10 posts from December 2007

December 30, 2007

What Makes a Real Parent?

By Janis Prince Inniss

C:\Documents and Settings\OrinA\My Documents\My Pictures\Microsoft Clip Organizer\j0116036.wmfThe stepmothers in popular children’s stories Cinderella, Hansel and Gretel, and Snow White were wicked enough to make “evil“ and “stepmother” seem naturally linked. When I married a man who had custody of his two children, I became a stepmother but did not morph into pure evil. But did I become a parent? 

What makes a real parent? The answer may seem clear to you if you were raised by your (biological) parents. However, the U.S. Census Bureau’s records (4.4 million stepchildren in the U.S. in 2000) would suggest that it’s likely that many of you were at least partially raised by a stepparent. Who parented you? 

Over the years, people have asked me when I am going to have children, even when they are aware that I’m a stepparent. By this, they mean, give birth to children or as they sometimes ask, “When are you going to have your own children?” 

It’s a question that has led me to wonder how my life would differ if I parented children I birthed, rather than gained by marriage. Good parenting, from my experience, observation, and study, is in large measure service to one’s children—serving their needs, sometimes at the expense of your own. And since, alongside my husband, I have been doing this to the best of my abilities, what would be different when I gave birth to my “own children”?

Being a stepparent is a tough job, requiring heart, soul and mind, but we are not always recognized as parents. Parenting, particularly great parenting, is not universally recognized as the demanding job that it is, but at least biological parents are recognized as parents, often regardless of how they parent. This is not the case for stepparents, however. Although the word “stepparent” includes “parent”, it does not convey many of the essential qualities of parenthood. Upon learning that I have two stepchildren, people typically assume that they are occasional weekend visitors to our home. In fact, we all lived together, at least initially, and the children visited their biological mother’s home every other weekend, so they spent at least 85 percent of their time with my husband and me. 

In that time I reviewed homework, provided counsel on a variety of subjects, read bedtime stories, cooked tasty, nutritious, varied meals with youth appeal, corrected C:\Documents and Settings\jprince\My Documents\My Pictures\Microsoft Clip Organizer\AG00424_.gifgrammar, dreamt up projects to capture the interests of a teenage boy, taught both children how to use a number C:\Documents and Settings\jprince\My Documents\My Pictures\Microsoft Clip Organizer\j0424397.jpgof computer programs, darned torn clothing, watched television programs I would ordinarily abhor, cheered participation in just about every sport, including football (although I neither understand or enjoy the sport), repeatedly watched the movie Annie, and sewed curtains that matched the whims of a little girl. You get the picture.

So-called “traditional families” are based on marriage and biology, and the law and public attitudes have reflected this belief. But when stepparents (and other non-biologically related people) parent, what legal and social rights and responsibilities should they have? If my husband and I were to divorce when the children are still minors, what legal claim should I have had to visit them or to gain custody of them? As far as I know, only 18 states recognize de facto parents (someone who acts as an actual parent) and my state of residence, Florida, is not one of them. Although not a stepparent case, one recent ruling from the Washington State Supreme Court addresses the title question:

In 1989, after dating for several months, Page Britain and

Sue Ellen ("Mian") Carvin began living together as intimates. Five years

later, they decided to add a child to their relationship and together

artificially inseminated Britain with semen donated by a male friend. On

May 10, 1995, Britain gave birth to a baby girl, L.B., and the partners

began actively coparenting her, both taking a committed, active, and loving

role in her nurturing and upbringing. Then, when L.B. was six years old,

Britain and Carvin ended their relationship and an acrimonious spate of

litigation over access to L.B. ensued.

Washington’s highest court ruled that Carvin, the non-biological parent was a “de facto parent”.

(T)he court held that a common law claim of de facto or psychological parentage exists in Washington separate and distinct from the parameters of the UPA (Uniform Parentage Act) and that such a claim is not an unconstitutional infringement on the parental rights of fit biological parents. Id. at 485. The Court of Appeals held that a de facto parent may prove the existence of a parent-child relationship by presenting evidence sufficient to prove: 

(1) the natural or legal parent consented to and fostered the parent-like relationship; (2) the petitioner and the child lived together in the same household; (3) the petitioner assumed obligations of parenthood without expectation of financial compensation; and (4) the petitioner has been in a parental role for a length of time sufficient to have established with the child a bonded, dependent relationship parental in nature.

Further, the U.S. Supreme Court refused to take up the case and block Carvin from seeking parental rights. Lawyers for the girl’s biological mother commented that this decision “pave(s) the way for children to have an unlimited and ever-changing number of parents.” Given that biological parents can have an unlimited and ever-changing number of partners and spouses some of whom parent, in that context, I guess the attorneys express a valid concern.

So what makes a real parent? For men, is donating sperm sufficient? In other words, is the biological contribution of sperm sufficient for a boy or man to be a parent, regardless of his role in the life of the resulting child? And does giving birth make a girl or woman a parent, regardless of whether she has parented the child? Not contributing DNA does not absolve stepparents—particularly those whose stepchildren live with them—of the demands that children make on resources such as love, attention, time, and money. I remember attending Parent Involvement Week and being introduced by the then nine-year old girl’s teacher to C:\Documents and Settings\OrinA\My Documents\My Pictures\Microsoft Clip Organizer\j0422732.jpgthe class as her Mom. Then there is the night that I attended a special performance by the same tyke. Her father was in class, her brother had no interest in her choice of activity, and her mother was unavailable. I was the girl’s sole cheer-leader. At the end of the group’s spirited performance, the gymnastics coach approached me beaming. “You’re her Mom!” she gushed. 

Due to my involvement with her, both the teacher and the coach saw me as the girl’s parent. Over the years, most teachers have chosen to continue referring to me as Mom (no step) or a parent (no step) even after learning that I am a stepparent. Their intention seems to be to say, “I see your role in this child’s life and step-parenting is not what I see you do. Parenting is what I see you do.”

December 27, 2007

Big Plans for Little Saigons

author_cn By C.N. Le

The Vietnamese-American community is one of the fastest-growing Asian ethnic groups in the U.S. Many scholars would also say that because of their refugee experiences and their relatively recent arrival, Vietnamese Americans also have one of the highest levels of ethnic solidarity of all Asian groups.

Much of their social cohesion centers on the ethnic enclaves in the metropolitan areas with the largest Vietnamese American populations: Orange County and San Jose. Both of these communities are examples of the “new generation” of Asian ethnic enclaves that I wrote about earlier -- spread out, suburban, and affluent, as opposed to the more traditional Asian enclaves that most Americans are used to seeing -- urban, crowded, and working-class.

Nonetheless, as articles from the Los Angeles Times and San Jose Mercury News suggest, even as they continue to grow, both these Vietnamese American enclaves are poised for some upcoming changes: the one in Orange County is debating plans to add New York City-style high rises,and the San Jose enclave has adopted a controversial official name.

As for the Orange County Little Saigon:

Imagine what would happen if New York City-style development came to the little-saigon-2a heart of Orange County's Little Saigon, now a jumble of mom-and-pop shops in mostly old strip malls. Lofts would sit atop high-end stores. People would lounge at outdoor restaurants and sidewalk cafes. The area would have hotels and a sculpture garden.

The street where newspaper and television stations are headquartered would become the "Vietnamese American Times Square," complete with plasma screens and electronic headline news signs. That's the ambitious vision put forth by a group of land-use experts to transform the area, home to the largest  concentration of Vietnamese Americans in the country. Little Saigon has not lived up to its potential as a tourist spot, the group says, and it's going to take a lot of money, cooperation and faith to make it one.

Community leaders have long worried that the three square miles that make up the district would slowly decline as the second and third generations of Vietnamese families moved away.

San Jose's Vietnamese American enclave is also undergoing changes:

In a dynamic and dramatic scene before one of the largest crowds to ever gather at City Hall, the San Jose City Council on Tuesday designated a busy hub of Vietnamese-owned businesses "Saigon Business District," enraging several hundred people who stormed City Hall demanding the name "Little Saigon."

Throughout the night, the boisterous crowd of mostly "Little Saigon" supporters shouted and booed, forcing Mayor Chuck Reed to repeatedly tell the crowd to "calm down, calm, down," and council members to defend colleague Madison Nguyen, who initially proposed the name change. madison-nguyen-ucsc-2

Nguyen, the first Vietnamese woman elected to office in California, proposed the name "Saigon Business District" as a compromise, she said, for dueling factions in the Vietnamese community who wanted either Little Saigon or New Saigon, but Nguyen's proposal infuriated many of her constituents. "We will not forget those who break our hearts and we will remember those who honor the Vietnamese-American community," said Van Le, a "Little Saigon" supporter.

Nguyen said the area should have its own identity, separate from other Little Saigons. And business owners prefer that the name have "business district" in it. Both the Story Road Business Association and the San Jose Hispanic Chamber of Commerce, oppose the name “Little Saigon”, as both groups have members in the area.

As you can see, there are certainly elements of controversy regarding both of these proposed changes, as different sides tout their own vision of what their community should look like and what it should be called.

As a Vietnamese American myself, I know better than to choose sides in either debate at this point. For now, as a sociologist, I will point out that issues surrounding land use actually play a very vital part in terms of maintaining social solidarity among a particular cultural group. In other words, for any group to maintain cohesion, it helps to have a physical space that can serve as a central focal point.

Within this physical space, concrete mechanisms help maintain ethnic identity -- social organizations, churches, political offices, businesses, residences, an official name, and so forth. These elements form the basis for any strong ethnic enclave, including and the "Little Saigons" in Orange County and San Jose.

Ethnic enclaves are even more important to in a refugee group such as Vietnamese Americans. Their original homeland was taken away from them by the communists at the end of the Viet Nam War, so the physical spaces of these ethnic enclaves serve as a "temporary" (in the eyes of some Vietnamese refugees) or even a more permanent replacement for their original homeland.

It’s easy to see, then, that when there are proposals to change any material aspect of these enclaves, the nature and strength of the existing ethnic solidarity there is at risk of changing too.

That is why you already see a lot of contention surrounding the different questions in each of these Vietnamese American ethnic enclaves -- not only is the nature of their physical space subjected to change, but so too is the fundamental nature of their ethnic identity.

December 24, 2007

Dazed and Consumed

author_karen By Karen Sternheimer

You might have noticed that the news the day after Thanksgiving is almost always the same: people waiting in line all night to get into stores, and then pushing in a feeding frenzy when the stores open. Not exactly about giving thanks…or the supposed spirit of the holiday season (Peace on Earth?).

No, but the holiday shopping season is perhaps the most quintessentially American aspect of celebration. Our custom has grown into gorging ourselves on food one day and buying a lot of stuff the next. Those of us who do neither are often looked upon with confusion, as I was after I told people who asked that I had a normal-sized dinner on Thanksgiving and stayed home the next clip_image002day.

On “Black Friday” (so-called because retailers hope to get in “the black,” or make a profit), shopping becomes competitive, even ruthless, in order to get as many bargains before someone else takes them. (Forget the pilgrims and Native Americans sharing a feast; think Ayn Rand instead).

I went shopping the day after Thanksgiving exactly once in my life, and it was extremely unpleasant. We had a long search for a parking spot, then once in the mall were part of a sea of humanity that barely moved. I found it very stressful, and I can’t be the only one who did. I am always perplexed when somebody asks me if I have gotten all my shopping done with the same complaining tone you might expect if they asked whether I had filed my income tax returns.

Shopping is a tricky thing: on the one hand, it can be fun—we might get stuff that we really like that (momentarily) makes us feel good. We might even succeed at choosing the right gift for someone else that they also enjoy (or at least claim to enjoy). 

But lots of us Americans have the tendency to overdo it. The average American household has more than $8,000 in consumer debt, much of it from holiday shopping. As the Los Angeles Times reported, one nineteen-year-old who had just purchased a plasma TV for his father knew he couldn't really afford it. “I’ll be making monthly payments on my credit card until this time next year. But it’s the holidays. You do what you have to.”

That’s just it. So many of us think we “have to” that it belies the notion of giving (which, in theory, is voluntary). Have you ever thought about why buying stuff for people has almost become a requirement? 

Consumers are vital to the American economy; if we stopped buying things that we can’t afford, the economy would be in serious trouble. Think about it: forecasters sound the alarm when our purchasing rate is only slightly higher than the year before, even if the last year was a very profitable one! Capitalism is all about growth though, and slow growth or no growth is hardly acceptable.

But we’re not entirely pawns of big business either, so it would be wrong to say that we are just lemmings that do what everyone else does. As a college professor waiting in a pre-dawn line with his son to enter an electronics store told the Los Angeles Times, "No one's waiting here out of necessity. It's all supplemental to their lives. It's just fun because it's kind of like a cult and a bonding opportunity."

The problem starts when we want to “join” a community of consumption so badly that we make decisions that are not in our best interests--like taking on a large amount of consumer debt, for instance. The “bargains” lose their value if it takes a year to pay for them at a 19% interest rate. But the economic engine keeps humming this way.

One of the biggest purchases most people ever make, a home, is also one of the best ways to achieve status and literally become part of a community. It seems okay for people buy well beyond their means, until they can’t pay their mortgage. And if a lot of people can’t pay their credit card bills or the monthly mortgage (a reasonable predictable outcome when people buy things they can’t afford), it can seriously hurt the economy, as it has recently. So over consumption isn’t always a good thing for American corporations.

Opting out of the lure of consumption is a possibility…but there are often social pressures that make this a challenge. Having new stuff is very tempting, especially if other people seem to be enjoying their new gadgets that you don’t have. It’s also hard not to buy gifts for who buy them for you, lest you seem cheap or a “scrooge.”

And most importantly, much of our day-to-day existence requires us to buy things, like food, gas, clothes, and other essentials. But most of us buy way more than we actually need. That’s why Buy Nothing Day proponents and "downshifting," (buying only the bare essentials), have appealed to some people. Others even "dumpster dive," or find food and discarded items in the trash.

These kinds of groups are often vilified as part of radical fringe element; going through other peoples’ trash seems unappealing to a lot of people (particularly the aromatically sensitive among us). But marginalizing these groups has less to do with sifting through slimy garbage and more with the threat their ideas pose to the consumer marketplace. Maybe we won’t all go through the garbage or stop shopping, but even thinking about consuming less spells trouble for our buy-more-than-we-need economy.

I’m certainly not beyond the lure of shopping and consuming. I can get excited about new things just as much as anyone else (especially if I think I got a bargain). But the thrill wears off pretty quickly.

clip_image004Some people have suggested that we re-evaluate the way in which consumption has taken over holidays like Christmas and Hanukkah. Christmas wasn’t a federal holiday until 1870; the ultra-observant Puritans didn’t take the day off for Christmas, and certainly would not indulge their children with piles of presents.

Rather than “pure” celebrations in the past, historian Gary Cross describes how these holidays took on prominence in the United States after making them “children’s” holidays in the nineteenth century; part of infantilizing the celebrations included promoting toy giving. Retailers then had a large incentive to promote the idea that these were in fact important holidays. And so they are.

So we need to remember that traditions have, and can, change. Rather than buying nothing or totally depriving ourselves of new things, I suggest consuming critically—thinking about why we buy.

December 21, 2007

What's in a name? Race and Ethnicity in the United States

By Janis Prince Inniss

Recently I departed from my custom of styling my own hair, and tried to find a beauty salon for a new hairstyle. I needed someone who could style my hair texture, so I called nearby salons and asked whether they style black hair (even though I recognize that race is a social construct and that hair textures vary widely). I spoke with several stylists that day and they all used the term “ethnic hair” in response to my inquiries.

  • A few nights ago, as I was watching an interior decorating television show, a woman described the bright blue color of her bedroom walls as “ethnic color”.
  • On a recent broadcast of The Oprah Winfrey Show television show, Dr. Mehmet Oz made the following statement: “African Americans get colon cancer earlier and it’s more aggressive when they get it which means they die more often from it.”
  • I was filling out an Institutional Review Board form lately and was faced with the following question: “Estimate how many Other/Non Hispanic or Latino participants you plan to enroll in this study.”

These incidents are examples of how confused we are about race and race-related concepts, and are probably indicative of the complex emotions we have about these issues. Are race and ethnicity interchangeable? In this posting—and others in the future—I’ll try to explain and define these sometimes confusing terms.

Ethnicity captures historically based practices related to culture such as language, custom, and ancestry; Irish Americans and Chinese Americans are examples of ethnic groups. We might think of ethnicity as a reflection of what we learned growing up that makes us culturally different from others. People who are of the same ethnicity share a common identity based on their values and norms. 

Race, however, is tied to visual cues based on physical characteristics such as skin color by which we rank people. In decoding the human genome, scientists have found the DNA of any two people are 99.9 percent identical (watch the Nova video to learn more about this) and that there is “no scientific basis for race”, notwithstanding that about 10 percent of the genetic code that does vary can differentiate people by race. As I discussed in one of my previous posts, race is a social construct. 

Keep in mind, to say that race is a social construct does not negate the very real impact race and racism has on the lives of people in a race conscious society. One indication that race is a social construct is that is defined differently around the globe: A person who is considered black in America may be considered white in Brazil, for instance. 

Regardless of what genetic evidence may be found to distinguish races, given that we live in a social world, it will always be a complicated to task to tease apart the societal contributions to behavioral and physical differences. As a genetic researcher told the New York Times

I’ve spent the last 10 years of my life researching how much genetic variability there is between populations,” said Dr. David Altshuler, director of the Program in Medical and Population Genetics at the Broad Institute in Cambridge, Mass. “But living in America, it is so clear that the economic and social and educational differences have so much more influence than genes. People just somehow fixate on genetics, even if the influence is very small.

Let’s return to the examples I mentioned at the beginning. What did stylists mean by “ethnic hair”? Everyone has ethnicity, although the importance and choice of ethnic identities vary for many reasons. Hair cannot have ethnicity; only a person can. In its natural state, the hair textures of black people vary along the continuum of loose to tight curls, and although I’m no hair stylist, based on observation, other hair types also vary but are naturally straighter. 

I’m left to assume that ethnic hair means black hair and the use of “ethnic hair” is meant to convey some sense of sophistication or sensitivity. What are some other interpretations? And what could “ethnic color” mean? Color certainly cannot have ethnicity, although some ethnic and racial groups are associated with bright colors. I think these two examples indicate the mistaken perception by many people that ethnicity applies only to “people of color”.

With regard to Dr. Oz’s comment, to whom is he referring when he talks about African Americans and colon cancer? What, if anything, does his statement have to do with me and with my immediate family, given that none of us are African American, although we are of African descent? Are my relatives who watch The Oprah Winfrey Show from their homes in Antigua and Guyana at risk? Do I need to be concerned because I reside in the United States and am of African descent? 

Does Dr. Oz’s statement imply that there is a genetic link between African Americans and colon cancer and does that link apply to people of African descent all over the world? What is the relationship between early cancer detection rates and lifestyle factors of African Americans? Is the higher mortality rate for African Americans related to screenings being done when colorectal cancer has progressed to advanced stages when treatment options are diminished? And why might this be the case? 

Perhaps African Americans face socioeconomic barriers to care, such as a lack of health insurance. Dr. Oz’s comment sparks this long list of questions because the term African American is both racial and ethnic; it is a description of ethnicity, but is commonly used in the U.S. as an updated racial category instead of “black”. This example also highlights some of the confusion that arises when information about apparent race differences is reported without an explanation for the root cause of such differences.

C:\Users\Janis\Pictures\Microsoft Clip Organizer\j0303318.gif

What would you say the question on the Institutional Review Board form tells us about race and ethnicity in the U.S.?

December 18, 2007

Social Facilitation versus Social Interference

author_brad By Bradley Wright 

Here’s a puzzle for you. Sometimes having other people watch us work makes us work faster, but other times having other people watch slows us down. 

For example: I was at the gym recently lifting weights, and a friend came over to talk. I was just getting ready to do bench presses at the time, and he offered to spot me (i.e., clip_image002stand there and help if the bar got too heavy). With him watching, I focused more on what I was doing and was able to lift substantially more than I had before. 

In contrast, when I write (as I am doing now), I have to be alone. When a family member comes into my office when I writing, I slow way down to the point where I no longer even try. I’m not able to concentrate on my work. 

Why the difference? 

It turns out that the effect of others watching us work varies according to how complex the task is. Bench pressing, though a lot of work, is relatively simple. Up, down, up, down, and so forth. In contrast, writing is much more complex involving choices of paragraph order, sentence structure, grammar, word choice, etc… 


When other people watch us do simple tasks, it tends to make us do them better. This is called the social facilitation effect, and it was discovered in one off the earliest social psychological experiments. In 1897 (when your great-great grandparents were alive) Norman Triplett did a study in which he had some boys cast a fishing rod and reel it in as fast as they could. Sometimes they were by themselves, other times they had other boys there also casting and reeling. The boys reeled much faster when they had other boys around. Triplett found the same effect with bicycle riding. Having other people watch us provides psychological arousal and so we apply extra energy and effort to our task. 

When other people watch us do complex tasks, we also encourages tend to put in extra effort-- but with different results. Complex tasks take time and concentration, and the extra energy we apply to them when someone is watching causes us to try too hard. We don’t take the time to do it correctly. Also, the other person can distract us. This is called social interference

Here’s something really cool about the social facilitation and interference effects—they apply to animals as well as humans. Robert Zanjonc did a famous study in which he demonstrated these effects with cockroaches, of all animals. He created two mazes, one easy, one hard. Behind the maze walls were other cockroaches, and sometimes the walls were glass, so that the other cockroaches could watch and other times they were covered with paper, so that they couldn’t watch. clip_image004(Stay with me here). 

What were the results? With the easy maze, a cockroach ran the maze faster when it could see other cockroaches—social facilitation. With the hard maze, a cockroach ran slower with others watching—social interference. Wow, who would have guessed? (Zajonc also demonstrated the effect with rats, which for some reason I find much less interesting than with cockroaches). 

There are several wrinkles to these effects. For one thing, what is complex for one person might be simple for another, and so they would have different reactions to having others watching. For example, my grade school son is learning to play the violin, and he plays a mean “Twinkle-Twinkle Little Star” here at home. At recitals, however, with other parents watching, he gets nervous and doesn’t do as well. In contrast, a concert violinist, who practices hours and hours a day, is skilled enough that having a group of people watch him or her would inspire them to play even better. 

Another wrinkle has to do with whether or not we care about the people watching us. If we think highly of them, and value their esteem, then social facilitation and social interference effects are stronger. If we don’t know them, or otherwise don’t care about them, then these effects are weaker. For example, I have difficulty writing when family or friends watch me, but I have no problem doing it at the library, where there are other people around, but I don’t know them. Likewise, a runner running through a neighborhood far from their home probably isn’t inspired by the strangers who would be watching them. 

What does this mean for you? Well, first off, this knowledge gives you a distinct advantage the next time you go to the cockroach races. Also, it might help you structure your own work for maximum performance. If you find the work relatively simple, but are having trouble getting motivated, put yourself in a place where others can watch you work. However, if it’s work that you have difficulty with, you might want to find a place to be by yourself or at least among people you don’t know.

December 15, 2007

The Human Costs of Immigration Raids

author_cn By C.N. Le 

In recent months there has been a notable increase in the number and size of raids against illegal immigrants and the businesses that employ them. The Department of Homeland Security, home of the Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency, (or ICE, formerly known as the Immigration and Naturalization Service) has now shifted their emphasis from stopping illegal immigrants as they cross the border to rounding them up and arresting them at their workplaces. 

I can understand the need to enforce existing laws against hiring illegal immigrants, although I think there are better ways to address the larger issue of reducing illegal immigration. However, many people fail to realize that families are being torn apart and their lives are being put at risk as a result of such raids. The New York Times reports of babies being ripped from their la-raza-report-1 mothers’ arms and separated indefinitely, as was the case of a Honduran family in Ohio: 

Ms. Umanzor had been at home with two of her three children, both American citizens, when the immigration agents arrived, along with a county police officer. . . As the agents searched, Ms. Umanzor breast-fed her jittery baby, she recalled in an interview after her release.

She was forced to leave both Brittney and her other American daughter, Alexandra, who is 3, since the agents could not detain them. “Just thinking that I was going to leave my little girl, I began to feel sick,” Ms. Umanzor said of the baby. “I had a pain in my heart.” 

In jail and unable to nurse, Ms. Umanzor’s breasts become painfully engorged. With the help of Veronica Dahlberg, director of a Hispanic women’s group in Ashtabula County, a breast pump was delivered on her third day in jail. Brittney, meanwhile, did not eat for three days, refusing to take formula from a bottle, Ms. Dahlberg said. After four days, the county released all six children to Ms. Umanzor’s sister, who managed to wean Brittney to a bottle. 

On Nov. 7, after two dozen women’s health advocates and researchers sent a letter protesting Ms. Umanzor’s detention, Julie L. Myers, Assistant Secretary of Homeland Security for ICE, issued a memorandum instructing field officers “to exercise discretion” during arrests by releasing nursing mothers from detention unless they presented a national security or public safety risk. 

In a study released this month, La Raza, a national Hispanic organization, and the Urban Institute, a Washington-based nonpartisan research organization, examined three factory raids in the past year, in Greeley, Colorado, Grand Island, Nebraska; and New Bedford, Massachusetts. 

The study found that . . . many families hid for days or longer in their homes, sometimes retreating to basements. Although many children showed symptoms of emotional distress, family members were reluctant to seek public assistance for them, even if the children were citizens, fearing new arrests of relatives who were illegal immigrants. 

As the article also notes, federal immigration officials and opponents of illegal immigration argue that while their goal is not to victimize children. They contend that illegal immigrant parents are responsible for putting their children in these dangerous and emotionally upsetting situations,. 

Unfortunately, this kind of reasoning is a textbook example of what sociologists call "blaming the victim." 

Yes, it’s true---that because these parents came into the U.S. without authorization, they are here illegally. But as scholars and other informed observers will tell you, the vast majority of border-crossers come here not because they want to sponge off the welfare system or steal a middle-class job, but because they want to try to earn a decent living by working in jobs that most Americans will not take. 

In other words, illegal immigrants come here to work. Once they are inside the U.S., data also show that the vast majority of them obey the laws and pay taxes -- sales taxes, property taxes, and even federal and state income taxes that are estimated to contribute $60 billion a year to Social Security funds. It's also worth noting that because illegal immigrants often use fake Social Security numbers, FICA taxes get taken out but those retirement benefits will most likely never go to the illegal immigrants who paid into the system. 

More often than not, the presence of illegal immigrants actually results in net benefits to American society. And how do we as a society treat them as a result? By vilifying, demonizing, and dehumanizing them. And by literally tearing families apart and needlessly putting lives at risk. 

As the article notes, even the Department of Homeland Security has come to its senses, recognized the inherent brutality and inhumanity in their actions, and reevaluated its tactic of separating mothers from their young children. 

I'm not a legal scholar, but I might describe what happened to families like the Umanzors as cruel and unusual punishment, perhaps even torture. 

There must be a better way to address the problems associated with illegal immigration than to treat them like animals. 

That better way is to enact comprehensive immigration reform that addresses the issue on all levels -- stricter enforcement of laws against knowingly hiring illegal workers, creating some legal arrangement to allow temporary workers to come and work in the U.S., giving law-abiding illegal immigrants the opportunity to become citizens and continue their contributions to American society, and efforts to strengthen foreign economies to reduce the push factors that drive many to leave for the U.S., to name just a few. 

But to focus the brunt of our country's resources on forcibly separating families and exacting incalculable human costs and suffering is nothing short of barbarism.

December 12, 2007

Fractals, Theories and Patterns

author_sally By Sally Raskoff

Have you ever seen fractals ? They are designs that show large patterns made up of smaller and smaller versions of that large pattern. They are discussed in mathematics, physics, and other fields where they notice large patterns consisting of the same pattern but in smaller units. 

clip_image003I came upon a book recently entitled Heaven and Earth that illustrates commonalities between those large and tiny structures through photos taken of tiny or microscopic items.The book progresses to photos of earth’s features from aircraft, satellites, and space. I was struck by how those different realms present seemingly identical images. It’s an intriguing idea to think that the small writ large is a pattern that also applies to human phenomena. 

Most sociological theorists are either micro or macro—they either focus on individual or small group phenomena or entire societies, nation states or global phenomena. Herbert Blumer and others who created symbolic interactionist theories focus on how human actions create meanings and how those meanings are both modified through people’s interpretations and serve to guide people’s actions. Although symbolic interactionist theorists note that humans create society by their actions, they often focus on individual actions and meanings rather than on those of society as a whole.

Some recent theorists, such as advocates of post modern theory, suggest that clip_image009the disconnect between individuals and society might even be a false concept—clip_image006because they see “society” as a false concept. They propose that society might be seen so differently by each individual that society is not a reality outside one’s own perspective. It is only the individual who might ”exist” and society differs for each person based on his or her unique experience and perception.

Rarely does one theorist apply their theories to both types of study. When they do, sometimes they go miserably off the road to understanding.

clip_image012 Emile Durkheim , for example, does a brilliant job of studying societal patterns in Suicide. He illustrates how suicide is not necessarily an individual issue—instead, various societies and communities have different rates of suicide because of varying types of social integration and moral regulation. However when he also explains four distinct types of suicide and uses individualistic examples for each of them, he loses some explanatory power. 

For example, he deals with gender differences in suicide rates by discussing how single men have higher rates than married men and married women have higher rates than single women. He continues to explain that when comparing widows and widowers, “woman can endure life in isolation more easily than man” and that society is less necessary to [a woman] because she is less impregnated with sociability.”

These conclusions are not only incredibly sexist, they also commit an ecological fallacy. This is when one explains individual behaviors with aggregate data (from societies or communities, in essence large groups). One is using one level of analysis (individuals) but uses data gathered from another level of analysis (groups or societies). This is a methodological problem and has an impact upon the theory guiding research.

clip_image015On the other hand, the social theorist Max Weber created theory that included all levels of analysis. He did not try to apply the same theories to all of those levels. His book The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism came from his studies on how religious ethics and economic systems interact. Class, status, and party rest within social groups and help explain the dynamics of power.

His insistence on verstehen, or understanding, links the individual and society and suggests that sociologists must understand the meaning that individuals give to social phenomena before they (the researchers) can truly understand that social phenomena. 

Taking into account both the contributions and challenges that sociological theorists offer us, fractals may explain natural phenomena but may not be applicable to human research. Social phenomena may be so complex that the sum of the parts are much more than the whole, that human interactions and meanings are building blocks but also create whole new structures that we call society.

December 09, 2007

Millennials at Work

author_karen By Karen Sternheimer

American corporations are under siege. They are facing a new threat, a threat they are only marginally prepared for. 

The falling value of the dollar? Globalization? Global warming?

Not quite. clip_image002

According to a November 11th 60 Minutes report, American companies just don’t know how to tame their new young employees. The “millennial” generation, defined as people born between 1980 and 1995, are allegedly too self-centered, too narcissistic, and too fragile to be managed using traditional techniques. Told by their parents that they are special, they need extra coddling and fun in order to do their jobs. Otherwise, they will just quit, according to the people correspondent Morley Safer interviewed.

Aside from overly supportive parents, the other alleged culprit, according to Wall Street Journal reporter Jeffrey Zaslow, is PBS’s Mister Rogers. You remember him, the guy that told children in a calm, gentle voice that they are special? Actually, Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood first aired in 1968, long before the “Millennials” were born (and very likely viewed by many Millennials’ parents). clip_image004

The notion that young people are uniquely selfish is an old one. As I wrote in my last post, disdain for young people is widespread and dates back to (at least) ancient Greece. And as I discuss in my book Kids These Days: Facts and Fictions About Today’s Youth, adults also thought that young people in the early 1930s and 1940s were too self-centered, too consumed by swing music to care about anything but their own happiness. Famed writer Pearl S. Buck wrote in Harper's magazine in 1935 that young people were “completely selfish” and would never fight for anything they believed in. Of course they soon did, and due largely to Tom Brokaw's book we now often refer to them as the Greatest Generation, thanks to their service in World War II.

Let’s consider some realities of life for young people today before we conclude that they are too narcissistic to work without constant stroking:

1. Many American kids grow up in poverty 

Poverty rates have been gradually rising in the United States in recent years, and a significant number of people in poverty are under eighteen—currently 17 percent—live at or below the official poverty level. Rather than worrying about a large number of kids being self-centered, we might want to refocus our energy onto these young people. We have much higher child poverty rates than many other industrialized nations; instead of focusing on them, we tend to think of kids as spoiled and overindulged. This way we can avoid the reality that many young people have too little, not too much.

We ignore young people in poverty by focusing almost exclusively on the middle class, a group that is increasingly shrinking. According to the 60 Minutes report, “Today, fewer and fewer middle class kids hold summer jobs because mowing lawns does not get you into Harvard.” Just as not all kids are middle or upper class, not all will go to college—and it’s those who have earned a college or graduate degree that the people that the corporations featured in the segment are likely to hire. The Bureau of Labor Statistics indicate that 66 percent of the class of 2006 entered college; although not all will graduate. As recently as the 2000 Census, only 16 percent of Americans 25 and older hold a bachelor’s degree.

2. Young people traditionally have significantly higher unemployment rates

According to a recent Bureau of Labor Statistics report, in the third quarter of 2007 approximately 7,142,000 Americans sixteen and over were unemployed (this is based on the number seeking employment). Of that number, 1,302,000 are between 20 and 24; that means nearly a quarter of those unemployed are young adults. As the graph below from the Bureau of Labor Statistics details (unfortunately only featuring men), younger workers have historically had higher unemployment rates--often double or higher than their older counterparts.


In spite of the assertion that if young workers are not coddled “they will walk,” as a corporate consultant told 60 Minutes, jobs are not as plentiful for entry-level workers as the piece made it seem. Combine job insecurity with low wages, as well as fewer (if any) benefits, and you have a recipe for high turnover. In today’s job climate, many companies layoff workers frequently, outsource workers overseas, and reclassify former full-time workers as independent contractors. As a result, workers of all ages have less incentive to be loyal to one company, especially early in their careers. By focusing on young workers as self-centered, narcissistic, and spoiled, we are encouraged to overlook the broader economic conditions and blame individuals.

The 60 Minutes segment also noted that many young people in their twenties continue to live with their parents. Actually, this is not a new trend at all; previous generations were likely to live with their parents until (and even sometimes after) they married.

Rather than concluding that today’s young people are being spoiled by mom and dad and unwilling to care for themselves, shouldn’t we consider the cost of housing in major cities like New York (where much of the 60 Minutes piece seems to have been shot). In 2005, the average rent in New York was $2,400; it was $1,573 in San Francisco, and $1,421 in Los Angeles. A year’s rent of the average-priced New York apartment alone would then be close to $30,000. When you consider those astronomical costs, living with parents in these cities seems more of a sign of financial responsibility than immaturity.

3. Millennials are on the front lines in Iraq and Afghanistan

clip_image008Perhaps the most important oversight of the segment—on Veteran’s Day, no less—is that it neglected to even mention the thousands of young men and women wearing our country’s uniform overseas right now. Young people in the military do not have the option to just “walk” when not coddled or if their self-esteem is threatened. In fact, stop-loss measures make it so that young people in the military are serving for longer periods than they signed up for. 

As of this writing, nearly four thousand U.S. soldiers have died in Iraq and Afghanistan and many more thousands have been injured. As is often the case, most casualties of war are young people, many of whom are returning with the loss of a limb, a traumatic brain injury, and/or psychological trauma. To ignore their service and sacrifice says more about the shortsightedness of their elders than young people today. Their elders are the ones who wage war, and they are also able to benefit from claims that young people are spoiled and narcissistic.

Older people can become expert consultants on this so-called trend. They can (apparently) get corporations to pay them to run seminars. They may even get to be on TV. And we all lose by mischaracterizing an entire generation and failing to understand realities of America's young people.

December 06, 2007

Matching Research Methods to Research Questions

author_janis By Janis Prince Inniss

Dr. James Watson, the 79- year-old American scientist credited with co-discovering the DNA double helix recently told a reporter that black people are naturally less intelligent than whites, and that although he wished this was not the case, “people who have to deal with black employees find this is not true.”

At the very least, Watson seems to have a penchant for making outrageous statements, but I refer to him not to discuss the obvious. Instead, I want to focus clip_image002on the data on which he based his headline-grabbing conclusion. Or put another way, how could we attempt to compare intelligence levels of blacks and whites? What would be some reasonable sources of data from which one could conclude that black people are “naturally” less intelligent than whites? 

First, we would have to define the two groups of people: whites and blacks. What criteria would we use to define blacks? And whites? Would we apply the “one drop rule” as I discussed in a previous post on Tiger Woods? Would we use people’s self-definitions? 

Would we, as researchers, assign people to one of the two groups based on appearance? What if someone ”looked” white or self- identified as white, but has a black parent or grandparent? And given that the comparison is of blacks and whites, with no mention of country, we would have to include people from around the world in our study; this can be quite complicated, as conceptions of race vary significantly in different parts of the world. And assuming we could come up with acceptable definitions in any one country, we would have to use these definitions all across the world in order to have common definitions for the study -- regardless of how alien they are to others. 

clip_image003Let’s say that we managed to come up with a fairly precise definition of blacks and whites that would work in the real world, all over the world. What would be the next step? What research method would we use to answer this empirical question?

If we chose to conduct an ethnography, (and do a good job) we could produce rich data, but of what nature? Ethnography includes interviews and participant observation; we could interview people and get their opinions and thoughts about the intelligence levels of blacks and whites. Fascinating as this might be, it would not answer our research question. We could observe blacks and whites and opine about their intelligence, but any conclusions would not address the central question posed by our research. Further, our observations will likely be biased by any preconceived notions we may have, and we might notice examples that justify our beliefs more than those that do not.

Besides ethnography, we could develop a questionnaire to measure intelligence or use an existing IQ (intelligence quotient) test and mail them out to people and/or administer them ourselves. Clearly, administering or mailing the questionnaire to every black and white person in the world, or even in the U. S. is an impractical task.

Therefore, we would have to focus on a sample or a fraction of the world’s population of blacks and whites. Once the sample is carefully chosen, we could feel confident that it represents and applies to the entire population. In our case, every black and white person in the world should have an equal possibility of being involved in our study; then, we would randomly choose our sample. 

As an clip_image004illustration, in order to conduct a study with a random sample of college students at your university, we would obtain a list of all students and then, for example, include every 10th name in the sample. Once we had figured out how to obtain a random sample of the world’s population of blacks and whites, we would administer our IQ test to the sample. Managing the cost, resources, and other logistics for a survey of this magnitude is not a responsibility I would sign up for, but I suppose it could be done. 

I have devoted more time discussing the definition of black and white, which might suggest that defining intelligence is easy; it is not. What is intelligence? What kind of intelligence would we measure? Emotional? Spatial? Conceptual? Mathematical? All of the above and more? 

clip_image005If you are familiar with some of the criticisms of IQ tests, you would have raised an eyebrow at their earliest mention. How would we account for differences in access to formal education for example, given that less formal education results in lower IQ test scores? How would we sort out social and cultural factors that related to scores? 

clip_image006It is shocking to me that a scientist, a Nobel Laureate, would mention the experiences of unspecified “people” as a source of data regarding anything, including his claim that black people are less intelligent than whites. The claim implies a biological difference between the races and fundamentally would require an ability to differentiate between blacks and whites in some absolute manner; this is difficult to do when race is a socially constructed concept with no biological basis. 

I wonder which “people” was Watson referring to? How does he know what “people” believe or think? Did he interview some people about this question? How many such people did he interview? Good, in-depth interviews provide a deep understanding of behavior or beliefs, but no evidence regarding a biologically based difference between races. Did he send questionnaires to a random sample of “people”? Surveys could provide the opinions of a large number of people, but not some “truth” about blacks and whites. What rigorous research method was Watson employing?

Even a fledgling scientist recognizes that research is a process, and that matching the research method to the research question is critical. Sadly, when such a highly regarded scientist makes outrageous claims, those with little understanding of the scientific method (and more than a little prejudice) might just believe that he is right.

December 03, 2007

Language, Gender and Power

author_sally By Sally Raskoff

Have you ever noticed the gendered nature of the English language? If you take a close look, words highlight some important features of our culture.

Take the word “seminal” (as in “semiclip_image003nal work” or “seminal idea”). We use this word to credit people with creating work so important that it has changed the way we think about something. Seminal work inspires many others as well .

Seminal is durative of the word semen; as in human reproduction, seminal work has gone forth and multiplied much like sperm does if it is successful in merging with an “egg” (or ovum) and conception occurs.

Why don’t we use “ovular” in the same way? Ova are the female equivalent to sperm and are just as responsible for the creation of a new being. Although there are many more sperm created in the time it takes for one ovum to move through its cycle, both are responsible for creating new life.We could say that someone has created an ovular idea that then inspires others to go forth and develop other ideas based on that one ovular thought.

Likewise, think of how we address people formally. We refer to most men as “Mr.” Traditionally, women’s courtesy titles have been “Miss” or “Mrs.”. Now clip_image006women can be called “Ms.”—thus women have three titles, “Miss” (single woman or girl), “Mrs.” (married woman), or “Ms.” (grown woman, marital status undetermined) while men just have the one (grown man, marital status irrelevant). Have you wondered why women have the three and men only the one? Why don’t men have titles that indicate their marital status?

Now, let’s consider curse words. Some are gender neutral, such as referring to one’s posterior. Some are specifically reserved for women, such as the short b-word indicating a crabby female (as opposed to a female dog) and the c-word or the p-word, which are references to women’s genitals. Even if the words are aimed at men or women, these terms often refer to women negatively.

Perhaps one’s mother is the target of the insult, whether through having a child outside marriage, another b-word, or as a willing or unwilling intercourse participant, as in “mother” f-word as an active verb. Or, as the f-word itself does, the word invokes the act of intercourse and ties the act of penetration as a potentially violent action.

Of course, curse words aren’t always intended as insults, since many people use them for fun or for teasing their friends. Some women use some of them as a term of empowerment (the c-word or the first b-word mentioned above).

But this only applies if they utter them, not if they are labeled with them by others (especially men). This is similar to the n-word and our current social debate over who (and if anyone) can use it; most recognize that when African Americans say it, it means something wholly different than when others, especially whites say it.

The f-word in particular has many uses—both as a noun and a verb—however it does connects sex and violence, not just as a threat against women but also against gay men. Gay men have other words directed at them, many of which refer to them as feminine (or even female) or suggest violence.

Sociology helps explain these word choices. Rather than anomalies or coincidences, they reflect our society’s power structure.

If you think about power and gender in this society, it quickly becomes clear that as a group, men dominate women. Men are the gender group with power in this society, not women. This is why important ideas that spawn other works (not to clip_image009mention Nobel Prizes) are called “seminal” not ovular. Traditionally, men have received credit, even if women were involved in their creation.

Why is marital status such a big deal for women and not for men? Not so long ago in this country, women were considered property; their title indicated who was responsible for this woman: father or husband. “Ms.” came about during the women’s movement in the 1960-70s when many women no longer wished to be identified by their marital status, thus “Ms.” was created as contraction of “Miss” and “Mrs.”

Why do curse words refer to body parts and pejorative references to women? Because in a society characterized by male power, one doesn’t insult a male directly, one must refer to inferior things, such as crude references to body parts considered “dirty” and to people who are less than masculine according to that society’s norms.

clip_image012In dominant American culture, masculinity is defined as being assertive, aggressive, strong, a leader, and heterosexual. This is what Bob Connell refers to as "hegemonic masculinity" in his classic book, Gender and Power. Hegemonic masculinity insists that men be dominant over others in society to prove that they are “real men.”

“Emphasized femininity,” Connell’s counterpart to hegemonic masculinity, encourages women to be passive, nurturing, caring, mothering, and otherwise subordinate. Yes, our definitions of masculine and feminine change over time and place yet these ideals are primary in our media and in how we socialize children. Note also how gay men are equated with women thus they are set aside from the more powerful group of heterosexual men.

Our language reflects our society--the words I have discussed here all distinguish between men and women—all to reinforce and maintain the gendered hierarchy of power.

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