9 posts from May 2010

May 31, 2010

Can Social Problems Be Solved?

KS_2010a By Karen Sternheimer

If you have ever taken or taught a sociology class, you know that many students leave feeling like some problems are too deeply entrenched in our social structure to ever change. This, of course, is not true; social change is possible. But how?

In the United States, the legal system has been our go-to solution for many issues. Civil rights activists effectively used the courts to desegregate schools, and Congress passed several landmark bills guaranteeing voting rights and fair housing, for instance.

But the law is only one avenue to create change; there are many other ways that ordinary citizens can work to solve problems. We are accustomed to thinking that the best way to deal with problems like gang violence, for instance, would be to pass more laws to punish those involved in gangs more severely. But while people who act violently should be punished and incarcerated, prison alone will not stop people from joining gangs.

Father Gregory Boyle, a Jesuit priest in Los Angeles, began working with gang members in 1984 when he was assigned to a church in one of the city’s poorest and most dangerous neighborhoods. As Boyle describes in his book, Tattoos on the Heart: The Power of Boundless Compassion, presiding over the funerals of young  person after young person moved him to take action.

For the last eighteen years, Boyle has run Homeboy Industries, a nonprofit organization whose mission is to provide jobs for “at-risk and formerly gang-involved youth to become positive and contributing members of society through job placement, training and education.” Homeboy Industries include shops and businesses, including a bakery, café, silk screening and embroidering, and grounds maintenance services. Participants also work side by side with former gang rivals and learn to let go clip_image002of the notion that they are enemies. (Learn more about Father Greg and Homeboy Industries by watching Father G and the Homeboys).

The businesses are designed to help people who might not otherwise be employable learn skills that will enable them to lead law-abiding lives. One of the biggest challenges that people coming out of prison face is getting a job. As Boyle observed, many employers are not “felon friendly”. And particularly during these days of high unemployment, having a record can mean few options. (Check out the documentary A Hard Straight for an in-depth look at the challenges of staying out of prison while on parole).

Homeboy Industries is now overflowing with thousands of young people who want to leave gang life behind and find jobs. But like many non-profit institutions, Homeboy Industries is facing tough financial times, as the recession has reduced donations. They were recently forced to lay off 300 people--all of their paid staff. The organization’s small businesses are quite successful, earning about $2.5 million annually, but this is just a quarter of the organization’s operating budget. (In addition to job training, Homeboy Industries offers tattoo removal, mental health care and legal services). The organization is seeking about $5 million dollars in donations to re-hire their staff for this year.

If that seems like a lot of money, consider this: celebrities and other wealthy Angelenos just donated more than $12 million to buy the land around the Hollywood sign after a three month campaign to save it from developers. And the cost to incarcerate one inmate in a California prison averages $47,000 a year; at that rate, Homeboy Industries costs about the same as housing 212 inmates and yet serves thousands of young people.

For the state’s 673 prisoners on death row, the cost rises to $90,000 per inmate each year. Perhaps that’s why the prison system costs California taxpayers nearly $8 billion, about 11 percent of the state's budget (a higher percentage than the state’s educational system receives).

Like many other states, California is facing a massive budget deficit of $20 billion. To alleviate this shortfall, the state plans to release many prisoners and will also cut social services, including aid for child welfare and foster care, the disabled, and the elderly. While these cuts might save money in the short term, in the long run we might see more problems—and possibly more crime—from these decisions.

The vast majority of those incarcerated in California’s prisons (83 percent) are there for property crimes rather than violent crimes (14 percent), crimes like theft, drug distribution and drug possession, which in some cases may be the result of a lack of legitimate job opportunities.

It’s very possible that organizations like Homeboy Industries might save far more money than they cost. So why haven’t philanthropists rushed forward as they have for the Hollywood sign?

As Boyle notes, gang members are often viewed by others as “disposable” people who are undeserving of help. Journalist Malcolm Gladwell writes in What the Dog Saw: And Other Adventures that we often prefer to fund programs for people we feel are morally clip_image002[7]deserving. And yet in his chapter on homelessness, “Million Dollar Murray,” Gladwell concludes that it may be cheaper to pay for housing for persistently homeless people than to provide services to manage homelessness.

This may not play well with the general public, who might see a down-on-her-luck single mother as more deserving of help than an alcoholic who has been on the streets for years. But Gladwell finds that in the long run the public health costs for the least sympathetic homeless people—those that might be heavy drinkers and resist working—are actually much higher if they stay on the streets than they would be if we found a way to house them. Likewise, heavily tattooed gang members with long criminal records may not be the most sympathetic of characters, but helping them get jobs will be cheaper than sending them to prison.

Addressing problems like gang violence are not easy, but they are also not impossible to deal with. What other problems can be addressed if we are willing to assist unsympathetic groups? How might we save money in the long run by doing so?

May 27, 2010

Ascribed Status vs. Achieved Status: The Case of Homelessness

todd_S_2010a By Todd Schoepflin

Every so often the terms we encounter in an Introduction to Sociology textbook are a little boring. Sometimes the examples are outdated, other times the discussion just lies flat on the page. As much as I love teaching an introductory course, I even tire of the material occasionally. But then a student speaks up and the concepts jump off the page.

While teaching two basic concepts in sociology this semester-- ascribed status and achieved status --I gave the usual examples for each. An ascribed status is involuntary, something we cannot choose. Race, ethnicity, and the social class of our parents are examples of ascribed statuses.

On the other hand, an achieved status is something we accomplish in the course of our lives. To some extent, achieved status reflects our work and effort. College student, college dropout, CEO, and thief are examples of achieved statuses. (I made a sarcastic comment in class that some CEOs are thieves, but no one laughed. I’ll try that joke again next semester.)

Then I brought up homelessness as an interesting status to think about. Many people think homelessness is definitely an achieved status. They see homelessness as a result of a poor work ethic or irresponsible lifestyle choices. But when you think more deeply about homelessness, you gain an understanding that homelessness can be considered an ascribed status in many cases.

When I asked students about their understanding of the causes of homelessness, they were able to identify some of them, including substance abuse and mental illness. The cause of mental illness makes for an interesting debate. If we accept the premise that we don’t choose mental illness, I think we can make the argument that homelessness is an ascribed status when it’s the result of mental illness. By the way, one major reason for homelessness cited by mayors of U.S. cities is so obvious that most people wouldn’t think of it: a lack of affordable housing.

Anyway, the discussion continued when a student raised her hand and talked about how she was homeless as a child. I was stunned. Having taught college students for ten years, I thought I’d heard everything. But Ayla is my first student I know of that has experienced homelessness. In talking about her Ayla background she made an essential point: homeless children should be thought of as an example of ascribed status. Obviously, children don’t choose to be homeless, as circumstances beyond their control leave them without housing.

Throughout the semester, Ayla told me details about her childhood. Her mother, who had a drinking problem and other personal issues, could not provide for her on a consistent basis.The oldest of four children, Ayla had to take charge of family matters. She remembers paying bills as early as age nine. She would go to a check-cashing store and pay the rent (her family received SSI assistance). She would buy groceries. She’d get out of school and do a mental check (“What do I do now?”). Her first objective was to find her mom to make sure she was okay, and then she would get her brothers from school. Sometimes they would stay at a friend’s house, sometimes at a shelter.

This stretch of time in her life was roughly from age nine to thirteen in Rochester, New York. Through it all, she always attended school. Things settled in her life when she moved to Niagara Falls, New York to live with her grandmother. She graduated from high school in Niagara Falls and earned a scholarship to nearby Niagara University.

Ayla’s transition from being homeless as a child to attending college reminded me of the movie Homeless to Harvard, based on the true story of Liz Murray, who was homeless as a teenager and whose parents suffered from substance abuse. When I mentioned this movie in class, a student remarked “That’s why they don’t make movies called From Prep School to Harvard.” Now that was funny (the class laughed) but there was tremendous insight behind the humor. Making it to Harvard after prep school training is not nearly as impressive a feat compared with someone who has spent time on the streets as a child.

house_-_es I remain awestruck by Ayla’s story, especially when I consider the relative advantages I enjoyed growing up in a solid middle-class household. We were well provided for. There was always plenty of food in the house and on the table. My father had a steady job my entire life. My mother stayed home to take care of my brother and me and to run the household. She didn’t return to the paid workforce until I attended middle school. I spent most of my childhood and adolescence in the house that is pictured, a very nice house my parents still live in today.

Reflecting back, the stability they provided was priceless. I took for granted not only material comfort but also consistency of care, discipline, and structure. I think I underestimate how much that consistency developed me into the person I am today. And I think of Ayla, who has come so far from so little, never knowing her father, not being able to count on her mother, having to be an adult during childhood. Ayla’s story continues to inspire me. I think it’s extraordinary that she became a college student (achieved status) after spending part of her life homeless (in her case, ascribed status). Since learning from Ayla about her life story, achieved status has taken on a new meaning for me.

May 24, 2010

What is Ethnic Studies?

new janis By Janis Prince Inniss

Recently, Arizona Governor Jan Brewer signed a bill that would give that state the toughest immigration laws in the U.S. Less than three weeks later, Governor Brewer signed a law that has been described as effectively banning ethnic studies in public schools. Should schools be found in violation of the law, they will be hit where it hurts: in their pockets, with 10 percent of their state financial aid withheld.

Before looking more closely at this bill, let’s review a few basics. What is Ethnic Studies? According to the University of California Riverside‘s Ethnic Studies Department, Ethnic Studies is “the interdisciplinary social and historical study of how different populations have experienced, survived, and critically engaged the United States nation-building project.” The website of the University of California, Berkeley’s Department of Ethnic Studies states that faculty in its department, “seek to provide collectively a comparative framework for understanding both the specificities and the differences among the situations of racially-marginalized groups in the US and beyond.”

These descriptions come from university-level programs, but give us a common understanding of the nature of such types of courses. Typically, ethnic studies focus on African American Studies, Asian American Studies, Chicano Studies, and Native American Studies (although the specific names may differ).

Here is some of the text of House Bill 2281 in caps, with my thoughts:




Sounds reasonable enough. See discussion further on about resentment issues that also apply to hate.






Well, I would certainly hope not!


Promoting resentment doesn’t sound too savory to me. Nor does it seem like the job of a school. But how will the enforcers of this bill decipher whether a course or class “promotes resentment”?

We sociologists, are always looking to measure things; I would love to know what research design will be employed to ascertain that a particular course promotes resentment. Will the law enforcer use his own feelings of becoming riled up when reading a syllabus as an indication that it will promote resentment in others?


Hmm. Let’s say I design a class that focuses on some aspect of the Mexican experience in the U.S., does that mean the course is designed primarily for Mexican and Mexican American students? Are these classes designed for particular students or are they designed to focus on specific content?

Have you ever taken an ethnic studies class? Are you of the ethnicity that was the focus of the class? I don’t have data on who takes what classes, but class make-up has to be influenced by the make-up of the whole school. At a predominantly white school, there may be a number of white students taking Ethnic Studies classes. In some cases, African American and Black students may be the ones in classes focusing on that group and so on.

Can other students attend such classes? I don’t see why not. Might they feel left out? Maybe. Might they feel guilt by association? Perhaps. For example, white students in a course on the Mexican American experience in the U.S. might feel that because mention is made of white involvement in repression or racism or other untoward acts, that they are seen as guilty by association. And maybe Mexican American students in such a class might feel resentment towards their white peers.


Initially, this sounds fine, except for the obvious that we all seek to belong to groups. Will students who display ethnic solidarity be seen as proof that the course advocated this? Again, what will serve as proof that the course caused such an impact?

clip_image002 clip_image004

More generally, why were these particular items included in the bill? Why are any of the issues raised in this bill associated with Ethnic Studies in public schools? What does overthrowing the government have to do with Ethnic Studies? What does promoting resentment have to do with Ethnic Studies? And what does teaching resentment and hate have to do with Ethnic Studies? What is the relationship between such activism and the teaching of any subject?

Part of what’s at issue in the debate surrounding this law is whether there is even a need for Ethnic Studies. Why should there be separate studies for any of the groups typically placed at the center of Ethnic Studies? The answer, of course, is that the full story of people of color has not been reflected in our history and other textbooks. Ethnic Studies classes aim to rectify this imbalance by providing a fuller treatment of often untold stories.

So why this law? Tom Horne, the Superintendent of Public Instruction, said the Arizona bill was written to target a particular program in the Tucson school district that he says promotes resentment—one that he has been trying to end for many years. I can think of no class that I’ve ever taken, or would ever teach that would obviously run afoul of this law. But if the Superintendent finds a particular Ethnic Studies program so problematic, why target such courses across the state? (Mr. Horne referred to a Raza studies program curriculum as “revolutionary” and said that it creates resentment among students who take the course.) Some writers have suggested that Mr. Horne is politically motivated; he is running for Attorney General in Arizona. What do you think motivates this law?

May 20, 2010

Consuming Education

new sally By Sally Raskoff

PBS’s Frontline recently aired a story on for-profit educational institutions. Ten percent of all post-secondary students are enrolled in one of these relatively new types of institutions. A Los Angeles Times article notes that these for-profit schools offer classes at non-traditional times, offering flexible educational opportunities for people working full-time. Students in these schools receive over 25 percent of the federal financial aid awarded to college students, so not only is this an important education concern, but a public policy issue as well.

College students in all types of institutions are borrowing more money and ending up in more debt upon graduation than just a decade ago. Students in the for-profit colleges end up defaulting on their loans at higher rates than do students in the more traditional public or non-profit colleges.


Source: The Institute for College Access and Success

Why are students in so much more debt than in previous years?

We might surmise that in the past college was cheaper. According to College Board data, even adjusted for inflation, the cost of attending a four-year public institution has more than tripled in the past thirty years.

Fees and tuition have been increasing as public funding has decreased. Private donations and institutional endowments also took a hit during the recent recession. We could also consider the growth of for-profit colleges as a source of this cost increase, since they tend to cost much more than traditional colleges. Their students are more likely to be on financial aid and are less likely to pay the full tuition at the same time they take classes. However, that does not mean that those students are paying less for their classes since they are still liable for the loans.

The National Center for Education Statistics data on financial aid by type of college (Table 9) clearly shows that while they are not the most likely to be on financial aid, students at for-profit colleges are much more likely to have loans than students in other colleges. About 78 % receive loans at for-profit two-year schools, compared with 19 % at public two-year programs. Community college students are often eligible for financial aid yet don’t apply for it, perhaps because they don’t know they can. Staffing shortages mean that many financial aid offices are likely overburdened and understaffed. Students may find they have to navigate the process on their own, get frustrated, and give up. By contrast, for-profit schools make helping students apply for financial aid a high priority because without it the schools wouldn’t be able to stay in business. Perhaps if community college students knew more about their eligibility for financial aid they would be more likely to complete their degrees, as President Obama has encouraged.

Students have to borrow more money than they used to just to stay in school. With the current economic situation, students are less likely to have jobs to help pay for their education. The community college where I teach just finished our program review and our student survey results really surprised us: 52% of our students live with their parents and 40% are not employed. This is at an urban commuter community college campus, which traditionally has served a slightly older population of students than four-year residential campuses. When our campus recently updated our Educational Master Plan (a five-year plan for guiding us in making policy and budgets), our data clearly showed that our potential students often enrolled at the for-profit colleges in our region. This puzzled us since those colleges charge so much more money than we do, but it makes sense when you consider that it is possible for students to enroll in almost any class they wished at the for-profit school.

Since that time, our budget has been cut substantially, which means that we have had to cut classes. We have many fewer classes with much larger class sizes, and every semester we turn away more students than we enroll. Students may find it easier to enroll at for-profit institutions, but the Frontline report raised serious questions about the quality of education some students are getting at for-profit schools.

Some students reported being promised jobs in the health care industry, but when they later applied they were told that they didn't have the necessary training. Other news reports suggest that this is not an isolated incident, and some students have filed lawsuits against the schools they attended. These concerns about educational quality and students’ financial burdens have prompted President Obama to propose new regulations for financial aid at for-profit schools to ensure that taxpayers’ dollars are used appropriately.

Consuming education has become an increasingly expensive endeavor. Economic decisions are taking priority over educational concerns in institutions around the country, whether it be reducing the number of classes offered at community colleges like mine, or offering classes that might serve shareholders needs more than students’ best interests at some for-profit programs. We now have a large portion of the population paying huge student loan bills; for many of these students the soft job market means they might not find a job that pays enough to cover their monthly payments. Why do you thing being educated in the twenty-first century is so much more expensive than in the past?

May 17, 2010

Lightness and Whiteness

KS_2010a By Karen Sternheimer

The recent passage of Arizona’s immigration law has created fear, particularly among Latinos, that darker-skinned individuals might be under increased scrutiny as possible illegal immigrants. Janis Prince Inniss has blogged about colorism and the privileges of lighter skinned blacks, who historically have had more opportunities than their darker-skinned peers.

And yet paradoxically, many whites make a concerted effort to darken their skin, through tanning or using creams providing the appearance of a tan. Why is light skin a privilege for some groups but not for others?

You might be thinking what I thought much of my life growing up: tanned skin “looks better.” As a pale-skinned white person, I was occasionally taunted from classmates and strangers who might actually yell from passing cars, “get a tan!” One guy in college told me I’d be so much more attractive if only I had a tan.

I learned that I could get tan if I baked in the sun and got a good burn, which would eventually turn into a tan. Once while on a summer vacation to Florida I spent the whole day in the sun and was up all night sick from sun poisoning (which caused fever, chills, and vomiting, not to mention an awful burn). And yet when I returned home I got all kinds of compliments from classmates on my hard-earned tan, despite the fact that the skin on my chin, nose and cheeks had blistered and looked like overcooked cheese.

That was a long time ago, and I have since stopped tanning, especially when one of my cousins was diagnosed with melanoma, a potentially fatal form of skin cancer. Her prognosis was not good at first, but thankfully after surgeries and years of treatment she survived. I am in a high risk group because of my complexion, family history, and because of the severe burn I endured before I was eighteen.

Her struggle with melanoma was not isolated: as you can see from the graph below charting melanoma trends in the United States, rates of diagnosis have risen steadily over the past several decades. And yet tanning is still popular, both outside and in tanning salons.


According to the American Academy of Dermatology, the indoor tanning industry brings in about 5 billion dollars a year, which has quintupled since 1992. Most of their patrons—70 percent—are white girls and women aged 16-29. The Skin Cancer Foundation estimates that nearly 30 million people use indoor tanning beds each year, and that those who do have increased odds of contracting skin cancer.

All this begs the question: why is tanned skin—something that is potentially harmful and aging—often considered a sign of health and beauty?

To answer this question, we might go back a century to a time when light skin was privileged over tanned skin for whites. The majority of Americans still lived in rural areas, and many worked on farms and fields. Pale skin reflected wealth and implied the lack of a need to labor outdoors. And with massive influxes of immigration from southern and eastern Europe, lighter complexions of people from northern and western Europe connoted status.

After World War I, several major changes made tanning gain popularity. First, the economy shifted. As the middle class grew and labor became more automated, being outside was identified more with leisure than work. Leisure time grew with the growth of wages and the shorter workweek. European ethnic divisions began to lose some of their power due to the unifying effect of the war effort as well.

Ironically, the medical establishment did much to promote the association between health and tanning. During the 1920s, the sun was thought to be able to  cure nearly any ailment. Tuberculosis was a major illness of the era, and warm, dry air was thought to help heal its many sufferers. Bacteria flourishes in dark, moist spaces, and during a time when many people lived in cramped, crowded conditions with little sanitation, it is likely that spending some time outside would be a major improvement from their normal environment.

Today, perceptions of tanning are complex: the medical establishment warns of the dangers of overexposure to the sun, but millions still seek tans. I have noticed the contradictory thoughts about tanning myself. Every so often someone compliments me on how few wrinkles I have and asks how I’ve been able to keep my skin from sun damage though I spend a lot of time outdoors in southern California. Once someone even asked to know what sunscreen I use so she could go out and buy it herself. And yet I still occasionally hear taunts about my naturally light skin. “Are you from Alaska?” a man asked me on the beach last summer, as he and his friends laughed.

While rude remarks like this are a nuisance, my skin color hasn’t likely created the same kinds of challenges that dark-skinned blacks and Latinos might experience. My pale skin is not likely to lead to me to be pulled over by police, lose a job opportunity or be denied housing.

Legend has it that Coco Chanel, a fashion icon of the early twentieth century, first made tanning fashionable during the 1920s. But skin color is about more than just fashion—it reveals other sociological meanings. What other reasons do you think that light skin provides few advantages for whites, unlike for people of color?

May 13, 2010

Arizona Immigration Law and Racial Profiling

new janis By Janis Prince Inniss

Arizona Governor Jan Brewer recently signed a law that would enact the most stringent immigration policies in the U.S. Nationally, the bill (SB 1070) has generated a lot of emotional response on both sides. On May 1, there were demonstrations by tens of thousands against the bill in several cities including Los Angeles, Dallas, and Chicago. Those who decry the bill have called for a boycott of the state; the oldest historically black fraternity, Alpha Phi Alpha, has already moved its annual conference—expected to draw up to 10,000 people— from Phoenix to Las Vegas. Even President Obama has jumped into the fray, referring to the bill as a “mistake”. The immigration debate is not confined to Arizona, and will likely be a hot topic nationally.

What is Arizona Senate Bill 1070? (Click here to read the entire bill.) Simply, the law allows law enforcement to question people suspected of being in the U.S. illegally about their immigration status and makes it a crime to be without immigration documents. SB 1070 also makes it a state crime to be in the U.S. illegally.

What are the major criticisms of the bill? Many worry that it will lead to racial and ethnic profiling of Latinos. What do those who support the bill say? Proponents argue that this bill is the antidote to the violence they claim is correlated with illegal immigration and stress public safety concerns.


Already, Governor Brewer has signed House Bill 2162 which revises HB 1070, (Click here to read the full revision) which according to the governor should address fears about racial and ethnic profiling: Police are restricted from using race or ethnicity as the basis for questioning. According to the Los Angeles Times, Governor Brewer said racial profiling would not be tolerated, and added, “We have to trust our law enforcement.” In addition, the change proposes that police may only ask immigration status questions while enforcing another law; previously a “contact” with police was sufficient cause for questions about immigration status. (It should be noted that the Arizona law mirrors U.S. federal statutes in many of the most discussed areas of the Arizona bill.)

Putting aside our strong feelings about immigration, illegal immigrants, and what the best remedy is, let’s consider only the notion that police are not to use race or ethnicity as a basis for questioning. Granted that the revised bill in Arizona states that it is in enforcing another law that police may inquire about immigration status, but exactly how will police ignore their attitudes about race and ethnicity?

I am not necessarily suspicious that any police officers are more prejudiced than the rest of us, so I would ask the same question of any of us: How do any of us ignore race or ethnicity in our jobs or going about our everyday life? Maybe we are “colorblind” without cues about a person’s race or ethnicity—perhaps interacting by email or telephone, but even in those cases, we may observe subtle cues that suggest race or ethnicity. Knowing that the majority of illegal immigrants in Arizona are from across the border in Mexico, can police ignore that information? Can police ignore race and ethnicity to enforce laws any more than we can in other areas of life?

Malcolm Gladwell’s book, Blink, examines research about the decisions that we make in the blink of an eye. Like it or not, as Gladwell points out, we all make split second judgments. And those quickly formed judgments and conclusions impact how we respond in a variety of situations. We all know what we’re supposed to think and believe about certain topics such as race and ethnicity. The police should ignore race and ethnicity as a basis for questioning right?

Ask them and I’d bet they would say they do so now and will continue to do so if and when the new bill goes into effect. But as the Implicit Association Test (IAT) illustrates, what we say about race is quite different from what we actually believe: The vast majority of IAT test takers, including African Americans, show a pro-white bias. (Do you want to try it yourself? If so, click here and then proceed to the Race IAT.)

How do you legislate people’s assumptions? Or prevent them from letting their unconscious attitudes impact their behaviors? Can policed be trained to overcome their stereotypes and prejudices—and do so in high stress situations in which they have little time to respond? Research Gladwell cites indicates that both training and experience can alter our thinking—even our unconscious thoughts so that is hopeful; pretending that we don’t all have biases—even ones that we don’t think we have—is not.

May 10, 2010

Ancestry and Paths of Power

new sally By Sally Raskoff

Have you been watching the TV show Who Do You Think You Are? In the show, celebrities trace their genealogy and perhaps it will inspire people to do the same for themselves. Each celebrity has had surprises as well as answers to their questions.

Have you ever seen your genealogy or worked on completing it? It’s a slow but fun process. One usually starts by talking to older relatives who are still alive about who their parents and grandparents were and where they lived.

There are many websites, agencies, and governmental information depositories to find documents and proof that your people existed in the time and place that you expect. The Census Bureau gives access to the individual records 72 years after the census, so you can look up records for residence and all the other fun information they recorded.

My father had worked on his genealogy, so we knew something about his ancestors. We know very little about the ancestry of my mother and my spouse’s parents. I had some time and jumped online to see what I could find.

It was fascinating to find records of our relatives in places like the 1920 census.


Eventually one may have to rely on the family trees that other people make – but websites that collect such information make it quite easy to gather that information. That information may not have any documentary evidence to back it up, but it’s still interesting even if the likelihood of inaccuracy increases.

If you go back far enough in time or place, other records may come into play, including local stories or anecdotes. In one such case, a line on my father’s side goes back to identifiable Vikings. Ragnar Lodbrok says that his ancestry went back to Odin, who was the main god in Norse mythology.

The interesting thing I noticed while tracing my Viking ancestors was that there was a marriage that connected this line with another line that went straight to the first five generations of the English House of Wessex.

This marriage intrigued me since it brought together two kinship networks that in early generations had been warring with each other. I wonder if they knew since they were at least six generations later than the identifiable royals and Vikings. This had to be what we now call a political marriage, as they were combining kingdoms when they married.

It is easy for us to ignore the fact that love-based marriages and choice in marriage is a relatively new concept. In her book, Marriage, A History: From Obedience to Intimacy, or How Love Conquered Marriage, Stephanie Coontz shows very clearly how once marriage evolved into a choice based on emotion.

Most of my searches go one or two generations and stop. These two lines kept going and going as more and more names were linked. It was quite exciting to trace the links especially as they kept going. However, I soon realized that the links were connected because they must be linked to people who were important enough to document.

It’s often the case that lives are documented only if they are important for the historical record or someone deems them important enough to record. This would apply to oral traditions as well as written records. Only the powerful or (in)famous are consistently found in historical records.

The exception would be in records like the census, birth records, or the like. Does the existence of such records equalize social class levels? And are all the records we produce accurate?

A research methods teacher once told me an old joke that our data is only as good as the lonely clerk who wrote it all down. Not everything that gets recorded, and then taken as fact, is accurate. That may be because our way of calculating some statistic is actually done for ease, not for accuracy.

My frustration in doing my genealogy are those dead ends where there is no record anywhere of who those people’s parents were or where they came from. Perhaps those people were not recorded because they were not deemed important enough? Most of the lines trace the fathers much more effectively than the mothers. This echoes the patriarchal power that defines many of these cultures.

Or are the missing records more a matter of technology? People at that time might have known all of this information but those records might not have lasted or perhaps they were destroyed in some disaster. I have many Irish relatives whose path stops at the same time history books tell us about the potato famine. Perhaps they were lost to that famine or they were the ones who emigrated through some means. Apparently, at that time, there were mass migrations out of Ireland, though no one was logging who went were and their hometowns were all listed as their port or departure, not their actual origins.

We might assume that technology will assure that the records we are keeping now will be kept for eternity. I’m not so sure. Think about how many computer systems you may have had so far – are they all compatible? I still have some floppy disks in my closet but nothing to read them since my computer now only uses USB ports and DVD drives. (I knew I should have backed those up!)

In 200 or 2,000 years from now, will all ancestral records that we now have still be intact and accessible? 2,000 year ago some people were writing some things down when the supplies were available but those records weren’t always kept from generation to generation. Political turmoil, war, disasters of all types put such records at risk. SO much can happen in that space of time.

Think of just how much information that would be! Generational patterns are fascinating – to learn about just five generations, one must track 32 people. Your two parents had four parents had eight parents had sixteen parents – who had 32 parents. And that’s only accounting for six generations.

What information survives over generations? Stories of the powerful -- or the unlucky-- whose lives affected the course of history. Power gives access to many benefits in society as it increases one’s life chances. It also increases one’s chances of documenting one’s ancestry and knowing more about how one’s family came to be. The nameless others are probably just as, if not more so, interesting but since they had no access to power, we will never know.

May 06, 2010

Rain and Class Privilege

KS_2010a By Karen Sternheimer

Rain seems like an equal opportunity phenomenon. Moisture condenses, and then it falls, regardless of the income level of the people below. But I recently received a first-hand lesson in how even something like rain can reveal the often hidden privileges of class.

A little back story: I love walking in the cities I visit for conferences. Not only do I need some fresh air now and then after being in windowless meeting rooms, but walking through a city makes me feel like I’m really experiencing the tempo of daily life, much like I blogged about a couple of years ago. This year’s Pacific Sociological Association (PSA) meeting was in Oakland, and nearby San Francisco is one of my absolute favorite cities to walk through. Not only is the architecture interesting, but the views of the bay make for great photos. Plus climbing its many hills is a great workout.

Now back to the rain. I had planned to leave the Bay Area several hours after the conference ended in order to spend some time walking around, but alas, the forecast called for rain. I contemplated skipping my walk, but I would have been really disappointed and would have several hours of just sitting around in the clip_image004hotel or airport. I had an umbrella and decided I’d go anyway. Maybe it wouldn’t be that bad.

It really wasn’t—at first. The rain was steady but light, and my umbrella kept me dry. I walked about fifteen minutes and it started to come down more. I saw dozens of fans wearing San Francisco Giants jerseys leaving the nearby baseball stadium as the game went into a rain delay. I decided to duck into the Ferry Building Marketplace for a while before venturing out again. I walked another 15 minutes before the rain came down hard, my umbrella no longer protection against the wind-driven downpour.clip_image002

This isn’t fun anymore, I thought to myself, disappointed that my plan was ruined. I had been looking forward to walking around for the entire weekend and felt at the mercy of Mother Nature.

By then the back of my jeans were getting soggy, and it was cold. I had a GPS device and looked to see what was nearby, maybe a restaurant or café I might go to dry off.

I headed towards shelter and noticed a homeless man hovering in a doorway, holding a sign that said “Homeless Veteran: Hungry. Please Help.” That was when I recognized that I had many more choices than this homeless man did, and that my class privilege could protect me from the rain in ways that his could not. My thoughts turned to the PSA Presidential address just given by Michael Messner on class privilege, in which he applied women's studies professor Peggy McIntosh's now classic 1988 essay “White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack” to his own privilege as a white, male, tenured professor.

How was my class privilege helping me in the rain? I was soaking wet as I realized the following:

  1. I had the money to hail a cab or board a bus at any time.
  2. Restaurants and shops would welcome me inside as a potential paying customer; I could buy something just to get out of the rain.
  3. Since I had showered and put on fresh clothes that day, I could enter a public place like the Ferry Building without enduring dirty looks (or worse) from others.
  4. Although the clothes I was wearing were all wet, I had dry clothes and shoes waiting for me at the hotel, and most of my possessions were not outside.
  5. I chose to be outside; unlike the homeless people on the street I made the decision to go for a walk even though the forecast called for rain.

While it might seem that the homeless people I saw could have gone to a shelter, a recent story details how the city of San Francisco—like many others—is facing a rise in its homeless population while donations for shelters are down, causing some to close their doors. Many shelters don’t allow people to stay during the day either.

Even a sociologist can forget their class privileges sometimes. Privilege by nature can be invisible, and seem natural and inevitable. We can even feel entitled to them—here in southern California we sometimes feel entitled to endless sunshine and dry weather—and feel angry when they are made visible or taken away.

What other class privileges might be taken for granted?

May 03, 2010

Sports, Uniforms, and Gender

new janis By Janis Prince Inniss

Even before I married into the sport, I loved track and field! (My husband ran track in high school, as did both of my step-children. And I’m quite sure that my two-year-old grandson can beat any child in an ”Under 4” race, based on his performances around the house and yard!). The one question that I haven’t been able to get answered in all my years of watching the sport is this though: Why are the women’s uniforms so much more revealing than the men’s?

Today, in many competitions, male track athletes wear what looks like a one-piece body suit –some with sleeves, some sleeveless with pants that are a few inches above their knees. The men are fully-covered, although in form revealing garments. The women? Their uniforms consist of midriff-bearing tops and panty-sized shorts! Every time I think of making my own debut on the track stage it is this outfit that gives me pause. (It is not the fact that I don’t run.) Why do the women show so much more skin than the men do? Who decides what athletes will wear at these events?

This distinction in dress is not only true in the big leagues. One of the powerhouse track and field high schools in my city is less than two miles from my home. Sometimes, the cross country team trains by running through my neighborhood, and believe me the young women turn heads as they run around in sports bras and tiny shorts. The young men? They wear mid-thigh shorts and t-shirts or tanks—although they do occasionally finish their runs shirtless. I have noticed, however that at high school meets—from local to state—the uniforms for males and females are quite similar; most students wear mid-thigh shorts and tank tops or t-shirts.

It is noteworthy that cultural and religious factors affect what some athletes wear. For example, I have seen female Muslim track athletes wearing a lot of clothing: head scarves, long sleeves, and tights under uniforms. And there is news that female Muslim boxers at the 2012 Olympics—the first year women will box at the Olympics—will wear the traditional hijab beneath their clothing and headguards. These women are in stark contrast to many other female athletes who show so much skin.

How well can they compete in so much clothing? I don’t know of any systematic studies about that, but one high school basketball player is breaking records in her hijab. Bilqis Abdul-Qaadir, was the first player in Massachusetts—male or female—to score more than 3,000 points in a career – all while covering her head, arms and legs. Basketball, at all levels, is one sport in which the uniforms consist of mid-thigh or longer shorts and tank tops—for both male and female teams. What are your thoughts about why these athletes are so covered up—relatively speaking—and why the men’s and women’s uniforms are so similar?


I don’t know anything about beach volleyball, but during the 2008 Summer Olympics I heard a lot about Misty May-Treanor and Kerri Walsh. The pair was the first beach volleyball team to win back-to-back Olympic gold medals…which means that I should have remembered their names from the 2004 Olympics. Who could forget this duo in Beijing as they won seven consecutive straight sets?

And who could miss their—and those of the other women’s volley ball teams—skimpy uniforms? They wear swimsuits! Now given that the name of the sport is beach volleyball, swimsuits don’t seem too incongruous with the sport. But when I watch the bending over and sliding around in the sand that these athletes do, the men’s uniforms make far more sense. What do the men wear? Tank tops and shorts. (It appears that the men often take their shirts off after their games and it’s possible that their attire differs based on the tournament they are in.) How would wearing shorts and tank tops hamper the women’s games, given that this doesn’t seem to be a problem for the men?

An earlier post on this blog looked at sex and gender in media portrayals of athletes. But even in competition, there seem to be some real differences between how men and women dress for their events. Male athletes appear athletic in their pursuits, appropriately so. Women, on the other hand, are sexualized even in their uniforms. Can you think of sports in which the uniforms support or refute this observation?

In cases such as track and field, can Allyson Felix, for example, choose to wear a more covered uniform than the rest of the U.S. Olympic team, or would the entire women’s track and field team have to agree to such a change? In fact, do the athletes themselves—male or female—have any say in what their attire is? What major factors do you think dictate the way men and women dress as they engage in athletic pursuits?

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