8 posts from February 2009

February 27, 2009

Being Off-Time in the Life-Course

author_brad By Bradley Wright

When we think of going through life, we often think in terms of how old we are. Children celebrate birthdays, middle-aged people wear t-shirts proclaiming that they are over the hill, and drug stores have rows and rows of birthday cards.


Another way to keep track of life is in terms of age-graded life stages. A life stage is a set of roles and activities that we participate in. They can be based on any number of things such education, marital status, employment, hobbies, even the condition of our bodies. Some stages are age-graded, meaning that society norms exist regarding when we should experience these stages. For example, with education, we’re supposed to attend elementary school as children, then middle school, then high school, and then, maybe, college in our late teens and early twenties. With work, we can work part time while in school, maybe bounce between jobs after we graduate, but by our late twenties or so we should probably have settled down in our careers.

Given that there are social norms regarding when we go through these life stages, it’s interesting to examine what happens when people violate these norms and either don’t go through a life stage or do so at the wrong time. This is called being “off-time,” and it can have a wide range of consequences.

Let me tell you about a friend from college. Back in school, he was completely on-time, and he was enacting age-appropriate roles. He was single, a college student, and he really enjoyed partying—all things that are fitting for someone in their late teens or early twenties. Then, after he graduated, he got a good job, started making some good money, and he bought a fancy sports car. So far so good. After that, however, the trouble started, at least from a life-course perspective. You see, he sort of never left that fun-single-guy stage, but now he’s in his late-forties.

What was appropriate then seems awkward now. He still wants to date attractive young women, but they don’t really want to date him. His desire to “party” used to be fun but now it’s a cause for concern. He would like to start a family, but the women his age are now more likely to pull out pictures of their grandchildren. To make matters worse, he got tired of his old job, and he is trying to get into a new career, which means he has to start at an entry-level job.


My friend’s situation illustrates some of the problems with being off-time. It can lead to a loss of social opportunity. For example, he is less likely to find an eligible marriage partner now that he’s older. He’ll also probably have a harder time on the job market as he competes with younger people. His life situation also puts him out of synch with his friends. When he wants to go out and have fun, they’re going home to their families. It’s also a source of embarrassment, for he feels awkward in social situations where he’s the only older single person.

Another example of the detrimental effects of being off-time comes from criminology research. Studies have found that girls who hit menarche (i.e., go through puberty) early are more likely to be involved in criminal activity than girls who are more on-time. Why? When a young girl starts to develop into a woman, she starts to attract older boys, and teenage boys are more involved in criminal activity than just about any other segment of society.

This is not to say that being off-time is always bad. Having enough money to retire in your forties would make you off-time, but many people would still want that option. Also, we can be off-time in one area but on-time in others. An example would be someone in their thirties who is married with kids (on-time) and goes back to school for their college degree (off-time).

Still, being off-time can cause a variety of problems and raise some eyebrows, and not because we’re doing something wrong, per se, but rather we’re doing it at the wrong time of life.

February 24, 2009

Mardi Gras and Post-Katrina Politics

By Kristen Barber

Doctoral Candidate, University of Southern California

kristenIt is carnival time in New Orleans once again. Having lived in New Orleans and evacuated for Hurricane Katrina, I have a particular fondness for Mardi Gras. However, while it is certainly a time of celebration and mischief, it now also holds important political meaning.

Before Katrina I didn’t think much about the crazy costumes, lavish floats and amazing performances; they were just fun and often ironic. I especially enjoyed the Krewe of Muses who tossed high-heels and Barbie-dolls from their floats; they always had the best “throws.” However, post-Katrina, carnival is political for me and for many other New Orleanians who continue to reside in a city whose problems have since fallen off the national radar. It is a time to resist invisibility, and to make public our clip_image004experiences with disaster and our unhappiness with the continuing lack of aid.

Before I moved to Los Angeles to finish my graduate studies, I took part in the Mardi Gras following Katrina. It was nearly six months after the storm, and feelings of both determination and trepidation resonated from those residents who had returned ready to rebuild their lives and their city. It was difficult to remain positive and to clean up and rebuild while surrounded by reminders of the storm: flooded homes, empty storefronts, and the presence of military police., With its tradition of social and political satire, Mardi Gras empowered people by allowing them to publicly voice their sense of injustice and to share their experiences of trauma and disaster with others.

I was part of the St. Anne parade, which begins near Big Dandy’s, a gay bar in the Faubourg Marigny, and tapers off at Bourbon Street. As I sashayed down the street, my boyfriend and I noticed the number of people dressed as blue-tarp roofs and FEMA trailers; they were everywhere. People were dressed as levees, immobilized buses, rescue “X’s”, Home Depot workers, maggots and maggot-infested refrigerators; some wrapped duct-tape around themselves to symbolize waterlines, which still mark many of the city’s flooded homes. Katrina had broken the levees six months prior to this Mardi Gras, but New Orleanians had refused to let their experiences fade into the past; after all, they were still living with the after effects of the storm.


Decadent, controversial, and politically incorrect, the carnival is an ideal event through which people may engage their memories of disaster in visible and politically charged ways. Many costumes voiced people’s outrage with social injustice by drawing attention to the government neglect that contributed to the weak levee system and later to the poor living conditions at many storm shelters.

For example, some costumes mocked then-president George Bush, who was blamed for mobilizing governmental aid too late. Paraders also wore t-shirts that poked fun at Mayor Ray Nagin, who swore New Orleans would be a “chocolate city” once again. Some people were dressed as blind levee inspectors, and I saw one woman in a Marie Antoinette costume proclaiming, “Let them eat MRE’s”—the “meals-ready-to-eat ” that the military distributed to residents post-Katrina. While tourists were in town for a good time, “boobs and beads” as it’s often called, many locals would not let the tourists’ experiences of the Big Easy pass without remembering Katrina.

I wouldn’t be surprised if Hurricane Katrina has changed the face of Mardi Gras forever. This is because the carnival is shaped by historical events such as colonization and slavery. I think of the Zulu King, a highly honored carnival position, and of the flambeaux carrier, a position held mainly by African-American clip_image006men who light the parade route with torches and scramble for nickels and dimes tossed (and sometimes pelted) at them by the crowd. Further, Mardi Gras has a long history with politics, and has often allowed disenfranchised groups to resist subordination. The Mardi Gras Indians, a group of Black New Orleanians who dress up for carnival in elaborate, colorful costumes made from beads and feathers, emerged in the early 19th century as a way to resist racial objectification.

In his book Cities of the Dead, Joseph Roach notes that through their costumes and performances, the Mardi Gras Indians engage with their ancestors’ lives of slavery, their own experiences with racism, and draw parallels between the experiences of African-Americans and American Indians. The Mardi Gras Indians parade in order to “take back” their lives, land, and memories.

Carnival costumes bring life back into the bare traces of Katrina, allowing people to confront their ghosts and maintain a sense of agency in a situation in which they have little power. Katrina-related costumes make suffering and injustice visible, and allow people to take up a political dialogue, claim a sense of autonomy, and demonstrate their resilience.

I recently visited New Orleans and saw that the city was still haunted by FEMA trailers and flooded homes. Although I will not be at Mardi Gras this year, I wonder how the people will continue to bring Katrina into their celebration—through costumes and floats, party themes and party talk. After all, those who have returned to the city continue to live with the physical reminders of the storm. I also wonder how those who left the city, and who found themselves in new and unlikely places, might honor and express their experiences with the storm. Celebrations like Mardi Gras might seem only occasions of decadence, but they usually have rich histories and serve a political purpose.

February 21, 2009

Social Movements and the Environment

author_karen By Karen Sternheimer

Would you break the law to protect the environment? Tim DeChristopher, a 27-year-old college student did. He went to a Bureau of Land Management auction in Utah where public land was on the block. DeChristopher bid $1.79 million and effectively bought 22,000 acres of land. The problem: he didn’t have $1.79 million (not many college students do).

Supporters sent Tim donations, but he did not raise the $1.79 million. In the end that didn’t matter, since the new Secretary of the Interior, Ken Salazar, decided to invalidate the results of the auction and effectively reclaim the public land for the public.

Sociologists study what makes people decide to get involved in social movements. Why, for instance, are some people willing to risk going to jail, as DeChristopher did, for a cause when others do not decide to take action? Sociologists also examine why certain movements gain traction at some times but not others. What has put the environmental cause on many Americans’ radar?

The environment was a significant point of debate within last year’s presidential race: global warming, clean energy, and our dependence on oil made their way from the margins to the center of discussion.

It certainly wasn’t always this way. Remember when the former White House Press Secretary Ari Fleischer was asked in 2001 about whether Americans should change our lifestyles to conserve energy? He answered "That's a big no".

I can recall the last big energy crisis when I was a kid in the 1970s. In 1973 an oil crisis began when OPEC embargoed oil delivery to the United States. Gas prices spiked, and Congress enacted the National Maximum Speed Law (remember when highway speed limits were 55 mph?) in order to save gas. Conservation was a big deal, and public service announcements like these reminded us to focus on saving water. Restaurants would dim their lights and only serve water upon request.

Environmental disasters at places like the Three Mile Island nuclear facility and discovery of tons of toxic waste at Love Canal, New York also raised public awareness about protecting the environment.

Then the 1980s arrived. Regulations thought to impede business were repealed, and Americans were encouraged to focus on individual success. When I was in high school during the mid 80s, anything that smacked of the 60s or 70s (read: any social cause) was considered "lame." A faint mural of something called the ecology club was painted over, and membership dwindled to a few people before it dissolved altogether.

Gas prices declined during this decade, SUVs were invented, and shows like Dallas and Dynasty (both about oil tycoons) celebrated extreme wealth, materialism, and individualism. Environmental disasters seemed a thing of the past (or of the far away--at Chernobyl all the way in the Soviet Union). The environment seemed like a quaint hippie topic, and derogatory terms like “tree hugger” and “eco-terrorist” derided people who sought to protect the environment.

So what factors have led to our contemporary concern about environmental issues? According to resource mobilization theory, social movements are most successful when they manage to garner sufficient resources like money, volunteers, media attention, and perhaps most centrally, legitimacy. Mobilizing other organized groups to collaborate with can also help by building coalitions to maximize resources.

But a lot of environmental activists worked very hard before getting widespread recognition. For instance, scientists studied global warming for many years before large proportions of the population and government officials considered it to be an urgent problem. Former vice president Al Gore gave many speeches on this issue before his documentary on global warming, An Inconvenient Truth, won an Academy Award. What turned the tide?

One of the best ways to gain widespread support for a social movement is to convince the general public that without change, their lives will be impacted for the worse. For example, skyrocketing energy costs mobilized people who might not otherwise be concerned about environmental issues. When our wallets are in danger, we can spring into action very quickly. Couple this tendency with a growing number of high-profile supporters across the ideological spectrum like T. Boone Pickens, who made a good deal of his fortune in oil, and it becomes easier to convince people that a problem is significant and something should be done.

The fact that protecting the environment is now a key political issue still does not explain why people take significant personal risks to support a cause. I might recycle, drive a fuel efficient car, and walk instead of drive in my neighborhood, but these actions don’t have a great personal cost. In fact, my city provides special recycling bins that they pick up with the trash, my fuel-efficient car was cheaper than others that get worse mileage, and I like to take walks. So these actions actually benefit me in many ways.

What sociological explanations might help us understand why Tim DeChristopher and others like him are willing to take personal risks to support a cause?

February 18, 2009

How Young Can Your Grandma Be?

author_janis By Janis Prince Inniss

A few weeks ago when my husband referred to Grandma, I knew he was talking about my mother. At other times when he has said, “Go to Grandma,” it has taken some time to figure out who he’s talking about.

In the traditional life cycle of a marriage, we marry, move into our first shared space, and then have children. Then those children grow up, move out and stay moved out! Middle-aged, empty nest parents would finish up their work years and then retire.

What percentage of American relationships fit this profile today? Mine never has. When my husband and I married and moved into our first home, the union included his two children from a previous marriage. So we were never a childless couple. That is, until a few years ago when they both moved out. We had been married for almost ten years at that point, and it was a strange experience to be child free for the first time. It didn’t take us long to get the hang of stepping out of the parent role and we enjoyed being able to travel on a whim and go out on “school nights”. But a few months ago we ended the empty-nest life style we had settled into. We decided to allow my step-daughter, a college freshman, and her one year old son to move in with us.

clip_image003That means that like Sarah Palin, I’m a young grandma (though unlike Sarah Palin I am not both a young grandma and an older mother of an infant). How is it possible that I’m a grandmother? A step-grandmother. By any name, it sounds as old and rather unlike me and what I think of when I hear the word grandmother. When my husband and I go out with the baby, people assume that we’re his parents. That’s because we are young enough to be his parents. It seems that if I lived in Hollywood and were his mother, I would be a spring-chicken. Do you know what Halle Berry, Brooke Shields and Susan Sarandon have in common? They all had babies in their 40s. In general, maternal age is advancing. So at what is referred to by the medical establishment as advanced maternal age—over age 35—I would be in good company if I have a baby now. And yet, I’m a grandma with a grandchild and his mother living in our home.

This lifestyle change facilitates my step-daughter’s college education by allowing us to offer hands-on assistance with her son. This move has also ended the DINK lifestyle we were cultivating and put us back into the business of active parenting; it’s quite different from offering telephone support and seeing the kids and their babies—each step-child now has one baby—on occasional visits. And since we are assisting Suzette (the fake name I’m giving my step-daughter) with childcare while she works and goes to school, our ability to galavant has been severely curtailed. My husband and I provide the stable environment in which children thrive, along with the emotional and financial support that a new mother and young woman such as Suzette requires. Mindful of the emotional, financial and other costs associated with paid childcare, we have encouraged Suzette to avoid it if she can. Her work and schooling both take place in the evening, allowing her to be with her son during the day. When she’s at work and school we mind the baby. clip_image002

How does this put us at odds with our friends? Fortunately, our friends have children in a wide age-range—from about 6 to mid 20s. None of the friends in our social network are empty nesters as yet, so in our DINK days we were the ones out of step with them. Often we were the ones who could attend events that they could not because we did not have to go over homework or attend soccer practice or games. And because several of our friends still have relatively young children and are very family-oriented, their gatherings can easily include a toddler.

This turn of events puts me at a rather “mixed” age. My chronological age and social age don’t match. I’m told that, like many members of my family, I don’t even look my chronological age. Add to that the fact that women my age are having children and it’s clear why people assume that I’m the mother of the toddler; it’s not a stretch to believe that my husband and I are his parents. Grandparent is one of the most positive roles associated with aging, and although I am young for that role, I now have two grandchildren. It’s why most people upon learning that I’m a grandmother ask, “What does he call you? You’re too young to be called Grandma!” He has no name for me as he doesn’t speak yet. But once he does, what name would be hip enough? Certainly, not Grandma!

How do experiences like mine challenge what you have learned about the “life-course”?

February 15, 2009

Breaching Baby Norms

author_sally By Sally Raskoff

The more we hear about the Nadya Sulemon, the recent mother of octuplets and six other children, the more the public sentiment turns against her. Most multiple births are greeted with caring concern for the babies and parents. Mothers of multiples are typically women who, in their desperation to become mothers, seek fertility treatments after multiple failed pregnancy attempts. However, this year’s public multiple mom doesn’t match the typical demographic.

Why has the tide of public sentiment turned against Sulemon? From a sociological viewpoint, Ms. Sulemon has breached the norms of motherhood.

When the news first hit, it generated an outpouring of concern for all eight infants and the mother. We were fascinated that they thought it was seven fetuses and they were surprised at the existence of the eighth. Curiosity then turned to the mother and her circumstances. How long had she been trying to conceive? Who was her husband, the father? How would they support all those kids?


We were then told that she already had six children. Then we found out that her ex-husband wasn’t the father of any of the children. Then we discovered that she lives with her mother and supports herself through disability payments for a back injury. It also emerged that the sperm donor is someone she knows and that a fertility clinic helped her conceive the babies.

What norms are being broken here?

  • Women who pursue fertility treatments and are implanted with multiple embryos typically do not already have one child, much less six.
  • Mothers-to-be are usually married or have a partner with whom they will share parenting.
  • Most of the time the parents have a job that will support some or all of their financial needs.
  • Sperm donors are usually anonymous unless they are the woman’s partner.
  • And finally fertility clinics usually follow guidelines and policies of reasonable implantations to avoid risky multiple births like this one.


In her interview with Today's Ann Curry, Ms. Sulemon mentions that she hopes the sperm-donor father of her children will want to know his children some day. This would deepen the breach of norms since sperm donors are not typically involved in knowing or raising the people their sperm may help create.

Fertility issues are relatively recent societal phenomena, thus these norms are new and contested. Yet when this case became public, the outrage it created reflects the strength of these norms. Typically, when norms are breached, society works to repair the breach through various means-- including punishing the offender.

Kaiser health care members have voiced concerns that they are in effect paying for her medical care and the millions of dollars that are supporting the preemies as they continue to grow. clip_image009Californians have voiced concerns that their taxes are paying for her disability payments, and some have expressed skepticism about how someone who supposedly has a serious back injury could carry so many pregnancies. The many mental health professionals commenting in the media analyze her every statement and call into question her mental health status and question the (many) incongruities in her statements.

Most of the breaching repairs to date are aimed at discrediting Sulemon’s behavior as pathological and irresponsible. More than one story mentions the salience of her behavior “in the current economic climate”-- as if different economic times would have resulted in a different set of responses.

Many of the responses to this situation are focused on the financial burden of having fourteen children. While watching the interview, I was struck by how much this woman looked and sounded like a famous mother of many children, Angelina Jolie. Child-bearing is normative when you can support your own children, or, stated more bluntly, if you’re wealthy enough, you can have as many children as you like since you can “afford” them. The public reaction to Angelina Jolie’s non-traditional reproduction and parenting choices isn’t nearly as negative, in part because she can support her brood and has a partner with whom to share the responsibilities and the joys.


Famous, wealthy, or middle class women who become single parents by choice through adoption, fertility treatments, or handy friends, do not face the scrutiny that poor women do. In this case, society is taking part in the financial support of this family because the mother receives tax-payer subsidized disability payments, food stamps, and tens of thousands of dollars worth of health care.

These outcries are breaching repairs, geared to clarify and reinforce our norms about child-bearing. Will we reinforce these norms enough to change our laws? Will we as a society insist that fertility clinic policies are more ethical, sensible, and enforceable? However, stating in legal terms that poor women have different rights from wealthier women would clearly be problematic.

What other informational tidbits will come to us about this situation and how will we handle them? Will we use new information about Sulemon as further evidence of “irresponsible behavior” and cast ourselves as judge and jury to restore the norms of society? Or will we retain some of the caring and concern that usually accompanies news of multiple birth events?

February 11, 2009

Is "God is Dead" Dead?

author_brad By Bradley Wright

In 1882, German philosopher Friedrich Nietzche declared that “God is Dead.” With this statement, he didn’t mean that God has suffered a physical death of some sort, like slipping on an icy planet or something, but rather that humans had lost their ability to believe in God, and as such religions, like Christianity, had lost their moral basis and would not last long. Nietzsche wasn’t the first or last person to predict the decline of organized religion. Among the other predictions:

  • In 1710, English thinker Thomas Woolston said Christianity would be gone by 1900
  • Voltaire said in religion would crumble in 50 years
  • Thomas Jefferson said in 1822 that “there is not a young man now living in the United States who will not die a Unitarian” clip_image002
  • Famous dead-white-guys Karl Marx, Friedrich Engels, and Sigmund Freud each predicted that religion soon crumble
  • Renowned sociologist Peter Berger wrote in 1968 that in “the 21st century, religious believers are likely to be found only in small sects, huddled together to resist a worldwide secular culture.”

Secularization is the idea that societies are transforming from the sacred to the secular, from religious beliefs to rational, scientific principles. As the quotations above suggest, secularization has been expected for hundreds of years by some very smart people, but contemporary evidence suggests that they were wrong.

Religion is perhaps as strong as ever. A simple ride down the road will usually turn up local church buildings, often full on Sundays. Worldwide, Christianity has about 2 billion adherents, Islam 1.2 billion, Hinduism 800,000 million, and Buddhism 350,000. Over two-thirds of all humans adhere to one of these four religions alone.

Here in the United States studies find strong evidence of continued religiosity. Around 85% -90% of Americans believe in a God, and over three-fourths affiliate with a religion. An interesting chart presented by Iannaccone graphs out the number of paid clergy in the United States since 1850. As you can see, it’s remained level and has slightly increased in recent decades.clip_image004

Certainly some societies have transitioned from religious to secular-based forms of government. In the early 1990s, Turkey, for example, adopted an explicitly secular form of government. In contrast, other countries have made the reverse transition. Iran in 1979 went from the more secular Shah-led government to a government based on religious fundamentalism. A number of the Iron Curtain countries have seen a resurgence of faith with the fall of Communism and its insistence of secularism.

This isn’t to say, however, that secularization has not occurred in any way. It’s reasonable to believe that the church has less formal authority in many countries than it did in past centuries. Also, the way in which religion is practiced is changing around the world. For example, here in the United States religion is often experienced as a private, spiritual endeavor rather than a participation in an authoritative social institution. In an effort to be more effective, many churches are adopting business models of organization and presentation to society, moving them toward a more secular appearance. Some religious groups, such as the Salvation Army and the YMCA have transitioned almost completely into secular groups.

However, religion hasn’t gone anywhere, and it probably won’t be gone anytime soon. In fact, the failure of past predictions of complete secularization highlight the continued significance of religion in modern day society.

February 07, 2009

Going to the Doctor

author_karen By Karen Sternheimer

My father now jokes that his time is structured only by his doctor’s appointments. He is exaggerating a bit, as fortunately he is relatively healthy and active. Because he has been self-employed for more than three decades, he always had to buy his own health insurance until he qualified for Medicare just a couple of years ago. As he got older, his premiums grew so large—despite no major health problems—that he would buy a policy with a very high deductible, which is only useful for catastrophic illness.

So while reaching that 65-year milestone might have been difficult for some people, he was relieved to finally have affordable health care. I notice he is much better about getting regular check-ups and is far less concerned about costs. Out of habit he still asks how much procedures will cost and I have to remind him that he need not concern himself with those things anymore. It’s very likely that he is healthier now than a few years back now that he does not hesitate to visit the doctor.clip_image002

Just a few weeks ago, he found out that one of his long-time physicians was retiring. As is common in this scenario, the doctor gave him a list of others in his specialty that he could switch to. Some of the doctors he called were closed to new patients. More troubling, several on the list told him that they do not accept Medicare.

Unfortunately, this is not a new problem. USA Today ran a story on this issue back in 2001, and A News Hour with Jim Lehrer featured the problem in 2002. But it is new to those just beginning to rely on Medicare, and there will be many more people facing this issue as the "Baby Boom" generation retires in larger numbers each year. The reluctance of some doctors to accept Medicare comes at a time when health care costs are rising. The New York Times recently covered this issue, citing that average insurance premiums have doubled since 1999, and approximately 57 million people live in families where health care costs cause significant financial strain. Couple this increase with the massive layoffs Americans are facing, and we are left with a potential health care catastrophe.

I am fortunate to have good (although not cheap) health insurance coverage with my employer. But even people with insurance are not immune to high costs of health care. One of my doctors announced last year that they would no longer be an “in network” provider. They would still accept health insurance and bill my carrier as a “courtesy” to me, but I would have to pay the full cost of the visit up front and they would reimburse me whatever my insurance company paid them. I had to wait months (and make a few phone calls) to get my money back, and no longer had the benefit of a pre-negotiated rate for my office visit. A major benefit of health insurance is that the doctors in their network agree to accept the rates the insurance company determines to be fair and reasonable. Iclip_image002[5]nstead, I had to pay about four times as much for my check-up as I did the year before.

We should also consider the doctor’s perspective here. My doctor’s office had previously been overflowing with patients, and I knew whenever I had an appointment I could be in for a long wait. She was always apologetic about being late, and she seemed pretty stressed out from rushing from patient to patient. After the change, she was much more relaxed and the waiting room was all but empty. It’s likely she has fewer patients but earns the same if not more with less stress.

Because insurance rates sometimes don’t covering their basic operating costs, doctors struggle financially too. Medicare is notorious for offering little reimbursement for doctors, and doctors know to expect long delays before they receive any payment at all. Factor in the cost of paying staff to fill out massive amounts of paperwork and follow up on submitted invoices, and those costs can make it difficult for some doctors to make ends meet.

Some doctors have decided not to accept health insurance at all, some charging what amounts to an annual membership fee to be part of the doctor’s practice In some cases these doctors provide additional services, including the old-fashioned house call. What might seem like the return of a quaint tradition is typically only available to those with the disposable income to afford the fees.

It is no secret we are facing a crossroads in health care. President Obama has promised to address this problem during his term, and it will be no small feat to figure out a solution. When Medicare was signed into law by Lyndon Johnson in 1965, the average life expectancy was under 70; in 2005 (the most recent year for which we have data) the age had risen to 77.8. Women’s average life expectancy is now 80. While these numbers might not seem dramatic, consider that Medicare is now covering recipients an average of nearly eight more years, and that most costs are incurred in a person’s last few years of life.

Our medical technology is dramatically different from 1965 as well; with more tests and treatment options come more costs. As our population continues to age and face health challenges, the Medicare program will likely face more difficulties. With medical advances, diseases that might have been untreatable in the past can now be treated as chronic conditions. But this ability to prolong life comes with a cost, and we need to figure out how to address that cost. If doctors can no longer afford to accept Medicare, who will care for our parents and grandparents?

February 04, 2009

Beyond Bowling Alone

author_sally By Sally Raskoff

Years ago Robert Putnam, a professor at Harvard University, wrote Bowling Alone, a book that pointed out declining participation rates in bowling leagues and other social phenomena as a harbinger of clip_image002declining civic engagement and volunteering.

Many years before that book appeared, Frenchman Alexis de Tocqueville toured the United States in the early 1800s and pointed out in his book, Democracy in America that America is a “nation of joiners.” He was amazed at the number of voluntary associations we had in which we provided services for each other.

In noting an apparent decline in volunteering behavior, the Putnam book created concern since volunteering is a very important mechanism for creating positive social change; it is how we solve our most intractable problems. The concern is that if Americans are less engaged in the public sphere, our society will suffer.

Over the last couple of decades we have transferred some former government services to the nonprofit sector, which depends on volunteers and philanthropy. Many people have moved into gated communities and segregated ourselves into enclaves based on social class. Thus if fewer of us are giving our money and time to community issues, our communities will no longer be able to thrive or even to solve the most basic problems when they occur. Declines in donations are likely to increase as the economy struggles, too.

I’ve been thinking about these issues in recent days as our new president called for each of us to participate in solving the country’s woes. The Obama campaign’s success lay in its organizing capacity, technological savvy, quick communication, and mobilization of tremendous numbers of people, which broke new ground for political campaigns. More people than we’ve seen in a long time have been involved in political action in a very public way.

The research on volunteering shows varying patterns of volunteering, yet the definition rests on giving time to formal nonprofit organizations. This is problematic enough considering cultural variations and definitions of what constitutes “volunteering.” For example, is helping a neighbor with groceries volunteering?

Many people give time and energy to help and socialize with those beyond their own family in a variety of ways including bowling in a community league, serving meals at the local shelter, giving out blankets for the Red Cross, and helping out at the church or temple or mosque bake sale. As you can see from the graph below, the volunteer rate is actually higher in the 2000s than it was in the two benchmark years before.


Graph from the National and Community Service's Volunteering in America: 2007 State trends and rankings in civic life

The organization Move On is one recent example of a new kind of social involvement; although clicking through sites online is not necessarily equivalent to physical participation when it comes to civic engagement. (Neither is “shopping” for the cause in my opinion.) However, online “mobilizers” such as Move On bring together people in very efficient ways.

These days, “virtual” volunteering often fosters the communication and mobilization that are essential for the formation and success of social movements. Because of the speed and efficiency of technological communication, new organizations can be formed quickly.

In the early 1900s, an amazing number of nonprofit organizations were founded to help address issues that our country was facing. Nonprofits organizations exist to provide services when government and private for-profit organizations won’t or can’t – their services may be available to all or to select clip_image006groups who are most in need of those services. The American Red Cross was congressionally chartered in 1900, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) was founded in 1909, the Boy Scouts of America and the Urban League in 1910, the Girl Scouts of America in 1912.

As the Obama Presidency begins, I wonder if we won’t see another spurt of organizational generation in which new (maybe virtual) nonprofits will emerge as we address our problems through this newer form of organizing – one that may not be accurately captured by the research on volunteering. We might not be bowling in leagues as much as we used to, but that doesn’t mean we aren’t involved in our communities. Civic engagement looks different today than it might have just a few years ago.

How much civic engagement do you see in your own circle of friends and in your community? Are you a member of any groups on Facebook that get people together in non-virtual ways to do service activities?

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