13 posts from July 2008

July 31, 2008

The Politics of Double Minority Status

author_janis By Janis Prince Inniss

As the competition for the Democratic nomination seemed to wage on endlessly between Senators Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama, much was made of their historical bids to be the Democratic Party candidate for the White House: he as the first African American contender with a realistic chance to become President of the United States, and she as the first female in serious contention for that job. Each time I hear or read these descriptions, however, I think about who is missing in framing these firsts in this way.

Clinton herself pointed out these twin themes of “first woman” “first African American” in her concession speech

When we first started, people everywhere asked the same questions:

Could a woman really serve as Commander-in-Chief? Well, I think we answered that one.

And could an African American really be our President? Senator Obama has answered that one. ..

As the “woman candidate” Senator Clinton’s White House bid highlighted feminist themes and much was made in the news about her heavy support among women. Senator Clinton’s concession speech itself drew heavily on such themes; she thanked older female supporters who were born before women in the U.S. could vote and said:

(W)hen I was asked what it means to be a woman running for President, I always gave the same answer: that I was proud to be running as a woman but I was running because I thought I'd be the best President. But I am a woman, and like millions of women, I know there are still barriers and biases out there, often unconscious...Although we weren't able to shatter that highest, hardest glass ceiling this time, thanks to you, it's got about 18 million cracks in it.

clip_image003Regarding the “first African American” angle of this saga, we saw headlines such as these: From ABC News, “Obama Becomes First Black Democratic Presidential Nominee”, and from the New York Times, “First Black Candidate to Lead a Major Party Ticket”. Senator Obama himself gave a speech on race that has been called “historic” in which he spoke of his racial heritage, addressed the brouhaha regarding his former pastor, and also about the complexity of race relations in the U.S.

What is concealed from the way these public discussions have been framed in describing how far we’ve come? The absence of those of double minority status— women “of color” is concealed by describing Senator Clinton as the “first woman” rather than “first white woman” and Senator Obama as the first African American as opposed to the first African American man. If the combined race and gender of the candidates were happenstance this would all be irrelevant, but is it?

Is it equally likely that the first African American presidential nominee would be a woman as it is a man? Sociologists who observe double minority status and its impact on women of color would predict that the first black candidate to reach such heights would be male. (I am differentiating between realistic versus symbolic presidential runs such as Shirley Chisholm’s in 1972; Chisholm made history by being the first African American to run for president of the U.S.; she won no primaries.) 

clip_image006Almost three-quarters of all U.S. presidents were senators or governors before claiming the top prize: fifteen of the country’s 43 presidents were U.S. senators while sixteen parlayed being governor into being president. Because being senator or governor is a major pipeline to the presidency, I decided to have a look at how well African Americans and women are represented among these two groups. Currently, Barack Obama is the only African American senator and he is only the third African American to ever hold that position. (Carol Mosley Braun, the one woman in this exclusive circle announced her intention to seek the Democratic nomination for president in 2003, but dropped out even before the first major electoral event in that process.) 

How about governors? When disgraced New York governor Eliot Spitzer resigned, David Paterson became the nation’s fourth black governor; notably, only two (Douglas Wilder and Deval Patrick) of the four black governors were elected. So of the few African Americans in the presidential pipeline, only one, Mosley Braun, has been female. 

clip_image009Is it by chance that the first woman who made it as far as Senator Clinton did in the U.S. presidential race was white? Women in many countries around the world have ascended to the top political ranks for many years (for example, Angela Merkel, Margaret Thatcher, Indira Ghandi, Eugenia Charles, Sirimavo Bandaranaike, and Portia Simpson-Miller), but we need to consider the context of race and gender in American politics. Again, looking at the presidential pipeline of senators and governors is instructive. Of 100 senators, sixteen are women and all of these women are white! There are currently eight female governors of the country’s fifty states and they too are white. 

According to the Census Bureau, the racial/ethnic makeup of the U.S. is as follows: 75.1 percent white, 12.3 percent African American/Black, 12.5 percent Hispanic or Latino, 3.6 percent Asian, 0.9 percent American Indian or Alaska Native, and 0.1 percent Native Hawaiian or other Pacific Islander. Clearly, the political offices examined here are in no way reflective of the racial make up of the country. Neither does the sex ratio explain any of this. For all of these groups, except for Hispanics, women outnumber men. 

The candidacies of senators Obama and Clinton do stand in contrast to the domination of white males in U.S. politics. However, there has been little public dissection of Obama’s gender or Clinton’s race, and this lack of analysis conceals the challenges double minorities, such as black women, face in American society.

July 28, 2008

Is Marriage Under Siege?

author_karen By Karen Sternheimer

You know it’s summer when celebrity divorces become the biggest news stories of the day…they are easy to digest, gossip about, and there is always at least one happening at any given time. You can probably name at least two couples who have been in the news lately. Are they symbolic of the declining state of marriage?

In 1996, Congress overwhelmingly passed the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA). From the name of the legislation, it sounds like it might support marriage counseling, provide encouragement for staying together, or even make it harder for couples to divorce. Instead, this bill ensures that no state need recognize same-sex marriage, not exactly something that will “save” individual marriages. But its name, and those of many laws passed by states in recent years with similar intent, suggests that marriage needs defending.

The idea of “marriage in decline” has become a cliché. Let’s see what the data tell us about marriage in the United States, past and present.

divorces and divorce rates 

As you can see from the data collected by Administration of Children and Families, a division of the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS), divorce rates jumped significantly between 1960 and 1980. Also notice that divorce rates spiked in the 1940s before falling after 1945. What’s likely behind these changes?

The obvious answer to the 1940s increase is World War II—separation, coupled with women’s increased participation in the labor force meant that more couples were no longer financially interdependent. Women’s earnings gave them greater ability to financially survive outside of marriage. Prior to the 1940s, it was common for couples to live separately but not divorce due to the costs going to court (there was no such thing as no-fault divorce yet) and have a judge grant the divorce. 

California became the first state to offer no-fault divorce in 1970, and other states followed suit. This meant that couples did not need to sue the other for divorce or prove any reason to a judge; if one spouse wanted out, that was enough. And clearly many did; rates tripled between 1960 and 1980, peaking in 1979 with nearly 23 divorces per thousand married women.

According to the U.S. Census, 5.3 per thousand Americans eighteen and over were divorced in 1979, roughly double the 1950 rate. But since that time, the rate has been declining: to 4.7 per thousand in 1990, 4.1 per thousand in 2000, and 3.6 per thousand in 2005, a rate similar to early 1970s levels.

Let’s also be clear on another point: the lack of divorce does not mean that a marriage was happy or even functional. My grandmother once told me a story of a friend of hers from early adulthood. The woman was married to a man who threatened to break her hands if she ever touched his money, which he kept in a box in their home. Apparently this was just one example of his cruelty and controlling personality, and she tried to obtain a divorce. But the judge ruled that this did not meet the legal definition of cruelty since she had no evidence he actually had struck her. So many marriages that ended by death instead of divorce were not necessarily success stories.

There are also several important predictors of divorce. The Department of Health and Human Services issued a comprehensive report in 2002 that examines who is more likely to get married and divorced. 

One key factor is age. Teens who marry are most likely to divorce within ten years (48 percent of those who marry before eighteen, and 40 percent of those who marry at eighteen or nineteen divorce) compared with 29 percent of those 20 to 24 and just 24 percent of those who marry after the age of 25. If couples grew up with parents who remained married, the likelihood of divorce is also lower (29 percent versus 43 percent). Also, the timing of children matters. Couples clip_image005who have a child before they are married or within seven months of marriage are less likely to remain married after ten years than those who have children at least seven months after their wedding. 

One of the report’s findings is that race is also a significant factor. As the graph on the left details, African Americans are the most likely to divorce, and Asian Americans are the least likely to divorce after fifteen years. 

It’s hard to know exactly why this is the case, but it might have something to do with the fact that on average, Asian Americans have higher incomes and perhaps less money-related stress than other groups. While the graph below excludes Asian Americans, we can see that income level is related to divorce, and divorce levels are particularly high for African Americans. 


These racial disparities are very visible if we look at long-term trends, where African Americans were much more likely to experience divorce within ten years than whites.

So why the major disparity between African Americans and other groups? The authors of the report draw a very important conclusion—it is likely not race alone that matters. They note that “these differences may be related to higher rates of unemployment, incarceration, and mortality among the black population, their lower levels of educational attainment and earnings.” In other words, marriage may not bring 


economic stability to many African American women. 

This finding suggests that the federal government’s Healthy Marriage Initiative might be missing some of the key reasons marriages end. It’s not that people don’t value marriage, but the factors that contribute to stable family life are harder to come by in persistently poor communities. The biggest threat to marriage is probably unemployment or underemployment, experiences felt disproportionately by African Americans.

The prevalence of celebrity divorces may make it seem like every marriage is at risk for divorce, that marriage is just a fifty-fifty crapshoot. But as a 2005 New York Times article detailed, the percentage of marriages that end in divorce is actually lower than we have been told. The fifty percent divorce rate is based on a faulty calculation: there are about twice as many marriages in the U.S. as divorces each year, and that number was misinterpreted to mean that half of all marriages end in divorce. Most people don’t divorce in the same year as their marriage though. It’s like comparing births to deaths in any given year and presuming those that die are the same ones just born. The reality is, as usual, far more complex than we are often led to believe.

July 25, 2008

Made in America

author_sally By Sally Raskoff

Do you think about where your clothes, cars, and other consumer goods are made or where their parts come from? As we hear about jobs moving “offshore” to other countries and imported products that are toxic or are made by children, some Americans have urged consumers to “buy American.” clip_image002

Buying American-made products sounds patriotic and supportive of the country, but is it as easy to do as it sounds? 

To investigate, I googled “made in America” and “made in USA” and was surprised that not as many sites appeared as I expected. Besides a link to IMDB for the movie Made in America (about a young African American woman who was surprised to find Ted Danson as the sperm donor her mother had “employed”), there were far fewer sites than I had anticipated. 

Most sites claimed to provide a database of American-made products. One site, madeinusa.org was clearly just that, although it included a series of posts from people who had updates on products and retail outlets that buy American products. Another site, usstuff.com, was less a database and more a collection of links and lists. The third was much more graphically sophisticated and very pro-American, asking browsers to register as “patriots” so they could claim that a large number of people are seeking American-made products.

wwwUAWorgCars2008While this pursuit was entertaining, these sites were clearly commercial outlets serving as a directory for various companies or products. To narrow my focus, I decided to search for American-made cars to see what I could find. 

Most of us could name the national identity of many automobile companies, including the U.S. companies of Chevrolet, Ford, and Chrysler, the Japanese companies of Honda, Toyota, and Mitsubishi, and the German companies BMW and Mercedes.

But in reality it’s almost impossible to identify which cars are really American made. It depends in part on whether one defines American made as pertaining to labor or parts. 

The United Auto Workers union provides support for those in the automotive trades and their website details exactly where cars are made and how to prioritize American-made cars. In fact, they have links on their website to find out the origins of many products. 

On their list of cars, they include those made by union workers in the U.S. and Canada. 

The makes of these cars include Chevrolet, Ford, Chrysler, Dodge, Cadillac, Lincoln, Saturn, Buick, GMC, Jeep, Mercury, Hummer, Saab, Isuzu, Mazda, Mitsubishi and Toyota. They have asterisks marking those that are “sourced from the U.S. and another country” with instructions on how to check the Vehicle Identification Number (VIN) to see if it’s U.S.-made or Canadian-made. Check the find print on their list (below) as it explains how each model of car may be made in different locations thus workers may or may not be union. FTC_ConsumerAlert_Oct2001 

So, the UAW information is useful if we want to ensure we use American (or Canadian) unionized workers but it doesn’t help if we want to seek parts or products that are domestic in origin.

The Federal Trade Commission website lists its 1997 policy, reiterating that products labeled with “Made in USA” must have been “all or virtually all” made in the USA. In October 2001, events prompted a consumer alert [INSERT BELOW] about the labeling policy and how to report violations.

By contrast, the madeinusa.org site has a different definition: “Made in the USA” means that a product has “51% or more of domestically produced or manufactured parts, labor and or value-added content or any combination thereof.” As you can see, we have different ways of defining what it means for a product to be “American.”

NewBalance_MadeinUSA2006 Athletic shoe manufacturer New Balance got into some trouble with the FTC for making false claims about their products being made in America in 1996. That case was closed with an agreement to make appropriate attribution of sourcing and exporting data. New Balance now using of the 70% level to claim “made in the USA”. (The www.madeinusa.com site lists New Balance as using 85% American content).

One thing is clear about “Buying American”: it’s all very ambiguous!

The impulse to Buy American is a patriotic and emotional response to our struggling economy and to our declining international power. Actually trying to Buy American is rather impossible unless one forgoes nationally marketed consumer products and instead buys only locally raised food and other products such as wool and wood to make one’s own clothing, housing, and furnishings.

Sociologically, we can see that our country is embedded in a global world with many important relationships clip_image003outside our borders. We depend on those relationships for our basic needs such as shoes and transportation. Thinking that we can close our borders or not make use of products from other countries is not realistic.

Sociologist Immanuel Wallerstein uses and expands on Marx's ideas about societal change to suggest that we are in the midst of a crucial period of late capitalism struggling with its contradictions. This economic form has had us working our way across the globe in the search for exploitable labor and other resources. Now that those supplies are close to exhausted and the environmental damage may be out of our hands, we can either continue with the same system or change things to a new economic form in the attempt to save our environment, our country, and ourselves. 

If we are successful in creating this new system, it will, of course, create its own contradictions or problems. However, if we don’t deal effectively with the challenges of our time, we will continue to experience the same but more intense versions of these challenges.

July 22, 2008

An Effect of Measurement

author_brad By Bradley Wright

A friend of mine bought a hybrid car—one of those cars that runs on both gas and a battery engine—and when he gave me a ride, I was clip_image002[8]struck by two things. First, the car is amazingly quiet when it is running on battery power; in fact, I wouldn’t have even known that the engine was running except we were driving down the street. This, I thought, would be perfect for sneaking up on pedestrians (but that’s a topic for another blog post). Second, my friend, who is otherwise quite sensible, spoke at great length about the gas mileage that he gets with the car, and how it varies by driving patterns and terrain. Apparently braking slowly is good (or bad) because it does (or doesn’t) charge the battery. (You can tell I wasn’t paying too much attention).

Now, I thought my friend was unusual in his fascination with miles-per-gallon until I read this Washington Post article about hybrid owners. It tells of various owners who seem willing to do anything for that extra mile-per-gallon. One driver changed his route to work, just to avoid a big hill that drops his mileage to below 20 mpg. Another is so keen on keeping his mpg high that he won’t let his wife—who apparently just drives normally—drive his hybrid.

The key feature of hybrids that makes this mpg obsession possible is a dashboard mileage monitor that indicates how many miles-per-gallon the car is getting at that exact moment. This feedback appears to change drivers’ behavior.

Sociologists have long understood what is called an observer effect (also called the Hawthorn Effect). The idea here is that people change their behavior when they know they are being observed. This is why sociologists will sometimes use covert observation to study a situation, so as not to change it unnecessarily. It’s also why experimenters will often deceive their subjects about the true purpose of the study.clip_image002

Well, related to the observer effect might be something that we can a measurement effect. Just the act of measuring a behavior changes it to be (usually) more in-line with our preferences and goals.

This principle applies to much more than driving hybrid cars. In fact, when people want to change their own behavior or that of others, one of the first things they’ll do is start measuring that behavior. It’s remarkable in how many areas of life we use this measure-to-change-it approach to behavior.clip_image002[6]

Weight Watchers is one of the best known weight loss programs. What’s one of the first things that a person does at the Weight Watcher’s meeting? Step on a scale, and have someone write down how much you weigh. This measurement brings your attention to what you’re trying to do, and it indicates how well you’ve done it in the previous week.

Most money management programs operate on the same principle. They have you keep track of all your expenses (i.e., measure them), and then see how they change over time. (I tried a program, called Money Counts, and I realized that I’m better at sociology than managing money.)

Want to live a more holy life? Start confessing. The Catholic Church encourages its members to periodically tally up their sins for a priest who then (hopefully) absolves them of these sins. The awareness of sin that the periodic confessions encourage should help move the individual away from behaviors they don’t desire.

Fundraising programs not only ask for money, but they also let their target audience know how much they’ve already raised. This is why every summer we see signs with thermometers painted on them. The more money given, the higher the red-mark on the thermometer.

I suppose that even classroom grading works this way. Students who know their grades throughout their semester probably study harder and are more engaged in the tests than those who are not told their grades. (This is why professors always tell students their grades.)

This principle has implications for social research. Just the act of measuring someone’s behavior, e.g., as is done in a survey, can change that person’s behavior by making them more aware of what they are doing. This may not matter in a cross-sectional survey, done only once, but with longitudinal research, it may alter the data. That is, if we measure a person’s behavior a second time, we may observe something different than if we hadn’t measured it a first time.

What’s the bottom line here? Well, when we measure anything, whether in professional research or everyday-life, realize that we’re probably changing some aspect of it. If we want to change something, probably the first thing to do is to start measuring it.

July 19, 2008

Culture and Globalization

author_janis By Janis Prince Inniss 

When people talk about globalization, they’re often referring to the reality that we live in an interdependent world in which shifts in one part of the world are felt in another because of globally-driven economic factors. Often discussions of globalization focus on the economy and other big picture issues. Have you given any thought to how globalization impacts your life in a personal way? As the following examples illustrate, globalization has very real J0236527impacts on individual, everyday experiences. 

  I never saw a television until I was ten! It’s not that I wasn’t allowed to watch television until I was ten years old, but that I never even knew what that magic box looked like until that age! This is because until age 13, I lived in Guyana where there was no TV. No one I knew had a TV and given that the country had no TV stations (this was before the days of satellite TV) I don’t know what they would watch if anyone had one anyway. I saw my first television when I left the country for a summer vacation.

Fast forward to Guyana twenty years later…. I went back to Guyana on a visit and everyone seemed to have a TV! And they all seemed to have them on all the time, and loudly. (I don’t know that TV viewing in Guyana is any more popular there than it is in the U.S., but apparently the number of per capita TV sets is far fewer than it is in the U.S. I imagine that economic factors are greatly related to this difference.)clip_image003

In Guyana, windows tend to remain open so sounds escape readily making the television sounds obvious to me even as I walked past homes. This was more than a mere observation; it greatly impacted my visit. I found this change vexing because the noise of the televisions got in the way of conversation as I tried to cover years of distance in a few days. On many visits with friends and family, I found their attention divided between me and their televisions. And I was poor competition for the box, as it seemed to win most of the time! (Not kind to my ego.) And mostly they watched U.S. channels (with CNN the hands-down winner), not programs that covered the local stories and issues I might not have minded learning about on my vacation. The American shows on those TVs in Guyana are another example of globalization.

Recently, I drove across a northern border to Canada. Starving after my trip, I was looking forward to some new and different cuisine. But all I saw were American restaurants around me. For a moment, I had no sense that I was in a foreign country with the same stores and restaurants all around. As I sat down for my first meal on Canadian soil, I realized that the TV was on…CNN! More U.S. news! I’m not anti-news (well, I don’t really care for television news but that’s another story) but American news is certainly not what I expected the minute I set food across the border.


The CNN domination is also evident when I telephone family and friends around the world. I continue to be amazed by how much the U.S. presidential race dominates conversations with people regardless of which country they live in. People I talk with in Europe and Canada are very tuned into CNN and so are very familiar with the twists and turns taking place with the elections. They are as conversant on any election issue as anyone I know in the U.S. 

Why do you think CNN is watched around the world? There are several reasons. I think one is the dominance of the American market and of American culture. For many non-Americans, CNN symbolizes the U.S. American restaurants and politics are also popular around the world because they are part of this dominant American culture and marketplace. 

Some might argue that these are examples of the Americanization of other countries, and that this is an effect of globalization. What do you think? How do you feel about this aspect of globalization? Will a global culture—and given America’s size and might this will be a mainly American culture—replace local cultures? My comments about seeing American restaurants and CNN upon arriving in Canada do not negate the fact that the country has its own thriving culture. Nor does the popularity of CNN in the homes I visited in Guyana indicate that Guyanese culture is dead, but there’s no denying the influence of American culture on these other countries. 

The presence of TV did change the way I experienced conversations in Guyana, but maybe such experiences lead people to want to hold on even more tightly to their culture. If so, in a roundabout fashion, globalization may strengthen rather than replace local culture. Or maybe different cultures can and do peacefully exist next to each other. Based on your experiences, which seems most likely?

July 16, 2008

Sociology: It's What's For Dinner

author_karen By Karen Sternheimer

What did you have for dinner last night? Was it sociologically meaningful? 

Actually, all food is sociologically relevant in some way. It is a part of culture, tied to customs, religion, and ethnicity. clip_image002What we eat, how we eat, and when we eat are intertwined with sociological issues like these.

Here are a few specific examples: what we eat may reflect our status, where we eat our income, and with whom we eat our family situation.

We have social rituals surrounding our meals too. Typically at a restaurant we use silverware when appropriate (I learned how embarrassing violating this could be when I first tried eating deep-dish pizza with my hands).

Eating off our own plates is another such ritual usually followed, and we usually avoid eating from strangers’ plates. Believe it or not, I saw this rule breached several years ago when having brunch. I was with a large group of mostly family members and of few of their friends whom I had never met. I hadn’t finished my toast because it was a little burnt and left the mostly-eaten crusts on the plate. 

The man next to me was a significantly older friend of a cousin, and I couldn’t believe it when he asked if I was finished and ate my scraps! It’s not as if this man couldn’t afford a meal himself; although we barely spoke, I knew he was a high-profile attorney, famous for multi-million dollar settlements. Perhaps his status—older, male, wealthy— made him feel like he was entitled. I don’t really know why he did it, but I still think it was sort of gross.clip_image006

Eating also can stratify us; eating at a five-star restaurant is out of reach for most of us, but many people regardless of income might enjoy going to a diner now and then. The affluent thus have more dining choices and can much more easily “invade” some working class spaces than the other way around.clip_image008

Material culture accompanies eating and has sociological importance as well. “Picking out China patterns” is a well-worn phrase indicating that people are planning to get married. Wedding registry lists are mostly filled with eating accoutrements: in addition to fine China, silver and everyday tableware, candle holders, crystal glasses, and serving platters are all pricey gifts to set the table for meals on special occasions.

clip_image010When my grandmother passed away last year, family members sorted through her everyday items, the things too mundane to be listed in her will or given away before she died. My sisters each got a serving platter, my mother her crystal highball glasses. I wanted just one thing: her Black & Decker Handy Chopper. 

You are probably wondering why I would want this when a brand new one is less than fifteen dollars. And as a proud hostess for decades, my grandmother had lots of crystal serving bowls, silver platters, and other objects d’art, but still I wanted the chopper. 

My grandma used to make her famous tuna salad in that chopper. It was one of her many specialties that would often be our first meal at her home when we arrived from out of town. She would have it laid out perfectly on a bed of lettuce with sliced tomatoes making for a colorful garnish. On hot summer days when we would swim in her building’s pool she would wave us in from her seventh floor balcony, the signal that lunch was ready. We’d eat cold tuna sandwiches outside on the patio in our wet bathing suits, waiting until we could go back down to the pool.

I had tried on many occasions to replicate her recipe. Tuna never tasted as good when I made it myself at home. “You have to have a good chopper,” she would tell me, and ask what sort of chopper I used. I would show her my hands, since I manually chopped the ingredients. “You have to have a good chopper,” she repeated, shaking her head.

Now I do have a good chopper. It arrived in its original box, yellowed and taped together with disintegrating scotch tape. It needed a good cleaning, as my grandma’s eyesight had failed in the last of her 96 years. I knew all of the ingredients by heart: chopped sweet onion, white albacore tuna, hard boiled egg, and a spoonful of mayonnaise. When the chopper blended them all together I heard that familiar grinding sound, one I usually heard from a distance because until the end she made the tuna salad by herself without assistance. As if by magic, it tasted exactly as if my grandma was in my kitchen that day.clip_image012

Sometimes a meal is more than a meal. It can evoke family traditions, reflect our ethnic heritage, or reveal our economic circumstances. Our family always had plenty to eat, but for families that don’t, food takes on different meanings.

For others, like my grandmother who emigrated from another country as a child, it can be a way to maintain a family’s traditions and culture in a new place. But the foods that I remember most--the tuna, her delicious Jell-O molds, fresh cornbread with actual pieces of corn, reflect her desire to be fully American. Above all, she loved apple pie. “It’s fruit, it’s good for you,” she would say with a wink.

Her definition of good might not match the FDA Pyramid, but food obviously does more than provide our bodies nutrients. It is, literally, who we are.

July 14, 2008

Types of Causality

author_brad By Bradley Wright

(Part II of a series)

In my last post, I wrote of basic ideas about causality. Sociologists most readily assume that one thing in the social world causes another when the cause correlates with the effect, occurs before it, and there’s a plausible, non-spurious causal mechanism. 

In this post, I develop the idea of causality more by talking about its different types. Yes, just as there are different types of cars, ice cream, and television reality shows, there are different types of causality. Knowing these distinctions in causality allow us to recognize causality more readily and to think about it more deeply… and you thought you’d have nothing to do during your summer vacation!

1) Nomothetic vs. Idiographic . The first distinction involves two words no one has ever heard of: nomothetic and idiographic (they come from the Latin phrase “really confusing”). They regard how many cases are being explained—many or just one. 

Nomothetic means a causal relationship is assumed to happen among many cases. (Sociologists usually study people as cases, but these principles apply to non-people cases like bears or stars or battles). With nomothetic causation, some cause has some effect on lots of people. This is what sociologists do almost all the time, and it’s so routine, we can forget that there is anything else. clip_image002

Idiographic causation, however, involves just one person (or case). Basically, you’re saying that a cause has an effect for one person or thing, and you don’t know, or don’t care, whether it affects others. 

Now, why would anyone want to go idiographic? Well… historians might want to explain why a specific event happened. For example, why did the American Civil War occur? Different historians might have different explanations, but they are not trying to explain all wars (this would be nomothetic) or even all civil wars (again, nomothetic), but rather why this particular war happened.

2) Deterministic vs. Probabilistic . The next distinction of causality is fortunately easier to pronounce, but it still identifies a type of causality that people sometimes miss. This distinction regards whether a cause happens every single time or just some of the time.

Deterministic causation occurs when every time you have a cause, you have an effect. For example, every time you cool pure water to 32 degrees, it freezes into ice. (Okay, I suppose any science types reading this would find an exception, e.g., maybe water under high levels of pressure doesn’t freeze or maybe it acts differently in outer space, but work with me here).

Sociologists rarely, if ever deal with deterministic causation. Instead, we’re all about probabilistic causation. This happens when a cause sometimes brings about an effect, but not always. A classic example is smoking and lung cancer. Not everyone who smokes gets lung cancer, but it definitely increases the likelihood of it, so we call smoking a cause of lung cancer.


Sometimes people confuse this distinction, and they proclaim that if a cause is not deterministic, it is not really a cause. For example, someone might argue that since their grandfather smoked a pack a day and died at natural causes at 100 years old smoking doesn’t cause lung cancer.

In this sense, probabilistic causation is more difficult to deal with (and I think more interesting) because it does have lots of exceptions, but, it’s still causation. 

3) Necessary vs. sufficient. This next distinction is rather tricky. It’s the one that that most sociology students have to stop and really think about when they’re answering a midterm question. It regards whether a particular cause is needed to bring about an effect and if that cause is enough by itself.

Necessary causation occurs when you absolutely, positively must have a certain cause to observe a corresponding outcome. Simply having that cause may not be enough to have the effect, but you definitely need that specific cause to have any hope 


of observing the effect. A simple example: You need air to be alive, so air is a necessary cause for life. Air, by itself, might not be enough, for other things can come into play. Maybe you were just bitten by some crazed monkey that has Ebola, and you’re going to be dead by sundown no matter how much air you breathe.

Sufficient causation means that a particular cause is enough to have an effect, though other causes could bring that effect about as well. Eating a pint of Ben & Jerry’s ice cream every day is enough to make you fat just by itself (assuming that the rest of your diet stays the same). It is a sufficient cause of weight gain. (By the way, I just tried their flavor “Visual Whirled Peace” today—outstanding). But, there are also other possible causes of weight gain, such as Haagen Dazs and Bryers ice creams.

Just to keep you on the edge of your computer chair, let me tell you that I plan to write about several other distinctions in causality in my next post. How sweet it is…

July 13, 2008

Do Sociologists all Look Alike? Homogeneity and Heterogeneity

author_sally By Sally Raskoff

I just returned from a sociology conference where I noticed, as I do every time I attend, that sociologists tend to look alike. When I go out into the city to walk and revive my body from the tedium of sitting too long in the meeting, I watch the people I pass on the street. Although I take off my conference name badge when I do this, as do most of the other sociologists, many of us can tell when we pass someone who else is a meeting escapee even if we don’t know the person. In the meeting itself or in the hotel public areas, it is also easy to identify the sociologists among the other hotel patrons. 

This is true for people in most occupational groups. We tend to look like people who do the same job even if our bodies and backgrounds are diverse. Why might this be?clip_image003

Perhaps the clothing? Many occupations require certain styles or types of dress when working. Lawyers wear suits while many others wear actual uniforms like scrubs, jumpsuits, white coats, company issued pants, shirt, and jackets. When a dress code is not specified, people still may dress alike! A colleague told me years ago that he could always tell who the kindergarten through high school teachers were since they all wore clothing from J.C. Penney’s or Sears. 

Perhaps the income? Our clothes may be similar because the comparable income levels prompt people to shop at particular types of stores. Thus, teachers who make a low to moderate income would shop at stores known for price breaks and “affordable” clothing. And lawyers, whose income on average tends to be quite high, would wear more expensive custom tailored suits. 

clip_image006This income homogeneity reminds me of a former acquaintance who had an interesting perspective on his home furnishings. Every time he got a promotion at work, he would get rid of his furniture and buy new items from a store “one level up” from the source of his last set of furnishings. 

I don’t remember the exact order but he wouldn’t shop at a store high on his list until he had the job that he felt entitled him to that type of product. When he went into the houses of other people, he would assess their work status by assessing the source and quality of their furniture. His top goal was to reach a position that would allow him to hire a designer to find unique furniture from wholesale-only sources. (He moved away and we lost touch so I’m not sure he ever got promoted to that point!)

But income can’t be the only factor, since in this group of sociologists as in many others, there are some entry-level students and others at the other end of their careers and our incomes are as diverse as our sociological experience.

Beyond income, perhaps social class? Social class includes income but also wealth, education, and occupation, so it ties some of the elements in this puzzle together. People who gain similar levels of education and jobs, and go on to make similar amounts of income and wealth, would also tend to purchase their clothing and personal hygiene products from similar sources. 

However, those at higher levels of social class would have more options for those purchases, thus we could predict more variability in their appearances than for those at lower social class levels since they have fewer options. There are many stories floating around about super rich people who dress like “everyone else” yet they are certainly able to dress up in the latest fashions if going out to a public event.

Perhaps the event? Since the setting for my initial observation is a professional conference, there are some norms about what to wear, which create some standards of dress. However, as with other societal norms, not everyone follows these norms. Actually, there is much diversity in dress at these conferences since it seems that many people do dress as they do at their home institutions. We sociologists may know a lot about norms but that doesn’t mean that we are more likely to conform to them – perhaps we are more likely to deviate from them! While many are wearing suits and other professional attire, many others are wearing anything from all black to jeans. 

clip_image009Perhaps personality? A relative once told me that she didn’t want to go into a particular line of work because the people she knew in that industry did not represent the type of person she wanted to be. She was noticing that people who do similar work not only may look alike but they may also have similar personalities, mannerisms, and/or behavior! The question then arises as to whether similar types of people go into similar types of work or people who work in similar jobs become similar over time. Does the person make the job or does the job make the person? 

Sociologically, both are probably true. (Life is not as simple as a one-way street!) 

Emile Durkheim’s concepts of mechanical and organic solidarity can help to explain the structure of life in different types of settings. In simpler, agrarian, or small communities, life is more homogeneous -- people do similar types of work, worship at the same types of places, and have similar ancestries or cultural practices. All of this offers a mechanical solidarity that ties people together. 

However in more complex, urban, and “modern” communities, organic solidarity is what holds the society together. As heterogeneity increases in population, jobs, opportunities, technologies, cultural practices and ancestry, it is the similarities that hold the entire system together. Thus, complex divisions of labor create not only different types of people but interdependent types of people in specific occupations. Those occupational groups also bond people within the group together so that their social network includes people from work and not just people in their kinship group. Symbolic bonds are displayed through clothing and other visible signs of membership. 

As our consumer options shrink with the merging of retail outlets, we see more homogeneity across the nation in our clothing and fashion. Would Durkheim say that this is just one way that our complex division of labor and the resulting interdependencies and occupational communities allow more social bonds to be formed to strengthen the society as a whole? Perhaps. Would Marx agree? Would Weber agree? Would Martineau agree? Would DuBois agree?

If we agree that people in related occupations who have similar income and education levels dress similarly because of their consumer limitations and workplace cultures, can we assume that the bonds they have with each other are reinforced by these visible and thus symbolic similarities?

July 11, 2008

Which Immigrant Groups Assimilate Faster?

author_cn By C.N. Le

A common theme among my posts on this blog is the ability of immigrant and racial/ethnic minority groups to assimilate into American society. Many Asian Americans, along with other groups of color, struggle to become assimilated as "Americans" in this country.

As we already know, immigration -- especially illegal immigration -- is a very controversial and emotional issue for many Americans. Among critics of illegal immigrants, one of their main complaints and basis for their fierce opposition is the perception that illegal immigrants are not interested in becoming Americans. Instead, critics fear, they are just here to exploit American society and its institutions or plan to turn the U.S. into a "colony" of Mexico.

Within this context, our job as sociologists is to again try to contribute some objectivity and empirical data to try to answer that question. To what extent do immigrants (legal and illegal) assimilate into American society? Diverse Issues in Education reports on a new study of assimilation among various racial/ethnic groups that finds that immigrants today assimilate faster than earlier immigrants, but that some groups inevitably assimilate faster than others:

Newcomers of the past quarter-century have assimilated more rapidly than their counterparts of a century ago, according to a conservative think tank. However, the report from the Manhattan Institute indicates that Mexican immigrants are not assimilating as fast as other groups. . . . 

In an article for The Boston Globe, [the study's author Prof. Jacob] Vigdor said many Mexicans do not have much incentive to assimilate because they strongly expect to return home and they can function in Spanish-speaking populations in the United States. In addition, those without legal status lack a path to citizenship and better jobs.

This new report is not likely to sway many opinions when it comes to the issue of illegal immigration because both sides can legitimately claim that the results of the study support their own positions.assim1 

That is, critics of rights for illegal immigrants are likely to argue that since Mexican immigrants -- particularly those who are here illegally -- are less likely to assimilate, we should continue efforts to exclude them because ultimately, the results show that they aren't interested in becoming American.

On the other hand, supporters of more rights for illegal immigrants will contend that there's an important cause-and-effect issue here -- many illegal immigrants can't assimilate because they don't have the resources or rights to do so.

In other words, their "illegal" status and the institutional barriers and social restrictions in front of them as a result of their status make it extremely difficult for them integrate into the American mainstream. With that in mind, if we allow them to become citizens, they will eventually assimilate.

I belong to the latter group and favor giving illegal immigrants a pathway to citizenship, although not at the expense of others who have been waiting for a immigration visa for years and even decades. In fact, this is one of those instances in which I have agreed with Republicans who favor comprehensive immigration reform, and not just a total focus on just barricading our borders.

diversity1aWe need to expand the levels of immigration to the U.S., especially considering that immigrants produce many tangible benefits for American society and its economy. I realize that this is a controversial idea and you will find plenty of statistical data that will support both sides of the argument over whether immigration constitutes a net benefit or a net loss for the American economy.

Nonetheless, even while Americans argue about the economic impact of immigration, there is no doubt that American society is becoming increasingly diverse (even without immigration), globalized, and transnational as we move forward into the 21st century. Based on that fact alone, immigrants have the potential to contribute significantly to American culture and its global competitiveness.

Ultimately, that may be the kind of assimilation that can unite Americans from all backgrounds.

July 09, 2008

Judging a Book by its Racial Cover

author_janis By Janis Prince Inniss

 On Easter Sunday, my husband and I took my mother to church in her neighborhood. (We live about 25 miles from her.) My rationale for this was to introduce Mum to a church, and perhaps to some church-goers, in her neighborhood; she only attends church when her visits with us include Sundays. As we headed into the church, I realized that we were the only ones doing so, which was odd especially on Easter. Undaunted, we  headed into the sanctuary, sat in the back and happily joined in the singing of one of myJ0173998 favorite hymns.

As I looked around the church, I was reminded that it serves a largely white congregation. I had attended a few services at this church when we first moved to this city but had not returned once we moved out of clip_image003[4]that general area. As I sang, I noticed a black man in a suit standing next to the white minister in his robe at the front of the church. Given the racial makeup of the church, and because the black man seemed to be assisting with the service in some way since he was up front, he was noteworthy. To my dismay, when we finished that wonderful hymn, the service was over! 

Down the aisle came the procession of church officials, followed by the congregation. We had traveled that distance for less than one whole hymn! Somewhere between annoyance and amusement, I stumbled back outside with my family. As we stood outside the church trying to figure out what had happened, my husband said that the black man had given him a note that read, “Follow me to the auditorium.” Who was that man? And why were we to follow him? 

clip_image005[4]We followed the man and found ourselves in the building next door to the main sanctuary where the service was about to begin. We found seats and I noticed that the man who had directed us to this service seemed to be taking part in the proceedings once again. I guessed he was there in his supporting role once more and that the white man I saw on stage was the minister. 

Turns out I had the roles completely reversed. The black man was in charge of this service; he preached a wonderful sermon. Ah, so he must assist with the traditional service and preach at the contemporary service. During the service a few people mentioned Dr. Smith (not his real name of course), pastor of the church, and I wondered whether we had seen him in the few minutes at the earlier service. 

Service over, I asked someone about arranging transportation to the church for Mum. She directed me to Dr. Smith. I explained that I did not know him so she showed me to his office. To my surprise the black man in the suit was Dr. Smith, senior church pastor! I was stunned! My assumptions about Dr. Smith were based on his being a black man at a church with a mostly white, affluent congregation; they were also shaped by the fact that I have never been a member of a church with a black pastor in America. In fact, I can count on one hand the number of times I have heard sermons delivered by black pastors in the U.S. This is because I have never been a regular attendee of black church denominations or black churches that fit under white denominations, so my churches have been predominantly white. 

This Easter Sunday experience was a great lesson in how prejudice works: Using the information we have, based on our often narrow personal experiences, we decide where someone fits in the world. Those prejudices may take the form of race, class, gender, sexual orientation or any other lens that we choose to wear. Also, context matters. Had Dr. Smith been wearing a robe instead of a suit, I would probably have made the same assumptions, especially because I also saw a white pastor at the church. But, had I seen Dr. Smith on campus, dressed as he was, I would probably have assumed he was on the university faculty.

I know that black men occupy all spheres of life. I’m from a large family filled with black men (and women) who have attained the highest professional levels. I am married to a black man who defies just about every stereotype of the African American male. I am a black woman. I am a sociologist who writes about race, ethnicity and culture. And yet, there I was unable to guess that I was looking at the pastor of that church!

Have you had a similar experience? How have you prejudged someone or a situation based on information about their race, class or maybe their gender? Tell us about it.

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