Grandmothers on the World Stage

Edmon de Haro's Atlantic.com depiction of Clinton's age advantage.
Edmon de Haro’s Atlantic.com depiction of Clinton’s age advantage.

 

Why Age May Be Hillary’s Secret Weapon” is the cover tease for a provocative little piece in the new issue of The Atlantic (June 2015) on women, aging, culture, and power in contemporary society. The piece starts by pondering why, in an evolutionary context, female humans live so long and what role(s) postmenopausal women fulfill for the species. This science-y context sets the stage for an essentially sociological attempt to explain why “people of both sexes may feel more comfortable with ambitious older women than with ambitious younger ones.”

The bulk of the article reviews a body of social scientific research on the biases women face in the workplace and society at large, and how some of these constraints may be mitigated as women get older and, especially, become grandmothers. The larger implication is that candidate Clinton and others are actively “playing the granny card” in positioning their public images against other stereotypes about women in positions of authority and power.

A lot of the work comes out of psychology (especially the experimental stuff) but some sociological contributions find their way in  as well. Indeed, there is a quote from Stanford sociologist Shelley Correll, and even an in-print reference to the American Journal of Sociology! And the overarching conclusion or claim is more positive, more progressive than what usually comes out of such research: “…the current cohort of female eminences grises may herald an era when aging, for women, ceases to be an enemy, and even becomes a friend.”

The main problem is that I’m not exactly sure if there really is a new generation of powerful women turning age to their advantage. Is this a real phenomenon or social trend? Certainly, Hillary Clinton and Elizabeth Warren are making headlines in United States politics, and Angela Merkel as German Chancellor is historic. And I’m happy to see Janet Yellen and Christine Lagarde in positions of economic leadership (as Chair of Federal Reserve’s Board of Governors and Head of the International Monetary Fund, respectively). But who else are we talking about? Does four or five or even a dozen or two dozen such women—gratifying as that might be in and of itself—really constitute a cultural transformation? Even The Atlantic admits the sample size is small. It could well be that we are drawing some pretty big conclusions and implications out of some developments that are quite recent and fairly limited.

Perhaps I shouldn’t nitpick an article that is doing the honorable work of promoting and assessing the rise of women’s status and power in society and bringing social science research to bear on issues of public interest and significance. I am fully on-board with both aims. Still, the sociologist in me can’t help but want to know whether we are talking about real social shifts and trends or just some exceptional—albeit exciting—individual-level developments. The answer to that question has some very real implications for how we use the research and the meaning and significance we draw from all of this.

Holy Week, Hoops, and Hoosier State Law

IndianaNCAA

 

What to feature on the home page this week? How about some research on religion and society, since Passover and Easter are coming up? Or perhaps we should do something on LGBTQ discrimination, given the law that just got passed in Indiana (and a similar one Arkansas’s governor unexpectedly rejected). But maybe those stories are better framed sociologically in terms of protests and social movements, given all of the controversy that has surrounded it. Or does this actually require a religious analysis? After all, the legislation was called “The Restoring Religious Freedom Act.” Maybe, instead of playing our usual “Debbie Downer” role, we should just have some fun and find a piece on the Final Four, March Madness, and the whole spectacle of sport in modern society. (Though, truthfully, talking about college basketball as “spectacle” already feels like falling into familiar habits.)

If only we had a piece that brought all this together in one fell swoop. If only we had a piece that could connect the various dots of religion, rights and freedoms, LGBTQ discrimination, public policy and political protest, and mass-mediated, spectacle sports. And, can we get that before the high holidays are over?

Actually, in a way we have such a piece, or at least the building blocks for one. I’m referring to the drama that is being played out right in front of us this very week in Indiana as Governor Mike Pence, under heavy pressure from those calling for the NCAA to pull its headquarters (if not the Final Four itself) out of the state, scrambles to “fix” the legislation his legislature just approved. What a story! Here we see religion and sexuality come right up against each other, how the Constitutional “rights” of some are balanced (or not) against the Constitutional “freedoms” of others. Here we can observe how institutional power plays out against political protest and passionate social movements, as well as try to ferret out where the mass media and corporate interests with such stakes in March’s Madness will come down. Here we can watch as that seemingly fun, apolitical realm of sport suddenly gets pulled into a very high profile, very controversial, very political debate. And it is all happening during one of the most sacred weeks of the year. (I was talking about the religious folks when I first wrote that but I guess I shouldn’t leave the sports fans out–especially since I count myself, for better or worse, as a member of both of these passionate communities.) It’s almost too good to be true–from a sociological, home page-type point of view.

Of course, we don’t really have that story—or should I say that analysis—yet. If you are working on that and have something to share, please send it along. Sociological analysis doesn’t just write itself. In the meantime, let me share two smaller pieces that might help provide some frame and context.

One is a “TROT!” (There’s Research on That!) piece pulling together some great sociological research on the squishiness (that’s our technical term) of laws regarding religious freedom and the rights of refusal–that is, legal attempts to codify which forms of discrimination on the basis of race, religion, or sexual orientation are allowed; whose rights and freedoms are inscribed and institutionalized; and the problems with trying to enforce these laws and statutes in actual social life. So, while nearly half of all U.S. states have religious freedom and right of refusal laws on the books, most also include codicils specifying that businesses cannot discriminate on the basis of race, religion, or sexual orientation. How Indiana and Arkansas’s laws will—or will not—open the door for business owners and others to close theirs, refusing service to LGBTQ-identified citizens, should be interesting and the research compiled in this piece should help you understand the complexities and perhaps even anticipate how the drama will unfold.

Second, I’d like to direct you to the white paper Kyle Green and yours truly wrote for the TSP politics volume a little while back: “Sport and Politics: Strange, Secret Bedfellows.” The way in which politics and sport are colliding in Indiana right now is nothing new or novel. Too often when we are watching sports we don’t even see the politics being played out right in front of us. And too many of us are too quick to cynically dismiss struggles in the politic realm as mere games that don’t matter anymore. This stuff matters, no matter what side you are on or which team you are rooting for.

Ferguson, the Morning After

What a night. What a disturbing, terrifying, disconcerting night. A questionable grand jury process. Explanations and pushback. Protests. Police, lots of police. Media everywhere. Some looting and violence. Gas and smoke. Images of burning buildings and cars—fiery images that seem to be on a continuous loop this morning, this difficult morning after. How to make sense of it all? What to say? What to do?

I looked to and start with the President, President Obama, our President. The President’s words last night, in the immediate aftermath of the release of the grand jury decision, were measured, subdued, and multifaceted—begging for peace, pleading for calm and, more importantly, trying to get folks from all different sides with such divergent reactions to better understand each other. I saw our leader trying to explain why, on the one hand, we must respect the rule of law, our law enforcement agents, and the workings of the criminal justice system–as well as why, on the other hand, we need to understand, really understand, why there is so much anger and frustration and resentment from so many. It was very typical Obama—trying, cautiously and stoically, to be that voice of compassion and understanding, that bridge across racial and ideological and political lines, subtlety appealing to our common humanity, our bigger ideals, our better angels.

As a sociologist and a citizen, I found myself deeply sympathetic and aligned. In fact, it is probably the kinds of things I would have said if I had I been in the President’s shoes or on his speech writing team. Although I would have probably developed and further specified the deep and historical sources of anger and frustration—not only with respect to racial disparities and injustices within the criminal justice system at all levels, but also the legacies of segregated housing and lending polices, the realities of poverty, poor education, and unemployment, the persistence of so many stereotypes and racially charged images and rhetoric—I still would have asked for some kind of balance and some larger peace and understanding. In fact, much as Todd Beer in his SocSource/TSP post from earlier in the fall on “Teaching Ferguson,” I still believe that these deeply racialized and even racist historical forces, institutional policies, and contemporary realities—and the very different ways in which they are perceived and understood (or ignored or disavowed)—are crucial to both understanding and explaining both Ferguson the town and Ferguson the cultural firestorm. And this broader historical context and social conditions are all too often missing from media coverage, political discourse, and public understanding with their focus on the specific case in its immediacy and its concreteness. This in mind, I probably also would have also talked about the profound, deeply sociological challenge of confronting obvious, patterned, and systemic inequities of race in both the criminal justice system and the society at large without losing sight of the fact that the specifics of any given incident, event, or case are unique, may not stand in microcosm for the whole, and are probably not the appropriate focus for systemic, institutional change.

But the problem is that all of this, at least as I was watching last night and trying to think it back through this morning, is a little too measured, a little too dispassionate. Part of this is that the whole abstract language of a multi-point, multifaceted analysis and perspective is a little bit too communitarian. That is, it is too heavy on the language of common understanding of our mutual situation when what we are really talking about is the extremely divergent reactions and response of very different and indeed radically polarized communities. There are specific sides and radically different perspectives here, and the stakes require responding to them on their own grounds. Ultimately, however, I think this response–both the President’s and my own—is unsatisfying at the moment, because it is too much about analysis and understanding, and not enough about action, response—what to do and who will lead. Too often the call for calm, clear thinking analysis and understanding—no matter how accurate, no matter how potentially useful—never gets to the next step. Good sociology, in short, does not always make meaningful leadership, much less transformative response and meaningful change.

Ezra Klein’s Vox column this morning (“Why Obama won’t give the Ferguson speech his supporters want”) helped give me a better sense of why Obama gave the speech he did. He is capable of more. Indeed, he did more–much more–on the campaign trail leading up to his historic ascendence to the presidency. But now, as President, he is in a different position. Obama’s challenge is not so much that he needs to try to speak to and represent the nation as a whole. Obama’s challenge right now, according to Klein, is that in our polarized political climate—and no figure is more polarizing than the President, according to the political scientists—anything Obama says on any given issue or cause, any specific position he takes or policy he argues for, tends to be damaging to the cause or any allies he may have. Obama and his advisors have—rightly, it would seem—realized that he is hemmed in and it is better for him to take a middle ground rather than inflame passions yet again. (Immigration, of course, is the exception to this, the arena where Obama and his team have decided to take the hit and fight the good fight, but that is a single and quite exceptional case at this point, as much about political position and institutional power as about rhetoric, understanding, and dialogue).

Ultimately, however, I find myself thinking not about Obama’s political challenges but about the limits and indeed pathologies of a dispassionate if accurate sociological response in a moment of such historical crisis and upheaval. Focusing on the roots and conditions as well as on the need for shared, overarching understanding just doesn’t seem like quite enough. Necessary, but not enough.

Friday Roundup: Awards Edition!

RU122013Before we get to the heart of the matter, let’s just put it out there: SocImages’ annual Christmas Roundup is ready and ripe for the readin’! Get it!

Now, rather than our usual Roundup, it’s time to announce this year’s fully unscientific, but fully entertaining TSP Awards! Hopefully these excellent pieces from our original content, our blogs, and beyond will keep you in reading material in the days of travel and food comas ahead. We wish you a wonderful New Year full of health, productivity, and ridiculousness, because every good year is a little ridiculous. more...

Friday Roundup: Nov. 15, 2013

RU111513The Care and Feeding of Co-Authors:

As Chris Uggen pointed out on the Twitters, it’s easy to disappoint your coworkers. Whether it’s producing actual Swedish Fish when a candy-mergency arises in a late-night writing session or dropping the ball when it’s your turn to write the lit review, there are just so many opportunities to co-write badly. Here’s my very quick editorial advice should you decide to undertake a co-authored project: more...

Friday Roundup: Nov. 8, 2013

RU110813Missing the Point

I was so struck last night to hear a little piece about the sociologist Clifford Nass on NPR (in a fun side note, I’d like to point out that Nass was also a computer scientist and professional magician… which is pertinent to the next sentence). Yes, he was known for his warning that multitasking was dangerous to real thought and real learning, but what caught my ear was how his colleagues spoke of his relationship with expanding technologies. Nass didn’t seem to have any antipathy for the tech—he saw its utility, of course—but he realized that all those blinky things were going to be attention sucks. Multiple distractions tend to be bad when you aren’t a good multitasker (to be fair, he didn’t think anyone was a good multitasker), but worse, he seemed to believe, the divided attention meant that his students paid attention to too much noise. Over time, he felt his students were getting worse and worse at understanding an argument and repeating it clearly. They weren’t good at finding the point or pulling out a specific nugget of information from a whole article. They had trained themselves (or been trained by their technologies) to see the forest, not the trees. I’m not wholly convinced, but I am intrigued—and I’m sad that the world has lost another great sociologist in the meantime. more...

Friday Roundup: Oct. 18, 2013

RU101713A Digression on Writerly Fitness:

I’ve been reading and writing a bit about fitness lately, and I’ve noticed two trends come up again and again: High Intensity Interval Training (HIIT) and “body confusion.” What does this have to do with TSP and writing you ask? Excellent question.  more...

Politics as a Vocation

Hodges
Star-Tribune photo

I’ve long believed a graduate degree in the social sciences provides excellent preparation for elective office. We learn to critically analyze data, to abstract from individual cases to broader social processes, and to understand how both powerful institutions and grass-roots movements shape the social world. Though few U.S. sociologists have entered the fray since Pat Moynihan left the Senate, our training and experience should prepare us well for many  aspects of the political arena.

Consider today’s Star-Tribune  profile of Betsy Hodges, who is making a strong run to become mayor of Minneapolis. Ms. Hodges, who did her graduate work in sociology at Wisconsin, is characterized in the following terms:

  • “numbers-oriented and careful with her words”
  • “adept at untangling complicated financial matters”
  • “a theme of activism around social justice”
  • a concern with “people being separated from one another by things that don’t matter”
  • showing “leadership above and beyond her own stated personal views and keeping people together”

Ms. Hodges certainly possessed many of these skills and orientations before entering graduate school (though I believe that Wisconsin implanted a “numbers-oriented and careful with words” chip in all graduate students throughout the 1990s). So why don’t more of us pursue politics as a vocation? I got a glimpse of the answer when I chided a legislator for not “demonstrating courage”  on a crime policy. He said, “its a helluva lot easier to be courageous when you’re not running for reelection. Give me your university tenure and I’d demonstrate courage up the [wazoo].”  Good point, that — and all the more reason to appreciate courageous sociologist-politicians like Betsy Hodges.

 

Friday Roundup (Monday Edition): Oct. 14, 2013

Ru101413What Does the Letta Say?

EEP! There was no Friday Roundup. Guess who’s fault that is? Mine-oh-mine. But to make it up to you, here’s some fresh Monday morning reading!

In Case You Missed It:

The Fascination and Frustration with Native American Mascots,” by Jennifer Guiliano. A look at the history and fight over mascots, as the Redskins go 1-4 in the NFC East.

Editors’ Desk:

Sketch #4: TSP @ White House,” by Chris Uggen. Dr. Uggen goes to Washington. more...

Sketch #4: TSP @ White House

hagan_foster13I was surprised to receive an invitation to speak at the White House this August, as part of a parental incarceration workshop sponsored by the American Bar Foundation and National Science Foundation. Though I’d written a bit on the subject and had followed the research closely for a decade, I could not claim any great expertise. Fortunately, they didn’t need me for that. They’d already assembled an impressive roster of experts to speak on topics such as demography and family dynamics, behavioral and health problems, education and exclusion, justice policy, and caring for children. My job, according to the draft agenda, was to offer “concluding comments” in the final half-hour session. Or, as John Hagan put it, “Just do what you do.”

Riiiiight. Do what I do.

Well, I couldn’t just come out and ask what I do, so I decided to do TSP. more...