6 posts from December 2009

December 31, 2009

Infidelity, Tiger Woods, and Émile Durkheim

new karen 1

By Karen Sternheimer

By now you might be tired of hearing about Tiger Woods and his alleged mistresses. I know I am. And yet when high profile figures are thought to cheat on their spouses it becomes big news again and again, especially if a politician or celebrity is involved. Once Tiger’s story goes away there is sure to be another public figure whose behavior will enter the public fray for dissection.

There are many explanations for why people are interested—it’s salacious, it pervades the news at a time when ratings matter and news organizations’ budgets are being slashed, and in the Woods case it seems to be an opportunity for several people to get their fifteen minutes of fame. These are just a few of many explanations that have sparked a slew of conversations about why this is even news in the first place (including one I recently participated in on NPR). But how might the founder of sociology explain the attention celebrity infidelity receives if he were alive today?

clip_image002Emile Durkheim (1858-1917) is often regarded as the father of sociology, both for employing research methods to study sociological phenomena and for the theories he created about social life. While he lived before our hyper-mediated age, some of his ideas can add insight into why stories of infidelity seem to get the public’s attention.

Durkheim was very interested in how complex societies remain cohesive. He, and those that adopted his way of thinking, were very interested in how various aspects of society operate in concert in order to maintain the social order. Often called functionalism, this school of thought dominated sociological thinking for most of the twentieth century. One of functionalism’s central questions asks: What is the glue that holds increasingly diverse and sometimes divergent groups together?

Here’s where infidelity fits in. The collective disgust and outrage people express about high-profile cheaters serves to reaffirm a central societal value of fidelity. Functionalists emphasize the importance of shared values in creating bonds across society. News of infidelity is a chance for most of us to feel connected in agreeing that this behavior is wrong. While we might not agree on much else (witness the hotly debated health care reform legislation and other political melees), there aren’t too many people who are publicly pro-infidelity. Yes, it seems counterintuitive that something that could break up a marriage and family might provide social bonding. It may not do a family any good, but functionalists might argue that pillorying cheaters serves an important purpose for the rest of us.

Just as public hangings and stockades served to embarrass law breakers of the past and send a message to others of what would happen to them if they followed suit, media floggings serve a similar function today. Functionalists might argue that so much news focuses on undesirable behavior for the purpose of helping to maintain the social order; if we agree upon a set of norms and values we might feel a greater sense of who we as a group are and thus follow the rules. You might have noticed that when defining people as outsiders from our society we often focus on how their norms and values are different from ours.


It doesn’t take bad behavior to help unify an otherwise diverse society. According to Daniel Dayan and Elihu Katz, authors of Media Events: The Live Broadcasting of History, media events that galvanize the public’s attention serve the very important purpose of creating a shared culture and history in a complex society that can often feel fractured. Major media events can serve as common experiences to help us feel more connected.

Tiger Woods and other public figures involved in scandals enable the rest of us the chance to reaffirm a sense of shared values, but on the most basic level they provide a common topic we can all talk about, and therefore feel a greater connection to one another.

The functionalist perspective is not without its shortcomings. For one, we might argue that a complex society such as ours has a multitude of competing values, rather than a stable set of shared beliefs. It’s also important to note that people’s actual behavior falls short of the very values they may claim to hold. Proponents of conflict theory might argue that the focus on shared values and beliefs leaves out the issue of power: the power some have to define societal values and the power to evade punishment when said values are violated.

Sociological theories offer many perspectives that seek to explain social life. What other sociological concepts might help us understand the role that infidelity plays in public life?

December 23, 2009

The Sports Figure as Morality Teacher

new janis By Janis Prince Inniss

Do you receive medical advice from your very smart mail carrier? Or dental advice from a sociologist? Do you look to your garbage collector to help you with career plans? No? Why not? Most of us recognize that people have differing areas of expertise and believe that particularly with regard to important issues such as our health, career, and finance we should seek the best advice and direction—from professionals in these areas.

Yet we often look to celebrities to be arbiters of good taste and expertise on everything including politics, fashion, music, and morality. For example, well after her heyday as a sitcom star, Susan Somers has found fame and fortune as fitness guru (she hawked the Thighmaster) and more recently as an “expert” on hormones, offering advice that many health officials hotly dispute. Legions of celebrities endorse politicians ; in 2008 we saw Oprah Winfrey and Robert DeNiro for Candidate Obama, and Elisabeth Hasselbeck and Clint Eastwood for Candidate McCain among many others. It is the man many consider to be the worlds’ greatest golfer—Tiger Woods—that brings this home though.

According to his website, Woods has won 93 golf tournaments including the 1997, 2001, 2002, and 2005 Masters Tournaments; 1999, 2000, 2006, and 2007 PGA Championships; 2000, 2002, and 2008 U.S. Open Championships, and 2000, 2005 and 2006 Open Championships. Along the way, Woods has amassed several historical firsts. Among them: first major championship winner who is of Asian or African race/ethnicity, the youngest Masters champ, widest victories of margin in the U.S. Open and Masters championships; the first person to hold all four professional major championships simultaneously in 2001.

Woods earned record winnings from the various tournaments and even larger sums as a spokesman for Nike, Tag Heuer, Cadillac, Gatorade, American Express, Gillette, AT&T and other products; the 34-year-old golfer is considered a billionaire from his earnings on and off the greens.

The golfer’s appeal has increased viewership of the sport on television and in person. His announcement of an “indefinite break” from the sport is considered “crippling” to ratings of the sport on the networks. Lest you think—as I did—that this is hysteria, consider that without Woods, television viewership of the Chevron World Challenge was down 54% this year, compared to last year. As a good sociologist, you know that this information does not tell us anything about causation, that is, the cause of the decrease in viewership. However, a study by Nielsen ratings giant confirms that without Tiger Woods, television viewership was almost cut in half last year. So, apparently Tiger Woods = golf!

Still, that’s golf! Not medicine, or technology or finance or even sociology. With word (more like a steady stream of words) about Woods’ extra-marital affairs we’ve had an onslaught of media attention with people expressing surprise. But what do we really know about Woods or any other celebrity?

In this case, we as the public “know” Woods as a golfer. This gives us no idea of who he is as a man. Or as husband. Or father or friend. Through interviews, we may come to know a celebrity somewhat. Or we may come to know what that person wants us to know or think of them based on a carefully crafted image. The golfer with the yacht aptly named Privacy, has granted few interviews despite his fame. Therefore, the public has had little access—real or apparent—to who he is as a person. I guess that means we could project whatever ideas we have about him because he said or did nothing to contradict our ideas of who he is.

Woods was frequently referred to as a “disciplined golfer” and apparently many people thought that this meant that he was disciplined in every aspect of his life. Again, he’s a golfer. Why do we think we know anything about his capacity to be disciplined anywhere but in the sports arena?

Who do we look to regarding ethics and morality? Where do we get our teachings about right and wrong? Where should we get such training? From our parents? Schools? Religion? Religious leaders? Celebrities/sports figures? Which of these answers seem most out of place in the line-up?

Why all the surprise at Woods’ acknowledged infidelity? I have no insider knowledge about Woods, but that’s just the point. Neither do many people who are/were surprised by this story. Perhaps one way to help explain this is found in this post about celebrities by Karen Sternheimer:

Everyone else knows who they are, but we might not really like them. In fact, we may enjoy finding out that they aren’t that perfect after all. In a large, heterogeneous society as our own, we tend to have fewer and fewer social networks in common with others--except for celebrities.

German sociologist Ferdinand Tönnies had a name for this condition: Gesellschaft. Celebrities can become a form of social glue that helps us bond by our admiration and (frequently) condemnation of high-profile people and reaffirm a sense of shared morality.

Perhaps we are less surprised than outraged. The story of Tiger Woods’ extramarital affairs is a colossal one around which we as observers can bond in our moral indignation. What sociological reasons do you think explains the public’s fascination with this story?

December 17, 2009

Green Occupational Status

new sally By Sally Raskoff

Occupational prestige is a concept we sociologists use to better understand our society. Occupational prestige is measured by a scale created from the aggregate opinions about the status and perceived worthiness of an occupation.

In American culture, we assign a high value to those occupations that use mind-work over body-work and that have high financial rewards. For example, a doctor has more social esteem and occupational prestige than the maintenance worker. If we work in an occupation that has low social esteem, we don’t announce it when we first meet people, especially if those new people inhabit occupations with higher prestige than our own.

A report from the New Economics Foundation (NEF) in the United Kingdom uses a new way of gauging the social value of occupations. The BBC recently reported that hospital cleaners have more value to society than bankers.

The NEF is a self-described “think and do tank” or advocacy organization focused on local and global ecological sustainability issues. Their study, titled A Bit Rich, has many important aspects, yet its newsworthiness is sociologically interesting.image

The NEF’s goals in writing and releasing the study is to point out the societal and economic impact of occupations which are often the opposite of the way we tend to think about occupational prestige.

Their case studies of the hospital worker, banker, advertising executive, tax accountant, childcare worker, and waste recycling worker use a modified Social Return on Investment (SROI) method and illustrate the cost and benefit to the UK of these different occupations. Thus, their findings indicate that bankers “destroy £7 of social value for every pound in value they generate” and with respect to hospital cleaners, “for every £1 they are paid, over £10 in social value is generated.”  

While their modification of the SROI methodology isn’t exactly mainstream, and they aren’t publishing their findings in a peer-reviewed journal, their findings are interesting. Even more interesting to me is their attempt to change the way the public thinks about the relative prestige of various occupations.

Will they be successful at reframing society’s perspective on occupations? Will their ultimate goals of reforming economic pay scales and societal values towards ecologically sustainable hierarchies be achieved?

I have no answer for that. This study was released at the same time as an international summit on global ecological issues: their timing is perfect and, I assume, calculated.

Will their study help people feel more kindly towards hospital and child care workers and less supportive of bankers and tax accountants? Not likely.

image Even in the wake of the recent economic meltdown, the capitalistic values that imbue our society with a focus on competition and “more is more” are still in place. We still value those occupations that make tons of money, even at our own expense, and ignore those occupations that involve physical labor (except for sports) and do the embodied dirty work of society.

Now that we assume we’ve moved through the worst of the global economic recession, the urge to restructure economic aspects of society is no longer deeply felt.

The NEF’s call to restructure society towards equal pay hierarchies is not new, nor are they alone in the call. I would imagine that Marx would be supportive of their goals as the current state of global economics aligns very well with his theory of the last stages of capitalism. What do you think Marx would say?

December 14, 2009

The Virtue of Not Buying

new karen 1

By Karen Sternheimer

When I get the Sunday paper, the first thing I like to look at are the ad circulars. I love looking at the electronic items I might want someday and getting a sense of how much these things cost. I love a bargain and feeling like I got the best price, even if it means buying something that is last year’s hot item.

This being the holiday season, there are tons of circulars with gift ideas to help us decide what to buy for others. I can’t help but notice that lots of these items are pretty junky, and are presumably things we would never buy for ourselves. These cheap cologne sets, kitchy plant holders, and old DVDs are meant for other people, and the ads highlight how little they cost—typically between $5-$10, if not less.

I once knew someone who felt like she needed to get every last friend and acquaintance a gift. Each year, she would get me one of these bargain items, since her budget was pretty tight. It made me ponder the greater sociological meaning of these items (yes, we sociologists can think about the sociological implicationsclip_image002 of just about anything).

On a personal level, I had to feign excitement about an item I had no use for. I was grateful for the thought, but as a casual acquaintance she hadn’t made my gift list and I felt a bit guilty to receive something without giving.

I also had no idea what to do with the new object I had received. I could never regift the items, since that would simply pass the problem along to someone else, and I hated to throw stuff away. (I later donated the items to charity. My guess is they threw them away.)

This example may seem like a simple and frankly minor inconvenience that people face; after all, we should all be so burdened to make someone’s holiday gift list, right? Journalist Ellen Ruppel Shell, author of Cheap: The High Cost of Discount Culture, argues that super-low prices have serious economic and environmental costs that we might not think about when buying throwaway gifts for people on the nether regions of our gift lists.

For one, these cheap goods are typically imported from developing nations where people work in sweatshop conditions for virtually no money. These goods are often made in countries that have the most lax labor and environmental laws, frequently keep workers in extreme poverty, all while polluting the area. The items then have to be shipped halfway around the world, with significant environmental costs. Because this process is inexpensive for manufacturers, American workers’ wages remain low or jobs could be shipped overseas, all so we can have really cheap goods. Shell argues that in the end this cheap stuff costs us quite a bit. (Click here to watch Ellen Ruppel Shell speak about Cheap).

University of Pennsylvania Economist Joel Waldfogel suggests the whole shopping process itself is a waste of time and money. In Scroogenomics: Why We Shouldn't Buy Presents for the Holidays, Waldfogel compares what buyers spend with the value that receivers attribute to a gift and estimates that the clip_image002[4]difference is upwards of $13 billion. (Click here to watch Joel Waldfogel talk about Scroogenomics). He notes that cash and gift cards can be a much more efficient transfer of wealth, and yet as he told the Wall Street Journal, “cash is in general a stigmatized gift.” When we give cash or a gift card, the recipient knows exactly how much—or how little we spent. Buying an item makes us feel like we can mask the dollar amount we spent.

I’m guessing that some of you are reading this and thinking, hey, I like getting and giving gifts! I have friends who love to shop, no matter why, when, and where, so the holidays are really fun for them especially. As I have previously blogged, consumption can be enjoyable and it is almost impossible to avoid being a consumer in our post-industrial society. But as Ellen Ruppel Shell concludes, we can become more conscious consumers. We might think about where the items we buy came from and the conditions under which they were produced. We can also think about our own financial situations and assess what we can truly afford to spend…and think about giving in ways other than just buying something.

December 10, 2009

Brushing Your Teeth Like a Professional

new janis By Janis Prince Inniss

clip_image002I remember going to the dentist with my father when I was about five or six years old. This is a happy memory; I felt proud of myself for being such a “big girl”. Given this auspicious beginning, I don’t know why it took more than a decade for me to return to the dentist. The second visit only occurred after my jaw became swollen because my wisdom tooth was impacted and the gum infected. At the time it seemed reasonable to me to avoid the dentist for as long as possible, even if it meant taking over the counter pain meds for a swollen, throbbing jaw.

I avoided the dentist for many more years with the bright idea that I would wait until all of my teeth fell out and then just get dentures made. However, after I became a step-parent I thought I should behave like an adult and start going to the dentist—particularly since my step-children did so without any fuss. I steeled myself and set off. I explained my fear and asked that the dentist and hygienist be gentle. I lived to talk about my triumphant return to the dentist and had to admit that the cleaning was quite tolerable, uneventful even, except for a few times when I had to sit up and take a few deep breaths. I graduated to a few dental procedures and was beginning to feel comfortable going to the dentist. That is, until I moved to Tampa and had to find a new one.

clip_image004After a few years of backsliding, I found a nearby dentist and was glad that I went. These digs were plush: I had my own flat screen television there. The ambiance and experience was more akin to that of a spa than the scary ideas I was carrying around. The next year—dare I say it—I almost looked forward to my cleaning. When I called to schedule my visit, I was deeply disappointed to learn that this office no longer took my insurance. This was just the excuse I needed to stop going to the dentist. After about a year, the cycle started again. I found another dentist, had a good experience, but by the next year that dentist no longer took my insurance. After another break, I found my current dentist in Tampa where I am going for some maintenance.

This post is not about the vagaries of dental insurance, although it is certainly relevant in our current public debate about health care (although note that dental care is not included in most health insurance plans). No, this post addresses what I’ve learned about knowledge, power, and professions by going to the dentist more regularly. Note that dentistry is hardly my area of expertise so apply my “findings” at your own risk:

1. clip_image006Manufacturers should halt the production of manual toothbrushes. Why are those even available for purchase given their poor design to clean our teeth? Do you ever floss after brushing your teeth with a manual tooth brush? Does that exercise make you wonder how much more dirty your teeth would be if you hadn’t bothered to brush?

2. Why don’t dentists make us sign a contract saying we will use an electric toothbrush rather than suggest we buy one? (This is not a suggestion I’m likely to take given the ridiculous prices for those on sale in dental offices.) There are now many varieties of battery operated toothbrushes that are quite reasonable priced and their results are impressive.

3. Back to flossing. Why don’t dentists make us sign contracts saying that we will floss daily? I confess my ignorance about flossing. I thought it was something to do occasionally…if I felt like it. I never had that attitude about brushing my teeth daily.

4. Why don’t we get an early, good education about the proper way to brush? I’ve pieced together information from asking lots of questions and think I’ve finally learned how to brush my teeth properly.

5. Why doesn’t the dentist recommend that people with less than stellar vision brush and floss with our glasses on and/or with the aid of a magnifying mirror? I’m at an age where like many of my friends, my eyesight is deteriorating. A few weeks ago I was stunned to see my teeth in the magnifying mirror of my hotel room. I didn’t know that I couldn’t see what I was doing until I could really see what I was supposed to be doing.


6. Why don’t we have tools that more closely resemble those used by hygienists to clean our teeth? I asked this of my hygienist and her response was something like, “You’re not trained to do this.”

Although I these questions are tongue in cheek, I do wonder why most of us don’t have the correct tools and more information about how we can do a better job cleaning our teeth? Granted, we’re not dental experts with the relevant training but we are responsible for this task on a daily basis. Is one answer that teeth cleaning is a profession? Do you think these issues are an example of a profession that controls the information and goods “non-experts” have available? Is this an example of power through knowledge, in which dental professionals control the information we have?

December 07, 2009

Authority in 2012: Who’s in Charge?

new sally By Sally Raskoff

Have you seen the movie 2012? It’s an action film in the tradition of The Day After, Waterworld, and Independence Day, yet it has some characters and plot lines that reminded me of Max Weber's concept of authority. Spoiler alert: I will reveal details that may ruin the movie if you haven’t yet seen it.

In 2012, Dr. Helmsley, a geologist, informs White House Chief of Staff, Mr. Anheuser, about the impending doom for the planet. Things happen, including secretly building arks to ensure survival for important or wealthy patrons. Then geologic Armageddon happens, as well as the death of the President, Vice President, Speaker of the House, and most other elected officials.

As the ark boarding commences, Anheuser is in charge and assumes he will continue as leader of the neo-American contingent. There are many people who are barred from boarding as the flood approaches and Helmsley gives an impassioned speech to allow all humanity on board. The other leaders agree and most of the people board the arks with only seconds to spare.


The movie ends with a budding romance between Helmsley and the deceased President’s daughter, Laura imageWilson, and the suggestion that Helmsley would be assuming leadership instead of Anheuser.

Weber’s theory of leadership and authority include three types of legitimacy: charismatic, rational-legal, and traditional. All three can be seen in this movie.

The elected officials all held office and had elements of rational-legal authority. Our bureaucratic governmental rules about office holding include how people are elected president, vice president, and to Congress. These are rational and legal processes that are well documented.

The order of succession when high office is vacated is clearly delineated. While the Chief of Staff isn’t on that list, it was assumed in the movie that most elected officials didn’t make it on board the ark. Anheuser assumed that he was next in line and he relished the thought.

Anheuser had a tenuous claim to be president based on tradition, since he was the one remaining member of the last elected administration. He did not have rational-legal legitimacy, since his position was not on the list of succession and he was not elected. While Oliver Platt, the actor playing Anheuser, has some degree of charisma, his character Anheuser does not.

It quickly became clear that Helmsley was a more viable candidate for leadership. As he warned of the geologic meltdown of the earth and tried to save those who remained, his charisma and passion impressed people who gave him more and more to do in higher and higher positions of authority. He also got Laura’s attention after his predictions came true and after his impassioned plea for saving as much of humanity as possible.

While Helmsley gained leadership through charismatic authority, he was assured of the position by his connection to Laura. With their partnership, his claim to traditional leadership was much stronger than Anheuser’s. Marrying the previous president’s daughter connected him with the family who had previously held power – ensuring a traditional base of legitimate authority.

The only type of authority Helmsley lacked was rational-legal, although the viewer could assume their first election would remedy that. If Helmsley and Anheuser ran against each other, one could surmise that Helmsley would win based on his multifaceted claims to legitimate authority.

What other movies or books have characters whose leadership experiences could be assessed with Weber’s ideal type of legitimate bases of authority? Perhaps Harry Potter’s Dumbledore? Gandalf in Lord of the Rings? Margaret Tate in The Proposal? What other examples can you think of?

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