11 posts from March 2008

March 28, 2008

Barack Obama and Racial/Ethnic Authenticity

author_janis By Janis Prince Inniss

clip_image001In a speech many hailed as historic for its frank discussion of race in America, Barack Obama, Democratic contender for the presidential nomination, said: “At various stages in the campaign, some commentators have deemed me either ‘too black’ or ‘not black enough’." 

What does it mean to be considered “too black” or “not black enough”? And who decides the answers to these questions? In a previous post, I discussed the challenges biracial people such as Sen. Obama (son of a black Kenyan father and white mother from Kansas) pose to our understanding of race, so I won’t touch on that issue here. Given the Senator’s racial self identification as African American, however, who authenticates his blackness? Is there a Department of Black Authenticity (DBA) whose job it is to stamp him or anyone else “unequivocally black” or maybe “just right”? Do some black aspirants get notification that they are “not black enough” or indeed “too black”? As I imagine such deliberations, I can’t help but wonder whether the head of the DBA would make those decisions or whether there would have to be group consensus.

What does it mean when someone is described as “not black enough”? Likely, you have heard tales of J0365330 African Americans (particularly males) who “dumb down”: They make a conscious effort to do poorly in school so as not to be seen as “acting white”. In other words they will never be described by those apparently dreaded words “not black enough”; this construction of blackness emphasizes ignorance. Describing the other Democratic candidates as he was announcing his own presidential bid, Sen. Joe Biden described Sen. Obama as “the first mainstream African-American who is articulate and bright and clean and a nice-looking guy." 

I’ll avoid dissecting Sen. Biden’s words here except to make one point—that Sen. Biden seemed to be voicing what he and many others perceive as differences between Sen. Obama and many African Americans, and between this candidate and previous African American candidates. Many of these differences—his parentage chief among them—have caused even some African Americans to say that Sen. Obama is “not black enough”. 

In a 1998 New Yorker article, writer Toni Morrison provides an interesting description of what constitutes blackness. Morrison described Former President Clinton as America’s first black president because “Clinton displays almost every trope of blackness: single-parent household, born poor, working-class, saxophone-playing, McDonald’s-and-junk-food-loving boy from Arkansas.” (I reserve commentary on issues related to the conflation of blackness with being African American—as opposed to being African, for example—for another blog.) Morrison acknowledges the over-representation of African Americans among “the truly disadvantaged”, and also makes reference to the cultural orientation and "style" associated with blackness, at least in America anyway. 

clip_image004In an essay entitled “Free at Last? A Personal Perspective on Race and Ethnicity”, Glenn C. Loury recounts the tale of how, for fear of being seen as an “Uncle Tom”, he betrayed his friend Woody by failing to vouch for Woody as a “brother” at a black political rally. (Woody was so light-skinned that he could “pass”, but self identified as black.) This is another dimension of being viewed as “not black enough”—the extent to which blacks are friends with, or married to, non-blacks. Another marker of this tag is being Republican. Since the civil rights era, African Americans have historically supported the Democratic party; African Americans such as Secretary of State Dr. Condoleezza Rice are consistently derided for having political ideologies that brand them “not black enough”. 

What constitutes being “too black”? Is being associated with anything or anyone strongly associated with notions of black exclusivity “too black”? One major aspect of the firestorm regarding Sen. Obama and his former pastor, Rev. Wright is the fact that the pastor has operated from an Afrocentric focus. This makes the Rev. Wright, and by extension Sen. Obama, “too black” for some.

Policing blackness includes scrutiny of food, film, music, clothing and other preferences. The scrutiny also extends to pastimes, the way we talk, our places of residence, the way we wear our hair (mainly for women), and this is not an all encompassing list. As Loury describes, the impact of having his authenticity policed had a profound impact on many aspects of his life:

I now understand how this desire to be regarded as genuinely black, to be seen as a “regular brother,” has dramatically altered my life. It narrowed the range of my earliest intellectual pursuits, distorted my relationships with other people, censored my political thought and expression, informed the way I dressed and spoke, and shaped my cultural interests…I have learned that one does not have to live surreptitiously as a Negro among whites in order to be engaged in a denial of one’s genuine self for the sake of gaining social acceptance. This is a price that blacks often demand of each other as well.

clip_image006It is ironic that as much we think of race as fixed and real, questioning African American authenticity points to the socially constructed nature of the concept, given how easily racial authenticity can be challenged. This is also another example of how race and ethnicity are used interchangeably: use of this authenticity yardstick belies the fact that there are different constructions of blackness in other parts of the world; this yardstick is really an African American one.

Why do you think there are questions about black authenticity in the U.S.? Is there a fear related to keeping people in or might it have to do with keeping “impostors” out? How similar or different are these issues for other racial and ethnic groups in the U.S.? As for whether Sen. Obama is “too black”, “not black enough”, or “just right,” I think the fact that the question is even being asked is revealing.

March 26, 2008

What is a Cult?

Lowney picture

By Kathe Lowney
Guest Contributor, Valdosta State University
I admit it, I’m a political junkie. Campaign season is my favorite time of the year. And these last few months have been quite the ride, haven’t they? We have seen the rise of Huck’s Army, heard Obama Girl sing about her crush, watched McCainiacs be thrilled at their candidate’s stunning comeback, and witnessed the persuasiveness that a ringing phone at 3 a.m. might have had with Texas and Ohio voters. 

But I’m not just an avid consumer of political news; as a sociologist, I’m also a media analyst. And something has been bothering me as this presidential campaign has played out: the frequency that the media have talked about the “cult of Obama” (see this Time magazine story, and this Los Angeles Times op-ed for just a few of the many media examples of this worry; and also this blog by a supporter that might offer some evidence for the media’s concern). 

It’s the word “cult” that troubles me. Media commentators seem to imply that the enthusiasm and energy of the Senator’s supporters, their commitment to his vision for America, the world, and each other, is somehow worrisome and menacing. j0433119 

It’s made me realize once again that sociology is not only a way of thinking about the social world we live in, but that as sociologists, we talk in a distinct – and distinctive – way. For students learning sociology, I think that learning our sociological way of talking can sometimes be hard. Doesn’t it seem like sometimes we sociologists use a lot of words to make some rather simple points? I think that too once in a while! I believe, however, that it’s sociologists’ scientific preciseness that fuels our wordiness – at least that is my hope! 

“Cult” is one of those words that means one thing to sociologists and often quite different things to non-sociologists. Here’s how the text for my Sociology of Religion class defines it: 

A cult is similar to a sect in its rejection of the religious patterns and formulations of denominations–or of whatever the society’s dominant form(s) of religion happens to be. Cult members were either not attracted to dominant religious groups in the first place or, like sectarians, became disenchanted with commonly-accepted religious forms. The cult differs from the sect, however, in that it does not call for a return to the original, pure religion, but rather emphasizes the new–a new revelation or insight provided by a supernatural power, say, or the rediscovery of an old revelation that had been lost and unknown for many years (and which is, therefore, new to this age) (Johnstone 2007:78)

But is this what you think about when you hear the word “cult”? I doubt it. Since the 1970s, popular culture, led by the press, has come to define the word as a religion that many people do not like; one which uses recruitment techniques unlike many traditional Protestant denominations (i.e., “brainwashing”) in order to ensnare impressionable young adults in its grasp. Cults are often portrayed as being “alien” to the U.S., run by manipulative messianic figures who are really all about lavishly spending the monies their followers raise. 

image In fact, this pop culture definition of “cult” has even altered our sociological vocabulary. Nowadays sociologists of religion tend to use the term “new religious  movement” instead of “cult” because we recognize how pervasive this pop culture definition has become. 

So when commentators write about the “cult of Obama,” they are both tapping into this negative connotation while simultaneously helping it persist. I find it interesting that it is Senator Obama’s followers who have come under such media scrutiny and not, for example, Huckabee’s Army of college-aged activists. Barack Obama is the upstart, the unexpected Democratic candidate who has more delegates than the presumptive nominee has. He is the candidate who, because of his parents’ cultural backgrounds and nationalities, has had his patriotism questioned by some opponents (i.e., the worry about an “alien” cult leader, resurfacing). 

If words matter – and as a sociologist, I absolutely believe that they do – how social institutions such as the press talk can shape the public’s social construction of reality. Words like “cult” are now perceived to be, in our culture, inflammatory. So next time you read a headline or hear political commentators talk about “the cult of Obama” – think about it for a moment. What is that reporter/analyst trying to get you to believe? And perhaps more importantly, why? How does such a negative construction of Senator Obama’s followers shape the political environment of this presidential campaign? Who might the construction help? 

[Full disclosure: In my state’s primary, I did not vote for Senator Obama.]

March 25, 2008

Everyday Sociology Talk: Why Do Some Polilitical Wives "Stand By Their Man"?

Former New York Governor Eliot Spitzer, Detroit Mayor Kwame Kilpatrick and others in politics have recently been part of very public sex scandals. What are the sociological implications of these stories? And what can we learn about relationships, gender, sexuality, and power from these political scandals?

Here are some of our ideas...tell us about yours!


March 23, 2008

Cultural Symbols, Assimilation, and Freedom of Expression

author_cn By C.N. Le

One of the main themes in my research as a scholar in Sociology and Asian American Studies is the process of assimilation. As I've written about in various posts on this blog, assimilation can take many different forms.

One form that I've recently started to follow more closely concerns anti-communist political activism among Vietnamese Americans. In fact, I've just completed a chapter entitled "'Better Dead Than Red': Anti-Communist Politics Among Vietnamese Americans" in a book titled Anti-Communist Minorities in the US: The Political Activism of Ethnic Refugees, edited by Ieva Zake (Palgrave-MacMillan Publishing) that will be published early next year.

In that chapter, I write that while the forces of assimilation are likely to result in a moderation of fervent anti-communist sentiment among younger Vietnamese Americans, there is still a strong level of ethnic solidarity within the Vietnamese American community. Combined with continuing incidents of human rights abuses in Viet Nam, I conclude that anti-communist activism among Vietnamese Americans may evolve into different forms but is unlikely to be eliminated or even notably lessened any time soon.

Recent examples illustrate the power of symbols and visual images to illuminate the legacy of the Viet Nam War.

The first incident, as the Orange County Register reports, involves a community college in Irvine, California (located only a few miles from Little Saigon) that recently decided to remove the Vietnamese flag from public display after local Vietnamese Americans threatened to demonstrate:

The 144 miniature flags have hung from the second-floor atrium for many years without controversy, in a gesture designed to symbolize the diversity of the college's student body. On Thursday, college officials removed the display in the wake of threats that busloads of protesters could arrive to disrupt the campus if the Vietnamese flag were not removed. 

Westminster Councilman Andy Quash and Garden Grove Councilwoman Dina Nguyen said they met with college officials Wednesday after receiving calls from numerous constituents about the flag display. "We reminded them that in 1999, in the city of Westminster, that flag hung in a video store led to a 49-day protest peaking at 50,000 people," Quash said. . . . "It's offensive because this flag represents a regime that is very dictatorial and does not respect human rights," Nguyen said.

The second incident, described by the San Mateo County Times, involves artwork created by a young Vietnamese American that was intended to pay tribute to the refugee experience of Vietnamese Americans but instead has been interpreted by many as pro-communist.viet-artwork2

The offending photo was of a piece of art by a University of California, Davis, graduate student and Vietnamese immigrant who saw the creation — a yellow-and-red foot-spa tub — as a salute to Vietnamese refugees like her mother-in-law who toiled in a nail salon after the family came to America.

But the protesters saw something far more menacing.

The tub was yellow with three red stripes, which the protesters said must be a reference to the flag of the fallen country of South Vietnam. And the spa's yellow power cord was plugged into a red outlet, which seemed to resemble the flag of the Socialist Republic of Vietnam, now under communist rule.

"Why is the South Vietnamese flag on a thing that people wash their dirty feet in?" asked Uc Van Nguyen, 70, who attended some of the rallies, which began in late January. . . .

Meanwhile, the artist said she had no intention of offending anyone when she bought a foot spa from a nail shop, painted it yellow and red. . . . She saw the art creation as a way to honor Vietnamese women who have "toiled and sacrificed enormously for the future of their children and family," she wrote.

It would be easy for many Americans to criticize the Vietnamese American protesters and to say things like, "You may find the images offensive, but as Americans, you should respect the right of people to freely express themselves however they want. If you don't, you're just replicating the same kind of authoritarianism that you blast the communists for committing."

While there is some truth to this particular argument, I would point out that first, in the same way that the artist or school has the freedom to express themselves however they want, so too do others have the right to criticize such expressions. In other words, freedom of expression is a two-way street -- express yourself however you want, but be prepared to receive potentially critical expressions in return.

This is not to say that I always agree with the protesters. In fact, I do not share their interpretation that the "foot tub" artwork shown above is offensive and viet-protest2 an insult to the Vietnamese refugee experience. There are other instances in which I disagree with many anti-communist opinions. At the same time, though, I respect and defend their right to express their interpretations that may be counter to mine. 

In fact, it is this right that allows historically marginalized groups to criticize recent media portrayals that many of us find offensive, including a college newspaper column meant as "satire" or the anti-Filipino Desperate Housewives episode.

Secondly, when people (particularly non-Vietnamese people) criticize such protests, in many cases they have little or no connection whatsoever to the refugee experiences that form the basis of such strong anti-communist sentiments. In other words, it is easy for others to say, "Come on, that was 30 years ago -- just let it go already" without truly understanding the level of suffering that many Vietnamese endured and still endure in the form of friends and family who have been killed or made into refugees.

In the same way we need to acknowledge and respect the historical impact of past experiences of injustice and suffering experienced by other racial/ethnic minority groups, so too should Americans be careful not to minimize the impact of the Viet Nam War and the forced exit of the Vietnamese people from heir ancestral.

At the same time, Vietnamese Americans should understand that there is a limit to their protests. Verbal criticisms and mass demonstrations are perfectly legitimate expressions of dissent, but threats and acts of violence are not. In those cases, the laws of this country are clear and there are no exceptions, regardless of how angry one feels or how much one has suffered in the past.

Political activists have the right to freedom of expression. We have broad opportunities to express our experiences, our grief, and our anger, but there are limits that we need to keep in mind. This is ultimately part of what it means to become assimilated, to become Vietnamese American.

March 20, 2008

Do You Believe in Your Community?

author_sally By Sally Raskoff

How many people do you know in your community? Beyond your friends and family, how many people can you name or at least recognize? We may see some people repeatedly if we visit the same places regularly. Though we might recognize them, we may not know their names or think to introduce ourselves, even if we see them every week. 

In my neighborhood, because people walk their dogs regularly, we know most of our neighbors by sight as they walk by our windows: the guy with the Great Dane, the gal with the lab, the guy with the two schnauzers. I may not know all of the names of these neighbors, but their presence helps make my neighborhood a community rather than just a place to live. I like to think that we’d all come together if something were to threaten the community.

If you haven’t yet seen Be Kind Rewind, see it as an example of how neighbors can rally together for their community. This movie has many levels of complexity that make it perfect for sociological analysis. If you haven’t seen the ads or the movie, the main story involves two neighbors, Mike (Mos Def) and Jerry (Jack Black), who ruin Mr. Fletcher’s (Danny Glover) video rental business by accidentally erasing all the tapes. Mr. Fletcher’s character is away on a journey to see if he should revive his business or give it up since his building is about to be demolished. Mike and Jerry attempt to save themselves and the store by re-taping their own short versions of the movies that people want to rent.

Although I’ll try not to give everything away, if you want to keep the rest as a surprise, read no further until you’ve seen it. 

clip_image002Before the clerks erased the tapes, Fletcher’s video store was not doing well; his crumbling building and business are a symbol of the dysfunctional community. The few people who do come in for videos here (rather than go to the larger chain video store some distance away) are angry, rude, or not entirely functional, which is another reflection of the disintegrating community life.

Mike, Jerry, and Alma (Melonie Diaz, a neighbor who joins their adventure) discover that their film process, which they call “sweding,” takes off after Miss Falewicz’s (Mia Farrow) nephew and his friends find the new versions entertaining. When Fletcher returns and decides to close the store, the whole neighborhood is in line to rent the sweded movies.

The building itself is a central character in the film, as the supposed birthplace of jazz pianist Fats Waller. Mike proposes that developers make the building an historic landmark because of the Waller connection. But Mr. Fletcher tells Mike that he had just made that up years ago to help him feel better; not deterred, the neighborhood comes together to make a sweded movie about their history as Fats Waller’s birthplace. 

clip_image004There are many other movies that use a crumbling community as a backdrop for a storyline, and the community is saved by 2some action of the lead characters. For example, in Two Weeks Notice, Sandra Bullock and Hugh Grant bicker but eventually save her parents’ neighborhood center. In Life Stinks, Mel Brooks’ slumlord experiences homelessness and brings the community together. 

In those two movies, the main characters purposefully organize the solution to saving their communities. However, in Be Kind Rewind, the entire community knowingly fabricates the “fact” that their building/neighborhood/community is the birthplace of Fats Waller. This is an example of self-fulfilling prophecy and the social construction of reality.

Robert K. Merton defines a self-fulfilling prophecy as a false belief that is acted upon and becomes real in its consequences. When we believe something is real and we act accordingly, we make that thing real because “it” changes our behavior. If we didn’t act as if it were real, it wouldn’t exist as more than a thought. 

The social construction of reality is a theory that members of a society create (or construct) for that society, and then forget that they do so. Society then seems like it has a reality outside the people, and the society then perpetuates itself by creating (socializing) more members. The members and the society are busy creating or maintaining each other, although the members are not conscious of their part in the process.

The concept of self-fulfilling prophecy is typically applied at the micro level, focusing on people’s behavior, while the social construction of reality is a macro theory focusing on entire societies and their overall structure. However, both of these are apparent at the community level in Be Kind Rewind

The community decides to believe that Fats Waller was born there. They pursue historic status and once they do so, it appears that it becomes “true.” The once distant and demoralized community rallies around that idea and becomes a vibrant community once again (at least for the closing scenes).

March 18, 2008

Racism in Toyland

author_karen By Karen Sternheimer

You have probably heard critics of Barbie decry the unrealistic beauty image the toy reflects. I’m guessing you may have already thought about the way that children’s toys promote somewhat rigid gender identities. But have you ever thought about how toys reflect racial inequality?

During the holiday shopping season, a friend of mine went to buy a doll for her daughter. She had a coupon for a specific doll from the  newspaper circular, and she was excited because she knew that particular doll also came in a black version. Since her daughter is multiracial, she likes her to have dolls of many hues to play with.image

But when she went to check out, she was told that the coupon was only valid on the white doll.

Now there might be marketing reasons that the coupon could only work with the white doll; the UPC code might have been different on the black doll. Maybe they had an abundance of white dolls that the store was looking to move off of the shelves. Since the manufacturer probably produces so many more white versions of the doll and the retailer also probably buys a whole lot more of the white ones, it makes sense from a business perspective that one version would be cheaper to clear inventory. Ultimately, the store image manager refused to honor the coupon (which did not say was for white dolls only).

But from a sociological standpoint, the price difference is a surcharge for black dolls which could work to deter customers from buying one. According to the U.S. Census, the median household income for African Americans is approximately 61% of white, non-Hispanic households. This income disparity makes it even more of a burden to pay more for essentially the same doll. 

Since the middle of the last century, toy manufacturers have come a long way. Dora the Explorer is an extremely popular Latina image television character (with requisite doll and other toys). Fisher Price's Little People toys also feature children clearly from multiple ethnic groups. American Girl dolls are mostly white, but their Mexican American, Native American and African American dolls aren’t segregated on their homepage, as they are on www.toysrus.com. If you visit this site and click on dolls, they have many categories to choose from, including "ethnic dolls". Even many of those dolls appear to be white or very light skinned. 

This separate category literally segregates dolls of color…except most of these dolls at best look like white people with deep tans. Of those slightly darker in color, they often have Caucasian-like hair and even blue eyes. 

image There’s another curious thing about the “ethnic” category: it presumes that “ethnic” only refers to people who are not white in appearance. The other dolls are just dolls.

This designation reflects the way in which people classified as “white” today are often viewed as “non-ethnic,” when by definition everyone has an ethnicity. As Janis Prince Inniss previously blogged about, ethnicity refers to cultural practices, custom, language, and ancestry. It is not insignificant that some groups become seen as “normal” and others “ethnic”. And it is not insignificant that dolls reflect this inequality.

You might be familiar with a famous experiment from 1954, where a psychologist found that black girls chose white dolls more often than black dolls. This study influenced the Supreme Court’s landmark Brown v. Board of Education decision that same year, as the high court interpreted this experiment to mean that these children had internalized racism, and that segregation’s psychological effects needed to be reversed.image

A high school student replicated this experiment with 21 girls in New York in 2005 and found similar results, which received national attention. 

Certainly self-esteem issues are important. But we often overlook the role the toy industry plays in shaping which dolls seem “better” to children of all image racial/ethnic backgrounds. It is obviously not enough just to have “ethnic” dolls available (albeit this is a major step forward from the 1954 experiment when likely very few were widely available).

When dolls are segregated in the stores or are simply colored-in versions of other dolls, it sends a message that they are less desirable. In one store my friend visited, she saw no non-white dolls and asked whether they carried any. The clerk told her that they had black Cabbage Patch dolls, but they were in the storeroom and that she would gladly go to get her one. 

While it would be illegal to require a black person to eat their lunch only in a restaurant’s kitchen or sit on the back of the bus today, it isn’t illegal to segregate dolls. But it does communicate their inferior status.

Sociologist Christine L. Williams conducted ethnographic research in toy stores, which she describes in her book Inside Toyland: Working, Shopping, and Social Inequality. Williams worked as a clerk and was able to interact with both shoppers and store management. 

She notes that in the big box store where she worked, black children (and often their families) were frequently considered shoplifters, particularly if staff members (of all races) thought they appeared to be low-income. When they entered toy stores, they were clearly less-than welcome. In contrast, rules were often bent for white middle class female shoppers and clerks were expected to provide them with a significant level of service.

Williams noticed that African American shoppers were given less attention than white shoppers. If they got angry they were not appeased by staff, as their white counterparts often were, but instead might be told to leave the store. In some cases the police were even called.

Toys are social manifestations of many things: they represent collective (although contested) ideas of how children should play; their presentation and marketing reflects notions of value, and their purchase reflects and reinforces inequality.

March 14, 2008

Celebrating St. Patrick's Day: Symbolic Ethnicity

author_janis By Janis Prince Inniss

clip_image002I’m seeing green! St. Patrick’s green, that is. Everywhere. At the grocery store. At Wal-Mart. At the mall. At my gym. Surely you’ve seen the decorations and a variety of green products such as carnations, bagels, greeting cards, frosted cupcakes, and in Chicago the even the Chicago River!

My introduction to St. Paddy’s day came when I lived in New York City; fitting because New York is home to the first of these parades anywhere, and hosts the largest Irish parade with up to 3 million onlookers. Irish soldiers began the parade in New York in 1762 and it has grown to include more than 150,000 people from a variety of Irish organizations. It is the largest parade in New York, even bigger than the Macy's Thanksgiving Day parade. 

Is there a parade in your city? Chicago, Boston, and Savannah, along with a variety of other cities around the world have St. Patrick’s Day parades. In the U.S. St. Patrick’s Day is a religious holiday celebrated for centuries by the Irish on March 17th during Lent. Although the details about his early life differ, Patrick is saidMmj017247700001_3   to have died on March 17, 460 A.D., and most scholars agree that he introduced Christianity to Ireland. Traditionally, Irish families’ St. Patrick Day’s celebration involved attending church in the morning and then—with the restriction against eating meat lifted for the occasion—feast on bacon and cabbage in the evening. The focus on St. Patrick’s Day as a religious holiday in Ireland has remained that way until recently; it was only in the 1970s that pubs were allowed to remain open on this day.clip_image004

Why do Irish Americans celebrate St. Patrick’s Day? This celebration is an example of symbolic ethnicity, characterized by a need to hold on to the culture of the immigrant generation, coupled with a pragmatic desire not to let this culture interfere with everyday life. The “old” culture is converted into ethnic symbols that must be simple enough to be shared by many people and easily understood. Many whites in the U.S. who maintain ethnic identities only do so in symbolic ways that take little time and minimally affect their everyday lives. Ethnicity, then, becomes highly individualized and expressive, although it has little or no impact on day-to-day living. Their ethnicity is tied to voluntary and arguably superficial events such as dishes cooked and holidays celebrated; for many, St. Patrick’s Day can be understood in this context.

Ag00405__3 Sociologist Mary Waters theorizes that the element of choice available to white ethnics makes symbolic ethnicity appealing. Although their ethnicity does not impact their lives in any crucial ways, Waters argues that it is important to white ethnics because ethnicity combines two important aspects of life. First, ethnicity connotes individuality—a feeling of being special that sets one apart from others. Second, it provides a sense of community, albeit a loosely knit one. This sense of community does not infringe on or restrict personal lives. Attending a St. Patrick’s Day parade, for example, allows Irish Americans to feel a part of the Irish American community but when the parade is over there's no stipulation that their lives have to be guided by Irish tradition or culture.

The traditional Irish focus on the religious aspects of St. Patrick’s Day stands in sharp contrast to the festive American counterpart. Right now, we have a unique opportunity to notice the tensions between the religious and the celebratory aspects of St. Patrick’s Day: This year, Holy Week—the week before Easter that includes Palm Sunday and Good Friday, which memorializes the last week of Jesus’ life—begins on Sunday, March 16th. This means that St. Patrick’s Day falls on Holy Monday. Many church officials in the U.S. have been asking St. Patrick's Day parade organizers not to hold their parade on this day,in deference to Holy Monday. Some cities such as Philadelphia anclip_image007d Milwaukee are having early parades, but the biggest one of them all, the New York parade, and many others will continue as always on March 17—Holy Monday.

Interestingly, St. Patrick’s is celebrated by many Americans who are not Irish. (Almost three quarters (71.8 %) of Americans 18-24 years old will celebrate the day, and although 34.5 million Americans claim to have Irish ancestry, this number clearly does not account for all of those taking party in the celebrations.) This leads to a staggering amount of money spent on the festivities--$3.6 billion according to the National Retail Foundation.

Why do you think so many people with no Irish heritage celebrate St. Patrick’s Day? Clearly, the symbols (partying and wearing green) are simple enough to be shared by many people

March 11, 2008

How Effective Is Diversity Training?

author_cn By C.N. Le

The conventional thinking among sociologists and, I would guess, many corporations is that diversity training is ultimately beneficial for their company or organization -- that it results in greater workplace harmony, more opportunities for advancement for women and racial/ethnic minorities, and more productivity for all their workers.

However, as the Washington Post reports, a new study by Alexandra Kalev, a sociologist at the University of Arizona, shows that when attendance at diversity training is mandatory, rather than voluntary, it is likely to lead to counterproductive results:

A comprehensive review of 31 years of data from 830 mid-size to large U.S. workplaces found that the kind of diversity training exercises offered at most firms were followed by a 7.5 percent drop in the number of women in management. 

The number of black, female managers fell by 10 percent, and the number of black men in top positions fell by 12 percent. Similar effects were seen for Latinos and Asians.

The analysis did not find that all diversity training is useless. Rather, it showed that mandatory programs -- often undertaken mainly with an eye to avoiding liability in discrimination lawsuits -- were the problem. When diversity training is voluntary and undertaken to advance a company's business goals, it was associated with increased diversity in management.

Several experts offered two reasons for this: The first is that businesses are responding rationally to the legal environment, since several Supreme Court rulings have held that companies with mandatory diversity training are in a stronger position if they face a discrimination lawsuit. 

Second, many companies -- with the implicit cooperation of diversity trainers -- find it easier to offer exercises that serve public relations goals, diversity2a rather than to embrace real change.

I am disappointed but not completely surprised to hear that most diversity training programs are actually counterproductive. In fact, one might be tempted to say that this finding reinforces the argument that greater diversity actually leads to less trust and civic cooperation among Americans, which I blogged about earlier.

Nonetheless, it's important to understand that the main reason diversity training doesn't seem to produce many benefits in corporations is not because of the increase of diversity itself, but because the underlying motivation and support for increased diversity in the workplace is fundamentally superficial and weak to begin with.

In other words, when diversity training in corporations fails, it is almost always because the company in question is motivated by fear of lawsuits rather than by a genuine desire for greater diversity. They are often just going through the motions and putting on a public relations show that has very little true commitment to the underlying principles involved in diversity training.

In contrast, other scholars’ research reinforces the notion that greater diversity can and often does lead to benefits for an organization or society in general. For example, I have blogged about how a mediating institution such as religion can be used as the "social glue" to bring diverse groups of people together.

diversity3aIn fact, Prof. Kalev's research on corporate diversity training compliments the work of Scott E. Page, a professor of complex systems, political science, and economics at the University of Michigan, who wrote The Difference: How the Power of Diversity Creates Better Groups, Firms, Schools and Societies. In this book he argues that programs which increase diversity in any organizational setting are ultimately beneficial for society: 

Diverse groups of people bring to organizations more and different ways of seeing a problem and, thus, faster/better ways of solving it.

People from different backgrounds have varying ways of looking at problems, what I call “tools.” The sum of these tools is far more powerful in organizations with diversity than in ones where everyone has gone to the same schools, been trained in the same mold and thinks in almost identical ways.

The problems we face in the world are very complicated. Any one of us can get stuck. If we're in an organization where everyone thinks in the same way, everyone will get stuck in the same place. . . . [Affirmative action is] a flat-out good because, as I said earlier, it makes everything we  do more powerful.

Prof. Page's argument is that diversity and heterogeneity in any organization, facilitated through programs such as affirmative action, leads to innovation and ultimately benefits the entire organization. He also argues that diversity can come in many different forms, not just simple racial/ethnic identity.

Prof. Page's arguments for diversity through programs such as affirmative action support the ideas expressed in Prof. Kalev's research. In order for diversity training programs to be successful in corporations, there needs to be a fundamental commitment to and embrace of its core principles.

The take home message here is that the goal of diversity (and therefore diversity training) is fundamentally sound. It's just that in order for such goals to be realized, organizations need to accept and internalize them as part of their mission rather than just use the training to satisfy legal requirements.

March 07, 2008

Where to Sit: Doing Qualitative Research

author_brad By Bradley Wright

One of the fun things to do in sociology is to make empirical generalizations. Sometimes in research we start with an idea or a theory, make a hypothesis, and then collect data to test if our idea is correct. This is deductive research, going from large (abstract idea) to small (collecting data about specific people or situations). Deductive research can be very interesting, because we learn if our ideas hold up in the real world, but I don’t think that it’s as fun as inductive research (and as I am aging—about a year annually—I am placing more weight on research being fun).

Sometimes when we enter a situation, even if we don’t know anything about it, we start noticing things. We notice if there are patterns to peoples’ behavior. From these patterns, we create larger explanations about how the social world works. This is inductive because we start with the smaller observation, and from it we build explanations about the larger social world. 

Here’s a simple example of how to create empirical generalizations. In my social research methods class, I asked my students why they sat where they did. It clip_image002[5]was a reasonable question because the class itself has about 100 chairs, but there are only 50 students, so they had some choice in where they sat.

After talking for about it for about 10 minutes, we came up with the following ways that students decided where to sit.

1) Look for a friend. When you walk into the classroom, first look for someone that you know reasonably well and feel positively toward and sit next to them if there’s an available seat nearby. Or, if you’re really close, see if they’ll move so that you can sit next to them. Don’t sit next to them if you know them well but feel negatively toward them (e.g., an enemy). Also, don’t sit next to them, at least too conspicuously, if you feel positively but don’t know them (e.g., you’re attracted to a stranger).

2) Figure out how close to the front of the room you like to be. If you’re right up front, you catch everything that is going on, but it does make it difficult to sleep, text message, or talk with your friends. If you want to goof around a bit, maybe sit in the back.

3) Find a comfortable seat. Classroom seating is usually pretty tight, with the seats being crammed together—just like economy seating on an airplane. The best seats are those on the aisle. Once class starts, students in the aisle seats can stretch out their legs more than those in the interior seats. The first students to arrive in the class tend to take the aisle seats, and as a result the students arriving later have to step past them to get to the middle seats.

clip_image0044) Keep an empty seat between you and others (unless you know them). When at all possible, pick a seat that has empty seats on both sides. Seating directly next to someone invades their personal space, and it gives you less room as well.

5) Sit in same area each time. Once you find a suitable seat, try to sit in it, or near it, every class period. This way you get the best seat for you each time, and you don’t really have to think about it. Of course, you may have to change if someone is sitting too close to that seat.

We came up with some other factors that might be incorporated, such as left-handed desks for left-handed students and not sitting directly behind people, especially if they are tall, but the five criteria listed above represented the main decisions made by the students. 

Because students follow these criteria, when I as a professor look out on a classroom, I see alternate seating with only friends sitting next to each other. The aisle seats are always taken. Also, since students tend to sit in the same area each time, I learn to recognize them in 


part by where they sit. In fact, on test days, when I assign random seating, I have trouble recognizing all of my students.

These seating rules are strong enough that they represent social norms, and it can be considered deviant to violate them. For example, if you have friends in a class, but you go sit by yourself, they would probably be upset. Likewise, if there are plenty of empty seats, but you pick one right next to someone, they may take offense.


Obviously where to sit in classrooms is a relatively minor issue in the grand scheme of things. Still, it represents a highly structured social interaction, demonstrating the reach of social norms into every aspect of our lives.

March 04, 2008

No Exit: Sociology Meets Air Travel

author_karen By Karen Sternheimer

When I was in high school I was really into existentialism. Not a surprise, considering that teens are often trying to figure out the meaning of their lives (even though existentialists consider life to be without inherent meaning…but I digress). 

One of my favorites was the Jean-Paul Sartre play, No Exit. If memory serves, the play is about a group of people, each seriously flawed in their own way, who had to spend eternity together. To paraphrase Sartre’s point, “hell is other people.”

For some reason this idea really struck a chord with me when we read it in my 12th grade world literature class. Other people can really help create friction that otherwise might not exist. (The irony that I would become a sociologist is not lost on me, by the way). clip_image002

This thought occurred to me on a recent flight. As in Sartre’s play, I was placed in close quarters with a selection of strangers, each with their own unique set of characteristics. Although I thankfully will not spend eternity with them, for the four hours of the flight’s duration we had to learn to negotiate relationships with one another and manage our emotions in the process.

Our challenge began immediately upon boarding. There was someone sitting in my aisle seat, so I had to ask her to move. She did, reluctantly leaving her eleven-year-old son sitting in the middle seat. As I was getting settled in, the woman asked him repeatedly if he was okay from her middle seat across the aisle. 

Each time he answered that he was, but within minutes she asked if I wouldn’t mind sitting in her middle seat just for take off, that I could move back for the flight, and then we could switch again when the plane descended. I said we clip_image004should just switch, that I didn’t want to move back and forth. I admit I was less than gracious about exchanging seats, until I saw a rather attractive man who had the window seat now next to me, which seemed like a just reward.

So I fully admit to being part of the friction, which increased when I asked the flight attendant if I could use the bathroom in first class before the flight left, since it was much closer than walking to the back of the plane as people were getting seated. She was clearly annoyed but agreed. 

This type of social situation produces all sorts of opportunities to breach norms and challenge what we think are agreed upon social rules. I gave up a highly valued aisle seat for the least valued middle seat. I also crossed “class” lines by using the bathroom in the wrong cabin.

Other social rules get tested while flying too. The young woman in front of me chatted quite loudly with her seat mate for a good part of the flight. It was obvious from the conversation that they did not know each other, as they talked about where they lived clip_image008and the weather in their respective homes. 

Nothing is unusual about this, except that the loud conversation was continually peppered with profanity. I had the sense that the man next to me was annoyed too, but neither of us said anything to each other or to her. 

I thought about this for a few minutes—what would I say? Do I ask the flight attendant to remind her of the unwritten social rule to watch your language? She might have thought that since only adults were immediately next to her and behind her it was totally acceptable to use the f-word as her favorite adjective. Or maybe she was trying to bond with her similarly-aged seat mate by using words she thought might connote familiarity.

The other people surrounding me carried on conversations too: where they grew up, where they live now, favorite restaurants in their destination city, places to shop, and so forth. This type of conversation seems quite acceptable under the circumstances, yet for those trying to sleep (as I was) any talk was disturbing.

In fairness, I’m sure sitting next to me was not so great either. I had a raging cold and spent the entire flight blowing my nose and sucking on cough drops. Because of the absence of personal space, there is a good chance that these unsuspecting strangers left clip_image006the flight with my germs.

When the plane landed, I couldn’t wait to get out of there and leave my temporary intimates forever. I learned more about them that I wanted to (the lady next to me had ten children, the man next to me played fantasy soccer league on his Mac, even after the flight attendant asked us to turn off all electronic devices). 

But with the critical distance of walking through the airport terminal, I realized the absurdity of my irritation. After all, I safely traveled more than 2,000 miles in four hours. The flight was smooth, landed and departed on time. They even served a hot meal in coach (yes, Continental still does that!), and the only challenge was in negotiating being so close to other people.

This experience reminded me that unspoken rules often contradict each other; while some people might prefer that one rule be followed, others might be following another. Is hell other people? I wouldn’t go that far, but we do present challenges to each other when we are in close quarters with no exit.

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