10 posts from November 2007

November 29, 2007

The Beautiful People

author_brad By Bradley Wright 

Like many people, you want to get ahead in life… have a successful career, be well-liked, you know, all that good stuff. So, you go to school, work hard, treat others well, and hope for the best. 

Well, you’re forgetting something, and that is to look good. Why? It turns out that we attribute all sorts of positive qualities to good looking people, and these qualities have a way of becoming true. 

Here’s how it works. Social psychologists have identified something called the “what is beautiful is good stereotype.” If someone is good looking—clear skin, symmetrical face, sparkly eyes or whatever else we see as beautiful or sexy or cute—we think that they are also lots of other good things. Just because they are hot, we think that they are more intelligent, sensitive, interesting, competent, and kind. 


Our positive expectations for attractive people can serve as a self-fulfilling prophesy. If we think someone is smart and has a great personality, we start to treat them differently. We expect them to live up to our expectations, and, lo and behold, they do. As such, if we think that beautiful people are better people overall, they become so. 

Usually we think about stereotypes being negative, and the problems that they cause. For example, if teachers think that girls are inherently worse at math than boys, they might put less effort into teaching them, call on them less in the class, and in general have lower expectations. The result, girls end up doing worse in math because the teachers think they will. 

The “what is beautiful is good” stereotype is positive, and it can be just as powerful. In a classic study, researchers had men talk with a woman via intercom for 10 minutes, and after the conversation the men were asked to rate the woman’s personality. Half the men were shown a picture of an attractive woman and told that was the woman they were talking to. The other half were shown a picture of an unattractive woman. In reality, as you probably guessed, it was the same woman talking to each of the men. 

The men who thought they were talking to an attractive woman rated her as more friendly, sociable, and likable than those talking to an “unattractive” woman. They perceived her as having a much better personality just because she was beautiful. Why? Self-fulfilling prophesy. The men talking to the “attractive” woman treated had higher expectations for her, and she lived up to them. 

The effect of this stereotype varies. As might be expected, it works most strongly with first impressions. We evaluate somebody’s appearance when we first meet them, and that information becomes most important. The more we get to know them, however, the more we factor in their other characteristics as well. Also, some people put more weight on physical appearances than others, and so they would be more affected by this stereotype. 

clip_image004[1]This stereotype has various social implications. We’re all aware of the remarkable amounts of time and energy that people put into their appearance. Here in the U.S. alone, women spend billions of dollars on cosmetics. This seems like frivolity, but if in fact attractive people receive preferential treatment, it might not be as misguided as it first seems. 

It also suggests another source of social stratification. Sociologists are quite attuned to how race, gender, sexuality, age, and other demographic characteristics affect our social standing. Perhaps we should incorporate other characteristics, such as attractiveness. Who knows, maybe an attractive person of minority status might have better odds in society than an unattractive person of majority status. 

This stereotype also gives an idea as to why the media so often uses attractive people. Open up any magazine, and there are beautiful people selling everything from vacuum cleaners to computers to watches. We see their attractiveness, and we associate other good qualities with them, and so maybe we should listen to them about what to buy. 

clip_image006[1]An instance of this stereotype is found with newscasters. In general, television news anchors tend to be attractive people. Here are pictures of two of them. Stone Phillips is a reporter and anchor for CBS news. Melissa Theuriau is a reporter on French television. Both of them are remarkably attractive people. Now, it’s been awhile since I’ve walked through the journalism department here at UConn, but I’m pretty sure that the average journalism student isn’t this good looking. News organizations pick anchors, in part, on their physical attractiveness, and given all the positive attributes associated with attractiveness, this isn’t a bad idea. 

clip_image008[1] The beauty stereotype raises some interesting moral questions. 

One could justifiably argue that it is wrong to give extra social capital to people because of their good looks. Somehow it seems unfair, almost discriminatory, to those of us who will never earn the name “Stone”. Still, the same argument applies to intelligence, education, organizational skills, and any other factors that society rewards. Some have more, some have less. Now, don’t get me wrong. If society rewarded only beauty, I’d be in deep, deep trouble. But, if society is inherently random in the rewards it gives—some people get them and some people don’t—how much does it matter which criteria are used?

November 26, 2007

Vying For the Latino Vote

author_cn By C.N. Le

As any demographer will tell you-- and the Census Bureau documents-- Latinos are the fastest-growing racial/ethnic group in the United States. As of July 2006, (the most recent data available) estimates suggest that approximately 44 million, or 15% of the total U.S. population, identifies as Latino.

To give you a little more perspective, the Census Bureau reports that since  1990 the Latino population has basically doubled in size. Also, projections indicate that by 2050, Latinos will number around 103 million and would comprise about one-quarter of the entire U.S. population.

But just as important as their raw population numbers is the fact that in many metropolitan areas, Latinos are now a numerical majority -- they make up at least 50% of that area’s population. As the Census Bureau documents, Latinos are a numerical majority in Miami-Dade (FL), Bexar (TX), Bronx (NY), and close to a majority in Los Angeles (CA) and San Bernadino (CA).

With that rise in population size also comes more political clout. latino1aWhen any group is the majority group within a political representation area, we can generally assume that politicians need to win that group’s support in order to get elected or re-elected.

With the upcoming presidential and congressional races of 2008, it is not surprising that both the major political parties are vying for the “Latino vote.” As New American Media reports, both parties contend that they are better at representing issues that Latinos care about:

President George W. Bush put the Latino vote in play for Republicans when he captured about 40 percent of the Latino vote in his first presidential campaign. Although that percentage dipped a bit in his 2004 re-election, Republicans saw a chance to chip away at what had been thought of as a safe Democratic base.

This year's contentious immigration reform effort pitted a Republican administration against its conservative Republican base, and appears to have given Democrats a chance for an even greater share of Latino votes.

The candidacy of New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson, the only Latino, could also drive more Latinos to the polls. Republicans haven't helped their cause by ignoring invitations to speak at conferences sponsored by major Latino organizations like the National Council of La Raza or debates organized by Univision, the country's largest Spanish-language television network.

But Republican strategist Alex Burgos believes it is wrong for Democrats to count their Latino votes so soon. “Democrats and others have long been dismissing the Republican Party's progress with Hispanic voters,” said Burgos. “The Republican Party's values of stronger families, a stronger economy, and a stronger military have great appeal to the Hispanic community as we've seen with Ronald Reagan's and President Bush's electoral successes.”

Burgos credits Reagan for putting the Latino vote into play for Republicans. Plus, he added, Democrats are overlooking the fact that millions of Latinos are latino3a small business owners who favor less government regulation and better access to overseas markets, issues that Republicans tout.

In the past 20 years, even though most Latinos still vote Democratic, more Latino voters are apparently choosing Republicans each election. However, in recent years, Republican politicians and their supporters around the country have become much more aggressive in cracking down on illegal immigration, raiding businesses that employ illegal immigrants, arresting and deporting illegal workers, and passing restrictions on public services and legal rights available to illegal immigrants.

As a result, most political observers note that the pendulum is starting to swing back toward the Democratic side, as many Latino voters are increasingly disillusioned with measures that they see as heavy-handed and punitive.

My colleague Carleen Basler at Amherst College has done in-depth research on this particular issue and provides some very interesting sociological insights on why Latino Americans (and Mexican Americans in particular) are drawn to President Bush’s authoritarian style. She also considers the general lure of symbolic Whiteness and “Americanness” that the Republican party seems to represent. At the same time, her research confirms that the Republican party’s aggressive approach to dealing with illegal immigration is costing them political support among many Latino American voters.

But is losing a large portion of the Latino vote a risk that the Republican party is willing to take in order to satisfy its core constituents of social conservatives? For now, the answer seems to be yes.

This may turn out to be a shortsighted decision, since Latinos are becoming a larger portion of the American population and the American electorate.

Republicans and Democrats need to keep this fundamental demographic and political fact in mind. They need to consider whether alienating the Latino community to achieve short-term goals is worth the potential long-term consequences.

November 22, 2007

Youth Phobia

author_karen By Karen Sternheimer 

Do you hate kids? Okay, maybe not you, but do you know someone who does? 

When I was about eight years old, I lived next door to imagean older couple who was very friendly with my parents, stopping to chat with them whenever they saw each other. The lady would occasionally make cookies for us and share the  recipe with my mother. 

So when my Girl Scout troop had its annual cookie sale, I thought they would be my first customers. My mother allowed me to go to their door by myself, since they were trusted neighbors. I rang the bell, and very clearly heard the man say, “Go away!” 

A bit confused, I stood there for a moment. Maybe he didn’t realize it was me. “Get lost, kid!” He yelled. 

And so I did. Dejected, I wondered why he would be so mean to me. What did I do wrong? 

I told my parents how he yelled at me, and apparently they mentioned it to the neighbors, because one day, the lady told me that they really didn’t like children. “We are all kidded out,” she said, trying to explain that after years of clip_image002[2]_thumb_thumb_thumbraising their own and having throngs of grandchildren (now all out of state), they just didn’t want to be near children. She said it rather politely, as I recall, making it seem almost reasonable. But it still hurt. After all, I was more than just a “child,” I was me! 

Imagine if they would have said, “no offense, but we just don’t like [insert your ethnic group here].” I suppose people do say things like that, but somehow not liking children is considered a bit more acceptable. Or at least complaining about kids is. 

There’s even a website for people to vent their anger towards young people. It features clips like this one of people explaining why they can't stand kids.



As I wrote about in my book, Kids These Days: Facts and Fictions About Today's Youth, disdain for young people is by no means new. The ancient Greek philosopher Socrates complained that kids were less obedient, more headshot 009 disrespectful and ill-mannered than in his day. In Robert and Helen Lynd’s classic 1929 study of “Middletown”, people complained about girls dressing immodestly and twelve-year-olds acting like adults. The more things change, the more we complain about kids. 

You might have experienced this yourself. Have you ever been treated as if you were a public nuisance, or had your ideas dismissed as naïve and unimportant, or just brushed aside because of your age? 

Age discrimination is an interesting thing, especially when it affects young people. Unlike racial, ethnic, or gender discrimination, people who have prejudices against kids have all been in their social position before. They have, to borrow a cliché, walked in their shoes. So much of our ideas about diversity are based on the premise that if only we can see how the “other” is really a lot like “us” we would be less likely to discriminate against them. But in the case of kids, we were all “them” once, right? 

That’s where the anger lies. Older people sometimes argue that they were never like kids are today. “Today kids are ruder, more violent, and promiscuous,” some argue. “After all,” the angry elders continue, “look at all the foul language on television. That wasn’t there before. And porn is all over the movies and the Internet, so of course kids just figure sex is like a handshake,” many reason. 

But they’re wrong. Social science data tells us that in fact kids are less violent, less promiscuous, and less likely to use drugs and alcohol than their predecessors were. 

At the same time, kids today are more likely to live in poverty. They are coming of age at a time when the gap between the richest and poorest is increasing, and costs of college are soaring. Yet many people also claim that kids are self-centered and materialistic. And when young people do try and get involved politically, they are often considered naïve or troublemakers. 

Consider the case of Brett McClafferty of Streetsboro, Ohio. At eighteen he ran for mayor, which one could interpret as a sign of interest in public service—something that his elders might commend, right? 

Not exactly. In fact, although McClafferty lost, to prevent any other young people from thinking that they should get involved, the city is trying to pass a clip_image002[3]law making the minimum age for mayor 23. 

As the Los Angeles Times reported, some of the locals felt that McClafferty wasn’t experienced enough to be mayor; one 37-year-old said that he knew that when he was eighteen he couldn’t have been mayor, so McClafferty apparently couldn’t either. Of course, in a democracy people are entitled to choose candidates that they think will best serve the public’s interest. But by focusing on some adults as a disqualifying factor raises important questions. After all, it is the youngest adults who are asked to sacrifice their lives for us during wartime. 

Another claimed that “Six months before he ran, he didn’t even know where the City Council meeting room was,” a charge that might apply to many new candidates. But being a political “outsider” is not always a bad thing. In fact, allegations of “insider” corruption motivated McClafferty to run in the first place. One official pled guilty to mail fraud and income tax charges and was MPj04074820000[1] sentenced to thirty months in prison. The former congressional representative from the district, James A. Traficant Jr., is currently in prison for racketeering and taking bribes. McClaffery told the Times, “I thought I could do better.” 

But due to the persistence of age discrimination, we might never know if young people would make better leaders than their elders. That is, until they become older themselves and rage against kids of the next generation.

November 19, 2007

Balancing Acts

author_brad By Bradley Wright

Something made me happy, and I didn’t understand why—at least until I remembered balance theory.

A friend and I are part of a group, and this group held a barbeque. Now, I didn’t want to go because I thought it would be kind of boring. My friend, however, not only went but he also organized it, and for some reason this bothered me. The next week I spoke with him about the event, and not only did he not have fun, but it turns out that he helped organize it out of obligation. When I heard this I was happy for the rest of the afternoon.


Why in the world would my friend not having fun make me happy? I don’t normally feed off of other people's misery. I didn’t have to go to the barbeque, so why should I care?

I suppose that I could be devolving into a petty, mean-spirited sociologist, but a more optimistic explanation comes from what social psychologists term balance theory. The best way to illustrate balance theory is with social situations with three elements: You (Person 1), somebody else (Person 2), and some object.

Balance is good, and it happens when Person 1 likes Person 2, and they both like some object. We can chart this out this way:


See all the good feelings? This provides balance because not only does Person 1 like Person 2, but they also agree with them about the object.

Another balanced situation would be if Person 1 did not like either Person 2 or the object, but person 2 liked the object. Here Person 1’s low esteem of Person 2 is validated by their disagreement about the object. (There are several other balanced situations… can you figure them out? They all have only one positive relationship.)


Balanced situations tend to stay rather stable because there is no overt reason to change them.

In contrast, imbalance can be bad, and it often occurs in situations where there is tension in the feelings involved. For example, say Person 1 likes Person 2 but does not like an object. Person 2, however, does like the object. This causes tension for person 1 because their good feelings toward Person 2 don’t match their disagreement about the object. Here’s how we can chart this imbalance: 


Do you see the problem? The imbalanced described here creates instability. Because of this, imbalanced situations usually don’t last too long; their tension motivates the people involved to balance the situation. 

clip_image007In the above imbalanced situation, balance could be achieved in several ways: Person 1 could decide to like the object or they could dislike Person 2 or Person 2 could dislike the object. Any one of these changes would work equally well, and usually the easiest change is made. There are three relationships described in this situation, and whichever one is weakest will probably be the one changed. 

This is what happened in my situation. I (Person 1) liked my friend (Person 2) and not the barbeque (object), but he seemed to like the barbeque. This imbalance was bothering me, and I had several choices in how to create balance. I could decide that the barbeque was a fun thing after all or that I didn’t really like my friend. I could also try to persuade my friend to dislike the barbeque.

None of these were particularly good options, so I was stuck. That is why I was happy when I found out that he actually did not enjoy the barbeque and was involved only out of obligation. This created a balanced situation :


Whew, that was a close one!

The reason that sociologists like balance theory isn’t just because it helps us to understand our friends and barbeques. It also provides an interesting idea about how we form our attitudes.

Usually people think that their attitudes toward somebody or something are their own. You feel a certain way because that’s who you are—an individualistic, psychological explanation. Certainly people have their own preferences, but in addition our attitudes and opinions are shaped by what others around us think and our desire not to be in conflict with those we like (or to be in conflict with those we don’t like).

Think about some of your attitudes. What are some of the things you like—bands? Restaurants? Styles of clothes? Sports teams? You may be proud of what you like, even use it to define yourself—wearing logos or joining different Facebook groups. Examine these attitudes and see how they fit with your friends’ (or enemies’) attitudes. I’ll bet you pretty much agree with your friends and disagree—or want to disagree—with people you don’t like.

It turns out that some of these things may simply reflect your desire to have cognitive balance. Your attitudes may reflect the attitudes of others as much as they reflect you.

November 16, 2007

What's Missing about Missing Children?

author_janis By Janis Prince Inniss

Regardless of where you live in the U.S.—or probably anywhere in North America—you are likely to recognize at least one of these names:

Danielle van Dam

Samantha Runnion

Jessica Lunsford

These are girls who we learned were missing because of widespread media coverage. Apart from the sadness I feel upon  clip_image004learning about any of these cases, I am struck by their similarities: they are almost always girls, and always white, as is the missing character in the recently released film Gone Baby Gone

I can’t think of one missing minority child or young white boy whose story I know as well as any of these missing little white girls. Based on what is presented in the media (television, radio, newspapers, Internet, magazines, movies, CDCs, DVDs), it appears that young white girls are regularly abducted by strangers and that children of color and white boys are almost never missing. 

Does this misinformation about missing children contribute to a culture of fear – the creation or stoking of public anxiety by the manipulation of information? In an effort to learn more missing children, I looked at data from the Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention.

Data released in 2002 indicate that in 1999, an estimated 1,315,600 children (under age 18 years old) were missing, but less than 1 percent remained missing. What are the characteristics of missing children? More than three-quarters (76 percent) of all missing children are older than 12 years: 45 percentclip_image010 are 15 to 17 and 31 percent are 12 to 14. Although 57 percent of missing children are boys, statistically, they are not over-represented among missing children. 

The majority (57 percent) of missing children are white; however, one-third (34 percent) of the parents experiencing the anguish of having a missing child are parents of African American/Black and Hispanic children. 

Almost half (48 percent) of all missing children are runaways/thrownaways (kids kicked out of their homes)—and most (68 percent) of these are 15-17 year olds. Fifty-seven percent of the
group is white, with equal numbers of boys and
girls represented.

The second largest group of missing children has a benign explanation; 28 percent of children are thought to be missing because of miscommunications between children and their parents. Combined, runaways/thrownaways and the benign explanation group total 84 percent of missing children. (This estimate counts each child only once, although some children had more than one episode). 

Table 1.

Characteristics of Nonfamily Abducted Children

1Estimate is unreliable as it is based on too few samples.

Child Characteristic


Nonfamily Abduction Victims


Stereotypical Kidnapping Victims





Age (years)

































Table 1 details kidnappings and abductions, which of course get the most media attention. An overwhelming majority of victims of both nonfamily abductions and “stereotypical” kidnappings (the kind we hear so much about on the news) are children over the age of 12.

Of non-family abduction victims, 81 percent are older than 12, with the majority (59 percent) between 15 and 17. Similarly, more than half (58 percent) of the victims of stereotypical kidnappings are older than 12, with 20 percent of these between ages 15 and 17. 

White children account for about one third (35 percent) of non-family abductions, while black children seem to be over-represented among this group; the estimate for black children, however, is based on too few cases to be reliable. White children were the majority (72 percent) of the stereotypical kidnapping victims; 19 percent were black. Girls of all races are more likely victims of both non-family abductions and stereotypical kidnappings than boys (65 percent and 69 percent respectively) and teenage girls in particular are targeted; sexual assault is often the motive for non-family abductions. 

Note that the total number of stereotypical kidnappings was 115. That’s 115 more kidnappings than a civilized society should tolerate, but this number does not suggest that there is the epidemic one might think there is from watching mass media coverage of such stories.

In the rare event that a child is abducted, he or she is far more likely to be taken by family or acquaintances than by a stranger; only 3 percent of missing children are abducted by strangers, yet this is the scenario that receives widespread attention. Although the news coverage suggests otherwise, when the perpetrator of abduction is not a family member, 99 percent of children are returned alive, within 24 hours, and even in these cases the perpetrator in more than half of the cases is someone known to the child.

In some ways, the widely covered case of 15-year-old Elizabeth Smart, who was found alive, is more “typical” than most; and the recent spotlight coverage on the coming of home of teenage boys, Ben Ownby and Shawn Hornbeck serve as contrasts to what we typically see in the news.

Many stories about missing children feature young girls, despite the fact that more than three-quarters of all missing children are at least 12 years old. Based on what we know about missing children, you would think that mass media stories would focus more on older children, more on boys, and more on African American and Hispanic children. Why don’t they? Perhaps because the media assumes that audiences are not as clip_image014sympathetic to these groups. 

We must recognize that family and acquaintances are more likely to be responsible for kidnappings than strangers, and that these are rare events. Undoubtedly, for those who have ever had a missing child, the fact that they have experienced an unlikely event is cold comfort, but this is indeed the reality. Why do you think we focus on the rarest of cases, and ignore the plight of other children when they go missing?

November 13, 2007

Are You Lazy...or Just Thinking Things Over?

author_sally By Sally Raskoff 

Have you ever heard the phrase, if you want something done, give it to a busy person?

I’ve often wondered why some people do most of the work and others don’t seem to do much. I’ve noticed this at work, in classes, and even in volunteer activities. If you’ve ever worked on a group project, you know exactly what I mean.

Sociologically speaking, there are a number of dynamics that can help explain this particular phenomenon. 

First, it may be that busy people base their self worth on their work. Many people are gratified when they are in charge or responsible for a variety of tasks. But others’ perceptions of them may not be so positive. Some of those less busy people may think that this busy person is not willing to share responsibilities. This may result in preventing those less busy people from offering to help—or even agreeing to help if asked. 

Second, when work is distributed via social cliques or informal social networks; a person’s power within that clique or network might determine who gets to lead. In organizational studies, this is called “homosocial reproduction”, one of my favorite sociological terms. Homosocial reproduction takes place when those in an organization hire and promote those similar to themselves. It explains the need for policies and programs like Affirmative Action since most people, especially those in power, seek to "reproduce" themselves when hiring or promoting workers. 

The downside of having a clique of people responsible for most of the tasks, whether in class or at work, is that it can prevent others from taking responsibility. Those outside that network will be alienated from that group and may give up on participating.

Third, just the perception of a social clique may be enough to alienate those who are outside that group. If a clique doesn’t really exist but the outsiders assume it does, when the “busy” people ask the others to participate, they will be puzzled and sometimes angered. 

Fourth, some people decide to become “free riders”. Those without responsibility will look at those busy people scurrying around and may think (or say), why bother to help since they are doing the work? You see this happen in class group projects-- someone may jump to spearhead the project and assign tasks to others but some members of the group sit back and don’t participate. The more they don’t participate, the more work the “leader” takes on, thus reinforcing the whole cycle: The ”free riders” do even less while the leader does even more to compensate.

But what if the whole situation—that some do much more work than others—is an inaccurate assessment? 

Many jobs involve a lot of thinking time, so someone who is just sitting and looking out a window may not appear busy but they may actually be working hard on some task. For example, while working on my dissertation, I spent a lot of time at the library, sitting, reading, and thinking about the nature, structure, and writing of my research. I did this at the library for the most part because when my family and friends saw me doing this, they thought I was doing ”nothing” so they felt free to interrupt me. 

When you are reading your textbook or thinking about your homework or papers, does this happen to you? If so, it’s important to clarify that you are actually working.

There are more sociological explanations of why “busy” people are so busy and why others don’t seem to be as busy. I’ll leave it to you to do some research on this. (Please post your findings as a response to this blog!)

When any of these dynamics exist, there may be hurt feelings all around, especially when group members aren’t communicating with each other. Gender and cultural norms may exacerbate the situation; for instance, some men may believe that in a female-dominated group they should take charge.

In my research on volunteering, one of the most consistent findings is that people are more likely to agree to volunteer when they are asked personally. Perhaps knowing this, along with recognizing the need for effective communication skills, can help remedy problems when some people seem to work harder than others.

November 10, 2007

Consuming Happiness

author_karenBy Karen Sternheimer

What makes you happy? Do you think having more money, getting a fancy new car, or finding the perfect mate will do it?

It turns out, many of the things we focus on as sources of happiness really don’t leave us satisfied for very long.


A few years back, economist Richard Easterlin’s paper, "The Economics of Happiness," garnered national attention for its rather interesting findings. It seems that some of the things we think will make us happy actually have little effect on our sense of well-being.

You are no doubt familiar with the cliché that “money can’t buy happiness.” Yet so many of us presume that if we just had a little more money (according to Easterlin’s research, 20% more) we would be happier. Maybe we could buy more, pay off some bills, and feel less stressed about money.

But Easterlin found that this just isn’t the case. In fact, he says many of us buy into the “money illusion”, which guides how we spend our time as we focus on trying to get more money. Of course, this is a very American pursuit: our capitalist economy is based on the constant striving for more. 

I may recognize this, but I certainly am guilty of the money illusion myself. Wouldn’t winning the lottery make me happy? (I plan on getting a ticket tonight, although as someone who occasionally teaches statistics I know it is a long shot—or a tax on the “mathematically illiterate”, as a bumper sticker once reminded me). Getting a check in the mail is always exciting, but the thrill is typically short-lived. I can say this, though: not having enough money for basic survival can certainly create unhappiness.

What we fail to realize, Easterlin says, is that as our incomes rise, so does our spending. Plus, when we move up economically, we compare ourselves to a whole new group of people, who probably have way more money than we do. And since we invest so much energy into making more money, Easterlin argues that we shortchange things that do bring happiness: health and family.

Or do they? A recent British survey found that nearly one in four respondents regretted clip_image004marrying their spouse. Harvard psychologist Dan Gilbert, author of Stumbling on Happiness, argues that married couples become less satisfied with marriage over time. He also suggests that clip_image006having children really doesn't make people happy on a day-to-day basis. Perhaps in the long run they do, and of course this doesn’t mean people don’t love their children. But having kids isn’t necessarily associated with being happy.

According to other studies, discussed in a recent New York Times article, women report being less happy than they did in the past. This is the case whether they are married or not, stay home with their children or work in the paid labor force full-time. (Interestingly, the only exception is within African-American women, who report being happier. The only explanation the authors offer is that gains from the civil rights movement have increased quality of life for both black women and men). 

According to a paper by Betsey Stevenson and Justin Wolfers, both of the Wharton School of Business at the University of Pennsylvania:

By many measures the progress of women over recent decades has been extraordinary: the gender wage gap has closed; educational attainment has risen and is surpassing that of men in recent cohorts; women have gained an unprecedented level of control over fertility; technological change in the form of new domestic appliances has freed women from domestic drudgery; and women’s freedoms within both the family and market sphere have expanded.

All of these changes are very positive. Yet the reality remains that women are still largely responsible for caring for children and clip_image008family, and for most household chores as well. As economist Alan B. Krueger of Princeton found, while men are reducing their time spent in work-related activities, women are increasing theirs. 

In order to break through that glass ceiling of success at work, many women feel pressure to demonstrate their commitment to their careers by devoting more and more time to them. Plus, things like BlackBerrys enable us to be constantly plugged into the office, even when we are with family, presumably taking care of things there.

Happiness may seem very complicated at this point. If the things we often think will make us happy don’t, and if what we are often encouraged to strive for--like being in a relationship, getting married, having kids, and making lots of money--aren’t guaranteed to bring happiness, what does?

We might believe that external events, accomplishments, and other people will bring happiness to ourclip_image010 lives, like a package that arrives on your doorstep. Of course we are encouraged to keep thinking this, so we continue to buy things and keep our consumer-based economy going. (Isn’t it odd that so much of the research on happiness has been done by economists?)

You might have heard of the book Don’t Sweat the Small Stuff; if you ask me, happiness is taking delight in the small stuff and counting our blessings. With apologies to the Declaration of Independence, happiness isn’t something you pursue. Just as Dorothy from The Wizard of Oz learned in her pursuit of things to help her find her way home, it’s within us all along. We just need to stop looking outside of ourselves long enough to find it.

November 08, 2007

Grocery Shopping, Ordering Whoppers, and Borat

author_brad By Bradley Wright

Every once in awhile sociologists go bad—but for a good purpose. We call it a “breaching experiment.”

There are some things in life that everyone knows are wrong, such as murder, arson, robbery, etc… (Well, just about everyone. There are a few exceptions who we call psychopaths). Society outlaws these activities and pays people to enforce these laws.

There are a lot of other things, however, that society considers wrong but are not officially illegal (though they can get you into trouble). Defining these wrong things are countless unwritten rules about what we should and shouldn’t do in everyday life, and violating these rules might get us laughed at or punched in the nose. These unwritten rules are social norms, and they guide just about every possible activity a human being can do.

Unwritten rules guide every social situation. For example, let’s take a simple behavior—a student walking into class. What are you supposed to do? Enter somewhat quietly, maybe talk with someone else. Keep a relatively neutral look on your face. Walk to your seat, keeping a mostly even pace, and sit down.

There are a lot of things that you should not do. You shouldn’t run as fast as you can, skip like a little kid on the playground, walk backwards, or crawl (unless you’re begging for something from the professor).

You shouldn’t yell at people across the room, bark like dog, or pretend to be a train steaming down the track. You shouldn’t stick your tongue out at the professor, sob loudly, or have a maniacal “I’m an axe murderer” grin on your face. If you violate these rules, you’ll probably get laughed at.clip_image002

At this point you’re probably thinking “duh”—you already know all these rules and you’re beginning to wonder why sociologists get paid to spell out the obvious. (We sometimes wonder the same thing ourselves). The fact that you already know these rules is an important point. Society trains people (via parents and teachers and friends and strangers on the street) to do the “right” thing in every situation so that not long past our toddler days we’re all walking encyclopedias of the rules of every day life. Do you think the rules of hockey are complicated? The laws of quantum mechanics? They are nothing compared to everyday social situations.

Now, let’s have some fun. An easy way to demonstrate the prevalence and power of social norms is to do a “breaching” experiment in which you intentionally break social norms and see how strongly people react. (This methodology was developed by Harold Garfinkel in the 1960s and 70s.)

A classic “breaching” experiment involved shopping. Researchers would go to a grocery store, and then instead of pulling the items off the shelf, they would pull them out of other people’s carts. When other shoppers noticed this behavior, they would expect the researcher to say something like “oh, I thought that was my cart,” but instead the researcher just explained that it was easier to reach the items in the other person’s cart. While grocery stores do not post signs forbidding this behavior, it clearly violated the unwritten rules of shopping and the shoppers reacted with anger.

In another experiment, the researcher would go into McDonalds, step up to the counter, and order a Whopper (the hamburger made by McDonalds’ rival Burger King). The clerk behind the register would explain that it’s McDonalds, and then the researcher would again order a Whopper. At this point the clerk would look around to see if anyone else heard this breach, and they would start trying to figure out what was happening. Maybe the customer was joking? Maybe they were deluded? Either way, it was breaking norms.


Have you seen the movie Borat: Cultural Learnings of America for Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan? In addition to being side-splittingly funny (and rather gross), it is one, long breaching experiment. The character Borat is from Kazakhstan, and he travels around the United States pretending that he doesn’t know our social norms, and he breaks many of them. In one scene he walks the streets of New York City and starts talking to strangers. Some of the strangers get so unnerved that they literally run away from him. Then—as passersby gasp in horror--he squats down in the bushes in front of Trump Tower to go to the bathroom.

What’s the take home message of this line of research? Norms are as much a part of social life as air and water are of physical life—they are everywhere, and we can’t live without them.

In fact, I can’t think of any social behavior that is not guided by norms. Can you? That’s why there will always be room for sociologists and our breaching experiments.

November 04, 2007

Don't Be Sick in a Hospital!

author_janis By Janis Prince Inniss

When my mother was diagnosed with cancer, I reeled for a moment and then took her lead and focused on her healing. My husband and I invited her to stay with us after the surgery to remove the malignant tumor. A relative reminded me that attempting to do all of the care taking myself would be emotionally and physically costly, so I got information about the kinds of assistance available and the attendant costs. I was ready! 

I thought that while she was in the hospital, I would visit Mum and that would be the ”easy part”—for me. When she came clip_image002home, I would hire an aide to care for her while I went to work and we would excitedly share our days when I came home: She would tell me about the progress she had made, and I would tell her about the world “out there”. 

Clearly, I was operating under the impression that the primary role of the sick person is to be taken care of and get well. Sociologist Talcott Parsons defined the sick person’s role this way: 

1. Sick people are absolved of blame for their illness. 

2. Sick people are excused from “normal” social responsibilities, for example, being responsible for their own care. 

3. Under the direction of medical personnel, the sick person does her part to regain her health (following recommendations regarding diet, exercise, and medications, for example).

clip_image003The staff at the hospital where my mother’s surgery was performed must not have read Parsons, though. Many did not behave as though they were responsible for her care. The experiences my mother and I had at the hospital showed me that some people rigidly adhere to their defined roles no matter what the circumstances and others do not. It also suggested that some people who work regularly with the sick forget that the role of the sick person is to be taken care of and to get better.

The first sign of trouble was apparent the day I went to visit Mum after surgery. After my initial alarm at being told that she would be in the Intensive Care Unit (ICU) for her first night, I took solace in her surgeon’s words that she would have better care there because the nurse to patient ratio was about 1:1—much better than the 8:1 ration on the regular nursing floors. 

I introduced myself to the nurse taking care of Mum, and we exchanged telephone numbers. I called at 4 a.m., 7 a.m., 8:30 a.m., 8:40 a.m. and then at 10 a.m. Thankful that she was “doing fine” each time, and comforted by the knowledge that she was receiving individualized care, I used the opportunity to get some much needed rest. When I bounded into Mum’s room at about noon clip_image005to find her lips chapped and to learn from her that she had watched the clock for the four hours between 2 and 6 a.m. wishing for a drop of water, I was devastated. She had tried to call for assistance but with a Nasogastric tube down her throat, an oxygen tube in her nose, and just being out of surgery, her voice was faint. 

She had no idea that there was a button on her bed to summon the nurse. Quickly, I got her some ice chips and felt better when her new nurse came in and was particularly attentive. Maybe Mum was mistaken about how long she was awake without the nurse checking on her…but what explained her chapped lips? 

I tried not to worry about Mum’s move to the nursing floor. I reasoned that she would be stronger, and that because I would show her how to summon help, she would be fine. Indeed, I showed her the controls that would raise and lower her bed, control her lights and television, and call a nurse. 

But calling a nurse did not produce one. Mum’s surgeon told her that she should walk two or three times each day, but she was too weak to walk by herself. In her two week hospital stay, with only two exceptions, if I did not take her for a walk she remained in bed—or sitting in a chair. (While sitting up was important, sometimes she would be stuck in the chair, wanting to go back to bed but unable to get someone to help her do so). 

If I did not ask for her to be given a sponge bath each day, it did not happen. On her first day on the floor, upon my request she was given a cup of ice; her nurse pointed out the cup with ice to Mum—on a side table completely out of Mum’s reach! If I did not replenish her ice chips—the only thing she could have for more than a week—she would have none. 

clip_image007When my mother could get up to go the bathroom, she was told to call the nurse before doing so because she was still receiving intravenous (IV) therapy and was connected to a pole. Her chart also indicated that she was considered a “fall risk”. (And by this time she had not eaten solid food for more than 12 days!) That evening she called her nurse three times in about 30 minutes, but no one responded. Desperate, she went by herself to the bathroom and fortunately did not fall. Another evening she waited for almost two hours for anti-nausea medicine to be administered.

clip_image009The nursing shortage in the U.S. is well documented and surely accounts for some of my mother’s experiences. However, the rare nurses and other caregivers who were responsive are examples of what is possible, despite system-wide failures and problems. (Mum was stunned to learn that one particularly attentive woman was a nurse and not a “tech” because of the amount of time she spent with her and because she performed such low skill tasks as walking and bathing her.) 

We learned that the various caregivers had very specific roles: nurses administer medications, technicians bathe patients and change linens, and aides check vital signs. Asking any of them to step out of their assigned role was usually an exercise in futility—they experienced no role confusion. 

Although I thought that my role would be that of hospital visitor (I would sit and chat with Mum, clip_image011bring her flowers, catch up on some writing), I assumed a caregiver role so that I could respond to her unmet needs. Since the hospital staff did not respond to her requests for assistance, mum was forced to give up her “sick role” (as defined by Parsons) and try to take care of herself. Perhaps care is one of the casualties of our over-burdened health care system; the “sick role” may soon become a luxury few will be able to take on, even temporarily. Is the “sick role” headed for extinction?

November 01, 2007

Using Religion to Unite Racial Groups

author_cn  By C.N. Le

In my previous post,“The Downside of Diversity?” I wrote about a new study by a Harvard professor that concluded that in areas with high levels of racial/ethnic diversity, residents are more likely to feel alienated and distrustful of each other. I wrote that these findings directly challenge a long-standing and widely-accepted notion among liberals -- that diversity is a positive thing for American society.

As the New York Times reports, in many communities around the country recent influxes of new immigrants have led to increased racial, ethnic, and cultural diversity in their towns and cities--and also in their churches. In contrast to the findings I described above, these demographic and social developments have actually strengthened the social bonds between church members:

The Clarkston International Bible Church, which sits along an active freight rail line down the road from the former Ku Klux Klan bastion of Stone Mountain, is now home to parishioners from more than 15 countries. . . The church’s Sunday potluck lunch features African stews and Asian vegetable dishes alongside hot dogs, sweet tea and homemade cherry pie.

The transformation of what was long known as the Clarkston Baptist Church speaks  to a broader change among other American churches. Many evangelical Christians who have long believed in spreading their religion in faraway lands have found that immigrants offer an opportunity for church work within one’s own community. And many immigrants and refugees are drawn by the warm welcome they get from the parishioners, which can stand in stark contrast to the more competitive and alienating nature of working in America.

Indeed, evangelical churches have begun to stand out as rare centers of ethnic mixing in a country that researchers say has become more culturally fragmented, in part because of immigration.

The article argues that the transition to a multi-ethnic and multicultural church was not an easy one. As their town was experiencing these profound demographic changes, many old-time white residents became appalled and convinced that “their town” was being “taken over,” and many decided to religion6move elsewhere rather than live near immigrants and people of color.

Nonetheless, other long-time residents turned to the Bible for guidance on how to deal with these social changes and found the answer in Jesus’s example of praying for unity among his followers. As a result, the church described in the article decided to rent out its facilities to Filipino, Vietnamese, and African groups for their own services. Eventually, the church invited these separate congregations to join them to form an expanded and inclusive congregation.

All groups involved had to change a little: “Merging congregations has meant compromise for everyone. The immigrants who join the main congregation have to give up worshiping in their native languages. Older Southern Baptist parishioners have given up traditional hymns and organ music.”

In so many ways, this story about the evolution of the Clarkston International  Bible Church is a great example of sociology at work. The first lesson is that globalization and demographic change are practical realities of American society. With that in mind, “traditionalists” can keep running away and moving from town to town if they like, but eventually they will have to deal with these changes one way or another.

Alternatively, as people can follow the example of Clarkston church member William Perrin, the former navy pilot who swore never to use derogatory racial terms ever again. Rather than avoid the issue and such social changes, they can summon up the courage to consciously adapt and learn to even embrace change. These kinds of challenges make us stronger and more united as a community and as a society.

A third lesson we might learn from this story is the positive power of religion to facilitate social unity and solidarity. Some Americans (particularly many religion8aacademics) are rather skeptical and even hostile towards organized religion. In many cases, they see religion as a divisive force that only serves to perpetuate “us versus them” mentalities.

These critics of religion sometimes have a valid point. There are plenty of examples of fundamentalist expressions of fanaticism from virtually all of the major religions of the world. Nonetheless, as this article illustrates, not all aspects of organized religion are divisive and in fact, as the Clarkston example shows, religion can serve as a powerful and effective focal point that can bring together people from diverse backgrounds.

When used in conjunction with compassion, a willingness to evolve, and inclusion, religion can have many positive powers that go beyond simple faith and spirituality. In fact, religion can meet many practical needs and foster positive responses to a variety of changes -- organizational, economic, and demographic.

The final sociological lesson is that rather than leading to more alienation and distrust as some studies suggest, racial, ethnic, and cultural diversity -- with the help of some kind of “social glue” like religion -- can indeed offer us the opportunity to become better American citizens.

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