9 posts from April 2009

April 28, 2009

What is White Trash?

author_janis By Janis Prince Inniss

Do you know who Levi Johnston is? When I heard the name recently, I had no idea who he was. Turns out he’s the baby-daddy of Alaska Governor Sara Palin’s grandson. As you may recall, shortly after Palin was announced as Senator John McCain’s running mate, she disclosed

that her 17-year old unmarried daughter, Bristol, was pregnant. The teenagers ended their engagement shortly after the birth of their son.

Some news reports state that Governor Palin is blocking contact between the young parents because she does not want her grandchild around “white trash”. Many have used this term pejoratively to describe Johnston. He even mentioned on the CBS Early Show that the biggest misperception about is family is that they are “white trash”.

What is white trash? Who is white trash? Sociologist Max Weber referred to whites who did not own enslaved Africans as “poor white trash”. The Wikipedia definition of white trash is “an American English pejorative term referring to … economically or culturally disadvantaged Caucasians. It may also be used self-referentially by white north Americans with higher socio-economic status to jokingly describe limitations they sense in their culture…” How does this definition fit with what you know of the term? White trash is a term related to race, class, and culture.

White trash, differentiates poor white people from other white people – the "real" white people – the ones who are not poor. The term white trash presumes that they are a different race or ”breed” of people. It’s interesting that whites who don’t fit our stereotype of whiteness—being financially wealthy—have to be separated out and named differently. As with most such stereotypes, this one is meant to be a short-hand description of how a certain group of people behave: White trash live in certain places and behave in particular ways.

The highly popular television show Roseanne aired from 1988-1997 and starred comedian Roseanne Barr. The focus of the show was a white working class family. Take a look at the “White Trash Christmas” episode of the show. In that episode, Roseanne and Dan (her TV husband) say that they are setting themselves apart from other white trash families because they have two daughters in college; in other words, white trash people don’t go to college. In that episode, the family’s Christmas decorations are outrageous and tacky: the wreath they place on their door has beer cans, the lights are garishly bright, and the figurines depict lewd behavior.

Essentially, in thinking about white trash, we are forced to think about whiteness. White trash people are not quite white. What is white, then? Who is white? How is whiteness, as a race, socially constructed? As much as we talk about race in the U.S., little is discussed about what constitutes whiteness. This much is clear about whiteness. It’s somewhat invisible in that it’s the norm and everything else is different. Being Black, Hispanic, Asian…being “other” is different from that “whiteness” norm. And so are white trash. They are so different from that norm that they have to have their own name.

As I looked at and thought about the stereotypes of white trash, I couldn’t help but notice the similarities between characteristics ascribed to white trash and those ascribed to minorities. And many stereotypes about African Americans and Latinos conflate race and class; in other words many of the stereotypes about African Americans, for example, not only generalize about a race, but stereotype that race as poor. “Black trash” or even “Latino trash” would be redundant based on these stereotypes, so we never hear those terms. Think of a stereotype of African Americans. (I’m avoiding naming too many stereotypes of any group, but I’m sure you can summon some images.)

Does it even make sense to think of that stereotype while also thinking of middle class African Americans? Or upper class African Americans? How well do the two fit together in your mind? And just as some perceive poor African Americans as existing within a culture of poverty, so our ideas about “white trash” are informed by stereotypes about a particular culture. The culture of poverty thesis states that the poor are not just like you and me, but…well, poor. This idea is that the poor have a different culture, different values and norms that serve to keep them poor.

Why might someone like Levi Johnston be called white trash? Why might his family be called this name? (His sister also responded to what both obviously perceive as a slur.) As you think about teen pregnancy, single parenthood, what images come to mind? Are those images related to any particular race or class? How much of what has unfolded with this young couple is what we expect of whites? What can we learn about whiteness by thinking about who or what is described as white trash?

April 25, 2009

Sport and Gender

author_brad By Bradley Wright

This week’s issue of ESPN magazine featured the star basketball player Candace Parker, and when I saw the cover photograph, I chuckled, but when I read the article, I rolled my eyes and sighed in exasperation.

You see, I had recently been writing a lecture on content analysis for my social research methods class, and I was looking for a video example to illustrate the power of this technique. With content analysis, we identify existing documents, photographs, or other forms of data, and we analyze them much the same way we would other forms of data, e.g., survey data or participant observation. In cruising around the internet, I found a presentation by Mediaed.org entitled Playing Unfair: The Media Image of the Female Athlete. It’s a clip from a longer film in which various experts subject talk about how female athletes are presented in the media.

The experts on this topic (and I am not one of them) identified several themes in the media presentation of female athletes. These representations tend to deemphasize the women’s athleticism by portraying them in street clothes or in everyday activities; in contrast, male athletes are more often portrayed in their uniform, performing their sport.

The representations also emphasize the women’s sexuality more so than men’s, so pictures and text about the women are more likely to highlight their sexual features. They emphasize the women’s heterosexuality to counteract stereotypes of female athletes as lesbians. Pictures of them often include a boyfriend, husband, or children. Finally, female athletes receive far less media coverage than do their male counterparts.

Okay, back to Candace Parker. I work at the University of Connecticut, which is a perennial powerhouse in women’s basketball. (At this point, you should be cheering U-C-O-N-N). Candace Parker, unfortunately, attended our archrival, Tennessee, where she led them to two national championships. She’s now gone pro in the WNBA, and in her first year she was both rookie-of-the-year and player-of-the-year. She even dunks the basketball! In short, Candace is perhaps the best women to ever play the game.

clip_image002ESPN magazine wants to feature her on its cover, and which picture do they choose? As you can see, it’s a picture that epitomizes the sociological analysis of women in sports. Candace is shown in a white dress, not a basketball uniform or playing basketball. The lighting and make-up are glamorous, and she’s pregnant—holding her hands on her womb to emphasize it. This is when I laughed—a perfect illustration of what the sociologists in the video spoke of.

As I thought about this image of Parker, I realized perhaps ESPN magazine routinely portrayed athletes in everyday life, and I had just happen to notice this week’s issue with a woman on the cover. So, I looked up the covers of the last five issues of the magazine, and four of the five had men in uniforms doing something related to their sports. The fifth had a male basketball player in street clothes, but he was dunking a basketball.

clip_image004Hm-m-m-m, maybe this is an ESPN magazine thing, so I looked up recent covers of Sports Illustrated--again all men, in uniforms, performing their sports except for one cover featuring a woman. The swimsuit issue.

Then I read the article about Candace Parker, and this is when I started rolling my eyes. Here are its opening lines:


She's the total package: your sister's pal, your brother's prom date, supermom-to-be. She's also an MVP—of a league few watch. So can Candace Parker be the female Jordan? Lots of folks are banking on it.
Candace Parker is beautiful. Breathtaking, really, with flawless skin, endless legs and a C cup she is proud of but never flaunts. She is also the best at what she does, a record-setter, a rule-breaker, a redefiner.

Can you imagine any mainstream magazine taking a similar approach to a male athlete? “Baseball player Sidd Finch is a hunk. A complete hunk, really, with chiseled features, rippling biceps, and a larger-than-average penis that he is proud of but never flaunts.” Ah, I don’t think so. (By the way, you get extra credit if you recognize the name of the player.)

Content analysis has various advantages. It’s a way to study existing documents and portrayals in society. It’s usually less work than collecting survey, interview or observation data. It can be analyzed using both qualitative and quantitative approaches.

It has its disadvantages too, but more than anything, after looking at these articles, I’m just depressed about the media’s portrayal of women athletes.

April 22, 2009

Common Sense and Doodling

author_sally By Sally Raskoff

Did your parents ever tell you to turn off your music while you were studying so that they knew that you were doing your homework? I had no headphones and my stereo had pretty big speakers so my parents were not only concerned about my study habits but also about noise pollution of their airspace.

Today we have iPods and ear buds, so parents may be less annoyed by the intrusion of their kids’ music into their own space but many still worry quite a bit about how distractions affect their children’s concentration and study time. Technological changes bring imageus new ways to distract ourselves hence “texting while studying” can present a new challenge for parents worried about distractions. On the other hand, perhaps they more concerned about hearing loss due to those ear buds!

In any case, parents’ main concern is often lies the diversion of attention away from academic pursuits. A recent study on doodling may offer you a way to image console your parents (and teachers) and lessen their worry about such diversions.

Those who doodle during meetings (or class) may be judged as distracted and not fully paying attention to the main event. Doodlers may even hide their doodles to avoid such judgments.

But the study found that, compared with people who don’t doodle, doodlers are more likely to recall information and to perform tasks better. The study authors hypothesize that the doodling keeps daydreaming away and allows the person to retain most of their attention to the task at hand.

One might surmise that music and doodling serve the same purposes of quieting that inner dialogue or daydreaming that tempts us all. Of course, to know if this one study has results that will hold up, we would need to replicate or repeat the study and control for other factors, such as background music.

Social science research has shown us here that what may look like a distraction actually keeps distraction at bay by enabling us to more fully retain information. What appears to be common sense or obvious may not turn out to be the case when we study the phenomenon scientifically.

image How people judge us is, of course, another issue. Is it easy to re-educate parents and teachers about behaviors they believe to be problematic? Using scientific findings to spark a discussion can give your argument more weight and legitimacy. Basing an argument on opinions is often less persuasive, but basing one’s points in valid and reliable scientific findings – especially when you find many studies that back up your points – can change others’ opinions.

Another twist on this situation is that people do judge others based on what they perceive to be true, and they then act on those judgments and develop expectations about those people. People may come to fulfill those expectations.

An example would be teachers who judge students as smart or not so smart and then spend their energy guiding those deemed smart into challenging activities and leaving those ”not so smart” students to repeat their basic exercises. This approach doesn’t challenge those students in the lower group, who might get bored and disengage. Even if they had abilities to do more, they won’t have access to activities that can help them improve.

The concept of a self-fulfilling prophecy has been well tested in educational settings. Students placed in the lower tracks of educational goals will do things to keep themselves there even if they are capable of doing more. This process can occur even if a teacher isn’t actually judging a student, but if the student thinks that they are being judged and labeled in some specific way. William Chambliss’ classic study, The Saints and the Roughnecks examines youth living up to the labels of others. While two groups of boys essentially engaged in the same types of rowdy behavior, one group of wealthier kids was thought to be “sowing their wild oats” while the other group of low-income kids were just thought to be bad. Chambliss found that years later the so-called “Saints” were successful, well-adjusted adults, but the “Roughnecks” had lived up to their labels as troublemakers.

Just as we might make assumptions about doodlers, what other labels do we create for people? What self-fulfilling prophesies do you think might follow?

April 19, 2009

Baby Booms: As Seen on TV?

author_karen By Karen Sternheimer

Babies and children are everywhere in the media world these days. From news coverage of the California octuplets and TLC unscripted television shows like Jon and Kate plus Eight, Table for Twelve, and Eighteen and Counting it seems like there are more people having super-sized families. Oprah recently featured the families of the Yearning for Zion polygamist sect and their multiple children. I started to wonder why there is so much focus on large families on shows like these.

A few questions came to mind:

  1. Are we experiencing a new baby boom?
  2. Are large families becoming more popular?
  3. Are women having more multiple births (three or more babies per pregnancy)?

Let’s look at the data available to see if we can find answers.

  1. Are we experiencing a new baby boom?

Thanks to the growth of social institutions, we can be fairly certain that most babies born in the United States will be accounted for. If they are not born in a hospital they are still likely to be given a social security number, so we can get a pretty good count of how many babies are born each year. In 2007, the most recent year for which we have data, the birth rate did rise slightly from 2006-- 1 percent to be exact. This was the largest number of births registered in one year in the United States.

If you take a look at the graph below you can best see this reflected in the top line, which represents the actual number of births, which is now even higher than the number during the postwar baby boom years.

Source: National Vital Statistics Reports, 2009

But before we get too carried away, look at the line below, which represents the birth rate per 1,000 women aged 15-44. A rate is a measure that takes into account the population size; since the population has grown we would expect more babies born simply because there are more people to have them. The birth rate tells us a slightly different story from the raw number above. It is far lower than the birth rate during the mid-twentieth century baby boom years, and is actually somewhat flat by comparison.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the average number of children per American woman decreased from 7.0 to 3.5 between 1800 and 1900. That rate declined until the baby boom after World War II (which you can clearly see in the middle of the graph below) and fell sharply in the years after. Since the mid-1970s that average has hovered below 2.0, down to an all-time low of 1.81 in several years (most recently 2007). In 2008 that number rose slightly to 1.86, but in no way does this change indicate another baby boom, at least not yet.

We can also look to see if women are having more children on average. Below is a graph that highlights the rise during the baby boom, which declined sharply after and has stayed relatively flat since. As you can see, women had an average of more than 3.5 children during the height of the baby boom years (yes, statisticians know there is no such thing as a half a person).


Source: Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 1999

  1. Are large families becoming more popular?

The data above can also help us answer the second question; the size of families has not grown in recent years, and if anything, households have fewer people now than in the past. Still, in 2006, more than 18,500 women gave birth to their eighth child or beyond. While this might seem like an incredible number of people having such big families, taking the population as a whole into account this means that only 3 in 10,000 births are to these super-sized families. The 2006 data are very similar to the 2005 numbers and the rate of 3 in 10,000 is identical. It might well be that large families get their own reality shows because they are such an anomaly.

  1. Are women having more multiple births?

The birth of octuplets to Nadya Suleman sparked controversy about the problems associated with having so many babies at once. Multiple births, particularly carrying three or more babies in a pregnancy, can introduce serious health risks to both the mother and children. Stories about people desperate to bear children using new fertility technologies might suggest that this is a new and growing problem.

The graph below shows the tremendous increase in multiple births between the late 1980s and mid 1990s, as fertility technologies became more available. Also, a growing number of women now have children later in life; such women are more likely to need these fertility technologies and, even if they don’t, the likelihood of having “natural” multiples increases due to changes in an older woman’s cycle.


Source: National Vital Statistics System, 2009

The rate of multiples actually peaked in the late 1990s; the graphs above and below detail how they have actually been declining: by 16 percent since the peak in 1998. While in 1990 there were just 13 quintuplet or higher births, in 2004 there were 86 children in this category, declining to 68 in 2005. This decline is echoed in the graph below, too.


Source: National Vital Statistics System, 2009

So looking at the data we can conclude that there isn’t exactly a new baby boom, but instead a large demographic group, the children of the baby boom generation, are in their childbearing years now. Average family size isn’t growing either. And yes, women are more likely to have triplets or larger pregnancies now than in 1990 and before, but this rate is on the decline.

What other sociological reasons can you think of to explain the baby boom on TV?

April 16, 2009

Do Guns Deter Crime?

image By Jay Livingston

Montclair State University


The recent shootings in Alabama, Binghamton, and Pittsburgh along with the anniversaries of massacres at Columbine and Virginia Tech have brought more than the usual calls for stricter gun laws. The pro-gun side is also speaking up loudly, arguing that if more people were armed, we’d have less crime, and an armed citizenry would be a deterrent. If criminals knew that everyone was carrying a gun, the NRA reasons, they wouldn’t dare commit the crime for fear of being shot.

How can we assess these claims? The usual strategy for measuring deterrence is to compare crime rates in states with different gun laws. Some states have strict gun laws. Other states have made carrying a concealed weapon (CCW) widely legal. The problem with this comparison is not just that we need to control for all the other factors that might affect crime. There is also the problem that even in states that do not restrict CCW, we don’t know how many people are actually walking around packing heat. And neither do the criminals.clip_image002

It would be nice if we could do an experiment. We could create a place in America where everyone carries a gun. We’d give our experiment a few years, then we’d check the crime rates. It’s impossible to do, of course.

But wait. I think I’ve seen such a place. It’s called the Wild West. And in the versions that I’ve seen in movies and on TV, nearly everyone there (at least the men) carries a gun. And none of this concealed weapon stuff--the guns are in plain sight, holstered and ready for a quick deterrent draw.

But is that picture of the West accurate, and how much crime was committed there? Fortunately, there is a systematic study of crime in a real town in the Wild West – Bodie, California, a mining boom town high in the Sierras near the Nevada border.

In the 1870s, when news got out that there was gold or silver in those hills, Bodie’s population quickly grew from a few hundred to about 5,000. For our purposes this town is a good place to examine the links between guns and crime.

clip_image002On the one hand, Bodie’s demographics should lead us to expect a high rate of crime. Most of the population consisted of young, single, men with no deep ties to the community and a social life centered around saloons, gambling halls, and prostitutes. Bodie had racial minorities (Mexicans and Chinese) and hard drugs (opium). On the other hand, nearly all those men carried guns.

Historian Roger McGrath went back through court documents and newspaper reports to reconstruct the actual crime rates in the five-year period when Bodie was booming. His results can help us decide whether the net result of all those guns was good, or whether it was bad and ugly.

When McGrath counted up the numbers and did the math, it turned out that, by comparison with crime rates today, Bodie didn’t have much crime. Its rate of burglary was about one-sixth that for the U.S. today as a whole. That difference, though, probably has less to do with guns and deterrence than with the absence of things to steal. No iPods, TVs, or even jewelry. People didn’t have silver, they had silver mines, which are a bit harder to make off with. In fact, the most frequently taken items in Bodie were blankets and firewood (nights are cold in the High Sierra).

But what about robberies, where the bad guys are usually after cash? Bodie’s 21 robberies in five years work out to an annual rate of 84 per 100,000. That’s lower than the overall U.S. rate for 2007 (148 per 100,000). The closest cities geographically I could find 2007 data for were Carson City, Nevada, whose rate was much lower (38 per 100,000) and Reno, whose robbery rate was nearly triple that of Bodie.

So Bodie’s guns might have made a difference. The bank tellers were all armed, and Bodie had no bank robberies. On the other hand, the stagecoach had an clip_image002[5]armed guard, but still McGrath counted eleven stagecoach robberies. (Just like in the movies, the bad guys weren’t completely bad. They took the strongbox but usually let the passengers keep their money and valuables.) So were guns a deterrent in Bodie? The overall picture is mixed so far.

But there was one crime where Bodie left contemporary rates in the dust – murder. In five years, Bodie had 31 murders, for an annual rate of 116 per 100,000, twenty times the national rate for the U.S. in 2007. Even our most murderous cities like Baltimore and Detroit have murder rates less than half of Bodie’s.

It’s also clear that the cause of Bodie’s high murder rate was those guns. When men have guns close at hand, ordinary arguments and disputes can become fatal. And remember, guns in 1880 were primitive by today’s standards. We can only wonder what Bodie’s murder rate would have been if those miners had been carrying .357 Magnums.

McGrath describes Bodie in his 1984 book Gunfighters, Highwaymen, and Vigilantes: Violence on the Frontier. As for Bodie, it quickly declined after the 1880s, and by the early 20th century, it became a ghost town. What do you think this study tells us about the deterrent effect of guns?

April 13, 2009

Field Experiments and Racism

author_brad By Bradley Wright

When sociologists study something, we usually start by making observations. Maybe we take a survey, in which case we convert our observations to answers on a questionnaire, or maybe we’ll do fieldwork and go out into a social situation and watch what goes on. In either case, we’re not changing what we’re studying, or at least we’re not trying to, but rather we’re just watching it and recording what we learn.

In contrast to these observational studies, we could intentionally change something and then see what happens as a result. This is an experimental approach. With an experiment, you have two or more groups, and the researcher (or somebody) does something to one of the groups but not the other. What the researcher does is the independent variable (or cause). The researcher then measures the outcome of what happens—the dependent variable (or effect).

The idea of an experiment conjures up images of a mad scientist in a castle or at least well-funded psychologists in laboratories messing with introductory psychology students. Another approach, however, is called a field experiment, where the researcher conducts an experiment in a natural setting instead of laboratory.

ABC News set up an experiment to illustrate this approach. They park an old car in a parking lot in a predominately white neighborhood. They then have several white teenagers vandalize the car for about an hour. The kids jump on the car, spray paint it, and try to break into it. During this time, several people walking by stop and talk to the kids, sometimes even telling them not to do it. However, during that period of time, only one person called the police.

Next, the reporters repeated the situation, but they used African American teens instead. The kids did the same things to the car for about the same period of time, but this time ten people called the police. The conclusion? The race of the possible offender influences whether their actions are defined as criminal, so it’s not just what people do that matters but also who they are. (Unfortunately, the news crew did not repeat the experiment in a predominately black neighborhood.)

Field experiments have a lot going for them. Like all experiments, the causality is clear. The independent variable precedes the dependent variable, and, if the study is done correctly, the change in the dependent variable is the only difference (on average) between the two groups. Sociologists call this internal validity, which means we can trust the causal story of a study.

Also, field experiments measure things that people might not report on surveys, either because they don’t want to look bad or they don’t realize that aspect of themselves. For example, imagine we gave a survey to the people in the community described above, and we asked them if they would be more likely to call police if they saw African American kids committing vandalism. I imagine that they would all put “no.” Who wants to be viewed as potentially racist? Yet, in the field experiment, that’s exactly what they did.

Finally, field experiments take place in naturalistic settings in contrast to laboratory settings, which happen in small, windowless rooms in academic buildings. Now, maybe what happens in lab experiments generalizes to the real world just fine, but we’re more confident in the generalizability of field experiments because they actually happen in everyday life. Sociologists call this external validity.

So, field experiments have both high internal and external validity. Sweet deal!

This raises the question of why sociologists don’t do more field experiments. Perhaps one reason is that it’s not traditional in sociology. When I went through graduate school, I received a lot of training in survey research, some in qualitative methods, and none in experiments.

Unfortunately, it’s not always clear how to translate a sociological topic into a field experiment. Let me give you an example. I study the sociology of religion, and I am also very interested in field experiments. This makes me wonder about how to study religion using field experiments. To do this, I need to randomly assign religion, or at least the perception of religion, or randomly assign something that will change religion. Obviously I can’t just assign religious beliefs—“you’re Christian, you’re Muslim, you’re Hindu.” Also, it’s tough to assign levels of religiosity. “Could you stop going to church so much?”

So, can religion be studied using a field experiment, and, if so, how? I have some thoughts, but I would like to hear what you think. If you have some ideas, send them to me at [email protected]. Who knows? Maybe your idea will someday be featured on a television show!

April 10, 2009

Michelle Obama: More Than Fashion Sense

author_janis By Janis Prince Inniss

Have you heard of Sleevegate? Best as I can tell, Sleevegate erupted over Michelle Obama’s sleeveless attire at her husband’s first Presidential address to Congress. Columnists in small, and even major papers such the New York Times have had their say on the matter. In the Times piece Maureen Dowd quotes fellow columnist David Brooks as saying of Mrs. Obama’s arms, “She’s made her point. Now she should put away Thunder and Lightning.” Everybody, it seems has an opinion about her arms.

What side are you on? Sleeveless or sleeves? You don’t care? Well apparently that puts you in the minority as lots of people have used tons of ink (and cyberspace) on the issue. There were also lots of articles and television shows directing women on how they too could get toned arms like the First Lady. Reportedly, trainers are now getting requests for “Michelle arms” from their clients.

People have scrutinized Michelle Obama’s entire appearance. Her hair has been the subject of much blogging and even her actual features have been commented upon (and not always kindly). I read some comments from people who were disappointed that the First Lady had not selected an African American designer for her Inauguration Day outfit, and others who complained that her ball gown was not made by an African American.

The attention to Michelle Obama’s clothing started before she became first lady. While on the campaign trail, she appeared on “The View”. At that appearance, she wore a $148 black and white dress, purchased from White House/Black Market. It was an instant hit and sold out overnight!

As the First Couple make their first splash overseas with a visit to Europe, (The President’s first foreign trip was actually to Canada in February.) the First Lady’s every outfit is coming under even greater scrutiny, as member of the international press join in on the commentary. The main event on this trip? Nothing to do with the G-20 summit that is supposedly the trip’s centerpiece! Nope. It was the fashion ‘face-off’ between Michelle Obama and France’s First Lady, former Victoria Secret model and singer, Carla Bruni-Sarkozy!

I haven’t seen anything written about the President’s clothing though. Who does he wear? Does his tie go well enough with his suit? How about his shoes? And was there a fashion faceoff between Presidents Obama and Sarkozy?

No doubt, lots of ink is spent on the appearance of women, regardless of their ”power” positions. And occasionally men get a dose: John Edwards and President Clinton both got a taste of this when the expensive haircuts they received from Hollywood hair-stylists caused a stir.

Why so much focus on Michelle Obama’s fashion sense? Aren’t there more interesting things about her to talk about? This is a woman who graduated cum laude from Princeton with a degree is in Sociology! Michelle Obama is also a graduate of the prestigious Harvard Law School. She served as adviser to her husband, our new President, when he joined her at the law firm of Sidley & Austin. She gave up corporate law for public service, working for Chicago Mayor Daley and then in the city office of planning and development. She was founding Executive Director for an AmeriCorps national service program. Later, Mrs. Obama served as Associate Dean of Student Services at the University of Chicago. In 2005 she became Vice President for Community and External Affairs at University of Chicago Hospitals.

From there, she took a leave of absence to join her husband on the campaign trail, a position from which she resigned this year. She is quite accomplished in terms of career, but it’s hard to tell that the First Lady has such an impressive resume when so much time is spent on whether she should cover her arms up. Or whether her ensembles for the Inauguration Day and evening balls were quite “right”.

Personally, I’m impressed by Michelle Obama, and I love to see pictures of her. But I’m impressed by all of what I’ve learned--not only by her appearance, although she does wear clothes well. Why are we paying so much attention to her appearance though? Why do we spend so much time on any woman’s appearance? That Michelle Obama is the U.S. First Lady heightens that focus. Add to that natural curiosity her straying from convention (Bare arms! And they’re toned! Wow!) and there is even more to talk about. What else could we say about a First Lady? Former First Lady Laura Bush did not engender this much attention to what she wore? How come?

Why haven’t we heard half as much about what Mrs. Obama is doing as First Lady as we have about her appearance? Have you heard much about her Women’s History event? Her trips to federal agencies? Her work regarding military families? Is sexism at work here? Racism?


Did you hear what German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s husband (Joachim Sauer) wore to the G-20 or NATO Summits? How about Nestor Kirchner, husband of Argentine President Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner? Me neither.

April 07, 2009

Total Institution and Lifeworld

author_sally By Sally Raskoff

clip_image002An older member of my family recently spent a week in the hospital. Visiting him, I was reminded of a year-long hospital internship I once completed. The visit also brought to mind Erving Goffman's concept of the total institution in which people become immersed in an organization that consumes every aspect of their lives. Applying this concept to the realities of the hospital – especially from the viewpoint of a patient – is an easy task.

A total institution guides and monitors the inhabitant completely, taking over life’s daily habits with its routinized and highly structured bureaucratic patterns. In the hospital, the patient is usually confined to one’s bed if not one’s room, sometimes allowed to circle the hallway but usually only before “escaping” upon discharge. One is regularly interrupted or awakened by the staff members that come to take one’s vital signs, change an IV drip, or assess the overall condition or prognosis. The patient is not an individual but a product to be processed through the system.

Note the specialized language for the hospital as well; jargon that helps anesthetize and clean the setting to ensure an appropriately subdued and work focused environment.

The hospital is also a total institution for those who work there – long shifts and a plethora of patients due to the closing of other hospitals creates pressure for the staff to adhere to their tasks. The poor economic state of health care facilities, especially emergency rooms, accompanied by the for-profit nature of many of the hospitals brings with it an odd mixture of customer satisfaction campaigns and documents with exhausted and burned out workers who may or may not be enjoying their jobs.

There are other sociological concepts can help us better understand the hospital setting, such as the lifeworld concept.

Jürgen Habermas used the word to signify the personal sense of society that we each hold. To Habermas, the lifeworld encompasses societal values and common understandings that we learn through ongoing interaction with others in our social setting. These are the things we take for granted as given – things that, when we travel outside our own realities, we may be shocked to see that others may do them differently.

The lifeworld of the hospital may not correspond neatly with our own personal lifeworld in which our daily lives are the norm. However, we have certain understandings of what happens in a hospital thus the values and practices there are not a total surprise. People take on the various types of patient roles (compliant or resistant) and worker roles (conscientious or alienated) yet all have a sense that the building and jobs there exist for the purpose of healing people from their maladies.

(If you watch television hospital shows, your values and expectations may vary if your favorite show is Grey’s Anatomy, ER, or Nip/Tuck!)

The concept of lifeworld may help explain various events in the hospital differently than can the total institution concept does. For example, my relative, who is typically a calm and low-key, at one point yelled at a hospital worker to “get the @#! out of my room!”

Looking at this incident with the total institution in mind, one can see that some abnormal acting out might easily result from the loss of individuality and conformity to the hospital schedule (and the subsequent loss of sleep) .

While I wasn’t present when my relative yelled at the hospital worker, I learned later that there had been some interactions between the two of them that irked my relative greatly. His meal had been delayed, it was well into the week of his stay, and the worker had finally delivered some cold food but had left it on a tray far from the bed.

clip_image005Thinking in terms of the lifeworld concept, his already damaged sense of autonomy was violated when his food was left in the room in a place that was inaccessible to him (he was unable to get out of bed). That worker’s behavior violated his sense that a hospital was a place where everyone was there to treat him and make him feel better.

It seems that the worker’s lifeworld was imbued with expectations about doing their job but not necessarily with a desire to put up with demanding patients.

Perhaps the worker was exhibiting sings of alienation from their job and therefore felt perfectly fine with annoying a patient who annoyed him. It seems the two lifeworlds were colliding because their expectations and values were not coinciding.

Habermas was concerned about the power and capital infiltrating one’s lifeworld, resulting in less communicative action and more tension and destabilization.

The hospital incident was preceded by a lack of clear and consistent communication between patients. The bureaucratic demands on the staff and the patients’ isolation from social interactions fostered this lack of communication. Thus, each set of participants are not fully able to share their concerns, values, and opinions about anything much less the tasks at hand.

Considering hospital stays using the lifeworld concept can give us insight into the dynamics of what goes on in terms of structure and constraint, and also we might encourage more communicative action to allow for more worker empowerment and patient satisfaction.

What other sociological concepts and theories might be applied to this situation?

April 02, 2009

Differential Opportunity for Criminal Behavior

author_brad By Bradley Wright

Jocelyn Addison, Nia McBrayer, and Jenniffer Watson are three college-aged women who needed some money. They could get a job, but that would probably cramp their style—with work hours and all. They could have asked their parents or family, but maybe they felt shy or had done that a lot before. So, instead, they decided to rob a Dollar Store in Bedford, Ohio. (Now that raises red flags right there. Is a Dollar Store the best place to find a lot of money? Why not go rob the Two-Dollar Store and double your take?).

They walked in with masks and a BB gun (in case the store was defended by a small bird?) and demanded money. The manager claimed that she couldn’t open the safe, (got to watch those crafty Dollar Store employees), and so the three young ladies left empty-handed. The manager called the police, who apprehended them about a mile away from the store, and each woman was charged with robbery.

Now, it might sound like these three novice criminals didn’t know what they were doing, but, to the contrary, when the police searched their car, they found a printed document, downloaded from the web, entitled: “How to Commit Armed Robbery in Six Easy Steps.” This document, downloaded 12 hours before the crime (so that they had enough time to learn the subtleties of robbery), spelled out exactly what a prospective robber should do, and they had followed some of its advice.

clip_image001The funny thing is that this guide was written as a joke. For example, the first step advises the reader to get appropriate gear, such as a mask or sunglasses. A ski mask “gives you a badass look as well as conceal your appearance.” The website promises good things with the mask, for wearing one will reduce “your chances of being caught… by .001%.” Next you need a big bag for carrying all the loot that you’ll get. The website recommends one with a dollar sign printed on its side, like in cartoons. After that, the website offers valuable guidance on picking partners, planning the robbery, executing it, and getting away.

What’s the point of this true-but-funny story? It illustrates that not everyone has the same access to crime—a line of thinking developed by sociologists Richard Cloward and Lloyd Ohlin. As the story about the Dollar Store robbers suggests, some people, don’t have the knowledge needed to pull of crimes successfully. They don’t have family members or friends to teach them how to do it, and some crimes require special knowledge. Okay, robbing a Dollar Store might be pretty straightforward, but what about opening a safe or embezzling someone or creating counterfeit money? Some crimes take a certain amount of expertise, and many people do not have that expertise.


Other people do not have the opportunities to commit certain crimes. Some crimes need a person to have access to specific people and situations. Do you want to defraud stockholders? Well, you should probably have a job in a stock-trading company. Want to commit white-collar crime? It helps to have a white-collar job.

This differential access to crime compliments an idea that most of us are familiar with, and has been studied a lot in sociology--differential access to conventional gain, such as schooling and employment. Not everyone can pay for college or knows how to get into good colleges. Not everyone has the connections or experience needed to land a good job. In a way this makes the world unfair, for those who have can get more.

This discussion makes one wonder about the role of the internet. I don’t know if you’ve tried lately, but you can find information about just about anything online. I once challenged a colleague to come up with some human activity that wasn’t represented on-line, and he guessed “elbow fetish.” Well, it turns out that there are plenty of people who live in appreciation of the well-turned elbow. Go figure.

There is plenty of information on-line on the techniques of criminal behavior. For proprietary sake, I won’t list the sites here, but they are out there. So it’s possible that the advent of the web might give more people more ability to commit crimes more effectively. I just suppose that you have to be careful about which advice you follow.

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