8 posts from February 2010

February 25, 2010

Experiences, Perspectives, and Frames

new sally By Sally Raskoff

In the many meetings I attend at school, I often notice people saying things like, “in my previous life, …” or “where I used to work, …” to give examples of why or how things are done. It often annoys me since the rest of us weren’t there to know what the heck they are talking about so the connection to our present situations is lost on most of us.

I thought of this today when I also realized that one of my co-workers reminds me of someone I used to work with – thus whenever I encounter my current friend, I tend to think about my former friend. I find myself expecting the person in front of me to act like my previous friend.

These situations are related: both indicate the way that we human beings make sense of the world. We compare. We generalize. We try to categorize things so that we can make sense of them.

The comparisons of our present with former situations help us navigate situations that can be murky at best.

Most recently, I’ve heard these “where I used to work . . .” remarks in meetings about how to get through the current budget crisis as a publicly funded institution of higher education – a situation with few guideposts that make any sense. We are trying to make good decisions using what we have learned from previous situations. (The annoyance I felt was probably more related to the frustrating situation than the use of such language.)


We learn by linking what we encounter in the present to past experiences. As we get older, this process deepens and gets richer as we have more experiences to call upon. When we are younger, encountering new things is exciting, scary, and confusing since we don’t have much for comparison. As we age, we accumulate experiences and those experiences gradually shape us into the people we become.

This may explain why older people often say, “In my day, …” or spend so much time telling stories about what they have experienced. They can see the connections (or they just like to reminisce) but they may not always do in a way that seems fast or interesting enough to their younger listeners.

Such comparisons can also lock us into a narrow way of seeing the world. When my current co-worker reminds me of my previous co-worker, I try not to mention this out loud or to assume anything about their behavior or other characteristics. Even if they do remind me of each other, they are very different people.

Over-generalizing is, of course, a problem, as it is the very definition of stereotyping and leads to making unfair judgments about people based on ideas about entire groups.

Gaining perspective is important; it can help us make sense of things . Sociology and other sciences can help us attain perspective about things we don’t understand.. Science uses theories to guide our inquiry and our effort to better understand phenomena. Theories can help us compare empirical realities so that we can test the theory and how well it explains what goes on.

Whether we use them in daily life or in scientific studies, the limitations of such frameworks include the danger that by letting our perspective be guided one way we may not notice other possibilities. If you only use one theory or one point of view, you might miss some other important connection or explanation.

People who see the world only through their own experiences may miss opportunities to make new memories or have new experiences.

Thus, in sociology (and other sciences), it is crucial to try on different perspectives, to use different theories to see the same situation and identify different yet equally legitimate and viable explanations.

Looking at the world only through just one theoretical perspective (such as a Marxian, Parsonian , or feminist perspective), one cannot see the contributions of the others. I have great appreciation for Weber's theoretical approach because he attempted to not just debate with Marx’s theories, but he set about to look more widely. His theories, informed as they are by his reading of history, are of course partial, yet they dealt with many different levels of society, from examining the nature of authority to the spirit of capitalism.

It is more difficult for everyday people to do this. As we accumulate experiences, we have certain habits and perspectives that feel more comfortable to us. We are often driven to narrow our perspective rather than try out new points of view. This is how we perpetuate the status quo, but it is also how we blind ourselves to the realities of others.

Sociologist Jessie Bernard studied so-called “his and hers” marriages, where the husband and wife have very different views of the same relationship. Children who grow up in the same family don’t often have the same experience or memories. When some creature is cloned, it will not grow up to be an identical copy of the original since its experiences will be very different.

Everyone’s perspective is shaped by a number of things, not the least of which are the experiences they have as individuals. Partial or selective perception also plays a part since there is no way we can pay attention to everything that happens around us. Thus the child who remembers their parent complimenting them may have a different opinion on their childhood than their sibling who remembers their parent scolding them. The parent probably complimented and scolded them both yet each person remembers different things.

The perspectives are similar to Goffman’s concept of frames and his frame analysis. Goffman's concept of frame analysis. We use conceptual frames to make sense of the world and to define society and ourselves.

It seems that if things are happening in society that we don’t understand or agree with, using as many logical perspectives as possible to explain such things is a good idea. While we can’t always effectively use our own experiences to make sense of what goes on around us, we can use theories and historical patterns to better enlighten us.

For example, comparing the current debate over marriage rights to past marriage rights debates can illuminate how our laws and policies influence and relate to power in society. Getting out of our own (narrow) perspectives about how life works by attempting to see the world through another set of eyes can help our society serve all of its members rather than just a few.

February 21, 2010

The Function of Religion

new janis By Janis Prince Inniss

When we were first married, my husband and I did not go to church on a regular basis. We only attended church with my father-in-law on special occasions: Father’s Day, Mother’s Day, Easter Sunday, and Christmas. So we weren’t exactly CEOs—people who attend church on Christmas and Easter only, but we weren’t regulars either.

We talked about the kind of church we would be interested in, but didn’t look for one. Once, however, we attended a function in which my father-in-law’s church showed a video of all their ministries, and we realized that this church was already doing many of the things we were looking for. So our decision was easy; we started attending that church on a weekly basis and found it fulfilling.

After we moved from Texas and once we settled into our Florida home, my husband and I started looking for a church to attend. We found the nearest church of the same denomination as the one in clip_image002Texas and made that our new church (Church One). The experience was okay; we liked many of the church members and were happy to meet several people with whom we have become good friends.

We did not enjoy the sermons however, since they were boring! Yep—I said it. They were boring. Boiled down to essential elements, church services are music and sermon. The music at this church was definitely not my favored style, but that was okay with me. I hoped to find the sermons inspiring and educational though. Instead, they were dull; most Sundays we had trouble finding a take-home kernel.

Even more troubling was that my stepdaughter—then only about 12—got even less than my husband and I did from the sermons. (There weren’t enough youth at this church to support a separate ministry, so there was no respite from the impenetrable sermons for her.) When I learned that our minister was retiring, I decided that must explain his lack of enthusiasm for a subject he had spent decades studying. Without another church in our neighborhood of the same denomination, and not being willing to take a long drive on Sunday mornings, we stuck it out.

A few years after we had been attending Church One, on my own, I decided to stop in at Church Two to see why there were always so many cars heading there clip_image004on Sunday mornings. Church Two is a different denomination from Church One, and is actually the one in which I was christened. I loved the sermon! The minister—the fictitiously named Pastor Smith—was a fantastic public speaker. As soon as I got home, I encouraged the rest of the family to give Church Two a try.

The next Sunday when the three of us arrived, someone whisked my step-daughter away to the Youth Ministry. The sermon was like any good talk: clearly laid out with excellent examples to demonstrate the major points, sprinkled with a few drops of humor. My husband enjoyed the service, as did I. But the true test was yet to come: What was my stepdaughter’s response to her experience? She was engaged. Excited. Curious. She talked all the way home about what she learned. And she was anxious to return to Church Two! And that’s how we became church members at Church Two.

Fast-forward some years. We still loved attending Church Two and continued to attend regularly. One Saturday afternoon as I read the newspaper, a headline caught my eye: it said something like “Pastor Admits Internet Pornography Addiction”. Stunned does not begin to describe my reaction. There was MY pastor—pictured—admitting that he was addicted to internet pornography. That was part of the news. The other major part: Pastor Smith was voluntarily stepping down from the church (although given that he confessed his addiction to church higher-ups, I suspect they helped him decide to resign). I called my husband over and together we read the shocking news.

There is no indication that Pastor Smith broke the law; he was not involved with child pornography, and as far as I know, even with a search from an outside computer firm, no pornography was found on any church computers. So should Pastor Smith have stepped down? Would his marital status affect your answer to this question? In light of other high-profile scandals, such as former megachurch pastor Ted Haggard's admission to using methamphetamines and visiting a male prostitute, Pastor Smith’s behavior seems less troubling.

Sociologist Emile Durkheim argued from a functionalist perspective that the function of religion in society is for cohesion. Religious people meet, usually at church, so that they can, with regularity, share a common set of values and beliefs. What happens, then, when a leading figure of the church behaves in a way that conflicts with church doctrine? How much imperfection can we and should we tolerate in church leaders? In the case of Church Two, the answer was swift and unequivocal: church administrators would decide when and if Pastor Smith could return to the pulpit after addiction treatment, but he would never be allowed to lead Church Two again. Does that response make sense to you from a functionalist perspective? What other sociological theories might explain why Pastor Smith might have lost is position in our church?

February 18, 2010

Sociology Majors on the Job Market

new karen 1 By Karen Sternheimer

If you are one of the many people seeking a job right now, you know that the market is pretty tight. With unemployment rates still close to ten percent nationally—and even higher in some areas—a job search can be pretty discouraging.

Some of you might not quite be at the job search stage, but find that you are really interested in sociology and wonder what kind of career it could lead to, aside from being a sociologist.

The American Sociological Association (ASA) published a report in January 2008 that details the jobs held by sociology majors who graduated three years prior. The largest proportion (26.5%) went on to have social service related jobs, while others became teachers, managers, or worked in sales or public relations. Some of my former students have also gone into the criminal justice field, advertising, law school, and medical school. According to the ASA study, of those reporting that their job was closely related to their major, 67.7% said they were “very satisfied” with their jobs.

In reality most undergraduate majors today do not necessarily provide clear vocational paths. Not all psychology majors become psychologists, not all business majors become entrepreneurs, and not all biology majors go on to medical school. Some people might be on a traditional career trajectory only to discover that they really don’t like the work it entails, so they change careers.

Sociology majors can leverage their unique expertise to be successful in many different kinds of careers. As you look for a job, it’s important to remember that you are your best asset; your skill set is only as attractive as your ability to market yourself. Each type of job will require different skills and experiences. For those of you who might not have a lengthy job history to draw from, you can use your resume to demonstrate how your sociology degree can enhance your qualifications. Here’s my advice for how to market the skills you learn earning a sociology degree:

  1. Emphasize your data collection skills

If you have taken a research methods class, chances are you have conducted your own research project. Think about what skills you developed in the process and translate them into resume language. Did you develop, distribute, and collect surveys? If you conducted interviews, you likely composed questions and clip_image002[4]learned to build rapport with others.

Potential employers will like to know that you can create a work plan and follow through with your plan systematically. They would also like to know if you work well with others. If you completed any group projects, you might emphasize your leadership, negotiation, and teamwork abilities.

  1. Emphasize your ability to analyze data

Along with collecting data, sociology students learn how to analyze information they collect. If you have taken statistics, you have developed tools that many employers will find useful. Knowing how to use a basic spreadsheet and do simple kinds of number crunching (calculating averages, graphing trends, creating charts) is very useful in many different industries. And if you are comfortable using software like SPSS or STATA that’s an added benefit (I have gotten several jobs and job offers for having these skills).

Sociology majors also learn to interpret information they collect. Even if a prospective job doesn’t require you to do any calculations, you can highlight your ability to interpret statistical findings. And if you are currently or will soon be taking a statistics class, pay close attention—what you learn there could be your edge in getting a job over someone who is afraid of numbers.

  1. Emphasize your familiarity with diversity issues

As the ASA report mentioned about notes, a large proportion of sociology majors go on to work in social service kinds of jobs. These kinds of jobs require an awareness of and sensitivity to many forms of diversity. If you have studied issues of social stratification, race and ethnicity, gender, sexual orientation, or immigration you can note you have familiarity with diversity issues. This is especially important if you apply for work in human resources or in any kind of service profession. Your awareness of cultural differences and the problems of ethnocentrism can set you apart from others without this background.

  1. Note how sociology promotes leadership skills

clip_image002[7]At its core, sociology is about the study of people in both large and small groups. If you have studied organizations, social psychology, urban sociology, or any other focus on group dynamics, you can emphasize how this training has prepared you for a management-track position (be patient--you might not get hired as a manager right away). Sociologists also learn to think critically. Learning about a variety of sociological theories, social problems, and social inequality gives you a background in how to consider a variety of different viewpoints, recognize, and solve problems.

As a job seeker, the burden is always on you to demonstrate how your unique skills and experiences can benefit a potential employer. Many people aren’t exactly sure what sociology is all about (I still have to remind some people that I’m not a psychologist), so it’s your responsibility to inform prospective employers what special skills sociology majors can bring to their work.

You might even create a section of your resume listing these skills—just as a good research report explicitly highlights its specific findings, you should clearly delineate how your sociology background will make you an outstanding employee.

February 15, 2010

Just Say No to Sex: Is Abstinence Only Education Effective?

new sally By Sally Raskoff

A recent study about sex education is now big news: abstinence-only sex education is effective! No other scientific study of such programs has found any success, so it’s no surprise that this should make a splash in the news media.

Looking at the study more closely, and with a sociological lens, there are some important issues to consider.

The basic study used data from four different urban (low income) middle schools in the same northeastern city in four groups: one received an 8 hour “abstinence-only” curriculum by specially trained teachers who discussed the risks of pregnancy and sexually transmitted infections (STIs); one received an 8 hour “safer-sex” curriculum; one received a more comprehensive curriculum for either 8 or 12 hours that included information from both programs already mentioned; and one group received an 8 hour “healthy living” curriculum that is not considered sex education.image

The research design states that they were randomly assigned into these groups. The curriculum was for an 8-10 hour learning experience and the students were re-surveyed 24 months after the initial class to assess their sexual histories during that time.

Two years after the class, it appears that 48.5% of the control (healthy living) group was sexually active compared to 42% in the comprehensive group, 52% in the safer sex group, and 33.5% in the abstinence-only group.

The abstract of the article summarizes these findings and includes some other details. The mean age of the African American participants was 12.2 years, thus their average age at the follow up would be a young 14. About 84% of the them were still enrolled at the follow up survey, so the overall findings omit 16% who moved or dropped out of the study.

Are these points relevant? Perhaps.

We’re talking about 12 and 14 year olds and their likelihood to have sex.


Looking at the Centers for Disease Control’s (CDC) Youth Risk Behavior Survey data for a northeastern urban city (New York City), almost half of the high school students reported ever having sexual intercourse – although less than 10% had done so for the first time before they were 13 years old. Of course, while this data is for the entire city of New York, the study in question is specifically in low-income urban schools thus they may not be comparable.

Here are the data for the Boroughs individually and two other northeastern cities:


The study group was in 8-9th grade when they were followed up thus comparing these data above (for the 9th grade) to the study’s findings, it appears that the 40-50% figures aren’t too far out of the norm. Some of these cities have a large population of people who have relatively lower average income levels, compared to averaging out all of New York City.

Is it problematic that 15.6% of the people are missing from the analysis? Whether or not their inclusion would have altered the pattern is an unknown factor. There are many reasons why these students would have dropped out , and in fact a 15.6% disappear from a low-income urban school population is lower than one would expect.

Access to the research report is only through a subscribed database thus the public wouldn’t be able to find out any more details. If your school library gives you access, look up the study and see what else you can find out about its research design and methods.

The authors, interviewed on NPR and other media outlets, talk more about the specific curriculum and how it was different from previous ‘abstinence-only’ programs. clip_image004This curriculum was “not moralistic” nor was it “negatively oriented” according to the media reports. Instead, it sounds like they discussed the very sociological concept of how life chances are affected by the choice of whether or not to have sex.

One might also notice that this study did not ask about pregnancy or STI incidence nor did it follow the subjects past the age of 14 (yet). Not much attention has been paid to some of their other significant findings, e.g., multiple partners. The students that received the more comprehensive curriculum had “reduced reports” of having multiple partners compared to the control group.

When you consider risk behavior of children, i.e., having sex before one is 13 or 14, this study is fascinating, but more detailed analysis needs to be done before we jump to broad conclusions about what type of program is effective. The media reports have mentioned that the researchers (and others) caution about drawing societal conclusions from the results of any one study. Such warnings are important to heed – especially once you look into the details!

February 11, 2010

The Hardest Job I've Ever Had

image By Todd Schoepflin, Ph.D

Assistant Professor

Department of Sociology

Niagara University

[email protected]


I’ve had some hard jobs over the years. When I was a college student I worked at a summer camp for developmentally disabled adults. Many were low functioning, and a few were schizophrenics with violent streaks. My first job after graduating from college was as a counselor for adolescents with serious emotional problems (a few of them had violent streaks too). That job didn’t pay very well, so I had a second job teaching factory workers who were preparing for their GED exams. They were high school dropouts working the overnight shift at a textile factory (imagine having to work all night on your feet and then come to class to learn math and writing skills).

Currently I work as a college professor--although it’s not a grueling job, it’s not as easy as it looks. It’s challenging to prepare courses, it’s no fun spending weekends grading, and it’s hard to do to research (it’s even harder to get research published). But I feel very lucky to have this job because I know there are far tougher jobs.

The hardest job I’ve ever had is being a parent. My wife and I have one child, a beautiful and energetic boy who is two-years-old. And make no mistake about it--taking care of a child is work, and I can think of no other work that is more challenging.troy_es

I love my son more than anything else in the world but the phrase “terrible twos” applies to him lately. His favorite word is “no” and his typical behavior is to resist anything that we’d like him to do. He doesn’t want his diaper changed. He doesn’t want to put on socks. Or shoes. Or a jacket. Or a hat. This isn’t particularly convenient considering we’re in the middle of a cold winter in Buffalo. Try telling a two-year-old that he needs a warm coat because it’s freezing outside. It won’t work. There’s no reasoning with a two-year-old.

Recently my wife and I took our son to a restaurant at a mall. The restaurant had an exit door that connected to the mall. He ran out into the mall, walked into a store, and started pulling things off the shelves. Saying “don’t do that” had no impact. Nor did efforts to redirect him (“C’mon Troy, let’s go back to the restaurant and see Mommy.”) And least effective was grabbing him when I ran out of options. I brought him back to the restaurant as he was kicking and screaming. You think a thirty pound two-year-old isn’t strong? Guess again. Tantrums are a way of life these days. And with each tantrum I question my competency as a parent.

I say this as someone who is generally confident at his jobs. I was good at that summer camp for disabled adults, I did a good job working with emotionally troubled adolescents, and I believe I’m a good college professor. I’m not saying I’m not a good parent, I’m just saying I don’t always feel like one.

I hope this doesn’t sound like whining and complaining. That’s not my intent. My purpose is to emphasize that childcare is work. It just happens to be unpaid work. And it’s often the case that women do the bulk of this unpaid work. Childcare is often unnoticed, undervalued, under appreciated, and, as I’m suggesting, it can be overwhelming. It’s also very tiring. Take a look at the picture of my son and me--it might suggest a relaxed state of affairs, but I am exhausted most of the time. Fatigue has been a constant feeling for my wife and me because our son usually gets up at 5:30 in the morning. It makes for long and tiresome days.

Troy_December_08_001All of the difficult work and challenges come with the territory. I didn’t think being a parent would be easy, I just didn’t know it would be so hard. That doesn’t mean I don’t love my son or love being a parent. Since the day he was born I’ve poured my heart and soul into being a good father. I did my fair share of overnight feedings when he was a newborn and I’ve always been very involved with diaper changes and baths. And due to my flexible schedule as a college professor I’ve been able to be home with him lots of days when it’s just him and me. It’s a privilege to have a job that allows me to spend significant time taking care of him in the early years of his life. And since he’s been in my life I can honestly say I’ve never been happier. But life as a parent is hard and  knowing how demanding it is to take care of one child, I marvel at how parents appear to be so skilled at taking care of several children. And I’m amazed that so many women take great care of their children without the help of a spouse.

I find it interesting that when the topic of childcare comes up in my sociology courses, some of my male students say they would never want to be stay-at-home dads. I wonder why. Is this because childcare is still viewed primarily as women’s work? Do you think it’s accurate to say that men are reluctant (or even uninterested) in having a major role in childcare? If so, why do you think that’s the case?

It’s interesting to reflect on how society’s norms created the roles of women as caretakers and men as breadwinners. These once clearly defined roles seem to be blurring in today’s world. There are lots of men who are very involved in the day-to-day care taking of their children, and there are lots of women who earn more than their husbands and whose incomes are vital to the financial well-being of their families. Looking ahead to the future, what do you think the norms will be in terms of gender and childcare?

February 08, 2010

Avatar: Recasting the Veil with Special Effects

Jason-Smith By Jason Smith

Graduate Student, Sociology

George Mason University

I found myself perplexed as I left the theatre on the opening night of the new super-smash hit blockbuster film Avatar. As a graduate student studying sociology, and focusing specifically on issues of race and popular culture, I found it hard to say that I enjoyed the special-effects laden sci-fi epic that lasted an equally epic 160 minutes. Leaving the film I was surrounded by audience members going over their favorite parts and which scenes really “wow’d” them. In my head though, all I was thinking about was the blatant use of “orientalism ” discourse that plagues a large portion of the culture we live in. The lackluster plot that recycled notions of the “white savior” and the “noble savage” really irked me, as Sally Raskoff recently blogged about.

Here’s a brief plot summary of this film for those who have yet to see it. In the future, where space travel and planet colonization is a reality, the moon Pandora holds a valuable mineral called unobtainium and is thus the site for a project by corporate and military interests to create an artificial body (an Avatar) of the native people, called the Na'vi, to infiltrate their ranks and convince them to leave their settlement; this would grant access to large amounts of unobtainium. Jake Sully is a crippled soldier who takes control of his deceased brother’s Avatar and is ordered to get the Na’vi to leave. After going native and learning the Na’vi ways, as well as falling in love with the tribal chief’s daughter, Jake turncoats and abandons his mission to rally the Na’vi people to oppose their own colonization.

About five weeks from when this film opened it still is making ridiculous amounts of money – it has been the top box office earner for all five of those weeks. The film has surpassed its huge production budget with revenue already totaling more than $1 billion worldwide. The Golden Globes (the pre-Oscar awards) has even recognized the film with two of their major awards – “Best Film-Drama” and “Best Director.”

As more of my friends and peers see this film, they go on and on about how great it was. When I bring up the issues I have with the film I receive, for the most part, a roll of the eyes and a backward head nod – these actions occur simultaneously by the way, adding to the “oh gawd” effect of being burdened by the information I bring up. No one seems to want to hear about a plot that helps assuage white guilt as the audience roots for the hero to help the native tribes on Pandora. When I bring this up to my friends I get a line that sounds similar to this paraphrase, “You’re being a sociologist.” This actually translates to meaning that I’m thinking too much, and…how dare I.

Now I don’t deny that director James Cameron has made a visually stunning and well-made film. Throw in the special effects and this is by definition a recipe for “good filmmaking.” And it is often the rebuttal I’m faced with when critiquing the film with others, an argument that the special effects “were soooo good.” A lot of media buzz has centered on the use of technology in the production process; James Cameron even helped invent a new camera for filming his 3-D scenes. Many reviews have also forgiven the weak plot and instead applaud the technology used in the film. One article from Popular Science even mentions that Cameron and the production company, 20th Century Fox, “better hope those same audiences don’t think too much on the way out of the theater lest bad word of mouth does more damage to Pandora than the corporate marines.”

My own experiences and the success that this film is enjoying suggest that the spectacle of technology is overshadowing the more important and detrimental aspects of this film. To be fair to Cameron, there is an effort to show the value of saving natural resources over the lust for profitable business enterprises. However, the depiction of the native tribes follows typical orientalist themes in which the white westerner is accepted and is able to help the natives achieve what couldn’t be achieved without him.

Obscuring this theme is the audience’s obsession with the technology used to make this film.. Technology is one of many pieces of our racialized society in which a veil is placed over whites to shield them from the effects of racial inequality and burdens of privilege. W.E.B. Du Bois originated the concept of the veil to describe the situation of African Americans in the early parts of the 20th century, working in a fashion that allows it to interpret and be changed by the forces surrounding it – at both the individual and institutional levels. Howard Winant has noted that the veil has shifted in the new century to apply to whites, as they create their own brand of double-consciousness in which desiring aspects of the other allow them to confirm their own non-racist tendencies. The technological prowess of this film seems to act as the buffer that obscures the film’s orientalist discourse; where the veil is ever present to hide the costs of race, so the technology in the film hides the plot’s racial undertones.

As I recall my own discomfort with the film and ponder over the reasons that my peers fail to see these discomforts , I wonder how technology can blind a worldwide audience to the depictions of people who fall outside the western norm. A movie of this size, along with the profits that it’s seeing, raises alarming questions about film production. In a land of blockbuster profits and copy-cat products, does the success of Avatar have the potential to lead to more backward depictions of racialized groups? Looking more deeply into why this film is such a success we might also start to wonder who is making these types of films, why films like this continue to be made, and what power and resources allow these individuals/groups to make them.

February 04, 2010

Colonialism and Haiti's Earthquake: The Role of Economics, Politics, and History

new janis By Janis Prince Inniss

I was in Los Angeles when the Northridge Earthquake jolted us out of bed at 4:31 a.m. It was an unforgettable experience. I was up late after one of my parties, held on a Sunday night because the next day was the holiday in celebration of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. I also remember it because the earthquake and its aftermath was one of the scariest times of my life! Each aftershock—real or my personally created and experienced—re-traumatized me. I could not sleep in my apartment for several days because my fear and the aftershocks made sleep there impossible. The Northridge earthquake measured 6.7 on the Richter scale, but because so many were sleeping when it struck many lives were spared. The time of the earthquake and the relative safety of California’s building codes made people safer than they would have been, but nevertheless 57 people died and more than 5,000 were injured.

clip_image002 clip_image004

Left: My kitchen after the earthquake. Above: One bookcase down!



Recent media attention to Haiti’s earthquake has focused on the tremendous destruction, but seldom has coverage addressed Haiti’s history and how it might have contributed to the suffering taking place there today.

On the first day of 1804, Haiti became the first independent black republic in the West. Enslaved Africans fought their French captors; in fact they were victorious over Napoleon Bonaparte’s famous army. At that time Africans were still enslaved in many areas of the world. Think about the similarities of the two countries emerging from European colonizers: In Haiti, former enslaved Africans proclaimed their independence from France, not long after the U.S. declared its independence from Britain. In the long arch of history, we might think of the two countries as being born at about the same time. What was happening in the U.S. at this time regarding slavery? It would take another 60 years before slavery was ended in the U.S., so this may explain why the two young independent countries—also geographically close—were not automatic friends; the U.S. greeted the news of Haiti’s independence with a cold shoulder, and like France, refused to recognize the nation until about the time of the Emancipation Proclamation.

The French demanded to be compensated for the financial loss that Haiti’s independence cost them; the county had been one of their most lucrative colonies, producing rum, sugar, and tobacco. In 1825, the French stipulated 150 million gold francs as reparations to recognize Haiti. (This is quite different from the direction of payment we think of regarding reparations in the U.S. and a terrible deal when compared to what the U.S. got from France for the Louisiana Territory [60 million francs], an area more than 70 times larger than Haiti!) With loans from the U.S., France, and Germany, it took Haiti 122 years to pay the reduced sum of about 90 million francs to France; these reparations sucked up most of the country’s budget.

You may have heard one other fact repeated in the coverage of the Haiti earthquake: It is the poorest country in the Western Hemisphere. Two related facts? I could not help but think of them in tandem as much as I heard them repeated. Was the second punishment for the first, or at least because of it? What made Haiti so poor? Do you think that the cost of its freedom has had a lasting impact? What has been France’s response to the idea that Haiti receive $22 billion in restitution from its ”mother” country?

Haiti’s history is complex. Reading about it will acquaint you with terms like “gunboat diplomacy”, isolation, military coups, dictatorships, and military occupations. (Read more about its history here.) Hamstrung by international financial arrangements that strangled it, the Haitian government has not been able to right itself.

Click here to see images of Haiti

Decades of poverty meant that small farmers have been forced to move to the cities, creating large slums in the capital. Brutal deforestation has left the hillsides bare. All along Haiti’s forests have been used for charcoal and fuel; the French started this in the 17th and 18th centuries for sugar mill fuel. The next two centuries saw more heavy deforestation as mahogany was turned into tourist gifts. How much of the billions of dollars in foreign aid to Haiti has been lent to attempt to rectify the deforestation and soil erosion? Why is it important? Because it impacts where most Haitians live; deforestation has left many particularly vulnerable in times of natural disasters.

Thankfully, I have to look at my pictures to recall the physical damage in my apartment due to the Northridge earthquake. An earthquake measuring 7.0, such as the one in Haiti, would cause lots of damage and injury in any city – especially at 4:30 on a weekday afternoon. But to understand the impact of the January 2010 earthquake and even the 2004 and 2008 hurricanes in Haiti—not to mention earlier natural disasters—it is instructive to think about the role of the country’s history and politics in their impact.

February 01, 2010

Men and Marriage

new karen 1 By Karen Sternheimer

Once upon a time, marriage was the bedrock of social mobility and economic stability for women. A recent Pew Research report indicates that there has been a major reversal: according to their analysis, men actually benefit financially more from marriage than women do.

But not by much. Pew researchers point out that the median household income for American -born men aged 30-44 increased 61% between 1970 and 2007, compared with 60% for married women of the same age. Unmarried women’s income increased 59% during this time, while unmarried men’s income rose only by 16%.

Pew researchers suggest that:

From an economic perspective, these trends have contributed to a gender role reversal in the gains from marriage. In the past, when relatively few wives worked, marriage enhanced the economic status of women more than that of men. In recent decades, however, the economic gains associated with marriage have been greater for men than for women.

At first, the story seems to be about unmarried men aged 30-44: why have their incomes grown more modestly?


There are two key factors to consider here. In 1970, unmarried men in this age group were the highest earners, so they had started off well ahead of the others. Single men still significantly out earn single women, as you can see in the graph below. What’s happened is that working women’s wages have caught up a bit with men’s. According to U.S. Census data, women earned about 59% of what men earned annually in 1970; in 2008 their earnings rose to 77% of men’s annual wages. Still a big gap, but a smaller gap no less.

Today, married men have the benefit of a partner with stronger earning power compared with 1970, when fewer married women were in the labor force. Both men and women are much more likely to be college educated today compared with 1970, but women now comprise nearly 54% of college graduates, in contrast to just 36% in 1970. This education gap means that a growing number of marriages includes a wife who has more education than her husband, and in some cases a higher income, as the graph below details. While the percentage of wives who earn more than husbands has grown significantly, keep in mind that the vast majority or women in 2007 did not earn more than their husbands.


Note that one thing is remarkably consistent: men and women are very likely to marry someone with levels of education similar to their own. As sociologist Dalton Conley told Time magazine, "High-income women marrying high-income men is one of the drivers of inequality." Conley added that, "This leads to family instability and a cycle of disadvantage," for less educated lower earners, particularly as higher levels of education and income are associated with greater marriage stability.

Basically, the better educated you are the more you earn, and the more likely you are to stay married. This means that education provides a double advantage economically: not only are you likely to earn more, but you are likely to benefit from a working partner. And according to the Pew researchers, college educated women “are more financially desirable as marriage partners.”

But it’s not that single men are “screwed”, as Time magazine’s headline boldly suggests. Single men earn 89 cents on the dollar annually compared with married men, while single women’s annual household income is just 65 percent of married women’s income. Men still earn more than women within every educational category; in fact, one might argue that the greater proportion of women earning bachelor’s degrees is a result of a greater need for credentials for women in the workforce.

If anything, the first graph above serves as a reminder of how single women continue to lag behind their male counterparts. While single women’s income gains might have outshone single men’s in terms of percentage, in actual dollars women still seem to benefit economically from marriage more than men. If we consider that single women with children likely bear additional financial responsibilities, a second income is all the more important.

Sociologist Kathryn Edin has studied this issue for many years, and points out that marriage for low-income single mothers might not hold the economic benefits many presume. She interviewed many women who talked about their desire to get married, but noted that marriage to a low-earning man could mean more financial hardship rather than less. It might sound like a good idea for low income women to find a high earning man, but as the data above reveal, people are highly likely to meet and marry people with similar levels of education. The Cinderella story of a poor woman meeting and marrying a prince might be common in fairy tales, but in reality it is very uncommon. A recent New York Times blog includes a discussion of these and other important points about the realities of marriage today from sociologists and other scholars.

The moral of this story is that higher educational attainment can lead to both higher earnings and a greater likelihood of marital stability. Another good reason to earn your degree!

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