9 posts from March 2010

March 29, 2010

Birthday Parties, Weddings, and Other Rituals

new janis By Janis Prince Inniss

What kind of society would ritually mix together a white powdery starch made of grains, with a crystal sweetener, churned milk, and ovoid shaped female cells laid by birds, infuse the mixture with a carbon dioxide releasing chemical and then cook the resulting mixture? Why would they do this? And why would they stick a lighted wax pole into this concoction?

For the last several days, we have been celebrating my mother’s milestone birthday. Reaching 80 and looking as she does and feeling as she reports would be considered a wonderful achievement for many, but given my mother’s recent illness and hospitalizations (which I wrote about here and here), this birthday feels particularly triumphant. The last year has seen Mum’s health steadily improve without one step backwards. And for most of that year she has been able to resume the life she had before illness – walking several times a week, living independently, and seeming to have more energy than I do.

So in collaboration with my siblings, I was delighted to get into a planning frenzy for an event to include fifty of her closest friends and some of our family. Since Mum loves the colors black and white, the color scheme was easy to decide on. The white plates adorned with pastel colored roses I found completed the color palette I would use: black and white with pink, yellow, and purple flowers.

clip_image002 clip_image004 clip_image006After planning the event, buying the goods, and cooking most of the food, I was exhausted by the evening of the party. Afraid that in my exhaustion I would forget some important aspect of the evening’s proceedings, I asked a visiting relative to take over. What’s the big deal? After spending so much time and energy planning this party, I didn’t want to forget something like – say the birthday cake – or the order of some of the formalities. Why? Because just about everybody has been to a birthday party (notable exceptions would be someone raised and living as a Jehovah’s Witness) and we all know the rituals associated with birthday parties.

Ever think about the rituals we engage in when we celebrate birthdays? There is the cake. (Did you recognize the ingredients and yourself above? Flour, sugar, butter, eggs, and baking powder. All baked, and then just at the right moment, we add candles and light them.) The birthday person must blow the candles out while making a secret wish.

Weddings, Thanksgiving, Christmas and other holidays are filled with rituals as well. Some are widely known and others are particular to our families. Notice that advertisers are keenly aware of the role of rituals in our lives and that many commercials are created to highlight the commercial aspect of various ritualistic times; Christmas is an extreme example with the gift-giving aspect heralded by advertisements of anything from cars to the year’s must have toy. As I mentioned in this post, it is the gift giving ritual of Christmas that gives some retailers as much of three-quarters of their annual profit.

Rituals reflect our social context and as such may highlight issues such as gender inequality. Weddings include many rituals for us to examine gender. Have you ever thought about some of those as you attended a wedding? Who is “given away” at a Christian or American secular wedding? Usually, a father—or other close male relative or friend—“gives” the bride to the groom as was done with arranged marriages in a transfer of property. This wedding ritual may be the one most changed in the last 30 or 40 years as couples deem it too patriarchal and come up with innovative changes such as having both parents walk the couple down the aisle (and in the Jewish tradition, it has always been customary for both parents to walk both the bride or groom down the isle). At our wedding, my groom and I walked down the aisle together. Others have infused this part of the wedding ceremony with fancy dance moves as seen on The Office.

Indeed, rituals change as we do. The traditional “first dance” of newlyweds at their weddings has been very staid and to a classic love song. Recently, many couples have been opting for a choreographed number to pop music such as seen in this video:

Why do we engage in rituals? In his book, Understanding Family Process: Basics of Family Systems Theory, one of my favorite sociology professors, the late Carlfred Broderick, describes rituals as mechanisms that all societies use to ensure that families share enough common ground. Rituals refer to ways that family members share values, celebrate their common identity, and regulate behavior; they have circular dynamics: the values that lead families to take part in a ceremony are reinforced by their participation in it. Rituals also help us mark transitions: married instead of single, and coming of age, for example. Less happy transitions are also marked by ritual—funerals are filled with many rituals and some people now have divorce parties/showers to mark their new status.

As you participate in and observe rituals think about what they mean and how various symbols are used to express those meanings.

March 25, 2010

Sociology and the Census

KS_2010a By Karen Sternheimer

Today my 2010 Census form came in the mail, and I excitedly filled it out right away (it took less than a minute). If you are interested in sociology, the Census Bureau’s work is incredibly important. Its director, Robert M. Groves, is a sociologist who was previously a professor at the University of Michigan. Without the census we would have far less valuable information about American society. (Click here to see the 2010 Census questions).

But we don’t just have a census for sociologists. It is mandated in the U.S. Constitution to be conducted every ten years, primarily for the purpose of figuring out how many representatives each state should have in Congress. (There are 435 seats; if an area loses population they could also lose a representative and another area could gain a representative.) The census also helps to decide how to allocate funding for projects around the country.

clip_image002A census is different from a survey; while the census seeks to count the entire population, a survey typically only involves a cross-section of a population. And while surveys drawn from probability sampling are typically reliable and can help us make generalizations about a population, ideally a census includes everyone.

Of course like any research, the census faces challenges in gathering information. Many people have lost their homes in recent years and may be homeless. Census workers try hard to include everyone—including the homeless—but they can be a difficult population to track down. Others might be so accustomed to getting junk mail that they never open their census form, while some may not want to give any information to the government at all.

By law, the census is private and your personal information cannot be shared with law enforcement, immigration, tax collectors, or anyone else. After 72 years the information becomes public, so in 2082 historians and our descendents doing genealogy research can find out more about us. If you like programs such as Faces of America or Who Do You Think You Are? you might have noticed that they use old census data to trace ancestors of the celebrities featured on the show.

The census is also vital to aid our research into core areas within sociology. We find out basic information about the size of the population, and its composition by age, gender, race and ethnicity. You might wonder, for instance, why the census asks about race and ethnicity. For sociologists doing research on racial inequality, the information the census collects is vital. We can learn about residential segregation and assess how the racial/ethnic composition of an area has changed over time. We can learn if there are relationships between race and home ownership from the census too.

clip_image004The Census Bureau also conducts a regular survey, called the American Community Survey (ACS), which asks more questions than the basic census does. From the ACS, we can learn about income distribution, educational attainment, births, marriage and divorce, employment, transportation, and how often people move from place to place, to name a few topics. It’s likely that tens of thousands of research studies have been conducted using these data. (Click here to read the actual survey)

If you have done research yourself, you might have used the Statistical Abstract to locate some basic facts about the U.S. population, which is comprised of census data. From a researcher’s perspective, one of the best parts of census data in the age of the Internet is that it is easy to access and free. While once upon a time you would have to go to the library or buy data on tapes for statistical analysis, it’s mostly available online now.

In my current research, I have used census data to look at changes in divorce rates dating back to the nineteenth century, to compare changes in college attendance and graduation rates throughout the twentieth century, and to look at how the age at first marriage changed during the twentieth century.

Without data from the census, we would know very little about American society as a whole. The census helps us to identify major social changes, patterns of inequality, as well as help us understand the composition of what makes America unique. So don’t forget to fill out your 2010 Census form—you will be making your contribution to sociological research.

March 22, 2010

Deviance 101

By Todd Schoepflin

When I introduce the sociological study of deviance to my students, I make sure to focus on the reactions that people encounter when they violate norms or act in unconventional ways. Think about it: if you violate a norm but there’s no reaction to that violation, is it really deviant behavior? I’m going to discuss several examples of norm violations; some involve reactions, others don’t.

My first example is a true story. A few years ago, a very outgoing student with a great sense of humor came to my social psychology class wearing a huge orange wig. The funny part is that he acted like it was no big deal, as if it were normal to attend class wearing an oversized bright-colored wig. I laughed heartily and explained to the class that his wig was a great example of deviant behavior; after all, no one else had ever come to my class with a crazy wig (and no one has since).

Looking back, though, I don’t think it’s a great example of deviant behavior, because, for whatever reason, the other students didn’t react to his behavior. They were indifferent. I actually offered the only reaction--and the way I laughed conveyed a positive reaction. And though my reaction and my comment about his wig indicated that I thought he was behaving in deviant fashion, no one else seemed to think of it that way. Basically, they didn’t care. Considering that, did an act of deviance really occur?

My next example is hypothetical. Suppose I wear sweat pants everyday to class (That’s a dream of mine, by the way. Some people dream of becoming millionaires and owning mansions. Me, I dream of wearing sweat pants 24-7-365). However, I don’t wear sweat pants for fear that my colleagues would view me as unprofessional.

But would my students care? Maybe at first. I suppose a student might say “You don’t look like a real college professor!” But I bet after just a few classes students would lose interest and find the whole enterprise unremarkable. Even my colleagues would probably get used to it. Sure, some of them might whisper “he’s strange” and my dean might suggest that I dress more professionally, but in the classroom I sincerely doubt I’d get any significant negative reaction.

Don’t get me wrong: it’s unconventional for a professor to wear sweat pants, just like it’s unconventional for a student to wear an orange wig to class. But if reactions to unconventional behavior are mild, minor, or nonexistent, there’s little at stake. In other words, without a significant negative reaction, unconventional actions don’t matter much.

When I introduced the sociological perspective of deviance to students in my introduction to sociology class this semester, one of my students gave an excellent illustration of the importance of reactions when it comes to behavior that is viewed as deviant. She talked about the negative reactions she encountered when she was pregnant. For example, one person said to her “You’re throwing your life away.” What a harsh thing to say to someone! And that’s Irena exactly my point: a hostile reaction is a strong signal that someone’s behavior is received as deviant.

As Irena talked more about her situation she pointed out that some of the disapproval she faced was based on the fact that she wasn’t married. Then, in an e-mail message, she gave me two more examples of negative reactions. One was that some of her friends reacted with an assumption that she would have to drop out of school. Another was that some of her “friends” were initially excited at the news she was pregnant, but have since stopped talking to her and essentially disappeared from her life.

Irena’s experiences show how important it is to focus on the reaction rather than the action. No one would say that being pregnant is a norm violation for all women at all times. We have to take the context into consideration when we try to determine if behavior is deviant, and we have to keep in mind that what is deviant to some people (and to some groups and cultures) is not deviant to other people (and to other groups and cultures). Would a married woman who is 25-years-old be treated as a deviant person because she is pregnant? I doubt it. Conversely, I bet it would be celebrated and received as great news.

During that same class session I used interracial relationships as an example of something that has become more acceptable over time (and hence, less deviant) but something that is still regarded by some in society as unacceptable (and therefore, is still deviant to a degree). It seems to me that interracial relationships are more acceptable in American society than ever before, but people in interracial relationships are still sometimes subjected to negative reactions (for example, see Janis Prince Inniss's blog about a justice of the peace who refused to marry an interracial couple).

Think about this in terms of your family. If you brought your new boyfriend or girlfriend home to meet your family and they belonged to a different race, how would your parents react? And what would your grandparents say? My guess is that many of you would encounter disapproval. By the way, my student Irena told the class that some of the people in her life were more accepting of her when she was in an interracial relationship than they were when she was a pregnant, unmarried college student.

Okay, one more example. When I arrived to class that day to introduce the topic of deviance, I was excited because I love the subject. But my students seemed tired and not ready to engage in any material. So, to break the ice I intentionally told a lame joke to lighten the mood (“Why did the banana go to the doctor? Because he wasn’t peeling well.”) The silly joke served my purpose because it was a simple ice breaker.

Driving home from school that day an interesting thought occurred to me: What if I had told a dirty joke to my class? I’m not saying I wanted to tell a dirty joke or that I tell dirty jokes in my spare time. My point is that a dirty joke would have been extremely inappropriate in a classroom setting. And I think it would have been an example of deviant behavior. I say this because I assume I would have gotten a lot of disapproving reactions. Who knows, depending on the actual content of the joke, some students might have laughed. But I suspect some would have been offended and some would have left class thinking of me as “pervert” or “dirty old man.”

My examples demonstrate the critical role that reactions play when it comes to deviant behavior. You’ll notice that my examples of deviant behavior focus on negative reactions. That’s because negative reactions (like a mean stare, an insult, or an act of discrimination) are clear signals that deviant behavior has occurred. But what about positive reactions? In my example of the student who wore a wig to class, I implied that a positive reaction (my laughter) was part of the reason why his behavior wasn’t really deviant. But can you think of any examples of positive reactions to an action that is believed to be deviant? In other words, is there any deviant behavior that generates a positive reaction? Hmmm, maybe that’s another blog topic for another time…

March 18, 2010

Rethinking Nudity and Deviance

new sally By Sally Raskoff

When is it appropriate to show one’s breasts to people you don’t know? When is it appropriate be invited to feel the breasts of people you don’t know? You might have thought about Mardi Gras, some other performance event, or any form of sex work.

I recently thought about this when I accompanied a friend to a medical office visit. Suffice it to say that this was a place that offered cosmetic surgeries among their services. I was fascinated by the dynamics and behaviors that occurred there and over the months following her procedure.

Getting cosmetic surgery is often considered a deviant act in our culture. You may disagree with this statement; however I came to this conclusion based on many different aspects. “Good” cosmetic surgery is done without notice; if people can’t tell you had it done, then it’s good. People who have obviously had it done, perhaps too much or done badly, face social stigma and are labeled as deviant even if they joke about it, e.g., Michael Jackson, Octo-mom Nadia Sulemon, and Joan Rivers. clip_image002

Those who have had cosmetic surgery often know how to identify others who have had it done, and thus they form an in-group. In-groups and out-groups are smaller entities than entire cultures yet are related to the concept of deviance. People who have had some form of cosmetic surgery often feel a kinship with others who have had such procedures. Once my friend let other friends know about the procedure she was to undergo, other friends stepped up and disclosed their experiences. When these people gathered in the same places, they often examined each other’s “work” and shared tales of the experience. When it comes to breast surgery, the examination of the work often includes not just looking at the outcome but actually feeling it to experience how “normal” and “real” it feels.

When I witnessed this happening and was invited to participate, I mentioned how unusual an event this is but they corrected me. They explained that this kind of sharing helps them to feel good about both the process and its results. Women who have breast reconstruction after cancer and women who have had elective breast implants or breast reductions may react to the process differently. However, whatever the reason for the surgery, the outcome is “new” breasts. For some women, being in a room with other women who have “new” breasts creates community. This “in-group orientation” reduces the stigma of having experienced such a procedure and creates social ties and positive emotions.

This sharing process can include the people who have had the work done, but also their other friends or family who know about the surgery. This works to expand the in-group to include people who might have been out-group members. Not all family or friends may be comfortable or supportive of the procedure, but including them in the inspection process creates an intimacy and reinforces the social ties between them. Though those people haven’t had the work done and aren’t easily included in the in-group, they can become members by participating in this redefining the situation as deviant into one of acceptable conformity to group standards.

At the first medical office visit, one of the women who worked there moved her blouse and showed us her results before any procedure was scheduled. At the time, we were amused by how comfortable she was doing this. I wondered at the time if she showed her breasts to every potential patient. Her act seemed deviant to us. However, after watching other employees do the same thing during subsequent visits and after watching the behavior of friends post procedure, it became apparent to us that this kind of behavior is part of in-group orientation and also helps women manage the stigma associated with having such work done.

clip_image004The plastic surgery websites that feature before and after pictures also work to redefine and manage this stigma and create not just an in-group but also affect the entire culture’s attitudes toward cosmetic surgery. These body modifications are done in part to conform to our expectations about body symmetry and beauty. (They are also done to remedy physical problems.) While this in-group will not expand into an actual subculture, as they don’t have a long roster of unique cultural markers like special foods or dress, they may have an impact upon the larger culture by challenging the deviance of this particular status. Paradoxically, having good cosmetic surgery means that people can’t tell you’ve had it done. If more people were aware that people have had it done, there might not be as much stigma associated with it.

To answer the questions that I asked at the beginning, it seems that showing one’s breasts in public is an appropriate part of inducting someone as a new member of a cosmetic surgery patient in-group. The experiences of this group have helped them reoriented their definition of deviance.

To what other groups would similar dynamics occur? For what other behaviors would such a situation explain?

March 15, 2010

Scoop of Ice-cream or Pizza? Choosing the Right Research Method

new janis By Janis Prince Inniss

In the recently published book, The Politics of Black Women’s Hair, I wrote an essay about my evolving experiences and feelings regarding the styling and care of my hair. (Read a sample from the book here.) The book features interviews and recollections of a few other women on the same topic, using what might be akin to a convenience sample. Therefore, the author does not claim that the experiences chronicled in the book are reflective of all black women—they are not generalizable to the entire population.

Do you know what a convenience sample is? A convenience sample, as the name indicates, is based on convenience. Researchers engage the respondents they can rather than trying to reach a particular, representative group of people. And of course, convenience samples may suffer some particularly dramatic biases.

For example, if I passed out surveys in a hospital, maybe my findings would be applicable only to the ill. This might be okay if I only wanted to learn about the ill—in which case I would have to think about whether the people in my convenience sample were a good representation of all sick people—but I would be unable to say anything about others. In other words, a convenience samples lack a major selling point of random samples—generalizability.

clip_image002Back to black women’s hair: How could I approach the topic of black women’s hair as sociological research? (Although your study topic might differ, the process would be the same.)

A first step would be to learn whether other scholars had already studied this topic. It is not helpful to the research community if investigator after investigator repeats the same study with no sense of what has already been done on a topic. Why is this so? Unless I intend to replicate your study and see whether I can get the same results as you did, this would be a waste of time and money.

Sociological research is designed to answer a specific set of questions, so if we already have answers to those questions in the field, we can pursue others; this is a major impetus for researchers to publish their study findings—so that we know what has already been learned. Because many of the questions that sociologists wrestle with are so complex, different researchers may chip away at various aspects of a question, and together those studies can provide a more complete understanding of an aspect of our lives. Therefore, a review of the literature is a good starting point to learn what has been done and what additional questions may remain on a topic.

clip_image004clip_image006Once I had reviewed the sociological literature on black women’s hair, assuming there was either no research already published on the topic, or the previous research did not address the questions I thought of, I would have to consider the appropriate research methodology for the type of questions I want to pose.

Do I want to learn about the experiences and attitudes of these women regarding their hair, for example? Am I interested in what most women think or feel? Or do I want an in-depth understanding of the experiences of some women? Do I want a scoop of Neapolitan ice cream or a slice of pizza? With this less than perfect analogy, I’m comparing a pizza to the survey I could do. I could find out how most black women think and/or feel about their hair and be able to report things like: “Eighty percent the women surveyed felt X Y Z.” I could get a “thin view” of this issue, and if I chose a representative sample, I could generalize the findings to all black women.

Another possibility is to conduct some in-depth interviews with women and get a “thick description” of their experiences with hair (not only how they feel for example, but I could learn what kinds of experiences may have formed their current perspective). I liken this to a scoop of ice-cream: When I take a scoop of Neapolitan ice-cream, because I don’t like it, I try to avoid the chocolate. So my scoop, although “thick,” is not truly representative of all the ice-cream in that container. A third possibility would be to use a mixed methods approach – have pizza and ice-cream—conduct some clip_image008interviews and also collect survey data.

Methodological purists on either side—quantitative and qualitative—engage in huge debates about the merits of each. However, perhaps as a result of my early experiences with sociological research I am open to both. My first forays into research were quantitative and helped me decide to become a sociologist. However, it was when I read Lillian Rubin’s awe-inspiring book, Intimate Strangers: Men and Women Together which is a brilliant example of what careful qualitative research coupled with impeccable writing can produce, that I felt I had found something to help me answer the question I have been asking since I learned to speak: Why?. These experiences have taught me that methodology must be guided by the research questions being examined.

Think of a topic you might be interested in researching; what would an “ice cream scoop” study look like? A “pizza” study?

March 11, 2010

Research Methods, Statistics, and Video Games

new karen 1 By Karen Sternheimer

A recent Iowa State University report claimed that one of its faculty members has “prove(n) conclusively that violent video game play makes more aggressive kids.” A colleague forwarded a link to this report to me, knowing that I have challenged claims like these in my books Connecting Social Problems and Popular Culture: Why Media Is Not the Answer and It's Not the Media: The Truth About Pop Culture's Influence on Children.

When researchers make powerful statements about their findings, it is very easy to be convinced, especially if we aren’t familiar with some of the technical terms in a report, or if we don’t know how to think critically about research methods and statistics.

Let’s start by putting aside any preconceived beliefs you may have; most people have an opinion about this issue, but we are going to be using the claim to better understand how to deconstruct the meaning of reports like these. You can make up your own mind about what to believe after you become familiar with the following concepts: meta-analysis, correlation, and predictive validity.

  1. Meta-Analysis

If one study on an issue is good, lots of studies on the issue should be really good, right? That’s the premise of conducting a meta-analysis, which involves finding studies with a similar hypothesis and generating statistical data from the group of previously conducted studies.

So far, this makes the Iowa State University report seem convincing, particularly for the average reader who might not follow this research closely. But if you’re not a big journal article reader, you might not realize that at least two other meta-analyses found just the opposite results in the past few years.

Another hidden factor: Which studies were included in the meta-analysis, and which were not, and why?

Texas A&M researchers asked this question in a response to the Iowa State University researcher’s claim. They question why unpublished studies (which can include those presented at conferences or not accepted for publication) that are not peer-reviewed would be included in this meta-analysis. It is practically impossible to be sure that all or even most relevant studies could be taken into account. Cherry-picking specific studies could be the result.

Not that this doesn’t happen in peer-reviewed journals, too. One of the Texas A&M researchers published a meta-analysis study in 2007, finding that journals are more likely to publish video game studies if they claim to find a negative effect.

  1. Correlation

One of the most common statistical measures used in studies about video games and violence is the correlation coefficient. This statistic, represented by r, calculates the degree to which two variables have a linear relationship, meaning when one variable rises, the other rises (or falls) accordingly.

This measure is often calculated from surveys and looks at variables such as violent video game playing time and measures of aggression (like getting into fights, feeling angry, and so forth).

The correlation statistic is reasonably easy to interpret: The results fall between –1 and 1, where a correlation of –1 implies a perfect inverse relationship, or when one variable increases, the other decreases at exactly the same rate. A correlation of 1 means that as one variable increases, the other increases at the same rate. A correlation of 0 means no relationship. The closer your number is to 1 or –1, the stronger the relationship, and correlations closer to 0 mean that the relationship is weak.


Both the Iowa and Texas researchers agree that overall the correlation between violent video game playing and aggression (which does not necessarily mean violent behavior) is .15, a relatively weak, positive relationship. The Texas researchers measured other relationships with violent video games, and found several more powerful relationships: poverty and crime (.25), violent video game playing and improved hand-eye coordination (.36), and a very strong inverse correlation between video game sales and youth violence in the United States (–.95).

In other words, the strongest relationship suggests that as video game sales increased sharply, youth violence decreased sharply. The weakest finding the Texas team found was the relationship between violent video game playing and serious aggressive behavior (.04).

Some people might wonder, if the strongest relationship found is the decrease in violence following an increase in video game sales, could it be that video games actually decrease violence?

Probably not; in any case, we couldn’t measure that from correlation. If you have taken a statistics class, you probably recall that correlation does not imply causation. Just as your wearing a heavy coat didn’t cause the heat to turn on in your house, correlation measures relationships but cannot explain cause and effect.

  1. Predictive Validity

Finally, we must look at any study’s finding(s) and ask whether its conclusions can apply to actual outcomes. For example, we could test the predictive validity of SATs by measuring students’ college GPA. If the SAT and college GPA produced only weak correlations, then we might wonder how good a tool the SAT really is for college admissions.

Youth violence has declined significantly, according to the National Crime Victimization Survey. Twelve- to seventeen-year-olds committed serious violent acts at a rate of 52 per thousand in 1993. In 2007, that rate had fallen to just eleven per thousand, a 79 percent decline. Video game playing has become such a common pastime for young people (and not so young people) that video game play is not a useful predictor of violence.


Social scientists draw conclusions about phenomena after careful considerations of factors like these; those conclusions are not simply just their opinion. Sometimes, scholars come to different conclusions after reviewing the same data. After examining the results of studies looking at violence and video games, I must respectfully disagree with the conclusion that the Iowa researcher has “prove(n) conclusively that violent video game play makes more aggressive kids.”

Whatever your feelings on video games, violence, or any other social phenomena, it is vital that before we draw any conclusions we test them empirically. What other commonly held assumptions do you think people often fail to test empirically?

March 08, 2010

The Nature/Nurture Debate

 new sally By Sally Raskoff

I’m reminded today that the world is an interdisciplinary place. National Public Radio (NPR) interviewed journalist Shankar Vedantam about his book, The Hidden Brain, in which he discusses how prejudice is based on brain functioning. No social science perspective on this cultural phenomenon was included the NPR story; prejudice is framed as something we are ”hard-wired” to do, since children’s behavior mirrors their observations rather than what they are told.

As a social scientist, I am often appalled by the dearth of social science research used by the media and policy makers. In our society at large, we seem to either use no scientific perspective when trying to explain something or we rely on the natural sciences (biology, chemistry, genetics) or economics. (Why economics is the only social science used in the public realm is a topic for another blog post.) clip_image002

Vedantum’s book looks interesting, but I haven’t yet read it or checked his sources. (It’s important to do that with everything that claims to explain something – including this blog!) His Washington Post columns regularly reference sociologists and other social scientists, so his journalistic writing has a wide scientific perspective. However, the news stories about this book frame its findings as a biological reality rather than as a hypothesis informed by multiple scientific perspectives.

His discussion of brain studies and the “hidden brain associations” can help us explain how implicit associations are formed and how things like prejudice and discrimination are maintained in a culture. When people see mainly men, white, or straight people in positions of power and respect (and women, people of color, and gays and lesbians in more subordinate or deviant positions), the different social esteem that we assign to these groups are reinforced.

What those associations can explain is how prejudice and discrimination are perpetuated through subconscious or unconscious processes. They can also help us better understand how cultural norms function as social patterns reinforce psychological impressions about those patterns.

The “hidden brain associations” can explain the results of the controversial Implicit Association Test, which Vedantum mentions in his book. That so many people have biases about particular social groups, including those within those groups, is disturbing. Knowing that our subconscious does pay attention to social cues about how people in those groups are treated both in the media, in occupations, and in our daily lives, helps explain how such biases are created and persist. clip_image004

People are also puzzled when they learn that people within a group participate in perpetuating the biases against those same groups. Hidden brain associations based on what people notice happening in their societies can explain why some women have sexist attitudes and may discriminate against women, why people of color can be prejudiced against their own groups, or why gays and lesbians themselves might internalize homophobic beliefs. Since women, people of color, and gays and lesbians are not treated well by our society and since people in those groups are not expected to attain esteemed or powerful positions, one’s subconscious can come to some specific conclusions about one’s status.

What “hidden brain associations” can’t explain is how those cultural realities have come to be. Without more analysis –and a more social scientific perspective – these associations alone cannot explain why societal patterns emerge or the many variations in prejudice and discrimination. Prejudice and discrimination don’t always occur together; bigots are not always the discriminator and those who discriminate are not always prejudiced.clip_image006

Brain and genetic studies have not found definitive results that ”nature” rather than “nurture” can explain our behavior or social realities. In fact, the outcome of the Human Genome Project and similar studies typically reinforce the interaction of nature and nurture rather than the primacy of one (or the other), illustrating that biology alone is not destiny. Our behavior exists within an environmental and cultural context. Thus, only looking at the biology without also analyzing the larger societal context is, by definition, a partial perspective.

To develop a more complete perspective, we need to include social science perspectives when we analyze human phenomena. This would include not only psychological theories, which often incorporate biological realities, but also sociological theories. Sociology gives us more information on the societal foundation, the social context, and how individuals navigate through such social, biological, and environmental complexities.

March 04, 2010

Private Lives of Public People: Tiger Woods and Other Sex Scandals

new janis By Janis Prince Inniss

I have many reactions to Tiger Woods’ televised mea culpa. The one that prompted this post is embarrassment, however. As I watched a recording of the entire 14 minute speech, I felt an overwhelming urge to look down in order to avoid looking at Woods’ eyes as he spoke. (When his face on camera failed and they moved to a side shot, I like that distance between us better.) Although Woods did not offer any real details about his extramarital affairs, this was the first time he had publicly said anything about them. Instead of releasing another short, crisp written statement on his website, this time he spoke directly to the viewer, saying to me, you, and the rest of the world things like:

Elin and I have started the process of discussing the damage caused by my behavior. As Elin pointed out to me, my real apology to her will not come in the form of words; it will come from my behavior over time. We have a lot to discuss; however, what we say to each other will remain between the two of us.

I was embarrassed to hear this kind of information, for example, because I felt like a Peeping Tom. I could imagine an exchange between the couple in which Elin told Tiger that if he were really sorry he would stop having extramarital affairs. That’s couple talk though—what people couples say to each other in private.

As a professional marriage and family therapist, I have heard such private conversations in my office. But since I don’t know this couple personally, and I’m not their therapist it felt odd to be privy to their deeply personal conversation. It was interesting to note that Woods asked the public to request their privacy just after he revealed part of one of their private conversations. He also revealed where he’s been for the past month and a half:

It's hard to admit that I need help, but I do. For 45 days from the end of December to early February, I was in inpatient therapy receiving guidance for the issues I'm facing.

With this comment, Woods admitted what had widely reported in the news: that he had been undergoing treatment. Although Woods did not directly acknowledge that he was in a sex rehabilitation program, it is easy enough to put two and two together. Again, this is information that I consider private—despite the existence of a television show such as “Celebrity Rehab with Dr. Drew”.

As I proceed, I understand people have questions. I understand the press wants to ask me for the details and the times I was unfaithful. I understand people want to know whether Elin and I will remain together. Please know that as far as I'm concerned, every one of these questions and answers is a matter between Elin and me. These are issues between a husband and a wife.

Indeed, when I imagined what Woods could or would say if he finally made an appearance, like most people I thought he’d express remorse and perhaps offer details about his affairs. But how is any of this my business? When did details about the sex lives of public figures become open to the public? Why are they?

If you’re old enough to remember when the O. J. Simpson court case hijacked our televisions, you might recognize the name, Robert Kardashian. Kardashian—now deceased—was one of Simpson’s attorneys. Today, the name Kardashian is synonymous with the E! reality hit show – “Keeping Up With the Kardashians”– and its star, Kim Kardashian. Best as I can figure out, before getting involved with fashion, and being a spokesperson, Kim Kardashian was famous for co-starring in a sex tape with singer Ray J. Similarly, Paris Hilton’s road to fame seems to have been well paved by her sex video.

A number of the women who allege that Tiger Woods had affairs with them have also gained some media exposure which looks like it will be parlayed into 5 or 10, if not 15, minutes of fame. Rather than being ashamed of their roles in the damage to a marriage, many of these women have made television appearances:

Some of these women have made murmurings of regret and apology but don’t appear to be sufficiently embarrassed to want to crawl under a rock—the place I presume I would want to be if I were discovered in such an entanglement. Instead, high profile journalists such as Meredith Viera air of their stories. Perhaps the greatest example of this publicity hounding was the post Woods apology “news” conference by Veronica Siwik Daniels and her attorney, Gloria Allred. This alleged Woods mistress demanded a personal apology from Woods because she said she had given up so much for him, including her porn movie career.

Actually, I was hoping that Woods would never make a statement or do an interview about his affairs. Why? Because it would be an interesting sociological exercise in what happens when such public figures do not take this beaten path (coming forward to confess, and cry, as they unload their burdens on us).

Every media expert I saw discuss the Woods story said that in order for the golfer to return to the sport and continue to endorse products, he would have to at least make a statement and perhaps also agree to a big, tell-all interview with someone like Barbara Walters or Oprah Winfrey. The sociologist in me couldn’t help but wonder what would happen if he didn’t. Is there another path back? Can some one person redefine the bounds of privacy? Or perhaps Woods would stay out of the limelight…forever.

With 24 hour news reporting and online social media, how much detail about the private lives of public people does our appetite now demand? And what do we gain, or lose, from having access to the private lives of public people?

March 01, 2010

Aging and Inequality

new karen 1 By Karen Sternheimer

A few weeks before my college graduation, I went to return something at a local store. The clerk asked to see my driver’s license to write up the return. When she looked up at me, she said, “Oh, you’re probably too young to have a driver’s license, dear. That’s okay. Don’t worry about it.”

I was nearly 21, and incensed that someone would think I wasn’t yet 16! I told the clerk that I was graduating from college that month and that I most certainly had a driver’s license, which I handed to her to prove my age.

Today I would be flattered if someone thought I was several years younger than I am. But in my teens and early twenties I struggled to be taken seriously as a young person, particularly when I was on the job market. And now that I have established myself professionally, looking young is no longer a liability.

In fact, for many people struggling to find work, looking younger may be a plus. Local cosmetic surgeons send out coupons for procedures, suggesting that “facial rejuvenation” can get you that next job or promotion. If there were a pill that would stop the aging process, say around age 25, would you take it?

Recently, I read a novel that explores this very question. The Malthusian Catastrophe, by Ernesto Robles, tells the story of a Michael Jeffs, a recent MBA grad who can’t find the Wall Street job he’d always dreamed of because of the recession. Instead, he’s recruited by a firm that sells a nutritional supplement, “Sinsen,” rumored to stop the aging process.


Jeffs reluctantly takes the job, only to discover that the product seems to really work, causing a frenzy among consumers eager to get their hands on the supplements. He becomes rich and powerful as a result. Eventually the company becomes more powerful than most world leaders, and the president of the United States becomes a chief rival of the company’s CEO.

While all of this might sound great—who wouldn’t want to stay young and get rich in the process—the product triggers a series of unintended consequences.

First, the limited supply means that as demand grows, so does the price of staying young, so only wealthy people can afford it. Those who aren’t wealthy but are affluent enough to afford Sinsen cut back on their purchases of other things, which drives the economy into a downward spiral.

Second, so much land is needed to grow Sinsen’s active ingredient that farmers sell their land at a high profit and stop producing food, leading to starvation.

And finally, what will happen if the Earth’s population grows beyond its capacity to sustain life? This is what economist Thomas Malthus warned of at the end of the 18th century, and is called the Malthusian catastrophe. The book’s title comes from warnings from a sociologist, Dr. Joanna Hochberg, who cautions the public that what first seems like a wonder drug could create massive social problems. Her warnings make for good news show debates, but they don’t deter the public (or Hochberg herself) from taking Sinsen if they can get it.

The Malthusian Catastrophe is a great page-turner (and one of the only novels I’ve read where a sociologist is a main character). It also raises several important issues to consider about health and aging in contemporary society.

As I have previously blogged about, access to regular health care is directly related with income. While health care reform seems to have stalled in Congress, many Americans have trouble obtaining or keeping their health insurance, particularly as premiums soar. They may be forced to live in communities closer to environmental hazards. A recent study found that living near a freeway is linked with heart disease and interferes with children's healthy lung development.

In the novel, lack of access to Sinsen becomes very visible—the people who don’t take Sinsen are the only ones who age—and it thus magnifies the relationship between socio-economic status and the appearance of aging in contemporary society.

Lower income people not only tend to work at jobs that are more dangerous, with less autonomy, and more stress, but economic struggles themselves are very stressful and leave visible traces of age.

Affluence often means more autonomy on the job and greater work satisfaction. Wealth can buy vacation time, healthier food, flattering wardrobes and other luxuries that may make people look younger. Facials, teeth whitening, and other selective procedures can minimize markers of age for those who can afford them. Yes, some people do go overboard and look bizarre after too many cosmetic treatments, as Sally Raskoff has blogged about. But these selective and hidden lifestyle issues do create visible markers of class.

It’s ironic that in a time when life expectancy continues to rise, aging becomes seen as problematic. Americans born in 2020 are expected to have an average life expectancy of nearly 80 years, compared with about 47 for those born in 1900. By contrast, when the United States was founded in the 18th century, statesmen wore powdered wigs and white tights giving them an appearance of age beyond their years.

If appearing to age is considered socially undesirable, the market for products promising to provide the fountain of youth can expand unabated. But as Ernesto Robles warns in The Malthusian Catastrophe, an age-phobic society can produce dire consequences.

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