A Sociology of Celebrity Sanctions

Photo by Ed Yourdon via Flickr CC

Photo by Ed Yourdon via Flickr CC

Bill Cosby is a household name, once associated with a long and illustrious career, now with an infamous string of sexual assault allegations dating as far back as 1965. After new rape charges arose in late 2014 and became the subject of pop-culture discussion, TVLand dropped The Cosby Show from its rerun schedule and Netflix postponed a Cosby comedy special. A sitcom he had in development was canned. Notably, Cosby had weathered such accusations for decades without losing the support of networks and business partners. This time has been different.

University of Texas-Austin sociology professor Ari Adut lends his thoughts in a New York Times article. When public knowledge about a scandal is limited rather than widespread, entertainment businesses are less likely to take action. Once an allegation leveled against a public figure and becomes common knowledge, though, businesses are compelled to respond: “[w]hen everyone knows that everyone else knows about the claim (and so on), society can judge people and groups that do not act on that knowledge.” So, though rape and assault accusations had followed Cosby for nearly a half-century, the latest set of allegations have been hotly discussed in the media, and groups like Netflix moved to distance themselves from the performer so as to avoid public perceptions of Inaction.

This sociological explanation for how businesses assess public opinion regarding scandals and act accordingly helps us understand many other occurrences in the entertainment industry. For example, after actor Charlie Sheen had a run-in with the NYPD regarding drugs in 2010, CBS soon dropped the star from Two and a Half Men, despite the fact that Sheen had notoriously faced drug issues before. Once Sheen’s 2010 crime became public knowledge, the axe fell swiftly. For the famous, what the public doesn’t know—or mobilize around—needn’t be a worry. When it hits the front pages, though, anything from “dirty laundry” to felony assault is likely to tarnish a even a star’s brand image (and paychecks).

Women at the Top Find the View Depressing

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

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

Gender bias in the workplace may not be breaking news, but its negative impact on mental health among powerful women might surprise you. A new study highlighted in Fast Company magazine suggests that women in high-ranking positions experience increased symptoms of depression. Lead author, sociologist Tetyana Pudrovska, describes the unexpected findings that came out of the WILLSHE project on the experiences of highly successful women:

What’s striking is that women with job authority in our study are advantaged in terms of most characteristics that are strong predictors of positive mental health. These women have more education, higher incomes, more prestigious occupations, and higher levels of job satisfaction and autonomy than women without job authority. Yet, they have worse mental health than lower-status women.

Men do not seem to suffer similar negative mental health consequences when in powerful occupations. Marianne Cooper, sociologist at the Clayman Institute for Gender Research at Stanford University, explains:

Women leaders are viewed as being less competent than men, they’re evaluated in performance reviews on personality traits while men are evaluated on accomplishments, and they’re interrupted more often during team meetings. The day-to-day interactions can become tiring to deal with—it’s like death by 10,000 paper cuts.

Twitter Tension?

Twitter coverAlthough some research emphasizes the negative impacts of social media on well-being, a recent Smithsonian article highlights a specific benefit: social media platforms allow individuals to connect across thousands of miles. Further, despite anecdotal evidence, social media usage does not actually result in higher stress for users.

Dhiraj Murthy, sociologist and author of the book Twitter, told the Smithsonian Magazine about how social media lets people keep up with friends and family members, whether it’s communication about big events such as births or weddings, or every day things like food or funny cat videos. By fostering a sense of connectedness, Murthy says, this communication can reduce stress and increase happiness.

Still, Murthy warns, “Increased social awareness can of course be double edged.” Connectedness can mean feelings of stress, sadness, or anger when the interactions relate to death, job loss and other heavy topics. This means it’s the content viewed on social media, not social media itself that affects stress levels.

While the relationship between social media and stress is complex, many such studies focused on heavy users, Murthy says. In general, the common perception of most social media users as gadget-addicted stress cases doesn’t hold up to scrutiny. 

Busy schedules coupled with near constant access to technology contribute to people becoming more social via social media. While sharing a cup of coffee takes coordination and time, a quick scroll through an album or a post about a promotion allows users to participate in communal behaviors that benefit mental health. If the trick is focusing on the good content without ignoring the bad, it seems our online interactions are an awful lot like the in-person ones.

Suicide and the Loss of Employment and Identity

Photo via epSos.de via Flickr.

Sociologist Dawn Norris shows a link between suicide rates and a weak economy, particularly for men. Photo via epSos.de via Flickr.

Understanding how rates of suicide are related to social conditions is a foundational theme in sociology dating back to the work of Emile Durkheim. Investigating how people’s mental health is shaped by the broader economy, social networks, culture, and identity continues to be an area for social research.

A recent article in The Dallas Morning News reports on research that shows a link between a weak economy and higher rates of suicide, particularly amongst men and in the recent Great Recession. University of Wisconsin, LaCrosse Sociology Assistant Professor Dawn Norris explains that for men in particular, losing a job is not just about the money but about losing one’s identity and sense of masculinity.

“Our societal definition of masculinity is being employed, being the provider, being the breadwinner.”

Norris explains that masculinity is linked to work, and without work, even wealthy men describe themselves as “impotent, deficient, worthless.”

“Work at the moment isn’t as central to who women are in society,” says Norris. In one study, Norris found that women who lost their jobs during the economic crisis could shift from the role of breadwinner to another identity such as mother and better cope with unemployment.

Losing a job can deprive people of social support networks and other mechanisms for coping with stress, depression and mental health conditions. Men are especially at risk because they are less likely to seek support and medical care because of stigmas around mental health illness.

Norris says that potential solutions include better work-life balance, along with job creation, which can help de-emphasize work as the most central aspect of people’s identities and lives.

Read Erin Hoekstra’s article about flexible work policies shown to help men and women improve their work-life balance here.

Temperatures and Temperament: Your Political Beliefs Can Change the Forecast

Photo by Howard Ignatius via Flickr.

Sociologists find that beliefs about global warming predict people’s temperature perceptions. Photo by Howard Ignatius via Flickr.

Winter is in full swing up here in Minneapolis, and with it comes the traditional chorus that “it isn’t that bad” just yet. However, new research shows complaining about the weather—the archetype of casual chatting—may be more than just small talk. The Washington Post reports on new research from Aaron McCrightRiley Dunlap, and Chenyang Xiao which finds a significant relationship between political affiliation and perceptions about the weather. From the article:

The paper…examined people’s perceptions of the winter of 2012, which was anomalously warm. Comparing Gallup polling results from early March 2012 (just after the winter ended) with actual temperature data…“The researchers found that ‘Democrats [were] more likely than Republicans to perceive local winter temperatures as warmer than usual”…beliefs about global warming also predicted temperature perceptions.

It may have been one of the warmest years on record, but this work shows that partisanship affected who actually felt warmer than usual. We’ve known about socialization for a long time— many researchers study how social groups teach people to act in certain ways—but this study is especially interesting because it shows how deeply political socialization can effect individuals. Later in the article Dunlap argues that “people have begun to filter their fundamental perceptions of what is going on…through a partisan frame.” Contrary to expectations, this also means firsthand experiences with extreme weather as the planet warms may not be enough to inspire widespread change for environmental protection. Looks like we’ll need more than small talk.

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.