Tag Archives: featured

When “Intensive Mothering” Meets Special Needs

I am excited to see that sociologist Linda Blum has come out with a new book, Raising Generation Rx: Mothering Kids with Invisible Disabilities in an Age of Inequality. Here’s a post from the archive highlighting some of her important and powerful findings.

In an article titled Mother-Blame in the Prozac Nation, sociologist Linda Blum describes the lives of women with disabled children. While mothers are held to an essentially impossibly high standard of motherhood in the contemporary U.S. and elsewhere, mothers of disabled children find themselves even more overwhelmed.

The daily care of their child is often more intensive but, in addition to that added responsibility, mothers were actively involved in getting their children needed services and resources. The need for mothers to be proactive about this was exacerbated by the fact that they had to negotiate different social institutions, each with an interest in claiming certain service spheres, but also limited budgets. “While each system claims authoritative expertise,” Blum writes, “either system can reject responsibility, paradoxically, when costs are at issue.”  Because they often had to argue with service providers and find ways to beat a system that often tried to keep them at bay, they had to become experts in their child’s disability, of course, but also public policy, learning styles, the medical system, psychology/psychiatry, pharmaceutics, manipulation of jargon and law, and more.

Mothers often felt that they were their child’s only advocate, with his or her health and future dependent on making just one more phone call, getting one more meeting with an expert, or trying one more school. Accordingly, they were simultaneously exhausted and filled with guilt.  I wondered, when I came across this Post Secret confession, if this mother was experiencing some of the same things:

 Originally posted in 2012.

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 Geography of a Restaurant Menu

Flashback Friday.

I’ve posted about the use of apparent discounts as a marketing tool and about the rise of the shopping cart. Since I’m on a little marketing-related posting trend, I figured I might as well post about restaurant menus. New York Magazine recently provided an analysis of menus and how things such as placement, images, and so on influence purchases.

Here’s the menu analyzed in the article:

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Some of the most interesting elements numbered on the menu:

1. Pictures of food on menus are tricky. They can convince people to buy a dish, but more expensive restaurants don’t want to be associated with low-cost places like Denny’s or Applebee’s. In general, the more expensive the restaurant, the less likely there are to be images of food, and if there are, they’re drawings, not color photos. And, apparently, the upper right corner is where customers’ eyes go first, so you need to make good use of that section.

2 and 3. You list something expensive (like a $115 seafood dish) in a prominent spot to serve the same function as a “manufacturer’s suggested retail price” on a sales tag at a retail store: to set an anchor price that makes other prices look like a bargain in comparison. The $70 seafood dish listed next to the $115 one seems way more reasonable than it would have it listed without the comparison anchor price.

5. Listing dishes in a column encourages customers to skim down the list, making it more likely that they’ll be focusing on the column of prices rather than the dishes themselves, and will pick from among the cheapest things on the menu. If the dish names are connected by a line of dots or dashes to specific prices, this is even more pronounced.

8. Restaurants often use “bracketing”:

…the same dish comes in different sizes. Here, that’s done with steak tartare and ravioli — but because “you never know the portion size, you’re encouraged to trade up,” Poundstone says. “Usually the smaller size is perfectly adequate.”

Notice the same things I mentioned in my post about meaningless discounts: high prices used to set an anchor that makes everything else look cheap and an emphasis on apparent savings to distract the customer from how much they’re spending.

And the bracketing thing is marketing genius: the larger portion is usually just a little bit more expensive, so the customer is likely to focus on the fact that the additional amount is actually a bargain, but you usually have very little information about how much bigger it actually is.

Knowledge is power! And now you know.

Originally posted in 2009.

Gwen Sharp is an associate professor of sociology at Nevada State College. You can follow her on Twitter at @gwensharpnv.

How Manufacturers Make You Think You’re Saving Money When You’re Spending It

Flashback Friday.

Yesterday I went to Marshall’s to take some photos for this post and overheard a conversation between a teenager and her mother that perfectly illustrated what I was planning on posting about. The teen pulled her mom over to look at a purse she wanted for Christmas. It was $148, but she was making a case to her mom that it was actually a great buy compared to how much it would have been at the original price, which, as she pointed out to her mom, was listed as $368.

Ellen Ruppel Shell discusses this topic at length in Cheap: The High Cost of Discount Culture. Here’s a relevant photo I took:

It indicates that you are getting a great deal by shopping at Marshall’s compared to the original price of the item.

Except that is not, in fact, what they are saying. Look at the image again: the wording is “compare at…” The tags do not say “marked down from” or “original price” or “was.” There is a crucial difference: when you are told to “compare at,” the implication is that the shoes were originally $175, making them a super steal at $49. The “manufacturer’s suggested retail price” (MSRP) gives you the same info.

But as Shell points out, these numbers are largely fictional. Marshall’s is not actually telling you that those shoes were ever sold for $175. You’re just supposed to “compare” $49 to $175. But $175 may be an entirely meaningless number. The shoes may never have been sold for $175 at any store; certainly no specifics are given. Even if they were, the fact that a large number of them ended up at Marshall’s would indicate that many customers didn’t consider $175 an acceptable price.

The same goes for the MSRP: it’s meaningless. Among other things, that’s not how pricing works these days for big retail outlets. The manufacturer doesn’t make a product and then tell the retailer how much they ought to charge for it. Retailers hold much more power than manufacturers; generally, they pressure suppliers to meet their price and to constantly lower costs, putting the burden on the suppliers to figure out how to do so (often by reducing wages). The idea that manufacturers are able to tell Macy’s or Target or other big retailers how much to charge for their items is ridiculous. Rather, the retailer usually tells the manufacturer what MSRP to print on the tag of items they’ll be purchasing (I saw some tags at Marshall’s where it said MSRP but no price had been printed on it).

So what’s the point of a MSRP on a price tag, or a “compare at” number? These numbers serve as “anchor” prices — that is, they set a high “starting” point for the product, so the “sale” price seems like a great deal in comparison. Except the “sale” price isn’t actually a discount at all — it’s only a sale price in comparison to this fictional original price that was developed for the sole purpose of making you think “Holy crap! I can get $175 shoes for just $49!”

The point is to redirect your thinking from “Do I think these shoes are worth $49?” to “I can save $126!” This is a powerful psychological motivator; marketing research shows that people are fairly easily swayed by perceived savings. A sweater we might not think is worth $40 if we saw it at Banana Republic suddenly becomes worth $50 if we see it at Marshall’s (or T.J. Maxx, an outlet mall, Ross, etc.) and are told it used to sell for $80. We focus not on the fact that we’re spending $50, but on the fact that we’re saving $30.

And that makes us feel smart: we’ve beat the system! Instead of going to the mall and paying $368 for that purse, we hunted through the discount retailer and found it for $148! We worked for it, and we were smart enough to not get conned into buying it at the inflated price. Shell describes research that shows that, in these situations, we feel like we didn’t just save that money, we actually earned it by going to the effort to search out deals. When we buy that $148 purse, we’re likely to leave feeling like we’re somehow $220 richer (since we didn’t pay $368) rather than $148 poorer. And we’ll value it more highly because we feel like we were smart to find it; that is, we’re likely to think a $148 purse bought on “sale” is cooler and better quality than we would the identical purse if we bought it at full price for $120.

And stores capitalize on these psychological tendencies by giving us cues that seem to indicate we’re getting an amazing deal. Sometimes we are. But often we’re being distracted with numbers that seem to give us meaningful information but are largely irrelevant, if not entirely fictional.

Originally posted in 2009.

Gwen Sharp is an associate professor of sociology at Nevada State College. You can follow her on Twitter at @gwensharpnv.

The Story of the Shopping Cart

Flashback Friday.

Behold, the taken-for-granted, unexceptional shopping cart:

Until last week I had never truly thought about shopping carts. I mean, I occasionally notice one stranded in an unexpected place, and as a kid I loved the occasional chance I had to push one a bit and then jump on and race down an aisle. But last week I started reading Cheap: The High Cost of Discount Culture by Ellen Ruppel Shell, and it turns out that the story of the shopping cart is fascinating!

So, way back in the day, stores weren’t like they were today. You went in and there was a long counter and you had the clerk show you the wares. If you’ve read some Jane Austen or Laura Ingalls Wilder, you’ve undoubtedly come across a scene where a clerk is showing someone bolts of cloth. That’s how things worked: almost everything was behind the counter; you told the clerk what you were interested in and they showed you your options. You haggled over the price, decided on a nice gingham, the clerk wrapped it for you, and off you went. Most retail outlets worked more or less along these lines (think of a butcher, for instance).

But if you were a shop owner interested in keeping prices down, this situation might be less than ideal. It required a lot of clerks, and experienced clerks who knew all the goods and could be trusted to set an acceptably profitable price for them, too.

Eventually retailers, including F.W. Woolworth, tried putting more products out on display in the store so customers could help themselves. Some customers liked the ability to pick items off the shelves directly, but more importantly, you didn’t need as many clerks, and certainly not such highly-paid ones, if their job was mostly reduced to ringing up the purchases at the register.

Of course, this presents a new problem: how are customers going to carry all their purchases around the store while they make their selections? Well, a basket they could carry over an arm would work. But these baskets had a downside: they didn’t hold much and they quickly got heavy.

As Shell notes, in 1937 a man from my home state of Oklahoma, Sylvan Goldman, came up with a solution. He owned the Humpty-Dumpty grocery store chain (I still remember Humpty-Dumpty!). He and a mechanic he hired came up with a cart on which two shopping baskets could be suspended. And thus the shopping cart — or, as Goldman named it, the “folding basket carrier” — was born. As Goldman suspected, people bought more when they didn’t have to carry a heavy basket on their arm. The folding basket carrier was advertised as a solution to the burden of shopping:

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The only problem was…people didn’t like the new contraptions. From a 1977 interview (via):

I went into our largest store, there wasn’t a soul using a basket carrier, and we had an attractive girl by the entrance that had a basket carrier and two baskets in it, one on the top and one on the bottom, and asked them to please take this cart to do your shopping with. And the housewive’s, most of them decided, “No more carts for me. I have been pushing enough baby carriages. I don’t want to push anymore.” And the men would say, “You mean with my big strong arms I can’t carry a darn little basket like that?” And he wouldn’t touch it. It was a complete flop.

Goldman eventually had to hire attractive models to walk around the store pushing the carts to make shopping carts seem like an acceptable or even fashionable item to use.

Over time the basic design was changed to have a single basket, with a flat shelf on the bottom for large items. The baskets could also then “nest” inside each other (instead of being folded up individually), reducing the amount of space they required for storage.

The Baby Boom ushered in the final major design change, a seat for kids:

Notice in the illustration above how small the cart is compared to what we’re used to today. I remember as a kid going to the local grocery store, and the carts were quite small; eventually a big warehouse-type grocery store came to the nearest city and their baskets seemed gigantic in comparison. Because obviously, if people will buy more if they have a cart instead of a full arm-carried basket, they’ll buy even more if they have a bigger cart — not just because there’s more room, but because it seems like less stuff if it’s in a bigger cart. Restaurants discovered the same principle — people will want bigger portions if you give them bigger plates because it visually looks like less food and so they don’t feel like they’re over-eating.

Without enormous carts, Big Box discounters and wholesale club stores couldn’t exist. You can’t carry a box of 50 packages of Ramen noodles, 36 rolls of toilet paper, a box of 3 gallons of milk, enough soup for the entire winter, and a DVD player you just found on sale around without a huge cart.

So there you have it: labor de-skilling + marketing – stigma of feminine association + Baby Boom + profits based on increased purchasing of ever-cheaper stuff = the modern shopping cart!

I love it when I learn totally new stuff.

Originally posted in 2009.

Gwen Sharp is an associate professor of sociology at Nevada State College. You can follow her on Twitter at @gwensharpnv.

Children, Chores, and the Gender Pay Gap at Home

Girls do more chores than boys and are less likely to get an allowance in exchange for their work. When they do, they are paid less.

Research projects on children’s time use find that boys do 43 to 46 minutes of housework for every hour that girls do. When asked to list the chores they do, girls list 42 percent more chores than boys. Girls are as likely as boys to participate in outside chores and more likely to clean their own rooms, help prepare meals, and care for sibling and pets; the only thing boys report doing more often than girls is basic housecleaning.

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Another study by the children’s magazine Highlights confirmed the finding: 73 percent of their girl readers reported being assigned routine chores, compared to 65 percent of their boy readers. Girls spend more time on chores than they do playing; the opposite is true for boys.

Not only are girls more likely to be asked to help out around the house, they are less likely to get paid. The Michigan study found that boys are 15 percent more likely than girls to get an allowance for the chores they do. And when they do get paid, they get a lower wage than their brothers. Male babysitters get paid $0.50 more an hour than females. Girls do 35 percent more work than boys, but bring home only $0.73 cents on boys’ dollar.

The gender pay gap starts early.

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.

Unkind Architecture: Designing Against the Homeless

I encourage everyone to go read this very smart and very sad essay from Alex Andreuo at The Guardian. It’s a condemnation of defensive architecture, a euphemism for strategies that make the urban landscape inhospitable to the homeless.

They include benches with dividers that make it impossible to lie down, spikes and protrusions on window ledges and in front of store windows, forests of pointed cement structures under bridges and freeways, emissions of high pitched sounds, and sprinklers that intermittently go off on sidewalks to prevent camping overnight. There is also perpetually sticky anti-climb paint and corner urination guards, plus “viewing gardens” that take up space that might be attractive to homeless people:

Here are some examples from a collection at Dismal Garden:41b 1c 2311

Here’s a picture of anti-encampment spikes featured at The Guardian:

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Andreuo writes of the psychological effect of these structures. They tell homeless people quite clearly that they are not wanted and that others not only don’t care, but are actively antagonistic to their comfort and well being. He says:

Defensive architecture is revealing on a number of levels, because it is not the product of accident or thoughtlessness, but a thought process. It is a sort of unkindness that is considered, designed, approved, funded and made real with the explicit motive to exclude and harass. It reveals how corporate hygiene has overridden human considerations…

If the corporations have turned to aggressive tactics, governments seem to simply be in denial. They offer few resources to homeless people and the ones they do offer are insufficient to serve everyone. Andreuo continues:

We curse the destitute for urinating in public spaces with no thought about how far the nearest free public toilet might be. We blame them for their poor hygiene without questioning the lack of public facilities for washing… Free shelters, unless one belongs to a particularly vulnerable group, are actually extremely rare.

He then connects the dots. “Fundamental misunderstanding of destitution,” he argues, “is designed to exonerate the rest from responsibility and insulate them from perceiving risk.” If homeless people are just failing to do right by themselves or take the help available to them, then only they are to blame for their situation. And, if only they are to blame, we don’t have to worry that, given just the right turn of events, it could happen to us.

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.

Why Lesbians and Gay Men Don’t Share Space

Last month’s edition of Contexts had a fascinating article by Amin Ghaziani titled Lesbian Geographies. Most of us are familiar with the idea of a “gayborhood,” a neighborhood enclave that attracts gay men. It turns out that lesbians have enclaves, too, but they’re not always the same ones.

Here’s the frequency of same-sex female couples (top) and same-sex male couples (bottom) in U.S. counties. Census data tracks same-sex couples but not individuals, so the conclusions here are based on couples.

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What are the differences between where same-sex female and same-sex male couples live?

First, Same-sex female couples are more likely than their male counterparts to live in rural areas. Ghaziani thinks that “cultural cues regarding masculinity and femininity play a part.” As one interviewee told sociologist Emily Kazyak:

If you’re a flaming gay queen, they’re like, “Oh, you’re a freak, I’m scared of you.” But if you’re a really butch woman and you’re working at a factory, I think [living in the midwest is] a little easier.

If being “butch” is normative for people living in rural environments, lesbians who perform masculinity might fit in better than gay men who don’t.

Second, non-heterosexual women are about three times as likely as non-heterosexual men to be raising a child under 18. Whatever a person’s sexual orientation, parents are more likely to be looking for good schools, safe neighborhoods, and non-postage stamp-sized apartments.

Finally, there’s evidence that gay men price lesbians out. Gay men are notorious for gentrifying neighborhoods, but data shows that lesbians usually get there first. When non-heterosexual men arrive, they accelerate the gentrification, often making it less possible for non-heterosexual women to afford to stay. Thanks to the gender pay gap, times two, women living with women don’t generally make as much money as men living with men.

Or, they might leave because they don’t want to be around so many men. Ghaziani writes:

Gay men are still men, after all, and they are not exempt from the sexism that saturates our society. In reflecting on her experiences in the gay village of Manchester, England, one lesbian described gay men as “quite intimidating. They’re not very welcoming towards women.”

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.

Changing the Bad Reputation of Buses

Look closely. Which would you rather ride?

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Transport scholars David Hensher and Corinne Mulley asked this question of residents of six cities in Australia. They included these ultra modern examples and also photographs featuring less modern trains and buses.

They found that people overwhelmingly preferred trains to buses, even though the modern bus has a dedicated lane just like the train and identical boarding and fare collection procedures.

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We associate trains with romance and leisure travel or hip, urban places like Manhattan. In contrast, buses bring to mind traffic, exhaust, and being exhausted after getting off from a second job.  Members of a focus group organized by the U.S. Department of Transportation, for example, had these things to say:

I’m ashamed to tell that I am taking buses…In Europe, I wouldn’t. But here, they would think, “Did he lose his job?”

The shame factor is majorly big.

I’m just saying that when I was in L.A. and I was in the car and just looking in at the bus…the people getting on….it just seems scary…

The bus has a bad rap.

But the authors found it wasn’t that simple. People from cities with better bus service tended to feel a little better about buses. If someone had recently had a good experience on a bus — like getting a seat for the whole trip — they felt better about buses. In fact, riding buses made people like buses more. People who rode more often had a better opinion.

Basically, give people good buses, good bus routes, and good service and they will come to love buses.

So, the authors argue that cities shouldn’t let the bad reputation of buses stop them from providing and improving bus service. Often buses are a better choice than trains. Bus routes are cheaper to get started and easier to change. High frequency and dedicated lanes can make them as efficient. So, if a bus is the right thing for the city, don’t give the people what they want, show them.

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.