Urban Planners in Zaragoza Test the Waters

The aqueducts in Segovia were one solution to Spain's need for water. But they're not the only one. Photo by Paulo Guerra via Flickr.

The aqueducts in Segovia were one solution to Spain’s need for water. But they’re not the only one. Photo by Paulo Guerra via Flickr.

Spain has always gone to great lengths to meet its high demand for water, but when faced with a shortage, the town of Zaragoza took a different approach. When severe droughts in the early 1990s caused reservoirs to dry up, forest fires to rage, and crops to wither, it became clear that the inland city would not be able to meet their high demand. Víctor Viñuales, the director and co-founder of the Spanish NGO Fundación Ecología y Desarrollo (Ecology and Development Foundation), used his understanding of sociology to devise an innovative solution. He tells The Guardian:

“Trained as a sociologist, Viñuales wondered what would happen if municipalities focused less on making sure residents had access to all the water they wanted and more on reducing demand. From that thought began a 15-year experiment in Zaragoza that has revolutionised how many in Spain – from locals to public officials – think about water management.”

Viñuales lead an ambitious project that began with a challenge to the city’s citizens to save 1 billion liters of water in a year. He used a widespread media and social outreach campaign, offered free audits to help find water saving opportunities, gave discounts on water saving products, and even changed the city’s water bills so citizens could track their changes in usage. Zaragoza stepped up to the challenge.

“Today Viñuales rattles off statistic after statistic to show how this city of 700,000 has transformed itself. Between 1997 and 2012, per capita use of water in Zaragoza dropped from 150 litres/day to 99 litres/day. The drop even sustained an increase in population; between 1997 and 2008, the city’s population grew by 12% but daily water use dropped by 27%.”

Viñuales was able to use both social and economic factors to effect the lives of the people of Zaragoza and make a huge stride forward in sustainability. While he acknowledges the success he has seen, he reminds us that “To achieve profound change – whether it be environmental, social or cultural – you have to be prepared to take it on for the long haul. Here in Zaragoza we’ve had that profound change. The population grew, but we use fewer resources than before. It’s really what needs to be achieved on a global level.”



Stephen Colbert Welcomes Trans-Caucasians

What do you get when you cross University of Minnesota Sociology professor Carolyn Liebler, census data, and issues of identity? This segment on the Colbert Report.

The Colbert Report               The Word – A Darker Shade of Pale


In this segment, the Comedy Central satirist pulled a quote from Liebler’s research:

“2.5 million Americans who said they were Hispanic and “some other race” in 2000…a decade later, told the census they were Hispanic and white.”

Of course, Colbert went on to explain his version of these findings, that Hispanics were voluntarily becoming white. Colbert points out that white people live in the best neighborhoods and get the best jobs, among other things. With that logic, the pundit suggests, why not “choose” to be white?

From a sociological perspective, he might have something there. Issues of identity are fluid and ever-changing in society. Looking at such a large change in the census data provokes questions as to why this variation in identity exists. In an interview with NPR, Liebler drew a parallel to her work studying Native American identity.

 “Between 1960 and 1970, nearly a half-million more Americans identified themselves as Native American — a number that was too large to be explained by mere population growth, she said. Something else had to explain it.”

Liebler says there’s more work to be done to understand these changing numbers. In the meantime, though, sociologist-in-training Stephen Colbert wants everyone to know that anyone is welcome…to identify as white.

The Overblown Myth of the Boomerang Generation


They don’t come back as often as you think. Photo by Paleontour via Flickr.

Isn’t it ironic that “much of our ‘independence,’ where it exists, is made possible by supports and resources that have been provided by others”? In an interview with the Washington Post, Oregon State’s Richard A. Settersten, Jr. calls attention to one important instance of this irony: the rigid tie between the “independence” of young people and leaving the home. For Settersten, Jr., common (and paranoid) misunderstandings about “permanent” and “alarming” generational trends in living at home are problematic not simply because they are inaccurate, but because they point to a misguided ideal of “independence.”

To clarify how patterns in young adult living arrangements have varied over time, he notes:

This isn’t new. If we look back over the last century, we can see that the rush out of the parental home was a post-World War II phenomenon, and proportions have been growing since 1970…. What’s remarkable about the early adult years today is not that young people live with parents but that they live without a spouse…. Marriage and parenting now culminate the process of becoming adult rather than start it.

Settersten, Jr. also clarifies who chooses to live at home and why. He indicates that men of every age group are more likely to live with parents, mentioning their higher rates of dropping out of school, unemployment, and a higher average age of marriage as possible reasons why. Individuals of disadvantaged groups also tend to live at home at greater rates—possibly because they are more likely to live in high-cost metropolitan areas or because young people in their culture are expected to contribute to family resources. Moreover, according to Settersten, Jr.,

For many families, living at home is a strategic choice that permits young adults to attend or reduce the cost of higher education, take internships, or create a nest egg. (It may also be necessary for paying down student loans.) For them, it’s not about being locked out of the labor market, but about building a more secure economic future.

So before tossing aside the “boomerang generation” as dependent “failures to launch,” consider how peculiar it is “that we expect young people to somehow strive for complete independence when those of us who are no longer young realize that adult life is heavily conditioned by relationships with other people.” Settersten, Jr. has a point.

To learn how this notion of independence is affecting older adults, check out Stacy Torres’s article on Families as They Really Are.

For a different take on the role of the economy in millenials’ living arrangements, see this article by Lisa Wade.

If you’re a teacher, here’s a great lesson by Kia Heise to start a class conversation about living alone as a ‘rite of passage’ into adulthood.

Marriage or the Baby Carriage

Photo by Rob Tom via Flickr.

There are more married mothers among millenial women with college degrees. Photo by rob tom via Flickr.

Differences in education level lead to dramatically different views on when to become a parent, according to new research. John Hopkins University sociologist Andrew Cherlin shows that millennial women with college educations are more likely to wait until they are married before they have children than women without a college degree. In an interview with Sarah Kliff of Vox, Cherlin explains:

“We’re seeing the emergence two very different paths to adulthood. Among young adults without college educations, most of their childbearing is in their twenties and the majority of it is outside of marriage. That includes people who have gotten a two-year associate’s degree. The dividing line is the four-year degree. The vast majority of people with that college degree are having children in marriage. We didn’t see this 20 or 30 years ago. We didn’t see these sharp differences between the college graduates and non-graduates.”

This trend concerns Cherlin, as it could lead to a more unstable family life for the children of unmarried parents with a high school education. He sees a lack of middle-skill jobs as the cause of their financial instability. This leads to their higher rate of breaking up and ultimately reinforces economic inequalities between education groups. Parents who have a college education are less likely to get divorced, since they are the couples who are more likely to have two steady incomes.

When asked if we could turn this worrisome trend around, Cherlin posits:

“It depends on if you think we can turn the middle of the job market around, and if we can find productive employment for high school graduates. If that happens, then I think we have a chance of reversing the instability we’re seeing in family lives. I also think that it might be a good idea to promote a message that one should wait to have children until one is in a stable marriage.”

That said, providing an alternative vision of a future where the high-school and college-educated alike can navigate the new economy could lead to greater family stability for their kids.


Baby-onic Plague

Photo by maxime delrue via Flickr.

Women may “catch” pregnancy from their friends. Photo by maxime delrue via Flickr.

A study coauthored by Bocconi University’s Nicolleta Balbo and University of Groningen’s Nicola Barban has unearthed a potential new contagion: babies.

The Chicago Tribune reports on the study of women’s friendships and potential child birthing saying,

…After one of the women in each friendship pair had a baby, the likelihood that her friend would also have her first baby went up for about two years, and then declined.

Balbo and Barban focus on high school friends, analyzing 1,170 women in a longitudinal study beginning in the 1990s. During the study, 820 of the participants became parents, having their first child at an average age of 27.

Balbo identifies three mechanisms that might contribute to the seemingly significant amount of influence between friends. First, she discusses social influence. This hinges on the idea that we constantly compare ourselves to people around us, including friends, and may be pressured to conform to their behavior. The second mechanism Balbo proposes is social learning. Watching a friend go through parenthood may arm prospective parents with knowledge and make them more comfortable fulfilling the parent role themselves. The third mechanism focuses on cost-sharing dynamics. Being in a similar life circumstance with friends can help reduce both costs and stress.

The study has been critiqued for not incorporating larger social networks and assuming that friendships can be studied in dyads.  Either way, I’ll think twice the next time I find a baby shower invitation in my mailbox!

Starbucks Brews Plan to Fund College Tuition

Photo by Francisco Gonzalez via Flickr.

Starbucks responds to employees’ lack of affordable education choices. Photo by Francisco Gonzalez via Flickr.

Last month, Starbucks CEO Howard Schultz appeared on the Daily Show to discuss a new partnership with Arizona State University that will allow workers to earn an online degree while still keeping their day jobs. Schultz was happy to announce that the coffee corporation would be the “first U.S. company to provide free college tuition for all [its] employees.”

However, ASU clarified that Starbucks won’t actually provide any money to help its employees afford their education. Rather, workers will have the chance to enroll in ASU’s online programs at a greatly reduced price, but will still have to pay for the remaining costs out of their own pockets, with student loans, or via federal aid.

The “Starbucks Scholarship” won’t be awarded upfront, but the company does plan to reimburse students after they pay for, and complete, their first 21 credits. Applying for financial aid can be time consuming and complex, and sociologist Sara Goldrick-Rab argues that a “wholly online education is of questionable value for low-income students…[E]specially when such students are required to pay for those first 21 credits before they qualify for reimbursement.”

During this time, ASU online will likely make a profit off incoming students who are paying for their education with financial aid—continuing what sociologist Tressie McMillan Cottom describes as a “long and shady history” of companies making money off public funds.

It’s hard to be fully cynical about the Starbucks Scholarship since it will likely open the (virtual) doors for many students to earn a college degree. Nonetheless, the plan hardly addresses the structural problem of an unaffordable education system. In his interview with Jon Stewart, Schultz likened the tuition benefits to employee-provided health care—a comparison journalist David Perry isn’t keen about:

The development of health care as an employee benefit rather than a universal right has been a disaster for America, leading to high costs and poor results. Yes, the employees are much better off with health care than without, much as some workers will benefit from the new tuition policy. But if making college affordable becomes a job perk, rather than a societal goal, we’re collectively worse off.

Pantene Urges Women to Stop Being Sorry—But Were They in the First Place?

It seems that female empowerment is an advertiser’s new best friend. Just look at Dove’s Real Beauty Sketches, Always’ #LikeAGirl, and CoverGirl’s #GirlsCan, each boasting millions of views: now Pantene is getting in on the action with its new commercial, Not Sorry.

The ad challenges women to stop apologizing reflexively. In general, viewers have reacted positively, but, as one article in The Atlantic suggests, there may be more to the story of “sorry.” The author suggests:

“One of the major problems with all this—besides the one embedded in the insistent equation of apology with weakness, and stubbornness with strength—is that “sorry” is, at this point, pretty much meaningless.”

So, is “sorry” meaningless or misunderstood? Take sociologist Erving Goffman’s characteristics of an apology: “expression of embarrassment or chagrin; clarification that one knows what conduct has been expected and sympathizes with the application of negative sanction; verbal rejection, repudiation, and disavowal of the wrong way of behaving along with vilification of the self that so behaved.” The Atlantic points out that these qualities aren’t present in the average, off-hand apology, like the ones featured in the video.

Of course, the author continues, the reflexive apology may just be an additional use of the word, rather than a constant expression of patriarchal oppression. In 1997, Deborah Levi proposed four types of apologies:

  • “‘Tactical” (acknowledging the victim’s suffering in order to gain credibility and influence the victim’s bargaining behavior)
  • “‘Explanation” (attempting to excuse the offender’s behavior and make the other party understand that behavior)
  • “Formalistic” (capitulating to the demand of an authority figure)
  • “Happy-ending” (accepting responsibility and expressing regret for the bad act)

Still, Pantene’s commercial doesn’t seem to show any of these kinds of “sorries.” Instead, one New York Times article specifies these apologies as “gestural.” Linguist Deborah Tannen tells The Times,

“Language almost never means what the dictionary definition says; it’s used the way others use it — as a ritual. But those who don’t share the ritual tend to take the words literally. Since American men don’t tend to use ‘sorry’ this way, they mistakenly take women’s use of it literally, as an apology.”

It seems sorry might be misunderstood by both apologizers and the recipients of those apologies—heartfelt or tossed-off. Ending women’s casual response apologies might promote empowerment, sure, but the very concept of the over-apologizing woman may actually be nothing more than a stereotype,as The Atlantic asks, is the notion of women as being overly apologetic could be “yet another label, yet another double standard that sticks, stubbornly, to women?”

A Tornado’s Aftermath: Predicting Community Change in the Wake of Natural Disaster

tornado photo

Tornadoes don’t discriminate. Photo by Marsmett Talahassee via Flickr.

The slew of tornadoes that recently hit the midwest nearly destroyed the small Nebraska town of Pilger. Twin tornadoes took out the town’s post office, fire station, and dozens of homes and businesses. Pilger is known for its slogan “The little town too tough to die,” but the devastation caused to this small community of 378 residents has the Omaha Herald looking to rural sociologist Randy Cantrell for answers to the question of this town’s survival. From the Omaha Herald:

Businesses and families in Pilger will decide what’s in their individual best interests, said Randy Cantrell, a rural sociologist at the Rural Futures Institute. Nothing else — including a community’s geographic location or population — matters as much in determining whether a place lives or dies, he said.

Cantrell goes on to argue that the aging population of Pilger is an important variable to consider, saying that almost one-third of the homes damaged in Pilger were owned or occupied by single people over 65. “That probably makes it iffy whether they rebuild or return,’’ he said. Speaking of the whole community, the article summarizes Cantrell:

Residents of all ages have many things to consider, Cantrell said. Among them are the age of their damaged houses, how much of an insurance payout they receive, where other family members reside and whether their jobs remain in town. Businesses pondering their future will consider that if they moved they would be starting over in a new market with no guarantee of success.

The residents of Pilger and nearby towns expressed confidence in the town’s ability to rebuild, citing the successful recovery of another small Nebraska town, Hallam, that was similarly devastated by a tornado in 2004. Given that no factor matters more, the community’s determination to rise from the wreckage may prove that not even a tornado can kill the tough little town.

For more on the sociology of natural disasters, check out this Sociological Images chart detailing how humans cause tornadoes and this SSN brief on how to better respond to natural disasters.

A New Kind of Kryptonite

Harassers question a woman's validity as "a person and as a real nerd." Photo by PhantmDark via Flickr CC.

Sexual harassment questions a woman’s validity as “a person and as a real nerd.” Photo by PhantmDark via Flickr CC.

“What are you supposed to wear to a convention if your comic book idol’s costume is a corset and thong?” asks sociology professor Dustin Kidd from Temple University in an interview with Philly.com.

Given the dress code at Wizard World Comic Con, the absence of a safe haven for nerds and geeks came as no surprise to HollabackPHILLY, a group aiming to end street harassment. They found an alarming amount of harassment directed at female cosplayers.

Cosplay is a chance to dress up in costume to honor or represent a character, usually from a comic book or similar medium. Unfortunately, many of the female characters are hypersexualized and the women who portray them can get brutally harassed at the conventions. As Kidd puts it,

Women in those kinds of outfits get read by men as displaying themselves for sexual reasons, as opposed to representing a superhero.

Some of the problems harken back to how people view female superheroes. A lot of female characters are portrayed wearing tight clothing or not much at all. Instead of being portrayed as strong and dignified like many of the male characters, they are portrayed as sexual.

As one woman who experienced harassment at AwesomeCon in Washington, D.C., describes,

…A man asked to take a photo with her and her friend. Then, he grabbed their breasts and urged his friend to snap the picture before they could wriggle free.

Psychology professor Kimberly Fairchild from Manhattan College talks about the negative consequences of harassment at conventions, saying

It makes women more likely to self-objectify. They start to think of themselves as body parts, objects, not full intelligent human beings . . . Objectification, in turn, has been linked to depression and anxiety.

To combat harassment, artist Erin Filson along with Rochelle Keyhan and Anna Kegler have created an advocacy group determined to make conventions a safer place. Under their banner of Geeks for CONsent, they have been lobbying for anti-harassment policies, trained volunteers and counseling for victims. Hopefully their efforts will serve as a new kind of kryptonite against nerd culture misogyny.

Religion and Your Resume: Even More Hiring Discrimination

But can He get you a job? Photo by David Woo via flickr CC.

But can He get you a job? Photo by David Woo via flickr CC.

It’s summer job hunt season. As a new batch of college grads looks for every edge on the market, sociologists have found a surprising barrier to getting hired: your religion. Vox and The Washington Post both picked up new research from Michael Wallace, Bradley R. E. Wright, and Allen Hyde, in which the authors distributed 3,200 resumes for job applications around two major southern U.S. cities (a follow up to earlier work in New England). The resumes were designed to look like those of recent college graduates, and they were essentially identical except for the applicants’ membership in a particular campus religious group. The authors found that putting any kind of religious affiliation on a resume reduced the chances that an applicant would receive a call back. From Vox:

Wallace said he thinks the US has a “schizophrenic attitude” when it comes to religion. “On the one hand, we have a high tolerance of religious freedom and diversity, people are free to practice whatever religion they want,” he told me in an interview. “On the other hand, there are certain boundaries on where it can be practiced.”

While including a religious affiliation did reduce call backs across the board, not every religious group faced the same barriers. Who faced the most hiring discrimination? According to the authors’ article:

In general, Muslims, pagans, and atheists suffered the highest levels of discriminatory treatment from employers, a fictitious religious group and Catholics experienced moderate levels, evangelical Christians encountered little, and Jews received no discernible discrimination.

These findings are consistent with other research and polling efforts to capture Islamophobia and anti-atheist attitudes in the United States, and they show that while employers may not enjoy religion in the workplace, we should also be concerned about which religious groups they will tolerate.