Tag Archives: organizations/institutions

Money as a Social Construction

We all know that, on some basic level, money is purely symbolic.  It only works because everyone collectively agrees to participate in the fantasy that a dollar bill is worth a dollar, whatever that is.  Moreover, most of our money these days is purely electronic, represented by ones and zeros and real only in the most abstract sense possible.

Christopher Ingraham at the Washington Post offered another way of thinking about money as a social construction: how much it costs to make it.  None of our coins are actually worth what they cost, and pennies and nickels are worth quite a bit less.

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The excess cost of producing pennies and nickels means a budget deficit for the Treasury. In 2013, producing the coins cost the government $105 million dollars above and beyond the coins’ value.

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Interestingly, moves to eliminate pennies have been successfully opposed by the zinc industry for years, illustrating another sociological phenomenon: the power of corporations to shape government decisions.

Lisa Wade is a professor of sociology at Occidental College and the author of Gender: Ideas, Interactions, Institutions, with Myra Marx Ferree. You can follow her on Twitter and Facebook.

Security Guards Now Outnumber High School Teachers

There are now more people working as private security guards than high school teachers.

Samuel Bowles and Arjun Jayadev offer the following graph, highlighting the number of “protective service workers”* employed per 10,000 workers and the degree of income inequality in the year 2000 for 16 countries.  The United States is tops on both counts.

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Two things stand out from this graph beyond U.S. “leadership.”  The first is the relationship between the share of protective service workers  – or “guard labor” – and inequality.  As Bowles and Jayadev comment:

In America, growing inequality has been accompanied by a boom in gated communities and armies of doormen controlling access to upscale apartment buildings. We did not count the doormen, or those producing the gates, locks and security equipment. One could quibble about the numbers; we have elsewhere adopted a broader definition, including prisoners, work supervisors with disciplinary functions, and others.

But however one totes up guard labor in the United States, there is a lot of it, and it seems to go along with economic inequality. States with high levels of income inequality — New York and Louisiana — employ twice as many security workers (as a fraction of their labor force) as less unequal states like Idaho and New Hampshire.

When we look across advanced industrialized countries, we see the same pattern: the more inequality, the more guard labor. As the graph shows, the United States leads in both.

The second is the rapid rise in the U.S. share of guard labor and inequality from 1979 to 2000.

One can only wonder in what ways and for whom this large and growing dependence on guard labor represents a rational use of social resources.

* For those who like definitions: The category protective service workers includes those employed as Private Security Guards, Supervisors of Correctional Officers, Supervisors of Police and Detectives, Supervisors of all other Protective Service Workers, Bailiffs, Correctional Officers and Jailers, Detectives and Criminal Investigators, Fish and Game Wardens, Parking Enforcement Workers, Police and Patrol Officers, Transit and Railroad Police, Private Detectives and Investigators, Gaming Surveillance Officers, and Transportation Security Screeners.  A broader measure of guard labor might include members of the armed forces, civilian employees of the military, and those that produce weapons to those employed as protective service workers.  That total was 5.2 million workers in 2011.

Cross-posted at Reports from the Economic Front.

Martin Hart-Landsberg is a professor of economics at Lewis and Clark College. You can follow him at Reports from the Economic Front.

Should There be Trigger Warnings on Syllabi?

Apparently universities are issuing guidelines to help professors consider adding “trigger warnings” to syllabi for “racism, classism, sexism, heterosexism, cissexism, ableism, and other issues of privilege and oppression,” and to remove triggering material when it doesn’t “directly contribute to learning goals.” One example given is Chinua Achebe’s “Things Fall Apart” for its colonialism trigger. This from New Republic this week.

I have no desire to enter the fray of online discussions on trigger warnings and sensitivity. I have used trigger warnings. Most recently, I made a personal decision to not retweet Dylan Farrow’s piece in the New York Times detailing Woody Allen’s sexual abuse. I was uncomfortable shoving a very powerful description at people without some kind of warning. I couldn’t read past the first three sentences. I couldn’t imagine how it read for others. So, I referenced the article with a trigger warning and kept it moving.

But, I’m not sure that’s at all the kind of deliberation universities are doing with their trigger warning policies. Call me cynical, but the “student-customer” movement is the soft power arm of the neo-liberal corporatization of higher education. The message is that no one should ever be uncomfortable because students do not pay to feel things like confusion or anger. That sounds very rational until we consider how the student-customer model doesn’t silence power so much as it stifles any discourse about how power acts on people.

I’ve talked before about how the student-customer model becomes a tool to rationalize away the critical canon of race, sex, gender, sexuality, colonialism, and capitalism.

The trigger warned syllabus feels like it is in this tradition. And I will tell you why.

In the last three weeks alone: a college student has had structural violence of normative harassment foisted on her for daring to have sex (for money), black college students at Harvard have taken to social media to catalog the casual racism of their colleagues, and black male students at UCLA made a video documenting their erasure.

It would seem that the most significant “issue” for a trigger warning is actual racism, sexism, ableism, and systems of oppression. Cause I’ve got to tell you, I’ve had my crystal stair dead end at the floor of racism and sexism and I’ve read “Things Fall Apart.” The trigger warning scale of each in no way compares.

Yet, no one is arguing for trigger warnings in the routine spaces where symbolic and structural violence are acted on students at the margins. No one, to my knowledge, is affixing trigger warnings to department meetings that WASP-y normative expectations may require you to code switch yourself into oblivion to participate as a full member of the group. Instead, trigger warnings are being encouraged for sites of resistance, not mechanisms of oppression.

At for-profit colleges, strict curriculum control and enrollment contracts effectively restrict all critical literature and pedagogy. We elites balk at such barbarism. What’s a trigger warning but the prestige university version? A normative exclusion as opposed to a regulatory one?

Trigger warnings make sense on platforms where troubling information can be foisted upon you without prior knowledge, as in the case of retweets. Those platforms are in the business of messaging and amplification.

That is an odd business for higher education to be in… unless the business of higher education is now officially business.

In which case, we may as well give up on the tenuous appeal we have to public good and citizenry-building because we don’t have a kickstand to lean on.

If universities are not in the business of being uncomfortable places for silent acts of power and privilege then the trigger warning we need is: higher education is dead but credential production lives on; enter at your own risk.

Tressie McMillan Cottom is a PhD candidate in the Sociology Department at Emory University in Atlanta, GA.  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.

What Causes Inequality? Systemic and Individual Frames for Racism in Media

Sociologists who study inequality distinguish between individual bias, negative beliefs about a group held by individual persons, and systemic inequality, unequal outcomes built into our institutions that will produce inequality even in the absence of biased individuals.

A good example is K-12 education in the United States.  School funding is linked, in part, to the taxes collected in the neighborhood of each school.  So, schools in rich neighborhoods, populated by rich kids, have more money to spend per student than schools in poor neighborhoods.  This system privileges young people who win the birth lottery and are born into wealthier families, but it also benefits whites and some Asians, who have higher incomes and greater wealth, on average, than Latinos, African Americans, American Indians, and less advantaged Asian groups.

Now, teachers and school staff might be classist and racist, and that will make matters worse.  But even in the absence of such individuals, the laws that govern k-12 funding will ensure that rich and white children will be given a disproportionate amount of the resources we put towards educating the next generation.  That’s f’d up, by the way, in a society that tells itself it’s a meritocracy.

Sociologists who spend time in classrooms know that young people coming into college are much more familiar with the idea that individuals are biased than they are with the idea that our societies are designed to benefit some and hurt others.  This is a problem because, in the absence of an understanding that we need to change law, policy, and practice — in addition to changing minds — we will make limited headway in reducing unfair inequalities.

But where do people get their ideas about what causes inequality?

One source is the mass media and, thanks to Race Forward, we now have a portrait of media coverage of one type of inequality and the extent to which it addresses individual and systemic biases.  They measured the degree to which news and TV coverage of issues were systemically aware (discussing policies or practices that lead or have led to inequality) or systemically unaware (fails to discuss such policies, explicitly denies them, or refuses to acknowledge racism of any kind).

First, they found that news outlets varied in their systemic awareness, with MSNBC a clear stand out on one end and Fox News a clear stand out on the other. On average, about 2/3rds of all media coverage failed to have any discussion of systemic causes of inequality.  Articles or op-eds that robustly discussed policy problems or changes were extraordinarily rare, “never constitut[ing] more than 3.3% of any individual news outlet’s coverage of race…”

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Second, they found that systemic awareness varied strongly by the topic of the coverage, with the economy and criminal justice most likely to receive systemically aware coverage:

4What this means is that whether any given person understands racism to be a largely one-on-one phenomenon that can be solved by reducing individual bias (or waiting for racists to move on to another realm) or a systemic problem that requires intervention at the level of our institutions, depends in part on what media outlets they consume and what they’re interested in (e.g., sports vs. economics).

There’s lots more to learn from the full document at Race Forward.

Lisa Wade is a professor of sociology at Occidental College and the author of Gender: Ideas, Interactions, Institutions, with Myra Marx Ferree. You can follow her on Twitter and Facebook.

What’s Ikea for? Cultural Differences in Appropriate Behavior

Sociologist Sangyoub Park forwarded us a fascinating account of Ikea’s business model… for China.  In the U.S., there are rather strict rules about what one can do in a retail store.  Primarily, one is supposed to shop, shop the whole time, and leave once one’s done shopping.  Special parts of the store might be designated for other activities, like eating or entertaining kids, but the main floors are activity-restricted.

Not in China.  Ikea has become a popular place to hang out.  People go there to read their morning newspaper, socialize with friends, snuggle with a loved one, or take a nap.  Older adults have turned it into a haunt for singles looking for love.  Some even see it as a great place for a wedding.

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This is a great example of the social construction of spaces: what seems like appropriate behavior in a context is a matter of cultural agreement.  In the U.S., we’ve accepted the idea that the chairs in our local furniture store are not for socializing.  Some of us, depending on our privilege, could probably get ourselves arrested if we took a nap at our local Mattress King.  But this isn’t an inevitable truth.  If we all just collectively change our minds, the people with power included, then things could be different.

Cross-posted at Pacific Standard.

Lisa Wade is a professor of sociology at Occidental College and the author of Gender: Ideas, Interactions, Institutions, with Myra Marx Ferree. You can follow her on Twitter and Facebook.

Marijuana Policing as a Civil Rights Issue

Young black adults are less likely than whites to use marijuana, but extraordinarily more likely to be arrested for its use, according to a new report by the ACLU.  This is old news, but the data never fails to stun.

First, notice that arrests for marijuana possession have grown over the past 15 years, even relative to arrests for other types of drugs.  The first chart is total marijuana possession arrests, the second is the percent of all drug arrests that were for marijuana (note that in neither chart does the vertical axis start at zero and truncated axes tend to make data look more dramatic, as if that were necessary here).

Screenshot (11) Screenshot (12)This rise in arrests has disproportionately affected African Americans.  The arrest rate for blacks has consistently been substantially higher than that of whites, but it increased, even so, over the 2000s.
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According to the report:

…in every state the Black arrest rate is disproportionate to Blacks’ percentage of the population.  In fact, in 42 states the Black percentage of marijuana possession arrests is more than double the Black percentage of the population, while in 18 states Blacks account for more than three times the percentage of marijuana possession arrests than they do of the population.  In four states, the difference is a factor of at least four.

Most of these arrests are of young people.  Almost half (46%) involve 18 to 24 year olds:

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The black arrest rate cannot be attributed to different rates of use.  Overall, blacks and whites have very similar rates of marijuana use (the first figure below), but among 18 to 25 year olds — the population being arrested the most — whites have slightly higher rates than blacks (second figure):
Screenshot (15) Screenshot (16)This is a long-standing, well-documented Civil Rights issue.  The war on drugs is a war on black people.  These practices are harmful to individuals, their families, and their communities.  It functions to further the disadvantage faced by black Americans in a society rife with institutions already stacked against them.

More than half of Americans would like to see marijuana legalized.  Legalizing or decriminalizing marijuana would relieve this egregious attack on black communities and save states billions of dollars.  There is little downside.  Relative to other substances, it’s a minor problem.

Screenshot (19)Cross-posted at Pacific Standard.

 

Lisa Wade is a professor of sociology at Occidental College and the author of Gender: Ideas, Interactions, Institutions, with Myra Marx Ferree. You can follow her on Twitter and Facebook.

Wanna Be in the NBA? It Helps to Grow Up Rich

Part of what makes professional basketball appealing, for kids who love to play as well as fans, is the idea that a person can come from humble beginnings and become a star.  The players on the court, the narrative goes, are ones who rose to fame as a result of incredible dedication and extraordinary talent.  Basketball, then, is a way out of poverty, a true equal opportunity sport that affirms what we think America is all about.

Seth Stephens-Davidowitz crunched the numbers to find out if the equal opportunity story was true.   Analyzing the economic background of NBA players, he found that growing up in a wealthy neighborhood (the top 40% of household incomes) is a “major, positive predictor” for success in professional basketball.  Black players are also less likely than the general black male population to have been born to a young or single mother.  So, class privilege is an advantage for pro ball players, just like it is elsewhere in our economy.

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The richest Black men, then, are most likely to end up in the NBA, followed by those in the bottom 20% of neighborhoods by income.  Middle class black men may, like many middle class white men, see college as a more secure route to a successful future.  Research shows that poor black men often see sports as a more realistic route out of poverty than college (and they may not be wrong).  This also helps explain why Jews dominated professional basketball in the first half of the 1900s.

LeBron James was right, then, when he said, “I’m LeBron James. From Akron, Ohio. From the inner city. I am not even supposed to be here.”  The final phrase disrupts our mythology about professional basketball: that being poor isn’t an obstacle if one has talent and drive.  But, as Stephens-Davidowitz reminds us, “[a]nyone from a difficult environment, no matter his athletic prowess, has the odds stacked against him.”

Cross-posted at Pacific Standard.

Lisa Wade is a professor of sociology at Occidental College and the author of Gender: Ideas, Interactions, Institutions, with Myra Marx Ferree. You can follow her on Twitter and Facebook.

Surprise! Your Flight Attendants are All Strangers

We’re celebrating the end of the year with our most popular posts from 2013, plus a few of our favorites tossed in.  Enjoy!

Flight attendants are not only friendly with their passengers, they’re also often super friendly with each other.  This may be because especially gregarious people go into the profession, but it’s also an adaptation to a surprising structural feature of their job. It turns out that, on any given flight anywhere in the world, most flight attendants are meeting their co-workers for the very first time.

There are about 100,000 flight attendants in the U.S. alone and they get their flights through a process of bidding, one month at a time, one month ahead.  Most really do “see the world,” as the old glamorized image of the intrepid stewardess suggests, instead of working the same route over and over again.  As a result, explains Drew Whitelegg in Working the Skies, they rarely run into the same flight attendant twice.

This means that flight attendants must get to know one another quickly once they get on board.  They need to do so to make food and beverage service efficient, to coordinate their actions in the tight galleys in which they work and, most importantly, so that they will trust one another if they are called upon to do what they are really there for: acting in an emergency, one that could theoretically happen within seconds of take-off.  There’s no time to lose. “[F]rom the moment they board the plane,” writes Whitelegg, “these workers — even if complete strangers — begin constructing bonds.”

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Image credit: National Library of Australia

 

Their instant bonding is facilitated by their shared experiences and their “peculiar identity,” Whitelegg explains — few people understand their job and the airline industry deliberately misportays it – and also by a culture of confession.  The galley has its own rules to which new flight attendants are socialized.  So, even though the workers are always new, the workplace is predictable.  Whitlegg describes how galley conversations during downtime tend to be extremely, sometimes excruciatingly personal.  ”The things you hear,” laughs Clare, a flight attendant for Continental, “I could write a book. The things you hear at 30,000 feet.”  It’s the odd combination of a habit of bonding and the anonymity of strangers.

So, if you have the pleasure of taking a flight, spend a few minutes watching the surprising coordination of strangers who seem like old friends, and take a moment to appreciate the amazing way these workers have adapted to their very peculiar position.

Cross-posted at The Huffington Post, Pacific Standard, and Work in Progress.

Lisa Wade is a professor of sociology at Occidental College and the author of Gender: Ideas, Interactions, Institutions, with Myra Marx Ferree. You can follow her on Twitter and Facebook.