11 posts from April 2008

April 28, 2008

What's a Spurious Correlation?

author_brad By Bradley Wright

Every sociology major learns about the concept of spurious correlation, but they don’t always fully understand it. This concept matters because when it occurs, two things look like they cause each other, but in reality they don’t.

Here’s how spurious correlation works. Suppose we have two things that are correlated. This means that when we see levels of one of them change, we usually also see levels of the other change. Because we’re academics, and not always very creative, we’ll call these things “A” and “B” (sounds like a Dr. Seuss book).

If we see “A” correlate with “B”


We might be tempted to assume that “A” causes “B” or that “B” causes “A.”



There may be causation, but there may not be. Before we go much further, we have to look for a third variable, boldly named “C”, that creates a spurious correlation between “A” and “B”. This happens when “C” causes both “A” and “B” and thus produces the observed correlation between them.

We might draw it as follows:



Okay, this is where presentations of spurious correlation usually stop. Some students get it, some don’t. I’m teaching research methods this semester, and I wanted to make this concept more understandable, so I asked the students to come up with examples of spurious correlation based on things that they observed in their everyday life. After reading these examples, you should have a better understanding of how spurious correlation works.

  • One student had gone out partying the weekend before, and while sitting in the bar watching his friends during the evening, he noticed that people who had the most fun dancing were also those who were most likely to throw up by the end off the evening. It’s not that dancing made them sick (“A” causes “B”), or that being sick make them have fun dancing (yuck—“B” causes “A”), rather there is a third variable, alcohol consumption (“C”) that leads to both fun dancing and sickness.
  • A student works as a nurse at a local hospital. He noticed that the patients who received radiation therapy were also those most likely to die (A and B). Why? Cancer (C) leads to both radiation and death.
  • A student has noticed that the mornings when she has the toughest time getting out of bed are also the mornings with the most car accidents on the roads around campus. It’s not that her staying in bed causes car accidents (A-> B), or that she stays in bed out of fear of car accidents (B->A); rather bad weather causes both car accidents and her wanting to stay in bed.
  • A student lives in the dorms next to some guys who are varsity athletes. The guys were explaining to her that women are attracted to them (A) because they are athletes (B). She, however, pointed out that it could be because of their muscular bodies (C). Maybe being strong increases their athleticism and it also attracts women.
  • A student is from the Caribbean island of St. Thomas. He has noticed that the more people there are on the island, the more crime there is. It’s not that simply having a greater population leads to crime, or that crime attracts more people. Instead, the population swells when lots of tourists arrive, and the tourists commit crimes.
  • A student explained that when she burps (A), she also gets the chills (B). She doesn’t think that she burps in response to the chills, or that she gets chilled because she burps. Rather, she just thinks that something weird is happening in her body (C) that causes both.
  • Finally, a student and his friends formed a rock band some years ago, and they are trying to make it big. It doesn’t look promising though. As he explains it, the more they practice, the better they sound. Unfortunately, he thinks the relationship between practice time (A) and quality of sound (B) is spurious. The band practices in a friend’s unheated garage and during winter its pretty cold, so they don’t like to practice much. When they do practice, their fingers are so cold, that they have trouble playing their instruments. As such, the cold temperature (C) both decreases practice time (A) and performance quality (B), leading to correlation between them. The student doubts that they are actually getting better, and he may need to plan a career as something other than a rock star.

April 25, 2008

Is Stealing "Mad Money" a Crime?

author_janis By Janis Prince Inniss

A few days ago, I saw the film Mad Money. (Spoiler alert: The movie is summarized here, ending and all.) The film is about three women (played by Diane Keaton, Queen Latifah and Katie Holmes) who work at the local Federal Reserve Bank. Queen Latifah is Nina, the single mother of two boys while Katie Holmes plays Jackie, a gum smacking, head-phone wearing married kook. Diane Keaton plays Bridget, the stay at home wife of Ted Danson (Don). 

When Don is laid off and their upper middle life class life is threatened, Bridget goes to work at the bank as a janitor. (As a wife and mother, albeit with a college degree, Bridget has no marketable job skills.) Shortly after she starts the job, Bridget has the bright idea of robbing the bank by enlisting the help of the other two women who work with her there. After relatively little resistance to this idea, the three women join forces and despite lots of bank security, the J0282993 three are successful. 

The women target old money that is being taken out of circulation. With one successful theft completed the threesome steal again. Except a security guard who has a crush on Nina, no one catches on to their crime. His silence is bought and the spree goes on for three years. Finally, an outsider comes along and fingers the group and everyone but the instigator, Bridget, is arrested. The police are forced to release them, however, because the only confession is recanted and because the prideful bank manager insists that there is no way to breach his security. 

At this point in the movie the women don’t appear to have gotten much for their years of stealing, given that they have destroyed most of the money they stole. True, they have spent some of it: The single mother has used her money to put her children into private school and to buy a home in a better neighborhood. Don and Bridget are able to keep their upper-middle class lifestyle and all its perks. Jackie and her husband buy a new trailer and a few other toys and he is able to leave his meat plant job. 

But overall, they haven’t gone mad spending the money—and this is intentional; they do not want to draw attention to themselves and arouse suspicions. Nor do they seem much like criminals, at least as they are generally portrayed on film. They’re well-dressed as only women in film can be, are shown having a good time and living “respectable” lives. It’s not like they’re grungy men with masks, hurting people by robbing commercial banks. I thought the film would end here, with the women having received their own private stimulus package, free to enjoy their cash influx. But no, fast-forward months later, and Bridget gathers the group together to show them tons of money she had stashed at a bar they frequented. So they’re free and rich! 

clip_image003Deviance is defined as ignoring societal norms. The concept includes a wide range of individual and group transgressions. Stealing is generally considered deviant behavior in this culture, but in this movie none of the thieves received any of the sanctions that deviant behavior typically prompts. In fact it seems a stretch to call them thieves. Any attempt at formal sanctions, such as prosecuting the three women, was abandoned. As for informal sanctions, there is little indication that any of their friends or neighbors view the women differently. The lone source of informal sanction I recall in the film was a clip_image005neighbor who gave Bridget the cold shoulder. 

Interactionist theorists focus on how particular behaviors receive the label “deviant”, and in this tradition labeling theorists examine the relationship between deviants and nondeviants. Those in positions of power, according to labeling theorists, make the labels. Bridget represents wealth to the other two relatively poor women; she says they are “recycling” because the money they take is old and on its way to being shredded. In the context of this film, it is Bridget’s definition of the group as “recyclers” that explain why the women receive no punishment and are able to walk away with wads of cash. 

A simplistic summary of many movies is that the good guys catch the bad guys. (And they are usually guys, not women). The crimes of the bad guys are often clear-cut and we root for James Bond, Jason Bourne and Ethan Hunt to catch and punish them. But if no one is the “bad guy”, what does that mean? Ultimately, does “Mad Money” depict a crime?

April 23, 2008

Can Sociology Explain American Idol's Appeal?

author_karen By Karen Sternheimer 

By now you have probably seen at least one episode of American Idol, and maybe even have a strong opinion about who this season’s winner should be. But have you ever thought about why it is so popular? 

It is certainly not the first talent show to be on television. Remember Star Search? I barely do. Not just because the show has been off the air for thirteen years, but it never generated the buzz of American Idol…a Star Search winner might be an interesting tidbit of  trivia, but Idol winners become household names almost immediately. How come? zwani.com myspace graphic comments

Clearly, there are many reasons the show has been so successful. As Bradley Wright recently blogged about, the judges are a key factor. I have to admit that I prefer to watch the early auditions to hear the judges respond to the talent-challenged contestants. Simon’s snappy barbs violate my own sense of kindness and the social norm of “being nice,” yet somehow seeing that violated is entertaining (particularly since I am not on the receiving end). The auditioners reflect a central principle of comedy: a character totally committed to his or her actions while completely lacking self-awareness. And there are plenty of those. 

But beyond the bad singers, one of the key elements to Idol’s success is its interactivity. The audience can have a stake in the outcome by voting for their favorite right away by phone or text message. In our Internet age, media that don’t allow for our input and interaction seems dated. Even some national news programs encourage viewers to post comments online during the program. This challenges old complaints about television being a “passive” medium (see books like The Plug-in Drug for example). 

What’s interesting now is how books from the mid-twentieth century made interactive media seem apocalyptic. Did you ever see the 1968 film based on Arthur C. Clarke’s 2001: A Space Odyssey, when Hal the computer takes over? It still freaks me out.

Another example is the 1966 movie based on Ray Bradbury’s great sci-fi book, Fahrenheit 451, which some interpret to be about how television destroys interest in reading. In this dystopia, “firemen” burn books, and an underground society springs up where people memorize books so that the world’s great literature doesn’t disappear. The film is being remade for release in 2010, perhaps reflecting renewed concerns about our digital age (or a lack of creativity on behalf of studio execs…or both). 

This Fahrenheit 451 clip really resonated with me when I first saw the film in the 1980s. It seemed very Orwellian, that Big Brother would no longer allow us to watch television peacefully without demanding something from us. In contrast to the mostly utopian beliefs about computers and technology today, before we got to “the future” it seemed like it could destroy freedom and maybe even society itself. 

But this has not exactly happened, at least not to the extent portended in these two novels. In fact, we might argue that interactive media technology has significant social benefits beyond the obvious ones. 

Emile Durkheim, often called the father of sociology, might even say that interactivity and involvement with shows like American Idol promotes social cohesion. For Durkheim, problems emerge within any society when its members feel a sense of disconnection and separation. Solidarity, by contrast, promotes stability and conformity, image which is often difficult for large, heterogeneous societies to create. 

Sociologists Daniel Dayan and Elihu Katz write in their book Media Events: The Live Broadcasting of History that events which generate a lot of media attention can have the impact of uniting large groups of people who otherwise might have little in common. Do you think American Idol promotes social cohesion? It may give us a sense of shared culture, and something to bond over by talking about favorite (or least favorite) contestants. 

Beyond American Idol, a thought-provoking Los Angeles Times op-ed piece suggests that Americans might even be happier about paying taxes (yes, “tax” and “happy” in the same sentence) if we could designate exactly where our money goes: 

Love national parks? Give the Department of the Interior a generous slice. Against the war? Zero out the Department of Defense.

Individual income taxes account for slightly less than half of the roughly $2.4 trillion the IRS collected last year. So the less-sexy programs (crop research, say, or U.S. Mint operations) could still be funded by Congress with other revenues. And because some taxpayers inevitably wouldn't designate any choices, there would still be a little slush fund for Congress to spend on pet projects. What about really critical things like Social Security or education? There's the beauty! Taxpayers decide what's really critical. And if we don't like what we achieve, well, we get to decide again the next year.

Would you feel better about paying taxes and our federal government if you could tell them how you wanted your money spent, much like a donation to the Red Cross? I wouldn’t try this at home unless Congress agrees, and I’m guessing they won’t. And while voting for your favorite American Idol contestant won’t necessarily make you a better citizen, do you think it promotes a sense of connection to something bigger?

April 22, 2008

Everyday Sociology Talk: Can Sociology Explain $4 Gasoline?

As  you can see, gas in Los Angeles has risen above the $4  mark. Can sociology help us understand why?Gas_station

Karen Sternheimer and Sally Raskoff discuss a few ideas of how sociology explains rising gas prices. What are your ideas? (Yes, the steering wheel symbolizes consumers being choked by high gas prices...or it just got in the shot accidentally).

April 19, 2008

Informal Social Sanctions, Prostitution, and Johntv.com

author_brad By Bradley Wright

When we think of preventing crime, we usually think of the government punishing people with fines, arrest, jail time, and so forth. It turns out, however, that informal punishments by friends, family, and neighbors also deters crime as much, if not more, than formal punishments. These informal punishments can take many forms. A family member might express disapproval; a friend might cut off the friendship, and even passing strangers looking askance can prevent crime.


These informal social sanctions are part of daily life, and they aren’t necessarily planned ahead of time as a way of preventing crime. It’s in this context that we can think about a class of informal sanctions developed explicitly to prevent crime. These sanctions threaten public embarrassment as a way of deterring criminal behavior (as former New York Governor Eliot Spitzer might for other politicians). The logic here is that people sometimes care deeply about their good reputation, and will avoid activities that would threaten it. As such, threatening reputations might be a way to influence peoples’ behavior more effectively than threatened jail time.

Recently an individual in Oklahoma City has been getting a lot of attention for his efforts to use shame to prevent crime. His name is Brian Bates, and he styles himself as a video vigilante in his efforts to prevent prostitution. Brian started some years ago clip_image004when he got frustrated with the high levels of prostitution in his neighborhood. At one point, he came out of his house to find a prostitute and her client conducting business while parked in his driveway. He eventually testified in court for several cases, but no convictions resulted. Off-handedly, a prosecutor joked that maybe next time he could bring in a video clip, and he thought that was a good idea.

Armed with only a video camera, Bates drives around areas of Oklahoma City to video tape men who frequent prostitutes. He starts video taping when he sees a car slow down to pick up the prostitute, and then he follows them until they stop. After they engage their transaction, Bates will typically approach the car to film the customer. He confronts the man, asking him to explain his behavior, which the man usually denies, and Bates films the conversation.

Bates then posts his videos on-line for the whole world to see. Here is one of them, in which an Army recruiter, dressed in his uniform and driving a military car, gets caught “recruiting” paid sex. This video, and many more like it, are available on youtube.com. (In fact, Brian Bates gets a cut of the advertising dollars associated with each online view of these videotapes).

On Bates’ website, he says that deterring crime is his motivation. One of the goals of his work, he writes, is to “use those caught and published here as an example to hopefully dissuade others.” Elsewhere, Bates has been quoted as saying "If you get caught by the cops, you pay a fine. If you get caught by me, you get a life sentence… there's no reprieve, no probation. People will be hitting that video on Google searches as long as you live."

(Somewhat surprisingly, Bates supports the legalization of prostitution, in private settings. His focus is on “street” prostitution.)

Bates’ actions have raised various ethical concerns—does he have the right to follow people around and videotape them? Apparently, he does, as long as it’s all done in public. Bates also turns over his videos to the police in an effort to assist them in getting convictions for prostitution. The police, however, have reported that they tend not to be of much use.

A remaining question is whether his work is effective in deterring street prostitution in Oklahoma City. It’s difficult to know, but my guess would be that it does deter individuals who are caught once from doing it again. It seems like the shame of having friends, family, and coworkers watch such activities on-line would lead a person to find some other outlet for their desires. It’s less clear, however, that his work discourages customers who have not previously been caught. Probably many of them have never heard of Bates and his video camera, and others are from out of town.

Ironically, there could well be some reverse shaming going on here. While Bates emphasizes that he’s the good-guy here, and he’s bringing justice to the community, perhaps people have begun to wonder about somebody spending his days trying to film other people having sex.

Who knows, maybe someday we’ll all have video cameras, and we’ll be so busy videotaping each other that we won’t have time to break the law.

April 16, 2008

Criticizing China and the Olympic Torch Protests

author_cn By C.N. Le

As the 2008 Summer Olympics in Beijing draws near, countless news organizations and bloggers have been covering the controversy over protests surrounding the Olympic Torch relays that have taken place all over the world, including its only U.S. stop in San Francisco.

I have previously stated my position on this complicated issue by trying to take a moderate approach: I do not support calls for a blanket or total boycott of Chinese goods or other products, but I wholeheartedly support keeping the pressure on China (and the corporate sponsors of the Beijing Olympics) to improve its record on human rights, environmental protection, safe products, and freedom for Tibet.

This particular issue has become rather prominent here at UMass Amherst recently, where there was a demonstration on campus that pitted pro-Chinese graduate and undergraduate students against pro-Free Tibet and other students opposed to China:

"We're in support of peaceful coexistence and against the violence and media distortion in Tibet," said Gorge Liu, a graduate student at the University of Massachusetts. "It is reported as if the Chinese police are creating the violence, when in fact it is the civilians."

Waving the Chinese flag and chanting, "One China," and "Go Beijing," the participants handed out leaflets with what they described as educational material on Tibet to passing students. . . .

Members of the Students for a Free Tibet group circulated in the crowd, handing out bags of candy with informational leaflets attached to torch-protests2stopping students.

"We're talking about current issues in Tibet, where people are getting killed for speaking the truth," said Lhakyi Lokyitsang, vice president of the student organization. "Tibetans in Tibet are not only protesting, but they're risking their lives to do it."

I was not on campus that day and therefore did not witness the protests, but I understand that this is an emotional issue for members of both sides. This is also an issue that deeply divides the Asian American community in general, particularly Chinese Americans.

Helen Zia, author of Asian American Dreams and an icon of social justice and activism in the Asian American community, wrote about why she will participate by carrying the Olympic Torch when it reaches San Francisco:

Unfortunately the calls to boycott the Olympics and to label everything about China "evil" can only isolate China and the United States from each  other. China is not a monolith and blanket condemnations of China and its people are as simplistic as blaming all Americans for the U.S. human rights violations at Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo.

Such rhetoric, however, is driving many Chinese bloggers into a nationalistic response. Attitudes like these hark back to the Cold War days, when the U.S. and China were completely shut off from each other. . . .

Someday China will join the United States as a world superpower – but the American and Chinese people do not have to retreat back to those Cold War corners. The world will be safer if China, the United States and other countries can address human rights and other critical issues in the community of nations and peoples, not in isolation.

This article includes comments from readers who support Helen Zia's position and from those who are critical of it. These reactions sum up the range of opinions that many Asian Americans and others have on this issue, and reflect the level of emotion that is involved.

One of my favorite quotes of all time is one attributed to Bill Cosby: "I don't know what's the key to success, but the key to failure is trying to please everybody." At the risk of contradicting that maxim, I again will try to assert a moderate position. I deeply respect Helen Zia and agree with her stance that isolating and a mass boycott of China is not the answer -- I believe that the best change happens through engagement and inclusion, not separation and discrimination.

torch-protests1a At the same time, I support and defend the rights of China's critics to express their opposition and to use protests against the Olympics and the Torch Relay to urge China to improve its human rights abuses and to allow Tibet to become independent. I support their use of the Olympics as a legitimate forum within which to engage and criticize the Chinese government.

However, expressions of opposition have a limit -- I have no problem with mass protests and demonstrations, but I do not support threats of violence or physical attacks against people like Helen Zia who disagree with them and have chosen to participate in the torch relay.

This is clearly an emotional issue for many of us, but I hope that members from both sides remember that freedom of expression also entails responsibility of expression. People can have any opinion on this issue that they want, but participating in a democratic society also means exercising these freedoms appropriately.

This is also what sociologists can contribute to the debate: a balanced -- but not necessarily a completely impartial -- look at many sides of an issue in order to create proposals that can help to bridge those divides.

April 13, 2008

Sex: It's Not What You Think

author_sally By Sally Raskoff

Have you seen the news items about Thomas Beatie and his wife expecting a child August 2008? Mr. Beatie was born female but transitioned to a man by undergoing hormone therapy and having sex reassignment surgery on his breasts but not on his lower anatomy. When they decided to have a baby, he stopped taking the hormones, they used artificial insemination, and he successfully got pregnant.

Both Mr. and Mrs. Beatie were on Oprah recently and the news media picked up the story: Pregnant Man! Oprah’s interview was very careful but thorough, asking the Beaties questions about who they were and how this pregnancy thing worked. Mr. Beatie was quite open about how he came to be a man, how he met and married his wife, how and why they got pregnant, how their neighbors feel about it, and how life has changed since they went to People magazine and Oprah to share their story (see clips).

TV Interview with Oprah








Since the new media has gotten the story, various sources have been handling it with differing degrees of care. CNN interviewed his neighbors who look incredulous about Mr. Beatie’s pregnancy.

While there are plenty of other examples of how the news media is (mis)handling this story, I’d like to point out that this situation really shouldn’t be unexpected, nor should it be surprising.

Looking at this situation from a sociological perspective, we remember that sex and gender and sexual orientation are three distinct and separate, albeit related, concepts. Sex has to do with the body, gender has to do with the social roles we ascribe to people in various sex categories, and sexual orientation has to do with to whom and/or what types of people one is attracted sexually. While we are taught and socialized to think that sex and gender are clip_image002dichotomous categories that are inextricably linked (male=men and female=women) and that sexual orientation has a normative form (heterosexuality), the research shows that these categories are more fluid and flexible. 

Even something that seems straightforward--sex—varies. Some “intersex” babies have chromosomal variations that make their sex indeterminate (Not just XY and XX but also XXY, X0, XXX, those with the mosaic pattern of both XX and XY, and others) and others are born with hormonal or other developmental variations (for example, humans with XX chromosomes but whose bodies appear male, those with XY who appear female, those who appear female but puberty brings them into full functioning male form, and those whose genitalia are ambiguous). 

Gender varies too, despite the tremendous social pressures to socialize males into “masculine” men and females into “feminine” women. Men experience pressure to be one type of “masculine” with few variations, and though women have more latitude in our culture to express their femininity in different ways, there is still pressure for them to be traditionally “feminine” in some way.

And of course, sexual orientation varies. We currently use the terms heterosexual, homosexual, and bisexual (but interestingly, rarely asexual) to depict those categories into which people fit. This concept is a difficult one to study scientifically since concepts should ideally be clearly defined and applicable – something that sexual orientation surely isn’t. 

We use these terms as if they clearly defines our sexual identity and lets us and others know the gender of our preferred sex partner. For example, heterosexual signifies that the person prefers the other gender for their sex partner(s). However, we do know that many people who will say they are heterosexual have had same-sex sex partners, thus how meaningful is the term? In their studies on sexual behavior, the Centers for Disease Control has abandoned these terms in favor of identifying the gender of sex partners (Men who have Sex with Men, or MSM) to clarify the behavior rather than the identity.

We not only prioritize sexual orientation categories, we normalize them by socializing people to believe that heterosexuality is the norm and anything else is deviant. While more Americans accept homosexuality and bisexuality now compared with previous generations, people who aren’t heterosexual still do not experience the same acceptance as heterosexual couples. 

In many contemporary societies and cultures, people whose sexual orientation doesn’t align with the normative category are either killed by the state (as in Iran), jailed by the authorities or considered mentally ill by medical professionals, mentally reprogrammed by religious and other groups who think gay and lesbian people can think themselves straight, or physically attacked by people whose own self identity is threatened by their very existence.

Historically the medical establishment has defined sex, gender, and sexual orientation variations as syndromes, diseases, and genetic or other types of defects and thus potentially fixable by medical or psychological technologies. Thus sexual ambiguity often results in medical intervention and surgery to “normalize” the appearance of the genitalia even if surgery impairs functioning.

In recent years, transgender people have, like Mr. Beatie, come out of the shadows and have spoken out about their wish to live as normal a life as possible. For example, Mianne Bagger asked the LPGA if she could compete in their women’s golfing competitions but they refused since she was formerly clip_image006male. Lynn Conway proved her expertise and brilliant mind with her advances in computer science but lost her job when she transitioned to become a woman. 

Ms. Bagger has played in other golf tournaments and Ms. Conway has found work with other companies. The limited acceptance they’ve received may be in part because they consistently present themselves as female and have adopted a consistent gendered social role.

Mr. Beatie, on the other hand, did not change his genitalia and reproductive system, and provides us with a situation that tests our resolve to understand sex and gender, since he is legally a man and he is indeed pregnant. Prior to this event, he and his wife had led a life similar to their neighbors. Like their neighbors, wanted to reproduce and did so in the way that was possible for them. (Mrs. Beatie is infertile).

The Beaties have used reproductive and sex assignment technologies to enhance their lives. The concept of “cultural lag” suggests that as our technology changes, our culture doesn’t always equip us with ways to understand these changes right away. The Beaties used our technologies in the way we have designed them, but it’s safe to say that most people have trouble understanding and respecting their choices.

If a man can get pregnant, a woman can be a father. It’s possible that a male-to-female transgendered person can father a child, probably with a surrogate if she is married to a man or with her female partner if she is partnered with a woman. I imagine this has already happened somewhere and people simply thought it was a woman and her partner who had to use a surrogate or a lesbian couple who used a donor. 

If this situation (a pregnant man!) disturbs you, consider that all the years we have been donating sperm and adopting kids. Having children through these means is typically socially acceptable to just about everyone, right? These alternative ways to build a family are also quite common. Think of the people you know who have been involved in an adoption or who had used a sperm donor or, more recently, in egg donations or surrogacy. 

We tend not to find practices that reinforce our societal values and norms problematic. But when people use technology to become visibly different what we expect, they might wind up on Oprah.

April 10, 2008

"Passing" into Freedom: Being Black and Living White

author_janis By Janis Prince Inniss

Do you know the race of everyone in your family? Of your friends? Your colleagues? Odd questions if race is as obvious as we usually think it is. “She’s black.” “He’s white.” “They’re Hispanic.” No confusion there. What about the man and his daughter pictured below? What race are they?

Anatole Broyard was a literary critic and editor of the New York Times. He died in 1990 at age 70, and was survived by his wife and two children. Nothing unusual so far, right?

What is remarkable, however, is the fact that only a few weeks before his death, his adult children learned that Broyard was “part black”. Based on his daughter Bliss’s research, it appears that Broyard made the choice to be white when he sought a Social Security card in 1938.

In that same year, Broyard’s sister had sought employment at the state office and was told that there were no jobs for “colored girls”. For most of his adult life, Broyard had minimal contact with his mother and two sisters who all lived as black, although his wife and a few friends knew of his “secret.”

J0336807 How is it possible to interact with someone and not know their race when we live in a racialized society? Like his parents, Broyard was light-skinned and this allowed him to “pass” as white—that is, pretend not to have a drop of black blood. The consequences of being black at that time could be dire; surely the limitations and other costs associated with being black served as the impetus for Broyard’s decision to “pass” as a white man.

Reading Broyard’s obituary in the Times, I was struck by the lack of reference to race in the description of the man, his family and his work. He was not described as a “black writer,” or the as first black editor or any other historic firsts that he likely accomplished. The obituary told of a man, born here, schooled there, who wrote this and that. It struck me that being black would have shackled Broyard and limited the images I conjured of him as I read his story; it would—perhaps to lesser degrees over time—define him as well as my impression of who he was.

When I initially wrote the paragraph above, I wrote, “his race would have shackled Broyard…”In fact, in the U.S. it is not any race that would prescribe, for example, the topics with which he would be expected to be conversant; it was being black that would be so conscribing; hence his concealment of his black heritage. 

But what of whiteness? That too is a race. White people are not devoid of race, although Broyard’s story reminds us of the freedoms that whiteness facilitates: freedom to live where one wants, to write about what one wants, freedom from feeling (negatively) “raced”. In the 70 years since Broyard made the decision to “pass,” more of these freedoms have become commonplace for all who live in the U.S., regardless of race. Still, as you watch the news on television or read newspapers, contrast how often the race of racial/ethnic minorities is mentioned compared to that of whites.

What images come to mind when you hear racial descriptors? Is your response the same regardless of whether stories reference your own or a different group? If Broyard had been thought of as black, (since that would have to be his racial designation in a “one-drop” system), that designation would have conveyed something that he probably did not want people to think about. Racism creates limits; and without a negatively “raced” label, Broyard had more life options. 

There are many who would see Broyard’s choice as self-hatred, an example of internalized racism. Further his choice to “pass” may be viewed as turning his back on his (black) race when—particularly given his stature at the New York Times—he could have served to help African Americans, by serving as a refutation of stereotypes and by being a role-model. Is this a burden or is it a duty that all racial minorities ought to carry? 

While we usually think of race as a biological imperative, stories such as Broyard’s highlight the socially constructed nature of the beast: race is also how we live: Broyard looked white, had a white wife and white children, lived in white communities, had a white occupation (that of writer, not a black writer), and was therefore white. His being white was less related to his DNA than to the life he led.

It’s arguable that the historical facts that made passing desirable for Anatole Broyard have been transformed at least somewhat over the past fifty years; but are there incentives for any racial minorities to ”pass” as white in America today?

April 07, 2008

To Consume or Not to Consume?

author_karen By Karen Sternheimer

Oprah recently aired an episode on “Freegans”, people who try to simplify their lives by buying as little as possible, and even find food in grocery store trash bins that is fit for consumption. Typically freegans are not poor or unable to pay for their basic needs, but people who clip_image002want to live more simply and worry less about making lots of money. Some of Oprah’s guests spoke of wanting to draw attention to the amount of food Americans waste and felt like their life choice was more of a political statement than an economic one.

As I have blogged about earlier, Americans are caught in a double-bind: on the one hand, we are encouraged to “jump start” the economy by spending the tax rebate many people will be receiving as part of the federal “stimulus package”. The rebate is intended to get us shopping for things we don’t necessarily even need, and to get us in a buying mood to boost the economy. On the other hand, buying too much can lead to debt that can also choke the economy when people can no longer make their payments.

The Oprah show itself mirrors this contradiction. Her annual “Favorite Things” show is a celebration of consumption. If you haven’t seen one of these shows (which air right as the holiday shopping season begins), it is a bacchanalia of stuff. The audience frenzy begins when they first discover that they are at the clip_image006Favorite Things taping, because they know they will be part of an orgy of new things that they will get for free. 

Unlike the freegans, who focus on getting by with less, this free stuff is meant to get people excited to buy more. Oprah’s favorite things, after all, have the stamp of approval of one of the world’s wealthiest women. Having things that Oprah loves may signify it is the “best” since presumably someone of her wealth and status would accept nothing less.

In this show, she includes things like clothes, her favorite croissants, the newest digital cameras, and even household appliances, all of which every audience member gets for free. And every item is of course met with hysteria, since the audience by now knows that it will be theirs. What could be better publicity than having hundreds of (mostly) well-dressed middle class women jumping and screaming upon seeing your product?clip_image004

I have obviously watched more than one of the “Favorite Things” episodes, and the excitement is contagious. Even though I logically know that I will not be getting any of the stuff for free, and that I am watching one long commercial (with commercial breaks, no less), there is something thrilling about new getting stuff…even watching others get new stuff. It’s hard not to want to join the party.

Oprah has also aired many programs about families in debt. Typically, she features middle to upper-middle class married couples with children who have over-consumed their way into serious debt. Their challenge is to see that life is about more than having lots of things that make them look “successful,” but that true happiness comes from within and not having lots of stuff.

But according to the authors of The Fragile Middle Class: Americans in Debt (which include Harvard Law Professor and occasional Oprah show guest Elizabeth Warren), 91% of people who file for bankruptcy has suffered a job loss, medical event, or divorce, not a shopping spree. Half of bankruptcy filers do so because of a serious illness; according to a recent study, 41% of middle-income families spent at least part of 2005 (the most recent year in the study) with no health insurance. As health care costs continue to rise, this percentage is also likely to increase.

Americans are thus encouraged to consume things that they didn’t know they even wanted, and yet they are warned about the consequences of listening too closely to calls to go shopping. The shows about families in debt typically cast them as at best mathematically challenged, and at worst superficial. But really they represent the contradictions of our culture of consumption. When happiness is sold as having something new, looking better (through purchasing new clip_image008clothes or cosmetic procedures), and living in an expensive neighborhood, a debt-ridden family is the rule rather than the exception.

On the show about freegans, Oprah herself noticed the contradictory messages about consumption: while the show was about people finding meaning in their lives by working less and consuming less, the commercial breaks encouraged consuming more. Yes, of course this is the purpose of advertising, which pays for “free” programming. But it makes buying more and more stuff seem natural.

In the grand scheme of things, we are all consumers and need to keep consuming. Most of us don’t grow our own food or make our own clothes or soap or paper or other basic goods. I personally will probably not be getting into the trash for my groceries or furniture. But the freegan message is an important one: even if we are part of the world of consumption, it doesn’t have to rule our lives. I think we can be more conscious, critical consumers. What do you think?

April 04, 2008

Stand By Our Man

author_sally By Sally Raskoff

Have you noticed that when politicians get into trouble for something they’ve done, more often than not, their wives appear with them for the public apology? This is particularly evident when the trouble is sexual. (Whether the husbands of politicians in trouble would show up isn’t clear since we don’t have as many women in office, let alone getting into trouble.)

Eliot Spitzer, former governor of New York, had his wife by his side when he acknowledged hiring prostitutes. Jim McGreevey, former governor of New Jersey, had his wife by his side when he acknowledged having an affair with a man and that he was gay. Hillary Clinton also appeared on 60 Minutes with her husband during his 1992 campaign for president when he was accused of having an affair.

We hold our elected officials to a very high standard. We require those who hold power in this country to display a “normal” life where they look and behave in accordance with our societal expectations. Historically and even now, most (nationally) elected officials, are male, white, protestant, heterosexual, married, and from the middle/upper class.clip_image004

When these politicians deviate from these norms, typically through sexual activities with someone other than their wives, we call into question their character, their ability to hold office and to be effective leaders. Especially if politicians do not disclose this information prior to taking office and we find out about it later, they are not likely to keep their position and/or their political aspirations are severely impaired. 

Jim McGreevey and Eliot Spitzer both resigned their governorships. Senator Larry Craig resigned from his committee positions after public disclosure of his legal troubles stemming from public bathroom behaviors with an undercover cop. Detroit Mayor Kwame Kilpatrick acknowledged an affair with his female chief of staff (who subsequently resigned), yet faces legal action and may lose his position pending the legal outcome. (Mayor Kilpatrick and President Clinton both faced legal action, not for their infidelity, but for lying under oath. However, their lies were in reference to their sexual liaisons.) Jack Ryan lost his candidacy for Senate in Illinois when his atypical sexual activities were disclosed during divorce proceedings. Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa admitted an affair with a reporter and, although he kept his job, his divorce is pending and there is no longer talk of a run for governor.

Looking at these and the many other politicians whose sexual activities have ended or limited their careers, it is fascinating that upon first disclosure, the wives are there for the public apology yet later they may distance and/or divorce themselves from their partner. They stand by their man for the media frenzy yet after the public attention fades, they may not stay with their man.clip_image006

When the wives appear, it is comforting to the public and reassures us that he may not be all bad since she’s staying with him. When the wife doesn’t appear, as with the L.A. Mayor’s situation, it can signal bigger problems that then may derail the politician’s career entirely.

Erving Goffman’s concepts of Front Stage and Back Stage can be helpful for understanding this dynamic. In this theory, we have front stage behavior to manage what we show to others and back stage behaviors to prepare the front stage and/or to deal with what we really feel or think. Back stage issues may be shared with others or they may play out with the one person alone. 

The politician and his wife have a lot of experience with the front stage; they need to perform their political roles no matter what happens. Back stage is another story. If the politician is having sexual affairs with people other than his spouse, the same may be true for the politician’s wife—although since their back stages are not public, we can speculate but we may never know for sure. In the cases above, we do find this out—yet they are both compelled to maintain the front stage as devoted companion and spouse.

Let’s think about the politicians who have had sexual affairs with other women, those who paid prostitutes for sex, and those who allegedly had affairs with men. 

Both politicians who prefer same-sex partners and their wives might suffer the greatest tension between their front and back stages. They feel that clip_image002homophobia prohibits them from living their lives “out” and maintain public office. They therefore have to do a lot of back stage work to keep the public (and their wives) from finding out and moving the behavior to the front stage. 

Those who pay prostitutes get into trouble for illegal activity and work to keep this back stage (and from their wives). Politicians who have affairs with other women may keep their office although they may lose their wives. On the other hand, there may not be as large of a difference between what both spouses know back stage. Theirs may be a political marriage in which one or both partners seek any sexual liaisons are sought outside the relationship. 

If, however, sexual behaviors outside marriage or other non-normative behaviors are disclosed before taking office, do the dynamics change? It seems that they may, since then the non-normative behavior is already public, not secret, and not subject to surprise disclosure or legal action (for perjury). 

David Patterson, the new governor of New York, admitted upon Spitzer’s resignation that he and his wife both had affairs, received counseling, and have repaired their marriage. During his first presidential campaign, George W. Bush admitted his alcoholism and many polls found that this increased support for his leadership among some. His drinking and poor grades in college resonated with some and made him seem more accessible to them. 

If politicians admit to non-normative behaviors that are relatively common or otherwise familiar to us before they take office, we may respond by supporting them rather than condemning them. The difference seems to lie in whether or not they have been keeping such information secret or not and just how acceptable such behavior is in the public eye. 

We elect our politicians to use the power we give them wisely and do what we think is right. Thus when they behave outside those expectations, they act in ways to calm our responses, to let us know theirs are problems much like our own. Their front stage presentation is meant to reassure us that they are human and aren’t different from us and/or people we know-and not to question the job they do wielding the power we give them.

What other sociological theories can you apply to these situations of politicians in trouble for sexual activity and the ubiquity of wives standing by the men whom we elect?

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