Abortion and Cinematic Calamity

m_350_oc_1sht_V1.inddThe comedy Obvious Child hit theaters last Friday, and it’s been praised as “the most honest” abortion movie Slate‘s Amanda Hess has ever seen. Honest, in that the film’s protagonist Jenny Slate decides to have an abortion and goes through with it. Her relationship does not implode, she does not suffer crippling guilt, and she survives. Her life goes on. It turns out that this kind of straightforward portrayal is a rarity in American film and television, though millions of women have abortions every year (the Guttmacher Institute pegs the number of worldwide procedures at about 42 million per year). In a recent Contraception article, a pair of sociologists report that pre-Roe v. Wade era plotlines disproportionately featured the death of women characters who even thought about abortion. After abortion’s legalization, portrayals came to suffer from a different distortion: “These movies tell us that it was wrong [before Roe] for laws to dictate what a woman ought to do with her body, but now that she has the choice, she should choose to give birth except under the most extenuating of circumstances,” Hess writes. Obvious Child rejects, well, the obvious.

Watch the trailer for the film here.

Capital Punishment, Public Opinion, And Who Should Suffer

A Guardian UK graphic from 2011 draws on execution data from Amnesty International.

A Guardian UK graphic from 2011 draws on execution data from Amnesty International.

In societies that allow for the death penalty in criminal punishment, there has been a shift toward ever more “humane” methods of execution. The rhetoric surrounding these changes generally involves not violating the rights of the prisoner by applying a cruel or unusual punishment—that is, just death, not torture.

In an interview with The Voice of Russia, University of Colorado professor Michael Radelet explains that the real motivations for a turn toward the medicalized execution may have more to do with minimizing the suffering of the audience than the condemned. When asked if there was a humane way to kill someone, Radelet points out that shooting and guillotining have no history of failure, unlike generally bloodless lethal injection (recently pegged at 7% in the U.S. by Amherst College’s Austin D. Sarat).

“Most state authorities in the US couldn’t care less whether or not the inmate suffers, what they care about is the suffering by the audience. This all has to do with the spectators.” Apparently, modern sorts want their vengeance deadly, but not grisly.

Radelet says that the death penalty is mainly political, allowing the public to be convinced their society is tough on crime. If the obvious question in the death penalty debate is: Do you support the death penalty? Data Radelet cites points to a more thorough question: Do you support the death penalty, given the alternative of life without parole? When the question is rephrased, support for the death penalty actually goes up a bit. It seems that, when the respondents consider a lifetime of suffering against death, their views on the suffering of others shift yet again.

Under God or Over It? New Data on Religion and Politics

Courtesy the Boston Public Library.

Courtesy the Boston Public Library.

It’s been a busy time for social facts on religion in American life. First, The Washington Post reported new data from the Pew Forum suggesting that more Americans would be willing to vote for an atheist president. While the original report noted that atheism is still a “top negative” for voters—with more respondents saying it would make them less likely to vote for a candidate than drug use, political inexperience, or an extramarital affair—there is still some optimism in the fact that this number has declined by 10% since 2007.

Second, a new report from the Public Religion Research Institute found that Americans are still over-reporting their church attendance, moreso in phone than in online surveys. The Huffington Posthosted a roundtable on the issue, and a take in The Atlantic emphasized the political implications of this data—liberals are more likely to inflate their church attendance than conservatives, and this may be because of negative stereotypes that liberals are “anti-religion.”

In a journalistic trifecta, all three stories noted research from Minnesota sociologists Penny Edgell, Joseph Gerteis, and TSP’s own Doug Hartmann on the continued stigma faced by atheists in American culture. From The Atlantic:

When three University of Minnesota sociologists surveyed American religious attitudes in 2006, they found “not only that atheists are less accepted than other marginalized groups but also that attitudes toward them have not exhibited the marked increase in acceptance that has characterized views of other racial and religious minorities over the past forty years.” Americans are today more likely to say they would vote for a Muslim or a gay or lesbian for president than an atheist.

Edgell also discussed current trends in church attendance on The Huffington Post and updated her 2006 research in The Washington Post:

A 2006 study by University of Minnesota sociologist Penny Edgell found atheists were the most mistrusted minority in the U.S. Edgell said Tuesday that an updated study based on a 2014 online survey would be released soon. Preliminary results show the mistrust meter hasn’t budged.

Despite an inclusive trend in what Americans say they look for in a candidate, religious identities are still an important marker of who can lead the flock(s).

For more on the cultural factors that may be driving these trends, check out this classic TSP feature: The Social Functions of Religion in American Political Culture.

Can a Rise in Rape Reports Be Good?

The 40th Anniversary of the Ottawa Rape Crisis Centre marks just one of the long-standing resources available to victims. It is funded both publicly and privately.

The 40th Anniversary of the Ottawa Rape Crisis Centre marks just one of the long-standing resources available to victims. It is funded both publicly and privately.

A recent Metro News article turned to social scientist Isabelle Côté for an explanation about an alarming rise in the rate of sexual assaults in Ottawa, Canada. Côté suggested that the data could point to something other than an actual increase in assaults: since Ottawa devotes resources to programs that help those who have been assaulted, Côté believes victims may be more likely to report the crime there than elsewhere.

Still, sexual assault is significantly underreported. Côté tells the paper only about 10% of sexual assaults are actually reported to the authorities. That means perhaps a number as low as 6,000 (the number reported in Ottawa last year) should be cause for concern. Côté told Metro News that issues of race, class, and gender stereotypes can influence whether the crime is reported—and whether the victim is believed.

Increasing rates of reported sexual assault may be a good thing if it means more victims are coming forward. Côté also discusses the importance of funding for rape prevention alongside support for victims. The key is to reduce assaults but dramatically increase reporting when they occur.

Alice Goffman: Telling the Tale of Extreme Ethnography

Photo by Greger Ravik via Flickr.

Photo by Greger Ravik via Flickr.

Alice Goffman’s On the Run: Fugitive Life in an American City shares the stories of young men evading arrest for crimes ranging from unpaid fines to murder. In describing their day-to-day maneuvers under heavy surveillance, she brings to life the impact of the U.S. prison boom on members of a low-income African American neighborhood in Philadelphia. But her work was not without risk. According to the Philadelphia Inquirer,

By the time Goffman left Sixth Street, she was displaying symptoms reminiscent of post-traumatic stress disorder, such as panicking at sudden noises.

In fact, so compelling is Goffman’s ethnography–and the great lengths she goes to in getting it–that the Inquirer is not alone in its eagerness to share her story. The New York Times writes:

Though written in a sober, scholarly style, “On the Run” contains enough street-level detail to fill a season of “The Wire,” along with plenty of screen-ready moments involving the author herself, who describes, among other ordeals, being thrown to the floor and handcuffed during a police raid, enduring a harrowing precinct house interrogation and watching a man be shot to death after exiting her car.

But the attention lavished on Goffman’s work has been mixed. On the one hand, her extreme ethnography is technically demanding and dangerous. She gives us a sympathetic and sociological glimpse of a world that’s usually off-limits to outsiders. On the other, she is “hardly the first middle-class white observer to venture into black urban America and emerge with a marketable story to tell,” as the New York Times puts it. Given this bipolar public gaze, Goffman may find it every bit as dicey to take a position in the spotlight as in the field.

Goffman acknowledges this awkwardness to the Times: “It just feels morally strange to talk about my own experiences when a whole community is dealing with violence and getting arrested…. I could always just leave.” To the Inquirer, she insists, “For the residents…there’s no ‘post’: ‘It’s just traumatic. This is everyday life: a series of ongoing and acute traumas.’”

It appears she’s already working on her next professional challenge: coaxing the spotlight back onto the the 47,000 fugitives living in fear in Philadelphia in 2009, avoiding hospitals and skipping friends’ funerals to avoid surveillance, worrying about eviction and losing custody of their children.

—–

According to the Editor’s Desk, ethnography sells. Here’s one example of how it’s used in corporate America: http://thesocietypages.org/editors/2013/05/07/corporate-anthropology/

SociologyLens caught Gang Leader for a Day, Sudhir Venkatesh, explaining extreme ethnography: http://thesocietypages.org/sociologylens/tag/sudhir-venkatesh/

Reproducing Reality in Fantasy-Land: Online Gaming and Offline Behaviors

Photo by Eduardo Hulshof, Flickr CC.

Photo by Eduardo Hulshof, Flickr CC.

Ubisoft has been trying to find out what makes its gamers tick. Nick Yee, a researcher fronting the company’s internal “Daedalus Project,” now has a new book, The Proteus Paradox, bringing together some of the major findings from the years of interviewing and observing gamers. Perhaps most interesting, as Bryan Alexander points out in Reason, is that, no matter how otherworldly the games might be, players tend to import their offline behavior and attitudes.

For instance, Yee explains in a chapter called “The Labor of Fun,” many gamers come to see gaming as a second job, demanding hours of boring drudgery contributing to fleeting achievements. Some even exploit other gamers to do the “grinding” work of leveling-up and repay it with racism toward those willing to do the work.

Gender figures interestingly, too:

Proteus outlines how male players denigrate, harass, and drive off female players. But Yee offers two twists to this sadly familiar story. First, women report wanting to play for the same reasons men do—achievement, social interaction, and immersion—going against essentialist expectations of gender behavior difference. And second, MMOs [massively multiplayer online games] offer a pedagogical benefit of sorts to male gamers who play under female avatars.

Males do this switching with some frequency… mostly to enjoy the eye candy of an attractive female avatar displayed in a game’s third-person perspective. That gaze is then reversed, as it were, as other players ogle the same avatar from their avatar’s perspectives. It’s a surprising opportunity to experience the kinds of sexual harassment that real-world women know to well.

Love, death, and helping others all come into play. “For all the criticisms that can be made of gamers’ behavior,” Alexander writes after reading Yee’s book, “these worlds are not bleak places entirely devoid of pleasure and fellow-feeling.” Between levels, it seems, some Putnam, Goffman, and Addams have snuck into the online realm.

For more in the Reason series on gaming, click here. For more on race in gaming, check out “The Whiteness of Warcraft,” here on TSP.

Economists against the War on Drugs

Picturing the War on Drugs in Pittsburgh. Photo by Christopher "Rice" via flickr CC.

Picturing the War on Drugs in Pittsburgh. Photo by Christopher “Rice” via flickr CC.

As far as the London School of Economics is concerned, it is time to end the global War on Drugs. According to LSE’s new report, the “War” is a “billion-dollar failure.” The report was signed by five Nobel-Prize winning economists (Kenneth Arrow, Christopher Pissarides, Thomas Schelling, Vernon Smith, and Oliver Williamson), as well as former U.S. Secretary of State George Schultz, British Prime Minister Nick Clegg, and former NATO and EU foreign policy chief Javier Solana. Al Jazeera explains:

“The pursuit of a militarised and enforcement-led global ‘war on drugs’ strategy has produced enormous negative outcomes and collateral damage.” Citing mass drug-related incarceration in the US, corruption and violence in developing countries and an HIV epidemic in Russia, the group urged the UN to drop its “repressive, one-size-fits-all approach” to tackling drugs, which, according to the report, has created a $300bn black market.”

The LSE report urges a shift toward evidence-based approaches to illicit drug use: the tremendous resources devoted to the drug war could be diverted to more rigorous analysis and effective policy with “a focus on public health, minimising the impact of the illegal drug trade.”

The Internet Knows When You’re Pregnant

Photo by J.K. Califf via Flickr.com

Photo by J.K. Califf via Flickr.com

In this era of social media, increasingly, our lives are being lived on the internet. Advertisers are taking note and mining our status updates and internet searches for information about our personal lives, targeting online advertising to our interests and identities.

Janet Vertesi, an assistant sociology professor at Princeton, has attempted the impossible: she tried to hide her pregnancy from the internet. It’s a lot harder than it sounds. Jezebel.com details her attempt to keep information out of the hands of advertisers while also explaining how this phenomenon is affecting women.

The tiniest bits of information, an Amazon order or an internet search, contribute to the web of data that companies are buying to target individuals. Data about pregnant women is fifteen times more valuable to companies than information about the average person, as parenting has increasingly become a consumer market. (See previous Citings about the economic investments of parenting and the luxury market for baby goods.)

In order to keep her pregnancy a secret, Vertesi and her husband paid for everything in cash or gift cards, asked their friends and family to keep all news off social media, and even searched for baby products using private browsing. The steps they took to avoid discovery could be seen as ‘suspicious.’ They even ended up paying cash for gift cards to spend online, a strategy that can trigger alarms when the prices get higher.

Jezebel.com discusses her experience saying, “In short, if you want to hide your pregnancy from big data, you’ve got to operate like a drug dealer.”

One concerning factor is what this means for pregnant women. Pregnancy status can be very personal and women can choose not to divulge their pregnancy for a wide range of reasons. If pregnancy is no longer private, what is?

How Often Are Executions “Botched”?

In the U.S., it’s enough to cause concern, Amherst College’s Austin D. Sarat tells “All Things Considered.” After a botched execution—that is, one that did not follow protocol, did not kill the prisoner, or did not kill the prisoner in a way that prevented suffering—in Oklahoma, the co-author of the forthcoming Gruesome Spectacles: Botched Executions and America’s Death Penalty (with Katherine Blumstein), said that the country has seen a 3% rate in botched executions overall. And though legislators have favored scientific progress in the death chamber, choosing hanging, then electrocution, lethal injection, and finally, today’s three-step injection process, the record of by-the-book executions is getting worse.

The rate of botched executions by lethal injection is now up to 7%, according to Sarat’s studies.

Lethal injection by the current process is meant to be more humane in that it is more scientific. It also removes any one person in the execution chamber from personal responsibility for the prisoner’s death, as each injection is delivered by a different person. But when it fails 7 out of 100 times, the experience is likely to be a “gruesome spectacle” for prison staff, prisoner, and viewers alike.

For more on the death penalty in the U.S., listen to our podcast with David Garland, author of Peculiar Institution: America’s Death Penalty in an Age of Abolition.

“Brown Eggs” and the Hush-Hush Infertility Gap

Photo by woodleywonderworks via Flickr Creative Commons.

Photo by woodleywonderworks via Flickr Creative Commons.

According to the New York Times, research from everyone from the Department of Health and Human Services to the CDCP, National Survey of Family Growth, the Tinina Q. Cade Foundation, and black women themselves shows that, despite centuries’ old stereotypes and even fears that black women are particularly fertile, well, they’re not. In fact, married black women have twice the odds of infertility than white married women, but it’s rarely talked about.

Regina Townsend of thebrokenbrownegg.org tells the Times:

“With women of color, specifically Hispanic and African-American women, the stigma attached to us is that it’s not hard to have kids, and that we have a lot of kids,” she said. “And when you’re the one that can’t, you feel like, ‘I’ve failed.’”

Some of the disparity in seeking treatment for infertility comes from differing health networks (see our recent piece with Brian Southwell for more on that) and some from differing financial positions (see decades upon decades of research on the wealth gap between black and white U.S. citizens). That is, black women seem less likely to talk to other women, their gynecologists, and their faith communities about fertility (or a lack thereof), and they’re less likely to have the resources—financial, medical, and network-wise—to seek infertility treatment.

Part of the problem, said Arthur L. Greil, a sociologist at Alfred University in western New York who has studied infertility and women of color, is that middle-class white women tend to have the confidence and connections to navigate the health care system better than less affluent minority women.

Even further, since fibroids (benign tumors that can significantly affect fertility) are more prevalent among black women and black women take longer to reach out for fertility advice, problems are compounded by time. Fertility drops naturally over the years, of course, but Dr. David B. Seifer said:

…fibroids [are] just one of various “cultural issues, biological issues and social issues” black women face that can affect their fertility. He said black women often waited longer to seek a diagnosis of or treatment for infertility, which “gives all of these other biological factors more time to become more severe.”

As Cariesha Tate Singleton told the article’s author, she knows she’s up against a stereotype that women like her are naturally “baby-producing machines.” Groups like Fertility for Colored Girls are working to change that notion.