8 posts from October 2009

October 29, 2009

Postmodern Theory and the Balloon Boy Hoax

author_karen By Karen Sternheimer

By now you have probably heard that the runaway balloon supposedly containing a six-year-old boy was a hoax, according to his mother's admission. The story received hours of “breaking news” coverage on October 15, and has since consumed countless hours of news coverage about the scam perpetrated on the news networks and concerned viewers.

If French sociologist Jean Baudrillard were still alive, I dare say he would not be surprised that a father would allegedly cook up such a scheme, or that he contacted the local news, the police, or the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA). He might even say he’s surprised it took so long for something like this to happen.

As I recently blogged, Baudrillard described our contemporary mediated age as one where the boundary between image and reality has blurred to the point where they can no longer be neatly separated. Where once we might have had clearer distinctions between entertainment and reality, the two have fused, and the 24-hour news cycles and the Internet have helped them come together.

It has never been easier to enter into what was once a rarified space of celebrity: with YouTube and “reality” television, fame is increasingly based on promoting one’s private life rather than on professional achievements. It’s not that there weren’t people who were “famous for being famous” in the past, but we have so many more avenues to achieve instant celebrity now. There are more celebrities and they get famous faster. We likely forget about them more quickly now too.

Cable news is a big part of this equation. In competing for viewers of “fictional” programming and the myriad of other entertainment choices we have now, the news has morphed into infotainment: a hybrid that is a perfect example of Baudrillard’s idea of hyperreality.

Baudrillard suggests that hypperreality creates a uniquely entertaining experience, what he called the “thrill of the real.” This thrill is something we might experience when that “Breaking News” banner unfurls on the screen. But the thrill constantly weakens and extinguishes itself unless something even newer happens. So news becomes more about live action excitement than analysis and investigation.

Perhaps that’s why the same networks that pre-empted their regular programming to cover this story for hours later turned on the family by trotting out angry commentators condemning the family and talking with legal analysts about the charges they should face. The news networks sent reporters to dig up dirt on the family and reported that they couldn’t find evidence that the parents worked steadily, and interviewed neighbors and other acquaintances on camera to malign the father’s character.

Let’s face it, the news networks that covered this event got Punk'd (another example of postmodernity where celebrities thought they were living their private lives but were in fact part of a television show) but seem reluctant to admit it. Maybe behind the scenes news directors will see this as a wake-up call about the folly of chasing shiny objects—literally in this case—during a time when they could be covering other more meaningful stories in greater depth. I’d like to think that the next time a story like this “breaks”—and you know there will be a next time—news directors will think carefully about how much attention it really deserves.

Yes, the Heene parents deserve the bulk of blame for breaking the law, and for using their children to fulfill their own dreams of fame. They took advantage of our fascination with the real, the private, and the exciting. While they might not reap the financial rewards for diving into the fishbowl for the rest of us to watch, many clearly have (I believe their names are Jon and Kate).

All of this recalls the 1998 movie, The Truman Show, where Jim Carrey’s character finds out that his entire life is actually a television show, and that everyone in his life has been cast by the producers. Truman is devastated to find out that his whole world is a set.

Fast forward a decade later, and many people clamor to turn their lives into a television set, to convert their friends and family members into cast mates. Yes, money and attention are huge motivators. Baudrillard might add that the “real world” and the “television set” can no longer be distinguished from one another. It could be that many of us feel like life might be more thrilling if someone was watching, and that to matter in the twenty-first century is to be observed by others, a character in our own Truman Show. What other sociological theories do you think might help explain this phenomenon?

October 26, 2009

Drawing Lines in the Sand for Interracial Dating

author_janis By Janis Prince Inniss

Boy and girl meet. Boy and girl decide to wed. Boy (Terence McKay) and girl (Beth Humphrey) decide to marry. Girl calls justice of the peace to arrange for them to seal the deal.

And that’s when what may be a fairy tale romance came to a screeching halt: The justice of the peace was Keith Bardwell who refused to marry the pair because McKay is black and Humphrey is white. Bardwell said his refusal to marry the pair was not due to racism, but because of his concerns for children that the union might provide According to Bardwell, neither group accepts such children.

Boy and girl did marry, but no thanks to Justice Bardwell.

What do you think of the justice of the peace’s decision? Even if we agree with Bardwell, how would we decide who should get married? I take it that this justice of the peace would not have married President Barack Obama’s parents: The president’s mother was S. Ann Dunham, a white woman from the American Midwest, while his father was a black Kenyan, Barack Obama Sr. (Click here to have a look at some of the President’s family tree in pictures.)

The president self-identifies as African American and to most of us probably “looks” black, so I take it that if President Obama showed up at this justice of the peace’s with a woman who was the same color his mother was, the justice of the peace would refuse to perform such a marriage.

But what about Malia and Sasha Obama, the daughters of the President and his wife? Only looking at their recent paternal genealogy, we know that one of their grandparents and two of their great-grandparents were white. What if one or even both of the Dunhams was really “passing” for white?

Hmm, to simplify our thinking, let’s put aside the idea that one or both was really of mixed race. So going ahead with the idea that their paternal great-grandparents were white, would a prohibition against interracial marriage mean that neither girl should marry a white person?

Now factor in their maternal ancestry. The New York Times recently published a family tree of First Lady Michelle Obama. Included among the First Lady’s ancestors are Dolphus T. Shields, Michelle Obama’s great-great grandfather whose mother was an enslaved African. Perhaps that’s not surprising given that Michelle Obama is African American. However, Mr. Shields’ father was white!

And how would the “American Indian” strands of the First Lady’s ancestry that the The York Times mentions factor in to the equation? Exactly how much ”white blood” would the younger Obamas need to have to marry someone white?

Going back to the case of boy and girl being asked to wed elsewhere by the justice of the peace in Louisiana, a look at the video of the groom being interviewed about this dust-up suggests to me that the new husband, McKay, is “mixed”. (Given our tangled ancestries, such terms really should have “recently” as a prefix.) Suppose McKay has white ancestors, how recent would they need to be for his marriage to Humphrey not to be considered interracial and therefore problematic?

President Obama once would have been considered mulatto (of one white and one black parent) —a term formerly employed by the U.S. Census Bureau. In fact, in 1890 the Census Bureau tried to be more specific by adding the terms quadroon (one-fourth black blood) and octoroon (one eight black blood) to mulatto and black.

What ”portion” black are Malia and Sasha? Are you dizzy with the amount of math this way of thinking requires? More dizzying to me is that all of these terms and prohibitions (such as those from the justice of the peace) suggest that we know who is “fully” white or black or whichever race. In the context of trading enslaved Africans, the desire and need to “measure” black blood makes sense, at least economically and politically.

But given that we often don’t have to look very far to find “race mixing” in America, how can we make even attempt to regulate such unions? (Have you heard of Strom Thurmond? Thurmond was the longest serving Senator in U.S. history at the time of his death in 2003. He vehemently opposed Civil Rights but after his death, the daughter he had with a black woman revealed he was her father.)

As you might imagine, the Louisiana case has attracted lots of attention, including a call by the state’s Governor for Bardwell’s removal. Interracial marriage has long controversial, enough so to gain a ruling from the U.S. Supreme Court: In the 1967 Loving v. Virginia case, the Court struck down state laws against interracial marriage. The ruling reads in part: “Under our Constitution, the freedom to marry, or not marry, a person of another race resides with the individual and cannot be infringed by the state." Just as well…unless you have a bright idea of how we could, with great efficiency and clarity, actually define someone’s race. This case and others like it highlight that race is not as clear-cut of a concept as many of us might think. While we often view race as a biological construct, it is a social construct that we constantly struggle to define and make meaning of, often with serious consequences.

October 22, 2009

Dichotomous Thinking: Structure and Agency, Nature and Nurture

author_sally By Sally Raskoff

There are many basic sociological concepts that we all use to help us explain the dynamics of humans in groups.

Social structure is a core sociological concept that explains how societies (and other entities) take shape and maintain a particular form. Social institutions are part of that structure—institutions like education, politics, families, media, and religion all maintain and challenge societal norms. Those norms (guidelines for expected behaviors) exist to create social order – which is also a primary function of those institutions. Take all those institutions and their impact on norms, add in the actual physical structures in which they exist, and you have many different levels of societal structures that maintain that society.



Families produce and socialize children who are further socialized within religious and educational organizations. Those religious and educational organizations tend to reinforce the societal practices that support the power structure in that society. The media reflects the power dynamics in society and typically reinforces the accepted practices.

While the media (and other institutions) may also challenge the status quo, it’s often co-opted by it. Notice how the Internet can be used to share any information across space and time yet as time passes, it has become more commercialized and its uses have been circumscribed and diminished – and more regulated.

We spend a lot of time in sociology classes talking about how societal structures limit opportunities and life chances for people in disadvantaged positions. We also discuss the societal dysfunctions that occur when the larger structures (institutions) of society don’t work as they should, thus signaling an imbalance that needs correction.

Structures may also propel people to behave in ways that are outside the society’s dominant norms. When a large number of people face barriers, they often create new structures that can help them navigate through or around those barriers. The Underground Railroad that facilitated escape from slavery created networks and communication techniques in the form of quilts (which provided coded directions to freedom) that operated below the surface of the dominant society.

Agency is the flip side of the structure coin. Individuals do have the freedom to act on our own choices. Commonly referred to as free will, it is true that people can make a decision to do something or they may just do it no matter what societal norms had been guiding them. No matter how many norms may exist in a society, people often behave in ways that deviate from those norms. Even when norms are written into the legal code, people break laws. Whatever barriers society may place in the path of people to reinforce the social class or caste system, some people may either break through those systems or operate completely outside them.


People are not robots programmed to perform certain functions, no matter what science fiction says about it. (Donna Haraway has written some fascinating work about cyborgs if you’d like some dense and abstract feminist/post-modern theory to read.) () Even if we do move toward more bionic implants than we could have imagined, whether or not they can control our behavior to be entirely predictable will remain to be seen.

Sociology exists because people in groups create patterns that we can analyze scientifically. There is much variation in those patterns because of the diversity of factors and that thing called agency. Yes, people in groups create patterns (as do individuals) even as there is tremendous complexity and difference within those patterns. Both structure and agency are at work in all of the data we analyze.

The terms nature and nurture are often bandied about. Are these the same as structure and agency or are they parallel yet different issues? Nature implies that certain features or dynamics are innate or inevitably present while nurture links to the impact of treatment and social interaction in creating various features or dynamics. Nature seems a lot like structure as it exists as a given and seems impervious to change. Nurture seems more like agency since it suggests that people have some File:TwinGirls.jpg‘say in how they affect and are affected by others.

In their book The Social Construction of Reality, Peter Berger and Thomas Luckmann discuss how people create societies and then consider them as existing outside themselves and hence beyond their control. But social structure doesn’t just emerge from nowhere, it is built and maintained by the people in that society who conveniently forget or ignore that they created it. In this sense, nature could just be a term we use for phenomenon that seems given and unchangeable.

From scientific studies, we also know that our culture has a distinct fondness for dichotomous thinking. Moving between two extremes, our thoughts and discussions oscillate between right and wrong, good and bad, rich and poor, black and white, men and women. While being able to consider two things at a time may be a limitation of the human brain, a simplifying strategy, or a practice that society advocates to reinforce the amnesia that we create our society’s structures, the world is so much more complex than two opposing categories.

Use your sociology education as an opportunity to explore these issues, to peel the onion of society. As you consider the issues behind societal features we take for granted using sociological perspectives, your critical thinking skills will deepen and you will understand much more about how society really works.

October 19, 2009

Sex: It's Not What it Used to be

author_karen By Karen Sternheimer

As Sally Raskoff recently blogged about, the news of Roman Polanski’s arrest has sparked a conversation about how we think about rape and sexual assault of children. If Polanski loses his extradition fight and returns to the United States, he will return to a very different country than the one he fled. In 1978, the year he became a fugitive, the Rams still played in Los Angeles, Jimmy Carter was president, and the average price of a gallon of gas was 61 cents.

And as the New York Times recently noted, Polanski would also return to an America that has decidedly different mores about sex than we did during the 1970s. While in some ways we might have more liberal attitudes about sex, we are much more likely to condemn sexual assault today than we were in the 1970s, especially if children are involved.

Much of the sexual openness we attribute to the 1960s actually took place in the following decade, after birth control became more widely available. Oral contraceptives only became legal for unmarried women in all 50 states after the 1972 Supreme Court decision Eisenstadt v. Baird, which effectively legalized sex between unmarried men and women. Sex outside of marriage was technically illegal in many states, although these laws were not enforced often, but they remained on the books in some states until the Supreme Court ruling struck them down.

By the 1980s, sex was no longer viewed as an expression of freedom—with the discovery of AIDS, it was potentially dangerous. Ideas about recreational sex began to shift during the late 1980s and early 1990s as the disease spread and teen pregnancy rates rose.

Adults’ attitudes about teen sex are less lenient today too. In 1986 the General Social Survey, a nationally representative household survey, first asked respondents about their attitudes about teen sex (defined in the survey as sex between fourteen- to sixteen-year-olds). That year 67 percent of respondents answered that it was “always wrong,” compared with 73 percent in 2006, the most recent year for which we have data.

Just as concerns about consensual sex began to rise, legal responses to rape became more serious in the 1980s. For example, spousal rape was often considered an oxymoron, and it wasn’t until 1993 that all 50 states recognized it as a crime.

Acquaintance rape, or sexual assault committed by someone one knows, (and frequently called “date rape”) had barely entered everyday language in the 1970s, and states only began passing rape-shield laws – which made a victim’s sexual history and physical appearance inadmissible in court – in the 1970s. Michigan was the first state to pass a statute in 1974, with most states passing their own by the early 1980s.

Awareness about sexual violence had been increasing during the 1970s, thanks to small conscious raising groups and books published by feminist authors like Andrea Dworkin (Woman Hating: A Radical Look at Sexuality, 1974) and Susan Brownmiller (Against Our Will: Men, Women, and Rape, 1975). These books were influential in literary and academic circles, but with the explosion of confessional daytime talk shows on national television in the 1980s, such as Oprah (which debuted in 1986), a much larger swath of the population heard stories from survivors of rape and child sexual abuse further opened the eyes of the public to sexual violence and led to calls for tougher punishment for sexual offenders. Allegations of sexual abuse at the McMartin preschool in Manhattan Beach, California made for scandalous headlines in the 1980s, though all involved were acquitted in 1990.

Also drawing media attention were celebrity accounts of abuse. Former Miss America Marilyn Van Derbur spoke publically about being sexually abused by her father in 1991. That same year, 1960s teen star Sandra Dee spoke of similar victimization from her step father.

In response to the increasing awareness about sexual abuse, social workers, medical professionals, and educators were expected to be on the lookout for tell-tale signs in children they encountered. Dramatic headlines kept sexual abuse in the news: Ellie Nesler famously shot her son’s accused molester in court in 1993, the same year that Polly Klaas was abducted from her bedroom by a stranger, and later found dead, causing national outrage and later prompting the passage of California's Three Strikes law, which mandates life in prison for an individual’s third felony conviction.

Public contempt for those that harm children—especially if the harm is sexual—rose to a fever pitch in the 1990s. Celebrities such as Woody Allen and Michael Jackson were accused of sexual abuse. (Allen was never charged; Jackson was charged in 2003 and later acquitted). Widespread allegations of sexual abuse by priests rocked the Catholic Church. Reports of sexual abuse allegations against teachers, coaches, and others became regular news stories, and from the coverage it seemed that children were under constant sexual threat.

Perhaps because of our increased awareness and concern about sexual violence, rates of rape have declined significantly since 1977. According to the National Crime Victimization Survey, a nationally representative survey conducted annually by the U.S. Department of Justice, respondents in 1977 aged twelve and older were almost three times more likely to have been raped than those who completed the survey in 2008.


Child sexual abuse cases have been declining along with reductions in rape. A study conducted at the Crimes against Children Research Center at the University of New Hampshire found a 50 percent reduction in national sexual abuse rates between 1992 and 2006. While accurate measures of all cases of sexual abuse are impossible, this decline is still important, particularly at a time when awareness about abuse might encourage more reporting.

But concern about sexual violence against children has not subsided. If anything, it has increased. The public is seldom aware of decreases in crime. Add to that fears about new media, like social networking sites on the Internet and anxiety about sexual imagery in pop culture, and concerns about young people and sex only increase.

Polanski would have been better off dealing with his case—and fighting alleged prosecutorial misconduct—in the 1970s. Not only would attitudes about sex and acquaintance rape have been more favorable to him in the 70s, it would have been the right thing to do, given his admission of guilt.

October 12, 2009

Institutional Review Boards: Why Do We Need Them?

author_janis By Janis Prince Inniss

So you’ve been reading about various sociological theories and ideas. And about some sociological studies. But have you given any thought to some of the ethical issues sociologists might face as we conduct research? Have you learned anything about the issues that we face in dealing with human subjects?

Much of the research that I have conducted has involved interviews and other qualitative methods. And I have found that people love to talk when they’re being listened to. Think about it, how many people in your life really listen to you? And pay you to tell your story?

This means that sometimes I learn intimate details about people’s lives. One such example is a study I worked on to identify strategies to improve the mental health care of children in the child welfare system. Our goal with this research project was to identify individual, family, and systems-level factors and circumstances that impact the psychotropic medications and services that children in the child welfare system receive. To conduct the study we used a mixed-methods approach that included analyses of some Medicaid databases and in-depth case studies of children in the child welfare system who received mental health care.

clip_image002Of course, the Medicaid database had lots of billing information, which is not the kind of information any of us would want displayed publicly if it were ours. The database has the type of services children received, their mental health diagnosis, date of birth, dates and length of service, sex, and race among other variables. Because I was working on the qualitative aspect of the study, I saw none of this raw data; someone else on the research team who was conducting the quantitative analyses and whose computer met extensive university-set security standards was allowed access to the data and would give the results to the rest of the research team.

clip_image004The case studies included a small sample of children, reviews of their child welfare charts, and interviews with the children and their families, child welfare workers, and other service providers. As we reviewed the charts, we learned very personal details about these children and their families. Because the focus of the study was children in the child welfare system, all of these children had been removed from their homes because of allegations of neglect and/or abuse.

Their charts (oftentimes boxes and boxes of documents pertain to one child because of the length of time they remain in the system) chronicle police reports, child protection investigations, assessments, treatment plans, and home visits by child welfare workers. And of course, during the course of the interviews we learned more about these families –and given our focus on mental health care, we learned about psychotropic medications—exactly what was being taken, for how long, with what results, as well as other mental health care.

What if in this post, I told you about one of the youth in this study? What if I decided to give you a child’s name and told you about the abuse that child suffered and the remedies taken? What if I did that to help you understand how to treat the same condition? Would that be ethical?

Have you heard of Institutional Review Boards (IRBs)? Universities and other research institutions have them to ensure that research is conducted in an ethnical manner. There have been some atrocities committed in the name of research. The syphilis study at Tuskegee Institute began in 1932 and allowed African American men to die from syphilis more than 20 years after researchers knew that there was a cure for this disease; these study participants had been mislead about the true nature of the study. Perhaps you have learned about sociologist Laud Humphreys’ book Tearoom Trade: Impersonal Sex in Public Places. Humphreys 1960s ethnographic research on anonymous sex acts between men in public bathrooms is often noted as unethical because his “subjects” had no idea that he was conducting research as he acted as a lookout for them.

clip_image006Given that these men were in public spaces, would you argue that Humphreys’ description of their behavior was ethnical? What about the fact that later, in disguise, he went to their homes? How did he know where they lived? He noted license numbers of some of their cars and with the aid of an accomplice (a friend who worked at the Department of Motor Vehicles) learned about their family lives.

Today, research participants are protected by IRBs. Researchers must undergo IRB training and take refresher courses annually. And before we can conduct any research, we must apply to our university IRB. The application includes a description of the study and explains in detail what we want to do with participants. The IRB has to have full knowledge of each proposed study: how many participants will there be, of what ages, how will they be contacted, for how much time will they be involvement, will deception be used, how much they would be paid. Risks and benefits of participant involvement must be detailed and if special populations are involved the stakes are even higher. (Can you think of why prisoners, children, and pregnant women might be considered special populations and subject to additional oversight by review boards?)

With all of this information, the IRB decides whether a study can be implemented as proposed. As you read about sociological studies, think about the ethical considerations that researchers must consider and take to IRBs.

October 08, 2009

Equality in Justice: Cognitive Dissonance and Fame

author_sally By Sally Raskoff

Two cases involving the rape of a young girl have been in the news: one involving Roman Polanski's arrest and the other about Elizabeth Smart's court testimony. While these cases have the “adult male-minor female” rapes as their basic similarity, most other things have been very different, especially in news reports and public reactions.

The “Polanski” case actually involves this Academy Award winning director’s flight from sentencing after his guilty plea and conviction in the rape of the 13-year-old girl. After 32 years, he was arrested recently in Switzerland to await extradition back to the United States for sentencing and additional charges of evading justice. The news reports focus on what a terrible time he’s had in life, from his family’s losses in the Holocaust to the murder of his pregnant wife by the Manson “family”, and on the fabulous movies he’s produced since living in Europe after he fled Los Angeles.

Until recently, little had been mentioned of the rape survivor, who is now an adult woman. A recent article fully identifies her and discusses the apparent civil settlement in which Polanski allegedly was to pay her half a million dollars, although no public documentation can confirm that she received those funds. Her lawyers’ requests to the court for him to pay the settlement past its due date ceased about the time she wrote a public letter stating that she thinks he should be able to return to the country, ostensibly to attend the Academy Awards show when he was nominated in 2002.

The "Smart" case involves the nine month long abduction of Utahan Elizabeth Smart. Her alleged kidnapper, Brian David Mitchell, subjected her to a “plural marriage” ceremony and according to Smart repeatedly raped her. She is now 21 and gave her testimony at the mental competency hearing of Mitchell just before leaving on her religious mission to France. Mitchell is cast as a religious fanatic who told her that he was doing what the lord wanted him to do. As of this writing, he has not yet been convicted of the crime as it has not yet been established if he is mentally competent to stand trial.

Let’s look at these cases sociologically.

Note the language used in the reporting of each case. Is it clear who the victim is in each case?

Many news reports and editorials about the Polanski case lament his treatment by the justice system, and some even suggest that he is the victim. Some articles discuss the cost of bringing him back to court, which makes the taxpayers the victim. Some articles focus on how the rape survivor, the actual victim, image said that he should be free to live his life and if she says that, well, we should let her decide, which reinforces the idea that he is the victim.

The Smart articles focus on her as the rape survivor and certainly do not cast Mitchell as a victim. They cast him as crazy or as a crafty rapist who acts like a religious fanatic so as not to take the blame for his actions.

The headlines use “Polanski” and “Smart”, not “Mitchell” or “Geimer”.

Polanski’s name is certainly a familiar one since he is famous. Smart has become famous as an icon of parental fear – the girl who was abducted from her bedroom at night. As is typical in rape cases, Samantha Geimer’s name was withheld when she was a minor yet she herself went public when she wrote the letter in support of Polanski. Mitchell is not a name familiar to people even though most know that some man abducted and raped Elizabeth Smart.

From this point forward, I will refer to the “Smart” case as the Mitchell case.

Note the basic features of each case: an adult man raped a young girl.

Is this contested in either case? Yes and no. Mitchell has been in a mental institution since his arrest in 2003 and the recent hearing was to establish whether or not he could stand trial. Polanski testified that he did the crime (although in his plea agreement he plead guilty to “unlawful sex with a minor”) and his latest issues revolve around his flight from the justice system to escape sentencing and serving more time. Mitchell has not been convicted yet Polanski has. However, in the news articles, Polanski’s guilt is downplayed and Mitchell’s is assumed.

Note the social class differences in each case.

While Polanski is clearly a member of the upper socioeconomic strata, Mitchell and his co-defendant wife are in the lower strata. Polanski was able to flee to Europe, continuing to make his films and generate his substantial income. While the social class status of Ms. Geimer is not fully apparent, it is likely that she and her family live a middle class life, even if she did not receive the settlement. The Smart family are firmly in the upper middle class of suburban Salt Lake City, while the Mitchell couple were basically homeless and firmly ensconced in the lower echelon of society’s social class levels.

Social class alone can explain much of the dynamics of these cases. Those with the higher class status tend to gain more favorable coverage in the press. Polanski received more favorable coverage than his victim did, and Smart certainly received more media attention than her abductor did.

One might hope that people who have been victimized would receive more careful and supportive press coverage, this certainly didn’t happen in the Polanski case.

Note the issues of fame and social power in each case

Social power derives from social class but also from fame. Smart was featured on America's Most Wanted and has spoken in public and to Congress about sexual image predator issues and legislation.

Most particularly in the Polanski case, fame insulates the perpetrator from paying his full debt to the justice system. So much so that some even call into question his guilt even though that had been firmly established in court. (See Harvey Weinstein’s quote about the “so-called crime” in the Los Angeles Times). Reaction to the Polanski case avoids discussion of his guilt in this crime of rape and focuses on other issues that are not salient. Consider how Mr. Weinstein might react if a female family member of his had been the victim in this case - might he advocate the release of that person as he does Polanski?

The exploitation of women in the entertainment industry is a related topic— some may not see why having sex with someone at a photo shoot was wrong – even if she was underage and under the influence of alcohol and drugs. Some also point to the mother who dropped her off at the house where the rape took place as culpable.

However, only the rapist is responsible for the rape, no matter what bad decisions others might have made.

What isn’t being talked about?

In the Polanski case, the exploitation of women is not a topic that many are choosing to discuss. How many other girls and women have been raped by people with power over them? We’ll never know, especially if those powerful people are not held to the legal standards that govern our society.

Absent from the discussion of the Mitchell case are the cultural underpinnings of how religion played a role in the abduction and rapes. The “plural marriage” as it was called when she was first rescued, was code for rape yet the word "rape" was not uttered for some time after she was freed. That this particular crime took place in a specific religious and cultural environment with a history of patriarchy (and, decades ago, of plural marriage) isn’t a coincidence. Elizabeth Smart was raised, as most of us are, in a culture of male dominance and female obedience.

It is also likely that Smart, like Patty Hearst and many other children abducted by sexual predators, was experiencing something akin to the Stockholm Syndrome. When she was first discovered, she did not readily identify herself. When held long enough under certain circumstances, people may “go along” with their captors and not escape when they might have had the chance.

So, how can we explain the different ways that we are reacting to these cases?

While both cases have at their core the rape of a 13- or 14-year-old girl by an adult man, public discussion and reaction to these cases is notably different. Social class, power, and fame all have their influences yet cognitive dissonance is also taking place.

Cognitive dissonance occurs when people have to reconcile two conflicting ideas at the same time. We often try and alter one of the ideas to be consistent with the other. For instance, people generally want to like and respect people with fame and power. When those people do bad things, we can react in many different ways but in the Polanski case, so many years after the event, some want to believe he paid his debt to society by having lived such a troubled life. Thinking of someone as both a good person and a rapist is very difficult to reconcile. Normally we decide that someone who commits rape is no longer a good person. In this example, many people, especially many in the entertainment industry, have chosen to downplay his actions to maintain the idea that their conflicting image of him as a good person.

But the justice system doesn’t see it this way, and after all, time spent living in a Swiss chalet isn’t the same as “doing time”. How do you think we would talk about the case if Elizabeth Smart’s alleged rapist had fled the country for more than three decades and evaded justice?

October 05, 2009

Soap Operas and Postmodern Theory

author_karen By Karen Sternheimer

On September 18th, the CBS daytime drama Guiding Light aired its final episode after 72 years on the air (fifteen years on radio and 57 on television). Ratings declined as they have for many soap operas over the past few years, leading to the network’s decision to end the longest running program in television history. Both my grandmother and great-grandmother watched the show religiously, and its end represents the passing of more than just a television show. It marks a major social shift.

Daytime melodramas became popular during a time when women spent less time in the paid labor force than they did in the early and image later years of the twentieth century. In pre-television radio days, these dramas became known as soap operas because manufacturers of cleaning products advertised heavily to the mostly female audience.

The content of the soaps offered an escapist fantasy of outlandish plots that could temper the tedium of regular housework. For the uninitiated, soap opera characters regularly commit infidelity, plot each others’ deaths, come back from the dead, grow from childhood to adulthood after a year’s absence, and marry and divorce at a rate that would make Elizabeth Taylor’s eight marriages seem normal. Good and evil characters can change overnight and even come back in the form of another person, especially if a surgeon managed a scar-less face transplant.

When I would visit my grandmother, I would hear the plot twists unfold to dramatic music, watch the camera zoom into an actor’s dramatic facial expression and think that this style of storytelling seemed so different than many other programs on the air today.

One might argue that reality shows are a twenty-first century answer to twentieth century melodramas. For those who watch them, reality shows suggest that we are getting an inside glimpse into someone’s private life, usually someone whose life is marked by drama (or edited to highlight--if not produce--dramatic incidents). Most viewers are now savvy enough to know that reality shows are not entirely unfiltered windows into participants’ lives, but it is their illusion of reality that is part of the interest.

This fascination highlights some of the ideas of postmodern theory, particularly French sociologist Jean Baudrillard. According to Baudrillard, the real and the simulated are no longer distinguishable. He argues that in our media age, images of reality and reality itself interact so much so that they have become interchangeable.

You can think of this as like a mirror that reflects an image from another mirror so much that the original image can no longer be identified. Baudriallard calls the outcome of this endless interaction hyperreality, and suggests in his 1983 book Simulations that we are fascinated by the "thrill of the real," particularly clip_image002because in his view "reality" has imploded with simulation.

There are certainly limits to the application of postmodern theory, but it might help us understand why traditional twentieth century soaps are watching their audiences dwindle. Yes, with more women in the labor force fewer are at home during the day to watch television. And as women have more opportunities outside of the home they might find their lives less mundane and therefore would be less interested in melodrama.

Despite including younger characters, part of the soaps’ recent challenge has been that their audiences have aged and younger viewers have not begun watching in large number. A 2008 Boston Globe article describes how producers attempted to adopt the style of reality shows to attract new viewers. In particular, they sometimes use smaller cameras to mirror the informality of reality shows. But perhaps the biggest hurdle is that soaps are a product of twentieth-century modernity. Audiences may now prefer to observe people “being themselves” in our hyper-mediated age.

We can also look at the genre itself and see how it does not reflect our postmodern condition, where reality itself seems more entertaining than fiction. Soaps are deliberately unreal, asking viewers to enter a fantasy world and suspend their disbelief. We know the characters are played by actors, even if sometimes fans blur the boundary and think of the actor as their character. But the actors and producers make no claim that their character is real.

Realities shows like the Real Housewives and the Kardashian family shows, however, ask us to enjoy the illusion of reality itself by suggesting to us that these programs are depictions of real events. The stories are not limited to a television time slot: events can develop in blogs, tweets, texts, or even in the news, as pregnancies or marriages are reported by the press. Further complicating things, reality show participants are called casts and shows can win Emmys.

I think back to my grandmother, who to my knowledge had no interest in reality shows, and her mother before her, who knew nothing of them since she lived well before they existed. For those coming of age in an era of multimedia, a fantasy melodrama might not be as interesting as something that bleeds into many other forms of media. Rather than just different content, the different forms of media attract audiences today. How else might Baudrillard’s theory help explain today’s media environment?

October 01, 2009

Social Structure and the Subway

author_sally By Sally Raskoff

One of the hallmarks of sociological thinking is to recognize the existence and impact of structure. That society has structure is an elusive concept to many!

The ways that society is structured guides our behavior. It allows us to create and maintain order, to conform to norms, to signal innovation and change, and, inversely, to highlight when deviations from those norms and structures take place.

Consider public rapid transit – a subway station. While these may not exist in rural areas, they are quite common in urban and even suburban areas. (Yes, we do have them even in Los Angeles!) Train or bus stations in rural areas may have similar features.

Within the subway station, structures guide us to enter, pay our fees (if we don’t already have a pass), find our way to the trains, and exit the station once at our destination. Some of the structures that guide us through this path are physical and obvious, others less so.

The following photo essay includes images from the Los Angeles metro – important to know since this is a city with a relatively new system and with many people who don’t know how to navigate it. Whether this affects the way that the stations are structured, well, you can be the judge of that.

Starting as we walk into the station, you travel down a large staircase or escalator and find yourself channeled into the space, heading in one direction. Notice in the photograph the markings on the floor. They (and the walls) clearly tell you to walk in one direction – as those in the photo are doing. At the far end of the walkway, there is a more complex floor pattern and in that area one can go in multiple directions.


Once inside the station, the ticket buying area is well lit and gets your attention even if you already have a pass.


Seen from the other direction (from past the card readers – the metal stands), the area is populated and illuminated. Note the floor patterns here as well. The photos above and below are in different stations but both patterns signify activity or detail near the ticket machines and maps. If no people are present, the location of the machines is signaled by the cacophony or direction of patterns on the floor.


Once inside, there is usually waiting to do. Eating and drinking are prohibited, so if you have to wait for your train there is not much to keep you entertained. In LA’s stations, each stop is decorated differently using public art that pertains to the history and economy of that area. Tiled art and creative benches are included in each station.

The art keeps people from focusing on each other. In such a stuffy and somewhat dark enclosed area, it seems important not to encourage people to look or interact with others. The subway is a unique social space where people of different backgrounds and social classes find themselves—perhaps for the only time that day-- in the same, small space. Also, most people who ride the subways or buses have come across a person whose mental state was altered and may be afraid of encountering people like that again. The art and signs serve to help people feel safe in subway stations and offer diversions from potentially uncomfortable encounters.


The hardest part of getting to know a subway station is knowing which side of the platform you need to be on to going in your intended direction. While the signposts are there, they are not always readily apparent.

This next photo shows a hopeful scene – the train is approaching. Its direction is noted at the top of the image, next to the exit sign. Many people come down those stairs and look around multiple times to find which train they want – few actually look up! Once they do, typically after searching the wall alongside the train’s path, they relax and go to the correct side.


If you gaze down to the floor on the platform, it is much plainer than upstairs. Yet I noticed this yellow patch (below).


What might this yellow patch be? Most don’t notice it. People congregate all along the pathway, often ignoring these patches. They have raised bumps thus one might surmise that they have an important function.

Note that there are a few of them, spaced apart but not in sequential or even intervals.


Once the next train came, I noticed their most important function!


These yellow patches highlight where some of the trains’ doors will stop! Not all doors, but at least one per train car. The people who know this, gather around those patches while those unaccustomed to these subtle structural guides may have to run towards a door in fear of having the doors shut before they reach them.

Once on the train, the seating shows you clearly that the train may run one way or the other as the seats face both directions.


There are rails everywhere to hold onto in case one is standing or getting while the train is in motion. What might be another function of those rails?

In the photo below, there is a vertical rail in the middle of the floor in front of the doors.

Do the rails adequately and effectively mark the personal space of the train riders?

Some of the problems that trains have is that of pickpockets and frotteurists (people who rub up against or bump into people for purposes of sexual gratification). Do these rails assist in protecting people against such practices?

The concepts of manifest and latent functions can be helpful here. While the intent and design of the rails are for stability during the ride (manifest or intended functions), the latent (or unintended) function is that they actually may encourage close physical proximity, which may explain why pickpockets and frotteurists find trains so inviting.

Take a good look at the previous photo and the next two photos of the train car.



What other subtle (or not so subtle) structures guide our behavior?

Notice the posters on the front of the seating area and on the walls.

These Metro posters include the messages:

“Safety begins with you” The image is a hand holding onto the rail.

“We’re watching. Are you?” The image is a shoulder patch of the LA County Sheriff.

“Which one is working undercover?” The image is of train riders in their seats, three men and a woman.

“Better safe than sorry” The image is of a purse under a seat

“Planee su viaje en cualquier momento” which translates to “Plan your trip at any time” The image is of the Metro Trip Planner.

The majority of messages are about safety and point out that one is not alone in that train. There are cameras installed in every car but these posters remind you that there is not just passive security through surveillance, there may be undercover officers and that everyone should be vigilant.

Interestingly, the one message in Spanish is not about safety, but about the convenience of the website trip planning feature.

What would be the effect of the safety posters for riders who speak only Spanish?

Some criminological theories state that people are more apt to commit crimes of opportunity – crimes that they would not be caught doing. Do these posters inhibit such crimes?

Once you leave your train and head out of the station, the same structures guide you out.


People head for the lighted ticket area and up the stairs and escalators that brought them underground.


As one heads up those stairs, the world beckons with its more diffuse and diverse signals of where to go and what to do. Our behavior becomes much less controlled and guided outside the metro station. Do people feel different once they emerge into that space? What other examples of spaces reflecting social structure can you think of?

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