10 posts from November 2008

November 28, 2008

Can Television Get You Pregnant?

author_karen By Karen Sternheimer

While science has not yet allowed electronics to impregnate us, this question circulated in the news the day before the presidential election on November 3. Lost in the frenzy of the election, it was easy to miss reports of a new study in the journal Pediatrics that found a relationship between teen pregnancy and watching sexually laden television shows. 

News organizations like Time, CNN, MSNBC, and the Washington Post and others around the world covered this study, validating its clip_image002importance and suggesting that sex on television is a central cause of teen pregnancy. But is it really?

Let’s start with the study itself. The researchers studied twelve- to seventeen-year-olds over three years. They conducted a survey by phone, starting with 2,003 respondents; by the end of three years, the sample size had shrunk to 1,461. (In long-term studies it isn’t uncommon for researchers to lose track of participants who may move and/or change phone numbers.)

The authors document that those most likely to have remained in the study were younger, female, and had parents with less clip_image002[5]education. Among black teens in particular, those who remained were more likely to have been sexually active at the start of the study. By the end of the study, 91 teens, or fourteen percent of the remaining sample became pregnant or had gotten someone pregnant.

In addition to gathering information about sexual behavior, the survey asked teens how often they watched one of 23 predetermined television shows that the researchers determined had high levels of sexual content (including flirting, touching, kissing, talk about sex, implied sex, and depictions of actual intercourse).

The authors’ initial findings suggest that the most important factors associated with teen pregnancy are being black, female, exhibiting problem behavior, and stating an intention to have a child before the age of 22. Living in a two-parent family was negatively associated with teen pregnancy; in other words, these teens were significantly less likely to become pregnant or to impregnate someone. Television viewing on its own was not statistically significant

When the authors performed a multivariate analysis, or controlled for these other factors, television viewing became statistically significant—although the strongest predictors remained being black, female, not living in a two-parent household, and exhibiting problem behavior. Television viewing itself was actually negatively associated with pregnancy; the more television watched, the less likely a pregnancy would occur.

And yes, they found that watching the shows they deemed high in sexual content was statistically significant when controlling for the other factors, but it was less of a factor than those mentioned above. 

If you have taken statistics, you might remember the term p value, which means the probability of this finding being the result of chance or an actual relationship between the concepts we are studying.

Generally speaking, social scientists want to make sure that our findings are unlikely to be the result of chance. If we want to be 99.9 percent certain, we use a p-value of .001 or lower, 99 percent certain means our p-value must be no greater than .01, and to be 95 percent certain our p-value cannot exceed .05. If we are not at least 95 percent certain that our findings are not the result of chance, we typically will concede our results are not statistically significant.

Now back to sex and TV. According to the Pediatrics study, we can be 99 percent certain that being black and exhibiting problem behavior is linked with teen pregnancy, and 99.9 percent that being female and not living in a two-parent family is also linked with teen pregnancy. The p-value for these variables is about .01 or less.

When we look at the television p-values, they are higher, which means the strength of their significance is lower. Total television exposure, a factor that predicts lower pregnancy likelihood, has a p-value of .02, meaning we can be 98 percent certain of this relationship. Age also has a p-value of .02, indicating that getting older is also a predictor of pregnancy. 

And what of the smoking gun of sex on television, the finding that heard ‘round the world? It’s p-value is .03, the weakest of the statistically significant findings.

This does not mean these findings don’t matter, but the authors’ conclusion that the “results suggest that television may have a substantial role in the high clip_image002[7]rates of teenage pregnancy in the United States” is likely an overstatement. 

The authors do concede that they cannot make any causal conclusions here; correlation is not the same as causation. Yet their concluding suggestions focus on television: they ask industry leaders to modify content, encourage pediatricians to inquire more about their patients’ media use and suggest parents to watch television with teens more often.

While it is very possible that teens who are sexually active might be more drawn to sexual media content than their abstinent peers, there are a number of unexplored issues here. First is the racial/ethnic disparity. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), in 2006 African American teens aged fifteen to nineteen had a birthrate of 63.7 per thousand, Latina teens 83.0 per thousand, Native American teens 54.7 per thousand, Asian American teens 16.7 per thousand and white teens 26.6 per thousand. Something is going on here, and it’s not just that the white and Asian American parents are watching television with their kids.

Teen pregnancy is highest in racial/ethnic groups that experience the highest levels of poverty. Yes, lower income people might also watch more television, but the central causal factor is not what teens see on TV. Lack of access to and information about birth control, lack of access to the educational and job opportunities that might be derailed by early pregnancy, as well as cultural factors come into play to explain teen pregnancy far better than what is on TV. For instance, a recent New Yorker article described how evangelical teens are actually more likely than other teens to be sexually active but less likely to use birth control. Sociologists have hypothesized that cultural attitudes condemning premarital sex might make these teens less likely to use birth control, which teens might interpret of proof of a plan to have sex rather than something that "just happened."

Teen birth rates are also much higher in the United States than they are in Europe, which has far more sexually explicit TV than we do here. But we have much higher poverty rates. If we truly want to reduce the number of teen pregnancies—and there are good reasons to try and do this—television is a tantalizing, but ultimately futile diversion. Studies like this make for great sound bites, but reducing teen pregnancy is far more complex than changing the channel.

November 25, 2008

On the Job (Im)morality

author_janis By Janis Prince Inniss

Michael Nader is caught in a drug bust.

A weather forecaster posts a nude photo on his MySpace page.

Photos capture Kate Moss allegedly snorting cocaine.

What do these people and scenarios have in common? All of them were fired from their jobs for engaging in illegal or morally questionable behaviors (Nader was fired from the soap opera “All My Children”, the weather forecaster from a Roanoke TV station, and Moss was fired from the clothing chain H&M).

clip_image003What (mis)behaviors would cause my university to show me the door? And how about you? What would make you lose your job?

Many actors, sports stars, and people employed in a variety of other industries are subject to so-called morality clauses in employment contracts. Such clauses allow employers to terminate a contract if their employee engages in behavior that could tarnish the company’s image. The morals clause is used in some of the endorsement contracts of professional athletes as a means of protecting the image the athlete is representing, and the image of the athlete given their relationship to a product. 

Only one day after he pleaded not guilty to dog-fighting charges, Nike suspended the contract of NFL football player, Michael Vick. Reebok had no contract with Vick but stopped selling his jersey and was willing to take back any unsold ones from stores—all before he was even convicted. When the football player pleaded guilty to federal dog-fighting charges and made a plea deal a few weeks later, Nike severed ties with him and the NFL suspended him indefinitely. It will be at least two years before Vick will be able to attempt a return to the NFL, although his team’s owner has made it clear that Vick will not be welcomed back to that team.

clip_image005Similarly, basketball player Kobe Bryant lost major endorsement deals when he was accused of raping a 19-year old woman. Although the case was later dismissed, McDonald’s and Nutella “dropped their deals” with Bryant. Nike benched Bryant for about two years and it was three years before he got a new deal (with PlayStation 2). 

Murder charges for his role in the deaths of two men were eventually dropped against football player Ray Lewis, but even then the NFL fined him $250,000. Although Lewis has since received some endorsements, the season after the trial, Lewis was not given the “I’m going to Disney World” ad line, although he was the Most Valuable Player, nor did his picture grace the Wheaties cereal box with some of his teammates. In fact, the NFL appears to be taking their players’ off the field conduct seriously enough to hire a full-time security director for each team, all due to a new personal conduct policy designed to keep the “integrity and reputation” of the NFL intact. 

In contrast, criminal behavior gives rappers street “cred” rather than job trouble. The case of 32 year-old rapper Rick Ross epitomizes this phenomenon. Ross was so reluctant to be associated with law and order, that he denies ever having been a corrections officer. He has claimed that photographs showing him as a corrections officer are fake. However, The Smoking Gun website has numerous documents related to Ross’s previous job, including his application, letter of appointment, and resignation letter. 

The singer/rapper Akon is another artist who has gone to extremes to create a thuggish background. Yet, The Smoking Gun research indicates that Akon is not as threatening as he claims to be in his songs. Akon brags that he spent more than four years in jail, but he was only in prison for a few months. Akon also inflated his criminal record by claiming to have been jailed for being the head of a car-theft ring which left people “traumatized for months”; in fact, Akon was jailed for driving a BMW stolen by someone else, and the charges against him were eventually dropped! Turns out that his hit “Locked Up” was not written in jail as he claimed.

Why does being a thug aid success for a rapper—so much so that folks like Akon and Rick Ross lie about their pasts? In what other arena of life is criminality valued? Many fans of this music genre, particularly the subgenre that focuses on violence and sex, are a subculture: They are a group whose values and norms might be different from—and in fact they may reject—those of the rest of society. But are there other arenas in which the values and norms of such people deviate from the mainstream? Or are they mostly quite similar to everyone else? 

There might be athletes or other high profile people that you think were not sanctioned enough. And many of the most popular rappers appear to be telling the truth about their criminal pasts and many continue to have legal worries (Jay-Z, T.I. Busta Rhymes, Lil Wayne and Snoop Dogg are a few who fall into either or both of these categories). But can you think of any rappers who were sanctioned as the athletes mentioned here were, or whose careers were slowed or ended because of their criminality? In what other career can you glorify being on the wrong side of the law? Rappers don’t they lose their jobs for their illegal/immoral acts, they fabricate them if they don’t exist and where their misdeeds are real, they brag about them which gives them currency in a particular subculture.

November 22, 2008

Makeovers: Personal or Political?

author_sally By Sally Raskoff

I caught a bit of Tyra Banks’ talk show recently. After wondering why on earth she has a show on the air, I heard her say something very interesting. 

This episode featured Tina Knowles assisting with “total makeovers.” As a fourteen-year-old girl came out totally done over and looking like a fashion model, Tyra gave her perspective on this person’s situation. She stated that she had noticed her at the beginning of the image show – since she was pretty and very tall – and that while she didn’t need this makeover to be pretty, she needed the makeover to feel pretty. 

Makeovers continue to be popular on television shows, whether they are talk shows or shows devoted exclusively to makeovers, like Queer Eye for the Straight Guy, How to Look Good Naked with Carson Kressley and Tim Gunn’s Guide to Style

The similarity between these shows rests with their attempts to help women be image more comfortable with their bodies. However, they take different paths in determining how clothing could and should work for women. While Carson and Tim focus on body awareness and learning how clothing actually looks on their bodies, Tyra focuses on doing the exterior hoping the interior issues will follow. 

Carson's and Tim’s show walks us through the process of dealing with our psychological and psycho-social issues – to some extent – in order to dress more appropriately and attractively according to our societal norms. 

All of these shows point out how people –particularly women – get caught up in presenting an image that may feel comfortable but which may not match their reality or even their aspirations.

On episode 4 of Tim Gunn's show, they presented Caroline, a 25 year old real estate agent who dressed in the uniform of her profession: suits. The show illustrated how Caroline could appear more professional if only her suits actually fit her and she mixed up the colors and textures. Apparently, her only impediment to success was her appearance.

While all these shows are great at product placement and are consumerist oriented, the underlying message of each show reinforces the norms for women to 

be hyper-vigilant about their appearance. However, the approach that Tim and Carson take seems to be less about norm reinforcement and more an attempt to de-stress women’s lives, assuming they have the time, income, and interest to sustain such wardrobe changes. 

On the other hand, Tyra’s show in particular seem to reinforce the norm for women to be dolled up as an object of desire, no matter the comfort of the apparel or the appropriateness of the styling.

So, where is the line between a sexist and objectified attitude towards females and one that values women’s attributes? It seems to me that this is the social issue that women and feminists have to deal with at this point in time. 

We’ve had two women’s movements in this country, one that got us the right to vote and one that outlawed discrimination in the workplace. While we can vote, not all take advantage of this and we still have issues about discrimination in the workplace and elsewhere. Stalking and domestic violence disproportionately affect women as victims. Many of my students have never heard the phrases “comparable worth” or “equal pay for equal work” and they seem to accept that women get paid less than men. The “feminization of poverty” continues even as we have many studies of the issue showing its roots, dynamics, and consequences. And yet makeovers seem to be more entertaining and get more attention than the topic of making real political and social changes in women’s lives.

Social movements emerge when people organize around issues that are problematic in society, issues that are not just trouble for themselves but that are trouble for others. While Alexis de Tocqueville said many years ago that, “We are a nation of joiners,” and we have to be sufficiently motivated to get off the couch and work at embracing diversity and equal treatment for all. 

However, that motivation rests on seeing social realities through things that might seem as fun and mundane as makeovers. Viewing makeover shows as opportunities to dress better is a consumerist perspective; viewing them as an example of reifying norms of gender is a sociological exercise. What do you think that these shows tell us about the status of women in American society?

November 19, 2008

Gottfredson and Hirschi's Low Self-Control Theory; or why kids feed lizards to crocodiles


By Bradley Wright

One of the better known criminological theories of recent decades is Gottfredson and Hirschi’s (1990) low self-control theory. This theory holds that children develop levels of self-control by about ages seven or eight, and these levels remain relatively stable the rest of their lives. Children with low levels of self-control end up being more prone to crime, and their criminal propensity continues into later life.

Low self-control manifests in a variety of ways. People with low self-control are unable to delay gratification, for they are focused on the present. They want it now! As a result, low self-control people act impulsively—without much thought and based on what they are feeling at the moment. This makes them risk takers; if we don’t consider the consequences of our actions, we’re willing to try lots more behaviors—even if they are potentially damaging to us. Finally, low self-control people are focused on themselves rather than others, making them insensitive to other people. Empathy isn’t a big deal for them.

It’s easy to see how low self-control would lead to criminal behavior. Crime usually involves a desire for immediate gratification, like taking what you want. It can also be impulsive, happening on the spur of the moment without any planning. Given the possible negative consequences of crime, it involves taking risks. It also often creates victims, so criminal behavior can require indifference toward other peoples’ well-being.

Where does low self-control come from? According to Gottfredson and Hirschi, it’s the product of ineffective parenting. This happens in families where there is weak attachment between parent and child and in families where parents fail to recognize and correct their children’s wrong behavior.

Recently, a story came out of Australia about a seven-year-old boy that we could probably crown the king (or maybe prince) of low self-control. This boy, and his family, lives near the Alice Springs Reptile Center, located in the outback of Australia. Early one morning, this boy snuck into the Reptile Center and started killing animals. He bludgeoned some of the smaller lizards to death, and climbed over fence to feed others to an eleven-foot-long salt water crocodile. By the time he finished, the boy had killed thirteen animals worth $5,500.

Here’s a video of the event from the zoo’s security cameras:

This behavior fits perfectly with low self-control theory. The kid was only seven-years-old, suggesting that this type of behavior starts very early. He acted without any sense of consequence for his behavior; in fact, security cameras showed him smiling as he killed the animals. He clearly showed no sense of empathy for the animals or the zoo keepers, and he took a lot of risks. Not only did he sneak past the security system, but he also climbed a fence to get a closer look at the crocodile, in the process endangering himself.

The boy’s behavior also suggests that his parents are particularly ineffective. Most parents would not enable their child disappear for such an extended period without realizing it. Also, it turns out that several years earlier, this boy’s brother had vandalized the zoo as well (though somewhat less dramatically). This suggests that his parents were not able to appropriately deter this behavior. In suggesting a more appropriate parenting style, the center director said that “In my day he'd [the boy] get a big boot up the arse.”


According to low self-control theory, this boy would be expected to continue such low self-control behavior into adolescence then into adulthood, and he would move on from harming animals to harming people. Hopefully he won’t be feeding people to crocodiles, but self-control theory would predict a lengthy criminal record for him eventually.

As a side note, while Gottfredson and Hirschi, both sociologists, popularized this approach to criminal behavior, psychologists have been studying developing similar theories for many years before self-control theory. Impulsivity, immediate gratification, risk-taking are well-established concepts in psychological accounts of crime and deviance. 

Surprisingly, Gottfredson and Hirschi did not review this literature. As such, their “discovery” of low self-control is a lot like Columbus’ discovery of the Americas. Certainly he was the first European to find the Americas (except for maybe the Vikings), but there was already plenty of people here when he arrived. Likewise, Gottfredson and Hirschi didn’t invent a self-control explanation for crime, but they certainly introduced it to a broader audience. Because of them, we have a better understanding of why boys feed lizards to crocodiles in Australia.

November 16, 2008


author_karen By Karen Sternheimer

You probably hear the word ideology used a lot, whether it is used in political or economic discussions (or in sociology classes). But whatclip_image002 does it really mean? 

Put plainly, ideology is a way of seeing the world. Ideologies are like lenses through which we view just about everything. They offer pre-packaged solutions to problems much like some fast food restaurants have special deals which plan a meal for you in advance: sandwich, drinks, and chips for one predetermined price. Like these meals, in many cases clinging to ideology means that many of the answers to social issues are pre-packaged. It may make the world seem simpler, but it can also cloud our decision making without us even realizing it.

Consider economic systems. They tend be viewed through various ideologies. Here in the United States we tend to view life through the lenses of capitalism, even beyond the way we think about our financial markets. We tend to promote the idea of competition in many aspects of life, view high profits and salaries as ultimate definitions of success, and like to think of ourselves as all players in this game. Competing economic systems are not just thought of as different, but a threat to what makes us American. 

Even within capitalism, there are competing ideologies. Some view the free market as the best way for our economy to operate. Within this perspective, any clip_image004government interference is negative for economic growth. Similar to Social Darwinism, free marketers believe that the market will weed out any businesses that cannot compete, that competition is ultimately best for business and for consumers. The fittest business models will survive. 

Others argue for a more controlled version of capitalism, with government acting as referee making sure the “game” is played fairly. Many basic regulations, like laws against insider trading (when people take advantage of information not available to the public to buy or sell stock), were codified as law in the U.S. early in the twentieth century, as the gap between the wealthy and the poor grew significantly. Other regulations were passed within the Securities Act of 1933, legislation passed following the onset of the Great Depression to try and avoid some of the practices that led to the stock market’s crash in 1929. For most of the middle decades of the twentieth century, the ideology of regulated capitalism was very widely held.

As the Great Depression faded from view, the political pendulum shifted towards less regulation and gradually loosened regulations. In 1999, Congress passed the Financial Services Modernization Act, which rolled back many of the laws passed after the Depression. As you can surmise from its title, the implication was that regulations were no longer “modern.” As a result, banks could combine a variety of services beyond money lending, to include selling insurance and other investments with less oversight. 

Fast forward nine years, and with the collapse of this new and “improved” financial services industry, an administration that touted the free market version of capitalism has been forced to dramatically change its tune. To stave off collapse (which free market advocates would argue should be able to happen when businesses make bad decisions), Congress approved a $700 billion bailout package. Sometimes circumstances challenge the degree to which we should adhere to clip_image006ideology.

Former Federal Reserve Chair Alan Greenspan questioned his own beliefs in the ability of the free market to police itself after the financial collapse, telling a Congressional committee that some regulation should have been introduced. He also noted that he was surprised that the interests of the banks did not prevent them from making such risky and confusing investments.

The Los Angeles Times examined whether the bailout was the beginning of the end of the free market ideology, or just a temporary fix to a crisis. Some economists quoted within the report argued against the bailout, based on ideological principle. Others admitted that it shouldn’t be something that they would agree with, but under the circumstances felt that the government had no other choice. Whether to adhere to ideology or make a decision that is based on circumstance is a challenge: to violate the “rules” of one’s ideology means risking others on your ideological “team,” maybe even get called hypocritical. 

Ideology traditionally shapes American politics as well. Well-worn arguments about both major political parties traditionally give opponents platforms to run on, and can shore up the party’s ideological allies by recalling these debates. Obama could rally like-minded others by charging that McCain will primarily represent the interests of the wealthy. McCain argued that Obama would be a tax-and-spend-liberal, drawing on concerns that Democrats like to raise taxes to fund lots of social programs. As the race heated up, the McCain campaign also accused Obama of supporting socialism.

This was more than just a critique of Obama's ideas, but drew upon the concept of ideology. The suggestion of socialism harkens the Red Scares that have occurred throughout American history. People accused of being socialists and communists could be jailed, fired, and were derided as enemies of America. So you get the idea that we’re not just talking about economics here, but protecting the very way that we have chosen to view the world. 

Ideologies can be useful for providing pre-packaged ways of seeing the world; most of the time they seem so much like common sense that we are unaware of when we believe them. Ideologies can blind us and prevent us from searching outside of our traditional ways of thinking to find the best solutions to problems if we feel like we must always conform to an ideological framework. But is it ever possible to have an ideology-free society? What do you think?

November 13, 2008

What Kind of Care Do America's Babies Receive?

author_janis By Janis Prince Inniss

Recently, as a visitor to an early childhood education facility I was struck by the architecture of the building. I noticed the use of primary colors around the windows of the white building. The overall appearance was playful and child-friendly. However, as I walked inside the building and peered in the darkened classroom windows, I recognized that despite the outward appearance, at least one thing was like other less creatively designed spaces: nap time! Lights were off in every one of the dozen or so classrooms on both sides of the long hallway. As I pressed my face to the windows, I could see children sleeping in the rooms. In some, I saw little eyes staring back at me.

In a previous post, I discussed the percentage of American women who are employed in paid positions after giving birth and the percentage of children in child care centers. (Even under age 3, fewer than 10 percent of children are being taken care of in their own homes.) The majority are in child care centers. Have you ever been to a daycare facility? I know some “industry insiders”, including my mother. Until she resigned about two years ago, Mum worked at two different locations of one of the largest day care companies in the U.S. 

clip_image002An important concept in daycare—like in many other areas of life—is scheduling. Schedules are to be followed by all children, even the littlest ones. Each day, all of the children are to eat and sleep at the same time. Mum saw babies with their tired heads hung low being fed; teachers would keep kids awake until nap time so that they would all go to sleep at the same time. (Childcare rooms are divided into “classrooms” and that childcare workers are referred to as “teachers”.)

This uniformity allows teachers to have some concentrated quiet time. If you’ve ever taken care of even one young child for a few hours you know how coveted their nap time can be; imagine the need for that peace (and quiet!) if you’re taking care of about fifteen of them. That quiet time allows teachers to take care of their many chores such as writing lesson plans, updating each child’s folder with her developmental milestones, and sanitizing toys. Nap time lasts for two hours and teachers may force babies who wake before that time to remain quietly in their cribs so they don’t wake the others. In order to force them to remain quiet or go back to sleep, teachers shake the cribs, or pat the backs of those who dare to awaken early.

Is any of this wrong? Whether you think it is or not, you probably recognize that the uniformity of child schedules serves the teachers. Does it serve children? And what would be the alternative? Let each child’s schedule dictate when she would nap and eat? How would teachers handle such a room of babies or toddlers? 

Many aspects of having several young children together increase my concerns about germs. For example, in the summer, one local daycare has “water play” and each parent is asked to bring their child a towel with her name on it. Despite this arrangement, teachers place all the towels in one container and after water play is over, without regard to the name on the towel, they pass towels out to children indiscriminately. Even worse is the practice of doing laundry of sheets and bibs in one combined load. I want to avoid being graphic, but young children do soil their linens. The thought of those linens being mixed in with bibs…yikes! Add to this the fact that babies put, or at least try to put, just about everything in their mouths. They don’t stop this because they are sharing items with fifteen others in daycare. Little wonder that childcare has “altered the epidemiology of infectious disease in the U.S.” 

clip_image004All children need tender loving care. Some children, however, scream for extra attention. Mum attended to one such child: Born to a drug addicted mother, Billy was small for his age and refused a bottle or food from a spoon. Typically, such a child would not eat at daycare because there is no one, and no time to devote to any one child. For those children who didn’t like their lunches, rather than checking to see whether they might be interested in eating something else their parent had dropped off, teachers allow them to nap hungry. 

But Mum took the challenge with Billy. She held him in her lap to feed him—the children usually sit in high chairs at meal times—and gradually learned which foods he liked. As a “floater” between classes without teacher responsibilities, Mum used her time to meet children’s individual needs. She spent lots of times holding babies, especially those new to the centers. However, Mum’s focus on the individual needs of children was frowned upon because of the fear that babies would become used to attention the teachers don’t have time to give. 

The median annual salary for teachers in childcare centers was just over $16,000 in 2006. So you might argue that parents ”get what they pay for”. This is no indication of the actual cost of day care, however. At the center where Mum worked, it costs almost $200 per week for infants. Among other factors such as child’s age, location in the country makes a big difference, ranging in 2007 from an average annual price of $4,542 in Alabama to $14,591 in Massachusetts

Who will raise your children? You? You and/or your spouse or partner? Will you rely on a child care center? This post does not address any of the possible benefits of good quality childcare; how might you measure this? And does paying top-dollar to a day care center mean that a parent has provided that care?

November 10, 2008

Sociological Theory and the Economy

author_sally By Sally Raskoff

In a recent post I explored how the personal is political by discussing how we can see signs of our society’s economic problems in our daily lives, even if we did not lose jobs or money in the stock market.

Since I posted that blog, Congress passed a $750 billion “bailout” of the financial industry and worldwide economies are oscillating in response. Social theorists like Marx and Wallerstein would have a lot to say about this development and link it to the end of feudalism and the emergence of capitalism. 

Let me back up here. Marx’s ideas about how society changes through a dialectic process and the importance of the economic structure have particular salience today. 

The dialectic process holds that whatever system is in existence will create its own problems or stresses; those stresses – or contradictions – escalate as time imagepasses until the system must change or collapse and be replaced by some new system that emerges out of this process. (In other words, a thesis exists; its antithesis emerges and contradictions occur; and eventually these struggles result in a synthesis which is, in essence, a new thesis… and the process continues.)

According to Marx, the economic system shapes other societal institutions, which are set up to socialize the populace to support that economic system. The educational systems, religious institutions, family structures, and the governmental elements all work to support the productivity of the economy. Thus within a capitalist society, families, schools, and even religious organizations socialize and reward individuals to be competitive and strive for wealth.

Immanuel Wallerstein emphasizes a global reach for capitalism, which he says keeps searching for cheap resources to exploit outside its exhausted national borders. He also elaborates upon the importance of the societal response to these pressures. The nature of that response – mere tinkering or wholesale change of the system - and the timeliness of the response will affect the image quality of life when experiencing pressures and shifts in structure. If a society responds slowly or with only minimal changes to the system, problems continue to accumulate and increase in magnitude.

So, to apply this model to our current times, our capitalist economic structure that has generated so much wealth for so long has an increasingly harder time finding resources to exploit for profit. Since capitalism is defined by the search for profit, exhausting such resources domestically has resulted in the global reach of capitalism, yet now those global resources are running scarce. 

The United States’ dominance has been curtailed by our overextension both economically and politically. Our economic problems are systemic, not haphazard or anomalous. Our own financial problems have reverberated through the world as all markets are connected and affected by these dynamics.

As governments have begun their “bailouts” the word “socialism” has emerged as something to fight. Yet most definitions of socialism differ greatly: since we don’t agree on the definition of the term how can anyone really “fight” it? 

Our society has typically divided its organizations into three types: governmental or public, private, and non-profit. In any society, public organizations have been charged with providing or overseeing goods and services that a society deems important for all members to have or need, private organizations with goods and services that not everyone needs or wants, and non-profit organizations with goods and services that some people may want or need. This is why public organizations (and tax money) take care of roads, parks, sewage and water systems. This is why private organizations (like businesses) emerge and perish based on how they can generate profits for their owners. This is why nonprofit organizations provide important services that are available to targeted groups, like people in need (Red Cross) or with specific interests (Boy and Girl Scouts, People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, American Cancer Society).

In these last few years, we have confused the purpose of these types of organizations -- public services are pushed onto non-profits or even privatized and the push for profit generation exists in each type.

A sociological analysis of these dynamics would suggest that these are all connected as the hallmarks of a capitalist system searching for exploitable resources yet increasingly finding none.

Time will tell what we do in response to these pressures but it appears evident that we have much in common with people who lived at the end of feudalism as capitalism took shape. How we deal with these changes will shape our society for the coming years, decades, and generations.

November 07, 2008

Social Learning Theory and Full Apologies

author_brad By Bradley Wright

There are lots of things that we can get from other people—information about a good restaurant, tickets to the game, a cold. To that list, we can add criminal behavior, at least according to social learning theories of crime.

There are several different versions of social learning theory, each with its own emphases on how we learn which social behaviors from whom. The one that I would like to focus on here has been popularized by Ron Akers and Robert Burgess. They explained the social learning of crime in terms of operant conditioning. As you’ll remember if you took an introductory psychology class, operant conditioning occurs when we change our behavior in response to rewards or punishments that we receive. This is why we punish our pet for making a mess of our carpet, or we ground our child who stayed out too late.

Akers and Burgess identified four types of punishments and rewards that affect us. Positive reinforcement is giving someone something pleasant; negative reinforcement is taking away something bad; positive punishment is giving something unpleasant; and negative punishment is the removal of something pleasant.

To give examples of each of these, as related to crime, the money one gets from burglary would be a positive reinforcement. Installing a burglar alarm to reduce the threat of a break-in would be a negative reinforcement. Fining someone for a crime would be a positive punishment. Taking away someone’s freedom by placing them in prison would be a negative punishment (though the difficulties they encounter in prison would be positive punishments).

As I’ve described it so far, social learning doesn’t go much beyond Pavlov's dogs —we gravitate toward reinforcing behavior and away from punishing behavior. What makes this theory social, however, is that we learn not just from our own experiences but also from others. We observe what other people do, and we see what happens to them as a result of their behavior. If their behavior produces a desired outcome, we’re more likely to adopt that behavior as our own. If it produces an undesired outcome, we steer clear of it. This is called imitation.

Imitation doesn’t happen randomly. It’s not like we walk down the street, pick someone we’ve never met, and start trying to learn from them. (Though, now that I think about it, this might not be a bad approach to life). Instead, we learn from the groups we belong to, especially our family groups and peer groups. This accounts, in part, for why young people are so heavily influenced by their friends.

Recently I came across a fascinating and powerful effort to use the principles of imitation and punishment to reduce drunk driving among young people. The clip_image002website fullapologies.com takes high school and college students who have been in drunk driving fatalities, and it allows them to apologize to those who have been harmed. Most of the stories revolve around one friend driving, getting into an accident, and killing another friend who is a passenger. The videotaped apologies shown on fullapologies.com are nothing short of anguishing. Here’s one of the featured stories/apologies.

A textbox on the website tells the story of what happened to Ashley:

“Ashley was at home when she got a call from her friend, Jen, who wanted to hang out. Jen came over, and without Ashley’s parents knowledge, they spent about six hours drinking beer and watching TV in Ashley’s room. At 4:00 a.m., Ashley got hungry, and the two decided to go to an all-night supermarket. Ashley drove.

One of her front wheels hit the edge of a driveway and came off, which sent the car spinning into a brick barrier, impacting on the passenger side where Jen was riding.

Jen died at the hospital. Afterwards, Ashley didn’t remember that her friend had even been in the car with her.”

Behind this textbox is a video clip of an attractive young woman who has obviously been crying. As the video clip rolls, she is so choked up that she can barely speak. She is utterly despondent, destroyed by what happens. In between gasps, she gives this apology to Jen’s father.

“Mr. Dunlap, I don’t know how else to tell you, what happened to Jen. She was my best friend. I can’t live with myself for what happened to her. I don’t understand why why it was her and not me. I’m the one that deserves to die. I have to live with every day, and every day I can’t face myself. I can’t get out of bed. Why did Jen die? I loved her so much.”

The video clip goes on, but I stopped because, frankly, it was too painful to watch. The video clips serve as a reference group, almost as if a friend was telling you something terrible that happened to them so that you can learn about. After watching them, I had newfound appreciate for the power of imitation in social learning theory.

November 04, 2008

President-Elect Obama: The End of Racism?

author_karen By Karen Sternheimer 

Today will go down in American history as a landmark day. After electing our first African American president we ought to take a moment and reflect on where we have been, how far we have come, and how far we have to go to combat racism in the United States. 

Barack Obama's March 2008 speech on race acknowledged, as others have before him, that racism is America’s original sin. The framers of the clip_image002Constitution allowed slavery to remain in a nation founded on the highest principles of liberty and freedom. This decision rendered African Americans held in slavery to be property, not granted the most basic human rights. It took nearly a century for African Americans to gain basic citizenship rights—at least in theory—after the ratification of the Fourteenth Amendment to the Constitution in 1868. The Fifteenth Amendment, ratified in 1870, was supposed to ensure that African Americans have full voting rights. 

And yet many African Americans, particularly in the South, were kept from full political participation. Poll taxes, which required people to pay fees in order to vote, grandfather clauses that stipulated that if your grandfather couldn’t vote, neither could you (which impacted all African Americans whose grandparents were born before the Fifteenth Amendment), and literacy tests that only African Americans were forced to pass served to keep most away from the polls. It wasn’t until the Voting Rights Act of 1965 that many of these practices ended. It is somewhat remarkable to think that when President-elect Obama was born in 1961, many African Americans were routinely kept from the polls, let along public office. Many states’ miscegenation laws would have made his parents’ marriage illegal; it was not until the aptly named Supreme Court decision Loving v. Virginia in 1967 that ensured the rights of interracial couples to marry. 

Within Obama's lifetime, African Americans have gone from winning basic voting rights to seats in state and national legislatures, governors (although only four have been governor to date), and now president. In many ways, this election has embodied Dr. Martin Luther King's "I Have a Dream" speech (given when Obama was two), in that many people—hopefully most people—who voted for or against Obama did so because of his proposed policies rather than his skin color. 

But we shouldn’t take this milestone to mean that racism is no longer an issue in the United States. In fact, this election brought racism out of its usual hiding places. I was surprised to hear people being interviewed for radio and television speak openly about their reluctance to vote for Obama because of his race. One woman in rural Virginia, a registered Democrat, told National Public Radio (NPR) of her reluctance to vote for Obama: 

"I never really thought about whether or not that I was racist, or however you want to put it," said Tina Graham. She fears Obama would focus on African-Americans at the expense of poor white people like herself. "It's just the fact that I think that he will represent them, and what they want, and what they need. ... They're his people, they're his race."

This comment reflects other concerns that somehow “his people” and thus his interests are not American interests. Other exchanges, like this one and this one, suggest that he might send away money to Africa because of his family background. Racial stereotypes also surfaced in a cartoon of a dollar bill that featured Obama’s face and well-worn stereotypes of watermelon and fried chicken. Yet its creator denied any racism: 

Still other acts of racism were more threatening, like someone scrawling "KKK" over an Obama sign in New York, and perhaps most disturbing, one homeowner hung an Obama "ghost" from a noose in his front yard, and told reporters he did it because he does not want a black person to be president. 

Barack Obama embodies some of the contradictions embedded in the meaning of race. He is both black and white by ancestry (many African Americans have significant European ancestry as well), and has borne the burdens of racism as well as some of the privileges of whiteness. For instance, he frequently speaks of his grandfather’s service in World War II and assistance from the GI Bill. As author Edward Humes documents in Over Here: How the G.I. Bill Transformed the American Dream, many returning African American soldiers were denied the benefits given to white soldiers. Although his mother’s family was apparently of modest means, had they been black it is likely they would not have had the same opportunities to make it into the middle class. Ironically, genealogical research uncovered that Obama is also the descendent of slave holders

Obama grew up learning to navigate within the world of whites, something many African Americans have historically been kept separate from thanks to residential segregation. Although as he writes about in his memoir, this created a bit of an identity crisis, which surfaced when he first ran for Congress. Referred to as “the white man in blackface” in a 2000 Chicago Reader article, he has faced criticism of not being "black enough". Both his candidacy and his identity remind us that race is not nearly as clear cut as we might think, and that racism is not as far in the past as we might hope to believe.

November 02, 2008

Who Cares for America's Babies?

author_janis By Janis Prince Inniss

As a faculty member at a large university (that is, I have a good job with health benefits), if I adopt or give birth to a baby, I am entitled to about three months (twelve weeks to be exact) of leave. That means that if I worked right up to the time I give birth, I would return to work when my baby is three months old. 

Today, returning to work a few months after having a baby is not at all unusual. Have a look at Figure 1 below. I would be like many first time mothers of infants: more of whom return to work than do not. Over the last several decades, increasing numbers of women return to work after giving birth, and they do so sooner and sooner after giving birth. Of the 1961-1965 cohort of first-time mothers who worked during their pregnancy, only seventeen percent went back to work when their babies were three months old. In fact, at that time, only a quarter of mothers went back to work when their babies were twelve months old. The trend of mothers returning to work accelerated in the early 1980s when about half of all mothers with babies over three months old had returned to work. Beginning in the late 1990s, between 60 and 80 percent of women who worked during pregnancy returned to work three to twelve months after having their first babies. What do you think explains such a change in women’s participation in the labor force after giving birth? 

Figure 1. Percent of Women Working at Monthly Intervals After First Birth by Year of First Birth 1961-1965 to 2000-2002


Source: U.S. Census Bureau, Current Population Report, P70-113.

Across the world, countries handle parental leave quite differently. The United States and Australia are the only two industrialized countries in the world without paid maternity leave, although Australia offers 52 weeks of unpaid leave to all working women, in comparison to the twelve weeks eligible women get in the U.S. In the United Kingdom, women are entitled to 52 weeks of maternity leave, 39 of which may be paid! This is true regardless of how long they have been employed. Women in Canada look forward to 17-18 weeks of maternity leave with at least 55 percent of their salary, while parents in Sweden can share 16 months of parental leave at 80 percent pay. 

I should point out that the three months I could spend with my baby would be unpaid! I would have to use some or all of my accrued sick or vacation time to remain in a paid status for some or all of that time, and of course if I had amassed more leave, I could use that to stay home longer. I am guaranteed these three months of leave every 12 months as a result of the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA), passed in 1993. FMLA was passed to allow American workers job security when they have to attend to family and medical care needs. Once they meet the FMLA criteria, employers cannot deny FMLA leave nor can its use be a reason for termination.

clip_image004My husband is also eligible for FMLA leave since it is available for both men and women. This posting focuses mostly on women because as discussed in a previous post, women are still the ones who do more child care than men. I was surprised to learn that FMLA does not apply to all American workers, however. I learned about this when a relative told me that because she worked at a small firm, she would get no maternity leave. FMLA does not apply to employers of fewer than 50 employees! With little vacation or sick leave available, my relative returned to work when her daughter was a few weeks old, leaving her baby with a sitter. 

How many children are being cared for by people other than their parents in the U.S.? Table 1 shows that the majority of children in child care are in centers. This is true even for infants and toddlers, of whom 53 percent and 60 percent respectively, are in centers.

Table 1. Average Monthly Percentage of Children in Child Care by Age Category

  and Type of Care (Federal Fiscal Year 2006)

Age Group

Child's Home

Family Home

Group Home



Infants (0 to <1 yr)






Toddlers (1 yr to <3 yrs)






Preschool (3 yrs to <6 yrs)






School Age (6 yrs to <13 yrs)






13 years and older






All Ages






Source: U.S Dept of Health and Human Services

The implications of mothers of infants returning to work early are many, and are not only personal. Clearly, family economics is a major factor, as is work productivity. But beyond that, think about an issue like breastfeeding that may seem highly personal. In the U.S. there are no federal workplace protections for breastfeeding women, while in other countries there are. Breastfeeding is easier for mothers at home with their babies and has many advantages for mother and baby, including reducing infant mortality; the health benefits or costs associated with breastfeeding impact more than any individual family. Can you think of some ways that illness affects society?

As a contrast to U.S. policies, I have briefly described a few models of how motherhood and paid work are combined from different countries. Thinking of these, whose responsibility do you think it is to help women combine motherhood and paid work? Is it a personal responsibility? That of society? One for employers to tackle? At what point does a problem faced by millions move from an individual problem to a societal one?

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