11 posts from October 2008

October 31, 2008

Polling Public Opinion

author_sally By Sally Raskoff

I’ve resisted saying much about the presidential race this year for many reasons, primarily because this is a topical issue that will soon be decided and may have a short shelf-life. However, the daily discussions about polls provide a great opportunity to think about some statistical and methodological issues.

Let's consider one poll result. Gallup’s daily tracking poll of “likely voters” conducted October 24-26 2008 found 50% supporting Obama and 45% in support of McCain. The poll had a sample size of 2,446, which might seem like a small number to estimate how the American public will vote. But if done well, polls can be somewhat accurate, and always include something called the margin of error to account for the possible error of not including the entire population. This poll result had a sampling error of +/- 3 %, thus the expected range of voting could be between 47%-image 53% for Obama and 42%-48% for McCain. As practice for statistics students, the margin of error reported is for a 95% confidence level, which means that we can be 95% confident of the ranges listed above being a true representation of American likely voters. When we subtract the differences between Obama’s lowest range and McCain’s highest, we find a difference of just 1%.

McCain responds with optimism when asked about winning this election yet, with those poll results, there is a slight chance of his success, albeit very slight. Could the polls be wrong?

Commentators have been talking about various factors that the polls might not account for. The so-called "Bradley Effect" may introduce a potential source of error in these results. Named for Tom Bradley, the late mayor of Los Angeles who ran for governor of California in 1982. He was ahead in the polls but lost the race. Observers wondered whether people may say they are voting for an African American candidate, but have a last minute change of heart once they actually fill out their ballot and end up voting for the white candidate. Others countered that the polls did not adequately account for absentee voters, who tend to be more conservative, and that polls have been wrong with white candidates as well. It is possible, however, that racism might influence some to vote for McCain.

clip_image003While some are also mentioning a reverse-Bradley effect, where people don’t want to admit that they are voting for Obama to their friends and family because of his race, I would advance a few other sources of potential error: The “McCain effect” and the “landline effect”.

The McCain effect is when people say they are voting for McCain yet actually vote for Obama because they are paying more attention to their economic health yet won’t alienate their conservative friends and family. Thus perceived economic self-interest will prevail over social congruity favoring Obama. They might have even voted for McCain if not for the current financial crisis, which polls indicate are most American’s number one issue of concern.

There’s one more potential polling error. The “Landline effect” holds that polls undercount those with only cell phones and over-count those with landline phones, thus undercounting people under 35 and over-counting those over 35. Normally this might not be a major issue, since young voters historically have only voted in low numbers. But this year young people are very energized and expected to vote at a much clip_image005higher rate than in past elections. According to a Reuters article, more than fifty percent of eligible voters eighteen to 29 are expected to vote, and young voters prefer Obama to McCain by a two to one margin.

Thus the effects of aging, generations, technology, and lifestyle will skew the poll results and underplay the support for Obama while exaggerating the support for McCain.

I would imagine the Bradley effect and McCain effects will cancel each other out. Yet the Landline effect might ultimately give us an inaccurate picture of what how people may vote. Time will tell if the final count ends up reflecting these dynamics or others we have not yet discovered. In any case, pollsters will need to come up with ways for addressing these and other issues in predicting future elections.

October 29, 2008

Marriage and Children: Rights and Wrongs

author_sally By Sally Raskoff

In a September 19 Los Angeles Times opinion piece, author David Blankenhorn writes that “the rights and needs of kids are being lost in the debate over gay rights and Prop. 8.” (Proposition 8 is a California ballot measure that would include a statement in California’s constitution that only marriages between a man and a woman will be valid).

He makes many points, but his main idea is that marriage must be restricted to a man and a woman since that combination creates children, and therefore this is best for kids. His rationale includes having those two people present in children’s lives to “love and raise” them and, citing the 1989 U.N. Convention on the Rights of the Child, children have the right to “know and be cared for by the two parents who brought them into this world.”

After reading his flawed argument, I feel the need to point out how his argument falls off a logical track. While he states his reasons as not fueled by homophobia – he believes in the “equal dignity of gay and lesbian love” – yet his conclusions would further harm many children and their (same-sex) parents.

First, I must acknowledge that his statement that marriage exists for the purpose of creating children is correct – among other reasons. Marriage is also a license for having sex and for passing property on to one’s survivors – functions that are related to children but certainly different. 

clip_image002[5]As I see it, there are two fundamental flaws in his argument – that the man and woman who create a child are always there to “love and raise” it and that a man and a man or a woman and a woman cannot create a child.

Many children are “created” by married heterosexual couples, but those children may not live in the situation that Blankenhorn idealizes. While he is really arguing that marriage exists as an institution to provide that situation of parents caring for their children, marriage does not ensure that this happens, nor does it have any power to enforce such behavior. It is not an effective institution to perform this function in a satisfactory manner. Kids can be abused and clip_image002neglected by those biological parents and they can also be loved and raised by people other than those biological parents.

We discuss in sociology classrooms how norms give us guidelines for expected behaviors, yet the numbers of people who actually conform to them is a different issue. Pointing to the many kids who are abused or neglected by their parents or who are loved and raised by people other than their biological parents doesn’t negate the importance of marriage as an institution. 

However, norms are changed by the degree to which they are held and practiced – and written into law to reflect the strongly held opinions of the day. Thus, a historical view of marriage laws across time and cultures shows that such laws do change and accommodate different situations, e.g., monogamy and polygamy. It is no accident that industrial nations have primarily monogamy as their form of legal marriage and nations with agricultural (or “developing”) economies have had polygamy as theirs. These very different forms of marriage create very different fertility patterns that support and reflect the economic needs of the society and households. How societies define marriage – even considering the number of participants – is not limited to a two-person different-sex marriage.

Now for the biological issue. The U.N. Convention that Blankenhorn cites guaranteeing the right of children “to be cared for by the two parents who brought them into the world” is worded very differently in the actual text. 

Article 7 states that “the child shall be registered immediately after birth and shall have the right from birth to a name, the right to acquire a nationality and, as far as possible, the right to know and be care for by his or her parents.” Article 9 continues, “a child shall not be separated from his or her parents against their will” unless proper legal procedures take place in the best interest of the child. 

In neither of these articles is there a mention of the number, gender, or biological relationship of those parents to said children. Thus, assuming that the parents mentioned are biological is just that – an assumption.

clip_image002[7]The many children who are adopted and loved and raised by their adoptive parents provide a counterpoint to Blankenhorn’s argument. If we are to privilege biological children in our culture, won’t that create yet another form of stratification in our society? What to do in a family with both biological and adoptive children – do those biological children get more and better presents, much as cousin Dudley and Harry Potter are treated by Dudley’s parents. (Apologies to those who haven’t read or seen Harry Potter.) 

While some individuals may have those opinions about so-called ”natural” children, adoptive children and step-children, society can’t afford such an attitude. Ensuring that all children can be raised and loved by any adult(s) is much more important than privileging how they come to be related.

And lastly, let’s deal with the assumption that same-sex couples cannot have children. This is blatantly false. Sperm banks, surrogacy, fertility specialists, and generous friends can assist women and men who want to conceive and parent children with their partners. 

Taking the “biological parents alone should have the right to marry” argument to an extreme, does suggest that some people who are married should have that right taken away? 

What about heterosexual couples who use technology to give birth to a baby using donor sperm and ova? What about heterosexual couples who use technology to have a baby using a surrogate egg donor/mother and a donor father? Are those really their biological children? If not, the argument seems to suggest that we shouldn’t let them get married at all. By the same logic, couples who don’t have their own biological children shouldn’t have the right to legal marriage. Do we really think that couples who are infertile or who choose not to have children shouldn’t have the right to marriage?

OK, this may be taking things a bit far but these are the logical extremes to the author's argument. To assume that taking away the right of same-sex couples to marry to protect the rights of children based on an assumption is not logical, nor is it based on any facts.

A 2001 analysis examining 21 different parenting studies illustrates that children raised by same-sex parents, (primarily lesbian couples with their biological children) are as emotionally healthy as children raised by different-sex parents. While there are some interesting social differences, these are by no means negative.

I often wonder about the obvious hypocrisy of people who value and support the idea of two people who love each other and want to create a home and, possibly, a family, but oppose that option for two people of the same gender.

October 26, 2008

Techniques of Neutralization

author_brad By Bradley Wright

Okay everyone, time for a test. Raise your right hand if you’ve ever done something that went against your value system, that harmed others, or was otherwise just wrong. Now, raise your left hand if you still think that you’re a pretty good, moral person. My guess is that most of us have both of our hands in the air at this point (in fact, I’m having to type with my nose).

This raises an interesting question. How can we, or anyone who breaks society’s moral codes, still think of ourselves as moral members of society? David Matza and Gresham Sykes developed a theory to explain this, called “techniques of neutralization.” 

Here’s how it works. Society has various expectations of how we’re supposed to act. We can call these norms. As part of the socialization process, we internalize these norms, coming to hold them as our own values and beliefs. People who are unable to internalize them are shunned and sometimes even considered psychopaths. When we break the moral code, then, we need someway of justifying it to ourselves so that we see ourselves--and can present ourselves to others--as full-fledged, moral members of society. We need something like a get-out-of-jail free card in the game monopoly, something that will cover our wrong-doing so that we don’t suffer the consequences of being defined as immoral or apart from society in our actions.

Techniques of neutralization do just this by providing simple and powerful rationales for why we violate society’s norms, and we use them to explain to ourselves and others why it was “okay” that we do wrong. Matza and Sykes identified five separate techniques of neutralization:

1) Denial of responsibility. We acknowledge doing the behavior considered wrong, but we claim that we had no choice—that we had to do or we were forced to do so.

2) Denial of injury. We acknowledge doing the wrong action, but we claim that no one was harmed by what we did, so it really shouldn’t be a problem.

3) Blaming the victim. We acknowledge that people were hurt by our actions, but we claim that though we did the action, it was really the victim’s fault—they brought about or otherwise deserved our behavior.

4) Condemn the condemners. We abdicate all responsibility for our behavior, and instead we point to the people condemning us. They are the problem, not us. What they have done wrong excuses our behavior.

5) Appealing to a higher loyalty. We claim that while we violated some social norms, we’re actually adhering to other norms and loyalties, and these higher principles justify our behavior.

It’s pretty straightforward to illustrate these techniques using everyday wrongdoing. Suppose that you cheat on a test. You could deny responsibility. Rather than redefine yourself as a cheater, you might decide that you really had no choice—you just have to graduate this semester.

You can deny the injury. You could also say that you did cheat but it didn’t hurt anyone. If the professor doesn’t use a strict grading curve, then bumping up your test score won’t change anyone else’s score, so what’s the harm? 

You could blame the victim. If the professor hadn’t made his/her tests so confusing, you wouldn’t need to cheat, so it really is their fault. You could condemn the condemners. Who is the college faculty and administration to make a big case out of cheating—we all know that they cheat at their jobs. 

Finally, you could appeal to a higher loyalty. Maybe you didn’t really want to cheat, but your parents are counting on you to graduate and get a good job, and for that you need a good grade point average. As such, you did it for them.

What’s truly remarkable about these techniques of neutralization is that they are used with even the most heinous of crimes.


Josef Fritzl held his daughter as a sex slave in a basement dungeon for over twenty years. He fathered seven children by her, ranging in age from five to nineteen at the time of Fritzl’s arrest, and none of them had ever seen sunlight! Fritzl was only discovered when one of the older children feel gravely ill, and they sought medical help.

What was Fritzl’s response to this hideous crime? He denied the injury, explaining that he could have let the older child die, but instead he risked discovery to get her help. Certainly he should get some credit for that, no?

clip_image003Let’s take an even worse case. Adolf Eichmann was an SS officer in Nazi Germany. He was placed in charge of the logistics of Hitler’s final solution--the mass extermination of Jews--so Eichmann was responsible for the murder of millions of people. If ever someone should just fess up to being a monster, it should be Eichmann, but that’s not what happened. When he was brought to trial, he simply denied responsibility and said that he was just obeying orders.

"Why me," he asked. “Why not the local policemen, thousands of them? They would have been shot if they had refused to round up the Jews for the death camps. Why not hang them for not wanting to be shot? Why me? Everybody killed the Jews."

These are pretty extreme examples of people using techniques of neutralization to justify their actions. Can you think of any others?

October 23, 2008

What Makes a City a City?

author_karen By Karen Sternheimer

What defines a city? How do you know if you are in one? The definition of a city is rather vague, like a population center of significant size. The U.S. Census Bureau defines a metropolitan area as having at least 50,000 residents. But it takes more than numbers of people to create what a city is all about.clip_image002[5]

I had the opportunity to explore part of the city I live in recently. One day this summer, I took the bus from my office to my home. The trip is usually eighteen miles and 30-45 minutes by car; by bus the journey was 24 miles and took about two hours. Yes, it took much longer than normal and will not become part of my routine, but the ride taught me a lot about what it means to live in a city.

My trip began at about eleven am on a Tuesday. There is a bus stop right outside the building where I work, but a coworker who rides the bus said to walk one block north to catch the express—“trust me, it’s worth it,” she said.

I took her advice and let two local buses pass, wondering how long I should wait for the coveted express. As I stood outside in the summer sun on the sidewalk I felt vulnerable, both to sunburn and to passersby. My recourse was to read the newspaper in the shade and avoid making eye contact. Soon others gathered and I was surrounded by a variety of people: a man in a suit, boys in t-shirts, and an elderly woman. I grew impatient, now understanding why when I drive down that same busy street I often see people step off the curb and walk into the street looking into the clip_image002[11]distance to see if their bus is approaching.

The express bus soon arrived. While everyone else quickly boarded after flashing a bus pass, I held up the line by sticking my dollar in the machine. Even though it was midday, the bus was nearly full. After a few stops it was standing room only; mothers with children, men alone, and a pair of elderly women apparently just done with a shopping trip. Another woman wore a collared shirt bearing the logo of an upscale grocery chain and was likely on her way to work there.

The signs on the buildings changed from an English-Spanish mix to Korean and Thai as we moved north on Vermont Avenue. We closed in on the hills, once far in the distance, and the Griffith Park Observatory grew larger in the window. I paid close attention to the street names, which I recognized from traversing them in other parts of town but didn’t know on sight in the part of town we were in. Sunset Boulevard was my stop, and I reached to pull the chord to signal the driver, hesitating and hoping that someone more experienced on the bus would do it first. It made no sound, and the woman next to me told me, “don’t worry, this bus always stops there.”

She was right; nearly everyone got off. Sunset and Vermont is the site of a large hospital and light rail station. My next bus was waiting for me there too. The next leg of my ride was the longest, but after a few miles it was also going to be a more familiar route. 

The starting point was completely unfamiliar. I hadn’t been to the east end of Hollywood in more than fifteen years, when it was pretty seedy and carried an air of danger. But that day, at what was by then 11:30, it was lively with activity. People came in and out of new office buildings and shops, and once shuttered buildings had construction cranes over them.

It reminded me of what author Jane Jacobs called “street ballet”; a natural choreography that emerges when cities are vibrant and alive. Although not trained as a sociologist, Jacobs’ book The Death and Life of Great American Cities is a seminal work within urban studies. She was active in her New York City neighborhood of Greenwich Village when city planners threatened to bulldoze blocks to make way for a freeway that was supposed to traverse Manhattan. Jacobs argued that modest blocks, with what might seem like ramshackle buildings are not urban blight, but that the many residents, merchants, and shoppers coalesce to actually create cities. Taking away these everyday moments, like the one I observed would not just alter city life but in effect destroy it.clip_image002[9]

I confess that I am usually part of what Jacobs most feared: commuting alone in my car, separate from the city and its many ballets of daily life. Riding along Sunset Boulevard brought be back into it: the seemingly effortless choreography of cyclists attaching their bicycles to the bus’s bike rack before boarding the bus, all showing their bus passes one by one at a steady pace, somehow matching traffic perfectly.

clip_image002[7]When I’m in other cities with subways I like to use them as much as possible. Not only is it usually faster, cheaper, and environmentally friendly, but you get to witness the ebb and flow of the daily life of its everyday inhabitants. Buses are slower, especially at rush hour, but my bus trip was filled with views of street life unique to Los Angeles: a couple of film production studios, the CNN building, the Sunset Strip (including a stop in front of The Roxy , the club where music legends were born), world famous comedy clubs, and new shopping plazas where people shop and lunch in order to be seen.

In contrast to the “everyone-for-themselves” mentality on the freeways, people on the bus were very courteous, going out of their way to help a woman in a wheelchair on or giving up their seats for elderly passengers. The bus helps create what Emile Durkheim called social solidarity, a sense of connection that creates ties and reduces the sense of disconnection people so often experience in cities. 

When I finally got to my stop and got off the bus, I felt disconnected from the people around me again. Maybe if people in cities took the bus once and a while they would feel more a part of their communities, more of a sense of common purpose. Cities, after all, are created by the people in them, not by their boundaries or buildings.

October 20, 2008

Motherhood and the Workplace

author_janis By Janis Prince Inniss

The most humiliating experience of my college career probably came when I was a junior. I wrote an essay about motherhood in which I really thought that I was among the first to read Nancy Chodorow and Dorothy Dinnerstein! I garbled the complex ideas about gender from their classic works and was promptly corrected by my professor! 

I was reminded of this experience with the recent debates about gender and work since Alaska Governor Sarah Palin became the Republican vice-presidential nominee. As the mother of five children ranging in age from six months to nineteen years old, some have publicly questioned whether the Governor Palin has the time to devote to such a demanding position; the fact that the youngest is a child with Down syndrome and that her unwed 17-year old daughter is pregnant are mentioned as additional evidence that Governor Palin will not be able to handle the job should Senator John McCain become president. Others have argued that simply asking such questions is sexist and pointed out that we don’t usually consider the parenting obligations of male candidates or male executives. 


clip_image002Given the role that gender plays in our lives, most of us acknowledge that fatherhood and motherhood differ in more than name. In my “discovery” of Chodorow and Dinnerstein days, I argued that men and women can parent “equally”, by which I meant without regard to gender. I thought that mothers and fathers could be interchangeable. What do you think? 

Now I realize that I was confusing what might be (given exactly the same socialization), with what is. One area where there is significant difference between mothers and fathers is in the amount of time devoted to parenting. In her book The Second Shift, Arlie Hochschild detailed the “second shift” of childcare and housework that women perform. Hochschild found that despite the fact that many women work outside the home (their “first shift”), we remain responsible for household chores and the primary caretakers of children. Today, mothers spend twice as much time with children—for example feeding, and bathing children—as fathers. (I recognize that there are many other family forms but this discussion is centered on two-parent heterosexual homes.)

If we can examine attitudes towards women in the workplace through the discourse on the candidates, we recognize that this is a nuanced issue in which children’s age is a major factor. The same din was not raised about Senator Hillary Clinton’s bid for the Democratic Presidential nomination this year, presumably because her sole child, Chelsea, the Stanford and Oxford graduate is in her late 20s, and even old enough to campaign for her and introduce her mother at the Democratic National Convention. Even when Geraldine Ferraro, the first woman nominated by either of the major parties as candidate for vice-president, was named as Walter Mondale’s vice-president nominee in 1984, her youngest child was already eighteen. Among the current crop of politicians running, along with Governor Palin, Senator Barack Obama is the only other with young children—two, ages seven and ten. (The youngest child of Senator Joe Biden is 27, while Senator McCain’s youngest is seventeen.)

The comparison that makes sense then is that of Governor Palin and Senator Obama. Conveniently, we can compare a mother and father. I have noticed that Senator Obama’s wife, Michelle Obama emphasizes her role as mother in interviews. On the candidate’s website, Mrs. Obama describes herself as “(f)irst and foremost” her children’s mother and she has spoken about involving her own mother to help care for the Obama children when she travels for the campaign. Although Senator Obama has talked about being a father in a way that sounds responsible, clearly it is Mrs. Obama who works the “second shift”. clip_image004

Without Mrs. Obama’s statements about mothering would we wonder whether Senator Obama could concentrate on the presidency? Would we simply assume that she, like most women, is the primary caretaker of their children? If Mr. Palin countered our expectation and said that he is the primary caretaker of their children, would Governor Palin face fewer questions about her ability to juggle parenting and the vice-presidency?

In comparing presidents (or contenders) who are also parents of young children, some recent history is worth noting: When President Clinton entered the White House, Chelsea Clinton was only twelve, and I recall no concern about his attention being divided. (Further back, there have been lots of even younger children in the White House such as John Jr. and Caroline Kennedy, without worry about their “working father”).

Somebody has to care for underage children. Is it a biological imperative that women spend more time in this job? Regardless of what might be, this is the way it is currently. Therefore, what are the implications for mothers in the workplace? It is a separate, but worthwhile question to ask why women work two shifts.

October 17, 2008

Personal Priorities and Societal Situations

author_sally By Sally Raskoff

Have you heard that the economy is in bad shape? Have you noticed this “bad economy” in your everyday life? One could ask the same thing about other societal issues. Are you aware on a day-to-day basis that we at war? 

Unless we are directly affected, many people continue to live their lives, doing what we normally do, no matter what is going on in the larger societal arena.

We learn in sociology that the personal “is” the public – or societal – as our personal experiences connect with larger societal patterns. Have you ever taken notice of how these larger patterns connect or are reflected in your own life or the life of your community?

If we are directly affected by job loss, this is an obvious connection between the personal and political levels of society. However, people lose their jobs in good economic times too. (See the unemployment graph below for trends since 1998.)image 

I’d like to challenge you to find some examples of the impact of societal trends upon our personal lives beyond those obvious direct linkages. Here are some of mine:

  • The shock of buying gas for a vehicle is a rather obvious example of economic forces impinging upon our daily reality. Gas has increased in price tremendously and its fluctuations are affecting people’s lives – this is a given.
  • Have you tried to buy or sell a car lately? Larger cars and SUVs are not selling, GM announced they are discontinuing the production of their larger vehicles, and gas is expensive. A friend of ours bought a new car and the dealers would not take his older car as a trade-in.
  • Have you ridden public transportation lately? For those who ride it regularly, it is clear that more people are on the buses and trains throughout the day. There are even more people riding bicycles for commuting purposes (although the distance from work to home certainly plays a part in that decision). (See the American Public Transportation Association for specific details.)
  • We receive flyers and note pads from realtors who hope we will choose them when we sell our home. I noticed on one flyer recently – which gave me the idea for this blog - that all the homes selling through this one realtor were bank-owned homes. Previously, people, not institutions, owned the majority of homes this person sells.
  • Have you taken a trip lately? A relative recently went to Hawaii – not a far trip from California – and noticed that there was a dearth of other tourists. Prices were not low, but at the end of summer it was odd to see mostly empty hotel parking lots and few people in the restaurants and parks. A new word has been coined this year due to the impact of the economy upon people’s lives and travel plans: staycation. Time will tell if this term becomes a common word, yet it has been used a lot this summer as people find some way to take vacations while staying home. If this word does make its way into regular usage, will this signal an ongoing economic problem? I think so. 
  • Have you bought food lately? Food prices have also increased and buying the basic staples (bread, milk, eggs – unless you are a vegan) can add up as if they were luxury items. (See the Consumer Price Index graph below for trends since 1998.)image 
  • The 99 Cent Only Stores in my area will soon charge more than 99 cents for some items. They cannot sell the same items that made them and successful for that price any longer. I wonder if they will change their name in some way to reflect their new reality? Their most recent announcement is that they will be charging $0.9999 for items they previously charged $0.9900. This may be a move to reassure consumers their items are still under a dollar yet those extra portions of a penny will add up. 
  • The new semester began for us last week and it was obvious to me that the economy is in pretty bad shape. I teach at a community college and our enrollments are up tremendously – there are students everywhere on campus, even in the late afternoon and on Fridays, which are times that used to feel like a ghost town. Students are showing up to add classes that already have long waiting lists. We’ve added classes as much as we can but we have run out of rooms and, in some cases, instructors ready to teach potentially new classes. Among those coming back to school are people who had other careers but were laid off and need a new career path so that they can keep working and saving towards retirement. 
  • Do you know someone who regularly buys new clothes or other items but has cut back on these purchases? Someone who has taken on an extra job or has begun selling items through “home parties”, e.g., crystal, candles, and cosmetics? 
  • Class matters too. If we are in the lower-middle classes, it is much more likely that we will feel the pinch of a bad economy than if we were in the upper-middle classes. Wealthy people may not feel it at all--they are insulated from such trends by the vastness of their wealth and the way it is typically held. However, middle class people who have been depending on certain investments may have trouble retiring when they planned since the value of those retirement accounts may have lost so much value. Those in the lower-middle classes may not even have any retirement options as they only get paid if they are working.

Can you think of any other examples of how people have been affected by these larger societal trends?

October 14, 2008

Merton's Strain Theory, Crime, and My Pants

author_brad By Bradley Wright

When it comes to explaining crime and deviance, there are a couple theories that sociologists always teach, and one of them is Merton’s strain theory. Robert Merton (1910-2003) was probably the foremost American sociologist. His strain theory starts with the general assumption that societies provide both culturally-valued goals and culturally-valued means. The goals are based on shared assumptions in a society about what people should strive i.e., what constitutes success. Here in the U.S. it’s the American Dream—good paying job, nice house, couple of kids, and new cars. The means are how you’re supposed to obtain the goals. Here in the U.S. the narrative for success emphasizes hard work and education. Basically, the story is that if you work hard, go to school, then you can become anything that you want.


Things get interesting, according to Merton, when there is an imbalance between the goals and the means. Specifically, when society doesn’t provide the means to everyone to accomplish the goals it sets out for them. This means that there are some people in society who are aiming for something that they probably can’t obtain. The result of this, according to Merton, is something called strain, an unpleasant emotional condition. Frankly, I’m not exactly sure what goes on in the body with strain, but it seems to be a mixture of angst, stress, and feeling pissed off.

Once someone feels this strain, there are a handful of ways they can deal with it and some responses to strain can result in criminal behavior. In Merton’s terms, one can react to strain by conforming. This means that the person accepts both the goals and the means of society and just plods along doing what they’re supposed to get ahead. Another response is ritualism. Here the person gives up on the goals of society, accepting that he/she will never obtain them, but continues on with the means. 

Say a person gives up on the American Dream, but they continue to show up for work every day just the same. Retreatism involves rejecting both the goals and the means. For example, one might just drop out of society, giving up on everything. Rebellion also involves rejecting goals and means, but rebellion, as opposed to retreatism, which entails finding new goals and new means to obtain them. Finally, innovation is accepting society’s goals but coming up with new means of obtaining them, means that society doesn’t approve of. This, commonly, leads to deviance and crime.

To illustrate each of these responses to strain, which Merton termed “modes of adaptation” (BTW, I think that we sociologists get paid more when we come up with fancy terms), let’s consider a simple act of student deviance: cheating on an exam. College students are supposed to get good grades and graduate—this is their culturally-valued goals. They are supposed to do this by studying hard and learning lots—other culturally valued goals. Merton’s vision of conformity, then, happens when students do just this, when they study hard, get good grades, and graduate. 

What happens, though, when students aren’t able to accomplish the goals set out for them? Well, they could just keep on going to class and studying, even though they do badly and have little hope of being an academic success. This is ritualism. They could also just give up on everything and stay in their dorm rooms playing video games and partying. This would be retreatism. They could redefine the goals and means of college—that it’s about making a social change rather than learning, and so they might get into the protest scene. This would be rebellion. Finally, they could hold onto visions of academic success but achieve it with disapproved means such as cheating at tests or plagiarizing papers. This would be innovation.

clip_image004Okay, so far I’ve given you a fairly standard presentation of strain theory, but I wonder if we can broaden its application to a wider array of goals and means, including cultural tastes and fashions. What got me thinking about this, and what is the impetus of so much in my life, is Ben & Jerry’s ice cream. You see, I love to eat ice cream, especially on hot summer days (though winter days work just fine as well). As a result, I gained weight but I didn’t notice because I wore shorts all summer. Now that it’s autumn, though I have discovered that none off my long pants fit me anymore. What should I do? As a sociologist, I ask WWMD (What would Merton do)? And so I turn to strain theory for alternatives. 

The culturally-valued goal here is looking slim, and the culturally-valued means are eating well and exercising regularly. Conformity, then, would entail a healthy, fit life style in which I’m looking good and my pants will fit me. Ritualism would be continuing to say that I’m on a diet but not really changing. Retreatism would be just giving up and living in sweat pants or maybe buying bigger pants. Innovation would be to get some sort of surgery or maybe wear a girdle. Rebellion would be to cast down the tyranny of fashion expectations and just wear shorts all year around (which is a bit of a challenge in New England).

What will I do? Oh, the strain of it all.

October 11, 2008

Everyday Economic Crises

author_karen By Karen Sternheimer


You have probably heard a lot about our country’s economic problems lately: the "mortgage meltdown", the federal bail out of Wall Street, and the 159,000 lost jobs in September 2008. For months politicians and economists have been debating whether the economy is officially in a recession, and if so, what this means for our national economic health.

We are paying attention to economic suffering more now, as the cost of just about everything has increased in the past year and people considered middle class are losing their homes too. Recently, a ninety-year-old woman facing foreclosure from the home she and her late husband purchased in 1970 attempted suicide. An unemployed man killed himself and his family; he left letters implying that his financial difficulties motivated the murder-suicide. These shocking stories might not have made national headlines had we not been so attuned to the effects this downturn has had on so many people.

For many Americans, everyday is an economic crisis, regardless of where the stock market’s major measures end that day. An estimated 37 million Americans lived in poverty in 2007, or just over twelve percent of the population, according to a report by the U.S. Census Bureau. As you can see from the graph below, this number has risen since 1999, although the percentage is lower than it was in the early 1990s—and significantly lower than it was in 1960. 

clip_image004However, critics charge that the federal government's definition of poverty is artificially low. In 2007, this threshold was defined as having an income of less than $10,590 for one person, $13,540 for a family of two, and $16,530 for a family of three (the limit rises slightly for each member of the household). 

As the National Center for Children in Poverty (NCCP) details, the definition of poverty is based on an outdated measure, an estimate of a family’s food budget times three. This is because when data were first gathered, food costs were proportionally higher than they are now. NCCP estimates that to pay for basic needs a family needs at least two to three times the poverty level income depending on where they live. The Center for American Progress estimates that 90 million Americans are low-income, or earn less than double the poverty level. This means that nearly one third of all Americans have been struggling to get by—even before the national financial crisis hit. 

The vast majority of people in this category have jobs, often more than one, that provide no sick time, low pay, little room for advancement, and frequently no health insurance. According to research by the Commonwealth Fund, in 2007 28% of Americans went without health insurance for at least part of the year. Half of all families earning less than $20,000 had no health care coverage; the inability to pay mounting medical bills is one of the most common reason people end up filing for bankruptcy. 

Usually we think of financial problems as primarily due to personal failure—and yes, our individual decisions matter—but rarely do we understand how broader economic issues impact individuals. Typically, when people are struggling we tell them to work harder. clip_image006And most people do. But take a look at the Bureau of Labor Statistics graph below: American worker productivity has nearly doubled in the past few decades. But compensation has been flat. With the higher costs of goods noted in the graphic above, what money American workers do earn doesn’t buy as much as it used to.

When we enter into economic difficulties as a society, those at the bottom of the income hierarchy are often the hardest hit. States facing declining revenues slash education budgets, threatening the quality of public education and health care benefits. Other programs find their resources dwindling too. 

People who work in service sector jobs, at retail stores, for instance, may have their hours cut or find their jobs eliminated all together. For people in this circumstance, a decline in the stock market isn’t what keeps them up at night, it’s whether they can continue to pay their rent and have a place to live.

Home foreclosures can disproportionately impact low-income neighborhoods, as people might have been encouraged to take out loans that they could not afford. For a family that can continue to pay their bills but lives in a neighborhood with many foreclosed homes, their property values decline, and there is a greater likelihood of crime increasing in communities where homes are boarded up and illegal activity can flourish.

Nobody likes economic hard times; they impact just about everyone at some level. But this downturn can also give us an opportunity to better understand what it is like for people who struggle to get by all the time. Typically we view poverty as personal failure; some people have even blamed low-income people of color for our country’s economic problems. But the sociological perspective considers how social structure affects people during bad times. How do you think our social structure creates challenges for people to get ahead during “good times” too?

October 08, 2008

Bureaucracy: Resistance to Change and Adaptation

author_janis By Janis Prince Inniss

In previous posts, I’ve discussed some of my terrifying and then reaffirming experiences related to my mother’s hospitalizations. With hospitals stays behind her, once Mum began daily radiation therapy and chemotherapy treatments transportation became a new challenge for her. She was recovering from major surgeries and receiving treatments that while ultimately expected to be beneficial, are rather punishing. She would need transportation. Turns out that having cancer qualified her for Tampa’s HARTplus door-to-door bus service for people with disabilities. We were thrilled that she would be picked up at home and taken to her appointments, but that elation did not last for long as the dysfunctions of the bureaucracy soon rivaled the gratitude I felt for this service. 

According to Google Maps, the trip from Mum’s home to the location of her appointments is 13.3 miles and takes 22 minutes. Indeed, that’s about the time it takes me when I can take her. But with HARTplus, all bets are off! Once it took her three hours on their van to get home. Hungry and thirsty, but abiding by the HartPlus rules, she ate or drank nothing for the entire time; due to her surgeries and treatments she eats small meals so this was particularly punishing and added to her fatigue. 

clip_image002Every day for one week drivers were to pick her up at a treatment center on a hospital campus, but they routinely went to the main hospital entrance. This kept happening although at the time of booking Mum gave the street address and the name—clearly visible outside—of the building where she would be. A few times the drivers left her saying that she was not there! Not only did this leave her stranded, but it counted as a no show, essentially a demerit that could ultimately cause her to be expelled from the service. 

Add to this a rather peculiar scheduling system for which she must book transportation for an hour prior to an appointment, but must be ready half an hour earlier than that; in other words, she has to be ready to leave an hour and a half before any appointment but may have to sit and wait an hour for the van to arrive. As inconvenient as that might be, I thought that meant she would always be on time. Wrong. She has missed several appointments because she arrived late! 

Another challenge has been rescheduling the time that she would be picked-up when a procedure took longer than expected. Recently when a nurse called HARTPlus to say that she would not be ready at her scheduled time, the nurse was told that she had to call one hour before the scheduled pick up time—as opposed to the longer notice she was trying to give them! The nurse got busy, called with less than an hour before the appointed time so the van went to pick her up. Mum was not ready so she was deemed a no show and received a demerit! 

There is more. HARTplus does not allow passengers to book their return trips less than an hour and a half after their appointments. So although the longest her appointment lasts is 15 minutes when she goes for a sometimes daily shot to boost her white blood cells, Mum cannot hope to wait less than an hour for a return ride! She has to assume that she’ll spend about four hours each day—most of it waiting for her van—to get one shot. Her description of one recent trip is unfortunately not unusual:

I was picked me up at 4:40 for a 4:00 o'clock pick-up. We were zipping along nicely on (the appropriate freeway); the heavy rush-hour traffic was in the opposite direction.  The driver left the freeway two exits before mine, got on another freeway for a short while and then got off near downtown into the afternoon traffic and long lines at the traffic lights. We then went on a toll road that put us into downtown at rush hour! Because of this circuitous route, without picking up or dropping off anyone else, I got home at 5:45.


Sociologist Robert Merton’s work can help us make sense of this. Merton pointed out that bureaucrats are rule-bound. They are trained to depend on policies. Common-sense and flexibility are anathema to bureaucrats. There is no reward for creativity in bureaucracies either. The reasons and benefits of having rules are many, and I assume that there are good reasons for the HARTplus rules; however, they do not fit the needs of cancer patients. When HARTplus decided to include cancer patients in their system, mid to high level bureaucrats should have considered how their system would need to be adapted to serve this new clientele. They should have learned some basics about the needs of cancer patients and trained their drivers about the pertinent issues. 

Regardless of the disability, but certainly because of the side-effects that chemotherapy produces (nausea, vomiting, and fatigue to name a few) a priority would be the prompt transportation of these clients. In fact, what Merton called bureaucratic ritualism—holding on to rules even when they prevent the stated goals—seems to be operating given that these services do not exemplify the company’s stated mission to be “safe, dependable, and cost effective”. Merton recognized that a major weakness of bureaucracies is that they have trouble serving our needs; perhaps given the requirement for change and adaptability in transporting this population, it is not surprising that bureaucracy can render the service ineffective.

October 05, 2008

Space Cadets: Human Society and Its Discontents

author_sally By Sally Raskoff

When do humans cease to be human? image

I was with some friends and astronomers looking through a telescope the other day and the conversation turned to space colonization. As the astronomers went on to talk about terraforming Mars and other fascinating topics, I wondered how life off the planet would affect humans and human society. 

We have a few examples of real humans living in closed environments for limited time-- the NASA International Space Station, Antarctic science stations, and Biosphere 2 -- and we have plenty of fictional examples of humans in such situations, like Star Trek and most imagescience fiction writing.   

But if we create space communities where human lives are spent entirely off of this planet, we should consider how human societies may differ -– and whether or not we can consider such people still human.

Societies are based on interactions with not only each other but with our environment. When we send people to live in a closed environment, they take their culture with them, yet a new culture emerges the longer they stay in the new place. 

If you have ever gone camping or traveling, you experience a similar phenomenon. As you take your cultural expectations, you set up what feels comfortable in the new setting. You may have a new bed to sleep in and different food to eat but we often seek comfort in familiar clothing or ritualistic behaviors. 

Culture shock, which you might experience when traveling, offers some insight into how we change when immersed in new cultures. However, in a space colony, especially for the first group of inhabitants, the new culture must first be created! Thus some elements of the off-planet culture will most likely retain aspects of our earth-bound society. 

Whether human society is sustainable on another planet remains to be seen. Containing conflict and violence would be one challenge, and there are many other issues that we may not realize until we try it. This is not just a sociological question. 

Biologically, we may not be capable of reproduction in the same manner as we do here on earth. Our bodily cycles are tied to the rotation of the earth and to others. Our physical reality emerged and evolved from our experiences and resources here. If reproduction were possible on another planet, would people born there still be considered human beings? What if their births were dependent on new reproductive cycles emergent in space living and/or technological assistance that replace human gestation?

STS71Mir18Mir19CrewGPN-2002 Current space programs have very specific psychological criteria for selecting space-bound participants. People must be very open, communicative, and flexible to deal with living in such confined spaces with others for any length of time. Clearly not every person is well suited to thriving or even surviving in such a situation.

Would we have a new way of stratifying humans? Instead of race, ethnicity, social class, gender, sexual orientation, and age, we could use on-planet and off-planet birth distinctions to distribute power and wealth, opportunity and education. 

Do I have a good science fiction story going here? I’m not so sure it’s only fiction, as people have been working on how to live in a closed environment for some time – we haven’t yet figured it out yet and it is dependent upon technology that has not yet been invented. However, technology isn’t the only factor for a successful off-planet venture. Nor is it even the most important.

Setting up an intentional society would prove to be difficult, especially considering the lack of success we have in existing here. Can we really engineer a self-sustaining society without creating a totalitarian culture? 

Different sociological perspectives offer very different answers. Structuralists assume the need for structure, viewing people as interdependent, yet dysfunctions threaten the balance of the system. Conflict theorists acknowledge the potential for power abuses among the different positions and relationships in sustaining their existence. Symbolic interactionists focus on how meaning varies for the human participants and how difficult and exciting such experiences would prove to be. 

How would post modernists weigh in? Since French social theorist Jean Baudrillard wrote that the (first) Gulf War didn’t happen as it played out in the media, would such lived experiences be interpreted as surreal since earthly contact would also play out via media connections? From the perspective of those in the colony, would an earth-bound existence be the unreality?

Can we effectively design a society with a minimum of social problems? Considering space colonization really focuses us on society back here on earth – if we could design such a society, why don’t we do that here on earth? If we can’t figure it out here, how on (or off) earth can we do it elsewhere?

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