Kings of the Court

All eyes have been on LeBron James. Despite some predictions, he hasn't---yet---disappointed.

All eyes have been on LeBron James. Despite some predictions, he hasn’t—yet—disappointed.

When ESPN began broadcasting LeBron James’ high school games to a national audience some years ago, basketball fans asked, “Is he the next Michael Jordan?” Last week, James capped off the 2012-2013 NBA season with his fourth MVP award, leading the Miami Heat to a second consecutive championship (he really did “take his talents to South Beach”). It only cause more people to wonder if James could equal—or surpass—Jordan’s legacy.

Michael Eric Dyson, a sociologist at Georgetown University, made a guest appearance on ESPN’s “First Take” to offer his perspective on the similarities and differences between the two basketball greats, both on and off the court.

As Dyson explained, social movements and commercialization combined when Jordan was drafted by the Chicago Bulls in 1984. The Civil Rights Movement had passed; communication technology which could carry photos, highlights, and live games around the planet was improving; and the NBA’s new commissioner, David Stern, was intent on expanding the league’s global footprint. In Michael Jordan, Stern had found a charismatic ambassador for basketball. Dyson notes, “Jordan comes along at a time when people began to celebrate a tall, dark, handsome, physically lethal specimen who also has the ability to commodify… So when you have the marketplace joining the morality of social advance, that’s something that’s incomparable.”

While “King James” follows in Jordan’s footsteps commercially, Dyson argues that they’re different types of players on the court. Jordan was known for his legendary competitive drive and “killer instinct,” while LeBron, particularly since teaming up with fellow stars Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh in Miami, has earned a reputation as a facilitator who works to involve his teammates as much as possible, perhaps even to a fault.

Like MJ before him, LeBron James is now the global face of the NBA—some love him, some hate him, and most basketball fans are fascinated by him. The marketing of and commentary about the two men’s talents, bodies, and identities provide a rich source of study for social scientists interested in race, media, sport, and culture over time.

Gendered Issues (of Sports Illustrated)

Soccer player Hope Solo covers Sports Illustrated in 2011

Soccer player Hope Solo covers Sports Illustrated in 2011

Title IX has had 40 years to flex its muscles in helping make sport a less gendered venue, and, indeed, more women are participating in and watching sports than ever before.  Oddly enough, the media representation of sports has not followed suit. A new study from sociologists Jonetta Weber and Robert Carini of the University of Louisville reconfirms a long line of research in media representations of athletes by looking at the covers of every issue of Sports Illustrated from the last decade. In an article for the website Jezebel, Madeleine Davies explains the scholars’ troubling results:

Researchers found that of the 716 SI issues published between 2000 and 2011, a mere 35 of them had covers featuring female athletes. That’s only 4.9%.

It’s extra bizarre since 12.6% of the covers from between 1954 and 1965 featured female athletes. And that’s not even the worst part. Only 18 of the recent covers actually had the female athlete as the primary image on the cover—that’s just 2.5%—and only 11 of the 35 issues showed non-white women on the cover. Despite a marked increase in women’s sport participation, one of the best-known sporting news outlets has been gradually phasing out female athletes and their accomplishments.

For more on SI’s troubled history of representing female athletes, check out The Atlantic’s 2011 piece “9 Ways Women Get on the Cover of ‘Sports Illustrated’.”

Guilty Pleasures No More?

A Showtime ad for Gigolos.

A Showtime ad for Gigolos.

Women watch porn and go to strip clubs. They also pay for sex. Sociologist Kassia Wosick from New Mexico State University says this reality is now becoming part of the television canon, making it more “real” for the rest of society. Shows like HBO’s Hung and Showtime’s Gigolos revolve around women as sexual consumers. In an interview with Las Cruces Sun, Wosick explains her motivation:

I wanted to do research like this as opposed to just going out and asking women about their experiences to see the way the media constructs this, because media is essentially supposed to be a reflection of our everyday lives….

Still, we might ask, is this what women want to watch or what they’re given to watch? Through content analysis and focus groups, Wosick has found that women do feel connections with the shows. The racy viewing might be exactly what they need to chip away at a taboo of sexual consumerism and enjoy some the same pleasures that men are allowed—in fact, the images might be empowering and support egalitarianism:

Women participating as sexual consumers challenges traditional notions of gender and sexuality, which I argue is key in equalizing gendered power dynamics within society.

Bystander Journalism?

The controversial New York Post cover, cropped so as not to show the victim, nor the word DOOMED (all caps in the original). Image via

On a busy bridge in Detroit during a traffic jam, Deletha Word was pulled from her car by Martell Welch, whose car she had sideswiped. In view of more than forty people, former football-player Welch savagely beat Word, tearing off her clothes. Welch jumped off the bridge to escape her attacker and subsequently drowned. When I heard this story on the evening news back in 1996, I was horrified that not one of the many onlookers attempted to stop Word’s attack or to pull her from the river (she initially survived the fall, but couldn’t swim). I will never forget my first introduction to the “Bystander Effect,” the social phenomenon in which individuals are less likely to intervene to help someone in distress if there are other people nearby.

The Bystander Effect was highlighted again recently as a result of the notoriously-tactless New York Post’s front-page publication of photographs of a man about to be killed by an oncoming New York City subway train. The man had been pushed onto the tracks after an altercation was struggling to get back onto the platform. Facing criticism for photographing the man’s death, rather than helping pull him from the tracks, the photographer has defended himself in the media. He’s said he could not have gotten to the victim in time to save him, but by taking photos—thus causing his camera’s flash to go off and possibly alert the driver of the train—he hoped to help. Plus, many other people were closer to the man, but did nothing to pull him up.

Arguably, social media has exacerbated the Bystander Effect. Tim Knapp, a sociologist at Missouri State University, commented in an article about the NYC incident, “Now everyone can be a journalist and some times, at the expense of being a good Samaritan.” That is, no longer are onlookers passive observers who “do not want to get involved” or risk their own personal safety; now many bystanders film or photograph the incidents in which they fail to intervene.

Weighty ‘Tudes

An advertisement created by a Georgia children’s hospital. (Image via

At the Huffington Post, UCLA sociologist Abigail Saguy weighs in on weight-based stigma. Saguy notes that while there are health risks associated with obesity, stigma and bullying directed at overweight individuals may prove just as harmful as excess weight.

In particular,  stigma may exacerbate health concerns by discouraging obese women from receiving routine or preventative health care:

For many women, the place where they feel their dignity most crushed is in the doctor’s office. In fact, scores of studies show that “obese” women are less likely to get Pap smears and other medical screens because they experience the doctor’s office to be a hostile environment. And they are not delusional. Study after study shows that medical professionals—in the United States and abroad—believe that their heavier patients are weak-willed and non-compliant. Other women and men are denied health care coverage because they are “morbidly obese.” When lack of screening contributes to higher rates of cervical cancer among “obese” women, we can say that our attitudes about fatness are literally making us sick.

And, Saguy says, public health campaigns aimed at reducing obesity may be adding to the problem:

Just this month, L.A. County launched a new obesity awareness campaign titled “Choose Less, Weigh Less.” News reports on the initiative included photos of headless torsos with overflowing guts. The efficacy of such programs remains unproven. However, there is growing evidence—including from experiments I have conducted with psychologist David Frederick and UCLA sociology graduate student Kjerstin Gruys—that such messages worsen weight-based stigma. In our experiments, people who read news reports that discuss obesity as a public health crisis were more likely to agree with negative stereotypes of fat people as unlikeable, untrustworthy and less intelligent than thinner people, compared to people not having read such articles.

Such studies suggest that in the fight for improved health, shedding weight-based stigma may be as or more important than shedding pounds.

A Doodle in Context

Google Doodle screenshot via 5tjt

Google Doodle screenshot via 5tjt

The doodle on the Google home page today may have raised a few eyebrows. Featuring a dark-skinned man running over a course of hurdles on a pink track lined with green grass, for some, it conjures up the historically problematic association of African Americans with watermelons. An op-ed in Five Towns Jewish Times contemplates whether the doodle is racist, or if it should be dismissed as an unfortunate coincidence. The piece cites a post by Lisa Wade, sociologist and TSP blogger, to unpack why such images are offensive when placed in historical context:

“African Americans,”  the argument went, “were happy as slaves.  They didn’t need the complicated responsibilities of freedom, they just needed some shade and a cool, delicious treat.”

The pervasive association with watermelons has reinforced the stereotype of African Americans as simple-minded and inferior, thus justifying systems of oppression and inequality. With this problematic history, perhaps Google would do well to reconsider this doodle.

TSP’s March 2012 Media Award for Measured Social Science

Stars by takingthemoney via

Just gotta find the gold one... Photo by takingthemoney via

Here in the Citings & Sightings section at The Society Pages we strive to go beyond simply turning your attention to the social scientists getting their work and names in the news. We also aim to commend journalists who, in the pursuit of bringing depth and context to their pieces, reach out to social scientists and take advantage of the unique perspective and data they provide. Without further ado, we are proud to announce the winner of our  TSP Media Awards for Measured Social Science for the month of March 2012:

Stephanie Hegarty, “The myth of the eight-hour sleep.BBC News, February 22, 2012.

As we discussed in our write up of the piece, this article uproots conceptions of “the way it has always been” by highlighting the implications of  historical research. Something as common as our nightly sleep patterns and how we understand “normal sleep” are challenged by Hegarty’s treatment of historians and sleep scientists in a rich and though-provoking manner.

We admit the selection process for this award isn’t exactly scientific or exhaustive, but we did, as a board, work hard to winnow down to our favorite bunch of nominees, and then debate more from there. We also don’t have the deep pocketbooks to offer the winning journalists Stanley-Cup-sized trophies or cash prizes, but we hope our informal award offers both cheer and encouragement to continue the important work of bringing social scientistific knowledge to the broader public. Here’s to March’s best!


The Society Pages

Inaugural TSP Media Awards for Measured Social Science

Stars by takingthemoney via

Just gotta find the gold one... Photo by takingthemoney via flickr

One of the main goals of the Citings & Sightings section at The Society Pages goes beyond simply spotting social scientists and their work in the news to finding great uses of social scientific perspectives and findings in reporting on the issues of the day. To further highlight those journalists and outlets that are doing a top-notch job of giving their work nuance and scientific grounding by reaching out to well-spoken, approachable, and even daring social scientists, we are proud to announce the winners of our inaugural TSP Media Awards for Measured Social Science for the months of January and February 2012.

January 2012: Lauren Collins, “Brave New World: The Tao of Wifi.” New Yorker, December 5, 2011. As we wrote in our post on the piece, “It’d be easy to think that Georg Simmel hasn’t been the talk of the town since he took on Kant, but there he is, resplendent in the New Yorker’s front section.” In this article, Collins not only explores an interesting social phenomenon, but she asks an urban studies professor and draws on classic sociological work to consider something that could be easily overlooked, but turns out to be interesting, revealing, and even deeply funny.

February 2012: Greg Breining, “Higher Ed Leans Left. By Why? And So What?Star Tribune, January 28, 2012. Written up for Citings & Sightings by Alex Casey, this op-ed goes beyond simply reporting Neil Gross and Solon Simmons’ findings on the political bent of the professorial ranks to seeking out social scientists to discuss why the ivory tower might lean left and whether it has any implications for the education provided at institutions of higher ed.

Now, just a note on process: with these informal awards, we hope to hand out some cheers, but we have no grand aspirations to offer cash prizes or trophies (though, oh, how we long to have gold-plated teaspoons to hand out to the lucky and deserving winners!), we simply wish to encourage journalism that engages social science. That said, we’re not being very scientific about the selection: there’s been no systematic review of all the newspapers (even Sarah Palin’s not up to reading all of them), nor have we performed any content analysis searching for “Weber” and “social capital.” Instead, we’ve talked—a lot—as a board, winnowed down our favorites to a set of nominees, and then talked some more. Each month, we’ll announce a new winner and encourage you to go read their piece. We think it’s worth your time!

All the best,

The Society Pages

Erotic Capital in the Likeliest Unlikely Place

Marie Claire January 12 CoverEven in a publication seemingly devoted to the cultivation of erotic capital, you hardly expect to find the term bandied about—but there it is, on p. 75 of the January 2012 issue of Marie Claire magazine. In an article called “Celebrity Mistresses: The New Deal” (which bears the lede, “Meet the young generation of entrepreneurial ‘other women.’ They’re not ashamed, they’re not sorry, and they’re cashing in”) author Kiri Blakely compares celebrity dalliances of the past and present.

Blakely writes:

In the past, celebrity mistresses seemed less eager for the public’s attention. If their ultimate goal was fame and a payday, they were far more subtle about it… Back when mistresses could be depended on for discretion, famous cheaters had the upper hand. They got an extramarital roll in the sack, and, with their lovers hidden from view, they could still preserve their images as upstanding married men.

But, she goes on, “Today’s ‘other women’ know how to get media outlets on the line, lawyer up, and negotiate like fortune 500 CEOs… You have to wonder: who is using whom in these affairs?”

Blakely closes her article with a quick summary of one of the mechanisms at work in these high-profile romps:

If, as sociologist Catherin Hakim writes in her book Erotic Capital, men and feminists have conspired to trick women into giving away their sexuality for free, then these women have renegotiated the payoff. And stars like Kutcher are left with the consequences.

As it turns out, other “lady mags” have taken up the topic of erotic capital (look no further than Elle [“Eros in the Office,” June 2011]), but so have the “lad mags” (see Men’s Health’s Spark Her Sex Drive,” which tries to help readers “invest in” and “bank” their own erotic capital). No matter how it’s being used, it’s always interesting to watch a piece of a academic jargon make its way into the mainstream. Perhaps it’s just a faster process when the term’s a bit titillating!

Social Media in the 1500s

A Forgery of the 95 Theses

A forgery of the 95 Theses in the Penn Libraries Collection

We often hear how Facebook, Twitter, and other social media contribute to protests and demonstrations by allowing activists to express their views or coordinate their actions. Social media were a big part of Arab Spring, but they were also a large part of the Reformation, says an article from The Economist. Nearly 500 years ago, Martin Luther went viral by circulating pamphlets, woodcuts, and other social media of that day in order to spread the message of religious reform.

The start of the Reformation is generally explained as a three-step process: 1. Martin Luther gets fed up with members of the Catholic Church asking for money to free souls, 2. Luther pins a list of 95 Theses (in Latin) to the Church door, and 3. The Reformation has begun. But, a closer look reveals Martin Luther spent more time thinking about social media:

The unintentional but rapid spread of the “95 Theses” alerted Luther to the way in which media passed from one person to another could quickly reach a wide audience. “They are printed and circulated far beyond my expectation,” he wrote in March 1518 to a publisher in Nuremberg who had published a German translation of the theses. But writing in scholarly Latin and then translating it into German was not the best way to address the wider public. Luther wrote that he “should have spoken far differently and more distinctly had I known what was going to happen.” For the publication later that month of his “Sermon on Indulgences and Grace”, he switched to German, avoiding regional vocabulary to ensure that his words were intelligible from the Rhineland to Saxony. The pamphlet, an instant hit, is regarded by many as the true starting point of the Reformation.

While it sounds pretty different (imagine communicating through woodcuts!), the media environment Luther circulated in shared some similarities with today. It was a decentralized system in which participants distributed messages through sharing—Luther passed the text of a pamphlet to a friendly printer, who could print the small text in a day or two.  Copies of this first edition, which cost about the same as a chicken, spread through the town they were printed in, being picked up by traveling merchants, preachers, or traders, and spread across the country. Local printers would then reprint their own editions, much like Facebook “shares” or Twitter “retweets.”

And, as with collective action in the 21st century, social media could  be dangerous during the Reformation:

In the early years of the Reformation expressing support for Luther’s views, through preaching, recommending a pamphlet or singing a news ballad directed at the pope, was dangerous. By stamping out isolated outbreaks of opposition swiftly, autocratic regimes discourage their opponents from speaking out and linking up. A collective-action problem thus arises when people are dissatisfied, but are unsure how widely their dissatisfaction is shared, as Zeynep Tufekci, a sociologist at the University of North Carolina, has observed in connection with the Arab spring. The dictatorships in Egypt and Tunisia, she argues, survived for as long as they did because although many people deeply disliked those regimes, they could not be sure others felt the same way. Amid the outbreaks of unrest in early 2011, however, social-media websites enabled lots of people to signal their preferences en masse to their peers very quickly, in an “informational cascade” that created momentum for further action.

Something very similar happened in the Reformation. A1523-24 surge in reform-pamphlet popularity (including those written by Luther and many others) served as a collective signaling mechanism of Luther’s support. Luther had been declared a heretic, but, because of his supporters, he was able to escape execution, and the Reformation became established in much of Germany. The power of social media is anything but new.