There was a great article in The Nation last week about social media and ad hoc credit scoring. Can Facebook assign you a score you don’t know about but that determines your life chances?

Traditional credit scores like your FICO or your Beacon score can determine your life chances. By life chances, we generally mean how much mobility you will have. Here, we mean a number created by third party companies often determines you can buy a house/car, how much house/car you can buy, how expensive buying a house/car will be for you. It can mean your parents not qualifying to co-sign a student loan for you to pay for college. These are modern iterations of life chances and credit scores are part of it.

It does not seem like Facebook is issuing a score, or a number, of your creditworthiness per se. Instead they are limiting which financial vehicles and services are offered to you in ads based on assessments of your creditworthiness.

One of the authors of The Nation piece (disclosure: a friend), Astra Taylor, points out how her Facebook ads changed when she started using Facebook to communicate with student protestors from for-profit colleges. I saw the same shift when I did a study of non-traditional students on Facebook.

You get ads like this one from DeVry:

2 (1)

Although, I suspect my ads were always a little different based on my peer and family relations. Those relations are majority black. In the U.S. context that means it is likely that my social network has a lower wealth and/or status position as read through the cumulative historical impact of race on things like where we work, what jobs we have, what schools we go to, etc. But even with that, after doing my study, I got every for-profit college and “fix your student loan debt” financing scheme ad known to man.

Whether or not I know these ads are scams is entirely up to my individual cultural capital. Basically, do I know better? And if I do know better, how do I come to know it?

I happen to know better because I have an advanced education, peers with advanced educations and I read broadly. All of those are also a function of wealth and status. I won’t draw out the causal diagram I’ve got brewing in my mind but basically it would say something like, “you need wealth and status to get advantageous services offered you on the social media that overlays our social world and you need proximity wealth and status to know when those services are advantageous or not”.

It is in interesting twist on how credit scoring shapes life chances. And it runs right through social media and how a “personalized” platform can never be democratizing when the platform operates in a society defined by inequalities.

I would think of three articles/papers in conversation if I were to teach this (hint, I probably will). Healy and Fourcade on how credit scoring in a financialized social system shapes life chances is a start:

providers have learned to tailor their products in specific ways in an effort to maximize rents, transforming the sources and forms of inequality in the process.

And then Astra Taylor and Jathan Sadowski’s piece in The Nation as a nice accessible complement to that scholarly article:

Making things even more muddled, the boundary between traditional credit scoring and marketing has blurred. The big credit bureaus have long had sidelines selling marketing lists, but now various companies, including credit bureaus, create and sell “consumer evaluation,” “buying power,” and “marketing” scores, which are ingeniously devised to evade the FCRA (a 2011 presentation by FICO and Equifax’s IXI Services was titled “Enhancing Your Marketing Effectiveness and Decisions With Non-Regulated Data”). The algorithms behind these scores are designed to predict spending and whether prospective customers will be moneymakers or money-losers. Proponents claim that the scores simply facilitate advertising, and that they’re not used to approve individuals for credit offers or any other action that would trigger the FCRA. This leaves those of us who are scored with no rights or recourse.

And then there was Quinn Norton this week on The Message talking about her experiences as one of those marketers Taylor and Sadowski allude to. Norton’s piece summarizes nicely how difficult it is to opt-out of being tracked, measured and sold for profit when we use the Internet:

I could build a dossier on you. You would have a unique identifier, linked to demographically interesting facts about you that I could pull up individually or en masse. Even when you changed your ID or your name, I would still have you, based on traces and behaviors that remained the same — the same computer, the same face, the same writing style, something would give it away and I could relink you. Anonymous data is shockingly easy to de-anonymize. I would still be building a map of you. Correlating with other databases, credit card information (which has been on sale for decades, by the way), public records, voter information, a thousand little databases you never knew you were in, I could create a picture of your life so complete I would know you better than your family does, or perhaps even than you know yourself.

It is the iron cage in binary code. Not only is our social life rationalized in ways even Weber could not have imagined but it is also coded into systems in ways difficult to resist, legislate or exert political power.

Gaye Tuchman and I talk about this full rationalization in a recent paper on rationalized higher education. At our level of analysis, we can see how measurement regimes not only work at the individual level but reshape entire institutions. Of recent changes to higher education (most notably Wisconsin removing tenure from state statute causing alarm about the role of faculty in public higher education) we argue that:

In short, the for-profit college’s organizational innovation lies not in its growth but in its fully rationalized educational structure, the likes of which being touted in some form as efficiency solutions to traditional colleges who have only adopted these rationalized processes piecemeal.

And just like that we were back to the for-profit colleges that prompted Taylor and Sadowski’s article in The Nation.

Efficiencies. Ads. Credit scores. Life chances. States. Institutions. People. Inequality.

And that is how I read. All of these pieces are woven together and its a kind of (sad) fun when we can see how. Contemporary inequalities run through rationalized systems that are being perfected on social media (because its how we social), given form through institutions, and made invisible in the little bites of data we use for critical minutiae that the Internet has made it difficult to do without.

Tressie McMillan Cottom is an assistant professor of sociology at Virginia Commonwealth University.  Her doctoral research is a comparative study of the expansion of for-profit colleges.  You can follow her on twitter and at her blog, where this post originally appeared.

Mr. Draper, I don’t know what it is you really believe in but I do know what it feels like to be out of place, to be disconnected, to see the whole world laid out in front of you the way other people live it. There’s something about you that tells me you know it too.

Mad Men, Season 1, Episode 1

The ending of Mad Men was brilliant. It was like a good mystery novel: once you know the solution – Don Draper creating one of the greatest ads in Madison Avenue history – you see that the clues were there all along.  You just didn’t realize what was important and what wasn’t. Neither did the characters. This was a game played between Matt Weiner and the audience.

The ending, like the entire series, was also a sociological commentary on American culture. Or rather, it was an illustration of such a commentary. The particular sociological commentary I have in mind is Philip Slater’sPursuit of Loneliness, published in 1970, the same year that this episode takes place. It’s almost as if Slater had Don Draper in mind when he wrote the book, or as if Matt Weiner had the book in mind when he wrote this episode.

In the first chapter, “I Only Work Here,” Slater outlines “three human desires that are deeply and uniquely frustrated by American culture”:

(1) the desire for community – the wish to live in trust, cooperation, and friendship with those around one.

(2) the desire for engagement – the wish to come to grips directly with one’s social and physical environment.

(3) the desire for dependence – the wish to share responsibility for the control of one’s impulses and the direction of one’s life.

The fundamental principle that gives rise to these frustrations is, of course, individualism.

Individualism is rooted in the attempt to deny the reality of human interdependence. One of the major goals of technology in America is to “free” us from the necessity of relating to, submitting to, depending upon, or controlling other people. Unfortunately, the more we have succeeded in doing this, the more we have felt disconnected, bored, lonely, unprotected, unnecessary, and unsafe.

Most of those adjectives could apply to Don Draper at this point. In earlier episodes, we have seen Don, without explanation, walk out of an important meeting at work and, like other American heroes, light out for the territory, albeit in a new Cadillac. He is estranged from his family. He is searching for something – at first a woman, who turns out to be unattainable, and then for… he doesn’t really know what. He winds up at Esalen, where revelation comes from an unlikely source, a nebbishy man named Leonard. In a group session, Leonard says:

I’ve never been interesting to anybody. I, um –  I work in an office. People walk right by me. I know they don’t see me. And I go home and I watch my wife and my kids. They don’t look up when I sit down…

I had a dream. I was on a shelf in the refrigerator. Someone closes the door and the light goes off. And I know everybody’s out there eating. And then they open the door and you see them smiling. They’re happy to see you but maybe they don’t look right at you and maybe they don’t pick you. Then the door closes again. The light goes off.

People are silent, but Don gets up, slowly moves towards Leonard and tearfully, silently, embraces him. 3

On the surface, the two men could not be more different. Don is interesting. And successful. People notice him. But he shares Leonard’s sense that his pursuit – of a new identity, of career success, of unattainable women – has left him feeling inauthentic, disconnected, and alone. “I’ve messed everything up,” he tells his sometime co-worker Peggy in a phone conversation. “I’m not the man you think I am.”

The next time we see him, he is watching from a distance as people do tai-chi on a hilltop.1b

And then he himself is sitting on a hilltop, chanting “om” in unison with a group of people. At last he is sharing something with others rather than searching for ego gratifications. 1c

And then the punch line. We cut to the Coke hilltop ad with its steadily expanding group of happy people singing in perfect harmony. 2A simple product brings universal community (“I’d like to buy the world a Coke and keep it company”). It also brings authenticity. “It’s the real thing.” Esalen and Coca-Cola. Both are offering solutions to the frustrated needs Slater identifies. But both solutions suffer from the same flaw – they are personal rather than social. A few days of spiritual healing and hot springs brings nor more social change than does a bottle of sugar water.It’s not that real change is impossible, Slater says, and in the final chapter of the book, he hopes that the strands in the fabric of American culture can be rewoven.  But optimism is difficult.
So many healthy new growths in our society are at some point blocked by the overwhelming force and rigidity of economic inequality… There’s a… ceiling of concentrated economic power that holds us back, frustrates change, locks in flexibility.

The Mad Men finale makes the same point, though with greater irony (the episode title is “Person to Person”). When we see the Coke mountaintop ad, we realize that Don Draper has bundled up his Esalen epiphany, brought it back to a huge ad agency in New York, and turned it into a commercial for one of the largest corporations in the world.

Cross-posted at Montclair SocioBlog and Pacific Standard.

Jay Livingston is the chair of the Sociology Department at Montclair State University. You can follow him at Montclair SocioBlog or on Twitter.

At the New York Times, Ross Douthat has called out liberals who think, and declare, that churches today are more focused on “culture war” issues like abortion and homosexuality than on poverty.

Ridiculous, says Douthat. Religious organizations spend only “a few hundred million dollars” on pro-life causes and “traditional marriage” but tens of billions on charities, schools, and hospitals. Douthat and his sources, though, lump all spending together rather than separating domestic U.S. budgets from those going to the developing world.  But even in the U.S. and other wealthy countries, abortion and gay marriage are largely legislative and legal matters. Building schools and hospitals and then keeping them running – that takes real money.

Why then do liberals get this impression about the priorities of religious organizations? Douthat blames the media. He doesn’t do a full O’Reilly and accuse the media (liberal, it goes without saying) and others of ganging up in a war on religion, but that’s the subtext.

Anyone who tells you that America’s pastors are obsessed with homosexuality or abortion only hears them through a media filter. You can attend Masses or megachurches for months without having those issues intrude.

Actually, the media do not report on the sermons and homilies of local clergy at all, whether they are urging their flocks to live good lives, become wealthy, help the needy, or oppose gay marriage. Nor is there a data base of these Sunday texts, so we don’t know precisely how much American chuchgoers are hearing about any of these topics. Only a handful of clergy get media coverage, and that coverage focuses on their pronouncements about controversial issues.  As Douthat says, liberals are probably reacting to “religious leaders who make opposition to abortion more of a political priority than publicly-funded antipoverty efforts.”

Of his own Catholic church, Douthat adds, “You can bore yourself to tears reading denominational statements and bishops’ documents (true long before Pope Francis) with a similar result.” Maybe he has done this reading, and maybe he does think that his Church does not let “those issues intrude.” Or as he puts it, “The belief that organized religion is organized around culture war is largely a conceit of the irreligious.”

But here, thanks to the centralized and hierarchical structure of the Church, we can get data that might reveal what the Church is worried about. As Douthat implies, the previous pope (Benedict XVI, the former Joseph Ratzinger), was more concerned about culture-war issues than is the current pope.

How concerned? I went to Lexis-Nexis. I figured that papal pronouncements on these issues would be issued in masses, in official statements, and in addresses.  For each of those three terms, I searched for “Pope Benedict” with four “culture-war” terms (Abortion, Homosexuality, Condom, and Birth control) and Poverty.

3 2 2 (1)
Abortion was the big winner.  Poverty was referred to in more articles than were the other individual culture-war terms.  But if those terms are combined into a single bar, its clear that poverty as a papal concern is dwarfed by the attention to these other issues. The graph below shows the data for “mass.”

1b
This is not the best data. It might reflect the concerns of the press more than those of the Church. Also, some of those Lexis-Nexis articles are not direct hits. They might reference an “address” or “statement” by someone else. But there’s no reason to think that these off-target citations are skewed towards Abortion and away from Poverty.So it’s completely understandable that liberals, and perhaps non-liberals as well, have the impression that Big Religion has a big concern with matters of sex and reproduction.Cross-posted at Montclair SocioBlog and Pacific Standard.

Jay Livingston is the chair of the Sociology Department at Montclair State University. You can follow him at Montclair SocioBlog or on Twitter.

I’m going to start this post even though I don’t have an ending.

About a year ago I was asked to start writing for Playboy. The editor said that he was helping to transform the magazine’s website into one that “was a destination for smart writing on sex.” I said that I’d keep the offer in mind but, between you and me, the answer was no.

Around the same time, I heard of some other high-profile feminist writers being invited as well. “Huh,” I thought, “they may actually be serious about this.”

Since then, I’ve ended up on the Playboy website a couple of times, following links by like-minded people who found material they thought was valuable. I’ve been surprised and tentatively impressed. Then, this week there was a flurry of links to a piece by Noah Berlatsky, deftly and smartly analyzing feminist responses to trans woman Laverne Cox’s decision to pose nude for Allure.

The article began with a cropped screenshot of Cox’s photograph featuring her face and de-emphasizing her body and a quote from Cox about the widespread belief that black women and trans women, and especially black trans women, can’t be beautiful.

12

Berlatsky then goes on to discuss the challenges intersectionality poses to feminism, conflicts within feminism about whether trans women count as women, debates over cosmetic surgery and the problem with trying to live up to patriarchal standards of beauty, and whether Cox’s decision to pose naked is degrading. You don’t have to agree with all Berlatsky says to notice that he is no stranger to feminist theory.

Moreover, he seems to look upon Cox’s photograph with a delicate and sensitive gaze, describing what he sees like this:

Cox is not fashion-model-thin. She’s not fashion-model-petite or willowy, either. She has very large hands, which are not hidden, boldly displayed. In the photo, Cox lies on a blanket; her body taut rather than relaxed, her head in one big, strong hand, eyes closed, a slight smile on her face — like she’s a little embarrassed and amused at being embarrassed. She’s voluptuous and awkward and sweet all at once. In her simultaneous enjoyment of and discomfort before the camera, she seems, in the frankly staged pose, startlingly natural — and beautiful.

As I reached the end of the article, I was considering sharing a post from Playboy for the very first time. Then, this happened:

11

That’s a screenshot of a pop-up that arrived on my screen when I reached the end of Berlatsky’s thoughtful, feminist essay. It says: “Enter your email to see a 45-year-old with an amazing booty.” In other words, “Click right now to see a woman still fuckable after 40!” (And here I’m going to just go with the idea that this is sexist, but not engage with the extensive feminist theorizing about pornography.)

This is where I’m at a loss.

Is this what change looks like? Is this what change looks like, specifically, when it comes from inside of an organization? A slow, stuttering shift from misogyny to feminism, replete with missteps and contradictions?

Who’s in charge over there? What is their strategic plan? Are they trying to appropriate feminism? It’s not like they haven’t done it before. What role do they see this feminist discourse playing in a space that’s still so misogynist?

Or is the right hand just not paying attention to what the left hand is doing? Maybe Berlatsky was as surprised by the pop-up as I was, thinking “Come on, guys!” Or do they not think that their pop-up was sexist at all?

And, from a feminist perspective, does this do anyone any good? I don’t mean this rhetorically. I honestly don’t know how to answer that question. And, on the flipside, could this hurt feminist activism?

What say you?

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.

1By Gemma Correll. Visit her tumblr or buy stuff here.

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.

Studies of Americans’ unconscious beliefs shows that most people — white and black — think black people are dangerous and both average folks and police are quicker to shoot black than white people.

Where does the cognitive belief that black people are dangerous come from?

Partly, it comes from the media. A new study by Color of Change found that, while 51% of the people arrested for violent crime in New York City are black, 75% of the news reports about such arrests highlighted black alleged perpetrators.

2

Meanwhile, when people of color are arrested, they are more likely to be portrayed in ways that make them seem threatening than white people. This happened this week:

1a

See also, portrayals of Mark Duggan and Mike Brown.

Each time we see a black person on TV who is linked with a violent crime or portrayed as a criminal, the neurons in our brain that link blackness with criminality fire. The same for people of other races. The more often a link is triggered, the stronger it becomes. Disproportionate reporting like the kind captured in this study make the neural links in our brain — it’s actual physical structure — reflect the racism inherent in the reporting itself.

These associations, unfortunately, are pre-conscious. Those neurons fire faster than we can suppress them with our conscious mind. So, even if we believe in our heart-of-hearts that these connections are unfair or untrue, our unconscious is busy making the associations anyway. Biased reporting, in other words, changes the minds of viewers, literally.

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 1975, Mulvey conceptualized the gaze as the power derived by the viewer when they cast their glance upon a hierarchized, usually female, body. This idea perfectly captures the way a subject on film is both frozen in a time and space, and consumed. I want to turn that around, in a more kyriarchal and postmodern fashion, and allot power to the subject.

Refinery 29 has a series of photographs by Blaise Cepis. Through them, women discuss and display their body hair.  In a beautifully hued array, these women speak of personal choice, empowerment and acceptance in ways that act as a counternarrative to the Brazilian-plucked-chicken-prepubescent-non-mammal-landscaping construct that is currently in vogue.

And yet. Yet. Among this abundance of hairy joy – there is no direct gaze. Among the 21 slides there are faces in profile, lower portions of faces, averted glances with pupils looking away. There is only one woman directly glancing at the viewer, and even as her defiant brows dominate her face she is neither fully seen nor subsequently fully known.

5

Also, nowhere in the 21 slides does the women’s whole body occupy the visual frame. The pictures show a bushy underarm with barely a chest wall or breast, a lushly forested pudenda without whole legs or torso, or a lightly furred arm without a hand attached.

Counter this power and gaze conundrum with Kim Kardashian’s photoessay for Paper’s Winter issue where she appears, full frontal, body hair free, and fully faced. With the hashtag #breaktheinternet, the intent of the shoot is clear. Neither during the photoshoot’s extended video interview or the accompanying print piece does Kardashian invoke feminism’s ideals of choice, power or acceptance. Yet, in her direct gaze and whole body there is a definitive power of being fully present in the visual medium.

Censored to be safe for work, but you can see the original here:5

In his classic Disidentifications, Munoz interrogates the intersections between queer theory and life as performance to illustrate the ways hegemony is constructed. All the women in the photoessay above are performing: to disrupt a gaze by capturing the consumer; to deliver through visual imagery a counternarrative to normed assumptions; to shine a spotlight upon their bodies so that other stories can be told about them that subsequently reflect the world. These are all photos of “naked women”, but they are not equal in power.

Make no mistake, Kardashian’s photoshoot does not aspire to be anything but  performance – a denuded spectacle that we can believe – illustrating her power to create reverberating social narratives. But the theme of empowered, hirsuit women who embrace the social, sexual, and personal repercussions of their decision is undercut by the disembodied visual presentation. The power of these women has no whole body in which to reside. They are intended to be read as both brave and everyday, but they are visually reduced to decontextualized hair clumps; the performances of pride do not ring true because the viewer does not witness the incorporation of their body pride into a fully human landscape. Frankly, if women are going to “grow hair there” – we need to fully embody it.

Cross-posted at Pacific Standard.

Kerrita K. Mayfield, PhD is an experienced social justice oriented educator and teacher trainer, with over 20 years working in urban and rural classrooms and alternative educational settings. Currently teaching ESL at UMass Amherst to liminal non-benefitted workers, she was the first student to earn a graduate minor in Women’s Studies at the University of Wyoming.

Flashback Friday.

The D.C. Council’s Committee on Health released a report after surveying high school students about sex education. One of their questions was about the source of sexual health information. The pie chart below shows that students name, in order, their parents or guardians, health workers, teachers, friends, and boyfriends or girlfriends as the most common sources of information.

Capture

I asked a similar question in a study I did with college students (full text). The students in my sample rated their friends, secondary school teachers, books, their sexual partners, and the media as their most important sources. Men also included pornography. Very few students counted parents among their most valued sources. (Significance indicators are for sex difference.)

Capture1

My co-authors and I were interested in how those sources correlated with actual knowledge, specifically knowledge about the clitoris. And so we gave them a “cliteracy test,” we had them answer a set of true/false questions about the clitoris and find it on a diagram of the vulva.

We then compared their scores on the test to their reported sources of knowledge. The table below is a regression showing which sources of knowledge were most predictive of a high score. The findings were interesting: only two sources predicted significantly higher scores on the test: media (for men and women) and self-exploration (for women).

Capture2

So, only one of the most frequently used sources of information, media, actually translated into real knowledge. And, ironically, the best source of information for women, their own bodies, was among the least often cited source of information for women, beating out only pornography and parents.

In other words, the best source of information about the clitoris is probably the… clitoris, but female college students would rather read books to learn about it.

This puts the D.C. study into some perspective.  The high school students in that study reported that their parents or guardians, health workers, teachers, friends, and boyfriends or girlfriends were sources of sexual information, but that doesn’t mean that they are good sources. It could be that they’re giving them misinformation or good information only about certain things.

Originally posted in 2009. You can see a summary of our findings on the correlation (or lack thereof) between knowledge about the clitoris and orgasm for women here.

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.