8 posts from August 2009

August 31, 2009

The Social Construction of Sex: Intersex as Evidence

author_sally By Sally Raskoff

In our society we take for granted that sex has only two categories: male and female. We learn in school that sex is caused or created by chromosomes, XX for females and XY for males. We assume that the typical path is that those sex categories create bodies with male or female characteristics. We teach in sociology classes that we then socially construct or build gender on top of the sex assignment based on those body characteristics.

All of this is founded upon the premise that sex has just those two categories. We tend to ignore the facts about sex that suggest that sex itself is also a socially constructed category.


The case of Caster Semenya has hit the news. She is an amazing athlete in track and field whose abilities were evident as a child. As she continues to win races, the controversy grows about her sex – is she a she or really a he? The Los Angeles Times published an article questioning the fairness of her competing as a woman since she appears to be a man.

A subsequent article cast her as a real person who has been teased since childhood about her appearance and abilities. However, an Associated Press video accompanying the story sounds suspicious, especially when they play a recording of her voice and assume everyone will hear it as a male voice. Note that the video also shows many images of her body and focuses on the area where breasts or curves would be expected on a typical female body. Semenya's story reminds us that biological sex is not always clear-cut.

Other articles in the Times bring up the dominant perspective on the variants of sex categories. The article below, to its credit, brings in the concept of Intersex that acknowledges how people may have variants of chromosomes and bodies that do not align with the expected XX female and XY male.

When the chromosomes present in a developing embryo give the instructions for hormones to work on the tissues and create the sex-specific physical structures, the hormones may not flow as instructed, the tissues may respond differently, or, later upon puberty, wholly different things may happen.

For example, a condition called 5 alpha reductase deficiency causes male infants to appear female, yet upon puberty they develop into fully functioning males. In societies without the medical resources that we have, they raise these children as girls and then accept them as men upon puberty (in the Dominican Republic and Papua New Guinea the condition occurs with frequency). However, in our society, we might surgically alter the person as a child or upon puberty to keep the gender assignment consistent.

Our dominant perspectives of sex and gender frames Intersex as a medical anomaly. However, using sociology, we can understand this situation more clearly.

Scholars disagree about the incidence of babies born with some form of Intersex condition. Biologist Anne Fausto-Sterling suggested that Intersex occurs at a rate of 1 in 2,000 births, yet other recent estimates range from 1 in 500 to 1 in 1,000. Either way, this happens fairly often!

In sports, where the sex distinction dictates which races you run and with whom you compete, the issue has been paramount. Yet the controversies are not often publicly discussed. The Los Angeles Times reports that eight female athletes in the last Olympics had XY chromosomes but were reinstated when it was also determined that they were physiologically female. (And isn’t it interesting that only women are scrutinized for their biological sex?)

Did you know that Texas marriage laws define their “marriage protection” statute by chromosomes and that a female with XY chromosomes can legally marry her female partner with XX chromosomes even though the state does not allow same-sex marriage? This could be useful for couples whose members include either transsexuals or Intersexuals.

In any case, our society has trouble understanding that these variations in sex may be part of our diversity as a species. Just as sexual orientation (though we have trouble with that one too) or other human characteristics that vary biological sex apparently can too. We accept that hair and eye color varies and that those characteristics have no implicit meaning yet we can’t seem to do the same for biological sex.

Sociologically, seeing how the cultural norms favor one category over another for specific types of traits demonstrates not only who has power in this society but also how we attribute meaning.

If we don’t allow ourselves to consider that there may be more than two types of sex categories, what does that mean to us as a culture and to people as individuals?

Beyond the issue of power and powerful groups based on membership in the privileged categories, what does it mean and what does it feel like to be in a non-dominant category?

In the past few years, groups of intersexed individuals have formed. The Intersex Society of North America has actually closed their doors but their website is still a useful resource. One of the ISNA founders, Cheryl Chase, has a strong presence on the internet. Organisation Intersex International is an active group providing perspective and resources for those who are part of the intersexed community or those who want to learn more.

Sociologically speaking, is there a social movement in the making? Perhaps as the experiences of intersexed people continue to be made public others will speak out and challenge the either/or notion of sex, which excludes those that don’t neatly fit into one category or another.

Photo source: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:20090819_Caster_Semenya.jpg

August 27, 2009

Who is Watching You? Surveillance in Society

author_janis By Janis Prince Inniss

On the way home from a beach getaway, my husband and I stopped at a national big box chain. I bought about three items including a t-shirt. Later that evening as I moved the shopping bag from that store I noticed that the t-shirt was not in it. My husband had not unpacked the bag and I could not find the t-shirt anywhere. We both recalled that the cashier said that she would put everything into one bag so there was no point in looking for another shopping bag.

Sure that the cashier must have forgotten to include the t-shirt, I called the store. A customer service representative checked to find out whether a ”sweep” of paid for but forgotten items included my t-shirt but that was not the case. When I balked at returning to that location—an hour away from my home—to claim the t-shirt once they found it, I was turned over to another representative. This time, upon request, I gave the representative a number on my receipt and she promised to call after reviewing “the video”. I had no idea there was video that might help resolve this. I know that many stores have video cameras now but I thought they yielded a more panoramic picture, aimed at catching shoplifters.

Within half an hour the representative called back to let me know that upon viewing the video, she saw me pay for the items, and heard the cashier say that she would put them all into one bag. The representative said she saw the cashier put all of the items, including my t-shirt into the bag! None of this explained what had become of my purchase but I was stunned to learn that I had been videotaped so closely and that there was audio. When did I give permission to be on this store’s video? How long will the store keep my image? And can I pop in, give them the number on my receipt, and view it?

The proliferation of security cameras is not confined to stores. Cities like Tampa and London have experimented with recording citizens in public spaces to aid security. In 2001, Tampa police installed 36 video cameras in its nightlife district (Ybor City) to help them find missing children and wanted felons, after using video cameras to support their security efforts for that year’s Super Bowl held in the city. There were signs in Ybor City warning people that the area was under video monitoring but the American Civil Liberties Union described this as akin to being in an (electronic) line-up without knowing it. There were protests against this so-called “face recognition surveillance” in Tampa and after two years the program was dropped—but not before the system falsely identified at least one man as being “wanted”.

When a 57-year old Tampa woman disappeared I sympathized with her and her family. Her son had found her apartment unlocked, but with her belongings intact. Police announced that the woman had bought a bus ticket under an alias and I began to suspect that this was not a typical missing persons case. Soon enough on the news I saw surveillance video of the woman taking the bus from the area of her apartment. And then there was surveillance video of her arriving by bus in Tallahassee. Eventually, according to her family, she called and said she was in Georgia. I have no idea why this woman may have done this, but without warrants for her arrest, apparently she was breaking no laws. Yet, she was being tracked—like all the rest of us in many public spaces that now have surveillance cameras.

On several occasions, the U.S. Supreme Court has ruled that we do not have reasonable expectation of privacy when we are in public. In private, the court recognizes our expectation of privacy. Outside of the legal arena, where should the lines between public and private lie? Do the needs of society—for crime reduction, for example—outweigh our individual need and desire for privacy? And should it matter that some research shows that video surveillance has no impact on crime? Who should be able to videotape whom in a public space? Now that many cell phones include the video recording feature will our notions of public versus private change? And given that camera operators have been found to focus disproportionately on people of color, and use cameras in a voyeuristic manner when looking at women (the operators are mostly male) are these questions only of concern for segments of the society?

I always feel like somebody's watchin' me
And I have no privacy
I always feel like somebody's watchin' me
Is it just a dream?

This is the chorus of the 1984 hit “Somebody’s Watching Me” by Rockwell (with background vocals by Michael Jackson and Jermaine Jackson). In the 1980s that sounded like a paranoid refrain (or based on the video, a paranormal experience) but may be closer to reality today as you shop, attend a football game, or even run away from home.

August 24, 2009

Celebrity Doctors and the Health Care Crisis

author_karen By Karen Sternheimer

This summer has presented an interesting contrast regarding health care in the United States: those who have excessive access and those who have none.

The investigation into the sudden death of Michael Jackson has led to questions about doctors who bend over backwards to please their wealthy patients—sometimes living with them, being on call 24 hours a day, and allegedly overprescribing medication. This discussion is taking place while the nation is trying to figure out how to provide basic health care to millions of uninsured Americans.

Think about how many details from the Jackson investigation you know: the name of the drugs he allegedly used, names of former doctors, and his medical conditions. Now think about how many details of the proposed health care legislation come to mind….Judging from the breadth of misinformation out there (like the canard that the plan promotes "death panels" to kill the elderly), I’m guessing that most people are clearer on the problems that come with having a celebrity “doctor feel good” than they are on the more common problem of having no doctor at all.

We’ve heard the reports alleging that Jackson's doctor was paid $150,000 a month and was living in his house, and that Jackson supposedly had prescriptions filled by numerous doctors, sometimes under false names. Because of my research on celebrity culture, I have been asked to comment on this issue several times this summer, mainly on why a doctor might compromise ethical (and in some cases legal) standards when their patient is a celebrity.

Doctors are like anyone else who can be lured by the excitement of joining a celebrity’s inner-circle. Certainly not all doctors or even all who treat celebrities would feel this way, or would let such feelings violate good medical practices, but there can be huge financial rewards in doing so. Other wealthy people might be excited to seek this doctor’s care if he or she becomes known as a “doctor to the stars,” and this perceived exclusivity can mean a lot of money, even if the doctor is no better (or is even worse) than the average physician. A celebrity’s doctor can even become a celebrity themselves, with a reality show or their own product line and speaking engagements that keep the money coming in as insurance reimbursements decline.

When the potential for money and fame enter into the medical decisions a doctor makes, trouble can follow. Most of us who need to see a doctor go to their office; they don’t come to us. They see us on their schedule and often keep us waiting well beyond the agreed upon appointment. By contrast, celebrity doctors might see the patient whenever the celebrity needs them, thus realigning the balance of power normally maintained in a doctor-patient relationship. Celebrities could become clients before patients; if they don’t receive the services they believe they are paying for the doctor might risk a large income decline.

The vast majority of us will never have the problems that result from a doctor trying too hard to curry favor with us because of a big payday. In the same city where celebrities can have doctors living in their homes, thousands recently waited in long lines to see a doctor during a week long free clinic set up by the Remote Area Medical Foundation, a non-profit agency that was first created to treat people in developing nations and remote rural areas. In the nation’s second largest city the uninsured often get no treatment on a regular basis.

If we are insured, either through private insurance, Medicare or Medicaid, doctors receive pre-negotiated and shrinking reimbursements for the services they perform. Some doctors have even stopped treating patients with Medicare or Medicaid because they cannot afford to stay in business if they do so. Still others are no longer “in network” providers for any insurance company, meaning that even insured patients have to pay the difference between the insurance reimbursement and the doctor’s bill.

Celebrities serve as visible representations of wealth in America. Rather than thinking about these differences in health care as only between celebrities vs. non-celebrities, it’s important to consider how social class more generally predicts the amount of access to health care we receive. And increasingly, this lack of access is not just a problem of the poor.

image A growing number of people considered middle income have no health insurance; according to The Commonwealth Fund Biennial Health Insurance Survey, 50 percent of low-income families, 41 percent of moderate income households and 18 percent of middle-income families went without health insurance for part or all of 2007. Fewer employers offer health insurance, according to a 2008 report by the National Coalition on Healthcare.

Traditionally, middle income families have received health insurance from their jobs. But that is changing. According to the Commonwealth Fund’s survey, in 2000, 70 percent of employers offered insurance; in 2007 just 60 percent did. For employers that do offer insurance, premiums have also skyrocketed from an average of just over $7,000 a year in 2001 to over $12,000 in 2007, making health insurance increasingly unaffordable to many working families who earn too much for state or federal aid. According to a 2008 report by the National Conference of State Legislatures, the number of uninsured Americans rose by 8.6 million between 2000 and 2006.

The Jackson investigation reveals more than a single human tragedy; it also exposes some of the inequities in our health care system. Ironically, having too much attention from doctors probably contributed to Jackson’s demise and the coroner’s decision to rule his death a homicide, while many millions more suffer from too little medical attention, negatively impacting their health and well being.

August 17, 2009

Stuff: Reduce? Reuse! Recycle.

author_sally By Sally Raskoff

clip_image003We just spent a week cleaning out our garage. Since we’ve lived in this house for over 25 years and have raised three kids here, there were a surprising number of things that we forgot we had and that had now attained the status of junk. We were sorting and throwing things into piles: for trash, for recycling, for donating.

During this process, a truck drove up, marked with the logo of metal recyclers and filled with old appliances, metal rods and poles. The driver asked if we had any metal they can have. We were happy to give them the old hubcaps, poles, curtain rods, and other metal items we had identified for recycling.

This reminded me of the controversial Herbert Gans article on "The Uses of Poverty" in which he lists the positive functions that poverty plays in society, including how the poor buy items that wealthier people don’t want thus extending their economic value with second-hand and third-hand markets.

clip_image006The article concludes by suggesting alternatives. However, none of the alternatives Gans mentions relate to how goods bought new by one group then sold over and over to other groups who may not have afforded them at their original prices. His only mention is that the second and third hand markets would cease to exist if poverty didn’t exist.

That article was published in 1971, a time when recycling was handled very differently than it is now.

I have lived in different social class strata over the years and have been part of the secondhand market exchanges in different ways. Our household tends to give regular donations to the Goodwill or the Salvation Army. This is a great way to recycle items we have outgrown or no longer use so that they do have an extended life. It’s also a nice little itemized tax deduction – a nice middle class perk.

clip_image009We have also made use of the storefronts of these organizations, purchasing items that others have discarded and of which we have made good use. Years ago when I was an economically struggling single parent, I used these and other discount outlets out of necessity. More recently, for example, my spouse proudly wears a jacket he found for $3. Articles in the local papers list these stores as havens for bargain hunters; interestingly, more of these lists have appeared as the economy has worsened.

Secondhand items are not just purchased by those who are in poverty, although they may be the sole source of “affordable” and accessible items for that population. Shopping at thrift stores doesn’t carry the stigma that it used to. Secondhand items are also attractive for people who shop for “fun” bargains or those who like vintage clothing these outlets often carry.

For example, here in Los Angeles, a number of thrift stores specialize in designer clothing, items worn by celebrities, or used in television shows. Those stores can mark their prices a bit higher than most but they are still selling a used product that is priced much less than the original.

clip_image012I was shocked at the excessive amount of stuff we found in our garage; we found embarrassing numbers of boxes and packing materials, multiple clay and ceramic pots for plants, screwdrivers and other tools (both broken and intact), nails and screws and other fasteners (both rusty and in their original unopened packages, old telephones and walkie-talkies, even two toaster ovens. Realizing the waste that those items represented as they sat in our garage, unused, and, in some cases, for years, the material basis of middle class life in this society is quite appalling. Some people have rented storage spaces to store their unused material goods – we had just stuck them in the garage when someone moved out or the project was over and overlooked them when making our previous donations.

The environmental impact of consumerism may have some bearing on the capitalist meltdown we are experiencing. However, revisiting the Gans article on the functions of poverty, it is clear that re-using items is not just for the poor anymore.

On the other hand, there are a number of other issues that have changed. One might argue that more of us are poor – or headed that direction – due to the dynamics in our societal economic structure. Many of us don’t recognize how close we are to being homeless – for many, that situation may be one or two paychecks away.

Recognizing the true cost of the goods we consume – including packaging, later uses, and ultimate disposition – may help solve some of our societal excesses and environmental impacts. If we thought more about how the items we want will live their lives with us and after us, we might not make the same purchases.

Our society has been changing in fascinating ways. Re-using items in those second hand markets is more acceptable for people in different class levels because of the current economic woes. The re-framing of recycling and reducing waste has been a trendy yet important strategy to reinforce our societal infrastructure. Since our society is not based on a sustainable structure, ecologically and economically speaking, the importance of “reduce, reuse, and recycle” increases as we move through time. Reducing use, re-using items, and recycling is no longer the province and positive function of the poor.

August 13, 2009

Professor Gates and the Thin Blue Line

author_janis By Janis Prince Inniss

On July 16, Harvard Professor Henry Louis “Skip” Gates was arrested. The disorderly conduct charges filed that day were later dropped. Seems that Dr. Gates had just returned from a trip to China and could not get his front door opened, so he asked his driver to help him force the door in.

A neighbor saw the two men and called the police to report a possible burglary. Now that recordings have been released from the 911 call, we have learned that the caller was nudged into calling by another woman who saw the men and was concerned. We’ve also learned the 911 caller did not say that two black men were breaking into the home as early news stories and the police report indicated. In fact, the caller did not mention the race of the possible burglars; race was brought up by the person taking the call with the following question: “Are they white, black, or Hispanic?” (Notably, Asian was not offered as an option in a city where they comprise 12 percent of the population.) The caller responded to that question by saying, “One looked kind of Hispanic but I’m not really sure.”

Cambridge police responded to the call and Sergeant James Crowley entered the residence where Prof. Gates showed him identification, proving that he was in his own home. These basic details don’t appear to be in dispute, but the stories diverge among the principals regarding the interaction between Sgt. Crowley and the professor. Prof. Gates claims that Sgt. Crowley refused his repeated requests for Crowley’s name and badge number while Sgt. Crowley alleges that Prof. Gates became increasingly belligerent, even talking about his Momma—and not in a good way! Eventually, Prof. Gates stepped outside of his home where he was placed in hand-cuffs. According to Sgt. Crowley, Prof. Gates was arrested because of his “tumultuous” behavior; the professor argues that his arrest was racially motivated.

In terms of race in America, much about the case is fascinating. The 58 year-old professor is a renowned scholar on African and African American studies and PBS documentarian. Sgt. Crowely, with more than a decade on the police force, has taught other police officers how to avoid racial profiling for five years. And of interest has been the response to the incident. Mostly, people have responded as expected: Blacks and liberals lined up in support of Prof. Gates and whites and conservatives supported Sgt. Crowley. Prof. Gates has spoken to major news outlets but also to African American ones (Gates started a website featuring commentary from “black perspectives”, The Root in 2008). Sgt. Crowley has talked with major news outlets (Boston Herald) but had his first interview with two white (apparently conservative) radio hosts. A discussion about the encounter on MSNBC’s “Morning Joe” highlights some of the peculiarities of public discussions about race in the U.S. The discussants were Mika Brzezinski, Mike Barnicle, Harold Ford Jr., Carlos Watson, Willie Geist, and Andrea Mitchell. (Ford and Watson are identified as African American, while the others are White.)

Speaking of President Obama’s response to the story, Mitchell said to Mika Brzezinski:

He comes with his own history. He went to Harvard. He knows “Skip” Gates. He is an African American man. And I think that people approach this story based on their own life experiences. And that he has either had experiences or understands and empathizes with people – people of color …who have had the experience…and he can understand this in a way perhaps that either you or I can’t.

Watson argued that regardless of what Gates said, given his age and his use of a walking cane that the interaction should not have ended with Gates being handcuffed by a 42 year-old cop who had been on the police force for some time – even if Gates was “loud and tumultuous as the report said”. Ford agreed and contended that regardless of race, once it was established that Prof. Gates was the home owner, there should have been no arrest.

Barnicle addressed Watson saying, “There is no way I can walk in your shoes! There is no way I can carry the weight of history... And all the evidence is on your side, Harold’s side about getting pulled over, Driving While Black and all that.” Barnicle explained that based on his thirty years of experience it was clear that Sgt. Crowley was responding to a report of a burglary in process, and, not knowing how many people were in the house, he did not want to go into the house. That’s why, he said, there was conflict as Prof. Gates refused to step outside.

Note that the Mitchell and Barnicle both underscore their inability to understand racial profiling, and in fact Brzezinski did as well. In the part of the show I saw, I did not hear Ford or Watson say that they are unable to understand the point of view of whites or police, but it’s possible that they did. But what is empathy if not the ability to understand another person’s feelings? And what hope is there for moving race discussions beyond the expected we are only able to empathize with those who look like us?

How much of this encounter is related to self-fulfilling prophesies surrounding racism and the police? As discussed in a previous post, and despite their training to the contrary, is it possible that both Prof. Gates and Sgt. Crowley were reacting to what they expected of each other?

August 09, 2009

New Media Revolution


By Karen Sternheimer

Media tend to get a bad rap in social science research. With each new form of media come new studies, mostly testing for negative effects. Will it make users more violent? Promiscuous? Obese? Anorexic? Stupid? Unable to concentrate? Hopelessly self-centered?

Can new media also help users become revolutionaries for democracy?

The demonstrations in Iran this summer appear to answer this question. While many journalists were expelled from the country or at least banned from covering protests, cell phone cameras, Twitter, Facebook, and initially text messaging all served as ways to subvert the attempts of the regime to control information about the country’s suspect election and silence dissent. This cell phone video is one of many that has showed the world what the Iranian government would prefer we not see.

While they were certainly not the first to use these new media to create a political movement—the Obama campaign used them to galvanize voters and volunteers last year—protesters in Iran have been able to circumvent a regime that only weeks ago seemed impenetrable.

A group whose voices and experiences have been all but silenced has trickled out in grainy video and 140 character tweets.

The bloodied face of murdered protester Neda Agha Soltan could travel around the world in seconds thanks to a cell phone, becoming an instant symbol of the regime’s brutality and fostering solidarity in a growing movement for change.

That new media becomes more and more difficult for authorities to control creates both opportunity and anxiety. The opportunity for greater, faster communication makes the sheer volume of messages difficult (though certainly not impossible) to monitor. Anxiety rises for those looking to suppress open communication.

Herein lies the rub: on a global scale, free societies welcome open communication and generally greet these new technologies as liberating. But on a small scale, parents might consider new media with suspicion, and a challenge to parental authority, particularly since young people tend to adopt many the new communication technologies first. This helps explain the long history of research testing for negative effects: we are scared of the changes—and challenges to connecting pop culture coveradult control—that new media may bring.

I discuss these fears in my new book, Connecting Social Problems and Popular Culture: Why Media is Not the Answer. In the book I examine dozens of studies that claim that popular culture has serious negative effects. Many of the studies are not nearly as convincing as we are led to believe, but collectively they help us focus on media as a primary source of problems. Focusing so much attention on popular culture as a problem not only helps us ignore serious social problems like poverty, neighborhood and family violence, and lack of access to quality education or health care. These fears also help us ignore some of the positive uses of new media.

Each new form of media has been greeted with suspicion. In 1929, the Payne Fund underwrote studies examining movies’ effects on children. The studies focused on a variety of factors, but most notably they attempted to link movies with delinquent behavior.

Similar studies on television emerged during the 1960s, again testing links between violent content and violent behavior in children. As video games have gained popularity in recent years, research has mainly focused on their possible negative effects. New research on the internet and children examines the potential negative effects of multitasking.

These are all questions worthy of study. But it is less common for social scientists to study how people use and understand new media, let alone potential positive effects. Some studies of video games, for instance, look at how they can be used to enhance hand-eye coordination, which might be useful for some people with physical disabilities. Further research needs to be done exploring the potential for these new technologies, rather than devoting so many resources to worst case scenarios.

More often than not, new media and the corresponding research about it reflects our fears. One fear is the inability to control content, both its production and consumption.

Over the years new forms of media have become increasingly private: most people could only view movies in a public theater at first, early television sets were in a family living room, compared with today, when media typically involves a personal hand-held device. This shift understandably makes some parents nervous, as it becomes harder to monitor what their children see, hear, and learn.

But on a global level new media has the potential to undermine dictatorships, which thrive on controlling information. Short of a complete clampdown on cell phones and internet use—which some totalitarian states enforce—information is much harder to control. While former Secretary of Education William Bennett suggested that the United States provide Iranian dissidents with "duplication machines," in fact we already have. Twitter and Facebook are cheaper, faster, and in the palm of millions of hands.

It’s likely we are just beginning to scratch the surface of new media’s potential. Social science research needs to let go of the twentieth century model of fear and embrace the future.

August 05, 2009

Courtroom Dramaturgy

author_sally By Sally Raskoff

I just finished a week of jury duty. In my experience, lawyers on either side of a case don’t typically like sociologists on a jury but in this case, I was chosen. I was glad to do my civic duty of serving on a jury, and I was fascinated by the rituals and rigid structure of the clip_image003events.

When jurors walk into the building, they’re welcomed by metal detectors and uniformed sheriffs.. No knitting needles, knives, or handcuffs are allowed.

Signs instruct visitors to remove sunglasses and not to chew gum, eat, or drink. You must wear a Juror badge everywhere you go, even during breaks, so that those involved in the case will know not to talk around you.

In the assembly room before we were selected, we were advised to turn off our cell phones and to use them only in the hallway, if at all. We were given the “handbook” (a flyer) with an outline of what to expect and what to wear. (I actually neglected to read it until the third day of my service).

The courtroom itself is a highly structured space, intended and effective in regulating the behavior of those in it. The judge’s seating area in the center-back of the room is elevated above all others; we couldn’t see what the desk looks like up there. The witness stand and jury box, on one side of the judge, allow for a clear view of each other, with the separation of the low wall enclosing the jury box. The witness stand is elevated as are the second tier of the jury seats, though neither are elevated as high as the judge is.

The court reporter sits in front of the judge, and in front of that are the two tables for the prosecution and defense, evenly spaced in front of the judge. Over on the other side of the judge, to counterbalance the witness stand, is the clerk’s area, probably the largest and busiest desk in the room. On the other side of the room, by the clip_image003[5]defense table, is the bailiff’s table, complete with a phone that rings surprisingly often. And, of course, between this entire area and the door through which we enter are the rows of seats for onlookers.

During some off-the-record moments during the trial, I also noticed that the lights in the ceiling were not evenly spaced as they tend to be in most rooms. More lights were over the clerk’s desk than over the jury box and over the court reporter, defense, and prosecution areas while very few were in the onlooker’s gallery.

The subtle differences in lighting, coupled with the elevation changes in seating reinforce the patterns of attention in the room. Most of the action occurs from the defense and prosecution tables as they take their turns getting up to speak. The elevation of the witness stand commands your attention when someone is sitting there. And, of course, the judge, elevated the most, commands the most attention even if there is no movement or verbal statements coming from that judge.

All of this physical structure sets the foundation for the social structure and rituals that reinforce the serious nature of the proceedings.

The judge is referred to as ”the court”: he or she is not representing a person, they are representing the constitution and legal system. The lawyers must always request to approach the witness rather than walk up to them without the court’s permission.

As the jury enters and leaves the room, the attorneys stand.

Much of what you see in television shows and movies does reflect the structure and behaviors of a courtroom, although real life moves much more slowly and clip_image003[7]without a clear story arc. Rarely are there exciting moments of suspense. It is actually sometimes a struggle to stay awake and focused on the proceedings, especially if you aren’t interested in the legal terms and processes.

However, the ritualism of behaviors reinforced the serious nature of the setting. The presence of the defendant also served to remind us that these issues related to someone’s life and were not some abstract issue.

When the judge, lawyers, and court reported moved outside the back doors for a sidebar, people stayed in their seats yet some talked quietly, drank their water, or looked over their reading materials.

All of this reminded me of Erving Goffman front stage/back stage conceptualization of performance. Front and back stage performances take place in different locations. The courtroom as the front stage is obvious and the back stage could be the area behind where sidebars take place. However, I got the impression that the actual front stage is wherever the judge was – since the courtroom became a break room once the judge had exited. I assume the court reporter kept recording events and statements and the lawyers kept their performance going as they discussed things with the judge. We maintained our performance as jurors when court was in session – when the judge was in the room.

Thus when court was out of session – when the judge exited the room – we were allowed to break our performance albeit not completely. We did chat but in hushed tones; we did drink our water although quickly and quietly.

Because the bailiff and defendant also stayed in the room, they continued their performance as the bailiff kept eyes on the defendant and the defendant kept clip_image003[9]still in the seat.

I spent a total of five days in this courtroom yet it wasn’t until the fourth afternoon, when we went to the jury room to deliberate, that we got to see that back area. It was indeed a hallway, with the jury room almost directly behind the courtroom door. The hallway extended the length of the building and, I imagine, held the office where the sidebars take place and three other jury rooms and office for the other courtrooms on that floor. We only got to clip_image003[11]traverse the distance from the courtroom door to the juror’s room door and back again.

Once in the jury room, we were left alone, although there was a phone to contact the bailiff, our one connection with the court. We kept our performance going as we deliberated and discussed, for the first time, our reactions and opinions about the case and the evidence presented. We read the legal instructions and voted our opinions on the counts before us.

Our jury room front stage performance remained intact until we called the bailiff to communicate that we had concluded our deliberations and reached unanimous decisions on all counts in the case. While we were waiting to be called back into court, we relaxed a bit and chatted more informally about the case and other matters.

Thus with both the courtroom and jury room, the concepts of front stage and back stage can be applied to different locations, but also to the same space when the roles and purposes change. Once the formal process is concluded, what was a performance of front stage behavior can quickly become a variant of back stage behavior without any spatial movement at all.

August 01, 2009

Thinking Like a Sociologist: Understanding Changes in the "Ideal" Body Size

author_karen By Karen Sternheimer

I have been working on a research project this summer that includes analyzing movie fan magazines published throughout the twentieth century. As I examined the articles and ads, I was struck by how even back in the 1910s ads for weight loss products were very common. By the 1920s, weight loss had become a topic in several magazine stories too.

Each year in my deviance class, we talk about how weight norms shift and change over time. The most common explanation students offer is a reasonable one: that super-skinny people are celebrated in media, from movies, television, and magazines, to gossip websites that criticize celebrities for being “fat” if they merely look normal.

This is makes sense; certainly popular culture shapes the way in which we understand beauty.

But thinking like sociologists, we need to dig deeper. Why, for instance, are there significant cultural differences in body dissatisfaction? Research has repeatedly found that African American girls feel greater body satisfaction than white girls, for instance. Why might this be? One study concluded that parental emphasis on dieting and dissatisfaction was the best predictor of teens’ feelings about their bodies. So culture matters, but not only media culture.

Here’s another sociological question the media answer does not address: why do body ideals change over time in the media?

It might seem like standards of beauty insist that women get thinner and thinner over time, but my magazine research reveals that the relationship is more complicated than that. Yes, today’s supermodels like Kate Moss are much thinner than 1950s icon Marilyn Monroe and her fuller-figured peers. But to understand why, we must examine this issue more deeply.

Let’s go back to the 1920s, when ads for weight loss products and articles about getting thinner appeared more regularly in the movie magazines I’m studying.


Photoplay, June 1925

If you take a look at a snippet from the 1925 article above, you can see that fame and material success were considered the rewards of silent movie star Clara Bow’s weight loss. The article also describes her as a flapper, or a young woman who flouted gender norms of domesticity and docility. Wearing bobbed hair, short dresses and abandoning full skirts and corsets, flappers also challenged notions of beauty.


Motion Picture Classic, November 1924, p. 21


Photoplay June 1925, p. 142

But thinking like sociologists, we need to think even more about why this style would have changed when it did and not, say ten years prior. A major political shift took place in 1920, when the Nineteenth Amendment was ratified and women gained a constitutional right to vote in the United States.

Historian Joan Jacobs Blumberg, author of The Body Project: An Intimate History of American Girls, considers this major change a watershed moment in women’s bodies. No longer bound by legal restrictions—women could increasingly inherit property and maintain custody of their children in the event of divorce—Blumberg argues that self control heightened at this time.


Photoplay, September 1926, p. 30

The growing prosperity of the 1920s also provided women with a bit more independence in their teen and young adult years. More women could attend college, though certainly not anywhere near the proportion we see today, but this too provided more opportunity in an increasingly advanced industrial economy. While the kinds of jobs women had were still very limited, the growth of department stores created new professions that gave women opportunities to gain a bit more autonomy.

I noticed a very interesting change when reading magazines from the 1930s: they offered advice and ads about how to gain weight! There were still occasional ads for weight loss products that rudely proclaimed how terrible being fat was, but an overwhelming number of ads chided skinny women. Yes, we do see frighteningly thin celebrities called out on magazine covers today if they appear anorexic, but I have no memory of ever seeing an ad promising weight gain like the one below.


Motion Picture, February 1934, p. 83

So why would thinness suddenly go out of style? One clue rests in the lower right of the ad: the National Recovery Administration (NRA) logo, a depression-era agency that set fair competition standards for businesses. At a time of want, such as the Great Depression, being skinny could reflect poverty, while in times of plenty being thin implies self-control. Developing countries today with serious poverty problems don’t idealize thinness the way that wealthier nations do.


Photoplay, September 1936, p. 72

As you can see, body ideals can shift relatively quickly due to economic and political circumstances. More recently, we might consider why the 1980s body image, personified by supermodels like Christie Brinkley, focused on women as athletic. Brinkley made the cover of Sports Illustrated’s swimsuit issue three years in a row and frequently appeared on fashion magazine covers.

Contrast that powerful 1980s ideal with the late 1960s icon model Twiggy, so-named for being stick thin. While we often identify the 1960s as the time when the second wave of the feminist movement really gained traction, it wasn’t until the 1980s when women made major professional inroads and began to take on positions of power at work.

Thinking like a sociologist, we can see that idealized images of weight are complex and a product of social, political, and economic realities. In the United States, we have an ongoing battle between consumption and gratification and the Puritan Ethic of self-restraint and self-control. Have you ever noticed at grocery story check-out lines the magazines with a big piece of cake on the cover and promise of a new diet inside? What other sociological factors do you think make the images of beauty shift in the media?

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