10 posts from October 2007

October 28, 2007

Killing Death: The Cultural Significance of Halloween

author_karen By Karen Sternheimer 

If your neighborhood is anything like mine, yards are filled with skeletons, foam tombstones, and other ghoulish décor. Some homes even have orange and black flashing lights and giant inflatable skulls. One house is lit up by strobe lights j0436113 and has the 80s song "Ghostbusters" playing on an endless loop. 

Our annual embrace of the macabre began as my family and I had to deal with the real thing: the loss of my grandmother. Tombstones aren’t fun and festive when you’ve just buried someone in an actual cemetery, one that doesn’t get put away on November 1st. 

In many ways, Halloween exists as a ritual to confront death during a time when most of us (fortunately) don’t have to deal with death on a regular basis. We fight wars overseas so they seem to happen to “other people,” and when people do pass away they tend to be in hospitals. Before the twentieth century, most people died at home and families were often responsible for preparing their bodies for burial. 

When my grandmother was born in 1911, death was all around her. Born in Russia, she was a child during the battles of World War I. Her father died in the Influenza Pandemic soon after, and her village was attacked and civilians were killed after the Bolsheviks took power in Russia. She hated to remember these times, but in her later years would tell us stories about hiding up on a hill and returning to her village to find bodies everywhere. Once she hid with her family in a neighbor’s home, only to have soldiers find them. “There are only women and children here,” her mother told them, pleading for their lives. 

They later escaped into Romania, crossed a river in the middle of the night, made their way to France, and sailed to Ellis Island. They never looked back, always preferring to focus on happy times in America. After her harrowing escape, my grandmother hated the ocean and rarely went in the water, even when she retired to Florida. 

But she really loved Halloween, and even when she was an adult she would dress up to celebrate. She loved to tell a story about when she and my grandfather dressed up and rang the doorbell of friends, demanding candy. They were so j0422741well-costumed that their friends didn’t recognize them and slammed the door in their faces. When they took off their masks, they and their friends were overcome with fits of laughter. 

I don’t think it’s an accident that she took such pleasure in Halloween, a chance to mock death. She cheated death many times in her life; in spite of a heart attack and cancer in her 50s, as well as several serious health complications in her later years, she lived a full 96 years. 

And that’s really what our contemporary Halloween ritual is all about: laughing in the face of death. 

Halloween began as a Celtic holiday to ward off evil spirits. In its early incarnation, instead of giving away candy people would provide gifts in  exchange for the promise that the recipients would pray for their dead relatives. 

The holiday came to the United States courtesy of the large influx of Irish immigrants in the mid-nineteenth century. Far from a celebration for children, it began in the U.S. as a night of mischief for teen boys and young men. According to historian Gary Cross, treats were offered as bribes to assure that j0412704property was not the target of pranksters. 

Cross argues that this holiday became infantilized as cities grew and the idea  of young men “blowing off steam” seemed more menacing. According to Cross, it wasn’t until the 1940s that children began wearing costumes and going trick-or-treating. 

Halloween is a night when the boundaries of acceptable behavior are turned upside down. People of all ages dress in costumes, sometimes hyper-sexual, occasionally gender-bending, and sometimes challenging conventional standards of good taste. Children are allowed to dress as powerful and scary creatures, demand candy (often from strangers) and are allowed to roam the streets after dark (albeit usually with a parent in tow). And rather than fearing death or trying to pretend that it doesn’t exist, we laugh at the idea. 

Adults actively try to scare children with haunted houses or by dressing up in a  scary outfit to answer the door for trick-or-treaters. I remember we had a Halloween festival at my elementary school, where we were encouraged to walk through a dark room while scary music played in the background. The teachers were dressed in costumes and tried to scare us (and often succeeded). We were told to put our hands in a box filled with cooked spaghetti and were told it was filled with brains. 

Of course, the people who really get scared now are parents, afraid that their kids will come home with poisoned candy. As sociologist Barry Glassner notes in The Culture of Fear, there is no documented case of a child’s Halloween candy being poisoned by a stranger. But the belief that this is a real threat seems to add a dangerous mystique to Halloween. It’s a bit ironic that Halloween fears run so high that some communities don’t even have trick-or-treating. The truth is, most American children have never been safer: crime in the United PH01560J States is way down compared to the early 1990s, and children are unlikely to die of disease or in infancy compared with past generations. 

Yet the fact that we have come so far in “curing death” means that we need Halloween even more. This is the same reason that every other network drama takes place in a hospital, police station, or crime lab. For most of us, this is the only way we deal with the idea of mortality on a regular basis. Rather than “desensitizing” people, as critics sometime suggest, these rituals are a way of allowing us to face death from a safe distance on a regular basis. 

Laughing at death can be very cathartic. My grandmother had a wonderful sense of humor, and recounting the funny things she said was a tremendous j0201686comfort in the days following her death. Likewise, Halloween gives us a chance once a year to poke fun of death.

Of course, no matter how clever we think we are, death always has the last laugh.

October 25, 2007

Family Secrets and Identity

author_sally By Sally Raskoff

Who are you? 

What makes you you? 

Have you ever asked yourself these questions? Sociologists and psychologists have a different answers to these questions. Sociologists stress socialization clip_image003[1]processes and psychologists focus on innate factors and the individual’s response to their environment. Social psychology melds the two perspectives; it teaches us that we may not start as totally blank slates, and who we are is also shaped by our social experiences. 

The social constructionist perspective holds that we human beings make our social world (and our society) clip_image006and then forget that we do so—and then act as if it’s a given that it is the way it is. Particularly in childhood, but also in adulthood, we see the world through our own blinders. Children and adolescents interpret the events around them in relation to their own importance as the center of their own world. As we grow into adulthood, we assume that we are better able to consider the points of view of others. 

Sigmund Freud and George Herbert Mead's concepts of the superego and the generalized other refer to the social conscience, the component that reminds us of the rules of the society in which we live. Mead pointed out that we develop this through learning to take on the roles of others. However, neither concept allows us to be able to accurately realize what others think or feel about us. This is the role of interpersonal communication. 

clip_image009Families, and the events that occur within them, are rife with complexity. Parental relationships are usually not perceived accurately by their children, for example. Usually, their maturity level is at a different point of development than that of the parents throughout their lives. 

Likewise, parents do not always know what is going on with their children since children (and parents) are not always skilled communicators; nor are they always willing to fully disclose their thoughts or share the details of their lives.

When a parent is missing from a child’s life, everyone in that family is affected-- albeit in different ways and for different reasons. If that parent reappears or if there are past histories that are not disclosed—including that of earlier children and spouses, it can be an earth-shattering experience to suddenly learn about. It shakes one’s own sense of self no matter how “solid” that sense of self might have been beforehand. 

clip_image012People who are on either side of an adoption and those whose have “absent” parents are likely to question their identity when those other people are absent or unknown-- but also when (and if) they show up. Most people question their identity in adolescence as they struggle to become an adult and deal with who they are and where they come from. This quest for identity is how many life cycle theories define adolescence. However, if for whatever reason there is a missing parent, that struggle is full of unknowns. If contact is established at some point, the identity questioning process re-emerges and is usually quite intense. 

Absent parents and unknown siblings aren’t new phenomena although with the attention to “high” divorce rates and “blended” families, we sometimes get the impression that prior generations didn’t experience these things. If one is fortunate to accurately trace one’s genealogy, it is quickly apparent that multiple spouses are not a new phenomenon, although generations ago the cause was more likely to be death than divorce. 

clip_image015When new or missing people show up, our sense of self is shaken because we may notice certain physical or behavioral similarities with that person. Thus, things that we thought made us unique may actually be connected to this missing person, and clip_image018we may think that those similarities make us less unique. On the other hand, we may also be roiled because of the strong emotions that such events create: anger, relief, fear, love, suspicion. These are strong emotions that we may question and not fully understand. 

In this situation, having well-developed interpersonal communication skills can be crucial for working through and resolving those unknowns. Being able to clearly communicate both feelings and information can facilitate the process of resolving longstanding wounds and can also build a possible bridge for understanding. 

In my social group, two individuals have experienced a reconnection with a missing parent. I noticed that during the delicate dance of asking and answering questions and testing the foundation for a possible future relationship, both of these individuals changed before our eyes. It was as if missing puzzle pieces were fit into place and their identities became more consistent, and whole.

Of course, there are others who never do reconnect with missing relatives. Many people never get the chance to unravel family secrets, and their identities may be forever shaped by these losses.

clip_image021It’s important to keep in mind that our identities are the result of a number of factors, including everything we experience, and how we act and react to those experiences. Forging a more concrete and stable identity by getting answers to longstanding questions is not always possible. Yet we always have a part in the process of constructing our identity. Knowing we have that ability empowers us. It also reinforces the importance of building positive communication skills so that we may communicate as effectively as possible about such mysteries.

While some events are more radical change agents with respect to our identities, we are always changing, and those changes are based on what we experience, how we perceive those experiences, and what we do in response to them.

October 22, 2007

Trend Spotting: Suicide

author_karen By Karen Sternheimer 

When you see stories about trends in the news, do you ever stop and think about what it really means? I suspect most people take stories with statistics at face value; after all, if there are numbers to back up the story’s claims, why think twice?j0283871 

In this occasional feature, I will look deeper at a couple big, attention-grabbing headlines to question whether the so-called trend is really newsworthy or just another attempt to make a story out of a footnote. 

Is suicide a growing problem? 

According to the Los Angeles Times, yes. An article with the scary headline “Jump in Youth Suicides Reverses Trend” ran in early September, following the release of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention's (CDC) Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report. The article notes a scary-sounding jump of 76% in suicides of girls ages ten to fourteen, and states that the overall suicide rate for people 10 to 24 increased “substantially,” by eight percent. 

Okay, now let’s look into these numbers more closely.   

1. Ten- to fourteen-year-old girls are highly unlikely to commit suicide.  j0407442

As the Times article concedes, the 76% rise represents the difference between 56 suicides in 2003 to 94 in 2004….out of a population of nearly ten million girls. Yes, 76% seems like a big number, but when we put it into perspective its actual meaning isn’t as dramatic as the percentage makes it sound. While each represents a tragedy, 38 more girls committing suicide still means that less than one in a million American girls in this age group committed suicide. 


2. Boys are far more likely to commit suicide than girls are. 

If you take a look at the graph above (I recommend clicking on it to see it best), you can see that at every age, boys and young men are more likely to commit suicide than girls are. Historically, this is because boys have been more likely to use more violent (and thus more lethal) methods to harm themselves than girls are. 

3. In spite of a slight up tick, suicide rates among young people are way down from a decade ago. 

Again, if you look at the graph above, the big story is that trends for females are basically flat in the long term and way down for teen boys and young men. Once again, any loss of life shouldn’t be minimized, but as far as major trends are concerned, the news is basically good. Statisticians call small movements up or down “noise” in the data; in other words, it is statistically unlikely to find the same number of suicides year-to-year. Take a look at the end of the graph—do those differences that really seem “significant” in context?   

4. The older a person is, the greater the likelihood they will commit suicide. 

Here’s the real story, the one that’s usually hidden. It’s not your teenage brother you should worry most about, but your grandfather. With the exception of the 65- to 74 year-old age group, suicide rates steadily increase with age. You might be surprised to find out that according to CDC data, the suicide rate for j0185235 men aged 85 and older is 47.8 per 100,000 (in contrast to the headline-grabbing .95 per 100,000 for 10-14 year-old girls). Elderly men are more than twice as likely to die of suicide than their 18-34 year-old grandsons, which is rather remarkable considering young men are far less likely to die, period (although they are more likely to be the victims of homicide than their parents or grandparents are). 


Why do you think we pay so much attention to teen suicide and all but ignore the rates at which adults take their own lives? I suspect it has something to do with the widespread assumption that teens are inherently unstable. But obviously life can bring significant challenges at any age. 

It is no less of a tragedy when someone in their middle or late adulthood decides to end their life. I myself have known three people who killed themselves (two were only about thirty, and one person was elderly) and have seen the horror, pain, and ongoing sadness their loss causes their loved ones. Trust me, it’s no easier to deal with a suicide if the person is older and well out of their teens. 

Ironically, the suicide story we hear over and over teaches us very little about suicide, but it does tell us something about our perceptions of young people. This “teen suicide” theme fosters the dubious belief that young people need ever more monitoring and control. What the actual trends tell us is that we need to invest far more resources in providing quality, comprehensive mental health care to people of all ages. 

October 19, 2007

Romantic Exchanges

author_brad By Bradley Wright 

Romantic love is the thing of poets, songwriters, college students text-messaging and… sociologists. One way that sociologists explain love is from the perspective of exchange theory. According to this theory, people think about relationships in terms of the various benefits and costs available to them, and they chose the relationships with the most benefits. 

Think about the relationships that you’ve been in. What are some of the j0422305 benefits that you received? They can make you feel loved and special. It’s fun to have somebody to do things with—you feel less lonely. They can also offer sexual gratification. 

What are some of the costs? They can take a ton of time and money, even when you don’t have much of either. They can be full of conflict. They can produce a lot of anxiety, and there’s the always-present threat of rejection. 

Once we have become aware of these benefits and costs, how do we use them to figure out what to do? Two decision-making standards have been proposed. The first is called comparison level. We figure out what we have to gain from a relationship and then we compare it to what we have had in the past. If the potential relationship is better than our previous ones were, we go for it. If it’s not, we don’t. The idea here is that we want something better than we’ve had before. 

The other decision-making standard is comparison level of alternatives. We evaluate a current or future relationship not against past relationships but against other options that we think are available to us. The operating principle here is “can you do better?” Should you get involved with a particular person? Well, it depends on your other options. 

These decision standards apply to both getting into a new relationship and to staying in an existing relationship. Should you ask someone out? Well, do you think that a relationship with that person will provide you more benefits than your past relationships did (i.e., comparison level)? Do you think that you wouldj0422513  do better asking someone else out instead (i.e., comparison level of alternative)? Likewise, if you are already in a relationship, how long should you stay in it? You might stay as long as it’s better than what you’ve had in the past or until you think you can do better. 

Now that you understand this sociological perspective on relationships, I would recommend being careful with how you use it. Specifically, society has rules and guidelines about how we present our decisions to potential romantic partners. When you’re at the local bar this weekend and see a very attractive person, don’t go up to them and tell them that they exceed both your comparison level and comparison level of alternatives. Even saying that the benefits of hooking-up exceed the costs probably won’t work. This is where poets and songwriters come in—they provide much more useful advice on how to enact our romantic lives. 


Being 100% honest about the exchange aspect of relationships, even you’re being truthful, can make you sound rather cold-hearted and calculating. Consider the following exchange in a personal ad on Craig’s List. In it, a beautiful woman discusses her problems meeting her ideal mate, and in response a wealthy man subjects her to a rather brutal cost-benefit analysis. 



What am I doing wrong? 

Okay, I’m tired of beating around the bush. I’m a beautiful (spectacularly beautiful) 25 year old girl. I’m articulate and classy. I’m not from New York. I’m looking to get married to a guy who makes at least half a million a year. I know how that sounds, but keep in mind that a million a year is middle class in New York City, so I don’t think I’m overreaching at all. 

Are there any guys who make 500K or more on this board? Any wives? Could you send me some tips? I dated a business man who makes average around 200 - 250. But that’s where I seem to hit a roadblock. 250,000 won’t get me to central park west. I know a woman in my yoga class who was married to an investment banker and lives in Tribeca, and she’s not as pretty as I am, nor is she a great genius. So what is she doing right? How do I get to her level? 

Here are my questions specifically: 

- Where do you single rich men hang out? Give me specifics- bars, restaurants, gyms 

- What are you looking for in a mate? Be honest guys, you won’t hurt my feelings 

- -Is there an age range I should be targeting (I’m 25)? 

- Why are some of the women living lavish lifestyles on the upper east side so plain? I’ve seen really ‘plain jane’ boring types who have nothing to offer married to incredibly wealthy guys. I’ve seen drop dead gorgeous girls in singles bars in the east village. What’s the story there? j0422990

- Jobs I should look out for? Everyone knows - lawyer, investment banker, doctor. How much do those guys really make? And where do they hang out? Where do the hedge fund guys hang out? 

- How you decide marriage vs. just a girlfriend? I am looking for MARRIAGE ONLY 

Please hold your insults - I’m putting myself out there in an honest way. Most beautiful women are superficial; at least I’m being up front about it. I wouldn’t be searching for these kind of guys if I wasn’t able to match them - in looks, culture, sophistication, and keeping a nice home and hearth.



I read your posting with great interest and have thought meaningfully about your dilemma. I offer the following analysis of your predicament. Firstly, I’m not wasting your time, I qualify as a guy who fits your bill; that is I make more than $500K per year. That said here’s how I see it. 

Your offer, from the prospective of a guy like me, is plain and simple a crappy business deal. Here’s why. Cutting through all the B.S., what you suggest is a simple trade: you bring your looks to the party and I bring my money. Fine, simple. But here’s the rub, your looks will fade and my money will likely continue into perpetuity…in fact, it is very likely that my income increases but it is an absolute certainty that you won’t be getting any more beautiful! 

So, in economic terms you are a depreciating asset and I am an earning asset. Not only are you a depreciating asset, your depreciation accelerates! Let me explain, you’re 25 now and will likely stay pretty hot for the next 5 years, but less so each year. Then the fade begins in earnest. By 35 stick a fork in you! 

So in Wall Street terms, we would call you a trading position, not a buy and hold…hence the rub…marriage. It doesn’t make good business sense to “buy you” (which is what you’re asking) so I’d rather lease. In case you think I’m being cruel, I would say the following. If my money were to go away, so would you, so when your beauty fades I need an out. It’s as simple as that. So a deal that makes sense is dating, not  marriage. 

Separately, I was taught early in my career about efficient markets. So, I wonder why a girl as “articulate, classy and spectacularly beautiful” as you has been unable to find your sugar daddy. I find it hard to believe that if you are as gorgeous as you say you are that the $500K hasn’t found you, if not only for a tryout. 

By the way, you could always find a way to make your own money and then we wouldn’t need to have this difficult conversation. 

With all that said, I must say you’re going about it the right way. Classic “pump and dump.” I hope this is helpful, and if you want to enter into some sort of lease, let me know.


So, what’s the lesson here? While it might be a good idea to know why we make romantic decisions, we might want to be discreet about how we discuss them with potential or existing romantic partners. 

That being said, let’s get out there this weekend and maximize comparison levels! 


October 16, 2007

Back Stage out in Front: Impressions of Teen Pregnancy

author_janis By Janis Prince Inniss

The mere mention of teenage pregnancy evokes strong emotions, including sorrow, dismay, disgust, and pity. There is an impression that pregnant teenage girls have “fallen from grace,” as pregnancy is an oh-so-visible indication that they have been sexually active—an idea that makes many people shudder. The fact that the boys and men who partner in these pregnancies are (mostly) absolved of the scorn reserved for pregnant girls is an indication that the double standard about sex and sexuality remains.

We know that many teenagers are sexually active; data from the Youth Risk Behavior Surveillance (YRBS) indicate that almost half (47%) of all U.S. high school students admit to having had sexual intercourse. Some teens do not use image birth control, as additional data from the YRBS indicate: Of the 33.9% who had been sexually active three months before the survey, more than a third of them (37.2%) had not used a condom and only a scant 17.6% (the respondent or their partner) had used birth control pills to prevent pregnancy before their last sexual encounter. Not surprisingly, a number of these teenage girls became pregnant. 

In 2002, the U.S. teen pregnancy rate was 76.4 pregnancies per 1,000 females aged 15-19. The pie chart below 

clip_image002represents the outcomes of these 757,000 pregnancies. Data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), indicate that a little more than half of teens aged 15-19 who became pregnant gave birth to their babies. Although 16% of these teens suffered fetal losses, 28% aborted them. 

The sociological concept of impression management is useful in thinking about teen pregnancy. Impression management might be defined as caring what others think; it is being aware of how we are seen by others and attempting to influence (consciously or not) how we are perceived and ultimately treated. According to sociologist Erving Goffman, who developed the concept of impression management, we have front and backstage lives. Front stage refers to those occasions when we are “onstage” in formal roles, in “public” creating or maintaining a particular impression of ourselves. 

Backstage is , like the backstage of a theatre, where we are our “private  selves”; the place where people put on make-up and get dressed in preparation for being onstage. Back stage is where the real story—and not just what we want others to think, know, or feel about us—resides. So using this lens to consider pregnant teens, we recognize that unless it is common knowledge that a teenager has had an abortion or that she was pregnant and gave up a baby for adoption, she may continue to be perceived as a “good girl”, or at least maintain whatever public image she had before she became pregnant.

Notice the double standard again. When it comes to sex, girls and women are seen as either virtuous or promiscuous, but neither label is typically applied to males. This either or dichotomy acts as a constraint on female sexuality. Can you see how? Sexual activity and pregnancy may remain backstage for such image girls and onlookers are likely to maintain whatever impressions they had of them, despite the girls’ experiences with sex and pregnancy. On the other hand, a pregnant girl cannot hide her backstage, because it is literally out in front! Consequently, impressions about her are bound to include this titillating knowledge. 

I was very surprised to learn from CDC data that the highest teenage birth rates in the U.S. of the last 64 years were in the 1950s! As indicated in the line graph below, the 2000 U.S. birth rate of 48.7 is almost exactly half of the 1957 rate of 96.3! What factors do you think contributed to this change in birth rate? Our impression that teen pregnancy is “new” may be related to the fact that the majority (70%) of teenagers who give birth today are unmarried. The opposite was true in the 1950s when teen pregnancies frequently resulted in marriage, and in general, people married and had children at earlier ages than they do today. Many of us have the impression that there was little or no premarital sex, teen pregnancies, or births out of wedlock in the “old days;” but this data suggests that marriage helped to create that perception.


I know adults who became parents as teens, but this information is usually kept back stage. Typically, do you count the age difference between parents and their children, even when parents seem relatively young? I do not and on a few occasions have been surprised to learn that someone—sometimes even family members—I have known for a long time was a teen parent. With time, marriage, and the tacit agreement of the community, many adults are able to have their teen pregnancies “move” back stage

But many people, including teen parents, delay marriage much longer now than during the 1950s. Should they remain unmarried? How do you think today’s teenaged parents will be perceived in ten or more years?

October 13, 2007

Power and Schmoozing at Work

author_sally By Sally Raskoff

clip_image002[1]What does it take to do well at work? Why do some people seem to get ahead while others whose skills are equivalent (or even better) don’t move up as quickly as they expect to? We have a friend, let’s call him David, who was fired from a number of jobs. Once he had a job for some time, he couldn’t get promoted. His skills were exemplary, yet he could not seem to move up the ladder.

On the surface, skill seems to be a basic element of getting, keeping, and moving up in an occupation. The person who cuts my hair has had a number of assistants over the last few years. One, (let’s call her Yasmin), moved up to work for the owner of the salon. Others, however, have disappeared suddenly from the salon. But as far as I could tell their skills seemed somewhat equivalent. 

clip_image004In most offices, people are hired as probationary, and after some period of time they become regular employees or are “let go”. Once someone becomes a regular employee, some are promoted while others while away at the same desk year after year. Christine L. Williams and others have published fascinating work examining why certain people are on “glass escalators” or, by contrast, hit the glass ceiling. 

clip_image006While gender, race, ethnicity, and social class certainly account for many of these dynamics, I’d like to bring Max Weber into the conversation. He notes that the concept of charisma is central to understanding leadership and power (along with class and status).Success is about more than your position or the politics of an organization.

Yasmin, the hair stylist’s assistant, has tremendous charisma compared to other stylist assistants in the salon, which may explain why the big boss snapped her up as his own assistant. My friend David, as another one of my friends likes to say, “failed coffee” in his early job experiences. Until he became more aware of social dimensions at work, he had to keep looking for new jobs. He had previously done his job tasks quite well but didn’t do well at developing social relationships at work.

clip_image009Charisma is that special something that some people have in abundance and others lack. Those with it can command the attention of others simply by walking in a room. Many of our country’s presidents had loads of charisma, and most successful public figures and leaders have more than their fair share of charisma (which is often how they win elections). Most of the professors whose classes you’ve really enjoyed probably also had charisma.

Charismatic people are also able to interact with others successfully, more so and much easier than for those with less charisma. To survive and thrive in a workplace, it’s important to have social skills as well as job skills.

I have worked in a number of places and capacities over the years. One of my first “real” jobs was in the U.S. Air Force as an electronics and communications technician. In our workplace, we were responsible for all of the base’s communications— our work consisted of quality control checks and troubleshooting if problems occurred. (As a result, I’m really good at setting up equipment such as video and DVD players!) On the evening and night shifts, we played a lot of pinochle and cribbage after we finished the quality checks and waited for something to break. 

The pinochle game was a very special activity. Only four could play, but our shifts included six to eight people. I noticed very quickly that only certain people were invited into that game—always the supervisor and whomever they asked in. Those he invited were people who did their job really well, and their job skills seemed to be his basic criteria. 

One day a newer colleague asked why he couldn’t play in place of a more seasoned worker. That person could do the work much more quickly than the new guy. The supervisor said that he needed the practice since he was newer and that once he was better at his job, he might be able to play. This supervisor recognized that the skills of the job were identical to those of a good pinochle player: both required one to think ahead and hold onto a lot of information at one time. 

Looking back, social skills were also important; some of our colleagues were never asked to play even though their job skills were adequate. They weren’t people who were rude or mean, but they didn’t command interest as much as those who had more charisma. Since the game did include people who were more social than the others, the game was looked upon as a fun reward and a sign of success in our workplace. The game served as motivation to improve one’s job skills—to avoid work—but also to be more socially adept at work.

In addition to serving in the military, at one time I sold Tupperware (although I did not like to be called a “Tupperware Lady”). To be successful in sales you need more than a good product; you also need sales skills. “Sales skills” is really all about charisma, since to be really effective in getting the big sales and/or repeat customers, you have to “befriend” the client and convince them they can’t live without your product now and in the future. 

I was amazed, even, flabbergasted at my first monthly sales meetings as they sang songs, danced, and held what seemed a lot like a religious revival to clip_image011energize the sales force. The more gregarious among us not only sold more, they won more awards at the gatherings. They were rewarded not just for their sales but for their effervescence during the sales meetings.

Just as it is in sales, in the entertainment industry “who you know” is one very important aspect to moving you in and up the ladder. Who you know is important but, charisma and how well you get along with others are even more important. Social skills and charisma may be more vital than job skills in this industry, since many skills are learned on the job (think, for instance, of a beautiful model hired to star in a movie without any prior experience acting). 

In organizations, whether you are working for pay or volunteering, both job skills and social characteristics are important. On paper, job skills seem to be the most important, but we can’t forget the social dimension of success. Both are crucial for getting a job, keeping it, and moving up.

October 10, 2007

Are America's Schools Safe?

author_karen By Karen Sternheimer 

The elementary school on my street is once again brimming with excitement and back-to-school jitters. (It’s always hard to tell who is more nervous, the children or the parents.)   

As the new school year began and parents packed their kids off for classrooms and dorm rooms, this school year might bring some extra worry, with the Virginia Tech shooting last April reopening old Columbine High School-style image wounds. And last year’s shocking shooting in a rural Pennsylvania Amish school made it seem like no school was really safe. 

But the truth is schools are among the safest places for young people to be. 

Still, fears of a rampage-style shooting linger as the school year begins again. School-based law enforcement, which is lobbying for a piece of Homeland Security funding, is among the fastest growing sectors of the security industry. 

In our quest to ensure that kids are safe, we’ve overlooked one key fact: crime in America’s schools is on the decline.image 

Overall, violent crime has fallen sharply since the early 1990s. Homicide arrest rates among juveniles in particular plunged by 77 percent between 1993 and 2003. School-aged kids are 122 times more likely to die in an accident than die at school. Five- to 14-year-olds are four times more likely to die of pneumonia or the flu than to die at school. 

According to the U.S. Department of Education, crime in schools was cut in half between 1992 and 2002 and has continued to decline since. Serious violent crime remains rare in school – the vast majority of schools report none. The most common form of violence is one many of us likely remember well: the old-fashioned fistfight. 

Even during the 1990s, when fears of school shootings ran high and violence was at its peak, students had less than a seven in 10 million chance of being killed at school. College campuses are also very safe. This year’s horrific incident at Virginia Tech was clearly an aberration—campus violence is considerably lower than it is off-campus across the nation. 

The few schools that do have considerable safety problems still tend to have far lower crime rates than their surrounding neighborhoods do. Urban high school students are three times more likely to be victimized away from school than on school property. And in suburbia, students are still twice as likely to be victims of violence away from school grounds than while at school.image 

Regardless of where they live, kids are significantly safer at school than anywhere else. Children are much more likely to be victimized by adults than by each other. Statistically, kids are actually safer in the company of other students than they are with their parents. And for young people, being engaged in education may itself act as a protective factor against violent victimization and criminal involvement. 

While killings within families and at workplaces vastly outnumber school shootings overall, when violence does happen at schools it strikes a particular chord. As sites connected with both learning and youth, schools represent repositories of hope for the future. 

Children’s safety in schools should remain a primary concern. We may all feel better knowing that security equipment and emergency procedures are in place. But some districts have arguably overreacted and put policies in place that may satisfy anxious parents but do little to improve school safety.image 

For example, so-called "zero tolerance" policies employed in schools across the country mandate increased punishments for the most minor infractions. Sounds good on paper, but the reality is that many kids who have been suspended based on these rules had “weapons” such as manicure kits and fingers pointed like guns, or had thrown potato chips at another student. Understanding intent goes out the window when we become so afraid that a student with a steak knife used to cut an onion for a science project demonstration gets suspended. A 2001 study, published in the journal Educational Leadership, found that eight in ten students disciplined under zero tolerance rules were not serious threats to school safety. 

Recent events can re-open old worries about school violence and mask the reality that schools are significantly safer now than they were a decade ago. Safety is an emotional issue, one that parents and politicians can agree is important. 

There is a danger, however, in focusing so much on unlikely events that we ignore many of the complex issues plaguing so many schools: overcrowding, outdated materials, decaying facilities and overwhelmed teachers, not to mention alienating students with rigid one-size-fits-all policies. This, coupled with skyrocketing tuition at colleges and universities means that many are being shut out of higher education entirely, giving them less reason to commit themselves to education. Perhaps the biggest danger facing our nation’s schools is using our scarce resources to massage our fears rather than to educate a generation.

October 07, 2007

The Social Construction of Crime

author_brad By Bradley Wright 

What is a crime? This simple question turns out to have a variety of answers. 

A simple answer would be that a crime is doing anything that is against the law. The problem with this, however, is that there are tens of thousands of laws, and who could possibly remember all of them? Did you know that here in Connecticut it is illegal to throw away used razor blades? In Massachusetts, it’s illegal to use bullets as currency? In Arkansas, it is illegal to drive barefoot? image 

Some laws may be well-known but rarely or never enforced. For example, when was the last time you got a ticket for driving five miles over the speed limit? If a law is either not known or not enforced, does breaking it constitute a crime? 

This raises the issue of which laws actually get enforced, and one answer uses the social psychological principle of social construction. Rooted in the sociological perspective of symbolic interactionism, social construction is the idea that social realities happens as people interact and come to an agreement about what a situation means. 

Here’s an example that happens fairly regularly here at UConn: A student walks around at night with a beer in their hand, and they see a police officer. Not only are they underage, but they are also not supposed to have an open container in public, so they drop the beer. The student defines the situation as one of avoiding an alcohol-related crime. The police officer sees the dropped bottle or cup, goes over to the student, and tells them to pick it up and dispose of it properly. The police officer defines the situation as one of littering. This situation is pretty straightforward—the student readily accepts the police officer’s definition and throws away the cup or bottle. 

In other situations, however, there is protracted negotiation about what is happening and what is right and wrong.


Here’s a video shot in St. George Missouri. Police Sergeant Sgt. James Kuehnlein confronts 20-year-old Brett Darrow for being stopped in a parking lot. It turns out that Brett had a video camera on in the back of his car, and so we are able to hear the whole interaction. Here’s a snippet of the conversation:

Kuehnlein asks for identification. When Darrow asks whether he did anything wrong, the officer orders him out of the car and begins shouting.
"You want to try me? You want to try me tonight? You think you have a bad night? I will ruin your night. … Do you want to try me tonight, young boy?"
Darrow says no.

"Do you want to go to jail for some (expletive) reason I come up with?" the police officer says. Later, Darrow says, "I don't want any problems, officer."
"You're about to get it," Kuehnlein is heard saying. "You already started your (expletive) problems with your attitude."

(Here’s the eventual outcome).

There are various implications of crime being socially negotiated. Most obviously, justice isn’t a predetermined outcome based on what you actually do, instead it’s sometimes what you can negotiate. This puts a premium on your ability to negotiate a successful outcome with police officers and other j0400849 members of the criminal justice system. That’s why it’s such a good idea to be polite and deferential to the police when you interact with them. “Yes officer” and “no officer” are very good things to say, for a pleasant interaction paves the way for a more successful negotiation of what’s going on. 

The criminal justice system may not always enforce all written laws, but they do sometimes enforce unwritten laws. There are various norms of how to deal with the police and other officials, such as being polite, and even though these norms are not official laws, they are enforced as if they were. 

For example, having a sarcastic tone with a police officer isn’t illegal, but it can change the amount of punishment you get for a crime. Likewise, there is no law saying that defendants in court have to present themselves well and be apologetic, but it’s quite possible that poor self-presentation in the courtroom will lead to a harsher sentence. 

This social construction of crime can also be affected by individuals’ place in society. The police and courtroom actors, like anyone, have their preconceptions about different types of people. That means that going into their interaction with somebody they might already have an idea as to whether  that person is guilty or how that person will act. 

These preconceptions, which we can also call stereotypes, can affect the interaction between the official and the person in question. In the video clip,  the police officer clearly has some ideas about young people in fast cars, and he projected them onto the person he stopped. Not only age, but also race, gender, clothing, and general appearance can affect expectations of law enforcement officials which in turn, via social construction, can alter the way someone is treated by the police or the courts. 

The next time that you get pulled over, maybe the real question is not what you did but rather what you can construct through social interaction.

October 04, 2007

Who Deserves Freedom of Speech?

author_cn By C.N. Le 

Freedom of speech and academic freedom are both cornerstones of American society and particularly, of academia. Scholars like myself cannot do our jobs properly without knowing that we have these protections to challenge conventional ideas, take a critical look at social institutions here in the U.S. and around the world, and on occasion, to say things that may challenge the status quo. 

But the boundaries between freedom of speech and hateful speech are not always very clearly marked. That's the area where confusion and contradictions live. Two recent events highlight this delicate balance between maintaining academic freedom and excluding discrimination. 

The first event involved hiring the inaugural Dean for the new law school of the University of California, Irvine (my undergraduate alma mater). As the Los Angeles Times reports, the candidate in question, Erwin Chemerinsky, is a chemerinsky2 nationally-renowned legal scholar and in virtually all respects, is the perfect candidate for the position. 

The problem arose from Chemerinsky’s known "liberal" perspective. Apparently, some more "conservative" constituent groups associated with UC Irvine opposed his candidacy. Upon learning of this opposition, UC Irvine Chancellor Michael Drake decided to rescind his offer to Chemerinsky. 

Subsequently, scholars at UC Irvine and from around the country blasted Drake's actions as a threat to academic freedom. Shortly after facing this firestorm, Drake decided to reverse course (again) and reinstate his offer to Chemerinsky to be the inaugural Dean of UC Irvine's law school. Nonetheless, Drake still faces the wrath of faculty members over his initial decision to rescind the offer: 

In a conference call with reporters, the chancellor and new dean agreed that Chemerinsky would enjoy absolute academic freedom and would continue to write opinion articles on a wide range of issues, not just legal education as Drake suggested last week. 

"Chancellor Drake reaffirmed in the strongest possible way the academic freedom that I would have, as all deans and faculty members do," Chemerinsky said. He later noted that he was aware that his role as dean also would require him to build a broad base of support. Before he was ousted, the dean had sought conservatives for some slots on his board of advisors. . . . 

free-speech2 Business Professor Richard McKenzie did not think the chancellor could keep his job. "I personally do not see how [Drake] can be effective going forward given the opposition across campus to what he did. I've never seen the faculty so unified." The cabinet of UCI's Academic Senate met in closed session Monday to consider a response to the furor. 

The second controversy over academic freedom centers on Lawrence Summers, former Treasury Secretary under President Bill Clinton and President of Harvard University. Summers was forced to resign in early 2006 after his controversial statements that suggested to some listeners that women were naturally inferior to men when it came to the science disciplines. 

As the San Francisco Chronicle reports, Summers was initially invited to be a speaker at an upcoming dinner event of the University of California Regents, but many faculty members objected to his selection and the offer to Summers was subsequently rescinded: 

"I was appalled and stunned that someone like Summers would even be invited to speak to the regents," said UC Davis Professor Maureen Stanton, who helped put together the petition drive. "I think many of us who were involved in the protest believed that it wouldn't reflect well on the university that he even received the invitation."

The petition called Summers' invitation "not only misguided but inappropriate" at a time when the university is working to diversify its community. "Inviting a keynote speaker who has come to symbolize gender and racial prejudice in academia conveys the wrong message to the University community and to the summers2 people of California," the petition said. 

So, let's review -- in the Chemerinsky case, faculty cried foul because they felt that rescinding the offer to Chemerinsky was a threat to academic freedom. But in the Summers case, faculty supported the effort to rescind the offer to Summers. Therefore, the question becomes, is this a contradiction, perhaps even hypocrisy? 

Why is it okay to support Chemerinsky's right to academic freedom but not Summers'? 

The most obvious answer is that Chemerinsky is perceived as having a liberal perspective while Summers--at least judged by his controversial comments about women in the sciences--is perceived as having a more "conservative" perspective. Since it is a well-established fact that faculty members, particularly in humanities and social science disciplines, are overwhelmingly liberal, one can understand why Chemerinsky found support while Summers did not. 

In my blogs and in my classes, I make no secret of the fact that I consider myself to be quite liberal as well. But I am also a strong believer in freedom of speech for everyone, provided that speech is not blatantly hateful. In that sense, I cannot help but see these two events surrounding Chemerinsky and Summers as nothing less than hypocrisy. 

Freedom of speech is a universal right that belongs to everyone, not just to those with whom you agree. That means that even if someone says something that I completely disagree with, I still support his/her right to express his/her views, again provided that it's not blatantly hateful. 

In this case, I have no problems whatsoever with faculty disagreeing with Summers' views, as I do myself. However, I cannot support the decision to rescind the offer to let him speak based purely on such philosophical or political differences of opinion, especially in light of faculty's support for Chemerinsky's freedom of speech. 

In the San Francisco Chronicle article that I quoted above, Professor Stanton argues that inviting Summers sends the wrong message at a time when the UC system is trying to diversify its community. There is some truth to that statement and indeed, appearances do matter. 

However, I would argue that what would send an even more powerful message in support of diversity would be to allow all opinions, perspectives, and experiences deserve to be heard. 

This is the same valid argument that I and other faculty members have used to promote Ethnic Studies and multiculturalism on campuses all around the country, so why shouldn't it apply to Summers' case? 

Another way to send a strong message in support of cultural diversity would have been to allow Summers to speak and then for faculty and others who disagree with him to directly and publicly challenge him on his views. The same right that allows Summers to suggest that women are inferior gives us the right to suggest that Summers is completely wrong. 

This would again demonstrate that the UC system, academia, and our society in general are founded on principles of critical analysis and confronting prejudicial statements, not selective censorship. 

As my personal heroes such as Martin Luther King Jr. and the Dalai Lama have so acutely observed, when it comes to achieving real, meaningful social justice, we must be inclusive. That is, rather than solely concentrate on trying to address just one form of discrimination or inequality in isolation, we need to recognize that all injustices are interrelated. 

That is, in the words of Dr. King himself, "A threat to justice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere." I interpret that to mean that we cannot pick and choose which groups deserve justice and equality while which groups do not. 

That is why I personally find it very painful when I hear, for example, African Americans express homophobic thoughts against gays and lesbians, or Asian Americans denounce the rights of illegal immigrants to become Americans. 

Just as equality and justice belong to everyone, so too does freedom of speech.

October 01, 2007

The Bus To Class

author_janis By Janis Prince Inniss

I never pulled the cord to stop the bus in all the years I attended Queens College in New York. Not once! Today, there are fancier ways of signaling that you want the bus driver to pull over, but in those days there was a cord that would “ding” to alert the driver that you C:\Users\Janis\Pictures\Microsoft Clip Organizer\j0283737.gifwanted to get off the bus. It was my little game as I exited the bus near Dunkin Donuts across the street from campus. Would this be the day that I would finally have to let the driver know that this was my stop? Nope. No matter the day of the week or time of day. Not even on the day that a mighty, mighty snow storm came.

clip_image003[3]Accustomed as I was to taking public transportation, I made a mental note of the busses I saw around the streets of Los Angeles when I visited to learn more about the University of Southern California, as I was considering attending graduate school there. When I met with students to get the real deal on the program and what life was like in L.A., I was bewildered by their repeated assertions, “There are no busses in L.A.! You’ll have to buy a car.” I would murmur something about having seen a few busses, but let the matter drop.

I checked and saw bus stops on the major street right next to the Sociology department ,where I would spend most of my time at USC. I knew that I was not going to buy a car because I could not afford one.

My tuition at Queens College was about $700 per semester. With a part-time job, I could afford tuition and other school related expenses quite easily. I lived with my parents during my undergraduate years, so lodging was one less expense for me to worry about. I realized that I would have to get a scholarship to afford graduate school. I decided to attend USC, and received a prestigious fellowship from the American Sociological Association.

Prestigious, yes but financially bountiful, no! The cost of living in Los Angeles was so high that my fellowship stipend did not even cover essentials--and by essentials I mean food and lodging, not a car! Despite what I had been told, I knew that on my purse strings, a car could not be essential. I moved to L.A. and got an apartment that was on a bus line.

Unless someone took pity on me and offered me a lift home, I took the bus to and from USC daily, but found that to be a very different experience from taking the bus in Queens. I learned quickly enough that my "I’m not pulling the buzzer” game would not work in L.A.! Rarely did I ever have company getting off the bus at USC. In the couple of years that I took the bus, I could count on one hand the number of other students riding with me.

My backpack in my lap and my reading material in hand were good clues that I was a student. On bus #204 heading south on Vermont Avenue from Hollywood for about 30 minutes, there was ample time for me to observe and be observed. People would often chat with me and ask which school I attended; as I recall, USC and Los Angeles City College (LACC) were the only two schools of higher education on Vermont Avenue so I found this particularly perplexing – especially when the bus had already passed LACC. A college student on the bus headed toward USC must be attending USC… right? Wrong!

Apparently I didn’t look like I attended USC! First, several passengers told me that I looked like a high school student. Second, USC is a private university that had—and may still have—a reputation as a school for the rich (and given C:\Users\Janis\Pictures\Microsoft Clip Organizer\j0189221.gifits location in LA – sometimes famous). If I was rich or even had two nickels to rub together, why would I be on a bus? I was learning that in Los Angeles only the poor resort to taking the bus. And even though they were sociology students, the people I spoke with on my visit to the campus were so entrenched in the culture of Los Angeles that they had stopped seeing busses—which they saw as a symbol of poverty in direct contrast to Angelenos’ beloved and worshiped automobile.

The third reason people were surprised to hear that I attended USC is that I’m black and did not “look” like most people’s idea of who attended USC. Currently only about six percent of the USC student population is black/African American. I imagine that the same was probably true when I attended a decade ago.

In other words, among my self-identified roles was my role as a USC student, an achieved status or a role I achieved by my hard work. However, my apparently youthful appearance, social class and race all had a powerful impact on my master status—features that so defined how I was seen by others, that clues or signals that would challenge this perception were disregarded.

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