4One of the first things other academics ask me is “why are you interested in toilets?”

For the vast majority of people, the biological function of waste excretion is an after thought, an activity that nobody wants to talk about, and often times, the mere thought of talking about shit grosses them out. I, however, am fascinated by the human and political dimensions of human waste and the challenges that solving the global sanitation crisis presents. More than excrement itself, I’m interested in a holistic view of sanitation (waste disposal, transportation, removal, treatment and reuse). This interest stems primarily from my training as a chemical engineer, my work experience as a sanitation engineer and researcher, and my interest from my doctoral studies in understanding the politics of policy intervention.

Contrary to what one might think, toilets are political. Owning a toilet will become a necessary prerequisite for politicians to run for office in Gujarat, India. The new Prime Minister of India, Shri Narendra Modi, has made ending open defecation and increasing access to toilets one of his campaign promises and a crucial component of his political and public policy agenda. Modi’s “toilets first, temples later” has been seen as a strong statement in favor of increasing toilet and latrine access in India.

In my own work I have emphasized that even if we have the technical capabilities to increase access to toilets, latrines and sanitation infrastructure, often times we see lack of progress because institutional, cultural, behavioral and societal barriers have been erected through time. I have shown that the behavioral determinants of sanitation governance are complex and multicausal, and also have multiple effects. Not having a toilet in your own home or easily accessible can lead to violence and physical/sexual assault. Lack of toilets affects women disproportionately and leaves them vulnerable to physical violence. Earlier this year I wrote about the complex linkages between menstrual hygiene management, access to toilets, and violence against women.

To end open defecation and increase sanitation access, we need a set of policy strategies that aren’t solely focused (individually) on cultural practices, or access to latrines, or poverty alleviation. All these factors must be tackled simultaneously.

World Toilet Day takes place on November 19th. This year finally the United Nations named World Toilet Day an official UN day, although for all the noise it has been making, we are WAY behind the target for the Millennium Development Goals. If we really want to end open defecation by 2025, as the UN indicates, we are definitely going to need a better approach. In my own research, I have found that institution- and routine-based strategies help increase access to sanitation. I have also argued that access to toilets can be used as a political manipulation strategy. We should be interested in the global politics of sanitation because the crisis is far-reaching and widespread.

Today, I encourage you to reflect on the fact that over 1 billion people defecate in the open because they lack the dignity of a toilet, and that 2.6 billion people don’t have access to improved water and sanitation sources.

Think about it. It IS political. Because we can’t wait to solve the global sanitation crisis.

Raul Pacheco-Vega, PhD is a professor of Resource Management and Environmental Studies with a specialty in the global politics of sanitation. You can follow him at raulpacheco.org, where this post originally appeared, and on Twitter and Facebook.

Flashback Friday.

Joan Jacob Brumberg’s fantastic book, Fasting Girls: The History of Anorexia Nervosa, is an excellent example of the benefits of sociologically-inspired history.  Brumberg begins by explaining that girls who starved themselves have been recorded in many historical epochs, but the way in which societies have made sense of that starvation has varied.

Today we medicalize self-starvation; we call it a mental illness and we name it “anorexia nervosa.”

In Medieval Europe, fasting girls were labeled with the term “anorexia mirabilis”; these girls were seen as miracles, able to survive on spiritual devotion alone. During the Victorian Era, people would pilgrimage to these fasting girls and leave offerings.  A famous fasting girl could be a financial boon to a struggling family.

Fasting Girl Mollie Fancher in 1887:


During the nineteenth century, medical doctors and psychiatrists (who generally saw religion as a threat to their nascent authority) argued that the fasting girls were impossibilities, that no one could survive without food. The competition between medicine and religion became so intense that doctors became intent on proving that these fasting girls were not surviving on holiness, but were sneaking food. In several cases, doctors staked out fasting girls, watching her to make sure that she did not eat, and these girls, relentless in the illusion, sometimes died.

In any case, I thought of Brumberg’s book when I came across a story about Prahlad Jani, an Indian man who claims that he has not had any food or drink for 70 years, surviving on “spiritual life force” instead.

In 2003 and 2010, Jani’s claims were tested by physicians. In the latest round, Indian military scientists held him in a hospital, watching him to ensure he did not eat or drink.  Unlike the doctors in the Victorian era, however, who wanted the girls to fail, these doctors think Jani might hold a secret that will be useful for the military and they’re hoping that, by watching, they will be able to discover it.

They released him after 15 days. As they did in 2003, they said that his tests came back normal despite complete abstinence from food and water.

Originally posted in 2010.

Lisa Wade is a professor at Occidental College and the co-author of Gender: Ideas, Interactions, Institutions. Find her on TwitterFacebook, and Instagram.

Flashback Friday.

I found this 1917 advertisement for swastika jewelry while browsing through the NY Public Library Digital Gallery. The text reads in part:

To the wearer of swastika will come from the four winds of heaven good luck, long life and prosperity. The swastika is the oldest cross, and the oldest symbol in the world. Of unknown origin, in frequent use in the prehistoric items, it historically first appeared on coins as early as the year 315 B.C.

As this suggests, while the symbol of the swastika is most frequently associated with Hitler and Nazis during World War II, and is still used by neo-Nazi groups, the symbol itself has a much longer history. From wikipedia:

Archaeological evidence of swastika-shaped ornaments dates from the Neolithic period. An ancient symbol, it occurs mainly in the cultures that are in modern day India and the surrounding area, sometimes as a geometrical motif and sometimes as a religious symbol. It was long widely used in major world religions such as Hinduism, Buddhism and Jainism.

Before it was co-opted by the Nazis, the swastika decorated all kinds of things.  Uni Watch has tons of examples. Here it is on a Finnish military plane:

A Boy Scout badge:

A women’s hockey team called the Swastikas from Edmonton (from 1916):

Another hockey team:

In the comments, Felicity pointed to this example:

She writes:

My mom is a quilter and collects antique quilts (when she can afford them). She says that while in general, antique quilts and quilt-tops have gone up a great deal in price over the decades, there’s still one sort you can pick up for a song — swastika quilts.

It’s kind of sad to think of somebody in 1900 putting all that time and hand-stitching into a ‘good luck’ quilt that is now reviled.

All of these examples occurred before the Nazis adopted the swastika as their symbol (and changed it slightly by tilting it on a 45-degree angle). Of course, the original meaning or usage of the swastika is beside the point now. Because it is so strongly associated with the Nazis, it’s impossible to use it now without people reading it as a Nazi symbol. And in fact it’s unimaginable that a group in the U.S. or Europe would use the swastika today without intentionally meaning to draw on the Nazi association and the ideas espoused by Hitler and his party.

Wendy Christensen is an Assistant Professor at William Paterson University whose specialty includes the intersection of gender, war, and the media.  You can follow her on Twitter.

1A touching BBC story describes a new documentary, Menstrual Man, that chronicles the trials and tribulations of a humble man in India who sought to offer his wife a sanitary napkin.  After marrying, he discovered that his wife kept from him a secret: the rags she used and re-used to collect menstrual blood.

Only 12% of women in India used pads; they were simply too expensive for most to buy. Nearly three-quarters of all reproductive diseases were caused by poor menstrual hygiene.  A combination of high cost and embarrassment kept women from developing a safe method of managing menstruation.  Nearly a quarter of girls dropped out of school when they started their periods.

Arunachalam Muruganantham was driven to offer women a solution.  He was going to design a machine that would produce low cost menstrual pads.  He asked his wife to serve as an experimental subject, but one woman menstruating once a month wasn’t enough of a sample.  He asked medical students to participate, but the responses were slim.  He fashioned a fake uterus and collected goat blood, trying to experiment himself.

“Everyone thought he’d gone mad.”

His wife left, his mother left, his friends avoided him; it was suspected he was some kind of diseased or possessed sexual pervert, collecting menstrual blood to do god-knows-what.

Figuring out how to make highly absorptive cotton was a significant challenge.  He finally tricked a  multinational company into sending him samples of the raw material: cellulose from the bark of the tree.  Now he just had to design a cheap machine that would turn the raw material into pads.

Four-and-a-half years later, he was producing affordable menstrual pads for Indian women on a cheaply made machine.  He won an award.  His wife came back.

He built 250 machines, which he then took to the poorest areas of Northern India.  He gave them to women, at no profit, who could then produce the pads and sell them to local women.  Each woman now runs her own business.  “Over time the machines spread to 1,300 villages in 23 states.”


He is now looking to expand to 106 more countries.

About his success, Muruganantham said:

Anyone with an MBA would immediately accumulate the maximum money. But I did not want to. Why? Because from childhood I know no human being died because of poverty — everything happens because of ignorance…. I have accumulated no money but I accumulate a lot of happiness.

Watch the trailer here.

Cross-posted at Pacific Standard.

Lisa Wade is a professor at Occidental College and the co-author of Gender: Ideas, Interactions, Institutions. Find her on TwitterFacebook, and Instagram.

I am always surprised when Valentine’s day rolls around in America as the fiery public outbursts don’t seem so prevalent. In contemporary India this day holds a special significance especially for youngsters. More than the average date-night with an exchange of chocolates, gifts, and flowers, Valentine’s Day provides an opportunity for young practitioners to authenticate and reify their practice of dating and pursuing “true love.”

While arranged marriages are considered  the moral norm, pursuing individual love fantasies are potentially frowned upon and discouraged in a lot of modern Indian homes. Hindutva followers (Vishwa Hindu Parishad) also recommend boycotting the day labeling it western, anti-Hindu, a moral corruption of Indian youth.


Indian youngsters, however, represent a marketable youth desiccated by parental norms, traditional values, and mixed sexual messages. Valentine’s Day appears as an oasis of freedom, filled with everything the society and parents condemn. They are marketable not only with chocolates, pretty red roses and heart-shaped goods, but also marketable for practices that condone a “way of life” very different from those their parents seem to follow.

In this sense, participation in Valentine’s Day is a kind of religious act. Counter-culture, anti-traditional, and even anti-caste (according to the DMK), participation is of the utmost necessity to its ardent young fans and signifies their socio-cultural milieu.

While some think it’s quite inauthentic for Indians to be celebrating Valentine’s Day, Indian youngsters see it as a natural display of their modern values in response to their conservative parents. They may even connect across religious diversity upon this issue. As a mode of rejecting the anti-dating model culturally imposed by parents, kids take to streets kissing in public, exchanging cards and flowers, hungry to share their love with each other.


Ultimately the observer has to notice that the plethora of critiques have made Indian celebrators broaden their definition of love, invoking Valentine’s Day for animals and celebrations with destitute elders and those mentally challenged.

“For charity and for love” seems to provide an example for a more neutral celebration, condoned by older members of the community. Each time the day is evoked the ritual is transformed. Even in America some call this day a “Hallmark holiday” and refuse to buy into the propaganda that tells you to monetarily express your love.  Others reject the day, crying that it forces gender stereotypes and creates unwanted expectations. Far divorced from the roots of a religious tradition called Christianity, St.Valentine’s Day has morphed into a Hallmark holiday for Americans and an excuse to publicly proclaim your dating culture for Indian youth.

What the Indian haters of Valentine’s Day need to realize is that it’s probably nothing personal. Young people have always wanted an excuse to make-out in the back rows instead of pay attention in class. India also just seem to “love love” as a friendly visitor once told me. But, we cannot ignore the fact that these practices are changing based on the lifestyle needs of modern urban Indians, and that they are also changing peoples expectations and expressions of love.

The Hindutva respondents are like some Christians and Muslims who argue that participating in yoga might make you Hindu. They certainly aren’t wrong in implying that participation in a practice could  transform your worldview. Far from being irrelevant to religion, opposing meanings of what the practice of Valentine’s Day may create only indicates that “you never know what you’re gonna get!”

Deeksha Sivakumar is a Ph.D. student in South Asian Religions at Emory University, GA. Her current research interests surround a particular enactment of a goddess festival and its unique celebration in Southern India as Bommai Golu. You can follow her on TwitterThis post originally appeared at Bulletin for the Study of Religion.

Two recent events had a strikingly similar theme.  Kenichi Ebina won America’s Got Talent and Nina Davuluri won Miss America.  In both instances, other Americans objected to their victories, claiming that they were not really American because Ebina and Davuluri are of Japanese and Indian origin respectively.   Still other Americans objected to this reaction.  And yet, as I’ll argue below, most of us share their bias.

First, thanks to Public Shaming, we have examples of the reaction on Twitter.  Reactions to Ebina’s win:

1 2 4

Reactions to Davuluri’s win:
14 12 13

These are stark examples of people who believe that only white people count as American.  It’s a bizarre position, of course, because people of European descent are immigrants to America, and an overtly racist one as well.  I don’t lose any sleep over publishing their identities on this blog.

But, the truth is, the majority of us — even those of us who oppose racism and embrace the idea that the U.S. is a nation of immigrants — hold the belief that America = white.  We just believe this subconsciously.

Project Implicit is an online psychological test that measures implicit beliefs, ones we hold that we’re not necessarily conscious of holding.  One test is of the association of Asian-ness with American-ness.  It works by measuring how long it takes us to sort Asian and European faces and American and Foreign famous sites into the proper categories.

First they ask you to sort faces and places with Asian and Foreign together on the left and European and American together on the right. Like this:

Screenshot_2Then they switch the bottom designations so that Asian and American are on one side and European and Foreign are on the other.  For most people, the harms their ability to sort faces and places: it slows down and includes more errors, revealing that their brain implicitly sees Asian and foreign as one category and American and European as another.

Here’s the aggregate data.  Almost a quarter of people make no association either way, 60% implicitly believe that Asians are less American than Europeans, and 17% think the opposite.

Screenshot_3The take home message is: even though it’s easy to condemn the twits making overtly racist comments, this is a problem that is much more pervasive and pernicious.  Even those of us who are horrified by those tweets likely carry the bias behind them.

Cross-posted at Pacific Standard.

Lisa Wade is a professor at Occidental College and the co-author of Gender: Ideas, Interactions, Institutions. Find her on TwitterFacebook, and Instagram.

Excess under age-60 female mortality in less developed countries is estimated to add up to 3.9 million missing women worldwide (World Bank, 2011).  A large proportion of this is due to sex-selective abortion practices.  The practice occurs most commonly among poorer families in societies where boy children are given greater economic and social status than girl children. In such a context, the transition to smaller families can lead parents to choose boys over girls. Notably, female fetuses are most likely to be aborted when the first child born is a girl.

The table below shows the countries with the most skewed ratios at birth in the world. While there is naturally a slightly higher sex ratio of boys to girls — between 1.04-1.06 — ratios above that are considered to be altered by technology due to gender preferences for boy children.


The reason we find this newest 2013 data of particular interest is that, despite the popular Western focus on Asia, the practice occurs in more European countries. Perhaps most striking is the central European country that ranks at the top of the list—Liechtenstein. This strikes us as odd, given that Liechtenstein has never made this list in the past. Perhaps this is a data collection error (in very small populations, as also in Curacao, the results can be skewed). But we are surprised that no journalists have picked up on the fact that the worst offending son-preference country in the world is now, allegedly, a European country.  We contacted the CIA to ask them about this possible data anomaly but have not yet heard back.*

On the other hand, if the Liechtenstein data is accurate, this would be a very interesting story indeed, especially since Liechtenstein has the most restrictive laws against abortion in Europe.  A quick scan of gender equity policies in Liechtenstein shows that women there were not legalized to vote until 1984, indicating that it is not the most gender egalitarian of European countries.

In any case, whether Liechtenstein’s inclusion in this disreputable list is a data error or not, the other European countries on the list are legitimate.  They have been high for many years, and a recent report on Armenia, for example, documents longstanding norms in gender preference.  The disproportionate focus on birth sex ratios in China and India no doubt reflects their status as the #1 and #2 most populous countries, which means a much greater overall impact in sheer numbers.  Nevertheless, our point stands.  Why has the disproportionate inclusion of non-Asian countries on the above-list gone virtually unmentioned by journalists?

Do Developed Western Countries Prefer Boys?

Americans often think of parental sex preference as a thing of the past, or a problem in developing countries. After all, the U.S. sex ratio at birth falls in the normal range, at 1.05. This is in spite of the curious American cottage industry in sex-identification home use kits, such as the Intelligender, the GenderMaker and the Gender Mentor.


In surveys, American parents report an ideal of two children and equal preference for boys and girls. However, American gender preferences manifest themselves in more sneaky ways. A 2011 Gallup poll showed that, if they were only able to have one child, the highest preference was for a boy.  These results are little changed from the same Gallup question asked of Americans in 1941.

To return to a point made in an earlier post on skewed sex ratios, Americans may not be so different, after all, in their gender preferences from the countries in the above table.  The crucial difference, she noted, is that some Asian countries are more enabled to act on their boy preference than others. It appears we should now be including some European countries in that “enabled” group as well.

* Neither the United Nations, Population Reference Bureau, nor the World Bank have published 2013 statistics yet for comparison to the CIA data.

Jennifer Lundquist is an associate professor of sociology at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst who specializes in stratification and social demography.
Eiko Strader is a PhD student in sociology at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst who studies inequality in labor markets and the welfare state.

Cross-posted at Family Inequality.

The other day I was surprised that a group of reporters failed to call out what seemed to be an obvious exaggeration by Republican Congresspeople in a press conference. Did the reporters not realize that a 25% unemployment rate among college graduates in 2013 is implausible, were they not paying attention, or do they just assume they’re being fed lies all the time so they don’t bother?

Last semester I launched an aggressive campaign to teach the undergraduate students in my class the size of the US population. If you don’t know that – and some large portion of them didn’t – how can you interpret statements such as, “On average, 24 people per minute are victims of rape, physical violence, or stalking by an intimate partner in the United States.” In this case the source followed up with, “Over the course of a year, that equals more than 12 million women and men.” But, is that a lot? It’s a lot more in the United States than it would be in China. (Unless you go with, “any rape is too many,” in which case why use a number at all?)


Anyway, just the US population isn’t enough. I decided to start a list of current demographic facts you need to know just to get through the day without being grossly misled or misinformed – or, in the case of journalists or teachers or social scientists, not to allow your audience to be grossly misled or misinformed. Not trivia that makes a point or statistics that are shocking, but the non-sensational information you need to know to make sense of those things when other people use them. And it’s really a ballpark requirement; when I tested the undergraduates, I gave them credit if they were within 20% of the US population – that’s anywhere between 250 million and 380 million!

I only got as far as 22 facts, but they should probably be somewhere in any top-100. And the silent reporters the other day made me realize I can’t let the perfect be the enemy of the good here. I’m open to suggestions for others (or other lists if they’re out there).

They refer to the US unless otherwise noted:

Description Number Source
World Population 7 billion 1
US Population 316 million 1
Children under 18 as share of pop. 24% 2
Adults 65+ as share of pop. 13% 2
Unemployment rate 7.6% 3
Unemployment rate range, 1970-2013 4% – 11% 4
Non-Hispanic Whites as share of pop. 63% 2
Blacks as share of pop. 13% 2
Hispanics as share of pop. 17% 2
Asians as share of pop. 5% 2
American Indians as share of pop. 1% 2
Immigrants as share of pop 13% 2
Adults with BA or higher 28% 2
Median household income $53,000 2
Most populous country, China 1.3 billion 5
2nd most populous country, India 1.2 billion 5
3rd most populous country, USA 315 million 5
4th most populous country, Indonesia 250 million 5
5th most populous country, Brazil 200 million 5
Male life expectancy at birth 76 6
Female life expectancy at birth 81 6
National life expectancy range 49 – 84 7

1. http://www.census.gov/main/www/popclock.html
2. http://quickfacts.census.gov/qfd/states/00000.html
3. http://www.bls.gov/
4. Google public data: http://bit.ly/UVmeS3
5. https://www.cia.gov/library/publications/the-world-factbook/rankorder/2119rank.html
6. http://www.cdc.gov/nchs/hus/contents2011.htm#021
7. https://www.cia.gov/library/publications/the-world-factbook/rankorder/2102rank.html

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