Tag Archives: organizations/institutions

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.

James Baldwin on the Idea that He Should Trust the Hearts of White People

In the clip below, James Baldwin powerfully explains why he, as a black man, has no reason to assume that white people care about him and his people.

Responding to Dick Cavett, he says, “I don’t know what most white people in this country feel, but I can only conclude what they feel from the state of their institutions.”

He goes on to present a devastating list of ways in which American institutions are segregated and biased.  He concludes:

Now, this is the evidence. You want me to make an act of faith — risking myself, my wife, my woman, my sister, my children — on some idealization which you assure me exists in America, which I have never seen.

It was 1968, four years after the Civil Rights Act.  This year marks its 50th anniversary. How much have things changed?

Hat tip to Tim Wise. 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.

Watch London Cops Subdue, Not Kill, a Man Yelling and Swinging a Machete

Despite the cellphone video of two police officers killing Kajieme Powell, there is some dispute as to what happened (see this account in The Atlantic). Was Powell threatening them; did he hold the knife high; was he only three or four feet away? 

The video is all over the Internet, including the link above. I’m not going to include it here.  The officers get out of the car, immediately draw their guns, and walk towards Powell. Is this the best way to deal with a disturbed or possibly deranged individual – to confront him and then shoot him several times if he does something that might be threatening?

Watch the video, then watch London police confronting a truly deranged and dangerous man in 2011.  In St. Louis, Powell had a steak knife and it’s not clear whether he raised it or swung it at all.  The man in London has a machete and is swinging it about.


Unfortunately, the London video does not show us how the incident got started. By the time the recording begins, at least ten officers were already on the scene. They do not have guns. They have shields and truncheons. The London police tactic used more officers, and the incident took more time. But nobody died.  According to The Economist:

The police in and around Ferguson have shot and killed twice as many people in the past two weeks (Mr Brown plus one other) as the police in Japan, a nation of 127m, have shot and killed in the past six years. Nationwide, America’s police kill roughly one person a day.

The article includes this graphic:

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I’m sure that the Powell killing will elicit not just sympathy for the St. Louis police but in some quarters high praise – something to the effect that what they did was a good deed and that the victims got what they deserved. But righteous slaughter is slaughter nevertheless. A life has been taken.<

You would think that other recent videos of righteous slaughter elsewhere in the world would get us to reconsider this response to killing. But instead, these seem only to strengthen tribal Us/Them ways of thinking. If one of Us who kills one of Them, then the killing must have been necessary and even virtuous.

Originally posted at Montclair SocioBlog.

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

Who Are Habitats For? Electrified Nature in Zoo Exhibits

What do you see?

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While it hasn’t always been the case, most well-funded zoos today feature pleasant-enough looking habitats for their animals.  They are typically species-appropriate, roomy enough to look less-than-totally miserable, and include trees and shrubs and other such natural features that make them attractive.

How, though, a friend of mine recently asked “does that landscaping stay nice? Why don’t [the animals] eat it, lie down on it, rip it to shreds for fun, or poop all over it?”

Because, she told me, some of it is hot-wired to give them a shock if they touch it. These images are taken from the website Total Habitat, a source of electrified grasses and vines.  

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Laurel Braitman writes about these products in her book, Animal Madness.  When she goes to zoos, she says, she doesn’t “marvel at the gorilla… but instead at the mastery of the exhibit itself.”  She writes:

The more naturalistic the cages, the more depressing they can be because they are that much more deceptive. To the mandrill on the other side of the glass, the realistic foliage that frames his favorite perch doesn’t help him one bit if it has been hot-wired so that he doesn’t destroy it… Some of the new natural looking exhibits may be even worse for their inhabitants than the old cement ones, as the new plants and other features can shrink the animals’ usable space.

The take-home message is that these attractive, naturalistic environments are more for us than they are for the animal.  They teach us what the animal’s natural habitat might look like and they soothe us emotionally, reassuring us that the animal must be living a nice life.

I don’t know the extent to which zoos use electrified grasses and vines, but next time you visit one you might be inspired to look a little more closely.

Photo of elephants from wikimedia commons.

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.

Insurance Companies and the Cost of Health Care

When my primary care physician, a wonderful doctor, told me he was retiring, he said, “I just can’t practice medicine anymore the way I want to.” It wasn’t the government or malpractice lawyers. It was the insurance companies.

This was long before Obamacare.  It was back when President W was telling us that “America has the best health care system in the world”; back when “the best” meant spending twice as much as other developed countries and getting health outcomes that were no better and by some measures worse. (That’s still true).

Many critics then blamed the insurance companies, whose administrative costs were so much higher than those of public health care, including our own Medicare. Some of that money went to employees whose job it was to increase insurers’ profits by not paying claims.  Back then we learned the word “rescission”  – finding a pretext for cancelling the coverage of people whose medical bills were too high.   Insurance company executives, summoned to Congressional hearings, stood their ground and offered some misleading statistics

None of the Congressional representatives on the committee asked the execs how much they were getting paid. Maybe they should have.

Health care in the U.S. is a $2.7 trillion dollar business, and the New York Times has an article about who’s getting the big bucks.  Not the doctors, it turns out.  And certainly not the people who have the most contact with sick people – nurses, EMTs, and those further down the chain.  Here’s the chart from the article, with an inset showing those administrative costs.

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As fine print at the top of the chart says, these are just salaries – walking-around money an exec gets for showing up.  The real money is in the options and incentives.

In a deal that is not unusual in the industry, Mark T. Bertolini, the chief executive of Aetna, earned a salary of about $977,000 in 2012 but a total compensation package of over $36 million, the bulk of it from stocks vested and options he exercised that year.

The anti-Obamacare rhetoric has railed against a “government takeover” of medicine. It is, of course, no such thing. Obama had to remove the “public option”; Republicans prevented the government from fielding a team and getting into the game. Instead, we have had an insurance company takeover of medicine. It’s not the government that’s coming between doctor and patient, it’s the insurance companies. Those dreaded “bureaucrats” aren’t working for the government of the people, by the people, and for the people. They’ve working for Aetna and Well-Point.

Even the doctors now sense that they too are merely working for The Man.

Doctors are beginning to push back: Last month, 75 doctors in northern Wisconsin [demanded] . . . health reforms . . . requiring that 95 percent of insurance premiums be used on medical care. The movement was ignited when a surgeon, Dr. Hans Rechsteiner, discovered that a brief outpatient appendectomy he had performed for a fee of $1,700 generated over $12,000 in hospital bills, including $6,500 for operating room and recovery room charges.

That $12,000 tab, for what it’s worth, is slightly under the U.S. average.

Cross-posted at 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.

Saturday Stat: Salaries on University Campuses

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- PhD Comics.

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.

On the False Idea that Money is a Resource

I am so pleased to have stumbled across a short excerpt from a talk by Alan Watts, forwarded by a Twitter follower.  Watts makes a truly profound argument about what money really is.  I’ll summarize it here and you can watch the full three-and-a-half minute video below if you like.

Watts notes that we like to talk about “laws of nature,” or “observed regularities” in the world.  In order to observe these regularities, he points out, we have to invent something regular against which to compare nature. Clocks and rulers are these kinds of things.

All this is fine but, all too often, the clocks and the rulers come to seem more real than the nature that is being measured.  For example, he says, we might think that the sun is rising because it’s 6AM when, of course, the sun will rise independently of our measures.  It’s as if our clocks rule the universe instead of vice versa.

He uses these observations to make a comment about wealth and poverty. Money, he reminds us, isn’t real. It’s an invented measure.  A dollar is no different than a minute or an inch.  It is used to measure prosperity, but it doesn’t create prosperity any more than 6AM makes the sun rise or a ruler gives things inches.

When there is a crisis — an economic depression or a natural disaster, for example — we may want to fix it, but end up asking ourselves “Where’s the money going to come from?”  This is exactly the same mistake that we make, Watts argues, when we think that the sun rises because it’s 6AM.  He says:

They think money makes prosperity. It’s the other way around, it’s physical prosperity which has money as a way of measuring it.  But people think money has to come from somewhere… and it doesn’t. Money is something we have to invent, like inches.

So, you remember the Great Depression when there was a slump?  And what did we have a slump of?  Money.  There was no less wealth, no less energy, no less raw materials than there were before. But it’s like you came to work on building a house one day and they said, “Sorry, you can’t build this house today, no inches.”

“What do you mean no inches?”

“Just inches!  We don’t mean that… we’ve got inches of lumber, yes, we’ve got inches of metal, we’ve even got tape measures, but there’s a slump in inches as such.”

And people are that crazy!

This is backward thinking, he says.  It is allowing money to rule things when, in reality, it’s just a measure.

I encourage you to watch:

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.

Stay-at-Home Mothers on the Rise among Low-Income Families

“Stay-at-home mother” evokes black and white images of well-coiffed women in starched aprons. Rather than a vestige of a bygone era, stay-at-home moms are on the rise, according to the findings of a new Pew Research study. In 2012, 29% of women with children under the age of 18 stayed home, a number that has been on the rise since 1999 and is 3% higher than in 2008.

However, while more women are staying home with their children, the face of the stay-at-home mom has changed dramatically since the 1950s “Leave It to Beaver” days. Stay-at-home moms today are less educated and more likely to live in poverty than working moms. Younger mothers and immigrant mothers also make up a good portion of stay-at-home moms.

The story of why mothers are staying home is more complex than you may imagine and has more to do with the poor labor market, the exorbitant price of child care, and the contemporary structure of work. In a recent interview with Wisconsin Public RadioBarbara Risman, a sociologist at the University of Illinois at Chicago, spoke about how this report has been picked up by the mainstream media:

What’s surprising to me is the headlines and how it’s portrayed in the news. Although the numbers are going up, when you look at what mothers say, 6% of the mothers in this study say they are home because they can’t find a job. When you take those 6% of mothers out, the results are rather flat. Part of the real story here then is that it’s hard to find a job that allows you to work and covers your child care, particularly if you have less education and your earning potential isn’t very high.

These days stay-at-home moms, who are more likely to be less educated, are not able to make enough money for working to even be worthwhile. Many times, their pay wouldn’t actually cover the cost of child care. Beyond these important financial considerations, lower wage shift work makes it extremely difficult to coordinate child care in the midst of work schedules that change on a weekly basis.

Erin Hoekstra is pursuing a PhD in Sociology at the University of Minnesota. This post originally appeared on Citings and Sightings and you can read all of Erin’s contributions to The Society Pages here.  Cross-posted at Pacific Standard.