10 posts from May 2009

May 30, 2009

Generational Differences, Cartoons, and Cooperation

jessicacollett By Jessica Collett

University of Notre Dame

I’m a member of Generation X . My students, on the other hand, are mostly Millennials, sometimes referred to as Generation Y. This difference extends beyond age. As C. Wright Mills explains in The Sociological Imagination, our history and biography are profoundly connected. As different generational cohorts we experienced unique defining moments and cultural influences that have shaped our hopes and our fears, our personalities and our preferences.

For example, because I came of age during the Cold War, the villains in my favorite childhood action movies were Russian or Eastern European. Today, pop culture bad guys tend to be Arabs. In college, I associated one night stands with AIDS, they are associated with the “hook-up” culture. Public service announcements of my youth warned against the devastating effects of drugs (mostly crack cocaine). Today, the truth campaign against smoking and tobacco is Gen Y’s PSA of record.

Increasingly professors and employers are trying to use their knowledge about these cohorts to increase learning, attract top applicants, and enhance employee productivity. Although a tremendous amount has been written, one of the main sources of information on the Millennials is Millennials Rising: The Next Great Generation”(2000) by Neil Howe and William Strauss. While there is debate over the generalizability of Howe and Strauss’s assertions, one of their findings that has captured the attention of many is Millennials’ preferences for collaboration. Many believe that they favor teamwork over independent ventures, choosing clip_image002cooperation over competition.

Maybe globalization is partly responsible for this shift, specifically the diffusion of Saturday morning programming. One of the things that diffuses across the world with globalization is culture, both material and symbolic. Material culture is the “things” of a culture – its food, tools, and art (including children’s television shows). Symbolic culture is the values, beliefs, and norms associated with a group. The two types of culture are intricately connected.

For instance, a cultural group’s art (material culture) likely reflects the group’s values or norms (symbolic culture) and television shows are no exception. When I ask my students what their favorite childhood programs were growing up, The Mighty Morphin Power Rangers always tops the list. What students may not realize is that Power Rangers, actually imported from Japan, is laden with cultural messages that emphasize cooperation over competition. In the end it always takes all the Power Rangers coming together to overtake evil, demonstrating that the whole is better than the sum of its parts.

While the United States has prized individualism for much of its history, Asia traditionally has a much more cooperative culture. Children’s programming in both countries largely reflects these values. Take, for example, national superheroes. In his chapter, “Transformational Magic: Some Japanese Super-Heroes and Monsters,” from The Worlds of Japanese Popular Culture: Shifting Boundaries and Global Cultures (1998), Tom Gill discusses two superheroes of the mid-twentieth century, Superman and Ultraman. Superman is quintessentially American. He’s an immigrant to the United States from some place far away. His human form lets his viewers relate to him and see his power as their potential. He’s ultimately alone, with no Superdad or Supermom or Supersiblings, yet he can win every battle. His story stresses individual achievement to the American children who look up to him. Gill contrasts Superman with Ultraman, Japan’s superhero. Ultraman, unlike Superman, never flies solo. His family grows over time, and his brothers, parents, and other kin are included in storylines and spin-offs. Ultraman often calls home for help in order to defeat his opponent. Watching these programs, Japanese children learn filial loyalty and the value of solidarity.

Ultraman might have never made it to the United States, but other Japanese characters and shows increasingly have. In addition to Power Rangers, many children today follow Teen Titans, Pokemon, and Hamtaro. The opening and closing sequences of Hamtaro, a cartoon about the adventures of a group of hamsters known as the Ham-Hams, are rich with cultural messages, not only of solidarity and cooperation, but also of the importance of school:

It's Hamtaro time!

…When we work together it's much better!

…My best friend!

…My Ham-Hams!

If she heads for trouble, we won't let her!

…Laura's gone to school, let's go to our Ham-Ham Clubhouse!image

We can fix their troubles just be quiet as a mouse

Watch out for those cats you know they're smarter than you think

But if we work together we can make their plans sink!


Snoozer, Howdy, Penelope, Panda,

My best friends!

Oxnard, Bijou, Cappy, Maxwell

My Ham-Hams!

Dexter, Boss, Pashmina, Jingle


Little Hamsters, Big Adventures!

'scuse me while I work out, gotta run on my wheel


Hamtaro's here to help you!


Hamtaro's team is for you!

Snoozer, Penelope, Panda, Howdy, Oxnard, Bijou & Boss let’s go!

Zersnoo, Pepenelo, Sobs, Dapan, Dehow Nardox Joubi & Hamtaro!

…Let’s make a wish ­ ooh, ooh

Make it come true

Singing along with us is all you do!

Come on and do your very best, ooh, ooh

Get a hundred on your test

All of your dreams will come true

…This will be our song, come on and sing

Snoozer, Penelope, Panda, Howdy, Oxnard Bijou & Boss let’s go!

Zersnoo, Pepenelo, Sobs, Dapan, Dehow Nardox Joubi & Hamtaro!

Little Hamsters, Big Adventures

Ham-Ham, Hamtaro!

Contrasting the above songs with the theme song of Jimmy Neutron , an American cartoon, is particularly striking:

From here to the stars,

With my candy bars,

Rides a kid

With a knack image

For inventions.

A super-powered mind,

A mechanical canine, 

He rescues the day

From sure destruction.

…He's gotta save the world

And get to school on time,

So many things to do

And not much time

Who can we count on?

Jimmy Neutron!

Who can we count on?

Jimmy Neutron!

Who can we count on?

Jimmy Neutron!

Unlike the Hamtaro songs, which highlight the group or team and go so far as to list the names of all of the Ham-Hams, Jimmy Neutron’s episodes and theme songs emphasize the importance of one boy who must constantly save the world. Jimmy Neutron was born with “a knack for inventions [and] a super-powered mind” and school is mentioned in passing, as one of the many things he has to do. Hamtaro, on the other hand, emphasizes doing one’s very best and making a hundred on a test, to make all one’s dreams come true.

While I don’t know of any scientific research on the power of these children’s shows for fostering cooperation or competition, sociology is rich with research on the influence of the media on our perceptions and behavior. It might just be that one of the reasons the Millennials value collaboration is all those Saturday mornings spent with the Power Rangers and the success of the team-oriented shows that continue to follow might be suggestive of media’s tendency to both shape and reflect culture. It might just be that shows demonstrating cooperation over competition are more appealing to today’s young people.

May 26, 2009

Age, Cohort, and Period Effects of Religion

author_brad By Bradley Wright

In sociological research, we often study the change of things over time. It’s reasonably easy to demonstrate how something changes over time, but it’s more difficult to explain why it changes because there are multiple causal processes that produce such change. In particular, three that are frequently described in demographic research are age, cohort, and period effects. I’ll illustrate each one using data about religious change over time.

An age effect is how people change as they get older. As people progress from childhood to adolescence to adulthood they go through various changes. Not only do their bodies change (as we start to lament once we hit middle age), but they change socially as well. For example, political beliefs can change with age; many people report being more liberal in their youth and more conservative in their older age. People tend to earn more money as they age too (at least until they hit retirement).

In terms of religion, it’s commonly observed the people become more religious as they age. To illustrate this, I examined data from the General Social Survey (GSS), a survey collected every two or three years from 1972 to the present. One of the questions asked if respondents identified with a formal religion, and, if so, which one. In the following figure, I chart how many of the respondents professed themselves to be Christians as a function of age. About 75% of the respondents in their twenties professed Christianity (the bar on the left), and this increased steadily until almost 90% of those in their seventies and eighties professed Christianity. This illustrates an age effect—adherence to Christianity increases with age.

clip_image002Not only do people change with age, but they also change with when they were born. Different cohorts (or generations) act and believe differently than other generations.

Here’s an easy example: If you’re a college student, go find your parents’ high school yearbooks and get a laugh out of how they dressed. In the 1970s and 80s, boys wore their hair long, and girls had frizzy hair, and we all wore embarrassingly short shorts. If you want to see something really crazy, go back another generation and look at young people from the 1960s.

With religion, we might expect a similar effect. Maybe different generations experience religion differently, beyond how they age. To examine this, I used GSS data to look at the relationship between age and Christianity for three different birth cohorts—respondents born in the 1940s and the 1950s. The first graph replicates the graph above, levels of Christianity over age, for people born in the 1940s. The next for those in the 1950s. As you can see, the relationship between age and Christianity changes by cohort. The respondents who were born in the 1940s held steady in their profession of Christianity as they aged, but the later cohort actually declined somewhat.



In addition to age and cohort effects, there are also have history effects. Here society changes in some way that affects everyone. The classic example is the Great Depression of the 1930s. It affected people regardless of their age or their birth cohort. Various aspects of religion change with historical changes. Wars and other times of trouble might reinforce the strength of religious beliefs. The social turmoil of the 1960s led young people to question existing social institutions, including organized religion.

As a simple illustration of a historical effect, I took levels of professed Christianity by decade, for the 1970s, 80s, 90s, and the 2000s. As shown in the graph, a smaller percentage of the population is professing Christianity with each decade. (To be clear, since the population is growing, there are actually more


professed Christians in the country now than in the 1970s, they just constitute a smaller percentage.) This appears to be a historical effect—the times they are a changing.

If this weren’t confusing enough, age effects can change by both cohorts and periods. (In statistical terms, this is a called an interaction effect.) So, the relationship between age and Christianity now might be different than it was in the past. Who knows, maybe the relationship between age and cohort various by historical period.

The upshot of all of this is that it’s rather difficult to make sense of social changes over time, and this leads to a fair amount of confusion about what’s really going on in society. What seems to be an easy question, for example, changes in professed Christianity over time, is somewhat difficult to make sense of. In this post, I’ve only looked at one aspect of religion, but we could do similar analyses for other religions as well as other aspects of religion, such as belief in God, importance of religion, and attendance at religious services.

I suppose that this post serves as a warning about over-simplifying social trends. If nothing else, this difficulty will always give us sociologists something to do with our time.

May 22, 2009

Cognitive Dissonance and Sociology Classes


author_sally By Sally Raskoff

Does your sociology class cause you some discomfort as you learn about topics from this new perspective? Do some of the research findings and sociological perspectives conflict with your own world view or beliefs? Sometime sociology classes produce cognitive dissonance, or a situation where contradictory beliefs require us to change our minds about something.

If this sounds familiar, you are not alone in this experience and there are a number of ways you might deal with it:

clip_image0061. You might completely reject any or all of the sociological ideas and concepts. If you are learning about concepts or research findings that seem to conflict with your values or beliefs, you may decide that sociologists are just wrong. This may be especially likely if you are a member of a family, cultural, or religious group that has strong beliefs about such concepts and topics. The problem with this rejection is that you will not be open to learning anything sociological. So your sociology class might be a wasted effort.

2. You might reject your values and beliefs when they conflict with the information you are exposed to in your sociology class. This may alienate you from your family, friends, and community. This reaction doesn’t serve you well either, because you won’t learn anything.

3. You may consider how the new information meshes with your beliefs and values, to clarify and analyze how your own thoughts correspond to those of the wider society. You may eventually accept what the sociological findings have to say or you may not, but at least you have considered them critically.

clip_image009This third response comprises true learning and is the goal of education in any academic discipline. Being exposed to new ideas and ways of thinking is the hallmark of our educational system when it works best. This doesn’t mean that the process is easy or simple or that you have to completely agree with everything you are learning.

For example, same-sex marriage is a big topic in the news and in many of my blogs. I am well aware that many readers may not “support” the idea of same-sex couples having the right to marry. However, my goal in using that issue to teach sociology is not to gain converts to that cause. My goal is to frame the issue in a number of ways that allow people to see it in a different light, using sociology to better understand not only the issue but also our societal dynamics and cultural values.

In fact, considering how your own values and beliefs resonate with the issues is a wonderful learning tool. It helps you understand different sides of an issue you might not have considered and to bring your own assumptions, values, and beliefs into view and consciousness. It’s useful to analyze one’s own perspective critically because this process can help you reinforce your belief system or modify it if necessary – but you won’t know if your system fits you well until you analyze it!

In the educational process, we are often exposed to ideas that disrupt our traditional ways of thinking. How we deal with these ideas is important if we are taking our education seriously. Education is the process of learning new things and those new things cause us to change our ways of thinking. This does not necessarily mean we start to believe everything we hear, but we do think more critically about what we hear, assess that information, and decide what to do with those ideas new to us.

clip_image012Sociology is about how we live our lives and why we make the choices we do, so taking sociology classes can be very disruptive to our sense of self. For example, in the typical sociology class, students may become very discouraged as the semester progresses and they learn the depth of our societal problems and how most of our solutions have unintended consequences and causing other problems. We also learn that our own personal problems are linked to wider “public” problems and thus they can seem intractable and perpetuating. We may also learn that our own beliefs can be considered prejudiced and discriminatory from another’s viewpoint. This can be painful.

We also learn in sociology classes that societal institutions (e.g., family, religion, economy) change, albeit slowly, that all societies have dysfunctions, including those between their ideals and their realities, and that while there will be power abuses and conflict between different societal entities, society has ways to balance power and deal with conflict.

Sociology presents not just social problems, but possible solutions. As a students of sociology, it is imperative that we look beyond what seems right or wrong about what we learn, but how we can use the information to create positive change.

May 19, 2009

Pink Flamingos and Social Class

author_karen By Karen Sternheimer


On a recent walk through my neighborhood, I noticed an abundance of plastic pink flamingos on several families’ lawns. They immediately stood out as unusual; they hadn’t been there days before, and they appeared on several lawns on different streets.

clip_image006What was behind this new fad? Are pink flamingos the new must-have for lawn decoration?

clip_image008I thought this would be unlikely in the neighborhood, an upper-middle class area populated by Los Angeles professionals. Lawn ornaments have symbolic meaning, and pink flamingos—fairly or unfairly—have been linked with a lack of taste and tackiness. Urban professionals, especially in image-conscious Los Angeles, are more likely to try to project an air of sophistication.

Homeowners around here spend a great deal of time and money on their gardens, and very few if any have plastic lawn ornaments. As you can see from the pictures below, many homes have lush landscaping and residents are very devoted to tending them (or paying others to do so). Landscape architects’ signs frequently grace front yards, and those in the know can recommend the “hottest” designer to their friends and neighbors.


You can see just a few examples of neighborhood yards. In fact, beautiful gardens are so valued here that a clip_image014local club regularly offers tours of some of the community’s best gardens. Being included on this tour is quite an accomplishment. Yards with plastic lawn ornaments are unlikely to garner positive attention, and yet they have appeared on more and more lawns….
I found a clue to this mystery while walking past a local church that had a particularly large flock of plastic flamingos on its well-tended lawn. A pink banner hanging above said “The Flamingos are Coming!” and I figured that the plastic birds must have something to do with a church-sponsored program.

clip_image016Then I noticed a sign hanging from clip_image018one of the flamingos on another lawn; as you can see in the picture below, the flamingos were placed there by someone other than the home’s resident to get the homeowner to donate money. In order to have the flamingos removed, the recipient needed to make a donation. The recipient is also encouraged to “flock” a friend’s lawn in order to get them to contribute as well.

clip_image022After looking online I found that other communities also use pink flamingos for charitable events. A company that sells the flamingos in bulk provides ideas about how to use them to run a fundraiser; one suggestion even includes requesting that those who have been “flocked” pay extra “insurance” to make sure clip_image020that they don’t get re-flocked by someone else.

The site flockofpinkflamingos.com describes those who get flocked as “victims” of a “hit list”; clearly the pink flamingos are chosen in part to embarrass the recipient. While not explicitly stated, the assumption is that flocked people will be too mortified to keep the flamingos on their front lawn and will make a donation ASAP.

This assumption only works if enough people find the pink flamingos tacky or fear that their neighbors will, drawing on notions of social class. French sociologist Pierre Bourdieu noted that social class is not just about how much money we might have, but it is in part defined by aesthetic distinctions we make about our clothes, food, and yes, our homes.

According to Bourdieu, we derive cultural capital by knowing the unwritten rules of a certain social group. For instance, knowing which fork to use at a formal banquet, what to say and what not to say in certain social contexts, what brands to buy and avoid all are examples of cultural capital. The flamingo fundraiser isclip_image024 based on the presumption that those flocked all know that pink plastic ornaments are not a gift but rather a way to nominate someone for social derision.

In neighborhoods where lawn ornaments like pink flamingos are common, this fundraiser wouldn’t work. It also wouldn’t be effective to flock a stranger’s house: they could just throw the flamingos away. By flocking a friend, the recipient is more likely to feel social pressure to contribute and avoid appearing stingy.

This is an example of informal social control, where our behavior is influenced by those closest to us. We might not have a problem hanging up on a stranger calling for a donation or throw away a letter asking for money, but it’s harder to say no to somebody we know. This is especially the case for people we see regularly, or in the flamingo example, are members of the same church we go to.

We can learn a lot about the intricacies of social class just by taking a walk. What lessons about social class have you found in your neighborhood?

May 16, 2009

Diary of a Mad Black Woman? Double Minority Status and (Un/Under) Employment

author_janis By Janis Prince Inniss

I recently learned that an acquaintance, Jim, has been unemployed for a while. I don’t know exactly for how long, but this middle-aged white man had held a number of important sounding positions. I don’t know how or why he is now jobless, but he explained that he is still unemployed because he is the wrong race and gender to be hired today. “It’s because I’m not a black J0234700woman,“ he said.

I am. I have a doctoral degree and am the “right" race and gender—a twofer for any employer. They can check off two check boxes that demonstrate their diversity initiative in  action. African/American/black? Check. Female? Check.

In the context of this moment in U.S. history maybe his comment was understandable or excusable. There are currently two songs celebrating “chocolate”: “Chocolate High” and “Chocolate Legs”. And there’s newly elected President Barack Obama. Being black is in, right?

After all of the years of debates about affirmative action and quotas, blacks are preferred, right? All the talk about cultural competence and diversity means that companies are seeking blacks. And as a black woman—and therefore a double minority—I should be solid gold!

So why aren’t folks lined up at the door to hire me? Well, perhaps because I have not been looking for a job. That seems like a pretty good answer. But despite my supposedly ideal race and gender, my research position at a university (supposedly a bastion of liberal leanings) keeps shrinking.

It's not that I’m a terrible employee, which would override my race and gender in order to maintain important academic standards. All of my performance evaluations have been very good. I've also been elected to a departmental council, suggesting that I am also liked and trusted by my peers.

If I’m a good worker, well liked, and black and female, why am I under-employed? I’ve recently been made part-time as some of my grant funded projects have ended. Where are the overtures to me that Jim and others imagine?

In reality, being black and female is no guarantee of employment. Many states are facing their highest unemployment rates in decades. Even in prosperous economic times, unemployment rates among blacks in the U.S. are highest; this same group is being hit harder than whites or Latinos by the current recession. In February, the unemployment rate for whites was 7.3 percent, 10.9 percent for Hispanics, and 13.4 percent for blacks. Why might this be the case? (Think about the industries that have employed large numbers of blacks and those hardest hit by the recession.)

The institute at which I work has three departments and employs about 500 people. (Actually, because of the economic downturn, the institute is now part of a newly formed college that includes five other departments. However, given its newness and my relative unfamiliarity with it, I’m choosing to ignore that for now.) I’m on the faculty in a research position. And in my division, I believe I’m one of two faculty members who are not full-time. At the moment I’m barely over half-time and that is projected to decrease to 35%. (The other person in the department is a white woman who remains much closer to full-time status.) As far as I can tell, of the approximately 85 faculty at the institute, 7 are black; this is less than eight percent black faculty in a city that is more than one quarter black. So there is no clear advantage based on race and gender here.

clip_image002According to the Institute’s Diversity Plan, there is an expectation that “administrative and organizational processes” is evident in "hiring practices (and) staffing patterns". But as my experience demonstrates, this does not mean that there is any advantage to being black and/or female.

I don’t think anybody owes me anything. Well, that’s not quite true. A few people do, but they know who they are and that has nothing to do with employment. I digress. I’ve worked hard to earn everything I have and expect to always be successful. My success is also due to the fact that many people (of all hues and stripes) have gone out of their way to be supportive of me.

It was and is, however, rather odd to bump up against the notion that my race and gender put me in a position of privilege, especially at a time when I am under-employed. I don’t see this privilege in my own lived experiences nor in the statistics of what is occurring to others across the nation. What do you think fuels the notion that black women are forcing white men out of jobs?

May 13, 2009

Restorative Justice

author_brad By Bradley Wright

Have you ever embarrassed someone intentionally? If so, why did you do it? Maybe it was an accident or a joke taken too far. Maybe you wanted to get back at them for something wrong they had done to you. If you’ve ever done this, you’re not alone, for the criminal justice system also uses embarrassment and shame to accomplish its goals.

Perhaps the most common use of shame regarding crime involves the government or other officials shaming rule-breakers as a form of punishment. The logic of rational choice theory suggests that threatened shame should increase the costs of crime and thus deter future crime.

Thus shame gets added to a list of potential punishments, including prison and fines that keep people from committing crime. A wide variety of shame is used in criminal justice as a punishment. Arrestees have their mug-shots published (and they are never flattering). Some communities publish the names of men arrested as johns in prostitution stings. There have even been attempts to require sex offenders to use a special color license plate for their car.

clip_image002Shaming wrong-doers isn’t limited to the criminal justice system. It is also used as a strategy for dealing with everyday rule-breakers. A business professor at Texas A&M International University caught six of his students plagiarizing on a research paper, and he wanted to teach them a lesson, so he published their names as plagiarizers on the class website for the whole class to see.

He explained his public humiliation of these students as follows: "Plagiarism is manifestly unfair and disrespectful to your classmates," Young wrote on his blog. "There are students taking the course who are working very, very hard to learn a subject that in many cases is foreign to them. A plagiarizer is implicitly treating the honest, hard-working student as a dupe. Of course, the plagiarizer is the dupe or else would not need to plagiarize." So, not only did  these students flunk the class, they were also called “dupes”. Bummer. (By the way, the professor was immediately fired for revealing the course grades of those six students—that’s a big no-no at most universities and colleges).

Shaming is taking on a new and very different role in criminal justice with the increased popularity of restorative justice. In traditional, adversarial justice systems, crimes are viewed as occurring against the states. So, if person A assaults person B, it’s the state, rather than person B, who prosecutes them. Restorative justice, however, focuses on the offender, victim, and community collectively. The goal is not to punish offenders, per se, but rather to make amends to the victim and to restore the offender.

There are various forms of restorative justice, but they tend to have several things in common. The victim of the crime actively participates in the proceedings and they have the opportunity to express how the crime has affected their lives and to have a say in what happens to the offender. The offender, in turn, gets to tell their side of the story and are given a chance to make things right with the victim. So, the offender might pay for damages the victim occurred or offer free labor to assist the victim.

Sometimes just the offender and victim meet to work things out, but other times families and friends of both offender and victim participate as a way to help keep the offender accountable and to support the victim.

Various studies have looked at the effectiveness of restorative justice, and the overall picture is positive. A summary by Sherman and Strang found that victims who went through the restorative justice process were better able to deal with the negative consequences of the crime. Relative to victims going through a traditional justice, those participating in restorative justice were able to function better at work and in other daily activities and they slept better at night. Furthermore, it seems likely that offenders who go through restorative justice are less likely to commit future crimes. It’s also important to note that there is little evidence that bringing the offender and victim together again results in any more violent or abusive behavior against the victim.

Even if proven effective, I doubt that restorative justice would ever become the dominant approach in our criminal justice system because, if nothing else, the current system makes too much money for too many lawyers. Still, the idea of holding a guided conversation, rather than a juried trial, for some crimes is appealing. Who knows, maybe someday that will be the fate of students who plagiarize.

May 10, 2009

Studying Subcultures using Participant Observation

Becky_Conway By Becky Conway

Graduate student, Vanderbilt University

One of the joys of a being a sociologist is that we are never at a loss for material. People surround me every day, and they never cease to amaze me. I am forever entertained watching and learning about my fellow homo sapiens.

I recently met a group of people that utterly intrigued me. Wanting to know everything about them, and knowing virtually nothing, I didn’t know where to begin. I decided that the best way to understand them and generate questions would be to conduct participant observation. This way, I could experience their social world firsthand.

It all started about one year ago when I encountered a subculture known as furries. This phenomenon first surfaced around 1980, and many attend regional and national conventions where furs can meet other furs and attend sessions to help them improve their preferred art forms (written, visual or performing in fur suits). The largest convention in the world, Anthrocon, is held in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania every July, and 3,390 people attended last year.


This March I attended a smaller convention as a participant observer. My foray into the field taught me how the process of gaining access and becoming a community member can aid the construction of research questions. The experience also taught me a few tips on how to implement the method successfully.

My first objective was to gain access to the community. Aside from registering for the “con,” I decided I would need my own “fursona,” or furry persona. What animal should I be? The answer, quite honestly, came faster than I expected (a white tiger, for those who are curious). My ability to quickly decide my own animal identity caused me to reflect on why I chose this animal. Did it come from my childhood experience of seeing a white tiger for the first time? Did I identify with certain aspects of this animal’s behavior? My interview with myself spurred my curiosity about other people’s identities and how they came to understand what animal they were.

My time at the convention allowed me to ask others about their own identity. Some chose an animal with characteristics that they idealized (such as strength, fearlessness, or gregariousness). Others chose to be something completely different; a male might pick a female animal, for example.

I also noticed that the group was largely comprised of white males. This observation led me to question why this was the case in a group that appears to be open to every gender and sexual classification. I also learned about different cliques that exist within the group and discovered who were the most well-known and respected members.

This information is important to have prior to constructing interview questions. If the respected members approve a study, other members are more likely to participate. And if I know that there are cliques in advance, I can stratify my sample, or look at groups separately to see if there are meaningful differences within these subgroups.

Aside from gaining a greater understanding of the group, I also learned some valuable lessons about implementing participant observation. Having never conducted such a study before, I was anxious about the process. I had the overwhelming fear that if I screwed up, I would not be able to conduct my study and my life as a researcher would be ruined. I sought the advice of a faculty mentor for help. Her words of wisdom were invaluable:

  1. Become an information kleptomaniac. We can learn a lot from doing a content analysis, as Bradley Wright recently indicated in his post on sport and gender. Therefore, grab everything that is free and not nailed down. The information these items convey can become a valuable resource for understanding some of the general norms and ideas of a culture.
  2. Become a photographer if it is feasible and does not violate anyone’s privacy. Taking pictures is an excellent way to bring your subjects and your experiences to life, especially to those outside of sociology as well as outside of academia. It also allows you to go back and see things that you may not have noticed in the moment.
  3. Have a weak bladder. Okay, not really, but one way to achieve success in the field, especially the first time out, is to write down everything. This act needs to take place behind the scenes, such as in a bathroom stall, to avoid arousing suspicion among community members. Have paper and a pen that you can fit in a pocket or purse, and excuse yourself every 15-30 minutes to write down your observations and thoughts. Believable excuses are somewhat dependent on the context, so it helps to know the scene in which your observations will take place in advance and to have your excuses prepared. In my case, the convention took place in a hotel which afforded me the opportunity to “run up to my room for a minute” and “check to see if I left something in the car.”

These tips are just a few of the ways to have a successful first encounter as a participant observer. There are many sources that provide guidelines and other “tips” for all research methods, a few of which are:

Tricks of the Trade: How to Think About Your Research While You're Doing It by Howard Becker

Interviewing for Social Scientists by Hilary Arksey and Peter Knight

Ethnography: Principles in Practice by Paul Atkinson and Martyn Hammersley

Designing and Conducting Survey Research by Louis Rea and Richard Parker

And should you find yourself conducting participant observations in the future, just remember: be a kleptomaniac photographer with a weak bladder.

May 07, 2009

News Coverage of Crime Victims


By Terry Glenn Lilley

Graduate Student, University of Delaware

Most of you have probably heard of Laci Peterson. She was pregnant with a baby boy when, on Christmas Eve of 2002, she was reported missing by her husband, Scott. Four months later, on April 14, 2003, Laci Peterson’s decapitated body was pulled from the San Francisco Bay. Four days after that, Scott Peterson was arrested for murdering his wife. He was later convicted and is currently on death row.

But how many of us have ever heard about Evelyn Hernandez? Evelyn Hernandez was a Salvadoran immigrant and single mother living in San Francisco. Seven months before Laci Peterson was reported missing, Evelyn Hernandez and her five year old son were reported missing. Like Laci Peterson, Evelyn Hernandez was pregnant and was due to deliver a baby boy in a week’s time. Three months after being reported missing, Ms. Hernandez’s decapitated body was pulled from the San Francisco Bay on July 24, 2002. This was nine months before Laci Peterson’s body would be recovered.

The circumstances of the two cases are remarkably similar. Yet one of the stories received considerable media attention while the other received very little. In the four months between Laci Peterson’s reported disappearance and husband Scott Peterson’s arrest on April 18, 2003, the San Francisco Chronicle published 32 stories about her disappearance and murder, four of which were on the front page. Meanwhile, the newspaper published a total of only four stories about Evelyn Hernandez and none of them made the front page.

The disparity in coverage wasn’t isolated to the pages of the San Francisco Chronicle. I conducted a LexisNexis Academic search in October 2008 for news items in U.S. Newspapers and Wires containing the name “Laci Peterson”, (results in Figure 1 below), and found 8,141 separate entries. On the other hand, a LexisNexis Academic search using the same parameters for “Evelyn Hernandez” produced only 57 results (0.7% of the total stories devoted to Laci Peterson).

What’s more, of the 57 stories mentioning Ms. Hernandez, 41 of them (72%) only mention her in relation to the Peterson case. One of the reasons for this is that during the Scott Peterson’s trial his defense team mentioned the Hernandez case to suggest that a serial killer might be targeting pregnant women in the area. tgl chart

So, why the disparity in news coverage? Some researchers suggest that a case’s novelty determines the level of attention it receives. The race, class, and gender of the victim also play a role. Victims who are white, middle to upper-class females receive more media and political attention than their lower-class counterparts of color. This disparity matters for a variety of reasons. For one thing, highly-publicized cases often receive more police attention and, later when the perpetrator is caught, more attention from prosecutors. These cases are also often used to rally support for legislation.

For instance, the 1992 murder of 18-year old Kimber Reynolds was used to help gain support for California’s “Three Strikes” law. The 1994 rape and murder of 7 year old Meghan Kanka from New Jersey was used to help create and pass that state’s sex offender registration and community notification law which has become known as “Megan’s Law”. You’re probably familiar with of “AMBER Alerts”, which are issued to inform communities and law enforcement of child abduction cases. AMBER Alerts are named for 9-year-old Texan Amber Hagerman, who was kidnapped and murdered in 1996. Likewise, Laci Peterson’s murder in 2002 was used to pass “Laci and Connor’s Law” or “The Unborn Victims of Violence Act”. This act was passed by the United States Congress in 2004 and recognizes a child in utero that is injured or killed during the commission of federal crimes of violence as a legal victim.

In each of these cases, the victim was a white female. And, like the Peterson case, each had similarities to other crimes committed against women of color that received little to no media attention. Thus, while most of us have heard about Laci Peterson and Meghan Kanka, few of us know about Evelyn Hernandez, Tamika Huston, Dannarriah Finley, or Alexis Patterson, nonwhite victims of similar crimes whose names you might not know. Their murders didn’t make national headlines and no laws bear their names.

Some might argue that no matter which cases we rally around, protections for victims are being put in place so we should be satisfied either way. But if only a certain type of victim spurs action while other victims are ignored, already subordinated groups become more disenfranchised. Mourning white victims with news stories and then memorializing them with legislation can make minority victims seem even more nameless and forgotten.

Exactly what is it that makes Laci Peterson more newsworthy than Evelyn Hernandez? Why don’t we have ALEXIS alerts? Dannarriah’s law? What other ways do you think race, class, and gender shape our beliefs about crime?

May 04, 2009

"Beauty" at the Expense of Aging

author_sally By Sally Raskoff

Have you noticed the plethora of people who have had “something done” cosmetically? Are you one of those people considering such work? I have had a mini-obsession of late in spotting cosmetic alterations and thinking about them sociologically. I’ve gotten pretty good at identifying people who have had cosmetic procedures – so much so that a make-up artist friend and I entertained ourselves at a high school reunion by quietly noting who had what done and when. Living in Los Angeles, there is a lot to see.

clip_image003Of course, most cultures socialize people to enhance their beauty and beauty does not come cheap or painless.

I just had a fascinating conversation with a friend who works as an aesthetician. I asked her why some of the people who have had work done look so odd – it’s not just that their features have been altered, their actual skin looks, well, it doesn’t look like normal skin.

She told me about dermabrasion, not to be confused with micro-dermabrasion. Dermabrasion is the more intense process in which the skin is abraded, under anesthesia, after which it grows back. It is this new skin that grows in to replace the removed skin that looks a bit too smooth, a bit too ”new”.

clip_image006The point of this is ostensibly to replace one’s aged wrinkled skin with new smooth skin – but the process is quite extreme, painful, and yields results that one may not expect. My friend mentioned someone who had this done who now has a face like a mask since her neck and ears and scalp have her normal skin while her face has the regenerated skin. She had this done years ago so it doesn’t age like the older skin nor does it eventually blend in.

Other cosmetic procedures include plastic surgery to remove saggy skin or to plump up facial features like the lips with implants. Collagen injections were popular for plumping up lips although the effects don’t last very long since the body works to remove the foreign substance. Moving fat from one area into the lips or injecting Botox or other similar substances also results in bigger lips and the effect may remain for a longer period of time.

clip_image009There are dangers to such procedures. Some people find that they are disfigured after such surgery, including facial muscle damage. My aesthetician friend has a client whose surgery did not go well and half of her face is frozen since those muscles no longer work. Also, even more tragically, are the cases where people have died from cosmetic surgeries. Kanye West's mother and author Olivia Goldsmith did.

What is it about our society that has made these procedures so popular? Even in these trying economic times, cosmetic surgery rates have increased (except among Caucasians).

While certain celebrities are obvious and extreme examples, the rates of augmentation and reconstruction among average people are fascinating to analyze. While there has been an overall decrease in plastic surgery, some procedures have actually risen in popularity; note the 203% increase in pectoral implants!


Table from http://www.plasticsurgery.org/Media/Statistics.html

How are these procedures different from the practices of other cultures such as foot binding in China, Mayan head shaping, or Thai neck rings? Besides the fact that the first two are no longer practiced, there may be no difference.

Because each culture has its own standards of beauty, the way people choose to enhance their appearance will vary among cultures.

What fascinates me is that typically cultures define beauty with standards related to health, elements related to sexual interest, or cultural markers of status and power. Thus clear skin, full red lips, shiny hair, and teeth signify attractiveness, all of which generate profit for companies that manufacture such products.

I wonder how the results of dermabrasion and extreme cosmetic surgeries can be considered attractive. Of course, the mismatch between the quest for beauty using these procedures and the actual outcome, especially over time, is a common one in any culture. We strive to be attractive yet whether or not we attain attractiveness is really another issue.

The concept of cultural lag can be useful here. Cultural lag holds that we develop technologies before we know how to effectively use them. Thus, the examples of people who over-use cosmetic procedures to such an extent that they don’t achieve the desired effect-- “attractiveness”.

Tattoos are another example of a procedure that can theoretically enhance one’s appearance in the short term but detract from it over time. When my daughters got their first tattoos a few years ago, I asked them what those tattoos would look like when in another 60 years when their skin begins to sag. I think they figure they can always have them removed, but I don’t think they’ve given it much thought. Likewise, I’m not sure people getting plastic surgery think about how their continued aging will affect their outcomes.

Will we continue using plastic surgery to “enhance” our looks? And if so, what does this tell us about the meaning of age and aging?

May 01, 2009

Who is Most Likely to be a Crime Victim?

author_karen By Karen Sternheimer

If you watch one of the many television crime dramas that are on now, you might think you know the answer to this question. But looking at the actual statistics might surprise you.

The Bureau of Justice Statistics has conducted the National Crime Victimization Survey (NCVS) each year since 1973, asking a random sample of Americans twelve and older about their experiences with crime during the past year.

This survey is important because many crimes, especially minor crimes like theft, never get reported to police. So if we relied solely on law enforcement agency data, we might never get a good picture of the prevalence of crime. For instance, by comparing the NCVS to the FBI's Uniform Crime Reports, a database of crimes and arrests based on law enforcement data, we can also get an idea of how many rapes get reported to the police and how many don’t.

Here are some things the NCVS teaches us about crime victimization from 1973 to 2006, the most recent year for which data are available:

1. Violent victimization is on the decline


Between 1973 and 1993, violent victimization held somewhat steady, hovering just under 50 per 1,000 (this means that for every thousand Americans, fifty were victims of violence) to around 20 per 1,000 in 2006. This trend mirrors FBI data, which also details a sharp crime decline after the early 1990s. As you can see below, property crime declined significantly too.


2. Teens and young adults are the most likely victims of violent crime


Young people are the most likely victims of violent crime. In 2006, young adults 20-24 were slightly more likely to report victimization than teens after many years of teens being the group most likely to be victims of violence. This isn’t necessarily because teens themselves are more violent—according to then FBI Uniform Crime Reports the vast majority of people arrested for violent crime (more than 80 percent) are adults.

Take a look at the lowest line on the graph above; despite the common perception that the elderly are highly likely to be victims of violence, they are the group least likely to be victimized.

3. Blacks are more likely to be victims of violence than whites


Unfortunately, the NCVS data on race only considers two categories. From the graph above, it is clear that black victimization is higher than the rate for whites. Although the rates for both groups have declined in recent years, we can see that black victimization has increased slightly, while white victimization has remained flat.

4. Males are more likely to be victims of violence than females


With the exception of rape, males are more likely to be the victims of violent crime than females are. As Sally Raskoff blogged about last year, we tend to believe that females are more vulnerable to violence. Boys and men are more likely to be victims of assault, robbery, and homicide than girls or women are.

5. Low-income people are more likely to be victims

The NCVS data reveal that those with household incomes below $7,500 are more than three times more likely to be robbed than those with incomes above $75,000. This might seem counterintuitive; wouldn’t wealthier people have more and better stuff to take? They probably do, but poorer people are more likely to live in higher crime neighborhoods, and criminals typically victimize those around them the most. It’s more convenient.

Poor people are not just more likely to be robbed. Those at the lowest income level are victims of aggravated assault at the rate of 13 per 1,000, compared with 3 per 1,000 in the $75,000 and over category.


Okay, now that we have some basic ideas about the age, race, gender, and class of the most likely victims of crime, let’s think about who is most likely to be featured in crime dramas. The victims on these shows tend to be (although are not always) sympathetic figures; after all, if we don’t care about the victim, we might not care if their assailants are caught and brought to justice.

This might lead to highlighting white female victimization, both in crime dramas and in the news to appeal to a specific target audience. Historically the fear for white women and children’s safety motivated the lynching of many black men and the passage of laws allegedly to protect women’s virtue.

In seeking a middle class audience, producers might also tend to focus on middle class victims, people we might imagine are “just like us” and therefore their victimization hits closer to home. We might also feel more emotional connection to stories about elderly victims, which heighten the sense of outrage against a heartless perpetrator.

So crime shows have a lot of compelling reasons for telling slightly different crime stories than the ones that happen in real life. Drama, after all, is heightened reality, not reality.

But it’s important to recognize that the abundance of crime dramas might distort our perception of who are most likely to be victims. Based on NCVS data, those who are young, black, male, and poor are disproportionally likely to be crime victims. Why do you think we have had an easier time viewing this group as the cause of crime, rather than as crime victims?

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