Author Archives: Lisa Wade, PhD

Happy Birthday, Zygmunt Bauman!

Zygmunt Bauman (1925- ) is a Polish sociologist. Although his work on postmodern capitalism has been very influential, he is arguably most famous for his analysis of modernity and the Holocaust. Rather than a return to barbarism, Bauman argued the Holocaust was not possible without modernity. By modernity he meant the modern concern with ordering, cataloging, creating and following rules, and the division of labor.

Sociological Cinema

1Art by David Moore. H/t Sociological Cinema.

That Catcalling Video: Research Methods Edition

First, there were the accolades. More than 100 instances of street harassment in a two minute video, testifying powerfully to the routine invasion of women’s lives by male strangers.

Then, there was the criticism. How is it, people asked, that the majority of the men are black? They argued: this video isn’t an indictment of men, it’s an indictment of black men.

Now, we’ve reached the third stage: lessons for research methods classes.

Our instructor is sociologist Zeynep Tufekci, writing at The Message. Our competing hypotheses are three:

1. Black men really do catcall more than other kinds of men.

2. The people who made this video are unconsciously or consciously racist, editing out men of other races.

3. The study was badly designed.

As Tufekci points out, any one of these could account for why so many of the catcallers were black. Likewise, all three could be at play at once.

Enter, the data wrangler: Chris Moore at Mass Appeal.

Moore and his colleagues looked for landmarks in the video in order to place every instance of harassment on the map of New York City. According to their analysis, over half of the harassment occurs on just one street — 125th — in Harlem.

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Did the time the producers spent in Harlem involve denser rates of harassment, supporting hypothesis #1. Did they spend an extra amount of time in Harlem because they have something against black men? That’d be hypothesis #2. Or is it hypothesis #3: they were thoughtless about their decisions as to where they would do their filming.

Honestly, it’s hard to say without more data, such as knowing how much time they spent in each neighborhood and in neighborhoods not represented in the video. But if it’s true that they failed to sample the streets of New York City in any meaningful way – and I suspect it is – then hypothesis #3 explains at least some of why black men are over-represented.

And that fact should motivate us all to do our methods right. If we don’t, we may end up offering accidental and fallacious support to ideas that we loathe.

Cross-posted at Pacific Standard.

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.

What Sociologists Can Tell Us About Serial Killing

In 1897, sociologist Émile Durkheim published research arguing that suicide – something previously believed to be decidedly unsociological – could be understood as a social phenomenon. He pointed out that suicide rates are not evenly distributed in or across societies; that cultural or structural factors might influence individuals’ risk of suicide, regardless of their individual psychologies; and that those factors might explain the variation.

Recently another set of sociologists borrowed Durkheim’s approach, substituting serial killing for suicide. James DeFronzo and three of his colleagues asked whether cultural and structural variables might predict state variation in the rate of male serial killer activity. This, it turns out, varies quite widely, as DeFronzo et al. write:

[U]sing a method that assigns a male serial killer to the state where he perpetrated his largest number of homicides, from 1970 to 1992 California had a rate of 18.6 male serial killers per 10 million residents, whereas Florida had a rate of 10.3, Texas had a rate of 7, New York had a rate of 6.3, Illinois had a rate of 6.1, Ohio had a rate of 3.7, and Pennsylvania had a rate of 3.4.

To do the study, the authors drew on existing literature, positing seven factors that might increase the rate of serial killing in a state.

Their structural factors included population density (large, urban, dense cities allow for greater anonymity and offer more potential victims) and variables that increased individuals’ vulnerability (being divorced, living alone, and being unemployed).

For the cultural factors, the authors considered variables that might indicate a high tolerance for or presence of violence. They argue:

Norms prescribing or tolerant of violent behavior contribute to shaping the fantasies of the developing serial killer, help to objectify and dehumanize potential victims, and consequently provide a necessary link in converting sexually sadistic urges in the violent behavior.

As measures of this, they include the overall homicide rate in the state, whether the state is in the South (see the “culture of honor” thesis), and the use of capital punishment.

They figured that the structural variables might predict the states in which killers killed because they measured opportunity. Whereas the cultural variables might incite young serial killers, thus they’d be related to the states in which serial killers grew up.

Here are the results. All of the relationships are positive – as the rate of divorce goes up, for example, so does the rate of serial killing – and about half of the relationships are statistically significant.

Model 1 (the first column of numbers) shows the relationship between our independent variables and the state where serial killers committed their largest number of murders. Model 1 offers good evidence that social structural variables influence whether serial killers actually kill. Vulnerable individuals living in high density environments may enable these crimes.

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Model 2 (the column on the far right) shows the relationship between the independent variables and where offenders were socialized as children. DeFronzo and his colleagues don’t theorize a relationship between their structural variables and the production of a young serial killer, so the significance of these relationships are a mystery. It might be, they argue, just an artifact of the fact that most serial killers killed in the same states in which they were raised.

One cultural variable was significant for this model: Southern region. Being exposed to violence as a child can trigger a genetic potential for violence that would otherwise remain unexpressed. Or, Southerners may simply grew up with greater tolerance for and approval of violence.

Like Durkheim, DeFronzo and his colleagues show us that even phenomenon we think are explained by other disciplines can benefit from sociological analysis. Thanks to their research, we now better understand the factors that increase the risk of being a victim of serial homicide. This is a great example of how we need all of the sciences to put together a complete picture of the world we live in.

Photo of John Wayne Gacy borrowed from The Guardian.

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.

Just for Fun: Academic Q&A Tricks for Tricky Questions

If you’ve ever given an academic job talk or lecture, you’ve been this kid…

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Via Next Scientist.

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: A Majority of Middle Class Black Children Will Be Poorer as Adults

Social mobility refers to likelihood that a person born in one social class will end up in another as an adult. A new study by Richard Reeves and Isabel Sawhill for the Brookings Institute offered a devastating picture of the possibilities for black youth. To summarize: most black children see downward mobility and are poorer as adults than they were as children.

4More than half of black children born into the poorest 1/5th of households will remain there as adults. That’s only true for 36% of similarly-situated Americans overall. Poor black children, then, are less likely than Americans in general to be able to escape poverty.

Black children born into the middle class — literally the middle 5th of Americans as measured by household income — overwhelmingly see downward mobility. 16% will remain somewhere in the middle, 14% will be richer than their parents, and a whopping 69% will end up less economically stable. In comparison, only 38% of Americans, overall, born into the middle 5th see a decline in their status as adults.

As you may have noticed from the hole in the far right of the chart, the researchers didn’t have enough cases to even estimate outcomes for blacks born rich.

Below is the data for whites (first) and all Americans (second) for comparison:

32Here’s the first author, Richard Reeves, explaining social mobility, using Legos of course:

H/t Joe Feagin.

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.

Bounty Commercial Says: The Best Moms Let Mess Happen

Way back in 1996, sociologist Sharon Hays coined the phrase “the ideology of intensive motherhood.” She intended to draw attention to a new norm for mothering that involved, among other things, making children the center of one’s life and subordinating your own needs and wants to theirs.

I can’t help but think of Hays and her beleaguered mothers every time I see this commercial:

“When we’re having this much fun,” the voiceover says, “why quit?”

And I think, “No, seriously, quit it.”

But the mother in the ad doesn’t tell the kid to quit it. She beams. And then she gives the younger child his own glass of chocolate milk and claps as he learns how to blow bubbles in it.

Bounty glamorizes the clean-up work the mother has to do after her child blows his chocolate milk all over the kitchen table and floor. As if letting a child make an unnecessary mess is the most unselfish sign of love. It’s an excellent example of the ideology of intensive motherhood: everyone knows that this is going to be additional work for the mother, but the kids are having a good time and that’s what’s important.

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.

The Case of the Cursing Princess

Last week we saw a range of responses break out in reaction to this video: “F-Bombs for Feminism: Potty-Mouted Princesses Use Bad Word for Good Cause.”

Some commenters fell immediately into the “cursing = bad” camp and are offended by the language, but for those not turned off, the other initial reaction seems to be glee.  There’s an “I can’t believe they’re saying that!” kind of catharsis that accompanies watching little girls drop f-bombs all over the place and show some righteous rage over the injustices they are bound to face due to gender inequity.  What seems less present in the general reaction, and concerns me the most, is how these girls — and these causes — are fundamentally being leveraged by a T-shirt company.

For years I’ve written about what I call “fauxpowerment” — the “rah-rah, you go girl,” feel-good phrases and gestures that are meant to pump girls up with confidence or a newly varnished sense of self-esteem (often enough through a makeover) but, in fact, undermine any real confidence building as these messages reinforce that girls’ looks are paramount or that a quick, pink band-aid slapped over a deep wound makes everything better.  For those in the Girls’ Studies community or who work at well-developed programs designed just for girls, these attempts are not only insultingly facile, they are understood to be downright harmful and counterproductive. Worst of all is seeing corporations leverage girls for commercial purposes, a tradition, maddeningly, that seems ongoing.  That’s the category in which I would put the “Potty-Mouthed Princesses” advertisement — what it fundamentally is.

FCKH8, the company behind the ad, initially responded positively to my queries about their intentions, what charities they are donating proceeds of each sale to, and if the girls in the video were tightly scripted or had any input into the video, but I have not heard back again.  I hope to update this post if I do.  On their home page they cite their mission as being a “for-profit T-shirt company with an activist heart and a passionate social change mission: arming thousands of people with pro-LGBT equality, anti-racism and anti-sexism T-shirts that act as ‘mini-billboards’ for change.”

Their T-shirt slogans are meant to be provocative, and in some cases, it seems, also plagiarized, as the Feminist Majority Foundation has had an ongoing “This is What A Feminist Looks Like” campaign since 2003, with President Obama in the shirt on their 2009 cover.  More recently, FCKH8 came under fire for allegedly exploiting the events in Ferguson to sell their antiracism gear.

A quick look on the FCKH8 website reveals they barely sell T-shirts in children’s sizes.  So, why use child-models in what is essentially an ad? The answer seems painfully obvious.  Anxiety about girls is pervasive in American society, if manifested through various channels.  The value of seeing girls, in princess costumes no less, letting loose about the gendered inequities they face, never mind parade across the screen asking which one of them will inevitably be raped in her lifetime, is designed to shock.  FCKH8 is tapping into a cultural zeitgeist by putting girls in princess costumes and then breaking with stereotype by having them swear up a storm and shout out their fury, complete with very adult-like, fed-up gestures and the waved middle finger.

The reaction FCKH8 has carefully cultivated is the drama that results from presenting such high contrasts — furious princesses calling out the system in which they are entrapped, flipping off the patriarchy, and angrily speaking out.  The power of seeing this dramatized speaks to how coded and closed these systems are — “little girls” under most circumstances would hardly be allowed to swear with such abandon, if they even wanted to.

Is there something cathartic about hearing these injustices called out and denounced with anger? There is.  For those furious about gender inequality it can be gratifying hearing these issues called out — when the adult women in the ad step forward. This isn’t how most girls under 10 would speak and the girls used, albeit likely paid models or actresses taking on a role, are props.  While many commenters reported that their (usually teenage) daughters expressed delight at seeing girls let loose with things they cannot say — again a moment that reveals how girls are stifled — there is hardly any empowerment when the girls didn’t write these scripts themselves and are, fundamentally, co-opted into a purportedly radical company’s for-profit campaign through their “walking billboards” which work to questionable effect.

I‘ve always loved Peggy Orenstein’s coined phrase “empowertainment” — a moment when companies use a generic sense of “sisterhood” or a cheery pro-girl message to essentially sell products. The criticism of this practice is (necessarily) ongoing and FCKH8, a company that I’m certain will defend its practices as radical and empowering, is doing exactly this.  In Andi Zeisler’s excellent round-up of the history of “femapowerment” or, as she coins it, “empowertising,” she calls out the companies that, beyond girls, are co-opting feminism — or their brand of it — to essentially sell products.

Criticism of the company has been swift, and wide, but the click-bait appeal of this video will probably outnumber its detractors.  A few years back the video “Riley on Marketing” went viral as the outraged Riley decried the limitations imposed upon her by gendered marketing.  There was nary an f-bomb in the mix.  This was a real girl, speaking out unscripted about the injustices she knows.  The authenticity in her voice and in her message garnered almost 5 million YouTube views and carries far more power than FCKH8′s gimmicky, egregious act.

Elline Lipkin is a scholar, poet, and nonfiction writer. She is the author of two books: The Errant Thread and Girls’ Studies. This post originally appeared at Girl w/ Pen.

Egg Freezing Isn’t the Feminist Issue You Think It Is

We recently got the news that Apple and Facebook were going to offer women egg freezing as a fringe benefit of employment.  The internet exploded with concerns that the practice discouraged women from becoming mothers at a “natural” age, either by offering an alternative or by sending a not-so-subtle message that childbearing would hurt their careers.

I wasn’t so sure.

First of all, it didn’t seem to me that these women were likely to delay their childbearing till, say, after retirement. So what did it matter to these companies if they had kids at 33 or 43?  If anything, an employee taken out of commission at 43 would be even a greater loss, since they’d accumulated more expertise and pulled a higher salary during maternity leave.

Second of all, the discussion seemed to assume that every 30-something female employee was in a happy and stable marriage to a man. The possibility that some women were 30-something and single — that freezing their eggs had nothing to do with their jobs and everything to do with a dearth of marriageable men — didn’t seem to enter into the equation. To me, that seemed like quite the oversight.

So, I was grateful when sociologists Tristan Bridges and Melody Boyd intervened in this debate. They found actual real data on why women choose “oocyte cryopreservation” and the big answer is not related to their job. As my never-married, 40-year-old self suspected, it was “lack of partner” 88% of the time.

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Bridges and Boyd are working on an article re-thinking what it means for women to enter a market full of “unmarriageable men.” In the past, it was mostly working class and poor women who didn’t marry, in part because so few men of their own social status had stable enough employment to contribute to a household. Today women of other class backgrounds are also forgoing marriage, but it isn’t because the men around them don’t make money.

“Men who might be capable of financially providing,” they write, “are not necessarily all women want out of a relationship today.” Women of all classes increasingly want equality, but research shows that many men agree in principle, but fall back on traditional roles in practice.

Freezing one’s eggs is a feminist issue, but not the one that so captivated us a couple weeks ago. It seems to me that Apple and Facebook are simply offering this option as part of a benefits arms race. From that point of view, it’s about class and the widening gap between the rich and everyone else. When women choose this option, though, it’s likely because the gender revolution has stalled. Women have changed; men aren’t keeping up.  In the meantime, ladies aren’t settling, even if they’re holding out hope.

Cross-posted at Gender & Society and Pacific Standard.

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.