The Sociology of The Hunger Games

The Hunger Games Trilogy by Suzanne Collins. Image via Marci's Blog.

The Hunger Games Trilogy by Suzanne Collins. Image via Marci’s Blog.

The Hunger Games books are often brought into sociology classrooms, where they are used to discuss anything from economic inequality to capital punishment. In a recent interview with Flavorwire, Mari Armstrong-Hough, a professor in the sociology department at Davidson College, described the social theory behind the books as a model of total resistance:

We see politicking, corruption, and unjustified violence from both the guardians of the status quo in the Capitol and the architects of the rebellion. Katniss, whom we naturally align ourselves with, rejects both these systems.

Armstrong-Hough went on to expand on the idea of resistance, stating that docility is bred by violence:

The Games institutionalize a political docility not so much because they threaten violence to the districts’ children, but because they create a society in which people think they must choose survival over solidarity. I think a lot of people, regardless of their political affiliation, feel like there has been a lot of being forced to choose survival over solidarity going around in the US.

Sociologists Identify Surprising Thanksgiving “Rituals”

Ever wonder where weird Thanksgiving traditions come from? Photo by Musicwala via Flickr.

The Macy’s Thanksgiving Day parade has been held annually since 1924. Turns out some families’ holiday “rituals” are more common than you might think. Photo by Musicwala via Flickr.

Sociology loves making the familiar strange, and few events blend the familiar and the strange as artfully as holiday family gatherings. The Week recaps a classic sociological study of Thanksgiving celebrations by Melanie Wallendorf and Eric J. Arnould, which sheds light on just how common our “quirky” family rituals can be. A particularly juicy conclusion was that interview respondents didn’t realize their party quirks were actually ‘traditions’ happening year after year at gatherings across the U.S. According to the article:

…a society is not always the best judge of its own customs…The data analysis revealed some common events in the fieldnotes that people rarely remarked on in the interviews.

Common practices included “The Giving of The Job Advice,” “The Telling of Disaster Stories of Thanksgivings Past,” and the ever-popular “After-Dinner Stroll around the Neighborhood.” These customs remind us just how much we share at this time of year. Who knows? The next awkward family gathering just might be a new field site!

The Marks of War

war inkJason Deitch, a UC-Berkeley PhD in sociology, has long been fascinated with the cultural effects of war. A veteran, Deitch has served as an advisor and activist in many capacities, but his newest project, produced in his capacity as an advisor to the California State Library, is gaining national recognition. Along with Chris Brown of the Contra Costa County Library system, the StoryCorps Military Voices Initiative, filmmaker Rebecca Murga, and photographer Johann Wolf, Deitch set out to interview as many of California’s estimated two million veterans as he could.

Well, at least the ones with tattoos. As Deitch told PBS’s NewsHour:

These tattoos are an expression from a community that doesn’t openly discuss or express emotion…. We understood these tattoos to be uniquely valuable, as veterans largely return home to a community that doesn’t know their story and how war changed them… That can be an incredibly isolating experience…

He went on to say that it was tough recruiting vets willing to show off their ink and talk about their experiences on the frontlines, but he hoped the resulting exhibit, “War Ink,” would help “bring veterans out of isolation by helping people back home understand them.”

Participants described the process of being photographed and recounting their stories as a way to educate others about a struggle that doesn’t end with their tour of duty.

The Language of White-Collar Crime

Photo: "James, I think your cover's blown" by Ludovic Bertron via Flickr.

Hedge fund manager Mathew Martoma’s insider trading may have been conducted in the open, using the language of “edge,” according to sociologist Diego Gambetta.  Photo by Ludovic Bertron via Flickr.

The New Yorker’s October 13 issue featured Patrick Radden Keefe’s bombshell journalistic investigation of a major hedge fund scandal. Mathew Martoma, a trader at S.A.C. advisers, a major fund, had been getting inside information about the progress of clinical trials of an Alzheimer’s drug. When his source, a physician and researcher at the University of Michigan, told him the trials were progressing well, the fund bought massively into the drug’s parent company’s stock. When the results of the trial were eventually presented, the drug’s effects were less robust than expected, and most observers expected S.A.C.’s gamble to produce heavy losses. But to the surprise of everyone but Martoma and the firm’s C.E.O., the fund had not only gotten out of the stock, but had shorted it to the tune of a $175 million profit. Did Martoma’s source at Michigan give him the insider information to produce this incredible piece of financial maneuvering? Or was it simply a case of a trader listening to the right people at the right time, gaining what hedge fund brokers call “edge?”

According to the federal judge and jury convened in New York, Martoma’s “edge” was criminal. He was sentenced to 9 years in prison and ordered to pay heavy fines. But Martoma proclaimed his innocence throughout, and Keefe cites sociologist Diego Gambetta to explain why. In his book Codes of the Underworld, Gambetta argues that people engaged in dubious conduct develop coded languages to speak together, since they cannot talk openly about what they are doing. The language of “edge,” Keefe implies, may be one such coded language. Traders can talk about “edge” without fear, because to outsiders, it means only knowing whom to talk to and when. Martoma’s case, however, shows that “edge” may be sometimes, or even often, deployed as a language to talk about insider trading of the kind Martoma was engaged in. Keefe argues that at S.A.C., conversations about sources and insider information were always steered toward the language of “edge” in order to deflect suspicion and attention. Martoma may have thought he had done nothing wrong because he learned his trade in an environment where “edge” was simply the language of doing business.

Interested in learning how corporate crime is gendered? Check out “Why Don’t More Women Commit Fraud?” by Jennifer Schwartz on Sociological Images.

The Myth of the Trophy Wife

Photo by Gary Willmore via Flickr.

Start seeing trophy husbands. Photo by Gary Willmore via Flickr.

When a pretty, young woman is seen walking hand-in-hand with an older, perhaps less attractive, male, accusations of a “trophy wife” situation are quick to follow. But this quick judgement ignores an important factor – pretty women can be rich too. In an interview with NPR, Notre Dame sociologist Elizabeth McClintock discusses her recent study that finds little evidence for the existence of trophy wives. She tells NPR that people typically couple based on similarities in income, looks, and education, thus:

If usually rich people marry rich people and pretty people marry pretty people, then having a pretty woman with no money marry an ugly, rich guy, that’s a violation of the usual pattern that people select somebody who’s a whole lot like themselves.

Numerous studies argue that the trophy wife phenomenon makes evolutionary sense, as poor, pretty women are able to trade their looks for money. But McClintock argues that these studies are wrong. NPR’s Shankar Vedantam describes her reasoning:

McClintock thinks this earlier work is wrong for two reasons. First, the earlier studies don’t consider this important variable, which is that pretty women might themselves be well-off. So if a woman herself has wealth or status, what you really don’t have is a trophy wife phenomenon. All you have is matching rich with rich…And McClintock points out there’s another confounding variable here, which is that beauty and wealth often tend to go hand in hand. And that’s because the wealthy often have access to better nutrition, better cosmetics…. If wealth and beauty are actually going hand in hand really often it could be that lots of pretty women might themselves be rich, which again means they might not be trophy wives.

In McClintock’s study of over 1500 American couples, she found that, after controlling for the income of both partners, “the trophy wife phenomenon effectively disappeared.” Our gendered assumptions of women’s roles in relationships have helped to construct this myth of the trophy wife, which says a lot more about our own biases than actual reality. Vedantam sums it up nicely:

If you look only at the universe of good-looking guys, you will also see that good-looking men tend to be with rich women, but we are far less likely to say, oh, look, trophy husband. And so of course that’s a reflection of what’s happening inside our own heads, not actual reality.

 

NFL’s Domestic Abuse Prevention Team Drafts Sociologist Beth Richie

Photo of Marcel Love by Greg Keene via Flickr.

Go Love!  Photo of Marcel Love by Greg Keene via Flickr.

In response to the disturbing number of domestic violence arrests of its players, the NFL recently created a panel for implementing domestic abuse education and prevention strategies within the league. Beth Ritchie, the University of Illinois at Chicago’s director of the Institute of Research on Race and Public Policy, was named as one of its five senior advisors.

In an interview with Jia Tolentino for Jezebel, Richie explains that “Race and gender and class justice can’t be separated.” Because about two-thirds of the NFL’s players are African American, it’s important to understand how these factors are connected in designing an effective domestic abuse education program. She explains:

…African-American people perceive and therefore use (or don’t use) police differently. The police aren’t necessarily seen as a protective force; there’s a different loyalty to one’s own people in disclosing, there’s a protectiveness built up from the way the media skews the actions of black men. Consequently, black sexual assault survivors have to walk through a maze before they can acknowledge the abuse or are willing to come forward. There’s a different willingness to turn our men over to the state. And I don’t want to say that turning in an abuser is easy for any woman, but it’s meaningfully different for black women.

Because of this dynamic, Richie plans to work with the wives and partners of NFL players as well, to better understand the challenges of preventing domestic violence. Mindful of the complexity of the problem, she’s excited about the NFL’s initiative:

The NFL taking this up so aggressively is very important, but there’s a real need to be careful; the NFL is an employer, not law enforcement, not family. I think they are trying to be respectful of women’s desires to make their own decisions about whom they’re with, while still holding men accountable.

Ebola Scares: When Panic is a Pathogen

Photo by Dominique Faget/AFP for the Tico Times.

The “epidemic mindset” could be caused by the uncertainty of a global world. Photo by Dominique Faget/AFP.

Though there is still much work to be done to curb cases of Ebola across Liberia, Guinea, and Sierra Leone, good news came this week as the World Health Organization declared Nigeria Ebola-free. Yet fear of the disease remains around the world as Americans and Europeans call for travel restrictions to limit further exposure. Why all the fear for a disease with so few cases gone global?

The New York Times  interviewed sociologist Claudine Burton-Jeangros on the issue, who points out that Ebola fears fit into larger narratives about our place in the world and modern life.

…the more we master the world through science and technology the more frightened we are of those things we can’t control or understand. ”We live in very secure societies and like to think we know what will happen tomorrow. There is no place in our rational and scientific world for the unknown. Objectively, the risks created by Ebola in Europe are very small,” said Ms. Burton-Jeangros, ”but there is an uncertainty that creates fear.”

Since Ebola is only spread when bodily fluids are exchanged, the chances of an outbreak in the U.S. or Europe are very small. We’re not immune from fear, however, and the uncertainty of a global world creates new social supports for epidemics of anxiety. For more on the “epidemic mindset,” check out our roundup of research.

 

Pushing Secret Service Director Off the Glass Cliff?

Photo by Charlotte Morrall via Flickr CC. Click for original.

Photo by Charlotte Morrall via Flickr CC. Click for original.

When Julia Pierson’s name first appeared in national headlines last year, it must have sounded like a perfect solution. President Obama appointed Pierson as the nation’s first female Director of the Secret Service following the aftermath of an embarrassing scandal in which several agents hired prostitutes on a presidential trip to Columbia. Many saw Pierson as uniquely positioned to purge the organization of its hyper-masculine culture and revive its good name.

After an intruder succeeded in running across the lawn and into the East Room of the White House, however, a firestorm of criticism prompted Pierson’s resignation. Writing in the New Republic, Bryce Covert suggests that the very gendered conditions of Pierson’s hire preconfigured her administration’s failure from the start. Such is the unfortunate case, he argues, for a large number of women in leadership roles:

As with Pierson, women are often put in these positions because rough patches make people think they need to shake things up and try something new—like putting a woman in charge. When it’s smooth sailing, on the other hand, men get to maintain control of the steering wheel. Women are also thought to have qualities associated with cleaning up messes.

You’re familiar with that unseen barrier to power called the “glass ceiling”? Covert cites research by psychologists Michelle Ryan and Alex Haslam to show that female leaders often reach top jobs that come with an inordinately high risk of failure. Social scientists call this precarious position the “glass cliff”.

Covert builds his case on a wealth of research exploring the risks that await women at the top of the corporate world:

Multiple studies have found that women are most likely to be given a chance at top roles in the corporate world when things are already bad. One found that before a woman took over as CEO of a Fortune 500 company between 1996 and 2010, its previous performance was significantly negative. Another found that FTSE 100 companies who appointed women to their boards were more likely to have had five months of consistently bad performance compared to those who picked men. Another found that companies were most likely to choose women for their boards after a loss that signaled the company was underperforming. Even in a lab, students and business leaders are more likely to pick a woman to lead a hypothetical organization when performance is on the decline.

Looking for more on the barriers facing women in positions of power? Our own Anne Kaduk shows “There’s Research on That!

The Myth of the Self-Made Man

Photo by J.L. McVay via Flickr.

Photo by J.L. McVay via Flickr.

During election season, we are treated to story after story about how candidates have made themselves out of nothing. Wisconsin Governer Scott Walker, locked in a tight reelection battle with Mary Burke, his Democratic opponent, has made a career of turning talk about his lack of a college degree into a story about upward mobility rather than academic insufficiency. Much of Joe Biden’s appeal as both a Senator and a Vice President comes from his salt of the earth appeal as the son of father who faced financial ruin, lived with his grandparents, and, through hard work and dedication, made something of his life. Candidates on both sides of the aisle tap into the discourse of upward mobility to demonstrate that they understand the struggles of the people they hope will elect them.

When candidates talk about how they have pulled themselves up by their bootstraps on the campaign trail, they’re doing more than lauding their own humble pasts to gain voters’ trust. They’re also tapping into a social narrative that’s been used throughout American history to determine what counts as economic success and who it’s available to. At the same time as it aligns candidates with desired swaths of the electorate, especially middle-class whites who turn out in numbers, it also implies a subtle distance between candidates and social problems. All of us can do this, if only we try hard enough, goes the implied reasoning, and if you can’t do it, that’s on you. Who can’t do it? As usual in American society, that would be the out-groups: non-whites, immigrants, LGBT people, and the disabled. Advocates of the bootstraps school of social mobility like to counter this critique by linking economic success to cultural values. They point out that immigrant Jews have largely succeeded economically, while African Americans still struggle, and attribute this to a set of American cultural values that Jews share, but blacks don’t.

In an excellent longform Slate article on this topic, John Swansburg cites sociologist Stephen Steinberg’s 1981 book The Ethnic Myth, a critique of what Steinberg calls the “Horatio Alger Theory of Ethnic Success,” or the belief that all social outgroups start with the same set of disadvantages. Most early 20th century Jewish immigrants, Steinberg argues, came from urbanized, industrial European cities, where they gathered “years of industrial experience and concrete occupational skills that would serve them well in America’s expanding industrial economy.” Most American blacks, on the other hand, learned farming and field work—skills that benefited them little as they moved to the industrial North after Reconstruction.

When Scott Walker, Joe Biden, or any other candidate for office talks about his or her humble past, he or she is making a subtle implication that the problems of disadvantaged groups in America are  mostly cultural, rather than economic or structural. I know how to work hard and I know you do too, so elect me and I’ll make sure that our kind of work is rewarded. And those others, whose work is never rewarded? Well, they’re just not working hard enough.

For more on how candidates construct narratives to court voters, read (or listen to!) Jeffrey Alexander’s “Heroes, Presidents, and Politics,” now in podcast form.

Scottish Independence: Why the Ayes Didn’t Have It.

Photo by PressTV.

Young voters and people living in council areas with high unemployment were more likely to vote in favor of Scottish independence.  Photo by PressTV.

Despite preliminary polls showing the Scottish independence vote as too close to call, last week saw a decisive victory for keeping the nation part of the United Kingdom with a 10.6 percentage point lead. Now that the media has swung from predicting to explaining, The Guardian considers why the early polling was so far off the mark, pointing to early decisions for “no” among voters and anxiety over the economic impacts of independence.

Oxford sociologist Stephen Fisher weighed in on the post-vote analysis and pointed out two trends which help explain the outcome. First, economic concerns were closely related to decision patterns:

“…in all four councils won by Yes Scotland, unemployment rates are higher than the Scottish average… Better Together’s best results were in councils where unemployment rates were below the Scottish average.”

Second, despite widespread national conversation and high intentions to vote, actual turnout among “yes” voters wasn’t quite enough:

“Only in one of the four councils where yes came on top was turnout higher than the countrywide 84.6%. This indicates that the participation among groups that tend to historically vote less (or not at all), such as younger people, the unemployed and those living in more deprived areas, where yes was theoretically strongest, while far higher than normal, was not as high as expected.”

There is plenty more work to be done before we fully understand the outcome, but these preliminary findings remind us that the key challenge for any political movement is getting enough folks to move where and when it really counts.