the general population. This is especially true at the top universities where 37% percent of professors are agnostic or atheists compared clip_image001to only 7% in the general population. Likewise, only about 1% of professors in top universities identify themselves as “born-again,” compared to a full 33% of the general population.

This means that students receive a distinctive treatment of religion in the classroom. Just as professors make their students more liberal, they also tend to make them less religious. Religious students who take sociology may have a particularly difficult time since in this discipline religion is often presented as wrong, irrelevant, or harmful.

Fourth, we’re not always intelligent. How smart are professors? Usually pretty smart, but not always. Another recent study compared the average intelligence of professors to those in other careers, and university professors scored at about the highest level (along with doctors), which I suppose is good news if we’re going to be teaching people. There was, however, a wide range of intelligence among professors, with more than few at intelligence levels that were average of society as a whole.

What do these four differences mean for our students? Students should realize that we have our own experiences, beliefs, and biases, and that we’re not always the sharpest knife in the drawer. The next time that you listen to a professor talk (and talk and talk), take the time to critically evaluate what they say. Just as professors frequently ask questions to students, students should question their professors.

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September 08, 2007

Black and White or Rainbow Colors: Tiger Woods and the “One Drop Rule”

author_janis By Janis Prince Inniss

Recently, golfer Tiger Woods and his wife, Elin Nordegren, became parents. Given that Nordegren is white and Swedish, this announcement made me wonder what, if anything would be made of the race of any of the members of this young family. I thought about this because ten years ago, a then 21-year-old Woods had already captured the prestigious Masters title and the minds of many Americans. Despite all of this, Woods was the subject of heated debate in diverse forums because he expresses a preference not to be identified as African American.

I recognized that trouble was brewing when the African-American host of a popular, nationally syndicated radio program repeated the statement Woods made on the Oprah Winfrey show that he was “Cabilnasian”. Woods said that he had made up the term "Cablinasian" to describe his racial background, and preferred not to be called African American. The radio host criticized Woods and suggested that African Americans would reject Woods unless he explained himself. The host was right: Woods later felt the heat for daring not to be described as African American. 

clip_image002[1]One week later, the Reverend Jesse Jackson expressed sympathy for Woods. By rejecting the label African American, Jackson said the youngster had no base upon which to stand. Woods had said that his background is African American, Asian, Caucasian, and Native American; just as white Americans might describe themselves as French, English and Italian, for example. At the time, the media described Woods as the first African American and Asian American to win a major golf tournament and various writers quantified each aspect of his background.

I fully understood the need for African Americans to claim Tiger Woods. He is a clip_image003[1]young man who excels at a sport synonymous with white upper-class privilege. Woods had just set a record by becoming the youngest Masters champion. Because we are bombarded by images of African Americans (particularly young males) committing various heinous acts, there is a steady call for more positive role models. Woods would seem a perfect antidote to many negative representations of our youth, so when he rejected an African American identity it seemed as if he had abandoned those with the greatest need. Woods’s claim about the diversity of his heritage seemed like a rejection of African Americans, or even a form of self-delusion. 

This controversy takes place within the context of historical racism and prejudice against people of African descent in the U.S. The hatred for persons of African descent was so encompassing that for years having just "one drop" of “black” blood was as an invitation to subhuman treatment. In pre-Civil War America, white “masters" frequently raped African women they considered their property; any resulting offspring were classified as black, as enslavers did not want to bestow humane status to this group of “mixed” race people. Thus, the "one drop rule” was born—any one possessing even “one drop” of African blood was “black”. 

The persistent denial of non-African roots of African Americans and the “minority” roots of whites is a clip_image005[1]legacy of such racist ideology. We have become used to simplistic racial categories (black or white, for example) as a shorthand way of navigating the world. It seems that for Woods, his Native American and African-American father and Thai, Chinese, and white mother could not have produced an African- American child. It’s sort of like saying that yellow, green and purple make purple, and not a fourth color consisting of all of its parts.

One argument advanced against recognizing multiracial identities emphasizes that Tiger Woods and others who are (noticeably) of African descent, will be seen and treated by most Americans as African American, regardless of their mixed racial heritage. Whatever Woods chooses to call himself, because of the color of his skin he may be subject to what many consider the racist comments of people like Frank Urban "Fuzzy" Zoeller. Zoeller, a professional golfer playing at the same Masters tournament that Woods was about to win, referred to Woods as “that little boy” and said that Woods should not request that they "serve fried chicken ... or collard greens or whatever the hell they serve" at next year’s Masters’ dinner. clip_image007

Social factors have incredible power to shape how we think about the world and about ourselves. Wood’s attempt to construct his own, and therefore, new racial identity is a fascinating example of the relationship between our private ideas and societal norms such as the “one-drop rule”. For going against the norm, Woods received a variety of informal sanctions—and this may be at least one reason why he has not publicly discussed his being “Cablinasian” again, and he has certainly not referred to it when he discusses the birth of his daughter.


Usually, we think of race as “fixed” and presume that the racial classifications we are familiar with are “real” and “natural” without thinking about their origins, functions, or consequences. Racial classifications are seen as absolute biological categories, rather than the social constructs that they are. As social constructs, racial classifications will and have changed over time. This is one example that encourages us to think about why racial categorizations in the U.S. are the way they are and under what circumstances there are changes. Can you think of what, if any, benefits there are to things remaining the same versus changing?

September 07, 2007

The Disaster of Homelessness

author_sally By Sally Raskoff

While listening to a National Public Radio (NPR) report about the Minnesota bridge collapse, one of the reporter’s comments caught my attention. She was describing how a homeless man had come by when she was interviewing people and yelled, “This is my life everyday!”

To many, it seems odd that homelessness could be similar to living through a disaster. There are differences that make many of us question that comparison, though. First, disasters are short-lived experiences, yet homelessness is a long-term problem. The longer someone is homeless, the more difficult it is for him or her to move out of it. sr homelessness 2

Second, there is direct, usually governmental, aid to survivors of disasters, whether natural or otherwise. Much of that aid often goes directly to the people who suffered the loss. However, aid for homelessness goes to organizations, not to the people who suffer the effects.

Third, disaster victims are often seen as blameless. We recognize that the precipitating event came from an outside source. Homeless people, on the other hand, are often blamed for their plight. Indeed, homelessness is one of our country’s most typical blame-the-victim scenarios.

Last, in disasters, many people jump up to help those who have suffered.  Witness the blanket and blood drives, the food and other donation programs that spring up after disasters like tsunamis and earthquakes. However, most sr homelessness 3people don’t help the homeless person at the freeway off-ramp or on the sidewalk. Aid for homeless causes has been difficult to sustain—often because homeless people appear to be to blame for their circumstances and thus seem less deserving of such help.

Perhaps it would be easier to raise aid for the homeless if people stopped to consider how homeless people resemble victims of a disaster. First, people in both situations certainly experience a breach of norms. When typical rules of society are no longer applicable, people don’t know how to behave. This situation of normlessness brings to mind Durkheim’s concept of anomie. Anomic situations are difficult for the people who exist within them. Because the longer the breach in norms exists, the more upsetting it can be for the people in that situation, most people act to repair those breaches and get to some sense of normalcy as quickly as possible. 

If you’ve ever been through a disaster or been homeless, consider how you might have tried to bring a sense of everyday reality back—and consider how comforting it was if you were successful. In the days after the 1994 Northridge N_Equakeb005-01 earthquake here in southern California, we had no electricity or water—thus cooking or bathing was nearly impossible. Our first few days after the earthquake were spent sweeping up debris and attempting to make the house look as “normal” as possible. We all felt as if we were acting but it was comforting to try to pretend that life was indeed “normal”.

Second, whether you are homeless or the victim of a disaster, the main tasks with which people occupy themselves are similar. Both homeless people and those who survive disasters spend their time on survival issues: where will their food, shelter, and clothing come from? Bathing is difficult and safety is an issue both from the environment and other people. For example, after the earthquake my family pulled out the camping gear and tried to create a special kind of camping trip by cooking on the Coleman stove. (The kids weren’t convinced.)

Bathing was a special challenge since our water was the last utility to return. By the fifth day, I had to go to a friend’s house in a functioning neighborhood to take a shower—we were lucky that we had friends who welcomed us. Some years ago my spouse completed emergency training with the fire department and the main message was “take care of yourselves” since emergency services probably won’t get to you in a timely manner after a major disaster. Thus their advice was to barricade neighborhoods and control the entries and exits—to suppress any looting or robbery activities. If we had had the means, we probably would have gone to a hotel out of the area so that we could have felt as normal as possible as soon as possible.sr homelessness 1

Third, both for the homeless and for those who have survived a disaster, help is often not helpful at all. Shelters may be available, but they are not perceived as safe or suitable locations to spend one’s time. Rebuilding or finding suitable shelter takes time and depends on the resources available. Disaster relief may provide low-interest loans and financial grants to survivors but are often available only to homeowners, Even though both homelessness and disasters have a deep psychological impact on those who experience them, assistance for psychological help is usually not an option unless one has the resources and awareness to seek it out.

Finally, while homelessness isn’t considered a “disaster” by most people in our society disasters can create homeless people—they do destroy homes after all. The attitudes toward these categories of homelessness are very different. Those of us who study homelessness know that it is a societal disaster and that social factors have a large impact on why people become homeless, but the public does not always see it that way.

While Durkheim’s concept of anomie helps us to understand what’s happening in the social setting during such situations, Marx’s class distinctions and analysis of the ways that power is wielded in society can be useful in explaining why we see these two situations so differently when they are actually quite similar in their experience and impact.

How can we begin to explain these differences in attitudes and assistance? For one thing, homeless people are at the bottom of the class system, while those who are aided by the government and others during disasters are more likely to be at least middle class. In the hurricanes, earthquakes, and other natural disasters of the last twenty years, homeowners were often given low-interest loans from government agencies like the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) and the Small Business Administration (SBA) to rebuild their properties and businesses. In some cases, these supplemented insurance payouts and in many areas, the rebuilt areas were actually worth more after the disaster than before. A notable exception to this trend is the Katrina aftermath in New Orleans.

Marx’s theory can also help us better understand what happened in New OrleansN_Equake004-01 before, during, and after Katrina. The populations most affected were the underclass and working poor who are still suffering the effects of that particular disaster two years later. Even if FEMA had in better working order and there hadn’t been as much bureaucratic mismanagement, these poor people likely would have suffered simply because they are poor. Marx would have a lot to say about why the levees were not repaired when the government had the prior knowledge that they were in jeopardy. Why were those projects not identified as a priority? The class distinctions furthered class divisions and exploitation during a natural disaster, enough to create a massive social disaster for one of our most unique cities.

I think the homeless man in Michigan was right on target, living as a homeless person is like living a disaster everyday—but without the assistance and support given to most disaster survivors.

Photos of Northridge earthquake damage courtesy of Richard Raskoff

September 06, 2007

Pink Cadillacs: Femininity Redefines Corporate Culture

author_janis By Janis Prince Inniss

I never thought much about businesses--how they are run, or how to get one started until I started dating a business owner and started learning more. Since then I have been intrigued by the “science” of business and have even entertained fantasies about getting an MBA someday. 

Recently, I was able to postpone doing some household chores by reading an article about Mary Kay Ash. Ash built the Mary Kay empire by selling cosmetics door-to-door. The businesclip_image001[1]s grew from sales of $198,000 in 1963 to $2.25 billion in 2005! Yes, that’s billion, with a B. In addition to this eye-popping financial success, there are many other interesting things about the company that Mary Kay Ash created. For example, according to the company website, Mary Kay Inc. employs more than 1.5 million women in more than 30 markets worldwide. 

What I find particularly intriguing about Ash’s story—apart from the rags to riches component—is that she ran her company like a woman—or rather, she elevated traits associated with femininity to a corporate culture, creating a “pink” corporate culture. Before reading that article, I had never thought much about corporate culture—the way you conduct business—and certainly not about the relationship between corporate culture and gender. I know that in the U.S. money is green and thought that people made gobs of it in the same way—save for the particulars of their specific industry. But a pink corporate culture was surprising.


The Mary Kay motto is God first, family second, and career third. Surely, this prominence of God in a company is unusual. However, I think that the entire motto was designed to resonate with women—and the company’s billions suggest that it does.. Ash created a company that she saw as a unique business opportunity for women. This is an interesting take on gender socialization – it does not debate male/female differences and similarities, nor examine the nature/nurture debate. This position accepts certain traits as feminine and, with that debatable assumption as a starting place, develops a corporate culture that reflects these characteristics. 

In western cultures, girls are often socialized to be communicative, family focused, to play nice, and to focus on relationships. By comparison, boys are often socialized to be tough, aggressive, and solution-oriented. Therefore, with women as the target employees (and consumers), it is no surprise that Mary Kay emphasizes the flexible nature of this “at home job” that allows women to focus on family ahead of their jobs. Playing nice? The company uses the Golden Rule as a guide: Do unto others as you would have them do unto you. 

The company focuses on cooperation instead of competition, and places a heavy emphasis on recognition, demonstrating the relational aspect of the Mary Kay corporate culture. Women at Mary Kay do not only receive financial compensation, they get recognition as they head up the pink corporate ladder. In fact, recognition is a major focus of this company; in what is apparently a unique tactic in the business world (and some might argue life!), Mary Kay offers recognition for a job well done. In your own work life, how much recognition have you received? Have you wished that your boss would acknowledge your efforts?

For example, before her death in 2001, Ash would issue invitations for high performers to accompany her on trips. Apparently, Ash was known for paying close attention to her many employees. At the annual “Seminar” which draws about 50,000 consultants, the most successful beauty consultants are honored in film clips. The ranks of saleswoman, sales director, and national sales director are celebrated each year. In 1969, the company awarded top five Independent Sales Directors with a Cadillac. Mary Kay is so identified with femininity that the coveted Cadillacs are pink, a color highly associated with females (the recent trend of men wearing pink ties and shirts, notwithstanding). The company uses the color for its name, on its website, and in its catalog. 


This business model uses femininity as a contrast to masculinity and in the process reaffirms the idea that masculinity and femininity are two mutually exclusive and contradictory categories. In reality, we live more nuanced lives than this kind of either/or thinking suggests. 

Keep in mind, for instance, that although they are in the minority (and somewhat of a secret), there are men who sell Mary Kay cosmetics. In fact, the current President and Chief Executive Officer, as well as the current Executive Chairman of Mary Kay, Inc. are men; yet they appear to be able to keeclip_image006p the pink corporate culture going. This reminds us that “femininity” and the traits we often associate with women can be adopted by men and even valued. It looks like “pink” culture can bring in the green.

September 05, 2007

The Downside of Diversity?

author_cn By C.N. Le

Demographers tell us that American society is becoming increasingly racially and ethnically diverse.  In fact, current projections suggest that if current patterns continue, somewhere around the year 2050, whites will cease to be a numerical majority in this country --that for the first time since the Native American Indian population gave way to European settlers and their descendants there will be more non-whites than whites in the U.S. 

Of course, whites will still be the largest racial/ethnic group in the country; they just won't constitute a numerical majority.  In many metropolitan areas and in a few states around the country, whites are already a minority.  Liberal scholars and activists -- yes that includes me, I suppose -- have consistently maintained that this racial/ethnic/cultural diversity represents a positive change, rather than a problem for American society.

This is because multiculturalism and diversity bring people in closer contact diversity13 with each other. According to the "contact hypothesis" (one of the core principles in the sociology of race and ethnicity) more interpersonal contact with people from different backgrounds will lead to greater communication, understanding, mutual respect, and social harmony. Combined with globalization of the world in general, it is ultimately good for American society that we are becoming so culturally diverse.

However, a new study fundamentally challenges this basic assumption about the benefits of living in a culturally diverse society.  As the Boston Globe reports, Harvard political science professor Robert Putnam has released the results of a comprehensive survey of over 30,000 respondents around the country and has found some rather sobering, perhaps even shocking results:

[Putnam's study] found that the greater the diversity in a community, the fewer people vote and the less they volunteer, the less they give to charity and work on community projects. In the most diverse communities, neighbors trust one another about half as much as they do in the most homogeneous settings. The study, the largest ever on civic engagement in America, found that virtually all measures of civic health are lower in more diverse settings.

Putnam knew he had provocative findings on his hands. He worried about coming under some of the same liberal attacks that greeted Daniel Patrick Moynihan's landmark 1965 report on the social costs associated with the breakdown of the black family. There is always the risk of being pilloried as the bearer of "an inconvenient truth," says Putnam. After releasing the initial results in 2001, Putnam says he spent time "kicking the tires really hard" to be sure the study had it right. Putnam realized, for instance, that more diverse communities tended to be larger, have greater income ranges, higher crime rates, and more mobility among their residents -- all factors that could depress social cohesion, independent of any impact ethnic diversity might have.  "People would say, 'I bet you forgot about X,'" Putnam says of the string of suggestions from colleagues. "There were 20 or 30 X's." 

But even after taking all these factors into account statistically, the connection
remained strong: Higher diversity meant lower social cohesion. In his findings, Putnam writes that those in more diverse communities tend to "distrust their neighbors, regardless of the color of their skin, to withdraw even from close friends, to expect the worst from their community and its leaders, to volunteer less, give less to charity and work on community projects less often, to register to vote less, to agitate for social reform more but have less faith that they can actually make a difference, and to huddle unhappily in front of the television."

After reading the Boston Globe article and after getting over my initial shock, I sat back and reflected on what it means for American society in general and me in particular as one of many who has sincerely believed all along that cultural diversity does indeed produce more benefits than costs for American society. 

diversity7As I tried to understand and explain these findings, I remembered something that poet and activist Audre Lorde once said. Her words struck me as a profound rebuttal to the study's results:It is not our differences that divide us. It is our inability to recognize, accept, and celebrate those differences."
In other words, I think that the respondents in this study may not have been reacting to high levels of racial/ethnic diversity per se, but rather, to the political discourse that continues to frame such demographic changes with trepidation.

The war on terrorism, the war in Iraq, diminishing individual liberties, volatile economic times, environmental degradation, and human rights abuses around the world have all created a perfect storm of factors that have made Americans more fearful, uncertain, pessimistic, defensive, and/or distrustful of many things, not just increasing racial/ethnic diversity.  You might think of it in terms of the basic animal instinct of recoiling and withdrawing when threatened-- the "fight or flight" instinct.

When you add racial/ethnic diversity into the mix, it is understandable if humans retreat into the basic primordial, "homo-social" tendency of feeling more secure and comfortable around others who look like them, or as translated into the American racial vernacular, people who belong to the same
racial-cultural group that they belong to.

This would explain why people living in racially homogeneous communities would probably not feel as threatened with the state of the world's affairs as would people in racially diverse communities. In racially homogeneous communities, they feel more socially supported and integrated into their social environment -- a finding that I'm sure Prof. Putnam's research confirms.

If we were to change the present political and social climate and all of those factors I mentioned that make us feel threatened, racial/ethnic diversity would not bother the vast majority of Americans nearly as much.  In other words, as Audre Lorde observed, it is this political and social climate that has made it much more difficult for us as a society to recognize, accept, and celebrate our racial/ethnic differences.

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