14 posts from July 2008

July 07, 2008

Everyday Sociology Talk: Sociology and the Environment

Karen Sternheimer and Sally Raskoff discuss sociology's connection with the environment

July 06, 2008


author_brad By Bradley Wright

Sociologists spend a lot of time talking and thinking about causality. (We probably spend even more time with office politics, but that’s not very interesting, so I won’t write about that).

Now, I have a sneaking suspicion that philosophers spend a lot of time defining exactly what is the essence of causality, and they probably trace it back to Romans and Greeks and people like that. Rather than go into this type of philosophical analysis, I will simply focus on how we might test for its existence.

If “A” is a cause of “B”, what does that mean? In this case, “A” and “B” could be just about anything—characteristics of people, interactions, groups, societies.

First off, we would expect some level of association between “A” and “B”. By this we mean that as levels in “A” change, we would expect usually to see some change in “B”. Some associations are positive, meaning that “A” and “B” move in the same direction. So, as “A” increases, “B” does also. (Or, conversely, if “A” decreases, so does “B”). Other associations are negative, meaning that as “A” increases, “B” decreases or the reverse.

Second, we should see changes in “A” occur before changes in “B”. Since very few sociologists can afford time-travel machines (though I think that I saw a colleague with a flux capacitor in their office), we are stuck with the linear progression of time. That means that changes in a cause have to happen before the resulting consequences in the effect. Sometimes this time difference is miniscule, so that changes in “A” and “B” seem to happen almost simultaneously, but there is still some ordering. At the very least, if “A” causes “B”, then changes in “B” can not happen before corresponding changes in “A”.

Third, there should be no spurious correlation. A spurious correlation means that some other variable causes both “A” and “B” such that they correlate with each other, and maybe “A” comes before “B”, but in fact there is not causal connection between them. (For a fuller explanation, read this previous post). This is where things get a little tricky. Researchers can measure if two variables are associated, and he or she can measure which came first, but how can you know that there is no secret variable out there that makes the correlation spurious? Who knows, given what “A” and “B” are, there could be dozens if not hundreds possible spurious correlates. How can a researcher rule out all of them? They can’t. The researcher can measure and rule out any obvious spurious correlates, but ultimately it’s an act of faith (or, as it’s called in sociology, “theory”) that a correlation between “A” and “B” is not spurious.

Finally, we like to know how “A” causes “B”. There can be a causal relationship between the two even if we don’t know how they affect each other, but knowing “how” makes us more confident the causal connection. Basically, sociologists sleep better at night if they know the causal mechanism.

So far I’ve discussed this in rather abstract terms, and you’re probably wondering if I had intended to put you to sleep at your computer. (Sociologists sometimes forget that regular human beings don’t get excited talking about vague “A”s and “B”s).

Here’s an example.

clip_image002Suppose that a friend told you that they had a bag of magic M&Ms. Now, I realize that for some people, any bag of candy is magic, but these are special M&Ms, according to your friend. If you eat a green one, you will instantly become amazingly physically attractive (if you’re not already). You’ll be so handsome or beautiful, that you’ll end up on lists like this, this, and this. (Okay, the last one was just to see if you were paying attention.)

You are intrigued, but you want to find out if it’s true. Does eating green M&Ms make you attractive? Or, to put into boring sociological notation, does “A” cause “B”? To test this, you give a bag of the magic M&Ms to your friends, and then you take notes.

First you notice whether the friends who ate green M&Ms are more attractive than those who didn’t. If so, this would be a positive association—more green M&Ms = more good looks.

Then you would look to see which came first. Perhaps beautiful people just happen to eat more green M&Ms; if so, they “B” comes before “A”, and we don’t think “A” is a cause of “B”.

Can you think of any spurious correlation between green M&Ms and attractiveness? At this particular moment, I can’t (but then again, I may just be thinking about how thin this example is getting).

Finally, you wonder how green M&Ms would change a person so dramatically. You might send them off to the lab and have them analyzed.

Once you’ve answered all these questions, you can decide for yourself if there is hope that green M&Ms will make you so good looking. Then again, maybe you should have some anyway… just in case.

July 04, 2008

Sociology Selects a Presidential Running Mate

author_karen By Karen Sternheimer

Suppose you were in the unlikely position of choosing a running mate for your presidential bid. The right choice could help you become the most powerful person on earth. Make the wrong one and you risk becoming the pariah of your party. Can sociology help you make your decision?

Social psychologists have long studied how we make important choices like this one, and what factors make for best leaders. Here are a few simple rules based on their research:

  1. Don’t Choose One of Your Friends

It seems counterintuitive, but your friends should be the last pool you draw your running mate from. Here’s why: they tend to think like you and have similar backgrounds, lifestyles, tastes, and beliefs. They even tend to be morning people if you’re a morning person, or night people if you like to stay out late. According to the Matching Hypothesis, they even tend to match our levels of attractiveness. We are also more likely to hang out with people who share similar religious beliefs, emotional style, and sense of humor. 

While all these similarities might make for a good friend, a presidential candidate benefits from a running mate who is different. Typically, a running mate will clip_image002possess a quality, background, or social network that the candidate themselves lack. They might be from a different part of the country, have different constituents, and therefore can bring in different voters.

Aside from the problem of similarities, people tend to be more competitive with their friends than they are with others. Social psychologist Abraham Tesser conducted experiments where pairs of friends played Password (an old game show; a new version is now hosted by Regis Philbin), and had the chance to give their friends clues to help them answer the questions. When subjects were told that doing well was a sign of excellent verbal skills and leadership, friends were actually less helpful than strangers were! How come? Tesser’s Self-evaluation Maintenance Theory suggests that on issues highly relevant to our sense of self, we strive to perform well and save face even more with people who are in our social networks. Our identity is not bound up as much in what strangers think of us, so we are more likely to help them. 

For instance, I might feel less comfortable if friends or family scored higher on a sociology test than I did—that’s supposed to be my thing—compared with trivial pursuit questions about sports (not my thing). But with strangers I might not feel as deflated since they are not regularly in my life to remind me of my shortcomings.

And finally, if you have ever hired one of your friends before, trust me, there is no better way to damage a friendship than to become your friend’s boss. So save your friendship and your candidacy.

  1. Choose Someone You Dislike

I know what you’re thinking: why would anyone want to bestow a great opportunity upon someone that they don’t like? If you have ever worked with someone you didn’t much care for, you know that spending time with someone you don’t like is stressful.

But following the saying “keep your friends close and your enemies closer” might make a lot of sense. Keep in mind rule #1: your friends often have a similar ways of thinking and the same social networks as you do. A person you dislike frequently has a different perspective on many issues that will add valuable insight to your decision making process. They probably have completely different friends (who you will likely need favors from at some point) and different imagestrengths to draw from.

Oh, and you will probably end up liking them too. Proximity theory suggests that we feel internal pressure to like those we spend time with out of necessity. Another way of thinking about this is what is sometimes called the Ben Franklin Effect. Franklin wrote of his decision to win over a political opponent by asking  him to borrow a valued book. The rival subsequently agreed to his request--when people ask us for favors we often feel social pressure to say yes. After Franklin returned the book with gratitude, the former rival became a lifelong friend.

Why would this happen? Social psychologists explain it this way: it makes little sense to lend a valued possession to someone you dislike, so to reconcile this cognitive dissonance (or internal contradiction) we shift our beliefs to fit our choices. 

You probably do this without realizing it. I had a coworker once who bought a new car. I suspect it was out of his price range, and he continually touted the great value and performance of that automaker, even insisting that his car would appreciate in value over time. 

I seriously doubt that it appreciated in price, but I wasn’t the person he was trying to convince: he was trying to convince himself he had made the right decision. Likewise, choosing someone to be a vice presidential candidate is a big deal, and you might settle any cognitive dissonance by deciding that they’re really not that bad after all. 

  1. Agree to Disagree

Finally, pick someone who sometimes—even often—disagrees with you and is not afraid to speak up about it. If the VP can disagree with you, your other aides are more likely to be honest if they have misgivings about any of your plans. Dissenters make you develop stronger, more reasoned positions. In situations where conformity is encouraged or even demanded, decisions are more likely to be riddled with errors. 

The classic studies by Solomon Asch demonstrate this point. In his conformity experiments he asked subjects to compare lines on cards and tell him which was longer; a very simple task. Unbeknownst to the subjects, Asch instructed some participants to choose a line that was clearly shorter. While not everyone chose the wrong line, a surprisingly large percentage of subjects picked the shorter one. When there was no pressure to conform, nearly everyone made the correct choice.

The combination of conformity and power can have catastrophic effects, when agreeing with the group trumps one’s own intellectual and ethical judgment. Avoiding groupthink-the process of becoming so insulated in the group’s belief system that individual and critical thought virtually disappears--is the best way to make good decisions for the country. Besides, allowing dissent is the hallmark of a strong leader—and a free society.

July 01, 2008

Supporting Traditional Values

author_sallyBy Sally Raskoff

With the introduction of same-sex marriage in California, we are hearing a lot of media reports and informal discussion on this issue. People are “for” it, people are “against” it, people are doing it, and people are picketing it. Polls have been conducted to show us what people in the state and nation think about this issue.

Here is a sampling of the poll results asking people their opinions on the California Supreme Court’s ruling on same-sex marriage:

“Do you approve or disapprove of the recent California State Supreme Court ruling declaring the state’s ban on same-sex marriage as being unconstitutional, thus allowing same-sex couples to marry?”

48% Agree; 46% Disagree (Field Poll, May 7-26 2008, 1052 CA Adult Reg. Voters, 3.2% margin of error)

“The California Supreme Court has struck down the ban on gay marriage in California. Do you agree? Or disagree with the court’s ruling?”

46% Agree; 46% Disagree (Survey USA, May 15 2008, 500 CA Adults, 4.5% margin of error)

“As you may know, last week the California Supreme Court ruled that the California Constitution requires that same-sex couples be given the same right to marry that opposite-sex couples have. Based on what you know, do you approve or disapprove of the Court’s decision to allow same-sex marriage in California?”

41% Agree; 52% Disagree (Los Angeles Times/KTLA , May 20-21 2008, 834 CA Adults, 3% margin of error)

These surveys were done at roughly the same time period and only people in California were contacted. Note the variation in the percent agreeing and clip_image002disagreeing, the question wording, and the people whom they contacted. The wording of the questions, along with the types of people they contacted can help explain some of the differing percentages. On the other hand, opinions on this phenomenon may vary for many other reasons, such as religious and political affiliations and personal experience. 

To investigate the impact of how we ask about this phenomenon, let’s look at some of the other questions these polls asked.

When people are asked about their preferred form of partnering for same-sex couples, the results are equally varied although less favorable: 

“Which of the following statements comes closest to your view? ‘Same-sex couples should be allowed to legally marry’, or ‘Same-sex couples should be allowed to legally form civil unions, but  not marry’, or ‘Same-sex couples should be not allowed to either marry or form civil unions.’”

35% Marry, 30% Civil Union, 29% Neither (Los Angeles Times/KTLA , May 20-21 2008, 834 CA Adults, 3% margin of error)

“Which of the following most closely resembles your own view about state laws regarding the relationships of two people of the same sex: a) gay and lesbian couples should be allowed to legally marry; b) gay and lesbian couples should be allowed to form civil unions or domestic partnerships, but not legally marry; c) there should be no legal recognition of a gay or lesbian couple’s relationship?”

45% Marry, 32% Civil Union or domestic partnership, 19% No legal recognition (Field Poll , May 7-26 2008, 1052 CA Adult Reg. Voters, 3.2% margin of error)

When asked about legal issues specifically, there is a wider variation in responses:

“Marriages between same-sex couples recognized by law as valid, with the same rights as traditional marriage.”

40% Valid, 56% not valid (Gallup Poll, May 8-11 2008, 1017 U.S. Adults, 5% margin of error) 

“Do you approve or disapprove of California allowing homosexuals to marry members of their own sex and have regular marriage laws apply to them?”

51% Agree, 42% Disagree (Field Poll, May 7-26 2008, 1052 CA Adults Reg. Voters, 3.2% margin of error) 

“Should the decision to marry be strictly a private decision between the people who want to marry or if the government has the right to pass laws to prohibit or allow such marriages between two people who are of the same sex.”

63% Private, 33% Government (USA Today/Gallup Poll, May 30-Jun 1 2008, 1012 U.S. Adults, 3% margin of error)clip_image002[5]

(Note that the Gallup Poll is of adults in the United States, not just California.)

Some of the studies included questions that asked if the respondent has close family, friends, or co-workers who are gay or lesbian. (One may wonder why they didn’t ask about the respondent’s own sexual orientation.)

“Do you have a friend, family member or co-worker who you know is gay or lesbian, or not?”

69% Yes, 28% No (Los Angeles Times/KTLA, May 20-21 2008, 834 CA Adults, 3% margin of error)

“Do you have any friends or relatives or co-workers who have told you, personally, that they are gay or lesbian”

57% Yes, 42% No (USA Today/Gallup Poll, May 30-Jun 1 2008, 1012 U.S. Adults, 3% margin of error)

When assessing the context of these opinions, one may wonder how these issues resonate with each other. Would having friends or family members or co-workers who are open about their sexuality effect opinions on same-sex marriage? It seems likely, yet few of these polls actually included such a comparison in their findings.

The Pew Research Center for People & the Press issued a report that examined the effect of knowing gay/lesbian people on opinions about same-sex marriage.

They found in their national sample (2,007 adults, Dec 12-Jan 9, 2007) that those who agree that gays should be able to legally marry are more likely to be people who have a close gay friend or family member. image 

Beyond the obvious percentage differences, we might as whether these patterns are statistically significant. Taking into account the margin of error (adding to and subtracting from the percentages listed with each poll) we see that perhaps there is less of a difference in opinion and even more variation in these opinions as measured by these surveys. We should use caution when interpreting these results, since any apparent differences could be due to chance, sampling issues, or other problems. Without a statistical test of significance, perhaps we shouldn’t even be talking about these survey patterns as real!

It will be interesting in the coming months and years to see how opinions change – and perhaps to compare these patterns to those of inter-racial marriage (especially from 1950 to the present time) and in other phenomenon we can measure with Social Distance Scales. Created by Emory S. Bogardus, the Social Distance Scale asks respondents how comfortable they are with particular groups, ranging from comfort as members of one’s family to members of society. Do you think people will become more comfortable with gay marriage in the future?

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