Ian Philp, director of the Clean Energy Institute, shares a maxim his mother taught him: "Have a clear, tangible idea of what success---or your goal---looks like when you set out." Photo by MaRS Discovery District, Flickr CC.
Ian Philp, director of the Clean Energy Institute, shares a maxim his mother taught him: “Have a clear, tangible idea of what success—or your goal—looks like when you set out.” Photo by MaRS Discovery District, Flickr CC.

It’s March, and many people’s well-intentioned New Year’s Resolutions have long gone out the window. Making lifestyle changes can be difficult, but in an interview with Washington Post, sociologist Christine Whelan sheds light on how to make a fresh start.

Her first piece of insight comes straight from sociologists’ time use surveys: consider a new habit as not only adding to your schedule, but also subtracting time from other activities. “If I said ‘I want to go the gym for an hour three times a week,’ the first thing I’d have to figure out is, what am I not going to be doing during those hours. But we don’t tend to think about that,” Whelan points out. Prioritization is key. Weighing the costs and benefits of sacrificing an hour spent sleeping or watching House of Cards for an hour at the gym will help determine if your goal is manageable or needs reworking.

Whelan also stresses the importance of making sure the new goal is something you want to accomplish, rather than something you feel like you should be doing. “You’re much less likely to accomplish a change if you don’t want to do it, and it’s not in keeping with your values.”

Finally, she advises against creating a laundry list of goals in favor of developing one new habit at a time. Specific goals are more likely to become habits because, according to Whelan, distinct aspirations are “SMART”:



There’s a Reward for sticking to it

Progress is Trackable

After 90 days of practice, it’s likely that your concerted lifestyle change will pay off: “The longer you stick with it, the more likely it is you’ll develop a habit that you don’t have to think about. It doesn’t require self control, there’s not a lot of active internal debate. You just do it.”

Photo by Shardayyy via flickr.com
Photo by Shardayyy via flickr.com

October is breast cancer awareness month in the U.S. Pink ribbons, 5k races, and educational events mark the campaign to educate the public about the disease and push for more research to find a cure. We hold fundraisers and portray survivors as heroes and positive role models. A number of sociologists and other academics have analyzed and critiqued the U.S. breast cancer industry, including Gayle Sulik, Sabrina McCormick, and Stefano Puntoni.

In other parts of the world however, breast cancer is silently killing women. For one, the disease still carries a stigma that keeps women from accessing treatment. New York Times blogger Denise Grady discusses this stigma towards the disease in developing nations, particularly African countries, as well as the many additional barriers to treatment. These barriers include scarce resources, shame surrounding the disease, corruption, and the real constraints of economic and family responsibilities, all of which make for a deadly combination. Grady states,

Survival rates vary considerably from country to country and even within countries. In the United States, about 20 percent of women who have breast cancer die from it, compared with 40 to 60 percent in poorer countries. The differences depend heavily on the status of women, their awareness of symptoms, and the availability of timely care.

Although it is not new knowledge that diseases disproportionately affect poorer countries and individuals, cancer treatment and education has been neglected in developing nations. It has been overshadowed by other diseases like malaria and AIDS, and due to a lack of public awareness on both the national and international scales, it has been underfunded by governments and foundations. Research from PRI indicates that “cancer kills more people in low- and middle-income countries than AIDS, malaria, and TB combined.”

Child Art, Apple Portrait
As an American who is well under 50, I wasn’t too pleased to read a New York Times’ article published this week.

Younger Americans die earlier and live in poorer health than their counterparts in other developed countries, with far higher rates of death from guns, car accidents and drug addiction, according to a new analysis of health and longevity in the United States.

Researchers have known for a while that the United States fares poorly when compared against other rich countries.  But, most of this research has focused on the health of people of older ages.  This new study, conducted by a panel of experts convened by the Institute of Medicine and the National Research Council, is the first to systematically compare death rates and health measures for people of all ages.

As the NYT article put it, the findings were stark.  American men ranked last in life expectancy among the 17 countries in the study, and American women ranked second to last.

Deaths before age 50 accounted for about two-thirds of the difference in life expectancy between males in the United States and their counterparts in 16 other developed countries, and about one-third of the difference for females.

Car accidents, gun violence, and drug overdoses were major contributors to years of life lost by Americans under age 50.  According to the study, 69% of all American homicide deaths in 2007 involved firearms, compared to an average of 26% in other countries.  Americans also had the highest infant mortality rate, and its young people had the highest rates of teen pregnancy, sexually transmitted diseases, and deaths from car crashes.  In addition, Americans lose more years of life before age 50 to alcohol and drug abuse than people in any of the other countries in the study.

“The bottom line is that we are not preventing damaging health behaviors,” said Samuel Preston, a demographer and sociologist at the University of Pennsylvania, who was on the panel. “You can blame that on public health officials, or on the health care system. No one understands where responsibility lies.”

To read more of the lengthy coverage of the article, click here.

Photo by Dawn Derbyshire via flickr.com

At the American Sociological Association’s Annual Meeting in Denver, researchers presented their on-going research to colleagues in the field. This week, several news sources have covered sociologists’ findings about how events in the lifecourse (like getting married, divorced, or having kids) are related to health issues.

Medical News Today reports on a study by Adrianne Frech and Sarah Damaske, finding that moms who work full-time are healthier at age 40 than are other mothers. Particularly concerning is that the least healthy mothers at age 40 are those who are persistently unemployed or in and out of work, not by choice. Consistent work, these findings suggest, may be good for women’s health.

Co-author Adrianne Frech, Assistant Sociology Professor at the University of Akron in Ohio, told the press, work is good for both physical and mental health, for many reasons:

“It gives women a sense of purpose, self-efficacy, control and autonomy.”

“They have a place where they are an expert on something, and they’re paid a wage,” she added.

NBC News details research conducted by Michael McFarland, Mark Hayward, and Dustin Brown exploring how marriage is related to biological risk factors, such as high blood pressure. They found that women who were continuously married for longer periods of time had fewer cardiovascular risks, whereas women with experiences of divorce or widowhood had increased risk factors.

For women, the researchers found, the longer the marriage, the fewer cardiovascular risk factors. The effect was significant but modest, McFarland said, with every 10 years of continuous marriage associated with a 13 percent decrease in cardiovascular risk.

But when marriage is disrupted, it can be hard on the health. Women who were continuously married had a 40 percent lower count of metabolic risk factors than women who experienced two episodes or divorce or widowhood, the researchers found.

Finally, Deseret News picked up on research presented by Corinne Reczek, Tetyana Pudroyska, and Debra Umberson (also highlighted on Citings&Sightings). Their research found that being in a long-term marriage was associated with more alcohol consumption for women (compared to divorced or recently widowed women). In an interesting contrast, however, married men drink less than other men.

Our survey results show that continuously divorced and recently widowed women consume fewer drinks that continuously married women,” they wrote. “Our qualitative results suggest this occurs because men introduce and prompt women’s drinking and because divorced women lose the influence of men’s alcohol use” when the marriage fails.

As these studies indicate, it is essential to consider how social factors may be related to health outcomes, and sociologists are well positioned to contribute cutting-edge research on these issues.


Just like April’s TSP Media Award for Measured Social Science winner Barbara Risman, there have been quite a few examples lately of sociologists contributing their thoughts and talents to opinion pieces for major news sources. Last week, the New York Times featured op-eds from Arlie Russell Hochschild and Elizabeth Armstrong.

Bravo TV's Millionaire Matchmaker, Patti Stanger, promises to find love... for a price.

First, Hochschild, a professor emerita of sociology at the University of California, Berkeley, wrote about the expanding presence of the capitalistic marketplace in our personal lives. It may seem like second nature to hire a professional to help with a task or develop a skill we lack. But, according to Hochschild’s piece, the sheer extent of services available for purchase is shocking: dating coaches, rental friends, and professional potty trainers. Hochschild goes on to look at some of the more invasive manners in which the market has seeped into our intimate lives, as well as what this says about our society.

Hochschild brings in the work of Michael Sandel, a  professor of government at Harvard, who adds that you can now purchase an upgrade in prison cells in California or buy carpool lane access for solo drivers in Minneapolis (see more, here, with Sandel in recent interview on The Colbert Report about the moral limits of the marketplace).

This increasing tendency to hire professionals to take on personal tasks, Hochschild writes, has some unexpected consequences. She describes our ever-increasing relationship with the free market as a self-perpetuating cycle:

The more anxious, isolated and time-deprived we are, the more likely we are to turn to paid personal services. To finance these extra services, we work longer hours. This leaves less time to spend with family, friends and neighbors; we become less likely to call on them for help, and they on us. And, the more we rely on the market, the more hooked we become on its promises.

In the end, Hochschild sums up, offering a warning about outsourcing our personal lives and emotional attachment:

Focusing attention on the destination, we detach ourselves from the small — potentially meaningful — aspects of experience. Confining our sense of achievement to results, to the moment of purchase, so to speak, we unwittingly lose the pleasure of accomplishment, the joy of connecting to others and possibly, in the process, our faith in ourselves.

Figure from "Breastfeed at Your Own Risk," Julie Artis, Contexts (Fall 2009).

Later in the week, the Times featured Princeton professor Elizabeth Armstrong discussing the harmful effects of  distributing free baby formula samples to new mothers at hospitals. In her op-ed, Armstrong maintains that breast-feeding offers many health benefits to babies, and hospitals should be encouraging women in the practice (she makes no mention of whether “Macho Mothering” like that featured on the controversial cover of TIME will help or hinder such efforts). When hospitals give away formula samples, reports show women are more likely to give up breast-feeding sooner. According to Armstrong, though, it’s easy to see why the hospitals continue to provide the samples:

In exchange for giving out samples, formula manufacturers provide hospitals’ nurseries and neonatal intensive care units with much needed free supplies like bottles, nipples, pacifiers, sterile water and more formula.

Armstong argues that arrangement like these lead to a hypocritical healthcare system. Doctors and medical organizations can preach about the benefits of breast-feeding but when “hospitals send new mothers home with a commercial product that often bears scientific claims on the label about digestion and brain development, it sends a very different message.” For Armstong, the answer is simple:

[H]ospitals should help women get breast-feeding off to a good start by adapting baby-friendly policies like helping mothers initiate breast-feeding after birth, allowing mothers and babies to stay in the same room and, most important, ensuring that infant-feeding decisions are free of commercial influence.

Each of these pieces is a great example of a sociologist putting their own work out into the world in a way that allows everyone to see the benefits of sociological insight and its application to, well, society. Congrats to both professors for so frequently daring to peek out from the pages of journals.

For more on breast-feeding and public service efforts to encourage it, we recommend Julie Artis’ Contexts article “Breastfeed at your own Risk,” available in full online at Contexts.org.



Marriage may be good for the heart, in more ways than one, claims a new study from the Journal of Health and Social Behavior.  The study, which was covered by USA Today, found that married adults who underwent heart surgery were over three times more likely to survive the first three months after the operation.  And, the likelihood of dying within the first five years was nearly double for single individuals.

The lead author of the study is Ellen Idler, a sociologist at Emory University.  Idler and her colleagues interviewed  over 500 patients who underwent emergency or elective coronary bypass surgery prior to their surgeries.  Then, they analyzed the patients’ responses with survival data from the National Death Index.  Overall, marriage boosted survival for both men and women.

“The findings underscore the important role of spouses as caregivers during health crises,” Idler says. The higher long-term death rate for singles was linked to higher smoking rates — but spouses may also play a role in discouraging smoking, the researchers say.

Photo by Jan Siefert via flickr
Photo by Jan Siefert via flickr

Some experience discrimination throughout their lives, while, for others, it’s simply living long enough that leads to discrimination. According to research from Clemson University sociologist Ye Luo and her team that’s reported in The New York TimesNew Old Age blog, nearly two thirds of those over age 53 report having been discriminated against—and the leading cause they report isn’t gender, race, or disability. It’s age.

Now, on its own, this statistic isn’t terribly surprising—many studies have turned up high levels of ageism. But Luo told the Times she was shocked that, over the two-year period of their study, everyday discrimination was found to be associated with higher levels of depression and worse self-reported health. The association held true even as the researchers controlled for general stress resulting from financial problems, illness, and traumatic events. As the Times reports:

Interestingly, the discrimination effect was stronger for everyday slights and suspicions (including whether people felt harassed or threatened, or whether they felt others were afraid of them) than for more dramatic evens like being denied a job or promotion or being unfairly detained or questioned by the police. “Awful things happen and it’s a big shock, but people have ways to resist that damage,” Dr. Luo said. “With maturity, people learn coping skills.” Every day discrimination works differently, apparently. “It may be more difficult to avoid or adapt to,” Dr. Luo suggested. “It takes a toll you may not even realize.”

Although trends may shift as more data comes into focus, it’s already clear that the well-being of older adults is being affected when they experience ageism in their social interactions.

Photo from Seattle Municipal Archives via flickr

Talk about a chronic condition! According to new research from the European Journal of Public Health, higher rates of poor health among women aren’t just the result of reporting bias, but higher actual rates of chronic health problems. MSNBC.com’s “Vitals” section (via MyHealthNews Daily) covers the research, which included interviews and medical records data from over 29,000 Spaniards, and reports:

…when the researchers matched up the number of chronic conditions each person had with his or her health rating, the gender difference disappeared. Having a higher number of chronic conditions correlated with poorer self-rated health to the same degree in both genders.

For men and women with the same conditions, or the same number of conditions, women were no more likely to claim poorer health.

To put these numbers into some context, reporter Sarah C.P. Williams sought out British sociologist Ellen Annandale, who studies the connections between gender and health. Dr. Annandale confirmed the long-standing notion that women simply communicate better and more often with their doctors, but don’t actually experience worse health outcomes than men—but said this new research upends that idea and offers clues to better medical treatment for people of all genders:

“Gender influences that way that people are treated and diagnosed in health systems,” Annandale said. “It influences the kind of health conditions that men and women suffer from, the way people relate to their own bodies, and what kind of access to health care they have.”

Understanding gender differences in health can help scientists and doctors find ways to better treat patients, she said.

“Women generally live longer than men, but in many countries that gap in life expectancy has been decreasing over time. One of the reasons for that is thought to be that men’s health is improving, but women’s is not.”

In an interview discussing whether teen sleepovers can actually prevent teen pregnancy, CNN’s Ali Velshi says flatly, “This is a little bit counter-intuitive.” But as his interviewee, UMass sociologist Amy Schalet (who wrote on this subject in Contexts in “Sex, Love, and Autonomy in the Teenage Sleepover” in the Summer of 2010), explains, “Let me clarify: it’s not a situation where everything goes… It’s definitely older teenage couples who have established relationships and whose parents have talked about contraception.” Which is to say, as Velshi puts it, sex and sex education in countries like the Netherlands, in which parents are more permissive—or as Schalet says, “parents are more connected with their kids”—about allowing boyfriends and girlfriends to sleep over, take “a holistic approach.”

Schalet’s research, explored more deeply in her new University of Chicago book Not Under My Roof, takes a look at American parenting practices surrounding teen sex and the practices of parents in other countries. Using in-depth interviews with parents and teens and a host of other data, she finds:

The takeaway for American parents… isn’t necessarily “You must permit sleepovers.” Many parents are going to say, “Not under my roof!” That’s why it’s the title of my book. The takeaway is that you can have more open conversations—you should probably have more open conversations—about what’s a good relationship, sex and contraception should go together, what does it mean to be “ready,” how to get rid of some of these damaging stereotypes (gender stereotypes). Those are all things that are going to help promote teenage health and better relationships between parents and kids.

Schalet is clear that parental approaches are nowhere near the only factor in the stark differences in teen pregnancy rates between the U.S. and the Netherlands, but says they are, in fact, particularly important. “Kids are having sex, clearly,” Velshi says. And that’s precisely the point, no matter whether parents believe their kids should be able to have sex in their own homes, Schalet believes: “I think what you emphasize is that, above all, the conversation is important, and the conversation itself does not make kids have sex.” Ideally, she points out, that conversation will take place at home with parents, but a holistic talk about sexuality, relationships, and health can also take place in schools, with clergy, and in many other locations.

Mission accomplished! $20 worth of jalapeño cheetos
The phrase “you are what you eat” may refer to more than your physical make-up. In fact, the food in your fridge might say just as much about your social class as about your health.  Newsweek reports:

According to data released last week by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, 17 percent of Americans—more than 50 million people—live in households that are “food insecure,” a term that means a family sometimes runs out of money to buy food, or it sometimes runs out of food before it can get more money. Food insecurity is especially high in households headed by a single mother. It is most severe in the South, and in big cities. In New York City, 1.4 million people are food insecure, and 257,000 of them live near me, in Brooklyn. Food insecurity is linked, of course, to other economic measures like housing and employment, so it surprised no one that the biggest surge in food insecurity since the agency established the measure in 1995 occurred between 2007 and 2008, at the start of the economic downturn.

Growing inequality between the rich and the poor in the United States is reflected at the dinner table as well:

Among the lowest quintile of American families, mean household income has held relatively steady between $10,000 and $13,000 for the past two decades (in inflation-adjusted dollars); among the highest, income has jumped 20 percent to $170,800 over the same period, according to census data. What this means, in practical terms, is that the richest Americans can afford to buy berries out of season at Whole Foods—the upscale grocery chain that recently reported a 58 percent increase in its quarterly profits—while the food insecure often eat what they can: highly caloric, mass-produced foods like pizza and packaged cakes that fill them up quickly.

Using language evocative of sociologist Pierre Bourdieu, one epidemiologist explains:

Lower-income families don’t subsist on junk food and fast food because they lack nutritional education, as some have argued. And though many poor neighborhoods are, indeed, food deserts—meaning that the people who live there don’t have access to a well-stocked supermarket—many are not. Lower-income families choose sugary, fat, and processed foods because they’re cheaper—and because they taste good. In a paper published last spring, Drewnowski showed how the prices of specific foods changed between 2004 and 2008 based on data from Seattle-area supermarkets. While food prices overall rose about 25 percent, the most nutritious foods (red peppers, raw oysters, spinach, mustard greens, romaine lettuce) rose 29 percent, while the least nutritious foods (white sugar, hard candy, jelly beans, and cola) rose just 16 percent.

“In America,” Drewnowski wrote in an e-mail, “food has become the premier marker of social distinctions, that is to say—social class. It used to be clothing and fashion, but no longer, now that ‘luxury’ has become affordable and available to all.”

Concern about rising obesity, especially among low income communities, had led to some controversial policy proposals.

In recent weeks the news in New York City has been full with a controversial proposal to ban food-stamp recipients from using their government money to buy soda. Local public-health officials insist they need to be more proactive about slowing obesity; a recent study found that 40 percent of the children in New York City’s kindergarten through eighth-grade classrooms were either overweight or obese. (Nationwide, 36 percent of 6- to 11-year-olds are overweight or obese.)

But French sociologist Claude Fischler suggests that there might be a better way to address both food insecurity and obesity: Americans should be more French about food.

Americans take an approach to food and eating that is unlike any other people in history. For one thing, we regard food primarily as (good or bad) nutrition. When asked “What is eating well?” Americans generally answer in the language of daily allowances: they talk about calories and carbs, fats, and sugars. They don’t see eating as a social activity, and they don’t see food—as it has been seen for millennia—as a shared resource, like a loaf of bread passed around the table. When asked “What is eating well?” the French inevitably answer in terms of “conviviality”: togetherness, intimacy, and good tastes unfolding in a predictable way.

Even more idiosyncratic than our obsession with nutrition, says Fischler, is that Americans see food choice as a matter of personal freedom, an inalienable right. Americans want to eat what they want: morels or Big Macs. They want to eat where they want, in the car or alfresco. And they want to eat when they want. With the exception of Thanksgiving, when most of us dine off the same turkey menu, we are food libertarians. In surveys, Fischler has found no single time of day (or night) when Americans predictably sit together and eat. By contrast, 54 percent of the French dine at 12:30 each day. Only 9.5 percent of the French are obese.

Others suggest addressing systematic barriers to food accessibility and delivery. According to author and foodie icon Micahel Pollan:

“Essentially,” he says, “we have a system where wealthy farmers feed the poor crap and poor farmers feed the wealthy high-quality food.” He points to Walmart’s recent announcement of a program that will put more locally grown food on its shelves as an indication that big retailers are looking to sell fresh produce in a scalable way. These fruits and vegetables might not be organic, but the goal, says Pollan, is not to be absolutist in one’s food ideology. “I argue for being conscious,” he says, “but perfectionism is an enemy of progress.”

Community activists agree:

Food co-ops and community-garden associations are doing better urban outreach. Municipalities are establishing bus routes between poor neighborhoods and those where well-stocked supermarkets exist.

Joel Berg, executive director of the New York City Coalition Against Hunger, says these programs are good, but they need to go much, much further. He believes, like Fischler, that the answer lies in seeing food more as a shared resource, like water, than as a consumer product, like shoes. “It’s a nuanced conversation, but I think ‘local’ or ‘organic’ as the shorthand for all things good is way too simplistic,” says Berg. “I think we need a broader conversation about scale, working conditions, and environmental impact. It’s a little too much of people buying easy virtue.”re as well,” Berg says…

Berg believes that part of the answer lies in working with Big Food. The food industry hasn’t been entirely bad: it developed the technology to bring apples to Wisconsin in the middle of winter, after all. It could surely make sustainably produced fruits and vegetables affordable and available. “We need to bring social justice to bigger agriculture as well,” Berg says.