Category Archives: Sightings

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.

 

Tame Teens

best-bogle_kidsgoneDamn kids today. Do we have to do everything for them? I, for one, do not have the time to egg cars and throw basement parties. But if Joel Best and Kathleen Bogle are right, teens are less deviant than ever, no matter how prurient the headlines.

Bogle explains to Salon,

in previous generations they were worried about going steady, they were worried about lipstick, they were worried about miniskirts, they were worried about rock music. It’s not new for parents to worry about kids or that their pop culture interests or their access to the opposite sex is going to lead to trouble. We’ve been worried about that for a long time…

But rainbow parties! But red bracelets! But twerking! (more…)

Pre-Marital Abstinence Programs Leave Men Dissatisfied

Photo by James Prescott.

Notions of masculinity and purity encouraged by abstinence groups make transitioning to married life difficult for many men. Photo by James Prescott.

Religious groups are known for championing an abstinence-only approach to pre-marital life, and groups both national and local have been set up to promote and support this lifestyle. Sociologist Sarah Diefendorf spent a year with one – a small support group for young Christian men – and in a recent interview with the New Republic she explains how the abstinence-only approach did not necessarily make for a healthy sex life after marriage. This was in large part due to the severely gendered environment that Diefendorf encountered in which masculinity was equated with sexual restraint and femininity was equated with sexual disinterest – beliefs that led to long-term struggles even after marriage. Diefendorf told the New Republic:

For these men, to be a good man and a man of God meant saving themselves for the wedding bed. Amy Wilkins, a sociologist at the University of Colorado-Boulder, also interviewed men who pledged abstinence before marriage, and she argued that these men are asserting their masculinity in different ways. Rather than saying, “I’m a man because I engage in a variety of sexual activity,” they’re saying, “I’m a man because I can avoid that temptation; I can control these things.”

When it came to abstinence-only support for women, Diefendorf found that there was none. The men she talked to believed that women do not “naturally” have the sexual urges that men do, thus eliminating a need for female support groups in the church. She said:

The church, and the men that I interviewed, don’t believe that women would need a space to talk through these issues. They believe that men are highly sexual beings and they have “natural urges” that need to be controlled, but they don’t believe that women have that natural desire to be sexually active. Women are the providers of sexual activity for their husbands.

These notions of purity and masculinity, however, made for a difficult transition into married life for most of the men. Diefendorf followed up five years later and found that the men from the group who were married were still struggling with sexual urges that they felt were “beastly” and, without a support group to talk through these issues, they often turned inward and stopped talking about, and in many cases enjoying, sex altogether. Diefendorf explains:

When you spend the first twenty-plus years of your life thinking of sex as something beastly that needs to be controlled, it’s very difficult to make that transition to married life and viewing sex as sacred…The idea is that once you’re married, it’s all good— you’re supposed to be enjoying sex with your wife…But as one of the guys said, once you get married, the “beastly” doesn’t disappear. They still struggle with issues like excessive pornography viewing, masturbation. A few of them were worried that they might want to have an affair. They’re still struggling with these things, but they no longer have an outlet to work through them. They didn’t have the tools to engage in a healthy sex life.

For a great read on how abstinence-only groups target women by making abstinence “sexy”, check out this post by Soc Images.

Canada: “Commit Sociology,” Protect Indigenous Women

Cover photo from Missing and Murdered Aboriginal Women: A National Operational Overview by the Royal Canadian Mounted Police. Read the full report here.

Photo from “Missing and Murdered Aboriginal Women: A National Operational Overview” by the Royal Canadian Mounted Police. Read the full report here.

In the wake of last year’s Boston Marathon bombing and a foiled plot to attack a Via Rail train, Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper told citizens now is not the time to “commit sociology.” Rather than look for the underlying causes of problems like homegrown terrorism, he stressed the power of law enforcement agencies to express the government’s condemnation of violence. While his position was contentious at the time, its efficacy has recently come under fire again, this time from members of Canada’s large Aboriginal community.

After the body of Tina Fontaine, a 15-year-old indigenous woman, was pulled from the Red River in early August, a vigil was held in Winnipeg in her memory. More than a thousand people gathered at the vigil, renewing calls for a national public inquiry into the cases of nearly 1,200 Aboriginal women and girls who have been reported missing or murdered since 1980. According to the Aboriginal Peoples Television Network, the vigil’s guide, Wab Kinew, directly addressed the Canadian federal government’s refusal to address the alarming pattern. “Is now the time to make that change?” he asked. “Is now the time we say no more stolen sisters? We say that violence against women must stop. And if we go home and do nothing about this it’s a missed opportunity.”

Yet Harper’s response, delivered in a speech at Yukon College, reiterated the stance he took last year on terrorism. He urged Canadians not to understand missing and murdered aboriginal women as a “sociological phenomenon” and instead, to “view it as a crime.”

The problem with this view, explain sociologist Julie Kaye and public policy scholar Daniel Béland in the Toronto Star, is this:

If the prime minister would take the time to consult even the most rudimentary criminology textbook, he would find that crime is a social phenomenon shaped by powerful historical and social forces. Inequality among different populations in society is one of these forces. In Canada, it is a well-established fact that aboriginal peoples, who face much more poverty and unemployment than the national average, are more likely to be victims of violent crimes than other Canadians…

Harper’s downplaying of “the undeniable and well-documented reality that social inequality and violent victimization are closely linked” takes the focus off differences in perception of state power, as Kaye and Béland note. But, they stress, it is necessary for him to “at the very least, consider that aboriginal women do not want their murders to be solved, they want to live.” We must remember,

Violence against aboriginal women is a crime but a crime rooted in a particular social context, a context the prime minister suggests Canadians should disregard. He does so at the expense of the lives and safety of aboriginal women.

 

Unfortunately, Aboriginal Canadians are not the only minority group with a high victimization rate. To learn more about the “homocide divide” in the United States, see this piece. Also, check out this Citings & Sightings article about press coverage of a study with similar findings.

 

 

 

When Countries Develop, Women Get Smarter Faster

Photo by the World Wide Web Foundation.

New research suggests that women may benefit more than men from national development. Photo by the World Wide Web Foundation.

We’ve known for a long time that economic, social, and public health conditions influence learning in ways that affect people’s abilities to perform well on memory and math tests. But until now, the impact that improving these conditions could have on men and women’s cognitive abilities was not well understood. A new study by the International Institute for Applied Systems Analysis provides a surprising insight into this process: As nations develop, women’s cognitive performance improves significantly more than men’s does. David DiSalvo reports their findings in Forbes.

The researchers used data from The European Survey of Health obtained through interviews with 31,000 European men and women from ages 50-84 living in 13 different countries. Each country was given a regional development index (RDI). The measure of RDI included gross domestic product (GDP), life expectancy, education, and infant mortality rates. The researchers plotted changes in RDI across the life of each participant, in an effort to demonstrate the economic and social conditions the participants experienced.

The interviews also evaluated three levels of each subject’s cognitive performance. The results followed the expectations of the researchers according to gender, but that changed when RDI entered the equation.

“…when RDI was factored in, a remarkable and less expected result emerged: improvements in RDI for each country correlated with cognitive performance improvements for both genders—but significantly more so for women.”

Simply put, the researchers are saying that women get smarter faster, but the reasons why may be complicated. One possibility is that women gain more because they simply have more to gain. If women start at a disadvantage due to fewer opportunities to learn and to practice cognitive skills, changes in RDI might represent the leveling of a gendered playing field. This leveling might look like an increase for women, even if it results in something closer to equality.

While more research needs to be done to determine the reasons underlying differences in gains between men and women, this study shows the important role played by social factors in determining cognitive performance.

 

Marriage and the Market: How Economic Inequality and Gender Equality Shape Marriage Trends

sadie hawkins-img

Couples who share housework and have equal levels of education are as likely to stay together as couples following traditional gender roles.

In a recent New York Times oped, Stephanie Coontz cites a plethora of sociologists in her discussion of the tug-of-war between gender equality and economic inequality over current marriage trends in America. In her piece, Coontz argues that families have become more egalitarian and stable due to increased gender equality, with women increasingly gaining equal access to education and employment. However, because of the recent recession and the increased income gap, the inequality between families continues to rise. Both forces, she argues, push and pull on the rates of marriage and divorce in American society. She writes:

Sometimes these trends counteract each other, with women’s work gains partly compensating for men’s losses in low-income families. Sometimes they reinforce each other, since the new trend for high-earning men to marry high-earning women increases the relative advantage of such couples over low-income or single-earner families. For all Americans, these trends have changed the rewards, risks, and rules of marriage.

Citing sociologists Christine Schwartz and Hongyun Han, she details how couples who share housework and have equal levels of education are just as likely to stay together as those who subscribe to more traditional gender roles. Husbands have doubled the time they spend doing housework, and the percentage of Americans who believe in the “male-breadwinner” family arrangement has declined significantly. However, these increases in gender equality are counteracted by growing economic instability among families. She cites research by sociologist Philip N. Cohen, as well as a Susan Brown and I-Fen Lin, to show how, while the more educated are more likely to get married and stay married, the return on a college education continues to decrease, increasing income inequality and marriage instability. Coontz argues:

While the sexes have become more equal, society as a whole has become far less, producing especially deep losses for young men. In 1969, by the time men reached age 25, three-quarters were earning wages that could support a family of four above the poverty line. By 2004, it took until age 30 for the same percentage of men to reach this income level. And while in 1969 only 10 percent of men ages 30-35 were still low earners, by 2004 almost a quarter of men in that age range remained low earners.

Coontz then turns to sociologist Andrew Cherlin’s book Labor’s Love Lost to discuss the implications of these findings. Cherlin’s book details how two important factors have lead to a decrease in marriage rates among younger generations. First, the decrease in blue-collar work that requires only a high school diploma has significantly affected the ability of lower-income males to fulfill the historical role of bread-winner. Second, the increase in gender equality detailed above has made it so females no longer need a breadwinner in the first place, allowing them to wait for a mate with a stable income or to make that income themselves. Coontz summarizes Cherlin:

Women’s expectation of fairness and reciprocity in marriage has been rising even as men’s ability to compensate for deficits in their behavior by being “good providers” has been falling. Low-income women consistently tell researchers that the main reason they hesitate to marry – even if they are in love, even if they have moved in with a man to share expense, and even if they have a child – is that they see a bad marriage or divorce as a greater threat to their well-being than being single.

However, our very own Doug Hartmann qualifies findings that indicate a decline in marriage rates in an interview with CBS Minnesota, saying that even though younger cohorts, especially women, are waiting to pay off their student loans and build their careers before marriage, the desire to get married has not declined. Hartmann says, “When you ask people about their attitudes about marriage, their desires to get married, that doesn’t seem to be in decline. It’s just the timing of it and when it’s happening is getting put off.”

Sociologists across the country are invested in understanding the changing trends in marriage and American family life, and their research has detailed important factors contributing to these trends. Coontz ends her article with an important insight, urging us to consider the stability and equality of the marriage landscape Americans are so often nostalgic for.

If women lowered their expectations to match men’s lower economic prospects, perhaps marriage would be more common in low-income communities. But it would most likely be even less stable, and certainly less fair. Turning back the inequality revolution may be difficult. But that would certainly help more families – at almost all income levels – than turning back the gender revolution.

See more of Coontz, Cohen, and other sociologists of family life, including Coontz’s piece on how religious affiliation affects marriage rates, at the Council of Contemporary Families’ blog Families As They Really Are.