9 posts from March 2009

March 30, 2009

Ponzi Schemes and Hegemony

author_karen By Karen Sternheimer

I recently blogged about corporate crime and elite deviance, particularly why and how some companies might sell tainted products or imageswindle investors. Yes, greed and opportunity are major reasons that people try and get away with this kind of behavior. But what is our part in all of this?

The concept of hegemony is useful here. Italian social theorist Antonio Gramsci described how those in power don’t necessarily maintain  their power by force, but by the process of creating consent. For a democracy like ours to continue, a significant number of people must agree that the system is legitimate and agree to keep it that way. This is done in part by encouraging people to think that the system is based on common sense.

image Let’s consider the case of Ponzi schemes, like the one Bernard Madoff recently plead guilty to perpetrating and a Texas-based executive, R. Allen Stanford is accused of creating. Each of these schemes involved thousands of clients and over a billion dollars. In Madoff’s case, it is now estimated that he bilked people and charitable foundations out of $65 billion.

In a Ponzi scheme, hucksters promise high returns on investments and initially gain credibility by paying original investors with new investors’ money. The early investors can then vouch for the schemer and believe it is legitimate, encouraging others to invest as well. Like pyramid schemes, which promise a simple business opportunity that can pay big if you can bring new people in the business, a Ponzi scheme’s success depends on getting others to agree to participate.

While both pyramid and Ponzi schemes are illegal in the United States, they are not as uncommon as we might hope. People have attempted to lure me into pyramid schemes twice. When I was just out of college and looking for a job I responded to an ad in the employment section of the newspaper. The ad was vague but promised management opportunities for people with good communications skills, so I went to what I thought was an interview in a very fancy office building in midtown Manhattan.

Instead it was a meeting with others involved in “the company.” I can’t remember what the “product” was, only that the meeting had the feel of a religious service with people testifying how this business changed their life. “I used to drive a cab, now I drive a Porsche!” one man excitedly shared. Others had the same over-the-top enthusiasm that told me this “business” was suspect—that and the fact that I had to pony up a few hundred dollars to get started and find others willing to do the same, who would become my “employees” and I would get a share of their sales revenue. clip_image002

A few years later, a friend (who was a newly practicing attorney) encouraged me and other friends to come to a meeting about a new business opportunity. I was very skeptical—as a graduate student at the time, I was busy with my research and had no interest in starting a business. But another friend convinced me that we could at least go and see what it was about so as not to clip_image002[5]offend our pal. Within seconds I had flashbacks of the first meeting: overly excited testimonials about how easy it is to make tons of money selling things I didn’t want to sell, all for a low start-up fee, of course.

I told my attorney friend that this was clearly not a legitimate business; for one, the product was something that anyone could buy at a grocery story for a fraction of their asking price, and the only way to make money seemed to be to lure others into the scheme. He looked dejected as he realized that I was right.

So how does an attorney get lured into a scheme like this? The same way so many investors placed their financial trust in Ponzi schemers like Stanford and Madoff: they wanted to get rich fast. As Los Angeles Times business columnist Michael Hiltzik noted, Americans often see wealth as just around the corner, a magical investment away from being ours (think lottery tickets). This, Hiltzik argues, is why many people identify with the rich and want them to pay lower taxes. We think we might be one of them soon; so, as Joe the Plumber famously did during the 2008 presidential campaign, argue that tax increases for the wealthiest 1% are unfair.

Back to hegemony now. In order for get-rich-quick schemes and investment fraud to work, participants must buy in to not only the scheme, but the legitimacy of the social system itself. One way that Madoff was able to defraud so many people was that he was once chair of NASDAQ, a major American stock exchange. Rather than a fly-by-night con artist, he had many long-term ties to the legitimate financial industry.

He also allegedly didn’t let just anyone participate in his scheme; by concocting an air of exclusivity he created the impression that it was a privilege to be accepted. Wealthy and aspiring wealthy people are used to “special” opportunities--hedge funds, for instance, are typically only open to people with lots of money and promise to beat the market. So the cultural belief that the rules for wealthy people are different might have led some investors to believe that the promise of unusually high returns every year was a realistic expectation.

The people who got ripped off did not consent to losing all of their savings. But they—and most of us—generally consent to the system of beliefs that enabled it to happen. Suppose one of the bilked investors was walking down the street and was robbed at gunpoint. They might give the robber their wallet that one time, but they would not agree that the means was legitimate and probably call the police immediately. Unlike Ponzi scheme victims, they would not encourage their friends to also give the robber their wallet or seek them out again later to give them more money. Only hegemony can enable thieves to take our money and make us, at least initially, happy to give it to them.

March 27, 2009

Are Teen "Sexters" Sex Offenders?

author_janis By Janis Prince Inniss

Eighteen-year-old Jesse Logan had talked about attending the University of Cincinnati. Logan sent nude pictures of herself to her boyfriend by cell phone. When the pair broke up, he sent the pictures to others, and Jesse’s torment began. She was called names like slut and whore by schoolmates, and some girls even threw objects at her. Eventually Jesse started skipping classes and in July 2008, she committed suicide.

Three teen girls in Greensburg, Pennsylvania sent racy pictures of themselves to three boys at their school. The six teens have been charged with child pornography and possessing or exhibiting a picture of a child in a sexual act. These are felony charges.

According to someone who worked in a Tampa high school, a male student there received video text of a girl masturbating.

In another case at the same high school, by the end of one day, the nude picture of a female student was sent to just about everyone at the school, including faculty and staff.


Results of a survey of teens indicate that most teens send suggestive images and texts to their boyfriends and girlfriends, but many others send them to people they want to “hook up” with. Referred to as sexting—sex and texting—the majority of teens believe that sending these messages can have “serious negative consequences”. Yet, some still send them. One of the obvious negative consequences of sexting is that “sexts” may be shared with many people other than the intended recipient(s). In fact almost half of teens say doing this is “common” and admit to doing this forwarding themselves.

Why are teens sexting? Of those male and female teens who have done it, most say they are being flirtatious, and half of the girls say they are giving their boyfriends a “sexy present”. Most of the teens surveyed believe that girls are more likely than boys to send sexy videos and photos. And why would girls be more likely to sext? The majority are doing so to get or keep a guy’s attention, to get noticed, to be fun/flirtatious, or to get a guy to like them, they said.

Teens are not the only people sending racy texts, pictures and videos. In a previous post, I discussed the fact that sexy text messages were evidence of “misconduct” by Detroit’s former mayor Kwame Kilpatrick (having an extramarital affair and lying under oath) and a Tampa teacher (having sex with her students). But sexting by teens is what is claiming our attention, even if its prevalence is questionable. (A Google search of the term finds tons of articles on teen sexting; on the first page of results there was only one piece on a man whose wife was sexting someone else, but that’s the only non-teen related piece I saw on several pages.)

Maybe we’re more comfortable with adult sexuality, but many of us are skittish about teens as sexual beings. And of course many are concerned about the possible far reaching repercussions for teens of having sexy videos, semi-nude or nude pictures ”out there”. How will these images look to college admissions boards and potential employers?

Is the answer to block text messages? My mobile carrier, T-Mobile, does offer message blocking but I don’t see how this would help me if I was a texter but wanted to stop someone from sending me racy pictures. Message Blocking allows one to block one or all of the following types of messages: text, video, photos, IMs and emails. All of them! If I used message blocking, I couldn’t chose who to exchange texts with.clip_image005

What does how we handle actual teen sex, as opposed to sexual photos and videos suggest on this issue? Although laws vary by state, in many states it is not a crime for older teens to have consensual heterosexual intercourse, unless one is older by a certain number of years. The permitted age range varies depending on the state. That means that in many cases teens could have consensual sex with no legal repercussions but could be charged with child pornography for sexting. In some states, conviction for possession of child pornography also requires that one be registered as a sex offender, for life.

How should we as a society handle sexting? What do you think of the legal approach of responding with felony child pornography charges? Presumably this response is meant to act as a deterrent to other would be teen sexters. But how well do various deterrence strategies work with adults? Many of our actions are not the most rational; this is a hallmark of teen life. For example, many teens believe their images will be shared but they still sext anyway. Consider who the victims of these sext crimes are. Or are these victimless crimes? Would you say that Jesse Logan was a victim? How about the teenagers in Pennsylvania? Are the three girls who sent the pictures perpetrators of a crime and the boys victims? How about if the person receiving the sext does not want it? Is that sexual harassment? What do you think?

March 25, 2009

The Social Construction of Race, Ethnicity, Sex, and Gender

Sally By Sally Raskoff

Is it easier to conceive of race/ethnicity or sex/gender as socially constructed categories? A recent assessment of students’ learning on our campus suggest that it’s easier to consider race and ethnicity as socially constructed categories than it is to think of sex and gender that way.

Why might this be so?

Census form

While both sets of identity categories seem to be taken for granted as natural or biological, there are plenty of examples of people who "passed" as members of a category. Actors sometimes play a character of a different race or ethnicity, but it’s much more rare to see an actor take on the role of a character who is a different sex or gender unless it involves a transgender situation or comedic drag. Audiences accepted Robert Downey, Jr.” passing” as an Australian actor playing an African American character in the comedy Tropic Thunder. Hilary Swank won an academy award for her performance as Brandon Teena in Boys Don’t Cry, a female whose gender identity was male.

There are many other examples of “passing” in real life, including the recent book Black Like Me, and the story of Billy Tipton, a musician whose female sex wasn’t known until after his death, even after two marriages to women. Yet we may hear about the racial/ethnic examples much more than those involving sex and gender. We may also assume that people are born and socialized into these categories and thus they stick – for most of us.

Which of these categories are more malleable? Do we assume that we can change our racial and  ethnic identity with some cultural markers or minor physical alterations? Are there obvious bodily markers of specific race and ethnic categories that are not just stereotypes? Many physical features may be perceived as belonging to particular groups yet they are in fact shared by many different groups and are not expressed in every member of that group. For example, I have a colleague of Latino background who travels widely in Mexico and is accepted there as a local. He is also considered a local in tropical island locales as his skin tone and build suggest some of their patterns. If he were to travel to various countries in the Middle East and Far East, he might also be accepted as a local in those places because his physical features may also be interpreted differently in different contexts.

We do know from research that physical features and genetic markers have tremendous diversity and are spread across groups in complex ways. From the sickle cell gene to nose shapes, many different groups from different geographic and cultural regions share s traits yet are not considered to be in the same racial groups. The American Association of Physical Anthropologists clarify this in their Statement on Biological Aspects of Race.

Most of us are assigned a sex and gender at birth (or earlier) and most of us assume that is what we are, case closed. We do learn in sociology classes that sex is a physical construct and gender is the social construct thus theoretically, gender may be more mutable than sex. However, considering the high rate of intersex births (1 in 500 according to some estimates, 1 in 2,000 births for the more conservative estimates) one must consider that both sex and gender exist on a continuum. Learning about other cultures that have more than two gender categories helps to make this clearer. 

Census 2

Consider childhood encounters with race and sex categories – when we fill out forms for school, the sex or gender question has consistency yet the racial and ethnic questions offer us many choices and, since 2000, the Census has allowed us to choose more than one category of race.

While you might learn about the social construction of both race/ethnicity and sex/gender in a sociology class, our personal experience with standardized forms helps us presume a firm sex/gender category. Does seeing new choices for race/ethnicity make it easier to understand how these categories are social constructions?


March 18, 2009

Social Networking Sites and Social Theory

author_karen By Karen Sternheimer

Are you on Facebook ? Did you respond to the request to post "25 random things" about yourself?

I personally don’t have a Facebook page, a “random thing” about me that increasingly places me in the minority. I’m sure that there are great benefits to having a page on a social networking site, and who knows, maybe someday I will. For now, though, I am okay with old-fashioned socializing.

Facebook, MySpace, and other social networking uses of the internet can dissolve the boundary between our public and private selves. As many posts on thisclip_image002 blog reference, sociologist Erving Goffman's "front stage" and "back stage" concepts have been a useful way to understand social life. Goffman wrote in 1959 of how we keep certain information private, part of the process of impression management.

The internet in general and social networking sites in particular have blurred the distinction between front and back stage, something that some social theorists would argue is a feature of postmodernity. In a postmodern society, binaries (like public and private) merge and cannot be clearly separated.

Some people seem completely comfortable divulging extremely personal information on blogs and home pages. Perhaps because of our fascination with the private lives of celebrities, letting others in on personal information may seem very normal. It’s also a way of creating a sense of identity—having lots of online “friends,” announcing one’s relationship status and posting snapshots are ways of making statements about who we are. Descartes, the seventeenth century French philosopher famously said, “I think therefore I am;” we might now amend that to “I’m online therefore I am.”

Not everyone wants all of their information freely circulating. Facebook users created a petition protesting the site’s use of their other online behavior, like shopping, and there has been debate about who actually owns the information posted on the site.clip_image006

Sometimes people don’t realize that electronic information they might think is private can become public very quickly. As Janis Prince Inniss blogged about last year, former Detroit Mayor Kwame Kilpatrick’s steamy text messages revealed an affair and led to his resignation. Dean Grose, the mayor of a town in Orange County, California, sent an e-mail to friends depicting the White House surrounded by a watermelon patch. One of the recipients was outraged and made the e-mail public, leading to nationwide scorn and Grose’s resignation.

These cases are great examples of how it’s not just young people who need to think twice about privacy online. In reality there is really no such thing as privacy online. Some of the best advice I got and now give to students is to never post, text, video tape, or e-mail anything that you wouldn’t want to appear as evidence in court. We could also add to that information that you would be embarrassed for your grandmother to find out, your children, or your employer. Yes, they are online too.

Last year I was selected for a campus-wide honor, and I later found out that the selection committee undertook a basic Google search as part of review process. Fortunately for me, the internet was just coming of age as I was developing my professional self and this is the only “version” of me that exists online. As I noted earlier, if posting personal information on the internet is a way to construct our identities, we might run into trouble when we want toclip_image004 change that identity. If I had a blog when I was starting grad school, I’d probably be embarrassed by the content today, now that my ideas have had a chance to develop over time. Once ideas get out there in cyberspace they are hard to reign back in.

Some postmodern theorists might see the collapse of the boundary between our public and private selves as inevitable. But we can still decide how much of who we are will be made public. The framers of the U.S. Constitution valued our right to keep our mouths shut so much they included the right against self incrimination into the Bill of Rights. Ironically, we now tend to hear of someone who “pleads the Fifth” and presume they have done something wrong, or have something to hide. Former Louisiana Governor Edwin Edwards, currently in prison on racketeering charges, was asked if he had anything to hide during his investigation. To paraphrase, he said of course he did, but not related to the charges against him. (He also once said the only way he wouldn’t be reelected would be to be caught with a dead girl or a live boy).

Edwards had a point—we all have something to hide, although hopefully not criminal behavior. It’s up to us whether we choose to share or not, and we all must deal with the consequences accordingly.

I know it’s soooo twentieth century, but I reserve the right to keep the 25 random things about me to myself and to those who know me offline.

March 14, 2009

How American Congregations are Changing (and Staying the Same)

author_brad By Bradley Wright

Have you ever picked up a sociology journal and tried to read one of its articles? Well, good luck if the article uses numbers because most quantitative sociological research uses multivariate analysis such as regression that can be difficult for those without a background in statistics to understand. Now, once you get used to this type of research, these articles can make sense, but the methods do pose a barrier for most non-academics . (Qualitative studies have their own problems that typically involve using way too many big, funny sounding words that probably don’t mean anything). That’s probably why the journal American Sociological Review is not sold in supermarket checkout lines.

Every once in awhile, however, studies come along that demonstrate that some of the most important things we learn are simple percentages. Sociologist Mark Chaves provides an example with his National Congregations Study. For this study, conducted in 2006-7, Chaves interviewed pastors or other church leaders from about 1,500 churches drawn from a nationwide, random sample, and he asked them a bunch of questions about their churches. He had done a similar study in 1998, and this allowed him to measure how American congregations have changed over the last decade.

Any guesses as to how?
As reported in the Winter 2008 issue of Sociology of Religion, he and a coauthor found four main changes in congregations in the last ten years:

1) clip_image002Churches use a lot more technology than they used to. They are much more likely to use e-mail to communicate with their members and web pages to advertise themselves in the community. I suppose that this change didn’t surprise me much. The church I attend now has blogs, web pages, Facebook groups, and uses something called Twitter, which may or may not involve birds. This technological change has implications for congregations. By better advertising their beliefs and values, churches might attract like-minded people from further away. This might increase the theological homogeneity of congregations—having people who have similar beliefs with one another than might have previously been the case. Technology also costs money and time, which raises the question of what are churches cutting back on to support their use of technology.

2) Worship services have become more informal. Services are now less likely to have choirs and to use written programs. Instead, they are more likely to have services featuring drums, jumping, shouting, dancing, raised hands in praise, applause, and calling out “amen.” There are some variation in which churches do which—with Catholic churches less increased informality and black churches showing more—but this increased informality appears to be a general trend in religion as it is in society as a whole. clip_image004In line with this trend, probably the best known Evangelical pastor, Rick Warren, who said the invocation at Barack Obama’s inauguration, is known for wearing Hawaiian shirts when he preaches.

3) Clergy age. From 1998 to 2006, the average age of the American adults has increased by 1 year, but the average age of pastors has increased by 5 years! The median age of the head clergy in the study went from 48 years to 53 years old. That’s a big change, and it’s happening the most in Catholic and mainline Protestant churches (and least in Evangelical and black churches.) What is causing this big change? One explanation is that fewer future-pastors are going into seminary right after college, and more are taking on the ministry as a second career, after retiring from a secular career.

4) The demographic make-up of congregations is changing. Overall, the average age of congregation members is increasing faster than the general population. For example, in 2006, 30 percent of the congregants were over age 60, but in 1998, only 25% were. Also, the racial and ethnic make-up of congregations is becoming more diverse. For example, from 1998 to 2006 the number of completely white congregations dropped from 20% to 14%.

Now, so far I have focused on the changes in American churches because, for some reason, discussing changes is more interesting than thinking about what stays the same; nonetheless, the study found a number of things that have stayed about the same over the past decade. They include the median size of congregations (about 75 people), the high number of women in the pews, the low number of women in the pulpit, and involvement in social services.

There, wasn’t that interesting, and you didn’t have to read a single regression coefficient. Maybe sociology journals just need to make themselves more accessible to the general public. I’m thinking more pictures of Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie on the cover?

(By the way, you get extra credit if you recognized the drummer pictured above).

March 11, 2009

The Metrosexual: Men and Beauty

kristen By Kristen Barber

Doctoral Candidate

University of Southern California

The term “metrosexual” entered our vocabulary in 1994 thanks to British Journalist Mark Simpson’s article, “Here Come the Mirror Men.” In this article, he claims that men are becoming vain; they are grooming, adoring, and flaunting their bodies in ways we have never seen before.

These men, who he calls metrosexuals, spend money on expensive clothes, trendy hair products, and elaborate facials. Many people mistake the metrosexual for homosexual, but Simpson’s point is that straight men are spending more and more money on clothes and beauty products. This phenomenon challenges the stereotype that it is only gay men who care about how they look. We should not be surprised then when a man spends money on “boytox” or does a double-take when he passes a mirror.

It is difficult to deny that men are increasingly targeted by marketing companies as potential consumers of beauty products. Advertisements for men’s colognes, clothes, hair products, and facial creams are splattered over billboards, printed in many magazines, and broadcast over radio and television. In addition to an explosion in advertisements, we are witnessing a growth in the number of products available to male consumers.

For example, in the early 1980s my dad purchased his cologne and shave cream from a lone shelf in the drugstore, often selecting from the two or three brands available to him—English Leather often won out over Brut or Aqua Velva.

Today, in many department stores men can shop for products at cosmetic counters along side women.

I spent a day observing at one of these counters and was amazed by the shelves upon shelves of cologne and other products available for men. I noticed how sexy the packages they came in were—one cologne was even sold in a bottle shaped like a naked male torso. Some men’s skincare lines such as Lab or Jack Black sell the same products available to women—though exfoliant is sold to men as “scrubbing” cream.

What does this all mean? Are men becoming more like women? Why such a dramatic change in attitudes towards men’s fashion? I would have to say, no, this does not mean men are becoming more like women, and actually men’s attention to fashion and appearance is not anything new.

In the 16th and 17th century, men and women’s clothing differed very little. Instead of distinguishing men and women, different styles of clothing were worn to distinguish between classes. Both men and women of wealthy classes draped themselves in heavy luxurious fabrics, wore lace, tights, jewelry, blush, and styled their hair in curls. Later, as men and women’s fashion began to look different, men of a privileged class preferred clothes made from fine linen and with a stylish cut to them. This dandy of the 19th century was known for his exquisite taste and superior clothing; and it was not surprising to see him wearing pink gloves. The dandy was not considered feminine, however, but rather a man of superior class who had the money and time to spend on his appearance.

In an attempt to understand what men’s fashion and beauty mean today, I did research on men who were loyal customers at a hair salon in Southern California. clip_image002In my article on “The Well-Coiffed Man,” I found that these men preferred the salon to both barbershops and chain-stores such as Supercuts. They felt that barbershops were for working-class men who did not care how their hair looked. These salon men, on the other hand, wanted a “stylish” haircut they felt they could only get at the hair salon. The men paid more for a “stylish” haircut because they thought it made them look modern, progressive, and, importantly, professional. These men told me that working-class men, such as “mechanic[s] working at… Jiffy-Lube,” do not care about their looks and do not have their same superior “taste.”

Like the dandy of yesteryear, the men I interviewed use fashion and beauty to mark themselves as separate from other classes of men. Their hair in particular becomes a marker of status, an expression of their ability to pay for expensive haircuts. They also feel a “stylish” haircut will help them succeed in the corporate workplace. These men do not think beautifying makes them more like women. Rather, they rely on their hair to distinguish them as “men with class.” With this in mind, how might we address Mark Simpson’s claim that the “metrosexual” is a new phenomenon? How can we rethink stereotypes that suggest it is only women and gay men who care about how they look?

March 08, 2009

Peanut Butter and Deviance

author_karen By Karen Sternheimer

Did you hear about the peanut butter recalls? The disgusting conditions at the Peanut Corporation of America? The company’s factory is closed, but only after it shipped peanut butter that had been infiltrated with rats and cockroaches, according to former employees. Workers told journalists that managers insisted that the batches be shipped regardless of quality, because the company would lose too much money otherwise. (Click here to watch a news report about Peanut Corp.)

Hearing about this incident reminded me of Upton Sinclair's 1906 novel, The Jungle, about poor conditions in the meatpacking industry. Like the peanut butter factory, rats were routinely ground into the meat in Sinclair’s book. I read this book in high school and still remember the chapter when a worker got sucked into the equipment and became part of the product.

This exposé led to the Pure Food and Drug Act of 1906, which meant that the federal government would inspect food producing plants for safety. Reading The Jungle about eighty years after this landmark legislation, I believed that things had really changed from the old days, and that the food my family bought at the grocery store would never be as dangerous as it was before Congress passed this and other laws.

My high school self would be shocked to read the recall notice that I saw at the bottom of my grocery receipt in early February, warning about a particular product which I had purchased weeks before, and by then had long since eaten. I won’t mention the brand of the product of peanut butter flavored snacks, but it markets its products as healthy and wholesome and uses images from nature in its packaging.

Perhaps after reading The Jungle I needed to believe that the gross things in the book could never happen so I didn’t need to worry about what I ate. Not only did I believe in that food producers would follow the law, but I presumed that basic morality would prevent companies from selling food they knew was tainted.

Why would a company knowingly sell tainted food? Sociologists call this elite deviance, behavior that violates moral, ethical, or legal standards for the benefit of a corporate or government entity. Sociologist David R. Simon argues that elite deviance is committed by those at the highest levels of power, and often causes physical, financial, or moral harm. While we frequently hear of people in power ripping off the public and sometimes even wiping them out financially, elite deviance can be hazardous to public health and safety too.

Power is a central feature of elite deviance; it is what enables people like accused Ponzi schemer Bernard Madoff to have access to billions of dollars in the first place. Simon details how those involved in elite deviance often know and influence people in high places. In Madoff’s case, he was once chair of the National Association of Securities Dealers and therefore knew securities laws well enough to evade them. His reputation seems to have also deterred the United States Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) from following through on the many investigations started into his firm’s dealings.

Elite deviance tends to yield relatively minor penalties, if any. Peanut Corp. has filed for bankruptcy, so it may not end up paying any fines for the salmonella outbreak that resulted. Limited liability laws mean that in some instances individuals cannot be held legally responsible for corporate behavior. Criminal charges clip_image008for deaths or physical injury that resulted from elite deviance are unusual too.

Simon describes a “cloak of secrecy” that many elites in the highest positions of authority can use to hide their wrongdoing. Corporations can hire public relations firms to try and counter claims against them and revamp their image. Or they can simply change their name. After the many tobacco lawsuits, Phillip Morris became Altria. Blackwater, a military contractor under scrutiny for allegations of improper behavior in Iraq, has changed its name to Xe. Most of us don’t have the benefit of starting anew with a brand new identity, nor do we have spin doctors at our disposal.

Another key reason elite deviance continues, and likely happened at Peanut Corp., is the process of diffusion of responsibility, when no one feels explicitly responsible for an organization’s activities. The cliché of “just following orders” might seem like a cop-out, but consider the role of power in elite deviance. Many of the workers at the peanut plant earned minimum wage and struggled for their basic survival; losing a job could have been financially devastating for them and their families. They might feel like they have little power to change the conditions of the plant and know they could be easily replaced.

Corporations are typically hierarchical; even people higher up in a company might feel pressure to conform to the expectations set by those at the top. Managers who spend much of their waking hours at a company and devote years of their lives to it many not want to risk the possibility of promotion if they become whistle blowers; those that do expose former employers may have trouble finding another job in their industry.

Ideally, individual morality would outweigh these factors; we’d like to think that if we were in the position to blow the whistle we would. But sometimes the realities of power dynamics get in the way. What other sociological reasons do you think explain the spoiled peanut butter and other recent examples of elite deviance?

March 05, 2009

Rihanna, Immigrant Status, and Domestic Violence

author_janis By Janis Prince Inniss

Al Green. Justin Timberlake. And Boyz II Men singing back-up, with nary a close-up of them. This ”group” performance at the Grammys should have signaled to me that something was gravely amiss. I couldn’t imagine anyone planning that performance. But how could I guess the next day’s headlines? Chris Brown charged with domestic violence! The woman in question? Apparently, his girlfriend Rihanna. (Both were scheduled to perform at the Grammys that night but cancelled hours before the show, hence the hastily pulled together group of Green and company.)

The 19 year-old Brown is being investigated for domestic violence and has been charged with felony criminal threats. The shattering picture of Rihanna delivered to the world by TMZ graphically illustrates and appears to confirm that Rihanna is the victim in this case. Many commentators have noted that Brown has accused his mother and former step-father of abusing him. Brown’s step-father denies this claim but if true, such a history certainly is an explanation of, but a poor excuse for Brown’s behavior.

But what explains Rihanna’s behavior? This is likely not Brown’s first abusive act; possibly the worst, but not the first. Given that the superstars were dating for about a year, Brown might have shown his true colors a long time ago. Why would Rihanna continue to date an abuser? Why does anyone remain in an abusive relationship?

I have never thought of the similarities between me and the singer who just turned 21 before now. We both came to live in the U.S. in our teens—me at 18 and Rihanna at about 16. And we both moved here from small countries in the Caribbean: me from Guyana and Antigua, and Rihanna from Barbados. (Like mine, her mother is Guyanese). Unfortunately, that is not the end of our similarities as I too was in an abusive relationship when I was Rihanna’s age. As I think of myself when I was a teenager, and new immigrant to the U.S., I can’t help but wonder how that circumstance fits into the equation. How might Rihanna’s immigrant status be related to her relationship with an abuser?

Moving—in either direction—between third world or developing nations and first world countries can create tremendous culture shock. Every now and then I try to guess the number of ”American” words and phrases that I have learned in the decades I have lived here, such as men named Richard are sometimes called Dick. There are experiences that are so truly foreign like snow, freeways, living among millions of people.

Unless you have experienced such a transition it may be difficult to understand that many basic aspects of life can become a challenge when you move to another country. For example, I was very much into exercise when I moved to New York from Antigua. In Antigua, I jogged on the beach or on the streets and lifted weights at a backyard gym. Upon my move, I bought the weight bench and weights that I could afford and quickly discovered that they were woefully inadequate. I tried running on the road in New York. In January. Once. That was enough for me to accept that my warming body enveloped in frigid cold is intolerable. Not being able to afford the cost of a gym membership and unable to navigate the transportation issues, the question of how to stay physically fit in the U.S. remained unresolved until I moved to California.

If I could not navigate something as simple as working out, can you imagine how daunting the idea of dating was to me? With major differences in speech, fashion, weather, transportation, population, and food, to name a few things, dating was beyond me. I could not decode the non-verbal cues in my new environment; I could barely fathom the verbal ones. Therefore, it was a relief to move a platonic friend into the boyfriend category. At least I could continue to focus college without having to try to figure out dating in the U.S.

Unlike other abused women I’ve read about, I never believed any of the ridiculous and clearly abusive things this man said to me. And given that like many abusers, he became out-of-control gradually, my youth and ignorance encouraged me to believe that he would change. He didn’t. And I felt too out of my depth living in New York to know how to handle this. It’s hard to imagine that I would have put up with such treatment in Antigua. I knew that world and felt confident there. Here, there were too many unknowns.

With her heavy Barbadian accent (I remember Jay-Z mocking her at the American Music Awards), Rihanna probably feels very much out of her element in the U.S.. And while superstardom must buy her lots of “friends”, I bet superstardom is just another arena in which she feels foreign. Maybe like me, she was glad to have some aspect of her life in America settled.

Obviously one does not have to be an immigrant to be abused. I don’t know if statistical evidence indicates that there is a relationship between being a recent immigrant to the U.S. and abuse, but I do wonder whether immigrant women are more likely to be victims of abuse.

March 02, 2009

The Social Significance of Euphemisms

author_sally By Sally Raskoff

Why do we use words like “troops” and “escorts” to sanitize our discussions of difficult, disturbing, or controversial topics, like war and sex?

There has been much talk of bringing the “troops” home and of “troop” casualties. This seems to make it easier to talk about the people we send into war even as many don’t come home intact or living.

Similarly, during the Eliot Spitzer scandal, news organizations described, prostitutes as employees of “escort” services. By using the word ”escort” instead of “hooker” or prostitute, we seem to make the light of the fact that an elected official paid for sex.

Why do we use language this way?

Sociologically, there may be quite a few reasons why – none of which may be satisfying when the situation hits home for you.

clip_image002[5]We may use these more benign words in an effort to avoid antagonizing the political opposition or to avoid reminding people that war puts human lives at risk. Talking about troops (or during the early days of the Vietnam War, “advisers”) instead of people in military services helps us justify their use in war times; they seem less like human beings when we refer to them with such words. Nor does the phrase “civilian casualties” fully illustrate the human toll of warfare. In contemporary conflicts, there is rarely a clip_image002separate battlefield, and people with nothing to do with fighting are often injured or killed. We certainly would not think of the victims of 9/11 only as civilian casualties. In fact, I bet you can name some people whom you may have never known yourself, but news coverage about their lives reminded us that they were “just like us” in many ways. When you hear the phrase “civilian casualty” it’s hard for most people to identify with them.

Using the word “escorts: when we talk about prostitution also makes a difficult and controversial topic more palatable. In fact, it also trivializes it and erroneously suggests that the escorts were providing companionship rather than sex.

Using such words helps us to talk about difficult topics – those for which emotions run high and that we may not be able to calmly discuss otherwise. When we distance ourselves in this way from a highly emotionally charged situation, we can see that situation from a different light---not necessarily better, just different.

The way we sanitize our medical examinations is a similar behavioral exercise. When we go to our medical professionals for an exam, we may be asked to disrobe and then expose ourselves to these professionals. The rituals surrounding that practice help to isolate it from our everyday experience. For example, we use the gowns and sheets for draping, (i.e., modesty), and at least one other person in addition to the doctor or nurse giving the exam is usually present. If an embarrassing event occurs, everyone in the room usually puts it in a clinical context.

Such are the norms surrounding very personal and sensitive subjects. These behavioral rituals help us to define what we do in such situations and allow us to downplay any potentially embarrassing or deeply personal consequences. By allowing us to sanitize sensitive situations with euphemisms, our linguistic norms also give us space to save face or avoid shame or embarrassment. Sociologist Erving Goffman explored how we do this in his classic 1959 book, The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life. Whether we are aware of it or not, we all work to construct the most positive impression of ourselves as possible. Word choice is one way we do this. For instance, “global warming” became recast by critics as “climate change” by those who didn’t want to change environmental policy. Spin doctors do this for a living, and can make lots of money coming up with new words for difficult issues

What other words have you seen used as replacements for more difficult, disturbing, or difficult concepts?

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