Author Archives: Lisa Wade, PhD

Why I Called it “The Family” and What That Has To Do with Cosby

First, a note on language

In American English books from 1910 to 1950, about 25% of the uses of “family” were preceded by “the.” Starting about 1950, however, “the family” started falling out of fashion, finally dropping below 16% of “family” uses in the mid-2000s. This trend coincides with the modern rise of family diversity.

In her classic 1993 essay, “Good Riddance to ‘The Family’,” Judith Stacey wrote,

no positivist definition of the family, however revisionist, is viable. … the family is not an institution, but an ideological, symbolic construct that has a history and a politics.

The essay was in Journal of Marriage and the Family, published by the National Council on Family Relations. In 2001, in a change that as far as I can tell was never announced, JMF changed its name to Journal of Marriage and the Family, which some leaders of NCFR believed would make it more inclusive. It was the realization of Stacey’s argument.

I decided on the title very early in the writing of my book: The Family: Diversity, Inequality, and Social Change. I agreed with Stacey that the family is not an institution. Instead, I think it’s an institutional arena: the social space where family interactions take place. I wanted to replace the narrowing, tradition-bound term, with an expansive, open-ended concept that was big enough to capture both the legal definition and the diversity of personal definitions. I think we can study and teach the family without worrying that we’re imposing a singular definition of what that means.

It takes the unique genius that great designers have to capture a concept like this in a simple, eye-catching image. Here is how the artists at Kiss Me I’m Polish did it:

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What goes in the frame? What looks like a harmless ice-breaker project — draw your family! — is also a conceptual challenge. Is it a smiling, generic nuclear family? A family oligarchy? Or a fictional TV family providing cover for an abusive, larger-than-life father figure who lectures us about morality while concealing his own serial rape behind a bland picture frame?

Whose function?

Like any family sociologist, I have great respect for Andrew Cherlin. I have taught from his textbook, as well as The Marriage Go-Round, and I have learned a lot from his research, which I cite often. But there is one thing in Public and Private Families that always rubbed me the wrong way when I was teaching: the idea that families are defined by positive “functions.”

Here’s the text box he uses in Chapter 1 (of an older edition, but I don’t think it’s changed), to explain his concept:

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I have grown more sympathetic to the need for simplifying tools in a textbook, but I still find this too one-sided. Cherlin’s public family has the “main functions” of child-rearing and care work; the private family has “main functions” of providing love, intimacy, and emotional support. Where is the abuse and exploitation function?

That’s why one of the goals that motivated me to finish the book was to see the following passage in print before lots of students. It’s now in Chapter 12: Family Violence and Abuse:

We should not think that there is a correct way that families are “supposed” to work. Yes, families are part of the system of care that enhances the lived experience and survival of most people. But we should not leap from that observation to the idea that when family members abuse each other, it means that their families are not working. … To this way of thinking, the “normal” functions of the family are positive, and harmful acts or outcomes are deviations from that normal mode.

The family is an institutional arena, and the relationships between people within that arena include all kinds of interactions, good and bad. … And while one family member may view the family as not working—a child suffering abuse at the hands of a trusted caretaker, for example—from the point of view of the abuser, the family may in fact be working quite well, regarding the family as a safe place to carry out abuse without getting caught or punished. Similarly, some kinds of abuse—such as the harsh physical punishment of children or the sexual abuse of wives—may be expected outcomes of a family system in which adults have much more power than children and men (usually) have more power than women. In such cases, what looks like abuse to the victims (or the law) may seem to the abuser like a person just doing his or her job of running the family.

Huxtable family secrets

Which brings us to Bill Cosby. After I realized how easy it was to drop photos into my digital copy of the book cover, I made a series of them to share on social media — and planning to use them in an introductory lecture — to promote this framing device for the book. On September 20th of this year I made this figure and posted it in a tweet commemorating the 30th anniversary of The Cosby Show:

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Ah, September. When I was just another naïve member of the clueless-American community, using a popular TV family to promote my book, blissfully unaware of the fast-approaching marketing train wreck beautifully illustrated by this graph of internet search traffic for the term “Cosby rape”:

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I was never into The Cosby Show, which ran from my senior year in high school through college graduation (not my prime sitcom years). I love lots of families, but I don’t love “the family” any more than I love “society.” Like all families, the Huxtables would have had secrets if they were real. But now we know that even in their fictional existence they did have a real secret. Like some real families, the Huxtables were a device for the family head’s abuse of power and sexuality.

So I don’t regret putting them in the picture frame. Not everything in there is good. And when it’s bad, it’s still the family.

Philip N. Cohen is a professor of sociology at the University of Maryland, College Park. He is the author of The Family: Diversity, Inequality, and Social Change and writes the blog Family Inequality. You can follow him on Twitter or Facebook.

The Paradox of Women’s Sexuality in Breast Feeding Advocacy and Breast Cancer Campaigns

My sister-in-law Charlotte was recently loudly admonished by a flight attendant on an international flight for allowing her “breast to fall out” after she fell asleep while nursing her baby. A strong advocate for breastfeeding, Charlotte has shared with me her own discomfort with public breastfeeding because it is considered gross, matronly, and “unsexy.”

I heard this over and over again from women I have interviewed for my research:  Women who breastfed often feel they have to cover and hide while breastfeeding at family functions. As one mom noted, “Family members might be uncomfortable so I leave room to nurse—but miss out on socializing.”  This brings on feelings of isolation and alienation. Because of the “dirty looks” and clear discomfort by others, women reported not wanting to breastfeed in any situation that could be considered “public.”

Meanwhile, I flip through the June 2012 issue of Vanity Fair and see this ad:

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We capitalize on the sexualization of the breast to raise awareness about breast cancer. Yet, we cringe at the idea of a woman nursing her child on an overnight flight.

What’s happening here? These campaigns send contradictory messages to women about their breasts and the way women should use them, but they have something in common as well: both breastfeeding advocacy and breast cancer awareness-raising campaigns tend to reduce women to body parts that reflect the social construction of gender and sexuality.

Breast cancer awareness campaigns explicitly adopt a sexual stance, focusing on men’s desire for breasts and women’s desire to have breasts to make them attractive to men. Breast milk advocates focus on the breast as essential for good motherhood. Breastfeeding mothers sit at the crossroads: Their breasts are both sexualized and essential for their babies, so they can either breastfeed and invoke disgust, or feed their child formula and attract the stigma of being a bad mother.

Both breastfeeding advocacy programs and breast cancer awareness-raising campaigns demonstrate how socially constructed notions of ownership and power converge with the sexualization and objectification of women’s breasts. And, indeed, whether breast feeding or suffering breast cancer, women report feeling helpless and not in control of their bodies. As Jazmine Walker has written, efforts to “help” women actually “[pit] women against their own bodies.”

Instead, we need to shift away from a breast-centered approach to a women-centered approach for both types of campaigns. We need to, as Jazmine Walker advocates, “teach women and girls how to navigate and control their experiences with health care professionals,” instead of pushing pink garb and products and sexualizing attempts to raise awareness like “save the ta-tas.”  Likewise, we need to support women’s efforts to breastfeed, if they choose to, instead of labeling “bad moms” if they do not or cannot. Equipped with information and bolstered by real sources of support, women will be best able to empower themselves.

Jennifer Rothchild, PhD is in the sociology and gender, women, & sexuality studies departments at the University of Minnesota, Morris. She is the author of Gender Trouble Makers: Education and Empowerment in Nepal and is currently doing research on the politics of breastfeeding.

Inequality in the Skies: Applying the Gini Index to Airplanes

I’m on a plane right now, flying from Sacramento back to Albany. And sitting here I’m reminded of how air travel itself reflects the growing inequality of society in a trivial, but suggestive, way.

Planes have always had first-class and passenger cabins, at least as far as I know. If the Titanic had this distinction, I’m guessing it was in place from the beginning of commercial aviation.

But for most of my adult life, planes — at least the ones I usually fly on, from one U.S. city to another — looked something like this:

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Just roughing it out here, this means that 7% of the passengers used about 15% of the room, with the other 93% using 85% of the cabin space. Such a plane would have a Gini index of about 8. The Gini index is measure of inequality, a fancy statistical way of representing inequality in the income distribution of a country’s population. For reference, the U.S. Gini is about 48, and the global one is around 65.

Domestic airlines have pretty much moved to a three-tier system now, in which the traditional first-class seating is supplemented by “Economy Plus,” in which you get an extra three or four inches of legroom over the standard “Economy” seats. I, as usual, am crammed into what should really be called “Sardine Class” — where seats now commonly provide a pitch of 31”, a few inches down from what most planes had a decade ago.

In today’s standard U.S. domestic configuration, the 12% of people in first class use about 25% of the passenger space, the 51 people in Economy Plus use another 30%, leaving the sardines — the other 157 people — with 45%. That gives us a Gini index of about 16.

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Transatlantic flights, however, are increasingly taking this in-the-air distinction to new heights. Take, for example, the below United configuration of the Boeing 777. It boasts seats that turn into beds on which one can lie fully horizontal. United calls this new section of bed-seats “BusinessFirst.”

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Unsurprisingly, though, these air-beds take up even more space than a nice comfy first class seat. So if we look again at how the space is distributed, we now have 19% of the people using about 35% of the plane, 27% using another 25%, and the final 52% using the last 40%. The Gini index has now increased to 25.

It’s not often you see such a clear visual representation of our collective acceptance of the right of a small fraction of people to consume a very disproportionate percentage of resources. I wonder how much of the shift is actually driven by increased inequality, as opposed to improved capacity for price discrimination.

And it’s also worth noting that the plane above, while unequal relative to the old-fashioned three-rows-of-first-class-and-the-rest-economy layout, is still nowhere near the inequality of the U.S., or the world.

Elizabeth Popp Berman, PhD is an associate professor of sociology at the University at Albany.  She is the author of Creating the Market University: How Academic Science Became an Economic Engine and regularly blogs at OrgTheory, where this post originally appeared.

Just for Fun: Data is Plural, Except When It Isn’t

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By xkcd.

Lisa Wade is a professor of sociology at Occidental College and the co-author of Gender: Ideas, Interactions, Institutions. You can follow her on Twitter and Facebook.

Chart of the Week: Gender Segregation of Toys Is On the Rise

Some nice news has come out lately that the occasional toy store is taking the words boy and girl off of their aisle signs — mostly in Sweden, I say half-jokingly — but Google ngrams suggests that we’re nowhere near backing off of separating children’s toys by sex.

Sociologist Philip Cohen graphed the frequency of “toys for boys” and “toys for girls” relative to “toys for children.” This is just language, and it’s just American English, but it’s one indication that the consciousness raising efforts of organizations like Let Toys Be Toys is still on the margins of mainstream society.

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As you can see from the graph, the extent to which children are actively talked about as gendered subjects varies over time.

One explanation for why companies resist androgynous toys and clothes for children — an arguably adults, too — has to do with money. If parents with a boy and a girl could get away with one set of toys, they wouldn’t need to buy a second. And if they could hand down clothes from girls to boys and vice versa, they would buy less clothes. The same could be said for borrowing and trading between family members and friends.

It would really cut into the profits of these companies if we believed that all items for children were interchangeable. They work hard to sustain the lie that they are not.

Lisa Wade is a professor of sociology at Occidental College and the co-author of Gender: Ideas, Interactions, Institutions. You can follow her on Twitter and Facebook.

Against the Idea that Sex Selection is Culturally “Asian”

Flashback Friday.

New York Times article broke the story that a preference for boy children is leading to an unlikely preponderance of boy babies among Chinese-Americans and, to a lesser but still notable extent, Korean- and Indian-Americans.

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Explaining the trend, Roberts writes:

In those families, if the first child was a girl, it was more likely that a second child would be a boy, according to recent studies of census data. If the first two children were girls, it was even more likely that a third child would be male.

Demographers say the statistical deviation among Asian-American families is significant, and they believe it reflects not only a preference for male children, but a growing tendency for these families to embrace sex-selection techniques, like in vitro fertilization and sperm sorting, or abortion.

The article explains the preference for boy children as cultural, as if Chinese, Indian, and Korean cultures, alone, expressed a desire to have at least one boy child.  Since white and black American births do not show an unlikely disproportion of boy children, the implication is that a preference for boys is not a cultural trait of the U.S.

Actually, it is.

In 1997 a Gallup poll found that 35% of people preferred a boy and 23% preferred a girl (the remainder had no preference). In 2007 another Gallup poll found that 37% of people preferred a boy, while 28% preferred a girl.

I bring up this data not to trivialize the preference for boys that we see in the U.S. and around the world, but to call into question the easy assumption that the data presented by the New York Times represents something uniquely “Asian.”

Instead of emphasizing the difference between “them” and “us,” it might be interesting to try to think why, given our similarities, we only see such a striking disproportionality in some groups.

Some of the explanation for this might be cultural (e.g., it might be more socially acceptable to take measures to ensure a boy-child among some groups), but some might also be institutional. Only economically privileged groups have the money to take advantage of sex selection technology (or even abortion, as that can be costly, too). Sex selection, the article explains, costs upwards of $15,000 or more. Perhaps not coincidentally, Chinese, Korean, and Indian Asians are among the more economically privileged minority groups in the U.S.

Instead of demonizing Asian people, and without suggesting that all groups have the same level of preference for boys, I propose a more interesting conversation: What enables some groups to act on a preference for boys, and not others?

Originally posted in 2009.

Lisa Wade is a professor of sociology at Occidental College and the co-author of Gender: Ideas, Interactions, Institutions. You can follow her on Twitter and Facebook.

Science News Fail: How NOT to Illustrate Your Story

Mainstream media outlets such as the Today ShowMarie Claire, and Huffington Post have been reporting on a new scientific study that claims “women talk more than men.” These media outlets report there’s new “biological evidence to support the idea that women are more talkative than men.”

Not quite! The results from the actual scientific study published in The Journal of Neuroscience have found the brain protein responsible for the difference between girls’ and boys’ language acquisition. The study is entitled, “Foxp2 Mediates Sex Difference in Ultrasonic Vocalization by Rat Pups and Directs Order of Maternal Retrieval.”

Admittedly, it doesn’t quite have the ring of “Women Talk More Than Men.” Additionally, the aforementioned media outlets have also been referencing (with no scientific citation) the statistic that on average women speak 20,000 words per day compared to the mere 7,000 words spoken my men. A study from 2007 published in the journal Science contradicts these findings. The researchers found that men and women actually speak about the same number of words per day.

But that didn’t stop Today from running this image from Getty Images to go along with their story: 2 The researchers do not mention anything about women talking more than men throughout the paper, but rather why girls tend to start speaking earlier and with greater complexity than boys of the same age. The researchers started to analyze the levels of Foxp2 protein in the brains of male and female rats. The protein levels were higher in males than females in brain areas associated with cognition, emotion, and vocalization and male rats made more noises. The researchers extended their findings to analyzing human brain tissue from girls and boys in a preliminary study of Foxpt2 protein. They found boys had lower levels of the Foxpt2 protein than girls in the brain region associated with language.

Therefore, the broader conclusion that can be drawn from this study is not that women talk more than men, but rather a possible origin as to why there are language differences between the sexes. The findings help to explain why girls may exhibit consistent advantages in early language acquisition and development compared to boys.

And the conclusion to be drawn from the media coverage is that our science news has a long way to go.

Mandi N. Barringer is a doctoral student in sociology at the University of Central Florida. Her primary areas of research include social inequalities, sexuality, and gender. Mandi is also the Research Coordinator for NeuroNet Learning, where this post originally appeared.

State Persecution of Sexual Minorities in 1950s Florida

It is only 50 years ago that the state of Florida was hounding lesbians and gays from their jobs in schools and universities. Their persecution is distressing on many levels, the most far-reaching of which is the power that the state can hold when it is allowed to harass its citizens for no other reason than their choice of lovers.

In this case, this power could be exerted because an unrepresentative group, The Pork Chop Gang, was able to form a state-within-a-state, known as the Johns Committee in 1956 (after Charley Johns, a state senator). They collaborated with police forces and sympathetic university administrators. University of Florida President J. Wayne Reitz’s dubious career, or example, included “purges of gay and leftist employees, students,” and at least 85 African-American students.

Lisa Mills and Robert Cassanello have produced a documentary on the Johns Committee, a trailer for which can be seen here:

In 1964, the Committee published a hateful screed that became known as The Purple Pamphlet (full text). The section “What to do about homosexuality?” reveals that 64 Florida teachers had had their certificates revoked between 1959 and 1964, and that legislation had been strengthened to ensure more such revocations. Convicted teachers could meanwhile look forward to compulsory psychiatric treatment of the kind that killed Alan Turing in the U.K.

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The lessons of this period remain potent in 2014, at a time when Texas Republicans are advocating “reparative therapy” for gay men. Such therapies could be a Trojan Horse for state power over gay peoples’ lives. They give hope to the politicians of today who would like to emulate the notorious feats of the Johns Committee which haunt our recent past.

Jonathan Harrison, PhD, is an adjunct Professor in Sociology at Florida Gulf Coast University and Hodges University whose PhD was in the field of racism and antisemitism. He writes for the History News Network, where this post originally appeared.