Tag Archives: featured

Excluding Blacks From The National Collective

Flashback Friday.

In a great book, The Averaged American, sociologist Sarah Igo uses case studies to tell the intellectual history of statistics, polling, and sampling. The premise is fascinating:  Today we’re bombarded with statistics about the U.S. population, but this is a new development.  Before the science developed, the concept was elusive and the knowledge was impossible. In other words, before statistics, there was no “average American.”

There are lots of fascinating insights in her book, but a post by Byron York brought one in particular to mind.  Here’s a screenshot of his opening lines (emphasis added by Jay Livingston):

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The implication here is, of course, that Black Americans aren’t “real” Americans and that including them in opinion poll data is literally skewing the results.

Scientists designed the famous Middletown study with exactly this mentality.  Trying to determine who the average American was, scientists excluded Black Americans out of hand.  Of course, that was in the 1920s and ’30s.  How wild to see the same mentality in the 2000s.

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.

How Fetal Photography Changed the Politics of Abortion

Flashback Friday.

You have likely seen photographs of fetus’ that seem to float in a dark womb.  The first of these were taken by Swedish photographer Lennart Nilsson. One of his photographs graced the cover of Life magazine in April of 1965.

Nilsson’s images forever changed the way that people think about pregnancy, mothers, and fetuses.  Before Nilsson, the visual of a fetus independent from a mother was not widespread. His pictures made it possible for people to visualize the contents of a woman’s womb independently of her body.  Suddenly, the fetus came to life.  It was no longer just something inside of a woman, no longer even in relationship to a woman; it was an individual with a face, a sex, a desire to suck its thumb.

Once the fetus could be individualized, the idea that a woman and her fetus could have contrasting interests was easier to imagine. In many countries even today, the idea that helping pregnant women is helping fetuses and helping fetuses means helping pregnant women is still the dominant way of thinking about pregnancy. Pro-choice and other fetus-defenders, such as those who want it to be illegal to smoke during pregnancy, used these images to disentangle the interests of the woman and the fetus. The vulnerability of Nilsson’s subjects, free-floating in space, made it easier to portray fetuses as in danger.

There is power in visualization and its technological advance and these images were a boon to the pro-life cause. Ironically, it was abortion that made these images possible. Nilsson posed the fetuses to look alive, and gives no indication otherwise, but they are actually photographs of aborted fetuses.

Although claiming to show the living fetus, Nilsson actually photographed abortus material obtained from women who terminated their pregnancies under the liberal Swedish law. Working with dead embryos allowed Nilsson to experiment with lighting, background and positions, such as placing the thumb into the fetus’ mouth.

– Quote from the University of Cambridge’s history of the science of fetal development

Liberal abortion rights laws resulted in a product that was used to mobilize anti-abortion sentiment.  Today it is par for the course to have been exposed to images like this. And the rest is history.

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.

Hunters and Their Kills: Destroying or Taming Nature?

Flashback Friday.

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Flipping through Safari magazine, something that struck me as odd.  Because the magazine is aimed, primarily, at selling hunting safaris, the vast majority of the pictures were people posing with their kills.

What I noticed was that, in nearly 100 percent of the pictures, the animals were posed so as to look alive: resting or sleeping.  Most often, the animal was on its belly with its legs folded naturally beneath it and, even, its head held or propped up.  The hunters posed behind the animal, often with a hand on it, as if they were simply petting the animal.   Further, there was almost never any evidence of the wound: no holes, no blood (though sometimes the weapon is included in the picture).  It is almost as if the people are at a petting zoo and the animal is blissfully enjoying the human attention.

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Imagine for a minute how challenging this must be to pull off.  If you shoot an animal, it likely falls into any number of positions, many of which make it look like it’s just been shot (legs akimbo, head at an awkward angle, etc).  The hunter and his or her companions must have to wrangle this 500, 1,000, 1,500 pound dead weight into the position in which it appears in the images.

Why do they do it?

I don’t know. But maybe it has something to do with the relationship to nature that hunter culture endorses.  Instead of a destructive, violent relationship to nature that would be represented by picturing animals in their death poses, these pictures suggest a custodial relationship in which humans take care of or chaperone a nature to which they feel tenderly.

That is, they don’t destroy nature with their guns, they tame it.

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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.

Racial Disparity in Imprisonment Inspire Whites to be “Tough on Crime”

“Advocates might want to try different language (or a different approach) in their campaign to reform the criminal justice system,” writes Jamelle Bouie for Slate. He drew his conclusion after summarizing a new pair of studies, by psychologists Rebecca Hetey and Jennifer Eberhardt, looking at the relationship between being “tough on crime” and the association of criminality with blackness.

In the first study, 62 White men and women were interrupted as they got off a commuter train and invited to chat about the three strikes law in California. Before being presented with an anti-three strikes petition, they were shown a video that flashed 80 mugshots. In one condition, 25% of the photos were of black people and, in another, 45% of the photos were.

Among the subjects in the first “less black” condition, more than half signed the petition to make the law less strict, but only 28% in the “more black” condition signed it.

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A second study in New York City about the stop-and-frisk policy had a similar finding:

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The results suggest that white Americans are more comfortable with punitive and harsh policing and sentencing when they imagine that the people being policed and put in prison are black. The second study suggested that this was mediated by fear; the idea of black criminals inspires higher anxiety than that of white criminals, pressing white people to want stronger law enforcement.

So, as Bouie concluded, when prison reformers and anti-racists point out the incredible and disproportionate harm these policies do to black Americans, it may have the opposite of its intended effect. Hetey and Eberhardt conclude:

Many legal advocates and social activists assume that bombarding the public with images and statistics documenting the plight of minorities will motivate people to fight inequality. Our results call this assumption into question. We demonstrated that exposure to extreme racial disparities may make the public less, not more, responsive to attempts to lessen the severity of policies that help maintain those disparities.

“Institutional disparities,” they add, “can be self-perpetuating.” Our history of unfairly targeting and punishing black men more than others now convinces white Americans that we must continue to do so.

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.

Fashion as a Inescapable Institution

One of the more difficult sociological concepts to explain is the social institution.  When sociologists talk about institutions they don’t mean hospitals or churches or any of the concrete organizations that easily come to mind, they mean something much bigger and more difficult to pin down.  They  mean institutionalized ways of doing things or, as I’ve defined them elsewhere:

Persistent patterns of social interaction aimed at meeting the needs of a society that can’t easily be met by individuals alone.

Education, then, is an institution, as is medicine and transportation.  In my textbook, I discuss the examples of sanitation and sport.  One can’t play on a team all by oneself and it’d be pretty gross to take a personal potty with you everywhere you went.  Instead, we have organized sport and the provision of toilet facilities. Eventually, institutionalized ways of solving social needs get taken-for-granted as the way we do things, often to the point that we forget that they were invented in the first place.

I was inspired to write about this by a post at Sociological Cinema by sociologist Tristan Bridges.  He uses a clip from The Devil Wears Prada to illustrate just this phenomenon.  Meryl Streep plays the editor of a fashion magazine.  Fashion is an institution because we can no longer feasibly make our own clothes.  Even the most industrious and clever among us, those who make their own clothes, will buy the fabric with which to do so.  Almost no one in a Western country has the faintest idea of how to make fabric, let alone the resources.

In the clip, Streep’s character responds icily when a holier-than-thou fashion outsider scoffs at her as she goes about her work.

She says:

You think this has nothing to do with you.

You go to your closet and you select, I don’t know, that lumpy blue sweater, for instance, because you’re trying to tell the world that you take yourself too seriously to care about what you put on your back.

But what you don’t know is that that sweater is not just blue, it’s not turquoise, it’s not lapis, it’s actually cerulean.

And you’re also blithely unaware of the fact that, in 2002 Oscar de la Renta did a collection of cerulean gowns and then I think it was Yves St. Laurent – wasn’t it? – who showed cerulean military jackets…

And then cerulean quickly showed up in the collections of eight different designers.  And then it filtered down through the department stores and then trickled down into some Casual Corner where you, no doubt, fished it out of some clearance bin.

However, that blue represents millions of dollars and countless jobs and it’s sort of comical that you think you’ve made a choice that exempts you from the fashion industry when, in fact, you’re wearing a sweater that was selected for you by the people in this room.

An institution has emerged to put clothes on our back.  The scoffer who inspires Streep character’s rant would like to think that she is outside of the fashion industry, that it has nothing to do with her. Likewise, many of us would like to think that we’re outside of the institutions that we don’t like. But we’re not.  That’s the rub.  No matter how enlightened or inspired we are to fight social convention, we can’t get outside the institutions that organize our societies.  We’re in them whether we know it or not.

Here’s the clip; it’s worth it, even given the advertisement:

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.

How Do We Decipher Sex in Daily Life?

Flashback Friday.

In Michael Kimmel’s sociology of gender textbook, The Gendered Society, he offers us the following two pictures and asks us to decide, based on our gut-level reactions, whether the two individuals pictured are male or female:

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If you are like most people, you find, perhaps to your own bewilderment, that the first individual seems male despite the female pubic hair pattern and apparent female genitalia and the second individual seems female despite the presence of a penis and scrotum.

Kimmel suggests that this is because, in our daily life, we habitually judge individuals as male or female on the basis of their secondary sex characteristics (e.g., body shape, facial hair, breasts) and social cues (e.g., hair length) and not, so much, their primary sex characteristics (i.e., their genitalia).

In that sense, Kimmel argues, social cues and secondary sex characteristics “matter” more when it comes to social interaction and gender is really about gender (socially constructed ideas about masculinity and femininity), not so much about sex (penises and vaginas).

Images borrowed the images from Gender: An Ethnomethodological Approach, by Kessler and McKenna.  University of Chicago Press.  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.

Reading the Camouflage: “You are Now Enemy Combatants”

Much has been said — and much more should follow — about the militarization of the police in American cities.  The images coming out of Ferguson, MO these past weeks testify to the distribution of military-grade hardware, gear, guns, and vehicles to your everyday police officer.

Here I’d like to focus on just one small part of this distribution of military-grade equipment: the uniform.  It’s not, by a long shot, the most straightforwardly dangerous, but it is a powerful symbol.  It’s a “dead giveaway,” writes a political scientist at Gin & Tacos, that there is something amiss with the “mindset of law enforcement.”  He’s referring to the swapping of blue or tan in favor of camouflage, like in this photo by Whitney Curtis for The New York Times:

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From Gin & Tacos:

Of what conceivable practical use could green or desert camouflage be in a suburban environment? Gonna help you blend in with the Taco Bell or the liquor store? Even if they did wear something that helped conceal them, that would be counterproductive to the entire purpose of policing in a situation like that; law enforcement wants to be visible to act as a deterrent to violent or property crimes in a public disturbance.

He concludes that “[t]here is only one reason those cops would wear camo” and, if I can put words in his mouth, it’s to be frightening and intimidating.  And, perhaps, to enjoy being so.

This is clear when we think about the role that camo plays in everyday fashion. For women, it’s a fun appropriation of masculinity.  For men, it’s a way to signal “I’m tough” by reference to hunting or soldiering. What irony, after all, that black men in Ferguson were also photographed wearing camo during the unrest that followed Brown’s death.

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On their bodies, of course, the camouflage is much more benign.  In contrast, alongside kevlar, automatic rifles, and riot shields on cops, it’s terrifying. It sends a clear message to the people of Ferguson: you are now enemy combatants.

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.

In Employers’ Eyes, For-Profit Colleges are Equivalent to High School

Holding a college degree, it is widely assumed, improves the likelihood that a person will be successful in the labor market.  This maxim draws individuals into college across the class spectrum and aspiring students who are low-income or non-white may find themselves enrolled at a for-profit college.

For profit colleges have been getting slammed for their high prices, low bars, and atrocious graduation rates.  Now we have another reason to worry that these institutions are doing more harm than good.

Economist Rajeev Darolia and his colleagues sent out 8,914 fictitious resumes and waited to see if they received a response.  They were interested in whether attending a for-profit college actually enhanced job opportunities, as ads for such schools claim, so they varied the level of education on the resumes and whether the applicant attended a for-profit or community college.

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It turns out that employers evaluate applicants who attended two-year community colleges and those who attended for-profit colleges about equally.  Community colleges, in other words, open just as many doors to possibility as for-profit ones.

Darolia and his colleagues then tested whether employers displayed a preference for applicants who went to for-profit colleges versus applicants with no college at all.  They didn’t. Employers treated people with high school diplomas and coursework at for-profit colleges equivalently.

Being economists, they staidly conclude that enrolling in a for-profit college is a bad investment.

H/t Gin and Tacos. Image borrowed from Salon.com. 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.