9 posts from November 2009

November 30, 2009

Understanding Why Crime Rates Fall

author_karen By Karen Sternheimer

A New York Times story earlier this year explored a counterintuitive trend: despite the recession, crime rates in New York have fallen. Los Angeles and other large American cities exhibit similar patterns. This challenges a commonly held belief that crime rates rise and fall in large part based on economic changes.

So why do crime rates fall?

Everyone seems to have their pet answer for this question. Besides the economy, some will point to a rise in the number of law enforcement officers, tougher sentencing laws, even the legalization of abortion (according to the authors of Freakonomics: A Rogue Economist Explores the Hidden Side of Everything, anyway). I once had a student who was an ardent supporter of one political party and was convinced that crime rates rose when the other party was in power.

If only solving the crime mystery was so simple. Criminologists have been studying this issue and have come to a startling conclusion: we really don’t conclusively know why crime rates rise and fall.

Between 1990 and 2000, crime rates in the Unites States dropped precipitously. According to the FBI’s Uniform Crime Report, homicide fell 39 percent, rape rates fell 41 percent, and robbery fell 44 percent. Since that time, crime trends have leveled off for the most part.

But New York’s crime declines put these numbers to shame: 73 percent decline in homicide, 52 percent decline in rape, and 70 percent decline in rape—as well as an astonishing 78 percent drop in auto thefts. Analysts focused specifically on New York to see if any changes there could reveal clues about what causes crime to decline.

Crime declines

I lived in New York in the late 1980s as a college student at New York University, and it doesn’t take a sociologist to notice the drastic changes that have taken place in the city since then. Walking through Washington Square Park (at the center of the university’s main buildings) involved dodging rats and drug dealers at all hours of the day. There were many nearby neighborhoods students were warned not to venture into, especially at night.

I was one of the first to live in a new dorm that was just east of most other university property. Prostitutes regularly walked the streets around the new building, and a group of transients lived across the street in front of an abandoned building. My roommates and I casually watched one afternoon as New York Police officers barricaded our block and raided what we referred to as the crack house across the street. While moving in across the hall, one student had his clothes and other possessions stolen when his parents’ car was broken into. A block or two away stood the porn theater where Robert De Niro’s character Travis Bickle picks up Jodi Foster’s character (a child prostitute) in the classic 1976 movie, Taxi Driver.

Nyc in the 80s

New York City in the late 1980s

In one of the movie’s opening lines, Bickle describes New York as “an open sewer.” I wouldn’t have described life there in the late 80s in exactly the same way, but it was a different world when I returned years later. The “crack house” I once lived across the street from now features ground level shops like Ben & Jerry’s and small clothing boutiques. The gritty drug-infested neighborhoods we were warned away from are now upscale, gentrified neighborhoods with young families and sky-high rents. Even The Bowery, which was an open sewer of a street that reeked of urine and despair, has become a Mecca of new development, as seen in the new luxury high-rise building pictured below.


What reduced crime in New York?

Law professor Franklin E. Zimring explores this question in his book, The Great American Crime Decline. He suggests that there are many reasons for declines in New York and elsewhere in America.

It might seem like the most obvious reason for crime to decline in New York is the exploding rents and cost of real estate, pushing out low-income residents who might have more motivation to commit property crimes, for instance. Zimring notes that while this might make sense for Manhattan, New York City is comprised of five boroughs (Manhattan, Brooklyn, Queens, Staten Island, and the Bronx), yet crime fell throughout the city.

As Bradley Wright blogged about, some attribute the crime decline to the aggressive policing tactics former police chief William J. Bratton employed during his tenure in New York from 1994-1996. Bratton’s strategy mirrored the broken windows theory, the idea that if you eliminate small, quality of life problems like vandalism then you send a message to criminals that larger crimes will also be aggressively prosecuted. And yet crime rates also fell in cities that hadn’t changed policing strategies. Zimring attributes some of the decline to policing (from 25 to 50 percent, in his estimation), but also considers the high population density and strict gun laws as other potential factors. He also suggests that because of the high level of crime in New York before the drop, it had further to fall. Once again, there is no singular explanation of why crime fell in New York or in any other city.

Zimring concludes his analysis with several lessons we can learn from the crime decline, one of which is that we need to do more to compare crime declines in the U.S. with declines in other countries like Canada, where similar drops were observed but even though there were no significant changes in policing or criminal justice. He suggests that crime rates can drop “without major changes in the social fabric” (p. 206). In other words, it doesn’t necessarily take huge social changes to bring down crime rates.

The fact that crime rates have fallen so much is great news. But the fact that there is no simple solution can make it difficult for lawmakers to communicate the importance of some policies to their constituents. We tend to like simple solutions, but in this case there are none.

November 23, 2009

The Sociological Significance of Pictures

author_janis By Janis Prince Inniss

Although I’m not as into it now, I used to love photography…back in the days when we all used film I toted my heavy 35mm camera around. Now everyone—or so it seems—has a digital camera and/or one on their cell phone.

When I was very young my father was a photographer and he taught my brother the trade when he was in his late teens. As my brother developed a photography business I became his assistant—fetching his bag and other such glamorous activities. Along the way, I picked up an interest in photography.

I would take tons and tons of pictures at every event, outing, and holiday trip. After grappling with storing all the pictures, I started to ask myself how many pictures of any one event I really needed. Even 155 pictures of my trip to Yosemite National Park does not change the fact that it is in the past and sometimes enjoying myself rather that shooting pictures has made for better memories.

When I was almost 18, I went to my father’s funeral. It was probably only the second I had attended so I didn’t really know what was done at funerals. Just before leaving our grandmother’s home for the funeral, somehow I got a hold of my brother’s camera. I wasn’t sure what I would do with the camera; what would be an appropriate picture to take given the occasion? I knew that I would not take pictures of my father’s lifeless body. Not only did I consider that that morbid but I refused to even view my father’s body, let alone take a picture of him.

I don’t remember taking any of them, but all these years later I have pictures from my father’s funeral. And I’m glad that I do. They remind me of the early impact of our father’s death on me and my siblings. And the pictures remind me of who attended the funeral. I have forgotten most of the people who were there that day who were not photographed.

Recently I attended an “un-birthday party” in Tampa, an event held to honor the 153 children in this county who did not live to their first birthdays in 2007. Particularly striking was a presentation from a photographer from the Now I Lay Me Down to Sleep organization. The organization exists to take pictures of babies of who have died at birth or who are expected to die soon after. Professional photographers donate their time and the photographs are free for the parents. As the organization’s website points out, taking a picture of such a baby is not necessarily on the minds of grieving parents. (Click here to see a Los Angeles Times story about bereavement photos).


But as you can imagine, a picture of a baby who only lives for a few hours, days, or months can be of tremendous value to many parents. Not so long ago, many hospitals did not allow or encourage parents to see these babies. Today, parents are encouraged to name their babies, to hold them—acknowledge their lives, however short -–as a way to help cope with their grief. With the professional quality pictures they receive from this organization, parents are granted an important memento that most new parents have or expect—wonderful pictures of their newborn.

Photographs have meanings attached to them. For parents who have lost a baby, a Now I Lay Me Down to Sleep photograph underscores the fact that they did have a baby—for however short a period. The pictures serve as proof that their child existed; it is documentation that this child lived.

Indeed, a photographic image is worth a thousand words. Lately we’ve witnessed dust-ups over news organizations use of the wrong picture to illustrate a story. In an apparent effort to impress us with the size of a “tea party” in Washington protesting President Obama’s health care plan, several websites showed a picture that turned out to be 10 years old. The 10-year-old picture shows an enormous crowd that stretches for blocks, and that was described as being up to 2 million people. It should not surprise you that some conservative blogs reported this high number while mainstream news organizations said that the crowd was in the thousands. At issue here was the ability to say that a particularly high level of discontent exists among “the people”.

We shape pictures—by deciding what pictures we take and how we take them—but pictures also shape our worlds—whether in telling us how big a crowd is, reminding us of a poignant time, or providing tangible proof of a loved one’s life. Societal context and our own personal context shape how we think about these images.

November 19, 2009

Solidarity: What Brings Us Together

author_sally By Sally Raskoff

Are you a member of a club? Have you joined any organizations and spent any time or money with the group and the other members? You might be experiencing something that Emile Durkheim wrote about.image

Durkheim’s concepts of organic and mechanical solidarity are fun to think about. Organic solidarity is based on interdependence and is the social glue that keeps society together in complex societies. Mechanical solidarity, based on homogeneity and similarity, is the social glue that keeps society cohesive in less complex societies.

Durkheim saw in growing societies an increasingly complex division of labor, reinforcing differences among people. No longer would most people live in small communities, have the same jobs, and live the same type of lives, e.g., working on a farm. A more complex society consists of many different jobs and people living many different types of lives. If society is to survive as it becomes less homogeneous, new bonds would need to form based on those differences.

Interdependence is one such social bond, since when one specializes in one type of labor, one will depend on others to do the labor required in other areas. For example, if you are a doctor, you depend on nurses, physician’s assistants, and other medical professionals to get your job done, but you also depend on the mechanic to keep your transportation working, the barber or stylist to cut your hair, and the dry cleaners to keep your clothes pressed.

The social bonds created within occupational groups or within other interest groups is a secondary type of social glue connecting people in personal ways. Dense population centers support multiple interest groups, allowing people to join different networks of people and creating many different types of social glue.

When we first learn these concepts, we may assume that mechanical solidarity is replaced completely by organic solidarity. This may not necessarily be the case. In our current times, organic solidarity is likely to characterize the types of social cohesion that are primary while mechanical solidarity is less likely to describe how our societies maintain themselves.


Alexis de Tocqueville was well aware of our American propensity to volunteer. We are a nation of “joiners” as “Americans of all ages, all stations of life, and all types of disposition are forever forming associations” (Tocqueville, Democracy in America). Those student clubs on campus offer but one type of opportunity to join with others to pursue interests. We may, throughout our life span, join interest-based clubs, parent-child groups, neighborhood collectives, and occupational associations. image

Some of our understanding of this behavior is captured from surveys on volunteering. Volunteering is usually defined as working for some organization without pay. According to the latest Bureau of Labor Statistics report, just over one quarter of the population volunteer for an organization. The tasks volunteers perform run the gamut from office work to ministering, food distribution, coaching, and artistic performances.

Can this sub-group activity of joining clubs be considered a micro version of mechanical solidarity? It does create groups of like-minded people, as those people come together to perform some common task. Volunteers have things in common that brought them together for a shared goal. The application of the concept doesn’t work entirely, however, since people who belong to the same organization are not held together as tightly as are people in smaller heterogeneous communities.

Durkheim’s concept of the collective conscience helps us understand the difference as it represents the shared beliefs in a society. Those who live in smaller homogenous societies (mechanical solidarity) share a very strong belief and moral structure while those in more complex heterogeneous societies (organic solidarity) may not. Those smaller occupational and interest groups that we join provide a collection of beliefs to which we may belong and between which there may or may not be any cohesiveness.

Take a moment and consider the groups in which you take part. How important to you are they? How strong is the group’s collective consciousness, or shared beliefs? How does interdependence relate to the group? Society is made possible by our bonds with one another; I invite you to consider the number and quality of yours.

November 18, 2009

Everyday Sociology Talk: Majoring in Sociology

Thinking of majoring in sociology? Members of USC's sociology club talk about why they became sociology majors. Click here to learn more about careers in sociology.

November 16, 2009

Losing Confidence: Americans and Social Institutions

author_karen By Karen Sternheimer

Do you feel less confidence in the government? In corporations? In the press?

If so, your feelings reflect a general trend found in the most recent data from the General Social Survey, a nationally representative household survey taken every other year of American attitudes on a variety of issues. Since 1973 the survey has asked respondents how much confidence they have in a variety of American social institutions. Their 2008 survey results suggest that the public has less confidence in every major social institution (except the military) compared with 2006.

Looking at year-to-year trends might not tell us very much, but if we examine the more than 35 years of data we can see some interesting patterns and think about why Americans might have less faith in various institutions.

Our declining confidence in the news media is rather clear in the graph below. For the past fifteen years, the percentage of people having a great deal of confidence has hovered at or below just ten percent. There are likely many reasons for this, but I suspect that the blending of opinion with reporting—especially on cable news—is partly responsible. If “the news” seems to just be someone’s opinion, especially if it is constructed to influence our political views in one direction or other, we might be less likely to see the press as a reliable source of information. As I blogged about last year, journalism as an industry is in danger, and this loss of confidence is likely a big part of the reason.

By contrast, far more people reported a great deal of confidence in the press in the mid-1970s, in the years following the Watergate scandal and the subsequent resignation of President Richard Nixon. Investigative journalists Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein broke the story of what seemed like a minor burglary of the Democratic National Committee headquarters and continued to pursue the story, revealing a major cover-up.


Not surprisingly, these revelations led to a sharp decline in those who felt a great deal of confidence in the executive branch of the federal government, from 29 percent in 1973 to 14 percent in 1974, as you can see in the graph below. Unlike confidence in the press, confidence in the executive branch of government—which mostly refers to the president—has had many peaks and valleys in the last few decades. Confidence can rise and fall rather quickly.

Most recently, we can see that close to 28 percent felt a great deal of confidence in 2002, just following the terrorist attacks in 2001. But that number fell to 11 percent in 2008, as President George W. Bush’s approval ratings sunk and the economy fell into recession.


Not surprisingly, with news of the collapse of the financial and automotive industries, confidence in major companies fell to the lowest point in General Social Survey history: from a high of 32 percent in 1974, 1984, and 1987 to 16 percent in 2008.


This is a meaningful decline. President Calvin Coolidge famously said that “the business of America is business”. For the past several decades American confidence in business largely reflected this sentiment, that major companies would lead us towards prosperity and opportunity. Scandals in recent years, such as Enron’s massive fraud in the energy market, led to declines in confidence after the financial boom of the 1990s.

These are just a few institutions with declining American confidence, according to the General Social Survey. Medicine, science, and religion are some of the many other institutions that Americans feel less confident about. What does this loss of confidence mean in the grand scheme of things?

It’s possible that mistrust of several major institutions can impact the way we view other institutions, even if there has been no significant reason to doubt them. For instance, despite the advice of public health officials, a large proportion of the population reports that they don't want to be vaccinated for the H1N1 virus. Some just aren’t interested, but others don't trust government officials; some even view calls to get vaccinated as a government conspiracy for control or profit.

When major institutions lose their legitimacy with a large proportion of the public, people are likely to disengage from these institutions, and maybe even ignore important information they provide. What sociological theories do you think might explain why Americans seem to trust social institutions less?

November 12, 2009

False Alarms and Copy Cats

author_janis By Janis Prince Inniss

MoBull Messenger is the University of South Florida (USF) emergency text messaging system that faculty, staff, and students can register for, in order to receive emergency notices. As I mentioned in a previous post, on the principle of not wishing to further enrich my cell phone provider, I do not have a texting plan. Yet, on October 5 I received 7 MoBull texts on my cell phone.

I received the following text at 1:47 pm: “Alert Tampa Campus- EMERGENCY: Armed intruder on campus. Stay inside. Lock doors. Emergency personnel responding.” About 20 minutes later, the alert gave the location of the armed person as the library and warned to “avoid the area”.

Click here to see video about the USF lockdowns

Almost exactly an hour after the first alert, I got this message: “Tampa Campus—A separate report of a suspect on a Bullrunner (campus shuttle) in the Parking and Transportation Services possibly armed. Avoid area and entire campus on alert. “ At 3:19, I received a fourth text message and began to wonder whether this was a joke—of poor taste to be sure—because the description grew stranger : “Tampa campus—white male subject seen in the Cooper Hall area in black tank top, cowboy hat carrying black puppy and a large hunting knife. Officers en route.”

Four minutes later I received the fifth text message as “clarification regarding multiple alerts”. The last two messages said “all clear” and that the “emergency is over”. Had I been on campus I would have heard sirens wail and possibly glimpsed SWAT team members with assault rifles! The campus was shut down for almost three hours.

This was the third time this year that USF has locked down its campus as a precaution against widespread campus violence.

The time before this—in July—I received a MoBull Messenger text as I dropped off a colleague at his office after lunch; the text said that there was a gunman on campus! Although I was right across the road from USF, I drove away from the campus after reading that text. I completed some errands while receiving additional texts warning us to stay away from the campus. I called my mother to let her know that I was not there, as I knew that she was at home and probably seeing a news ticker on her television and that news of a gunman on the campus would cause her some panic.

When I had no other errands and the campus was still on lockdown I headed home and continued my work there. In this case, a “gunman” called a crisis center, reporting that he was in a parking lot on the USF campus with a gun that he was willing to use. The man may never have been on the campus, but was apparently suicidal and was taken for a mental evaluation under the Baker Act.

The first incident of this nature occurred in June when there was a report of a man with a gun in the USF Greek Village which houses 13 sororities and fraternities. This one turned out to be a uniformed ROTC student with his practice rifle. MoBull messages were sent out; the all clear was issued only 16 minutes after the initial message.

In his book The Tipping Point, Malcolm Gladwell describes a “contagious epidemic” of teen suicides in Micronesia. These suicides began with a high-profile one that received lots of attention and was widely copied. Indeed, sociologist David Phillips has found that national suicide rates increase significantly after one is highly publicized. In the Afterword of the book, Gladwell notes that after the Columbine High school shootings in 1999, there were several copy-cat incidents—Gladwell argues these teens were “infected” by the Columbine shootings.

Might the USF false alarms lockdowns be due to copy-cats as well? The first case with the ROTC cadet may have set the stage: a mistake garnered a big response from the campus police and local media. The second episode—that of a gunman saying he was willing to use a gun on the campus was met with an even bigger response—a campus lockdown. Although this person may not have even been on the campus, again there was a big news story about the university responding to what was thought to be an emergency.

The first perpetrator of the most recent USF case was very familiar with the previous reports of armed subjects on the camps as well as with the results. Markenson Innocent not only updated his Facebook page throughout the incident, but also mentioned the bomb threat before it was made saying: "I hope they get my good side!” According to police, using another name, Innocent called police and said that Markenson Innocent had a gun and bomb at the university library. I guess Innocent did not want to take the chance that he would not be discovered or that the wrong person would be arrested. On the same day, there was an alert about a man on the school shuttle; it turns out that Vincent Thomas-Perry McCoy was “joking”.

Since one student at Virginia Tech shot and killed 32 people in 2007 before turning the gun on himself, U.S. universities have implemented plans aimed at minimizing the likelihood that this mass murder would be copied. Perhaps we at USF are fortunate that the act being copied here is nothing more serious than a false alarm. Do you have a different theory to explain what has happened? What do you predict will happen regarding USF campus alarms based on my theory, or yours, if it differs?

November 09, 2009

War, Suicide, and Emotional Labor

author_sally By Sally Raskoff

Janis Prince Inniss recently blogged about the cost of warclip_image002 and mentioned the rising rate of military suicides. As the New York Times reported, the suicide rate within the military is higher than that in the general population. The graph on the right shows the “self-inflicted death” rates from the Department of Defense from 1980 through 2008. While the peak in 1995 is disturbing, it is clear that the rates have been increasing since 2001.

Military bases overseas and at home, including Fort Hood and Fort Bragg, have seen tremendous rates of – and been in the news for – suicides, domestic violence, and sexual violence. They have instituted many different programs to prevent and deal with the stresses of military life.

For example, Fort Hood instituted a "Resiliency Campus" on the base where soldiers and their families can get help coping with the emotional, financial, and mental health issues they face before, during, and after deployment.

However, the source the source of the stress has not abated. We are fighting two difficult wars and no one can predict when they will end.

The shootings at Fort Hood were allegedly carried out by an army psychiatrist about to deploy, whose job was to counsel soldiers coping with combat stresses. He was also apparently vocal about his objections to about the war. This event and other such mass shootings, including the workplace shooting in Orlando, Florida the day after the Fort Hood incident, remind me of a phenomenon familiar to law enforcement, “suicide by cop” in which a suicidal person attacks others as targets of their anger and frustration yet fully realizes they themselves will die as a result of that act.

Some news coverage has focused on how Major Hasan’s interpretation of his Muslim faith may have been a primary factor motive for his behavior. However, there are many Muslim soldiers who have not acted violently toward themselves or their peers. Further, there are soldiers of many different faiths whose personal opinions about the war are not positive. Some of the soldiers who have acted violently towards themselves and their peers may have said a prayer before their violent acts, but religion is not the main issue here.

To understand this act of violence, I’d like to go back to basics: basic training, actually. Sociologically, the high and increasing rates of violence within the military, violence focused on loved ones and on oneself, can be traced to basic military training and culture.

In basic training, your identity is stripped away, literally. When you arrive, your clothing and personal items are locked away, not to be seen again until you’re heading for home or for your training base. You are given new clothes to wear, identical to everyone else. If you are male, you lose all your hair; if you’re female, you have strict guidelines as to how your hair can appear. You wear no jewelry, or embellishment of any kind. If your clothes have buttons or zippers, they need to be buttoned or zipped up. Your classes teach you how and whom to salute, the customs and courtesies of the service branch you’ve joined, including ranks and insignia.



You rise in the morning with everyone else, dress quickly, and get in formation to march to breakfast, march to physical training, march to classes, march to your other meals, and march to anywhere else your training instructors want to take you. You look like everyone else and you must act like everyone else. Any individualistic expression is not encouraged.

These are my memories of basic training. Although I’ve been out of the Air Force for almost 30 years, I still remember much of that six-week period. I still eat meals too fast because of basic training!

At mealtime, we filed into the mess hall, picked up our trays, and filled them with food as we went through the line, much as anyone would in a cafeteria. You had to be sure not to take food you weren’t going to eat since you cannot throw any food away. When you approach a table, no one could sit down until there was a person at all four chairs. When your peers who were seated at the first table get up from their meal, people at the last table only have minutes to exit – with all food eaten – and the entire group gets into formation outside the mess hall. The first people cannot linger to allow the others more time since the training instructors are also in the room making sure that these rules are followed.

These rituals and restriction reshapes people into soldiers. You learn to finish what you start. You learn to work together with the other people in your unit to get the job done and get it done the right way. (The “right” way is the Army way, or the Air Force way, or the Marine way, or the Navy way, you get the picture.) You learn to suppress any emotion or feelings about what you are doing since you took an oath to do the job and your peers depend on you. You learn to respect the hierarchy of authority even if you don’t agree with the details.



People who serve in the military can hold whatever personal opinions they want about political issues. However, they must do the job that they hold no matter if they agree with it or not.

In the military, to acknowledge emotional issues is to appear weak. To acknowledge emotional problems is to appear unable to do one’s job. To appear weak and not do one’s job, you leave your unit to do the job without you and that is not an acceptable alternative.

If one gets physically injured, that can be a tolerable way to leave the front and/or your unit and not suffer any stigma. But psychological injuries have not traditionally been considered within military culture.

We are now paying a lot of attention to Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) to explain the high rates of suicide and interpersonal violence within the service. Vietnam-era veterans experience more depression, anxiety, and PTSD compared to pre-Vietnam era veterans and their rates of deaths from suicide, drugs, accidents, and homicide continue to be high many years after that conflict ended.

The military has created new programs to deal with PTSD, including public talks by high-ranking members on their own family losses or their own experiences of PTSD. They have also pointed out that PTSD affects brain structure and has physical causes, attempting to re-categorize it as a physical problem, not just an emotional one.



Sometimes when boys and men are socially isolated they turn to violence. Social isolation is an important factor in explaining aspects of suicidal behavior, yet the gender distinction is important. The typical military context involves a combination of suppressed emotion, dangerous situations, and a competitive environment and this is the very definition of a masculine culture.

Sociologically, what is happening is that soldiers may use the tools of this culture – aggression and violence - when they experience high levels of prolonged stress and are unable to adequately deal with the situation due to the suppression of their emotions.

The bigger issue is that the masculine and patriarchal culture of the military undercuts its ability to effectively deal with issues of stress in prolonged times of war and deployments. The military features that make good soldiers can also create troubled and damaged people.

Those who do emotional labor, such as flight attendants and service workers, often have a backstage where they can vent or let down their performance of managed emotions. There is no backstage in the military since soldiers must control those emotions while in combat, with their units away from the front, and even with their families.

To limit wartime stresses we could include end war or decommission the entire military. Most would agree that these are not likely or optimal options. Changing the culture of the military is another logical option, but intentionally changing culture of any kind is not an easy task. How would military culture change to allow the full range of expression for human emotions yet still create soldiers who can effectively protect the country?

As long as the military is defined by aggression and emotional suppression, we have to expect that there will be a toll on service members (and their families), especially when there are prolonged exposures to wartime stresses. What might be a solution to this problem of increased violence within the service?

November 06, 2009

Sociology & Tiaras

Hilary Levey By Hilary Levey

Robert Wood Johnson Fellow in Health Policy

Every Wednesday night at 9 pm I sit down in front of the TV, put on TLC, pull out my notebook, and do research for two hours. Yes, that’s right—watching the pageant shows Toddlers & Tiaras and the new show, King of the Crown, is part of my research. Back in 1999, when I was a sophomore in college, I did a research paper on child beauty pageants for a required sociology class. Little did I know that a decade later I would still be writing about pageants, but now as a professional sociologist!


Ever since the murder of JonBenét Ramsey, Americans have been simultaneously fascinated and repulsed by child beauty pageants. Many people didn’t know about these events until the death of JonBenét, in late 1996, but I have found that child beauty pageants have existed in the United States in one form or another since the 1800s. The late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries saw the growth and development of a variety of events that are precursors to the child beauty pageants of today, including May Day festivals, baby parades, and beautiful and healthy baby contests.

All of these festivals, parades, and contests started at about the same historical moment. Such child-centered contests were part of a larger movement that began to socially value children in new ways. It was during this time period, from roughly the 1870s to the 1930s, that child labor was eradicated, compulsory education began, and children came to be valued as “economically ‘worthless’ but emotionally ‘priceless,’” according to sociologist Viviana A. Zelizer.. This re-evaluation of childhood helped contribute to the development of distinct children’s spheres, like clothing designed especially for children (see Daniel Thomas Cook’s work on kids’ clothes).

The Asbury Park baby parade was arguably the most famous of the baby parades and contests that started at the turn of the twentieth century, rewarding children for their looks and their costumes. In its heyday, in 1893, it drew 30,000 spectators; in fact, it was so popular that Thomas Edison made one of his first movies of the event, on September 12, 1904.

As the popularity of parades and contests declined at the turn of the twentieth century, modern beauty pageants, for adult women, began to hit their stride. The first “live” beauty contest is said to have occurred in Reheboth Beach, Delaware in 1880. After that, pageants began springing up at carnivals and fairs and on beaches along both coasts, with pageants available for every age and body type.

The most famous, successful, and enduring of all of these is the Miss America Pageant , founded by a group of Atlantic City businessmen in 1921. These men wanted to keep visitors on the shore after Labor Day, the traditional end of the summer season, so they came up with the idea of a bathing beauty contest. They held the first Miss America contest on September 6, 1921 (though it didn’t come to be known by that name until 1941) with only seven “bathing beauties.” By the next year there were 57 contestants, and from there the Pageant continued to grow.

After the Miss America Pageant first appeared on television in 1954—breaking all previous viewing records with twenty seven million viewers—child pageants as we know them today started to develop in the void left by the closure of the parades and contests (which was mainly because of fears of polio in the 1950s). If you’ve seen Little Miss Sunshine, then you have a pretty good idea of how these pageants work.

One the biggest questions the public usually has after watching Little Miss Sunshine or one of the TLC shows is: Why do people, almost always mothers, put their little kids in these pageants? I’ve given you a bit of historical background, but I want to suggest a few explanations from other academic disciplines, before turning to my sociological analysis. Psychological explanations usually draw on the idea that many parents vicariously live through their children. Pageant moms are looking for self-affirmation when they are told their child is beautiful; they may be frustrated with their own lives and appearances and push their daughters to succeed in ways that they have not.

Economists focus more on the investment these moms are making in their children. Here the idea is that someday, their children will grow up to be successful (perhaps related to their participation in these events), and they will then have more resources to take care of the parents when they are elderly. Or, for some families, the pageants provide the possibility of a financial windfall. For example, Justin Timberlake and Britney Spears both did child beauty pageants. On a smaller fame-scale, some pageant contestants can earn money in other ways. Remember the cringe-worthy final answer of Miss South Carolina Teen a few years ago?

Caitlin has now parlayed that “answer” into TV appearances, highlighted on TLC’s King of the Crown, and a recent commercial. Other pageant contestants use the scholarship money awarded to pageant winners. For all its faults, some of which I write about here, the Miss America Pageant remains the largest source of college scholarship money for women in the world.

And this leads me to part of my sociological analysis of why mothers enroll their very young daughters in child beauty pageants, like those shown on TLC’s Toddlers & Tiaras (for a more complete analysis of participation in child beauty pageants, check out a paper I recently published in the journal Childhood). The majority of the pageant moms I met explain that they have their children involved to help ensure that they will be successful later in life.

One pageant mom explains, “I just want to see my daughters go somewhere—go somewhere in life. I didn’t. I ended up having kids right away. I’m stuck at home now. I’m doing this for them.” The idea that pageants can teach children specific skills that will help girls be successful was brought up literally hundreds of times in interviews with pageant mothers. There are eight major skills mentioned by moms (in decreasing order of frequency): learning confidence, learning to be comfortable on stage and in front of strangers, learning poise, learning how to present the self and dress appropriately, learning to practice, learning good sportsmanship, learning how to be more outgoing, and learning to listen. Of course, these are lessons and skills the moms want their children to learn and the children may not actually be learning them…But that’s a subject for another blog entry!

What do you think—can you think of other sociological explanations that explain participation in child beauty pageants? What might some “big name” sociological theorists, like Pierre Bourdieu and Thorstein Veblen, offer as explanations? Have you ever thought about doing a beauty pageant, perhaps even to help cover the costs of college?

November 03, 2009

Everyday Sociology Talk: A Minute at a Sociology Conference

Ever wonder what a sociology conference is really like? Karen Sternheimer narrates a one minute tour from the 2009 American Sociological Association (ASA) meeting in San Francisco. To learn more about sociology conferences, click here or visit the following sites to learn more about upcoming meetings.

Eastern Sociological Society

Mid-South Sociological Association

Midwest Sociological Society

New England Sociological Association

North Central Sociological Association

Pacific Sociological Association

Southern Sociological Society

Southwestern Social Science Association

Canadian Sociological Association

International Sociology Association

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