6 posts from December 2010

December 31, 2010

Culture and Parties

new janisBy Janis Prince Inniss

So you guys are married?

How long have you been married?

Any children? How old are they? Two girls? Two boys?

Where are you from? I can hear an accent.

And he, where is he from?

     Where did you guys meet?

    What do you do? Where do you work?

As you attend social gatherings this holiday season, will you meet people who ask these kinds of questions? Maybe you will be asking these questions yourself. Tell me a little bit about the people with whom you’ll be “hanging” and I think I can make a reasonably good prediction about whether you’re likely to be asked such questions; I can also make a decent guess about the food you’ll be served. It’s not that I’m psychic, but culture does impact how we “hang out” with others.

There are fellow Caribbean people with whom I’ve associated for many years and have never asked such questions of each other. In fact, it was only a couple weeks ago that I learned the profession of a Caribbean woman I have known for almost 10 years. (Let’s call this woman Jean.)

It’s not that Jean and I don’t see each other often. We have many of the same friends and attend many of the same gatherings --many of which are in each other’s homes. I enjoy Jean’s company and would guess that she feels the same way about me. We’ve talked about many important issues including parenting, religion, churches, being women of a ”certain age”…personal issues, to be sure.

Yet, we rarely talk about our careers. We each know where the other works and will ask something very general like: “How is work?” “How are things at ZYX Corporation?” But typically, we don’t spend time discussing what we do. And so after all these years, it was a native born American in our midst who asked Jean, “What do you do?” I couldn’t help but be amused that after knowing Jean for so many years—and knowing quite a bit about her—I had no idea what she does professionally.

It’s not that Caribbean people don’t discuss work; we do. But we have different rules regarding such topics—deemed personal—than many North Americans do. For example, probably due to the occupational prestige accorded professors, there has been some buzz even among my Caribbean friends about my recent career change. (Read more about occupational prestige here.) And with close Caribbean friends, we talk about our careers, and lots of other highly personal things. However, Caribbean people usually don’t ask these questions—which are considered nosy—as a way of getting to know someone.

clip_image002When I started graduate school, I was excited to start receiving invitations to classmates’ and professors’ homes. It was the first time I learned the term “potluck” and remember being baffled when, in response to my queries, I was told that I could bring chips and dip. Chips and dip?

I figured the host would provide the more substantial food like rice and chicken. I still remember being stunned at the first of several such events when the entire menu consisted of finger foods; it is no exaggeration to say that I experienced culture shock! I kept looking for the real food. I could not believe that a party could take place with a variety of chips, dips, crudités, nuts, desserts, and drinks! (In other words, everything but anything resembling an entree!) I would leave these events starving with the slightly upset stomach I get from noshing on these snacks. I learned though; after a few of these experiences, I realized that going to these parties was not an excuse to skip cooking; I would have dinner at home and then enjoy a few nibbles at these events.

clip_image004This is exactly how not to have a party for Caribbean people. (My classmates at USC and professors were all North American.) At every party hosted by my Jamaican friends, I have been served Jerk Chicken and Rice and Peas. While there may be some other variables, those two delicious dishes have been constants. Parties hosted by other Caribbean people include dishes such as Curried Chicken, Baked Chicken, but always, always there is rice and chicken among other offerings.

Whether it’s being held at noon, four, or eight in the evening, Caribbean gatherings include heavy food. And when I’m invited to one of these, I know that I don’t need to cook and eat before attending.

clip_image006So think of this as a primer for holiday gatherings. If you’re going to be among North Americans, expect finger foods and questions like the ones I included at the beginning. If you’re among (English speaking) Caribbean people, know that those questions may be off-putting and that you’ll be served rice and chicken in some form. (Note that as with any generalization, there are bound to be variations not addressed by such characterizations.)

Culture affects large and small aspects of our lives. Here, I’ve focused on only two: food and an aspect of interaction. Do you think these peculiarities of these two cultures tell us anything important about what each culture values?

December 24, 2010

There Oughta Be a Law? Formal and Informal Social Control

KS_2010a By Karen Sternheimer

By now you have probably heard that San Francisco recently banned the sale of toys with unhealthy children's food, most notably McDonald’s Happy Meals, within city limits. Proponents argue that toys encourage children to eat unhealthy food, contributing to clip_image002obesity and its related health complications. Critics suggest that this is an example of an overreaching attempt to legislate personal habits, which some refer to as the “nanny state.”

Regardless of your views on this ban, this is a great example of something that sociologists call formal social control: the attempt to alter behavior through rules, laws, and sanctions.

While the government is often a source of formal social control, many other organizations have codified rules with stated sanctions in attempt to regulate its members. Universities have rules about plagiarism and cheating, companies have policies that provide guidelines on employee behavior, and religious institutions provide specific clip_image004instructions about how its members should behave.

Consequences for violation of formal rules can range from arrest and imprisonment, getting fired, or being expelled to more modest sanctions like a traffic ticket, a stern warning by the boss, or a failing grade on an assignment.

Generally speaking, creating new laws is often popular. Each year at the start of the New Year, dozens of new laws go into effect around the country. In fact, when I ask my students to think of ways to come up with solutions for particular problems, the most popular response is to make new laws to punish violators and possibly deter those from committing an infraction in the future.

Many laws are symbolic—even though they might not be enforced (or even enforceable) we like having them because of the message they send. For instance, it’s practically impossible to regulate many forms of prostitution, especially if the solicitation takes place out of the public view. And yet few lawmakers would argue for a repeal of such laws that are generally popular with the public.

The San Francisco toy ban is in some ways a symbolic law; although it might lead McDonald’s to change their Happy Meals in the city, its real goal is to promote healthy eating. But the law can’t guarantee that people won’t eat fattening food elsewhere, and it won’t ensure that parents purchase and prepare healthy meals for their kids. What might do that?

Our eating habits are likely shaped by the people closest to us, not to mention the food we have access to in our neighborhoods, rather than by formal sanctions. Sociologists examine how informal social control, or the reactions of our friends, family, and community members shape our behavior. Food choices emerge in part from our family and cultural backgrounds; people who grow up eating foods high in calories and fat might find it hard to change their diet if the people around them continue to serve this food at gatherings or chide someone for new food choices. It can be very difficult for one member of a family to decide to change their diet if they sit down to dinner with others who are eating foods they are trying to avoid.

Just as formal social control cannot always prevent people from breaking the law (how many of you have exceeded posted speed limits?), informal social control isn’t always effective at changing people’s behavior either.

Overweight children—and sometimes adults—are sometimes teased and berated by their peers. This social rejection, a key component of informal social control, often causes people to use overeating as way to cope with stress and sadness, which in turn leads to more social rejection.

In some cases the fear of social rejection acts as a powerful force in shaping our behavior well beyond what people eat. Presumably part of what makes people do their job well or earn good grades comes from a desire for approval from our friends, family, or co-workers. This can be a much more powerful force than formal rules or the threat of sanctions.

Whether the San Francisco toy ban leads to healthier eating habits in its children remains to be seen. Despite the allure of formal social control, it can be somewhat limited in its ability to shape our behavior.

December 17, 2010

Behind the Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell Survey

new sallyBy Sally Raskoff

The Department of Defense recently released the results of their study of what would happen if the Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell (DADT) policy were repealed. While you might have an opinion about this policy, it’s always a good idea to read the research yourself; it is fascinating if you read it carefully! I have included page numbers here in case you want to find the information in the report on your own.

They gathered a lot of data from different sources using different methods to create, as they acknowledge, one of the largest surveys in the history of the military (page 1). For the data, they “solicited the views of nearly 400,000” service members and over 150,000 spouses, netting responses from 114,052 and 44,266 respectively, a tremendous sample size for any survey.

They also set up online access for sharing opinions through which they received 72,384 responses. Ninety-five “information exchange forums” at 51 bases and installations prompted interaction with over 24,000 service members. Focus groups (140) and interviews with people in leadership positions, relevant groups, foreign military representatives, and of gay and lesbian current and former service members rounded out the data collection. Additionally, RAND corporation, a research institution advising on policy issues, also conducted a study of military personnel and sexual orientation, updating an older study they had done in 1993.

That is a lot of data to amass! Because the research was based on stratified random sampling, data can be accurately generalized to the entire military population. The total number of people on active duty in the U.S. military is almost 1.5 million, so they attempted to survey about a third of that group.

Service members were sampled according to military service, active/reserve components, pay grade, military occupation, deployment status, location, gender, and family status. The sampling plan also called for an over-sampling of certain sub-groups (e.g., enlisted service members at the grade of E1–E3) who in recent Department of Defense surveys tended to have lower response rates than the overall military population. This combination of stratification and selected over-sampling was intended to ensure that survey responses were as representative of the force as possible. (Page 36)

The results of the study surprised many, because the overwhelming pattern is one of support for (or at least neutrality about) repealing the policy and allowing gay and lesbian people to serve openly. This mirrors public support for either repealing DADT and/or allowing gay and lesbian people to serve openly in the military, as the graph below details. 


Many responses pointed out that people already know of other service members who are gay or lesbian (69%) and that knowing this doesn’t affect their readiness or work life (92%). The largest differences come in the Marine Corps, among various combat groups, and among chaplains, none of which is surprising.

The emphasis on masculine culture is at its strongest in combat, thus tolerance for homosexuality is, by definition, at its lowest. Hegemonic masculinity requires heterosexuality, since male power depends on dominating others, including females, and homosexuality subverts that norm. Chaplains who are most likely to oppose the repeal of DADT tend to be affiliated with denominations that believe that homosexuality is a sin, thus the chaplains would have trouble counseling gay and lesbian soldiers.

However, if DADT were repealed, what would change? Since gay and lesbian people are already in the service, the largest change will be that they cannot be discharged if their sexual orientation were discovered or revealed.

The photo below depicts, from left to right: Brigadier General Keith Kerr, Brigadier General Virgil Richard, Congressman Meehan, Rear Admiral Alan Steinman, Brigadier General Evelyn Foote and C. Dixon Osburn, Executive Director of Servicemembers Legal Defense Network. At this meeting in 2003, Kerr, Richard, and Steinman, all retired high-ranking officers, disclosed that they are gay and discussed the problems within the DADT policy.

 File:Congressman Marty Meehan joined by retired flag officers interested in repealling DADT.jpg

The DADT report mentions that any problems or fears that people hold rest are the result of stereotypes, not realities. The problems for Marines and combat groups should be seen in the context that these are military units whose directives are to follow orders and behave in accordance with established standards. The report clearly mentions that any violation of such standards should be met with swift justice.

As a former member of the military, I clearly remember the days in basic training when you are taught basic rules, customs, and courtesies. Although I was a female service member in a recently integrated force, it was clear that job number one was following the orders of the day even if one didn’t understand them or agree with them. Thus if a policy existed, it was adhered to.

The authors also acknowledge that previous integrations by race and gender were ultimately successful even when such policy changes were met with more hostility and resistance than this report indicates the repeal of DADT would be. Much as ”unprofessional” relationships were feared, especially with gender integration, the fact remains that there are already policies against such fraternization and those policies apply to any relationships, not just to those specifically heterosexual or homosexual.

The dilemma with DADT is that it is in conflict with existing norms and policies of honesty and integrity, since it asks people to hide who they are, even if their identity has nothing to do with military readiness.

The study doesn’t spend much time on age differences (see page 59, focus group data), although some findings did suggest that the different age cohorts would have different opinions about this issue. Younger younger people tend to be less homophobic than older people, for example. DADT_Fig1[1]

The report’s Figure 1, pictured above, clearly shows the greatest challenges will be in social cohesion, although the “risk” level is not very high. Previous efforts to integrate the military suggest that training and education can help the troops meet this challenge.

Without DADT, military life will continue to parallel civilian life in that some gay and lesbian people will be “out” while others will not be. Looking at the survey data, one might guess that in the Marines and in combat units especially, anyone who is gay or lesbian will remain quiet about their personal life. Just as many gay and lesbian pro athletes remain quiet until they retire, since military life is rooted in also traditional notions of gender, many Marines and soldiers in combat units may still wait to come out even if DADT is repealed. What other occupations may be linked with traditional ideas about gender and sexuality?

December 10, 2010

Occupational Prestige and Adjunct Faculty

new janis As he made his way across a crowded room, eyes trained on me, the stranger approached with purpose. He ignored my husband standing next to me and said, “I want to meet the professor!”

I completed my doctorate in sociology more than ten years ago and have been on the faculty of various universities for about as long. However, after a long hiatus from teaching during which I have held full-time research (faculty) positions, I have started teaching again. My recent move to teaching at the university level has given me great personal satisfaction and even joy. But as much as I am surprised by the depth of pleasure I am experiencing in this work, I am often surprised by others’ responses to my new job.

The encounter I describe above is typical of the excitement and reverence people exhibit upon learning what I do. I’ve been surprised by this reaction in general and particularly surprised when friends also express a new level of reverence.

That friends and strangers show deference to me because I’m teaching is noteworthy for a few reasons. Amusingly, just about no one ever reacted in the same way when I told them I was full-time research faculty. I think that in large part—although few admitted this and even fewer could find the words to ask the questions that would help them understand—people outside of academia have no idea what that means. Stating that I was research faculty was a conversation-ender! By contrast, everyone knows what a professor is and professors enjoy immense occupational prestige.

People outside of academia (for the most part) do not make distinctions among university professors. This is in great contrast to those within the field, where those distinctions are the source of much angst. Usually, university teaching faculty are promoted as follows: from assistant professor to associate professor, and ultimately to (full) professor. Promotions are based on effectiveness in teaching, productivity in research and publications, and participation in service and advising; these are also the factors considered in granting tenure. Outside of this career path, however is the hidden ”sweatshop” of university teaching: adjunct faculty. I currently work as an adjunct faculty member.

Typically, adjunct faculty are part-timers (independent contractors), receive no benefits, and are ineligible for promotion or tenure.

(See this video for a sardonic look at how adjunct faculty are viewed in academia.)

Why do universities employ adjuncts? Adjuncts are cheap labor! As various businesses implemented more and more cost cutting measures, universities have done the same. As you can imagine, faculty salaries are a major item on university budgets so many universities began hiring contract workers to teach a portion of classes. It’s a no-brainer to see the economic savings universities attain by hiring adjuncts: on average, full professors earn just over $100,000 a year and assistant professors earn around $70,000 at universities offering doctoral degrees, whereas adjuncts are paid about $1,200-$5,500 per course. In hiring adjuncts, universities save on health benefits, salaries, retirement plans and even on office space. (In many cases, adjuncts huddle in one small space instead of individual offices.) Whereas full-time faculty have a say in what classes they clip_image002will teach, adjuncts are usually given the left-over classes that their tenure track counterparts abhor—usually the large general education courses. On the other hand, adjuncts do not usually have research, publishing, and administrative duties.

clip_image004Did you know about these distinctions among university faculty? Are you aware that most professors have one major career goal—that is, to become tenured (full) professors? For those familiar with the tenure process, the case of the professor who killed three and injured another three colleagues after being denied tenure (twice) is a tragic symbol of the pressures and pain felt when faculty fail in their bid for this holy-grail of academic rewards.

But outside of the profession, people make few, if any, distinctions among college professors. Therefore, people don’t even think to ask what kind of teaching position I have before becoming excited about my work. (Given that my major role is to teach, it’s an open question about whether the prestige of the profession is tied solely to full-time status). I’m now referred to as “Doctor” and “Professor” by people who did not previously address me that way, even when they knew I was on the research faculty of a large university.

As a researcher, I was moderately advanced in the field, had been promoted, enjoyed a large corner office with floor to ceiling windows, and was earning a decent salary. Many people did not understand my job, though, and to those who did, that occupation did not seem as prestigious as being a college professor. Conversely, the occupational prestige of university professor is such that although I am currently at the bottom of the academic totem pole, people outside of academia regard my work highly. What other contradictions exist within careers that carry high levels of prestige?

December 07, 2010

The Sociology of Jargon

KS_2010a By Karen Sternheimer

What’s the first thing most people do when studying for an exam, especially one with multiple choice questions? They will probably try and memorize the new terms they have learned, translating them back to define words they already know. In short, they attempt to learn the jargon used in their class.

Although I try and avoid too much jargon in my classes and in my writing, there is no way to completely eliminate jargon from our lives. Social groups create special language—like jargon —in part to make communication short cuts, but mostly to clearly delineate who is a member and who is not. Members understand the lingo and learn to speak it fluently.

Sociology has its fair share of jargon; in order for any discipline to define itself as unique and important, it must come up with a list of terms that only insiders know. Of course sociology and the social sciences are not alone in this: lawyers, bankers, and other professions all have their jargon too and that makes it hard for the rest of us to know what they are talking about. Physicians might use terms like “Rhinorrhea” and “Sternutation” instead of the more commonly used “runny nose” and “sneeze” in part to heighten their sense of expertise. They know words we don’t, therefore they are experts.

I learned this my first semester of graduate school. Classmates would sometimes make impassioned statements so filled with jargon, and much of what they said made no sense to me. I started observing the same thing at conferences, and more often than not it was graduate students rather than professors who used as much jargon as possible.

At one conference, a fellow grad student leaned over to me and sheepishly asked for translation. “I have no idea what she just said,” I admitted. “But I bet she didn’t know either.” Using a lot of jargon in a presentation was a common tactic new sociologists used to try and prove they belonged.

Exclusive professions and academia are easy targets to pick on for their ubiquitous use of jargon, but they are not alone. I once worked in an office where workers used a great deal of jargon not part of the wider industry, but unique to that office environment. The words were basically shortcuts used to make communication faster. Because the work was rather repetitive, it required the same tasks to be done over and over. Proofing. Rewriting. Rerunning numbers. Spinning the meaning of the numbers to please clients.

Unique words also served as euphemisms, particularly for the last task. No one overtly said we would be bending the truth, but if one was told to “finrep it” (or finesse the report) we knew exactly what that meant.

Jargon’s close cousin is slang. While jargon is considered so formal that most people wouldn’t recognize it, a slang expression may be widely recognized but not considered a formal word within the language. So ironically, the word few people know reflects higher status, and the word that many (if not most) people know and use regularly has a lower status in the language.

Slang is common within different subcultures, and may or may not be known to outsiders. Sometimes adopting the slang of a subculture—just like learning the jargon of a profession—becomes a way for people to attempt at least partial membership or awareness of a group. Marketers sometimes even borrow slang to make their product seem cool and linked with a desirable group.

Your family might also have its own unique slang. Years of inside jokes in my family has led to new meanings of words that others might not pick up on without a lengthy back story. Children sometimes come up with new meanings for words that the adults around them reuse but may be nonsensical to outsiders.

The truth is, we all use some form of jargon or slang in our daily lives that reflects our professional, group, or family memberships. That may not make memorizing it for a test any more fun, but it might make it easier to know why jargon exists in the first place.

December 03, 2010

Seeking Higher Education: A Peek Behind the Scenes

new sallyBy Sally Raskoff

Would you agree that education is an institution in trouble? Because of the current national and global economic issues, educational institutions are struggling with financial woes that include budget cuts and pressure to increase fees and tuition. Most public colleges have cut their offerings repeatedly since 2007. Many college and university systems are increasing fees and tuition and are juggling an ever increasing pool of applicants.

This fall at my community college, we turned away more students than we were able to enroll. In previous years, we would have been able to add classes to accommodate the demand, but budget constraints prevented us from doing that this year. Recently, a study lambasted community colleges for their students’ lack of program completion. While such rates are important to consider, they are not the only measure of success in such a complex institution. Today I attended a meeting at which we decided how to make further cuts to our winter program. People might assume that such decisions are made quickly and without much thought. However, this was the third meeting that lasted over two hours and in which I witnessed deep, detailed discussion of the budget issues and criteria used in making such difficult decisions. The effect of these difficult imagedecisions on students was central to our discussions.

Our mission is to educate students with programs in basic skills, general education transfer, and career education. The state budget that have filtered down to us have repeatedly forced us to cut classes offered. Our budget is based on how many students we have and the only way to meet the budget is to reduce the number of classes offered so that we can have fewer students, and thus can balance our budget. 

At this point, we had already cut all other funds down to the bone and frozen all staff hiring. As a result, we find ourselves unable to refill the ink in all of our printers. Because we have half of the maintenance staff that our buildings need, we either clean the classrooms ourselves or get swept up in the massive amounts of trash that are generated by the thousands of students that move through the building each day.

There are other issues that affect community college student completion rates, beyond budget cuts too. As I write this in my office, I hear a student out in the hallway on the phone with her ex-partner “discussing” with him why he doesn’t participate in parenting their child and expressing her frustration at his absence in their lives. This morning I spoke with a cousin of a student who has legal system obligations that have caused her to be absent. Last semester, at least two of my students were homeless, and one of them finished the course image while the other one left mid-semester for destinations unknown. I have a few other students who seem to need to enter a rehab facility soon.

Max Weber's concept of verstehen can help us understand some of the challenges people seeking higher education are facing. Weber argued that we must immerse ourselves in a setting to understand what goes on there. To fully understand an organization and its outcomes, one must realize that people exist there and life is indeed full of complex interactions, goals, and contributions.

Verstehen, should remind researchers that community college students face many obstacles to their educational achievement and thus budget cuts affect them more than they may affect students at four-year institutions. Measuring success and retention rates based on semester- to -semester continuity does not acknowledge that our students come to school and then may have to leave to take care of various issues , including family responsibilities, legal and economic issues, or developing maturity. Many students who leave one semester come back within a year or two or three; others may go to some other college or university. I have had many students check in with me years after they had a class with me and their educational paths are varied as their fingerprints.

Without verstehen, researchers might not realize that a singular measure like retention or completion rates do not capture the reality of such a diverse institution tasked with such a complex set of goals. I’m concerned about the students who have been pushed out of the educational system. Because we have cut our course offerings and give registration priority to those who have accumulated the most credits, the students who have been unable to register are those who are just getting started. If you’re reading this for a class, consider yourself fortunate that you could register for the class! Consider all of the people who wanted to be students who could not because we are cutting education to balance our yearly state budgets. Consider what they might be doing instead of getting an education. Consider the impact this will have on the state when an entire generation of students have not been able to get the education they needed and desired.

With verstehen, we just might see all of these issues and realize that to get out of our economic problems, we cannot just focus on the economy and continue to privilege corporations over people. An educated populace would be better prepared to contribute to society through work and civic engagement and preserve our democratic ideals. What do we have without education?

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