Flashback Friday.

Social and biological scientists agree that race and ethnicity are social constructions, not biological categories.  The US government, nonetheless, has an official position on what categories are “real.”  You can find them on the Census (source):


These categories, however real they may seem, are actually the product of a long process. Over time, the official US racial categories have changed in response to politics, economics, conflict, and more. Here’s some highlights.

In the year of the first Census, 1790, the race question looked very different than it does today:

Free white males
Free white females
All other free persons (included Native Americans who paid taxes and free blacks)
And slaves

By 1870 slavery is illegal and the government was newly concerned with keeping track of two new kinds of people: “mulattos” (or people with both black and white ancestors) and Indians:

Indian (Native Americans)

Between 1850 and 1870 6.5 million Europeans had immigrated and 60,000 Chinese.  Chinese and Japanese were added for the 1880 Census.

By 1890, the U.S. government with obsessed with race-mixing.  The race question looked like this:

Black (3/4th or more “black blood”)
Mulatto (3/8th to 5/8th “black blood”)
Quadroons (1/4th “black blood”)
Octoroons (1/8th or any trace of “black blood”)

This year was the only year to include such fine-tuned mixed-race categories, however, because it turned out it wasn’t easy to figure out how to categorize people.

In the next 50 years, the government added and deleted racial categories. There were 10 in 1930 (including “Mexican” and “Hindu”) and 11 in 1940 (introducing “Hawaiian” and “Part Hawaiian”).  In 1970, they added the “origin of descent” question that we still see today.  So people are first asked whether they are “Hispanic, Latino, or Spanish” and then asked to choose a race.

You might immediately think, “But what do these words even mean?”  And you’d be right to ask.  “Spanish” refers to Spain; “Latino” refers to Latin America; and “Hispanic” is a totally made up word that was originally designed to mean “people who speak Spanish.”

Part of the reason we have the “Hispanic” ethnicity question is because Mexican Americans fought for it.  They thought it would be advantageous to be categorized as “white” and, so, they fought for an ethnicity category instead of a racial one.

Funny story:  The US once included “South American” as a category in the “origin of descent” question.  That year, over a million residents southern U.S. states, like Alabama and Mississippi checked that box.

2000 was the first year that respondents were allowed to choose more than one race. They considered a couple other changes for that year, but decided against them. Native Hawaiians had been agitating to be considered Native Americans in order to get access to the rights and resources that the US government has promised Native Americans on the mainland. The government considered it for 2000, but decided “no.” And whether or not Arab American should be considered a unique race or an ethnicity was also discussed for that year. They decided to continue to instruct such individuals to choose “white.”

The changing categories in the Census show us that racial and ethnic categories are political categories. They are chosen by government officials who are responding not to biological realities, but to immigration, war, prejudice, and social movements.

This post originally appeared 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.

Health care providers who perform abortions routinely use ultrasound scans to confirm their patients’ pregnancies, check for multiple gestations, and determine the stage of the pregnancies. But it is far from standard – and not at all medically necessary – for women about to have abortions to view their ultrasounds. Ultrasound viewing by patients has no clinical purpose: it does not affect the woman’s condition or the decisions health providers make. Nevertheless, ultrasound viewing has become central to the hotly contested politics of abortion.

Believing that viewing ultrasounds will change minds, opponents of abortion – spearheaded by the advocacy group Americans United for Life – have pushed for state laws to require such viewing. So far, eighteen states require that women be offered the opportunity to view their pre-abortion ultrasound images, and five states actually go so far as to legally require women to view their ultrasound images before obtaining an abortion (although the women are permitted to avert their eyes). In two of the five states that have passed such mandatory viewing laws, courts have permanently enjoined the laws, keeping them from going into effect.

States that allow/require ultrasounds before abortion (vocative):7

As the debates continue to rage, both sides assume that what matters for an abortion patient is the content of the ultrasound image. Abortion opponents believe the image will demonstrate to the woman that she is carrying a baby – a revelation they think will make her want to continue her pregnancy. Ironically, supporters of abortion rights also argue that seeing the image of the fetus will make a difference. They say this experience will be emotionally distressing and make abortions more difficult. Paradoxically, such arguments from rights advocates reinforce assumptions that fetuses are persons and perpetuate stigma about abortion procedures.

Does viewing change women’s minds – or cause trauma?

What is missing from all of this is research on a crucial question: How do women planning abortions actually react to voluntary or coerced viewing of ultrasounds? As it turns out, seeing the ultrasound images as such does little to change women’s minds about abortion. What matters is how women scheduled for abortions already feel. Viewing an ultrasound can matter for women who are not fully certain about their plans to have an abortion.

My colleagues and I analyzed medical records from over 15,000 abortion visits during 2011 to a large, urban abortion provider. This provider has a policy of offering every patient the voluntary opportunity to view her ultrasound image. In her intake paperwork, the patient can check a box saying she wants to view; then, when she’s in the ultrasound room, the technician provides her with the opportunity to see the image. Over 42% of incoming abortion patients chose to view their ultrasound images, and the substantial majority (99%) of all 15,000 pregnancies ended in abortion.

Our research team looked at whether viewing the ultrasound image was associated with deciding to continue with the pregnancy instead of proceeding with the abortion. We took into account factors such as the age, race, and poverty level of the women involved, as well as how far along their pregnancies were, the presence of multiple fetuses, and how certain women said they were about their abortion decision.

As it became clear that certainty mattered, we looked more closely. Among women who were highly certain, viewing their ultrasound did not change minds. However, among the small fraction (7.4%) of women who were not very certain or only moderately certain, viewing slightly increased the odds that they would forego their planned abortion and continue with their pregnancy. Nonetheless, this effect was very small and most did proceed to abortion.

Our findings make sense, because some women who are unsure about their abortion decision may seek experiences such as ultrasound viewing to help them make a final choice. Nevertheless, many previous studies have documented that women’s reasons for abortion are complex and unlikely to be negated simply by viewing an ultrasound image. Our study analyzed a situation where viewing ultrasounds was voluntary, but there is no reason to think that mandatory viewing would change more minds. Forcing women to view their ultrasounds could, however, affect patient satisfaction and sense of autonomy.

Apart from whether minds are changed, many people imagine that viewing an ultrasound for an unwanted pregnancy is distressing; and in interviews with 26 staff members at an abortion facility that offers pre-abortion ultrasounds, my colleague and I discovered that many staffers believed viewing the image caused relief for women early in their pregnancies but was traumatic for those at later stages.

However, when my colleagues and I asked 212 women throughout the United States about their reactions to viewing pre-abortion ultrasounds, we found no evidence that viewing was broadly distressing or that emotions depended on the gestational stage. All interviewees said their minds were not changed about proceeding with abortions. Just over one in five reported that viewing provoked negative reactions of guilt, depression, or sadness; one in ten reported positive feelings such as happiness; and the largest group, just over a third, said they felt “fine,” “okay,” or even “nothing.” This common response that viewing did not matter was a surprise given the intensity surrounding political debates.

Our research questions the wisdom of state laws that force women scheduled to have abortions to view their ultrasounds prior to the procedure. Fewer than half of abortion patients want to view their ultrasounds, and there is no clinical benefit. More to the point, abortion providers already offer patients the opportunity to view their ultrasounds – and never turn down women’s requests to look at these images. When women already feel uncertain about proceeding with an abortion, viewing the image of the fetus may make a difference. But for the vast majority whose minds are made up, viewing does not matter – and trying to force this to happen in every case merely adds costs and indignities to the abortion process.

Originally posted at Scholars Strategy NetworkRead more at: 

Katrina Kimport, PhD is an assistant professor in the Department of Obstetrics, Gynecology and Reproductive Sciences and a research sociologist with the Advancing New Standards in Reproductive Health program at the University of California, San Francisco.

And what does it have to do with the largest refugee crisis since World War II?

Grab the tissues:

In his book named after the idea, sociologist Stjepan Meštrović describes contemporary Western societies as postemotional. By invoking the prefix “post,” he doesn’t mean to suggest that we no longer have any emotions at all, but that we have become numb to our emotions, so much so that we may not feel them the way we once did.

This, he argues, is a result of being exposed to a “daily diet of phoniness”: a barrage of emotional manipulation from every corner of culture, news, entertainment, infotainment, and advertising. In this postemotional society, our emotions have become a natural resource that, like spring water, is tapped at no cost to serve corporations with goals of maximizing mass consumption and fattening their own wallets. Even companies that make stuff like gum.

As examples, Meštrović describes how our dramas and comedies feed us fictionalized stories that take us on extreme emotional roller coasters, while their advertisements manipulate our emotions to encourage us to buy. Serious media like the news lead with the most emotionally intense stories of the day. Our own lives are usually rather humdrum, but if you watch the news, you vicariously experience trauma every day. A cop killed another kid. An earthquake has killed thousands. Little girls are kidnapped by warlords. Immigrants die by the boatload. Do you feel sad? Angry? Scared? Your friends do; you know because of Facebook, Twitter, and Tumblr. Do you need a pick me up? Here’s a kitten. Feel happy.

Importantly for Meštrović, the emotions that we encounter through these media are not our own. The happiness you feel watching a baby laughing on YouTube isn’t really your happiness, nor is it your sadness when you watch a news story about a tragedy. It’s not your daughter who has treasured your tiny offerings of love for 18 years, but you spend emotional energy on these things nevertheless.

In addition to being vicarious, the emotions we are exposed to are largely fake: from the voiceover on the latest blockbuster movie trailer, to the practiced strain in the voice of the news anchor, to the performative proposal on The Bachelor, to the enthusiasm for a cleaning product in the latest ad. These emotions are performed after being carefully filtered through focus groups and designed to appeal to the masses.

But they are so much more intense than those a typical human experiences in their daily lives, and the onslaught is so constant. Meštrović thinks we are emotionally exhausted by this experience, leaving us little energy left to feel our own, idiosyncratic emotions. We lose our ability to detect our own more nuanced emotions, which are almost always small and mundane compared the extraordinary heights of grief, rage, lust, and love that we are exposed to when the news chases down the latest mass tragedy or the movies offer up never-ending tales of epic quests. Meanwhile, in consuming the emotions of others, we get lost. We end up confused by the dissolving of the boundary between personal and vicarious; our bodies can’t tell the difference between friends on TV and those in real life.

Meštrović is worried about this not just on our behalf. He’s worried that it inures us to real tragedies because our hearts are constantly being broken, but only a little. When we are triggered to constantly feel all the feelings for all the people everywhere — real ones and fake ones — we don’t have the energy to emotionally respond to the ones that are happening right in front of us. His work was originally inspired by the bland global response to the Bosnian genocide in the ’90s, but applies equally well to the slow, stuttering response — both political and personal — to the refugees fleeing the Syrian Civil War and the constant news of yet another mass shooting in America. The emotional dilution that characterizes a postemotional society makes us less likely to take action when needed. So, when action is needed, we change our Facebook profile picture instead of taking to the streets.

Cross-posted at Business Insider and 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.

In this 15min TED talk, the eminent masculinities scholar Michael Kimmel argues that feminism is in everyone’s best interest. After discussing the robust research on the benefits of gender equality, he concludes:

Gender equality is in the interest of countries, of companies, and of men, and their children and their partners… [It is] is not a zero sum game, it’s not a win-lose, it is a win-win for everyone.


On September 2, the photograph of 3-year-old Aylan Kurdi lying face down on a Turkish beach circulated internationally on social media. Amid discussions of whether or not it was ethical to post, tweet, and share such a heart-wrenching image, The New York Times rightly noted that the powerful image has spurred international public attention to a crisis that has been ongoing for years. As Anne Barnard and Karam Shoumali said:

“Once again, it is not the sheer size of the catastrophe—millions upon millions forced by war and desperation to leave their homes—but a single tragedy that has clarified the moment.”

The conflict in Syria has lasted almost five years now. With more than half the population forced to leave, the United Nations reported that the Syrian conflict now represents the largest displacement crisis in the world. Over 12 million people require some form of humanitarian assistance. And almost half of those displaced are children. Like Mohammed Bouazizi’s self-immolation that sparked Arab Spring (and, coincidentally, the current civil war in Syria), the image of Aylan, too, has the capacity to change the world. Bouazizi was not the first person to set himself alight in protest, just as Aylan was not the first child to wash ashore on Mediterranean beaches.

Indeed, those who have been following the refugee crisis over the past four years have viewed countless tragic images. But there is — for the moment, at least — something significant about this particular photograph. It could be because the image is deceptively peaceful, failing to reflect the violence that pushed his parents to flee or the family’s terrifying experience at sea that ultimately led to the deaths of Aylan, his brother Galip, and their mother Rehan. It may also be because of his clothing: red shirt, blue shorts, and Velcro sneakers. He could be anyone’s son, brother, nephew.

Aylan’s image has galvanized attention from around the world, especially the West. The public’s concern and outrage after the photo circulated on social media has already had a significant impact on the refugee crisis. This single tragedy has become the symbol of the refugee crisis in the Middle East. The image and subsequent public outcry has led to an increase in charitable donations, impacted election campaigns, and prompted the public to demand more of their governments, resulting in Western nations around the world pledging to increase the number of refugees they will take.

Although it is unfortunate that it takes something as tragic as the body of a boy lying alone on a beach to solidify public resolve, it is also an important reminder that we are, as Goffman suggested, “dangerous giants.” We have the capacity to enact change on a level that is difficult to imagine as an individual.

The graph below shows Twitter activity both before and after the photo of Aylan went viral. Tweet volume about Syria has more than doubled since the world was shown the image.  Tweets welcoming refugees from the region showed and even larger increase. And, although tweets with Aylan’s name appear to have been short-lived, perhaps the international attention they produced can be harnessed as people are forced to learn more about why this tragedy occurred and pledge support.

When we georeference and map tweets containing the hashtags #RefugeesWelcome and #AylanKurdi, we can also see how this unfolded around the world. Twitter is a crude measure of impact.  Yet, just as Barnard and Shoumali suggested, a single tragedy amidst a conflict that has led to the deaths of so many seems to have helped to capture the attention of the world. See the snapshot of Twitter activity around the world using the hashtags #AylanKurdi (green) and #RefugeesWelcome (blue) two days after the photograph went viral (below):

So, can an image of a child change the world? Typically, no. But, a powerful image under the right conditions might have an impact no one could have predicted.

Originally posted at Feminist Reflections.

Tara Leigh Tober and Tristan Bridges are sociologists at the College at Brockport (SUNY). You can follow them on at @tristanbphd and @tobertara.

In this 6 minute video, Col. Ty Seidule, head of the department of history at the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, takes on the claim that the Civil War was about something other than slavery. He begins:

Was the American Civil War fought because of slavery. More than 150 years later, this remains a controversial question. Why? Because many people don’t want to believe that the citizens of the southern states were willing to fight and die to preserve a morally repugnant institution. “There has to be another reason,” we are told. Well, there isn’t.

He goes on to use strong logic and documentation — speeches, secession documents, the Emancipation Proclamation, and more — to make a convincing case that the Civil War was about “slavery and just slavery.”  He finishes:

Slavery is the great shame of America’s history. No one denies that. But it’s to America’s everlasting credit that it fought the most devastating war in its history in order to abolish slavery. As a soldier, I am proud that the United States army — my army — defeated the confederates. In its finest hour, soldiers wearing this blue uniform, almost 200,000 of them former slaves themselves, destroyed chattel slavery; freed four million men, women, and children from human bondage; and saved the United States of America.


Watch it all:

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

In a new blog post, Brad Wilcox and Nicholas Wolfinger ask, “are red or blue spouses happier?” Their answer — suspense — red.

Using the 2010-2014 General Social Survey, they start with this descriptive figure:


Then they do adjustments, and show how their statistical controls explain the “Republican advantage in marital satisfaction.” And get this:


So, with all those controls, the “Republican advantage” remains.

That was enough for the sadly credulous David Leonhardt, editor of the New York Times Upshot site, to conclude:

Liberal attitudes toward gender equality, sexual orientation and education all seem to foster stronger, more stable family lives. But Mr. Wilcox’s recent writings strike me as significant because they’re a reminder that conservatism also has values and cultural attitudes — about the importance of marriage and family life — that seem to improve the environment in which children grow up.

Quite a conclusion to draw from a 3% net difference in a question on marital happiness — not exactly the best measure of “the environment in which children grow up.” But more importantly, I think it’s empirically wrong anyway.

Wilcox and Wolfinger left out all the details of their analysis, but it was easy to replicate it pretty closely. As a left-versus-right story it just doesn’t hold up. The GSS allows people to specify eight party identifications (including “other party”), not just three (Democrat, Republican, Independent). Wilcox and Wolfinger code those as “Independent, near Democrat/Republican” as identifying with the parties, but they don’t show the whole pattern:


The upward slope toward “strong Democrats” undermines the left-right story. Still, the figure skews right. When I apply the statistical controls, however, the differences are muted:


Now the “strong Democrats” appear happier than all but the “strong Republicans.” And not even the “strong Republicans” are significantly more likely to say they’re “very happy” in marriage than the “strong Democrats.” Here’s the relevant part of the table:


Lots of ways you could interpret this. But I’m pretty sure the Wilcox and Wolfinger conclusion is not supported: “married Republicans are more likely than married Democrats to say they are in very happy marriages.” And the Leonhardt conclusion is just ridiculous (insofar as it’s based on these data).

Note: I did this really quickly. If I made a mistake, feel free to correct me. But I’m still calling this a “research brief” and a “report.”  More methodological details here.

Philip N. Cohen is a professor of sociology at the University of Maryland, College Park. He writes the blog Family Inequality, where this post originally appeared, and is the author of The Family: Diversity, Inequality, and Social Change. You can follow him on Twitter or Facebook.

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Today marks ten years to the day that Hurricane Katrina flooded the city of New Orleans and devastated the Gulf Coast.   These posts are from our archives:

Was Hurricane Katrina a “Natural” Disaster?

Racism and Neglect

Disaster and Discourse

Devastation and Rebuilding

10 Years Later and Beyond

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