10 posts from September 2008

September 29, 2008

What's the Difference between Sociology and Journalism?

author_karen By Karen Sternheimer

It’s not uncommon for students to ask me this question, particularly after reading a selection from ethnographic research. In my opinion, good journalism and good sociology have a lot in common, but there are important distinctions. Some excellent sociological work is actually done by journalists— Barbara Ehrenreich comes to mind—and journalists occasionally use sociologists as sources for analysis or for context for their stories.

The following points are not exhaustive, nor are they intended to be a set of rules, but they do provide a general guide to the distinctions between sociology and journalism.

  1. In journalism, time is of the essenceclip_image002

One of the purposes of journalism is to let us know what happened that day, or increasingly what is happening right now. Sociology has the luxury of time: if you ever noticed, research published in journals was typically conducted at least a year earlier. And if a study is based on a large data set, say from the census or another government agency, it is likely to be at least two to three years old.

This does not mean that research is necessarily outdated; sociology is about analysis and reflection, for which we need time. Journalism often includes analysis, but rarely are stories reflected on years later unless they are major events, like the attacks of September 11th or the aftermath of hurricane Katrina.

  1. In sociology, data collection is systematic and grounded in theory

Have you ever seen a news segment where they ask passersby on the street about an event of the day to try and grasp public opinion? While this might give the appearance of a random sample, it certainly is not. What street are the reporters standing on, and when? What kinds clip_image002[5]of people might be available for interviewing, and who might not ever go into that area? Who is willing to appear on camera, and who is not?

When I have taught research methods we talk about this, and there are always a few people who insist that this is as good a way as any to find out what “average” people are thinking. While such on-the-street interviews might add some color to a story, sociologists tend to employ more rigorous sampling methods. 

In one study I worked on years ago, we purchased the customer list from a utility company and selected every fourth household to participate in the study. Is this a perfect, fool-proof method? Of course not. Some people might have had their gas or electricity cut off, and as we found out, the list provided addresses that did not exist.

Conducting ethnographic research is a lot like in-depth reporting, although sociologists tend to spend much longer with a group that journalists might (although this is not always the case). Journalists spending time with a group in their everyday environment might also incorporate information about the broader context, but sometimes the purpose is just to better understand what it is like to be in their shoes. 

This is true of sociological research too, but more often than not sociologists attempt to connect their findings to a theory, or sometimes they create one of their own based on their findings. Yes, journalists might bring in theories too, but this is less common than in sociology.

  1. Journalists’ work is aimed at a wide audience

Just as I often think journalists can include more contextual information in reporting, sociologists can learn a lot from how journalists present their findings. Journalists do focus on different audiences and thus go into varying levels of depth; for instance, on television the local news has a different target than Charlie Rose, and in print the Wall Street Journal’s coverage varies from USA Today’s. If you have read the two newspapers you can spot the difference right away. clip_image002[7]Even if journalists focus on a niche audience, it is almost always larger than the audience sociologists tend to write for. 

Monte Bute wrote a very provocative review in Contexts, a sociology magazine that aims to reach a larger audience than just sociologists. He describes a study that found in recent decades, articles published in major sociology journals have become more jargon-filled and less accessible to general audiences. The attempt to solidify sociology’s stature in social science has had one major downside: it makes for dry reading and therefore has a limited audience.

I know for some people, and perhaps for some research, this is just fine. But sociological thinking should not be out of reach, and should instead become more available to the public. One way to do this is to promote writing that is engaging and informative without being overly superficial. It takes years to unlearn the tendency to write in the passive voice, to remove all traces of the author’s voice and use enough jargon to prove that you know the lingo. Ethnographers tend to also write well, as if losing the pretense of total objectivity gives one license to tell a good story.

Journalists and sociologists have a lot to learn from one and other. Hopefully in the future journalists will make greater use of sociological research and thinking in their reporting and will also provide their readers with a greater understanding of the general context that informs their stories. For this to happen, sociologists have to broaden our scope and target our findings more generally, and yes, we also need to become better at communicating our ideas. Both journalists and sociologists study who, what, where, when and why; it’s the “how” where we tend to differ.

September 26, 2008

Text Messages and Privacy

author_janis By Janis Prince Inniss

clip_image002About 15 years ago I probably only knew one person with a cell phone, but today I probably only know one person without one. I caved in several years ago, making my peace with a new bill by vowing to stick to the cheapest plan available. But that’s where I draw the line; I am not a texter. This is my logic: Why would I spend money to say something for even a few additional cents, if I could say it for less? 

This is the main reason that I rarely use the text messaging (short message service or sms) feature on my cell phone. I could pay 10 to 20 cents per text message which is not an enormous amount—unless I send lots of messages, or I could pay about $10 per month for unlimited text messaging. Again, not a lot of money, but I’m already paying for a plan to talk to people, so why would I pay an additional charge to send them a text message? Adding to my irritation at such consumption is the fact that I would have to type using the tiny keys on a phone–not very efficient or ergonomic. I can talk much faster than I can type, even on a full size keyboard so why try to text my thoughts, feelings, and opinions when I could just call folks?

Evidently, I am in the minority on this though because texting is big business. About 116 million or 52 percent of American subscribers are active texters. And as I mentioned in a previous post, teens text at a rate of about 50-70 per day. Amazingly, not only are people texting a lot, but the kinds of things they ”say” in texts is mind-boggling. For example, Detroit Mayor Kwame Kilpatrick and his chief of staff Christine Beatty denied that they were having an affair (both were married to other people), but their lie was brought to light by text messages detailing an intimate relationship. In case you’re not familiar with the case, Kilpatrick denied have the extra-marital affair with Beatty in a costly police whistle-blower case. Yet, steamy text messages were found rehashing their sexual encounters and their plans for additional romps. Here are two of the less explicit text messages that leave no doubt about the nature of their relationship:

Beatty: I still want to be in your arms, kiss you, hug you, love you. Listening to you speak and wishing you were my husband.

Kilpatrick: You were my girl for as long as I can remember. I was too young and stupid to know. I promise for the rest of my life you will be my girl.

Further, the text messages indicate that Kilpatrick and Beatty had fired a deputy police chief, which means that they both lied under oath that the intent was to remove the deputy police chief from that particular assignment and that he was not fired. However an email from Beatty to Kilpatrick states: "I'm sorry that we are going through this mess because of a decision that we made to fire Gary Brown. I will make sure that the next decision is much more thought out. Not regretting what was done at all. But thinking about how we can do things smarter." To this, Kilpatrick replied: "It had to happen though. I'm all the way with that!"

In another case of a female teacher and student engaged in a sexual relationship, Stephanie Ragusa, a Tampa middle school teacher is accused of having sex with at least four underage victims. Ragusa and a sixteen-year old she’s accused of having sex with exchanged hundreds of text messages of a steamy nature: 

Ragusa: Do u have a movie u want to watch at ur house? U know. In addition to… Wink wink.
Victim: No…
R: So no “date” … Which is what we really need. Bedroom girlfriend?! Baby. Lets try to do something romantic, different.
V: Like wat?
R: Idk. Can you think of anything. Maybe…giving each other massages.? Candle light. Music. Or pleasant/romantic movie”
V: Then come over
R: With massage oil? Candles? Towels? Movie?
V: Idk whatever u want?
R: Tell me what u want.

Another time Ragusa sent the student a note which read:

I loved today. The sex was amazing.

Ragusa even sent a text to the teen with the knowledge that the police were on the way to her home to investigate vandalism of her (adult) boyfriend’s truck, saying: “There are major problems here now. Tony and the police r on the way. They want to fingerprint the truck and take me down to the station.”

clip_image004Why do people send such incriminating text messages? What are your thoughts? Here are some possibilities. With the distance that technology can provide, people may be emboldened to say things they would not in person—which can lead to even more incriminating texts being sent. And people can text while doing almost anything and from most places. I imagine that Kilpatrick was both serving as mayor and texting. Ragusa was texting as she awaited the police. And we don’t think of text messages as the written documents that they are. People are probably more careful about what they say in a personal letter, given its material existence. But a text just disappears and is gone. Where does it go? It disappears from your screen and that’s that, or so we think. Apparently that’s not the end of them as these cases indicate.

Unfortunately for Kilpatrick and Beatty, SkyTel, the provider for government and corporations stores all text messages for legal purposes. What about your carrier? Do you have any idea what their sms storage policy is? Is your carrier storing every text you ever sent? Might that cause you embarrassment or even jail time? Aspects of our lives in this technological age are being recorded without our knowledge; do you behave differently with that knowledge in mind?

September 23, 2008

Statistics and Myths about Immigrants

author_sally By Sally Raskoff

A friend sent me an e-mail that I found very alarming. Although I consider this person a friend, we have never really talked about politics. But I was still surprised when the missive below came from her. BadStats

Her email was obviously a chain letter expressing frustration about California’s problems, allegedly due to illegal immigrants. The  content of the “evidence” is supposed to be from the Los Angeles Times and lists many statistics that lay blame for scary and negative situations squarely upon illegal immigrants.

As a sociologist who teaches statistics, I could not let this go without a response. While I included in my email response a tactful discussion of the reasons why these statistics are problematic, I’d like to invite you to help identify what the problems are with this message.

I’ll start with the source – stating that these came from the Times isn’t sufficient to give them credibility. No date, page, research source or author is mentioned. These could have come from an advertisement in that newspaper or, more likely, never appeared there to begin with. Searching the LA Times online, even with quotes from the text, no connections appear.

Many of the statistics are illogical: “95% of murder warrants … are for illegal ‘aliens’”? The 95% is a big red flag. Few human patterns, especially crime patterns, are so simple that there can be an easy explanation.

Other statistics mentioned are more about prejudice than serious social problems, like this one: “21 radio stations in LA are Spanish speaking”. 

clip_image004Since these statistics are all about Los Angeles and California, the research reported by the Public Policy Institute of California provides a good contrast to these figures. In their June 2008 “Just the Facts” report on “Immigrants in California,” they state that “Immigration has directly accounted for 40% of the state’s population growth since 2000,” which is a figure much less than the e-mail’s purported 90%. 

Finally, checking the text of the email on snopes.com (a site devoted to investigating hoaxes) this message has quite a history as it has been circulating since 2006. 

Questioning those email forwards and considering the accuracy and source of information that comes our way are crucial steps in critical thinking and forging a pathway based on accuracy rather than ignorance. Do you see any other problems in this email snippet? How would you go about finding unbiased and accurate sources to check this information?


(Photo courtesy of the National Archives www.nara.gov)

September 20, 2008

Conspicuous consumption and your iPhone

author_brad By Bradley Wright

Conspicuous consumption is one of the classic concepts in sociology. It was developed by Thorstein Veblen in his 1899 book, The Theory of the Leisure Class. I know, it’s hard to believe that people were actually alive back then, let alone creating ideas that we still find useful, but it’s true.

This concept describes how wealthy people spend large amounts of money on goods and services as a way of showing their status. It doesn’t refer to all large expenses—sometimes you get a lot more things when you spend more; instead, it refers to spending as a way of showing off who you are. In fact, sometimes what you end up with is no better, or sometimes worse, than what you can get for less money.

A classic example of conspicuous consumption is using silver utensils and fine china for meals, especially when guests are over. Bringing out the good stuff does show that you’ve attained a certain level of material comfort, but it’s also not very practical. Silver has to be polished, china breaks easily, and neither can go into the dishwasher. Their main purpose, then, is one of status display.

There’s no reason to limit the concept of conspicuous consumption to just the well-to-do. Even college students engage in it. I don’t know about where you go to school, but here at the University of Connecticut the fashion among students is to wear jackets and pullovers (preferably black) by Northface and, for women, boots made by Ugg. Now, Northface’s slogan is “never stop exploring”, and its website has pictures of people doing all sorts of brave, active things, like rock climbing and canoeing. My guess, however, is that most college students don’t need that high level of performance. Why spend the big money on name-brands when generic wear is also available? One could make the case that it’s an issue of style and cultural taste, and that makes sense. The main reason for their appeal could be that name brand clothes show status. They show that you have the money and prestige to wear the coolest things.

I’m writing about this concept now, even though it has been around for literally a hundred years, because I read about the perfect illustration of conspicuous consumption. As everyone under 40 knows (and some of us over 40 have heard about), Apple makes a wicked-cool cell phone it calls the iPhone. You can load little software programs on it, called “apps”, that do various functions.

One of these apps is called the “I am rich” application. It costs $1,000 and serves absolutely no purpose other than to shine a red ruby on your iPhone that lets others know that you could afford to buy this app. That’s it. It shows that you’re rich and doesn’t do anything else. Apparently Apple no longer carries it at its stores because it was getting bad publicity (again, making decisions on how people perceive something).


In thinking about how this concept plays out today, I suppose there is something that we could call “inconspicuous” consumption. Here you consume goods and services, and present them to others, as a way of hiding status. Perhaps back in Veblen’s time, when I think dinosaurs still roamed the world, all status was seen as good, so if you got it, you flaunt it. Now, however, we’re sufficiently suspicious and cynical about wealth that some people may make choices to hide status. Here are some examples that might illustrate this idea.

My wife went to a fancy, well-known liberal arts college, and when people ask her where she went to school, she’ll usually answer “in the Boston area.” Now, this conflicts with other people I know who went to Ivy league schools. You can be pretty sure that within five minutes of meeting someone, these people will let drop that they went to an Ivy.

Last year a family member gave us a used car that he didn’t need anymore. It’s about seven years old, doesn’t have too much mileage, and runs reasonably well. The big downside: It’s a Mercedes. Besides paying extra for mechanic bills, I have to put up with my friends ribbing me about thinking I’m high status because I drive a Mercedes. I’ve even thought of yanking off the hood ornament to disguise the manufacturer of the car. From a straight conspicuous consumption approach, I should seek to display status with this car, but in reality, I want to avoid what I perceive as negative stereotypes associated with it. I suppose, then, that I really am looking for status with my car choices, it’s just that I see “wealthy-display” as undesirable and maybe I’m looking for a status I value more, maybe “broke intellectual”?

If nothing else, the discussion above points out that conspicuous (or inconspicuous) consumption involves more than simply what we buy and hire, for it also includes how we make it known to others. To make a status display, you need not only to have the goods, but you need for other people to know.

September 17, 2008

The Sociological Meaning of Rumors

author_karen By Karen Sternheimer

Recently my father told me about a conversation he had at a local sporting event. It was during the height of the coverage of the political conventions, and so the small talk he clip_image002had with a woman seated next to him turned to politics. She told him with great authority that she had inside information that one of the candidates was in fact not an American citizen. “Where did you get your facts?” my dad asked, but the woman didn’t respond. That was the end of their conversation.

Presidential election years are ripe for rumors, and they are spread particularly easily through e-mail and the Internet. I have decided not to attach any names to the rumors I will discuss in this post for that reason; it is too easy for even discussion of rumors to seem like verification for those who want to believe them. So why do people believe them anyway?

To answer this, let’s consider some of the rumors that have been spread in recent years. One candidate was alleged to have fathered a child outside of his marriage during a prior campaign. Besides suggestions of adultery, the child has a darker complexion than the candidate, thus rumors hinted that he had an affair with an African-American woman. In reality, the child is the adopted daughter of the candidate and his wife, not the product of a secret affair.

It is not an accident that someone spread this rumor during the primary in a southern state, next door to one that elected a senator who ran by using images of African Americans in his ads to imply that less qualified blacks were taking white peoples’ jobs. Less than four decades before that election, marriage between blacks and whites was illegal in many states in the south, and racial tensions have lingered. While these tactics would certainly not appeal to all southern voters, for some older white voters who may be uncomfortable with many social changes that have taken place, they might be effective.

Hints of interracial relationships may strike a chord in a primary election in some regions but not others. But other rumors touch on national anxieties. Another rumor has persisted during this campaign that one of the candidates is Muslim, and that the candidate was sworn in using the Koran rather than the New or Old Testament.

Neither of these rumors is true, but they are also not surprising given the trauma following the attacks of September 11, 2001. Since that time, people of Middle Eastern decent and Muslim Americans have faced discrimination and suspicion. Because the plotters and attackers were Middle Eastern and claimed their actions were in the name of Islam, it is easy to see how people might fear both. Trying to attach this fear to the candidate is a way to deride him as a potential enemy.

This rumor also reflects the fear some have that Christianity is under siege in the United States, allegedly by those who support strict separation between church and state. A few years ago I saw bumper stickers that said “It’s Okay to Say Merry Christmas” in response to some stores that said “Happy Holidays” in their ads. One acquaintance of mine had trouble understanding why anyone wouldn’t like to be told “Merry Christmas” regardless of their religious affiliation. Over the past few years many stores and cities have shown greater sensitivity to non-Christians during holidays, sometimes removing overtly Christian imagery from public property and show windows. Public service announcements now wish celebrants “Happy Ramadan” in the fall, in addition to “Happy clip_image006Kwanzaa” and “Happy Hanukkah” and “Merry Christmas” at the end of the year.

While these gestures may make minority groups feel more included, for others the change might feel like a strange and unwelcome distraction from traditions of the past, when Christian prayers were regularly included in public schools. 

Sociologists study rumors as a form of collective behavior. They are similar to urban legends, modern-day folklore which can persist for years even without solid evidence. In fact, several websites like snopes.com exist to debunk rumors and urban legends. Campaigns now have staff members whose job consists entirely of challenging rumors on the Internet. And yet they persist.

Simply put, rumors continue because people spread them, knowing that at least some people will believe them; there is nothing surprising about that. It is the content of the rumor that is important, as it touches on anxieties about a broader social issue that makes the listener ripe for believing that it might be true.

September 14, 2008

Meeting "The Other" David Wilson

author_janis By Janis Prince Inniss

I have a dream that one day on the red hills of Georgia, the sons of former slaves and the sons of former slave owners will be able to sit down together at the table of brotherhood.

Martin Luther King

I have heard that portion of the famous “I Have A Dream” speech delivered by Dr. King at the Lincoln Memorial in 1963, or portions of it many times, particularly in February (Black History Month). Exactly 45 years after that stirring speech the first African-American made his acceptance speech, becoming the first presidential nominee from a major party, indicating that at least some of Dr. King’s dreams are on the way to being realities. 

But never has that particular sentence been so alive as when I saw a documentary broadcast on MSNBC entitled Meeting David Wilson. The documentary chronicles the meeting between David A. Wilson, great-great-grandson of an enslaved Ghanian, and David B. Wilson, great-great-grandson of the Ghanaian’s slave owner. The film captures the emotional journey taken by 28-year-old David A. to meet David B. in North Carolina. Through genealogy research David A. found David B. and decided to make the trek from his New Jersey/New York home into the world of his ancestors who were enslaved in North Carolina. David B. Wilson was 62 when the documentary was made; he grew up on a farm and graduated from a segregated North Carolina high school in 1961. Their first interaction, however, was by telephone when David A. called David B. and said:

Hello, Mr. David Wilson? Well, my name is David Wilson, and I believe your family once owned mine.

With that memorable beginning, and after spending some time together, the men had the following conversation: 

David B: What about the idea that your family was still in Africa—had you not gone through the difficulties of slavery you might still be entrenched in poverty with no chance for improvement in America?

David A: Had we not been here and not taken to America, there a real possibility that America might too be entrenched in poverty, because we helped structure this country.

clip_image002Here, the men grapple with an issue that many blacks and whites probably think about, particularly in the heat of racial animosities. Usually such sentiments are left unspoken, but in this case, the feelings were expressed and discussed. David B. wonders—aloud and on camera—about what might be called a major benefit of slavery to enslaved Africans. According to this line of reasoning, being forcibly brought to the U.S. improved the lives of Africans, by giving them a chance at the American Dream. Moving people out of poverty for a shot at the American Dream sounds like a noble cause, and casts slavery in the light of a social welfare program. But can we really put aside the forcible nature of slavery? Perhaps it is the brutality to which David B. refers in speaking of “the difficulties of slavery”.

Examining that perspective further, how many of us have credible information regarding the material life of Africans who were enslaved before being captured? Are we making ethnocentric and/or Eurocentric assumptions when we proclaim life in the U.S. was better? 

Another aspect of that argument is the notion that descendants of enslaved Africans receive a chance at the American dream. With the largest black middle class in American history, today many African Americans are experiencing the bounty of the American dream. Yet, the life chances of far too many African Americans continue to be reduced. And many social scientists attribute the major social ills that plague segments of the African American population to ongoing struggles as a result of slavery. 

David A.’s belief that the U.S. might be “entrenched in poverty” without the aid of enslaved Africans in its building is also worth examining. What reliable information do we have about the role of enslaved Africans in America’s wealth building? How could we determine whether enslaved Africans played a critical role in the wealth building of the U.S.?

clip_image003In essence, each racial ”side” represented by the two Davids, thinks he has done the other a favor by being in the U.S. How much of the tensions between blacks and whites in America is related to this belief, which ultimately keeps each on an opposing side as if on competing teams? 

And how much of the racial tensions is a result of non-communication? Before they meet, David Wilson of New Jersey, with only stereotypes to draw on for his namesake, says that he believes the North Carolina David will be “a tobacco-chewin’, straw eatin’, rifle totin’, rockin’ chair sittin’, lemonade drinkin’ redneck”. However, after they spent time together, David B. saw David A. less in the role of slave owner, but as “more of a decent and kind-hearted human being”. Clichéd as it is, the role of communication in beginning to see a different point of view is critical.

Meeting David Wilson depicts one of Dr. King’s dreams: The descendants of a former enslaved African and that of a former slave owner sat together, walked together, and talked together. In talking about difficult topics such as slavery and its impact on America today, reparations, segregation, guilt and blame, the men discovered that they were both “decent” men. In fact, David A. took about fifty members of his extended family members with him to North Carolina to meet the other Wilsons on the plantation where both sets of ancestors had lived their separate and unequal lives. The willingness of the two David Wilsons to tackle difficult subjects in a harmonious manner seemed to have a profound impact on their lives and those of many family members. Do you think conversation can create change?

September 11, 2008

Communication Evolution: Mobility, Cell Phones, and PDAs

author_sally By Sally Raskoff

I heard a woman tell her friends the other day she was “playing iPhone.” Do you play with your phone technology? The ways we use MotorolaPagernew and old technologies can illustrate not only economic trends but social change as well. 

Mobile communication devices have been evolving very quickly since their first appearance. 

Pagers – if you remember them – were ubiquitous in the 1980s and 1990s as one of the first mobile communication devices available to the public at large. The problem with pagers was their limited capabilities beyond simple alerts. I do remember paging my teenagers to “come home ASAP” when they were out past the time we had agreed upon. Paging is still with us although it is now called Instant Messaging (IMs) and is much more interactive with two-way paging capabilities.

Clunky, huge, and limited-range cell phones and wired car phones offered more useful forms of mobile communications for those who wanted to speak to people while out of the office or away from home. We had a friend who old-cell-phonewould drive a few miles to a mountaintop so that his phone would be able to connect to their system.

Wireless cell phones with larger service areas moved more of us into carrying communication devices with us at all times. People were able to work in more places than just the office – or be paged back to the office – as they could converse and do business from anywhere.

Personal Data Assistants (PDAs, e.g., Blackberry) with phone and email capabilities were first available through one’s workplace as employers sought devices to enable more worker productivity and connection. Address books and calculators were added in to the functionality of many phones.

PDAs and phones now not only include email, address lists, and calculators but many other functions, like music, games, cameras, word processing, spreadsheets. They have so many functions that people can now play for hours with their “toy” since it has many functions previously unavailable or only found on computers or in other separate devices.cell-phone-old-big 

Just a few years ago cell phones used to be luxury items for wealthy or technologically oriented people, but now they are becoming standard equipment—even for teenagers and “tweens.” How many people do you know who don’t have a cell phone? My eighty-something parents both have cell phones! 

There are also many people who no longer have land line phones at home since they rely solely upon their cell phones. Research on mobile communications suggests that seven to nine percent of the U.S. population use only a cell phone and have no land line phone. Since many of these cell-phone-only people are more likely to be younger than older, this percentage is likely to continue increasing. 

Sociologically, one can analyze this phenomenon through many different theories or perspectives. 

Capitalism relies upon us always buying the “next best thing” to keep the economy moving thus we would expect new versions to roll out to the marketplace fairly often. 

Cell phones allow us to do our work and keep in touch with family thus we can get our work done and retain our ties to family and friends. This provides the grease that lubricates the different wheels or institutions of society and supporting the functionality of our interdependence and organic solidarity. However, dysfunctions do occur, as cell phone using drivers do not have their focus on piloting their automobile as much as talking on their phone or sending IMs. Many states have passed laws, not against using cell phones, but against using one’s hands to use a cell phone.

Pew_GiveUpDigitalComm_2007 What does it mean for our society that we have become so cozy with this type of technology? As the findings from the Pew study on the left show, these forms of mobile communication are more and more popular and it is harder to imagine life without them! I was surprised to see that, for many people, the idea of giving up television was not as hard as the idea of giving up one’s cell phone or use of the Internet.

When looking at who is using these technologies there are some interesting patterns that may surprise you. For example, as you might suspect the patterns by age highlight that more young people use these devices more often. 

Here’s one more surprising statistic from the Pew study, “[For] English-speaking Hispanics, the cell phone is an oft-used and multifaceted device – more so than is the case for white or black Americans. … Spanish-dominant Latinos are found to be less likely to own a cell phone or use the Internet.” Pew_DigComm_Race_2007 

I’ve mentioned a lot of the benefits of using these devices but what about the downside? Are there costs, besides a bit more danger on the road by distracted drivers? 

While the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) does not see health hazards to cell phone users, some disagree. Dr. Ronald Herberman, director of the University of Pittsburgh Cancer Institute, recently advised that people be aware of potential cell phone risks and that children not use these devices at all. 

The research has just begun on the possible danger of cell phones. Since the technologies have not been in use for that long this will be an ongoing debate until enough time and research have accumulated to show us long-term patterns. 

Sociologically, will such a warning have any effect upon our use of these devices considering the depth of meaning they have for us?

September 08, 2008

Sociology on Vacation


By Bradley Wright

Last week I took my two sons up to a big amusement park (this is New England, so unfortunately we don’t have Disneyland). Each summer we try to buy season passes to a different fun place, and this year it was an amusement park. The boys really enjoy the rides and the water park. Me? I kind of have fun being a sociologist and watching what goes on at the park because a lot of what goes on fits with sociological principles. These include:

clip_image002Social Stratification is a social system that ranks people in terms of a hierarchy. Sociologists usually talk about it in terms of class, caste, and intergenerational mobility. Well, this amusement park had its own class levels. At the bottom were the regular people like my family who just buy a ticket and go on rides. Next up is what they call a “super flash pass.” This pass works like magic. When you go to one of the popular rides, and there is a long line, you show this pass and you get put into a much shorter line for the ride.

Cool, but the “super flash pass” starts at $50. At the highest level is the “very important you” experience. With this you go straight to the start of the line, you get to park your car close to the entrance, you get a private tour of the park (though, I don’t know how private it is with thousands of people around you), and you get a private autograph session with one of the park characters. Okay, as far as I can tell, the characters can’t talk, and they are really alienated teenagers dressing up like cartoon animals for minimum wage, so I’m not sure why someone would pay extra for the autograph of an irritated, silent young person. The price for this highest level of “service”? $250 per person with a minimum of four people. That’s $1,000 to be top dog of the amusement park.

The conflict theory of crime holds that laws are passed to favor the wealthy (I know, you probably find this idea shocking), and it too was in evidence at the park. Being rather cheap, I don’t like paying $15 for the regular parking at the amusement park, so I pay $10 to park at a nearby restaurant that is actually a little closer to the main gate of the park. In speaking with the owner, I found out that the city is working hard to make it illegal to park there for the amusement park. So, if you want a bite to eat at the restaurant, go ahead and park your car. But, if you want to walk 100 yards to the amusement park, forget it.

Why would the city outlaw parking outside the park? Well, it’s a small town, and the amusement park is far-and-away their biggest tax payer. The amusement park makes approximately 1-trillion-dollars-a-day (their concession stands are really expensive), but they also want the less than one-thousand-dollars-a-day that this off-site parking place pulls in. The park, having lots of money, has lots of influence with the city government. The city government, eager to please the park, tries to pass an ordinance that doesn’t make much sense and only harms the average Joe looking to save a few dollars.

clip_image004Another sociological observation involves the young people we saw at the park. Studies of youth culture note how young people find their own, distinctive ways of doing things, and this culture works best when it is different than what boring-old-people are doing.

Well, walking around the park, I noticed a unique style of dress. Scattered about were clusters of high-school-aged kids who were dressed virtually identically. They all wore oversized athletic shoes and relatively new blue jeans. Around their necks, they wore white t-shirts twisted with a bandana. This bandana was folded so that, if they wanted to, they could pull it up over their mouth to hide their features. (“Hey, you guys want to go rob a train?”). The kids had similar haircuts, and they wore brand-new ball caps, turned about 90 degrees to the side.

Now, these kids carried a bit of an “I’m tough” scowl on their faces and had a tough guy swagger to their walk, but to me they looked downright silly. I honestly thought that they were park characters when I first saw them (“Hi, can I get your autograph for $1,000?”) More than anything they reminded me of little kids dressing up like cowboys, which didn’t fit with the tough persona they were trying to project. Okay, if I were younger, a lot younger, maybe I would think they are cool, so I’m not trying to impose some middle-aged standard of appropriate dress. Instead, these “outfits” they wore illustrate the powerful influence of youth culture.

So there you have it; in addition to offering roller coasters, water rides, and overpriced hot dogs, amusement parks serve up sociology as well.

September 05, 2008

Anomie and the First Day of School

author_karen By Karen Sternheimer

Do you remember your first day starting at a new school? A new job? For some of you clip_image002these memories might be as fresh as a few weeks ago. For me, it’s been a while. But no matter how long it has been since you first entered an institution with set rules, norms, and expectations, the memory of the anxiety is probably still with you.

Each year I volunteer to participate in some of my university’s orientation activities before the school year officially begins. And every year I notice students have similar questions--about the work load compared with high school, what taking exams and writing papers are like at the college level, and what happens if you come to class late. Transfer students will often ask what the differences might be between the school they came from and our university.

Basically, all of these questions boil down to one: what are the unwritten rules here? 

The incoming students know the university’s written policies (or at least are told what they are or where to find them) but tend to be curious about the informal rules. What do people wear to class? Can we eat during class? Should I have a separate notebook for my labs and lectures? How much reading will there be? Are professors friendly? Will anyone care about me?

When students ask me these questions, I try my best to answer them, although I’m sure it is frustrating when most of my answers start with “that depends, every professor and every class is different.” I assure them that within a week or two they will feel like they are veterans here.

But their anxiety is not unfounded. It is similar to what Emile Durkheim termed anomie, literally translated, a sense of normlessness. For Durkheim, societies that have competing norms or a total absence of norms experience more crime, instability, and a lack of cohesion.

Most of the students I encounter aren’t worried that a lack of knowledge of norms will lead to crime and deviance on campus. Rather, they struggle to learn clip_image006exactly what the norms are so they can conform. On the first day of class, like most other professors, I hand out a syllabus and go over the rules, regulations, and expectations for the course. After a few days of attending classes and living on campus, the same students who were so nervous become confident that at the very least they are learning the norms and expectations of life as a college student.

By contrast, students who refuse to adapt to these norms tend to struggle. Maybe they find less social acceptance if they dress very differently from most other students (on our campus the dress code is casual, with a preference towards any item with the university logo). Students who refuse to do at least minimal work demanded from course syllabi will likely find themselves on academic probation at some point. And students who fail to pay their tuition on time will probably be shut out altogether, or at the very least lose their registration date until they pay up.

We might ponder whether this collective change—an influx of new students—could bring about social change. While certainly campus culture and student norms clip_image004shift over time, it is remarkable how stable they have been. I have been on the same campus for fifteen years now, and have seen some positive changes in work ethic and ability as the university has become more selective. Yet incoming students first want to figure out how to fit in, not how to create change.

There is something reassuring about being in the same boat as other new students who are also unsure about what the campus norms are. Recently, the Los Angeles Times reported on a new trend of universities offering mid-year admissions. As college admissions have become more competitive, some schools have started admitting students for the winter or spring rather than the fall. 

Some are concerned that these students might miss out on the opportunity to go through the transition into college with their peers, who will be fully acclimated by the time they arrive on campus. The students who entered in the fall will have bonded with each other, leaving the newest arrivals to fend for themselves. Universities that engage in this practice (including my own) say that these students end up doing very well, having spent the fall semester taking classes elsewhere, working, traveling, or just take the opportunity to become more focused.

What do you think Durkheim would have to say about this? Are these admissions policies creating a new form of anomie?

September 02, 2008

Racism, Police, and Self-fulfilling Prophecies

author_janis By Janis Prince Inniss

In many quarters, if I say that I am happy that I was not born or raised in the U.S., Americans of many stripes would a) become angry; b) become defensive; and/or c) wonder why I don’t go back to where I came from! (As a tax-paying naturalized American, I am exercising my option to live in the U.S.) 

But there are times when this fact of birth affects my life more than others. One time, for example, I was attending a meeting in which we discussed the horrendous birth outcomes for black women in America. When I consider the fact that black immigrants to this country have infant mortality rates that are on par with white women, but that after just one generation of living in America, foreign-born black women have the same kind of outcomes as African American women, then (but not only then) I am grateful for my place of birth. Perhaps this kind of comparison gives you some idea of why I am glad that I was not born or reared in the U.S. 

clip_image002In my twenties, a natural point at which I began to think more seriously about what I wanted in terms of marriage and children, I always became terrified at the mere thought of having children in the U.S. – particularly by the thought of raising boys here. Recently, I was reminded of those fears at a gathering in which black women talked about the stresses they endure because of their fears for their black sons. One woman talked about having to respond to her teenage son who had been called a n***** not once, not twice, but three times during a short walk home in a Tampa suburb. This is exactly the kind of scenario that worried me when I thought about having children—particularly a son-- in the U.S. 

I used to wonder how I would help my children deal with racism. Although I did not grow up in a "race free" society, my racial and ethnic identifications were formed in a much different environment. I wondered whether that very different experience would make it impossible for me to help my children successfully navigate race in the U.S. context. 

clip_image004Fast-forward from my fears years ago to last month. As she was promoting her six hour show, Black in America on the radio, a comment by CNN anchor Soledad O’Brien struck me. O’Brien described being surprised by the fact that just about everyone she interviewed–regardless of their station in life—talked about having “the talk” with their children and teenagers. No, not the one about s-e-x! The talk about what to do when they are pulled over by the police, often called “DWB (Driving While Black)! That O’Brien heard about this important conversation across class lines struck me for many reasons. First, that she did hear it repeated so often. And second, I have never had that conversation with either of my step-children, nor did I think their father had. (I checked and although they are old enough to drive now, he has not.)

Which brings me back to the beginning of this piece—and to my fears of not being American born and of being afraid that I wouldn’t be able to prepare my potential children for the prejudice they would face here. Maybe not being as familiar as African Americans with racism is a good thing in that I don’t always expect it or see it. The flip side of that is that not recognizing racism may be to my detriment. But what if having “the talk” and other such experiences carry with them an element of a self-fulfilling prophecy?J0283031

What if the expectation that an interaction with the police encourages a negative interaction with law enforcement from African Americans? Note, that the self-fulfilling prophecy in this example could be in effect for both the citizen and the police: What if expecting a negative interaction with a black motorist encourages the police to have a negative interaction with him or her? In more than twenty years each in the U.S., neither my husband nor I have had negative interactions with the law. Of course our individual experiences do not mean that countless others have not, or that graphic examples such as the Rodney King beating do not give us pause. 

Although we are both aware of instances of police brutality that seem the result of racism, apparently neither of us expect it, or assume it to be the exception rather than the rule. Maybe we are foolish because it means we are ill prepared for what may happen to us, and as a result maybe we have in some way handicapped our kids. As a student of sociology you know that neither my experience, nor those commented on by Soledad O’Brien, is the empirical evidence needed to know whether there is a relationship between expectations of, and actual experiences, with police. What kind of data would you gather to answer to learn more about this?

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