Author Archives: suzy

Concerns over Canadian Crime

Canadian homicide rates increased in 2011 relative to 2010, but according to the Globe and Mail, the uptick shouldn’t cause alarm. Any rise in homicide is worrying, sure, but Simon Fraser University criminologist Neil Boyd cautions against inferring too much from a single year’s crime data.

Journalist Patrick White sums up:

When 2011 numbers are plugged into a broader time frame, the picture is much more soothing. Homicide figures bottomed out in the early 1960s, peaked in 1977 and began plummeting in the early 1990s down to a statistical valley of around two murders a year for every 100,000 people, a low where it has remained for 15 years. In 2011, the rate was 1.7 per 100,000.

Canadian homicide trends via Stats Canada

Moreover, while Canadian homicide rates did increase last year, attempted homicides and the overall rate of violent and property crimes reported to the police continued to drop.  Like in the U.S., most forms of Canadian “street” crime (e.g. burglary and assault) are much lower today than two decades ago. As CBCNews reported, the overall rate of crime in 2011 reached a low last seen in 1972.

Hold the Check or Hold the Laude

Could loans help with the cum laude?

Heading off to college with a parent’s blank check in hand won’t help students earn high marks, according to sociologist Laura Hamilton. Hamilton’s study, published in the latest Annual Review of Sociology, finds that, regardless of the type of four-year institution they attend, students who receive greater financial contributions from their parents tend to earn a lower GPA along the way (even if they are more likely to complete their degree).

Hamilton says the effect on grades is “modest”—”not enough to make your child flunk”—but nonetheless “surprising because everybody has always assumed that the more you give, the better your child does.”

As the New York Times reports:

Dr. Hamilton found that the students with the lowest grades were those whose parents paid for them without discussing the students’ responsibility for their education. Parents could minimize the negative effects, she said, by setting clear expectations about grades and progress toward graduation.

“Ultimately, it’s not bad to fund your children,” [Hamilton] said. “My kids are little, but I plan to pay for them—after we talk about how much it costs, and what grades I expect them to achieve.”

Weighty ‘Tudes

An advertisement created by a Georgia children’s hospital. (Image via huffingtonpost.com).

At the Huffington Post, UCLA sociologist Abigail Saguy weighs in on weight-based stigma. Saguy notes that while there are health risks associated with obesity, stigma and bullying directed at overweight individuals may prove just as harmful as excess weight.

In particular,  stigma may exacerbate health concerns by discouraging obese women from receiving routine or preventative health care:

For many women, the place where they feel their dignity most crushed is in the doctor’s office. In fact, scores of studies show that “obese” women are less likely to get Pap smears and other medical screens because they experience the doctor’s office to be a hostile environment. And they are not delusional. Study after study shows that medical professionals—in the United States and abroad—believe that their heavier patients are weak-willed and non-compliant. Other women and men are denied health care coverage because they are “morbidly obese.” When lack of screening contributes to higher rates of cervical cancer among “obese” women, we can say that our attitudes about fatness are literally making us sick.

And, Saguy says, public health campaigns aimed at reducing obesity may be adding to the problem:

Just this month, L.A. County launched a new obesity awareness campaign titled “Choose Less, Weigh Less.” News reports on the initiative included photos of headless torsos with overflowing guts. The efficacy of such programs remains unproven. However, there is growing evidence—including from experiments I have conducted with psychologist David Frederick and UCLA sociology graduate student Kjerstin Gruys—that such messages worsen weight-based stigma. In our experiments, people who read news reports that discuss obesity as a public health crisis were more likely to agree with negative stereotypes of fat people as unlikeable, untrustworthy and less intelligent than thinner people, compared to people not having read such articles.

Such studies suggest that in the fight for improved health, shedding weight-based stigma may be as or more important than shedding pounds.

Offbeat Policing

Photo by Alex E. Proimos via flickr.com

Photo by Alex E. Proimos via flickr.com

Beat cops – and the community-oriented policing projects they practice – are on the decline says Sudhir Venkatesh, Professor of Sociology at Columbia University.

In an article appearing last week in The New Republic, Venkatesh notes that tackling current crime concerns increasingly requires a partnership of federal resources, such as hi-tech gadgetry, and local knowledge of criminal networks. But to support these collaborative taskforces, “[t]he Feds are getting a bigger share of funding, while [local police] are forced to continually make layoffs.”

Venkatesh argues that this isn’t necessarily a bad thing. In many ways, joint taskforces have delivered. In addition to racking up arrests and convictions, “[Chicago] [r]esidents felt safer using public spaces, storeowners experienced less extortion, and even gang members exited their organizations at a greater rate after a federal operation.”

But, while traditional community policing may be outmoded for today’s complex investigations, Venkatesh also warns that cuts have had unintended consequences. Fewer cops on the street has created vacuums – opening the door for solutions from local gangs and vigilantes.

Put a Pin in It (Research, We Mean)

Business Cards

Photo by Curtis Gregory Perry via flickr.com

Admittedly, I know little about Pinterest. But judging by the site’s membership, now topping 10 million worldwide, many of you are familiar with the social media site. Members have been “pinning” their favorite items—images, videos, messages, etc.—to themed, virtual pin boards since 2010. Nor am I representative of most sociologists: just check out the contributions from Gwen Sharp and Lisa Wade over at Sociological Images or the teaching-centric boards compiled by self-professed public sociologists at The Sociological Cinema to see what I mean.

Beyond how it’s already being used, Deborah Lupton, a sociologist at the University of Sydney, suggests in The Australian that Pinterest also offers a creative way to organize research materials. Lupton has created a board for each of her areas of intellectual inquiry. As Lupton explains, “Because of its emphasis on the visual; [Pinterest is] perfect for curating and displaying images that are related to the subject matter one is researching or teaching.”

So whether you’re planning your summer travel itinerary, next semester’s syllabus, or your next research grant—tap in to the inspiration!

Been There, Done That

Our love is here to stay

Photo by Tommie Milacci via flickr.com

Younger generations aren’t the only ones cohabiting these days. Research by sociologist Susan Brown and her colleagues at Bowling Green State University find that the number of Americans over age 50 who are living with their romantic partners – but are not married – has increased from 1.2 million in 2000 to 2.75 million in 2010.

As MSN reports, this arrangement provides older cohabitators many of the benefits of marriage without the potential economic risk.

Older couples may want to protect their individual nest eggs so they can pass the inheritance down to their kids. They also may not want to jeopardize a pension, Social Security payment or other benefit they are receiving because they are divorced or widowed. And they may not want to be financially responsible for the other person’s health care bills.

A “been there, done that” attitude is also contributing to the trend, Brown says. According to the team’s research, “71 percent of older couples living together were divorced, and another 18 percent were widowed.” The prospect of re-entering a union may be particularly unappealing for women who feel an “underlying expectation” to take care of their husbands.

Alternative relationships other than cohabitation also appear to be on the rise. Although the numbers aren’t as clear, Brown notes a group engaged in “living apart together.” “They’re very committed to each other ,” she explains, “(but they) don’t want to give up the autonomy that they have.”

Sportsmanlike Behavior

High School Rugby photo by Phillip Capper via flickr.com

High school rugby photo by Phillip Capper via flickr.com

Based on a year of field-work with 16- to 18- year olds, Mark McCormack, a sociologist at Brunel University (UK), argues that homophobic attitudes are on the decline in British secondary schools. As The Economist explains, McCormack’s new book, The Declining Significance of Homophobia, “describes an atmosphere of affection between male students both gay and straight, who no longer feel they need to act like sport-mad brutes to be accepted by their peers.”

Admittedly, some pupils still use the word “gay” to express disapproval -but they apply it to things like homework, and it is rarely a dig even when directed at people. Among these boys homophobia bore the same stigma as racism.

McCormack points to the media and the Internet as sources of the shift in attitudes:

First, there are many more openly gay performers, politicians and TV characters, which helps to normalise homosexuality. Second, the internet lets lonely provincial teenagers reach beyond their town limits. Social-networking websites encourage frankness about sexual orientation, and YouTube is a fount of videos featuring transgender confessionals and boys coming out to their mothers.

McCormack does not claim that harassment or bullying based on homophobia is no longer an issue, but that the situation has improved. And, he argues, “it is wrong and counter-productive to harp on about the dangers gay teenagers face, if it prevents many from coming out of the closet.”

In related research, our own Kyle Green reported late last year in Contexts‘ Discoveries section on research from Eric Anderson, who tracked high school athletes’ attitudes toward openly gay teammates over time, finding a dramatic drop in homophobia even in contact sports in just 10 years. It appears this trend is bearing out “across the pond.”

Religion is Not a Political Science

If I Should Fall From Grace With God
As viewers of the ongoing GOP debates already know, religion is a hot topic this voting season. But despite discussion and conjecture regarding a host of religious issues by voters, candidates, and pundits alike, Scott Jaschik points out (this week in Inside Higher Ed) there is little research to turn to in support of their claims.

According to an analysis of US-based and British political science research by associate professor of politics and international studies Steven Kettell, less than two percent of studies in the top 20 research journals in the field focus on religion.

Jaschik notes, “Of the small minority of articles that considered religious issues, the most popular topics are not likely to provide much help to those trying to follow the Republican presidential race this year. The most common topic was religious links to violence and terrorism, and the second most common topic was Islam.”

Although other social sciences, such as anthropology, history, and sociology, give greater attention to religious issues today, “[Kettell] argues that it is time for ‘political scientists to turn the tools of their trade’ to issues of religion.”

Candidates, Cancer, and Public Health in the Public Eye

Representative Michelle Bachmann (R-MN) has gone on record against the Gardasil vaccine preventing cervical and possibly throat cancer, calling it “dangerous” during and after the CNN-Tea Party Republican Debate in mid-September.  Medical experts quickly objected (two bioethicists even offered up $10,000 if Bachmann could produce scientific evidence that the vaccine had, as Bachmann claimed, caused mental retardation in one patient), and Bachmann backpedaled, admitting that she is neither a doctor nor a scientist.  Yet, as a recent New York Times article notes, the effects of Bachmann’s disparaging remarks against the vaccine will likely outlive this election cycle.

[T]he harm to public health may have already been done. When politicians or celebrities raise alarms about vaccines, even false alarms, vaccination rates drop.

“These things always set you back about three years, which is exactly what we can’t afford,” said Dr. Rodney E. Willoughby, a professor of pediatrics at the Medical College of Wisconsin and a member of the committee on infectious diseases of the American Academy of Pediatrics. The academy favors use of the vaccine, as do other medical groups and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Although the vaccine has been proven to prevent cervical cancer and has been declared safe by the Institute of Medicine (a government advisory group), and despite backing from the American Academy of Pediatrics and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the vaccine has been slow to catch on, lagging behind vaccines licensed at the same time, such as one to combat meningitis.

“This vaccine has been portrayed as ‘the sex vaccine,’ ” said Dr. Mary Anne Jackson, a professor of pediatrics at the University of Missouri-Kansas City and a member of the infectious disease committee of the American Academy of Pediatrics. “Talking about sexuality for pediatricians and other providers is often difficult.”

Recent research published by Siegwart Lindenberg, Janeke F. Joly, and Diederik A. Stapel, social scientists in the Netherlands, has confirmed that “star status” can really boost a cause (Social Psychology Quarterly, March 2011). Unfortunately, in this case, Bachmann’s public status lends credibility to her scientific missteps and will likely, the New York Times says, set back HPV vaccination efforts by years.