11 posts from May 2008

May 29, 2008

Problems with the 2010 Census

author_cn By C.N. Le

For many sociologists and other scholars like me, the Census data that is compiled every ten years is the most reliable, comprehensive source of data on the American population. We rely on it for us to not just do our research and publish papers, but to help us understand the world around us better.

It's with that in mind that I was rather frustrated to see this article by CNN—an accumulation of mistakes and glitches will apparently cost the Census Bureau several billions of dollars in wasted funds, not to mention the trust of scholars and the American people in general:

[T]he government will scrap plans to use handheld computers to collect information from the millions of Americans who don't return census forms mailed out by the government. The change will add as much as $3 billion to the cost of the constitutionally mandated count, pushing the overall cost to more than $14 billion. 

This was to be the first truly high-tech count in the nation's history. The Census Bureau has awarded a contract to purchase 500,000 of the computers, at a cost of more than $600 million. The devices, which look like high-tech cell phones, will still be used to verify every residential census4 street address in the country, using global positioning system software.

But workers going door-to-door will not be able to use them to collect information from the residents who didn't return their census forms. About a third of U.S. residents are expected not to return the forms. . . . Interviews, congressional testimony and government reports describe an agency that was unprepared to manage the contract for the handheld computers. 

Census officials are being blamed for doing a poor job of spelling out technical requirements to the contractor, Florida-based Harris Corp. The computers proved too complex for some temporary workers who tried to use them in a test last year in North Carolina. Also, the computers were not initially programmed to transmit the large amounts of data necessary.

In my previous life, I worked as a Research Associate for the Center for Technology in Government, doing applied research on how government agencies use information technology to improve their public services.

The most common and costliest mistake we saw was caused by exactly what happened with the Census Bureau -- a technological change was implemented from the top down, with little consultation with the actual workers who will use the technology on an everyday basis on what exactly they need and would like the technology to do.

census3This miscommunication and lack of consensus input from day-to-day workers led to poorly designed and inferior technology, which led to its ultimate failure, costing American taxpayers billions of dollars. Time and time and time again, this continues to happen.

I suppose this would be the textbook example of the negative connotations of bureaucracy that many of us have -- inefficient, little communication, lack of coordination, and incompetence that leads to public funds being wasted and public outrage.

So it will benefit all of us if the Census Bureau gets their act together, and soon. Rather than simply another form to fill out, the Census helps us understand who we are as Americans. As the response rate declines, the Census data that we as academics rely on becomes less reliable and more prone to sampling error, and that can lead to diminished confidence in our research.

Ultimately, scholars like me end up paying a double penalty for the Census Bureau's mistakes. The first is having our money as American taxpayers wasted. But even more important, the second penalty is that instances like this make Americans less trusting of the Census Bureau and also perhaps less likely to eventually fill out and return their Census forms. What other factors do you think prevent people from returning their Census forms?

May 26, 2008

Get Religion, Live Longer

author_bradBy Bradley Wright 

Do you want to live a longer life? Well, science says there are a few things you can do to add years to your life: eat well, exercise, watch your weight, get regular medical check-ups, to name a few. In addition, there are various social factors that are linked to longevity, and one of them is religious involvement. That’s right, people who attend religious services and are involved in religious communities live longer. 

Dozens of studies have found a link between religion and longevity. As an example of this line of work, sociologists analyzed data from a study of about 21,000 people who were first interviewed in 1987. Researchers then followed up eight years later, in 1995, and found that about 2,000 of them had died. The study was designed to study risk factors for cancer, and it contained measures of attendance at religious services. This allowed researchers to test if the people who went to religious services were less likely to die during the study than those who did not. 


Here’s what they found. Using various fancy statistical methods, they calculated that a twenty-year-old person who did not attend religious services at all would on average live to be 75 years old. If they attended religious services less than once a week, they would live to 80 years old; and if they went once a week, they’d live to be 82. Finally, if they attended more than once a week, they would live 83 years. Wow! Going from not attending religious services to attending multiple times a week was associated with living eight full years longer. Eight years, that’s a long time. That’s how long George W. Bush will have been president. That’s two four-year college experiences. That’s about how much extra longevity you get for not smoking.

Since women live longer than men and also tend to be more religious, we might expect a different effect by gender, but the effect of religion on longevity still holds. Men who attend services more than once a week live, on average, seven years longer than men who don’t attend services (81 versus 74 years). There’s a similar finding for women.

These findings lead to the question of why. What is it about religion that has people living longer?

One answer has to do with what sociologists call selectivity. Maybe the people who become religious are the type of people who would live longer anyway, and religion really has nothing to do with it. This seems plausible. Perhaps most people who frequently attend religious services aren’t the type to live life reckless, dangerous lives and would be this way even if they didn’t go to religious services. (This is called selectivity because people “select” themselves into religion.)

It could also be that involvement in religion changes people such that—whatever their life expectancy before they become involved in religion—they live longer. This could happen in several ways. (In case you’re wondering, this is called mediation. Mediating factors are mechanisms through which X causes Y. In this case, things that religion does to make someone live longer).


Many religions have explicit norms about health related behaviors-about drinking or smoking, for example. Even when they don’t have specific rules, they encourage moderation. To illustrate, in the church that I attend, it’s fine if I regularly have a drink or two, but I think my friends there would be concerned if I were routinely getting drunk (especially if I showed up drunk on Sunday mornings). Eating well, drinking in moderation, and not smoking are things that will usually increase longevity regardless of one’s supernatural beliefs.

Another factor is more social in nature. Many religious groups provide strong social ties—friendships, social activities, personal support, and, in general, lots of social interaction. Social ties, regardless of the source, lead to longer lives. My church has numerous meetings a week in which people interact with each other, often seeking to help each other.

A final factor is the effects of stress on religious versus non-religious people. Many religious groups provide various forms of formal and informal support. The theologies espoused by religions frequently include instructions on how to cope with stress. Religious organizations often provide counseling, confession, and just plain old friendship. They also can provide material goods, such as food and money, to members who experience difficulties in these areas. 

What does all this mean? That even with something as seemingly-biological as how long we live, social conditions matter greatly. Based on this, if you’re going to smoke, do try to get to services! ;-)

May 23, 2008

Beauty Myths and Magazines

author_karen By Karen Sternheimer

I’ve recently reverted back to an old teenage habit…sort of. Last year I got a letter saying that my frequent flier miles would soon expire and that I could easily convert them to magazine subscriptions. I hadn’t subscribed to a magazine in years, so I went nuts. I ordered magazines about clip_image002politics, technology, business, travel, and fashion.

In my teen years I devoured fashion magazines like Glamour, Cosmopolitan, Vogue, and the now defunct Mademoiselle, and swapped them with friends to make sure no beauty advice would pass without my knowledge. I saved old issues in my closet for years just in case I would ever want to look at them again, like the reference books that are on my shelves today. When my old house went up for sale years later, my mother told me to take them or toss them. I tossed them. 

After I graduated from high school I stopped reading the magazines cold turkey. I don’t remember exactly why, but it probably had something to do with a lack of time to read them and (more to the point) the clip_image004lack of disposable income to buy them. When the first fashion mag showed up in my mailbox last year it was like reuniting with an old friend that I hadn’t talked to in years. Yes, I had perused a magazine or two while waiting to have my hair cut, but it’s not the same if you can’t tear out the samples and dog-ear the particularly relevant advice about hair products to revisit later. Unlike the other magazines I ordered, the beauty ones required very little concentration or commitment to read since they are mostly filled with ads. They could be my secret escape.

As a sociologist, I am also deeply aware of the very narrow version of beauty these magazines typically promote. Yes, most of the women are impossibly thin, white or near-white in complexion, tall and blonde. Many of the articles are about getting/keeping/pleasing/marrying a man, and more than anything, they promote the idea that women’s worth is forever linked to how we look. If that’s not enough, in the world of most fashion magazines, beauty is something that comes from consumption, not clip_image006necessarily from character.

That said, I think we often sell readers of these magazines short when we presume that they are merely victims of the beauty industry. I have known a fashion victim or two in my years (and spot them regularly on the streets of Los Angeles), but let’s not presume that all women and girls simply read these magazines passively. In a now classic 1984 cultural studies text, Reading the Romance: Women, Patriarchy, and Popular Literature author Janice Radway interviewed women who read romance novels and found that rather than just internalizing the messages of idealized romance they contain, readers used them to escape the drudgery of everyday life. Likewise, we cannot presume that fashion magazine readers just mindlessly adopt the perspectives of the magazines. How readers make meaning of texts—a central goal of cultural studies research—often depends on the social context that each person lives within.

Looking back on my own relationship with fashion magazines, I read them more as a fantasy about what my impending adult life might be like, and for instruction about how to best be ready for that life. The magazines I read in the 80s, like many today, provided advice about careers and living independently in cities. They told stories about having grown-up relationships with men, which my friends and I had no real frame of reference for (and let’s be honest, most seventeen-year-olds would rather not talk to mom and dad much about this topic!).

So why my excitement today? I have had enough experience with being a grown-up to know that the magazines’ advice is just a guess, as much advice often is. Fashion magazines offer the promise of self-improvement, or as historian Joan Jacobs Brumberg describes, a body project. Brumberg’s study of adolescent girls throughout the twentieth century reveals that these projects continually shift. Unlike the nineteenth century, when girls wrote in their diaries about being better morally, most of the projects today focus on the external. 

Why did this happen? We can’t blame fashion magazines for the changes, since the ones that existed then bore little resemblance to those of today. Brumberg argues that as women have gradually gained more political power and experienced less external regulation that they have been encouraged to regulate themselves internally. For instance, nineteenth-century women were often discouraged from exercise, but wore binding corsets. Starting in the 1920s women shed these physically restricting undergarments, but took up “slimming” in order to restrict their body size.clip_image008

So the magazines both reflect and reproduce images of beauty—if we took them away, girls and women wouldn’t necessarily feel better about how they look. From my personal experience, I read the magazines from the perspective that I was one of “them.” Although not tall, tan, or blonde, as many models in the magazines I bought were, I saw myself as like them in some strange way. And the advice in the magazines about make-up tips and products to try helped me feel part of this thing called beauty. Yes, Marx might say I was experiencing false consciousness—you might say I was deluded. And certainly there might be people who read the magazines and feel inadequate, but we can’t make generalizations either way. 

That said, I can’t say that I disagree with many of the critiques of the beauty industry author Naomi Wolf offers in her book The Beauty Myth or with Jean Kilbourne's analysis of advertising in her book Killing Us Softly. But we can’t analyze magazines and presume to know how people make sense of them. Sometimes we think that criticizing things we like makes us hypocrites or killjoys. We don’t have to be either; we can both enjoy and deconstruct forms of media culture we consume creating the best of both worlds: critical consumers who can have fun reading a magazine once in a while. And learn new make-up tips.

May 21, 2008

Robert W. Fuller: An End to Inequality and Violence?

Professor Tom Scheff and cat MishaBy Thomas Scheff 

Professor Emeritus, Department of Sociology, UC Santa Barbara

I didn’t understand why I found Barack Obama's race speech so moving until I read Robert W. Fuller's comments about it. They seemed brilliant to me, so I proceeded to read Fuller’s other writings. I think they make a powerful contribution to our understanding of the enigmas of our time, and may have the potential to help us surmount them.

Fuller has had an illustrious career; first as physicist, then President of his alma mater, Oberlin College, as a citizen diplomat during the Cold War, chair of the board of Internews, and many other distinctions. The approach he takes to the issue of inequality may be his greatest contribution, though. 

In his approach, there are two main components to the problem of inequality: rankism, on the one hand, and dignity, on the other. The term rankism doesn’t concern rank per se, but the abuse of rank. Some systems of rank are inherently abusive: white over black, male over female, hetero over homosexual, Christian over Muslim, extreme nationalism, and so on. But even legitimate systems of rank, those in most organizations, are often abusive; if not in principle, then in practice.

Fuller focuses his spotlight on dignity and the ways it can be abused. This perspective offers what seems to me to be a distinctive solution to the problem of inequality. That is, it doesn’t concern economic rank or political hierarchy directly, but dignity and its opposite, humiliation. This focus, as will be suggested below, may help with a problem that probably cannot be understood in strictly economic or political terms: gratuitous and/or interminable conflict. 

Fuller’s analysis begins with what he calls micro-inequalities, the withholding of dignity by one person from another. At work, if your boss continually interrupts conversations to take phone calls, it is a slight, a small indignity. But slights add up. If they are frequent enough, one can feel like a nobody. Maybe the boss meant no disrespect, but to be slighted consistently is humiliating. 

Much of the sociologist Erving Goffman’s work concerns this issue. He called it facework, the saving and loss of face. But it also is crucial to his most famous idea, impression management. One seeks to manage the impression one makes on others, in order to maintain one’s dignity, and often, the dignity of others. 

Goffman was concerned only with face-to-face interaction, but Fuller extends dignity/humiliation process to the traditional problem of macro-inequalities between groups. All contacts between persons and between groups have an effect on the bond: the bond is either maintained, strengthened, or disrupted by those contacts. Helping the other person or group maintain their dignity maintains the existing bond or strengthens it. Disrespect disrupts it. There are no exceptions: contact cannot occur without affecting the bond. Secure bonds lead to cooperation, disrupted ones to conflict. When the bond is entirely broken, as is often the case, others can become mere objects.

Fuller’s approach is powerful in several different ways. It is applicable to many ostensibly different issues: race, inter-ethnic and inter-nation relations, gender, sexual orientation, social class, and so on. It also implies a theory that may explain gratuitous and/or interminable conflict between individuals and between groups. 

For example, the Serbian attack on the Bosnian Muslims in the 1990s can be traced back to a defeat of the Serbs by Muslim Turks hundreds of years earlier. The Serbs took this ancient defeat as a humiliation, and harbored vengeance until it became possible. Similarly, France plotted for many years to regain their honor (read dignity) after defeat in the Franco-Prussian War in 1871, and Hitler won over the German people by promising to regain the honor they lost in the defeat in 1918. Humiliation spawns humiliation, and it can strike deep. The dignity/humiliation framework seems to reach into the very core of human conduct. 

Finally, Fuller uses terms that are understandable by everyone. Audiences all over the world have responded enthusiastically to his speeches. Indeed, his work could provide the foundation for a social movement to create dignitarian organizations and, ultimately, to build a dignitarian society. For these and other reasons not mentioned in these brief comments, Fuller's ideas are well worth our attention.

May 19, 2008

Gendered Disparities: Maintaining Masculinity

author_sally By Sally Raskoff

Have you ever wondered why men make a higher average wage than women? Why men take out the garbage and women do the laundry? Why most people who experience the battered end of domestic violence are women and those doing the battering are primarily men? Why men who are battered by their wives don’t call for help? Why men fix the car and women arrange the social events? Why we’ve had mostly male politicians in the highest offices? Why women suffer more depression than men while men have moreclip_image002 cardiovascular issues? 

Men and women with the same character traits often receive different treatment even if they are doing the same work. Witness the “Barbara Streisand Effect” in which film directors who run a tight set, get the filming done on time, and make an award winning movie are lauded and awarded if they are men while they are often disparaged and second-guessed if they are women.

In the 2008 Presidential race, Hillary Clinton deals with gender stereotypes while Barack Obama deals with racial and ethnic stereotypes—the press clip_image004acknowledges that these are similar issues and problems. However, some are talking about how it will be tougher for Hillary to overcome these stereotypes and assumptions. 

It’s important to recognize that gender and the very definition of gender is built into the structure of our society. And this societal embedding of gender gives it its strength. 

Our society is structured by patriarchy, the rule or dominance of men. Men, as the dominant group, are assigned the characteristics of dominance, e.g., power, leadership, “protector” and “provider” functions, competitiveness, assertiveness, and aggression, while women, the subordinate group, are assigned the characteristics of the powerless whose purpose is to support and/or entertain the powerful, e.g., nurturance, emotionality, fragility, and objectification. We call these masculine traits and feminine traits, respectively, and raise boys and girls to expect and practice them even though they are human traits, regardless of one’s sex.

Sex and gender are two different constructs. Sex indicates the bodily differences of which we are taught there are only two categories: male and female. Gender indicates the social differences, in both personal identity and social role, based on sex and into which we expect people to conform. (The surprisingly frequent occurrence of intersex infants, the existence of transgender issues, and the existence of more than two gender groups in other cultures all call into question our two firm categories of both sex and gender, yet that will be a blog for another day.)

All societies assign different traits to different gender groups , but every culture does it differently. What we call masculine and “manly” may not be assigned to people with male bodies in another society. In our culture, however, masculine means power and men are expected to be strong, in-charge, and protective.

In our culture, we have specific definitions of masculinity and femininity yet many people feel that we’ve moved beyond them at this point in our society’s existence. Gender definitions can and do change, but they don’t change very quickly, and the definitions not only affect our individual lives, they affect everything in society. 

The U.S. has experienced at least two women’s movements that, along with economic demands, have expanded the social roles for women to include “provider expectations” (among other things) yet we’ve not experienced a parallel men’s movement for expanding the social roles of men. Research is highlighting more clip_image006“involved fathers” who are more than just babysitters to their children, yet we do not have anything near gender equality in families. That we have to call men “involved” fathers is similar to saying “woman” doctor to highlight that the person doing something is not the typical, expected, or normative person to do so. 

Media can be a mirror for our society since what shows up in our various forms of entertainment can help us see our culture more clearly. Let’s see what we will see when we look at the top male actors in our society, those who get the leading roles in major motion pictures, make the most money, and who have had some longevity and/or consistency in this most difficult and exclusive occupation. As you look at their photos in the movie, consider how their physical characteristics (and the roles that they have played) resonate (or not) with those masculine traits.

The resemblance between the actors from the 1920s to present day is quite amazing. A young Richard Burton resembles Ben Affleck, for example. If you cycle through the movie quick enough, it seems that there are many pictures of just a few men, all of whom could be related. Their physical traits include strong clip_image008facial features (the jawline in particular), muscles (as particularly noticeable in the open or “missing shirt” photos), and few options for their facial expressions. 

They gaze straight into the camera and to the side, yet both poses can have different meanings. Those stares at the camera are part of a pose that is intense and typically intended for a lover while the side gazes are more menacing or threatening to others off screen. If you recognize the films with which some of these photos resonate, these actors play lovers and fighters, military men and cowboys. Some have played the bad guy but that still rare for most of them.

All of them have had roles in which they romance women. Only a few have played non-heterosexual men; those roles either signaled the end of their leading man career, jumped them into acting from a musical career, downplayed the role as an attempt to show “real” acting ability, or focused on societal issues without delving much about the character’s relationship(s). 

Even more telling, these actors seem to live very public heterosexual lives. While rumors may occur in some cases, the non-heterosexual sexual orientation of Rudolph Valentino, Rock Hudson, and James Dean were only publicized after their deaths. You might wonder whether such information should be in the public eye at all, but notice that if one is perceived as straight, the career continues. 

Homophobia, of the fear of homosexuality or “homosexuals” is still with us as a primary tool of patriarchy. It helps to keep the dominant group as dominant. And our top male actors demonstrate that heterosexuality is our preferred form of masculinity.

Masculine traits are used to reinforce the norms for men to be powerful, and this includes a norm of heterosexuality. With men as the dominant group, they dominate the less powerful group of women. If a man steps outside the norms of masculinity, this clip_image010would equate him with women. This can explain why the words used to harass boys or men are words equating them with women. Before they were aimed at people who prefer same-sex partners, the words "faggot" and "fag" referred disparagingly to women; while the term to insult women emerges in 1521, it was reassigned to “male homosexual” in 1914.

In the book Gender and Power, Connell refers to societal gender regimes in which hegemonic forms of masculinity constrain the ways in which men can be men. There are few variations of masculinity that men can experience without losing their place in the powerful group. If too many people in the powerful group deny their power and act differently, the entire group loses its power. Thus masculinity norms, including the heterosexual component, work to keep men at least acting heterosexual. 

My fun example of looking at the faces and projections of our top male actors is but one small example of where we can see this dynamic taking place. Keep your eyes open and see where else you can identify the dynamics of gender.

May 16, 2008

Wal-Mart and Muslim Americans

author_cn By C.N. Le

As globalization continues to effect American society and the world in general, I've been asking the question, how will these political and economic changes affect the cultural landscape of race relations?

While the final verdict is still being debated, I'd like to discuss one recent example of globalization that caught my eye -- as the Associated Press reports, Wal-Mart is catering to the Arab and Muslim American population in the Detroit area:

Aisle 3, which also features Eastern European and Hispanic food, represents many of the 550 items geared toward Arab-American walmart2ashoppers in the store that opened last week.

It might be statistically tiny in a store with more than 150,000 items, but it's symbolically huge for the world's largest retailer as it seeks to change from a cost-is-everything monolith to one that customizes its stores to meet neighborhood needs.

Managers say they seek peace with the neighborhood's merchants — and vow not to undercut them on Middle Eastern specialties. . . . the modifications go beyond merchandise: It has 35 employees who speak Arabic — noted in Arabic script on their badges. The store also  has hired a local Arab-American educator to teach the staff cultural sensitivity.

Is this another sign of the power of capitalism, or a sign that an icon of "traditional" American society and culture is increasingly accepting of Arabs and Muslims, or both?

To be honest, I'm not quite sure myself what Wal-Mart’s motivation is. On the one hand, we might say that since Arab and Muslim Americans are increasingly becoming integrated into the American mainstream, it makes sense for companies like Wal-Mart to recognize this demographic pattern and, at least in the Detroit area, to reflect the makeup of their surrounding community with culturally-appropriate products and services.

On the other hand, cynics might say that Wal-Mart did not become the world's largest corporation by accident -- it knows by now how to make money. muslim1aTherefore, Wal-Mart is simply milking the Arab and Muslim American community for as long as it takes them to drive out local small business competitors. After all, that would be the "capitalist" way  to do things, something that Wal-Mart has been known to do in the past.

I applaud Wal-Mart for taking this step to make at least one of their stores more appealing to Arab and Muslim Americans and to reflect the demographics of its surrounding community, even if their ultimate motivation is to make more money.

For me, the alternative -- ignoring the changing demographic and cultural changes in the local community -- would be worse than acknowledging these changes for the sole purpose of trying to rake in a little more money. As we should know by now, American society and American capitalism are not perfect but they are a practical reality of the society in which we live. I don't believe that it has to be an either-or" proposition -- I think both sides can benefit from this development.

I support ways of coexisting and engaging all sides in any particular question, issue, or debate, rather than taking a take-it-or-leave-it approach that only breeds more distrust. What do you think?

May 13, 2008

Strict vs. Lax Churches

author_brad By Bradley Wright

Here’s a puzzle for you: Why are strict churches growing much faster than lax churches?

When a church is strict, they demand more of their members. They might ask members to give more money, attend more meetings, and perhaps to cede to the church more give authority over their daily lives. Basically, the strict church “costs” more than other churches. Yet this type of church typically grows more than other churches do.clip_image002

In contrast, other churches are more lax. They require less time, money, and overall commitment. These types of churches tend to be decreasing in membership.

Within Christianity, worldwide, various denominations have different growth rates. In recent data, Pentecostals grew at the rapid rate of 8.1% a year. Evangelicals grew at the rate of 5.4% a year. By contrast, all Protestant denominations grew by 3.3%, and Catholics by just 1.3%. Pentecostal and evangelical churches typically are stricter than other churches.

In the United States, data from the National Council of Churches show mainline Protestant denominations, typically less demanding churches, in steady decline in membership. In 2007, membership in the United Methodist Church dropped 1%, the Evangelical Lutheran Church dropped 1.5%, and the Episcopal Church dropped 4%. Wow.

Here’s why this finding is a puzzle. We usually associate increased costs with decreased demand. If a restaurant were to double its prices, it would probably get fewer customers. If a real estate agent increased the selling price of a home, she could probably expect it to take longer to sell. This is why stores have sales when they want to attract customers, not “price-raising” events.

With churches, however, it seems to work the other way around. The more you ask of members, the more members you get. How can we explain this?

clip_image004A popular explanation comes from the work of Laurence Iannoccone, an economist who applies basic economic theories to religion. Economists talk of supply and demand, costs and benefits, and rational choice, and though one wouldn’t initially think this would apply to religion—God being somewhat different than what economists usually study—it has some interesting insights.

When churches are strict, Iannaccone writes, this "increases commitment, raises levels of participation, and enables a group to offer more benefits to current and potential members." It does this because it gets rid of the people who would want to enjoy the benefits of the church without doing their fair share of the work involved in keeping a church going. Economists call these people free-riders, and they tend to drag groups down. Because they require so much from their members, strict churches have fewer free-riders and thus can give more and do more for those people who are members. This makes them more appealing to prospective new members, which increases their size.

As Iannaccone writes, strict churches “mitigate free-rider problems. Potential members are forced to choose: participate fully or not at all. The seductive middle-ground is eliminated; average levels of commitment and participation increase; and, strange as it may seem, many members come out ahead.”

In addition, a strict church makes it difficult for members to leave. They have invested a lot in that church, and they will lose this investment if they leave. Furthermore, by virtue of being so committed to that church, they have probably not developed other social resources outside of the church, so they have less-developed options for social groups outside the church.

This type of analysis applies social science theory to a religious phenomenon, and this mixture of the secular and the sacred isn’t to everyone’s preference. clip_image006Albert Mohler, a Christian writer and commentator, reviews this literature, and he concludes that “Laurence Iannaccone's rational choice theory can actually explain very little about conservative Christianity” because the growth of strict churches is the result of theological, rather than social-economic principles. “Evangelicals are willing to pay a high social cost for the Christian faith, precisely because we believe the Gospel to be true. Furthermore, Christians know better than to expect fulfillment in this world. True satisfaction will be realized only in the age to come, and a perspective focused on eternity transforms the questions of everyday life.”

The tension between the observed social and the believed theological won’t be resolved in this blog post, but as someone who is both an adherent to Christianity and a practicing sociologist, it fascinates me. I often wonder if the two perspectives complement each other rather than being mutually exclusive.

If nothing else, these two perspectives offer competing metaphors for church growth. Theology would speak of making people “fishers of men” while sociology would emphasize growing churches saying “fish or cut bait.”

May 10, 2008

Black Ethnicity: The Foreign-Born in America

author_janis By Janis Prince Inniss 

Recently I completed an online form that asked for my race. Not that unusual. What was unusual is that there were 15 choices! Among other options, I could choose from: 


  • Black-African
  • Black-West Indian
  • Black- African American
  • Black-Tanzanian
  • Black-Jamaican
  • Black-Haitian
  • Black-Caribbean
  • Black-Nigerian

And so on…You get the idea. There is much that is note-worthy about this list, but I will focus on one aspect of it: The list was made long mostly by the writer’s wish to accommodate a variety of foreign-born blacks. 

What does the term foreign-born mean? The U. S. Census Bureau definition of the foreign born includesJ0236524 all people residing in the U.S. who are not American citizens at birth, immigrants, legal non-immigrants (such as refugees and students), and people who are living in the U.S. illegally. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, the largest number of foreign-born persons living the U.S. in the first half of the 20th century was 14.2 million in 1930 (11.6 percent of the total population at that time), although the largest proportion of this group was 14.7 million in 1910. The last 30 years or so have been marked by increasing numbers and proportions of foreign-born persons in the U.S; in 2000, there were 28.4 million foreign-born people estimated to be living in the U.S. This figure is exactly twice as many as the previous high period in 1930, and this time the foreign-born were estimated to be 10.4 percent of the total population—the highest proportion since 1930. 

Of course, the U.S. is not the only country hosting immigrants. We live in a world of tremendous movement. According to the New York Times, in 2005 about 190 million people lived outside of their countries of birth. 

Among the millions of foreign-borns living in the U.S. are black people from all over the world. In fact, the proportion of foreign-born blacks among blacks in the U.S. has risen to 7.8 percent from 1.3 percent between 1970 and 2000. Black immigrants come from all over the world, but are primary from the Caribbean and Africa. Haiti, Jamaica, and the Dominican Republic are the top three sending countries of blacks to the U.S. And where do the foreign-born tend to live? New York, New Jersey, Texas, Florida, California and Illinois host most of the foreign-born population in general, and this is true for the black foreign-born population as well. Florida has experienced the most growth in the number of foreign-bornJ0283561 blacks in the last 30 years, although with a quarter of its black population being foreign-born, New York is now home to the largest share of this group. 

To state what is not always obvious: All black people in America are not African Americans. Some have become American citizens, and others have not. Black immigrants do not necessarily see themselves as having much in common with African Americans, and vice versa. They may have grown up in widely differing circumstances—so called third world versus North American countries and all their attendant disparities—so why would we expect them to be the same? Given that Americans of different races often find themselves focused on their differences despite their many similarities, why would a group of newly (or even not so newly) arrived immigrants be assumed to share much with African Americans? 

This discussion is not meant to ignore the fact that on American soil, with regard to race, and regardless of place of birth, blacks may encounter identical experiences. I recognize there may be no difference in the ways that people with dark skin are perceived or treated. Similarly, the reference to recent historical differences between African American and foreign-born blacks is neither meant to diminish our shared African origins nor the overlap in current socio-political concerns. 

A recent study found that for blacks, having foreign-born parents is related to attending selectiveJ0282858 colleges and universities. Based on data from 28 such institutions, researchers found that 27 percent of black students had at least one foreign-born parent—a significantly higher percentage than the national average. As we might imagine given the data presented earlier on the origins of the black foreign-born, this study found that 43 percent of these students had Caribbean roots and 29 percents were of African parentage. Many of us –including sociologists—focus on the race of blacks to the exclusion of ethnicity among blacks. With the naming of all immigrants of African descent, “black/African American”, our ethnicity becomes subsumed beneath our race, propelling race to dominant status. 

Findings such as these highlight the role of ethnicity in all its complexity and serve as a reminder that race is not all that matters.

May 07, 2008

Should Kids Work?


author_karenBy Karen Sternheimer

Recently, the Long Beach Press-Telegram, a regional southern California newspaper, was bought out and will basically merge with a local competitor, suffering many staff cuts in the process. This prompted letters to the editor of the Los Angeles Times (another struggling southern California paper, but that’s another story) from clip_image002readers mourning the demise of smaller papers like the Press-Telegram. One letter told of boyhood years delivering newspapers, and how smaller papers like this one gave kids “a first taste of what it meant to earn money that didn’t come from their parents” and a chance to run “their own micro-business.” These opportunities go away along with smaller newspapers.

This letter struck a chord with me; but it wasn’t a nostalgic one. I (briefly) had a paper route myself when I was about twelve for a regional paper called the Cleveland Sun-Press. Being an enterprising kid—I sold stationary, held my own garage sales, and sold homemade candy at school—a paper route seemed like a great idea to make some more money.

clip_image004In order to have a paper route, I had to give the Sun-Press a deposit (about $30, if memory serves) to pay for papers that I would deliver. Then I would get to keep whatever I collected when I went door to door asking to be paid at the end of the month. This seemed like a great plan…until I actually started. 

The paper came out once a week, and had to be delivered early in the morning before school. I got up well before dawn, at around 4:00 on the first day. My father didn’t like the idea of his twelve-year-old wandering the streets in the middle of the night, so he got up to come with me. Although he drove me, I had to trudge up unplowed, icy driveways in the middle of winter, and barely finished to make it to school on time. My dad thought we would need to get up even earlier the next week, so we were up well before three and did it again.

When it came time to collect my hard-earned pay I was in for a big surprise. Turns out most of the people on the streets I was told to deliver to never subscribed to the paper in the first place. I remember a lady slamming the door in my face, telling me she wasn’t going to pay for the paper and not to bother her again. I didn’t come close to collecting the money I had invested.

I came to the realization many other entrepreneurs do: I had to shut down my business since I was losing money (and sleep) in the process. After some shame I told my parents. I felt like a quitter, but they supported my decision, and were probably glad not to wake up in the middle of the night any more.

Having a few decades of distance from this “micro-business,” I think this arrangement was exploitive rather than a business opportunity. Aside from the questionable practice of making a child pay to work for them, and providing an invalid subscription list, this task could have put me in significant danger had I not had a parent willing and able to help me do my job (unpaid…thanks again, Dad).

In hindsight, it is easy to see “working children” as a vestige of a less-informed past. Fortunately, my family was not dependent on my wages so they didn’t insist that I keep the paper route. 

Sociologist Viviana Zelizer, author of Pricing the Priceless Child: The Changing Social Value of Children found in her historical study that perceptions of working children vary by the economic needs of society. When a large number of children are needed in the labor force, work is seen as character-building, and their productivity is seen as moral, rather than exploitive. She contends that when children were no longer needed en masse in the labor force, this construction shifted to view children as emotionally priceless but economically useless. At this same time, child stars on the stage and screen began to emerge, as their “child-like” qualities ironically became valuable commodities.

In many developing countries today, it is commonplace for children to work to help their families survive. It’s very likely that the clothes that you are wearing now were made by a girl not too much older than I was when I had my paper route. 

Let’s not think that young children only work for wages in “other places.” Have you seen I Know My Kid's a Star on VH1? The latest of a genre of stage parents trying to get their kids into “the business,” this show follows the latest conventions of so-called reality television, where the contestants all live together in a 

house and are eliminated week by week. The real characters on this and the other shows like it are the parents (mostly moms) who seem way over-invested in getting their kids work in Hollywood. 

It’s easy to caricature these parents as monsters, but we are all involved in children’s labor in some ways. We watch them on television, in movies, buy their CDs and ask them who they think should be the next president. Yes, this is different from working in a factory or walking the streets before dawn to deliver papers, but we might ask whether these kids are as free from exploitation as we might think. If we watch them, criticize them when they stumble into adulthood, or buy the products they work 14 hours a day to produce, we are in some ways benefiting from working children.

And what about kids—do they benefit from work? And if so, what kind? Remember, I wanted my paper route, and many children who pursue careers want them clip_image006too. Even children who helped support their families a century ago liked the autonomy of having jobs, says historian David Nasaw in his book Children of the City.

Parents also often think children should have chores to help around the house, babysit, or earn their allowance. Teenagers, of course, often work part-time because they or their parents want them to earn spending money, learn valuable skills like responsibility, or have work experience to include on their college applications. Beyond “good” parenting, how do these ideas about working children reflect our economic realities at the start of the twenty-first century? How do they create the meaning of childhood itself?

May 04, 2008

Globalization and Higher Education

author_cn By C.N. Le

Sociologists and other scholars around the world are increasingly talking about how the world in general and American society in particular is becoming increasingly globalized. But to many students, these concepts are rather vague and abstract. With that in mind, I'd like to use two examples that relate to my areas of specialization -- Asian/Asian American culture and higher education -- to illustrate how globalization works in our society these days.

The first example concerns a Chinese-born immigrant who was educated in the U.S., became infatuated with American culture, then went back to China to start an American-style college for Chinese students:

The school has more than 16,000 students and nearly 50 buildings -- including a Roman amphitheater, French and Italian restaurants and an asian-ed-3 administration hall with a domed Capitol-like facade on one side and a Forbidden City tableau on the other. A swimming stadium, with an Olympic-size pool, is rising amid lotus and wheat fields.

The school's faculty of about 700 includes 119 foreign instructors, mainly from the U.S. They teach English, history and literature and help students with debate club, cheerleading and marching band -- things unheard of in this country. 

[Shawn] Chen went to the United States in 1985 and got a master's degree in education at Linfield College in Oregon. After attending a typical no-frills, monochrome college in China, he basked in campus life in the Pacific Northwest. . . . Chen was so taken by American culture he named his children Brandon and Brenda, after the two characters in the early 1990s TV hit "Beverly Hills, 90210."

In illustrating one example of globalization, this story is a great example of the kind of new Asian American identity that I've been doing more research on -- Asian Americans using their cross-national cultural ties to achieve success for both sides of their identity -- Asia and America. In the process their "foreignness" is an asset, rather than a liability.

The second example also involves Asian Americans, higher education, and international migration -- but in the opposite direction. We know that the competition to get into the top colleges and universities is quite intense these days. With that in mind, many Korean American students have decided to skip the U.S. entirely and instead, attend top universities in South Korea.asian-ed-4 

A year ago, 19-year-old Korean-American Choi Joo-eun chose Korea's Yonsei University over the prestigious University of California system in her home state. Having gotten into both UC San Diego and UC Irvine, she had earned a place in two schools even many California teenagers dream of entering.

So far she has no regrets. On campus, she takes classes taught entirely in English while spending her spare time learning Korean culture and language. Off campus, Choi, who had never visited Korea before deciding to study here, keeps busy building a new network of friends and pursuing her dream of working for the United Nations one day. 

While it is well known that many Koreans opt out of the highly competitive race to get into a top local university like Yonsei for an American university, an increasing number of Korean-Americans and overseas-educated Koreans are heading in the opposite direction.

Still, regardless of Korea being the land of their parents, it is far from home, and the students have to overcome their share of hardship and difficulties in adjusting to a new country and culture.

The article highlights the many advantages associated with such a process -- reconnecting with one's ancestral ethnic roots, exposure to an international climate, and becoming bilingual in English and Korean. But as the last line of the quote above reveals, there can also be loneliness and cultural adjustment issues for those studying overseas.

This particular trend of Korean Americans "going back" to Korean schools is likely to accelerate in the coming years, as globalization continues to evolve and permeate more of American society.

But as the article points out, being Korean American does not automatically mean that you will have an easy time in Korea; being Asian and Asian American are two different things.

Nonetheless, being Korean American does provide another avenue of personal and academic enrichment, and that can be seen as an asset rather than a liability as we move forward into the 21st century.

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