the census: gettin’ ‘er done

286_365_Count Me In
With political representation and federal funding at stake, Midwestern states are showing the highest Census response rates so far. According to the New York Times:

With Thursday dubbed Census Day — the day the questionnaires are meant to capture as a snapshot — South Dakota, Wisconsin, Nebraska, North Dakota and Iowa are ranked the top five states by federal officials, because they have the highest participation rates in the census so far. People can send in the forms until mid-April, but the Midwest’s cooperativeness might rightly worry other regions.

After all, the census guides the federal government on decisions with lasting impact — like how many representatives states will have in Congress and how much federal money they win for their roads.

But the high rates of participation in these rural states may have less to do with vying for power and resources and more to do with social norms and sensibilities.

Census officials said lots of social factors seemed to correlate to a community’s responsiveness (or silence) to the census mailings. Places where people stay put, for instance, often answer. In this town, most people said they had grown up here.

But some North Dakotans, where the state capital, Bismarck, had the nation’s fourth-highest response rate among larger cities as of Wednesday night, suggested a simpler answer. Perhaps it was the way of thinking around here — some combination, they said, of being practical, orderly, undistracted and mostly accepting of the rules, whatever they are. “We have a high degree of trust in our elected officials,” said Curt Stofferahn, a rural sociologist at the University of North Dakota, “and that carries over to times like these.”

The towns and cities the census described this week as having 100 percent participation rates are mostly tiny. How hard, some wondered, is it to get 50 responses from 50 people? And in Wolford, which officially has a 100 percent rate, plenty of people — perhaps more than 20 — are not included in that statistic because they hold post office boxes and have yet to receive forms.

By all appearances, these norms are being passed along to the next generation of rural residents.

At Wolford Public School, where 46 children from around the area attend kindergarten through 12th grade (the ninth grade is empty and only one child is in fourth grade), census leaflets, posters and stickers have been handed out in Wanda Follman’s class of 11 children.

Asked on Wednesday if their families had returned census forms yet, nearly all 11 shot their hands in the air. The children excitedly recited some of the questions from memory.

“I filled it out with my mom’s help,” said Kyle Yoder, the 8-year-old, who wore glasses and a serious face. “It was kind of easy.”

politics taking a violent turn?

The New York Times reported on increasingly heated political protests:

Public displays of political anger have been a staple of the American scene for the last eight months or so, but in recent days a handful directed at members of Congress have gone a bit further than noisy, sign-carrying assembly to window-smashing, spitting, threatening faxes and phone calls, even a cut propane line on a barbecue grill. At the end of last week, Democratic and Republican leaders, while denouncing any violence or threat of it, reached the point of trading accusations over who was most responsible.

Psychologists commented that, though people may talk about extreme measures, few are likely to actually turn to violence. Sociologists weigh in:

Kathleen Blee, a sociologist at the University of Pittsburgh, said the same was true even for groups that consider violence a central tenet. “In the white power groups I study, people can have all kind of crazy racist ideas, spend their evenings reading Hitler online, all of it,” she said, “but many of them never do anything at all about it.”

Protest groups that turn from loud to aggressive tend to draw on at least two other elements, researchers say. The first is what sociologists call a “moral shock” — a specific, blatant moral betrayal that, when most potent, evokes personal insults suffered by individual members, said Francesca Polletta, a sociologist at the University of California, Irvine, and author of “It Was Like a Fever: Storytelling in Protest and Politics.”

This shock may derive from an image: the horrific posters of tortured animals published by animal rights groups, or of aborted fetuses by anti-abortions organizations, which speak for themselves. It can also reside in a “narrative fragment,” like the Rodney King beating, which triggered a riot all on its own.

Perhaps the best available candidate for such an outrage today is the Wall Street bailout, Dr. Polletta said. “The message there is rich people being rewarded for bad behavior,” she said. “That’s going to hit home, especially if you’ve lost a job, or know someone who has.”

The second element is a specific target clearly associated with the outrage. A law to change. A politician to remove. A company to shut down. “If the target is too big, too vague — say, the health care bill, which means many things — well, then the anger can be hard to sustain,” Dr. Polletta said. “It gets exhausting.”


Given the shifting political terrain, the diversity of views in the antigovernment groups, and their potential political impact, experts say they expect that very few are ready to take the more radical step.

“Once you take that step to act violently, it’s very difficult to turn back,” Dr. Blee said. “It puts the group, and the person, on a very different path.”

Read more.

boxed in?

President Obama (Tim)According to USA Today, the 2010 Census will

remind Americans that racial classifications remain an integral part of the country’s social and legal fabric while, at the same time, recognizing that racial lines are blurring for a growing number of people…The government will give the nation’s more than 308 million people the opportunity to define their racial makeup as one race or more.

Some suggest that Obama’s presidency may affect how individuals report their race this time around. But how Obama himself will record his race remains a mystery.

Obama, born to a black father and a white mother, is not only the first black president but the first biracial president.

During his successful campaign in 2008, Obama referred to himself as black but also referred to his roots in Hawaii, where he was raised by his white mother. When the Obamas’ Census form arrives at 1600 Pennsylvania Ave., will he identify himself as black or as black and white? The White House declines to say.

A sociologist weighs in:

“The issue of perception is central,” says Ann Morning, a sociology professor at New York University. In an article titled “Who is Multiracial?” she estimated that about one-third of the U.S. population has some mixed-racial ancestry going back several generations. She predicts young generations will be more embracing of their multiracial heritage.

Morning is African American. But she also has English, Chinese and American Indian ancestry. Since 2000, she has checked off black, white, Asian and American Indian.

“The bigger thing is how I will mark my daughters,” Morning says. Their dad is Italian and she believes most people will look at her daughters as white. For now, she’ll check all the boxes for them, too.

Some question whether counting race is a good idea at all.

Roderick Harrison, a demographer at Howard University and the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies in Washington. “But for a lot of others, it’s like, ‘OK, are you going to turn your back on the rest of us?’ … A lot of the racial and ethnic politics of the Census are that we want the biggest numbers possible for our groups.”

The Census has a long-lasting effect on politics and money. Population counts every 10 years decide the number of seats every state gets in the U.S. House of Representatives and determine how more than $400 billion a year in federal aid is allocated.

“I know it’s valuable information if you’re doing economic development or dispense certain amount of money to areas that need it,” says Stewart Cockburn, 39, who lost his job in textile sales in September. “My point about race in general in this country is that we’re just never going to get past it if we keep asking about it.”

Cockburn, of Greensboro, N.C., says he’s Scottish and Irish and has a great-grandmother who was Cherokee.

“I don’t understand why everyone makes such a big deal about race,” he says. “Maybe one day we will no longer care about race, ethnicity or the color of another person’s skin.”

Donna Edwards, of Santa Monica, Calif., says it’s important that the federal government allows people to identify more than one race. “It’s about time, isn’t it?” says Edwards, who is half Japanese and half German/Scottish/Welsh and spent years frustrated by forms that boxed her into one or the other.

politicizing parenthood

Admiração:BBC News recently reported on the concept of “parental determinism,” as discussed by Kent University (England) sociology professor Frank Furedi:

There was a pervading prejudice that virtually all of society’s problems were caused by poor parenting.  There was an attempt to “weed out” unfit parents and intervene before they even had children, he said.  In an article for Spiked online, he likened “parental determinism” to Hitler’s eugenics and Stalinism.

He said: “The idea of a one-dimensional causal relationship between parenting and socioeconomic outcomes, dreamt up by the British think-tanks and policy makers, threatens to take public discourse to a new low.

He points to the roots of “parental determinism” in Britain:

The idea of early intervention was conceived by Tony Blair’s regime which “promoted the fantasy that the government could fix society’s problems by getting its hands on the nation’s toddlers before their parents had chance to ruin them”.

“He believed it was possible to spot tomorrow’s ‘problem people’ even before they were born,” he added.  This notion of parental determinism allowed politicians to promote the “most absurd prejudices…Over the weekend, Iain Duncan Smith the former Tory leader, argued that children from broken homes and dysfunctional families have underdeveloped brains and start school with the mental capacity of one-year-olds,” he said.

Furedi argues that “parental determinism” is particularly damaging in the realm of education:

This was because of the way it could erode adult responsibility and authority, he said.  If adults were reluctant or confused about giving guidance to the younger generation, then the challenge facing the teacher in the classroom could be “overwhelming”, he said.  “It is hard to be the last bastion of authority in a society where adult authority seems to be crumbling,” he added.

He called for adult authority to be affirmed both in and out of the classroom and for the relationship between parents and teachers to be re-drawn.  “There is a difference between raising children and educating them, and this distinction must be re-established to allow for a clearer and more constructive relationship between parents and teachers,” he concluded.

Click here to read Furedi’s full article in Spiked.

comparing disasters

U.S. Helicopter Delivers Relief Supplies in HaitiWhile drawing comparisons between Hurricane Katrina and the recent earthquake in Haiti may be tempting, sociologist Kathleen Tierney tells CNN why doing so is not such a good idea.

Like Katrina, the earthquake has produced effects of catastrophic proportions. Both events rank among the largest catastrophes ever experienced in the Western Hemisphere.

They both have resulted in large loss of life and immense human suffering and make the coordination of emergency resources extremely difficult. Ordinary citizens are left to fend for themselves in the wreckage. And as we saw in Katrina and see now in Haiti, residents of disaster-stricken areas are the true first responders.

The aftermath of such catastrophes brings more prolonged suffering and massive recovery challenges. People pay attention as the media cover them, but they turn their attention elsewhere when the cameras leave, even though many of the real challenges that victims and affected regions face emerge later. Like the Gulf region, Haiti will struggle for years and perhaps decades to rebuild and recover.

But there, the comparisons end.

The contrasts have much to do with the events’ impacts on a national versus regional scale.

Katrina did not flatten our nation’s capital or prevent national leaders from communicating with one another. Impacts were catastrophic in areas where Katrina struck, creating significant logistics problems, but the infrastructure of the rest of the nation was untouched. Also important, it was possible to issue warnings for Katrina, which enabled the vast majority of those who were at risk to evacuate to safety. The victims of the earthquake had no such warning.

In contrast, the earthquake in Haiti destroyed much of its capital, Port-au-Prince, and affected approximately one-third of the population of the entire country. The proportion of the nation’s population that has been killed, injured or left homeless is enormous. The facilities that could have assisted victims, such as hospitals, clinics and the UN headquarters for the nation, were destroyed or are not operational. Aftershocks, which will continue for weeks, months and perhaps even years, will do additional damage and further compound both rescue and relief efforts.

In addition, both disasters affected the poor and vulnerable, but again scale comes into play:

On almost all indicators of well-being — health, education, literacy, income — Haiti ranks very low. The nation has a long history of rule by dictators, political coups and savage violence. The capacity of Haiti’s series of governments to provide services to its people has been abysmal for most of its history.

In many ways, residents of Haiti faced a daily disaster even before the earthquake. These differences matter, and they should be kept in mind by those seeking to see parallels between the two catastrophes.

sociological evidence overturns felon voting ban

Can't VoteAccording to the Seattle Times, evidence gathered by University of Washington sociologists Katherine Beckett and Robert Crutchfield overturned the state of Washington’s law banning incarcerated felons from voting.  The case, Farrakhan v. Gregoire, was decided on January 5, 2010:

The surprising ruling, by a three-judge panel of the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals in Seattle, said the law violates the 1965 Voting Rights Act by disenfranchising minority voters.  The decision is the first in the country’s federal appeals courts to equate a prohibition against voting by incarcerated felons with practices outlawed under the federal Voting Rights Act, such as poll taxes or literacy tests.

The two-judge majority apparently was persuaded by the plaintiffs’ argument that reams of social-science data filed in the case showed minorities in Washington are stopped, arrested and convicted in such disproportionate rates that the ban on voting by incarcerated felons is inherently discriminatory.

The article details the sociological research in question:

[The case] was built on research by University of Washington sociologists who found that blacks are 70 percent more likely — and Latinos and Native Americans 50 percent more likely — than whites to be searched in traffic stops.

The research also showed that blacks are nine times more likely to be incarcerated than whites, despite the fact that the ratio of arrests for violent crime among blacks and whites is less than four-to-one. One result of that: 25 percent of black men in Washington are disenfranchised from voting.

The decision, written by Judge A. Wallace Tashima, said the studies “speak to a durable, sustained indifference in treatment faced by minorities in Washington’s criminal justice system — systemic disparities which cannot be explained by ‘factors independent of race.’ “

The state of Washington is appealing this ruling to the U.S. Supreme Court.  To read a somewhat sociological editorial on this decision, you may also want to check out an editorial by Seattle Times columnist Jerry Large.

Voter Disenfranchisement Statistics:


deterrent effect of death penalty still a mystery

Lethal Injection ChamberThe Houston Chronicle recenly reported on the efforts of social scientists to understand whether the death penalty deters potential murderers.  According to the article, research on the issue has historically produced mixed results:

In 1967, sociologist Thorsten Sellin found no significant impact when he studied murder rates in adjacent states with differing approaches to capital punishment.

The next year, Nobel Prize economist Gary Becker developed a theory supporting the deterrent value of the death penalty, and eight years later one of his students published a study based on national statistics purporting to show that each execution saved eight lives.

The controversy led to a study commissioned by the National Academy of Sciences that found evidence of deterrence to be unconvincing.

More recent studies have reached conclusions all over the map. A national study in 2005 found “profound uncertainty” on the question and even suggested that executions might slightly increase the murder rate (possibly through a cultural “brutalization”). Another study that year suggested that each execution saves 150 lives.

The article discusses a new study, forthcoming in Criminology, by Duke University sociologists Kenneth C. Land and Hui Zheng and Sam Houston State University criminologist Raymond Teske Jr.:

After reviewing earlier studies, these authors came to the conclusion that the death penalty is used too sporadically and inconsistently around the nation for studies on national data to accurately measure its effect on crime.

They decided to focus their study by taking advantage of Texas’ gift to social science, what they call “an orgy of executions in Texas beginning in 1994,” during which time the state provided more than a third of the nation’s executions.

The authors compared this period to an era in which Texas carried out fewer executions from 1980 to 1993, attempting to isolate the effect of the increased use of the death penalty:

They found that many earlier studies had vastly overestimated the effect, but the number of murders did go down in the short-term aftermath of executions.

Based on two different statistical models, they found the effect in the months after each execution to be a reduction of between 0.5 to 2.5 homicides.

That may not sound like much, but as the authors note, “even the estimated .5 deterrent per execution yields an estimated reduction in the expected numbers of monthly homicides of 5 to 10 during the subsequent 12 months, which is substantial.”

Perhaps more interesting are the difficult issues that remain unresolved:

Here’s the mystery:

This study and previous ones show no correlation between the amount of publicity executions receive and their deterrent effect.

“We have no theory on that,” Teske said on Friday. After a few more questions, he said, “I hear your frustration. If I wasn’t working with one of the top guys in the nation, my confidence would be shaken.”

One other mystery: The study shows, as other studies have, more impact on the kinds of murders that don’t qualify for the death penalty than on those that do.

disconfirming evidence?

Saddam?Some people still believe that Saddam Hussein was behind the 9/11 attacks, even with substantial evidence to the contrary.   AlterNet recently reported on a sociological study that provides insight into how some people rationalize such false information:

Of 49 people included in the study who believed in such a connection, only one shed the certainty when presented with prevailing evidence that it wasn’t true.  The rest came up with an array of justifications for ignoring, discounting or simply disagreeing with contrary evidence — even when it came from President Bush himself.

“I was surprised at the diversity of it, what I kind of charitably call the creativity of it,” said Steve Hoffman, one of the study’s authors and now a visiting assistant professor at the State University of New York, Buffalo.

The voters weren’t dupes of an elaborate misinformation campaign, the researchers concluded; rather, they were actively engaged in reasoning that the belief they already held was true.

Responses to the 9/11 commission’s finding that there was no link between Hussen and 9/11 included:

“Well, I bet they say that the commission didn’t have any proof of it, but I guess we still can have our opinions and feel that way even though they say that.”

Reasoned another: “Saddam, I can’t judge if he did what he’s being accused of, but if Bush thinks he did it, then he did it.”

Others declined to engage the information at all. Most curious to the researchers were the respondents who reasoned that Saddam must have been connected to Sept. 11, because why else would the Bush Administration have gone to war in Iraq?

Connecting 9/11 to the current health care debate, Hoffman said:

“I do think there’s something to be said about people like Sarah Palin, and even more so Chuck Grassley, supporting this idea of death panels in a national forum….[They] kind of put the idea out there, but what people then do with the idea … ” he said. “Our argument is that people aren’t just empty vessels. You don’t just sort of open up their brains and dump false information in and they regurgitate it. They’re actually active processing cognitive agents.”

Andrew Perrin, another one of the study’s authors, provided additional commentary: 

“I think we’d all like to believe that when people come across disconfirming evidence, what they tend to do is to update their opinions,” said Andrew Perrin, an associate professor at UNC and another author of the study.

That some people might not do that even in the face of accurate information, the authors suggest in their article, presents “a serious challenge to democratic theory and practice.”

“The implications for how democracy works are quite profound, there’s no question in my mind about that,” Perrin said. “What it means is that we have to think about the emotional states in which citizens find themselves that then lead them to reason and deliberate in particular ways.”

Evidence suggests people are more likely to pay attention to facts within certain emotional states and social situations. Some may never change their minds. For others, policy-makers could better identify those states, for example minimizing the fear that often clouds a person’s ability to assess facts and that has characterized the current health care debate.

sociologist Paul Amato on the latest marriage campaign

Just MarriedFox News reported earlier this week on the new campaign funded by the federal government intended to promote marriage. Their report suggests that supporters of this program insist that they are merely providing information to those who want it, while “critics say Washington is walking a fine line between providing information and advocacy.”

What does the campaign entail, according to Fox News?

Washington plans to soon pour $5 million into a national media campaign aimed at 18-to-30 year olds, outlining the benefits of marriage and tips on having a healthy one. The campaign hinges in part on the Web site,, which cycles readers through advice on the traditional stages of a relationship: dating, engagement, marriage and eventually parenting.

Fox News talked to sociologist Paul Amato about this new initiative…

“There is a huge tax burden involved with divorce and non-marital child bearing,” said Paul Amato, sociology professor at Penn State University who is providing research for the National Healthy Marriage Resource Center’s campaign. “Every year divorce and non-marital child bearing costs us taxpayers over $100 billion a year. That’s year after year after year. That’s a lot of money.”

Amato said the campaign is not trying to govern romance.

“The government shouldn’t be in the job of telling young people what to do with their lives,” he said. “Marriage and relationships are very personal decisions. We just want to provide information for people who choose to seek it out.”

Read more.

the FDA’s control of tobacco

Taking a dragThe Washington Post ran a story this morning on a new bill that would put tobacco under FDA control. The article provides a thorough look at the positions of both advocates and critics on the issue and benefits from the sociological commentary included in the reporting.

Post reporter Lyndsey Layton writes:

Legislation that the House Energy and Commerce Committee will take up today would place tobacco under the control of the Food and Drug Administration. Among other things, the bill would restrict the ways tobacco companies market cigarettes, require them to disclose the ingredients in their products and place larger warning labels on packages, and give the FDA the authority to require the removal of harmful chemicals and additives from cigarettes.

The legislation also seeks to crack down on techniques tobacco companies have used to attract children and teenagers, making it illegal to produce cigarettes infused with strawberry, grape, cloves and other sweet flavors. And it would prohibit tobacco makers from using the terms “low tar” and “light” when describing their products, suggesting a health benefit that scientists say does not exist.

Bring in the sociologist… Patricia McDaniel…

“It’s crazy — here’s this product that kills half of its longtime users, and there are very few restrictions on how it’s made and marketed,” said Patricia McDaniel, a sociologist at the University of California at San Francisco who has studied the history behind the bill.

“There’s a lot of opportunity for the FDA to do some pretty remarkable things: adding more visible warning labels, banning misleading descriptors, some authority over ingredients and allowing the FDA to prohibit certain types of marketing,” she said. “But there are a lot of unknowns. And there are questions about whether the FDA is the agency to regulate tobacco, especially now with the trouble it’s having regulating food and drugs.”

Read more.