Tag Archives: discourse/language

The Relative Importance of Poverty to Catholicism

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.

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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.”

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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.

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

Dividing Legitimate from Illegitimate Violence

Flashback Friday.

Sociologist Max Weber argued that the nation-state can be defined by its monopoly on violence. For most of us, most of the time, violence exercised by the state is assumed to be legitimate (unless shown otherwise). For example, police walk around with guns and can shoot you legally. Soldiers kill as part of their jobs. This is simply “keeping the peace” or “following orders.”

But violence exercised by individuals and other entities is (unless shown otherwise) illegitimate. In fact, when individuals or other entities do violence, it is often called “criminality” or “terrorism.”

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Words are powerful. Calling something “terrorism” is a way to make it seem illegitimate.  And, often, what makes violence illegitimate is not something inherent in the violence itself, but your perspective on it.

Thanks to Perry H.for the submission. Originally posted in 2009.

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.

Racism Kills: New Data on Stress and Mortality

African Americans are less healthy than their white counterparts. There are lots of causes for this: food deserts, lack of access to healthcare, an absence of recreational opportunities in low income neighborhoods, and more. Arguably, these are indirect effects of racist individuals and institutions, leading to the disinvestment in predominantly black neighborhoods and the economic disempowerment of black people.

This post, though, is about a direct relationship between racism and health mediated by stress. Experiencing discrimination has been shown to have both acute and long-term effects on the body. Being discriminated against changes the biometrics that indicate stress and personal reports of stress (anxiety, depression, and anger). Bad health outcomes are the result.

A new study, published in PLOS One, adds another layer to the accumulating evidence. To get a strong measure of “area racism” — the prevalence of racist beliefs in a specific geographic area — epidemiologist David Chae and his colleagues counted how often internet users searched for the “n-word” on Google (ending in -er or -ers, but not -a or -as). This, they argued, is a good measure of the likelihood that an African American will experience discrimination. Here are their findings for area racism:

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They then measured the rate at which black people over 25 in those areas die and the death rate from the four most common causes of death for that population: heart disease, cancer, stroke, and diabetes. They also included a series of control variables to attempt to isolate the predictive power of area racism.

The resulting data offer support for the idea that area racism increases mortality among African Americans. Chae and his colleagues summarize, saying that areas in which Google searches for the n-word are one standard deviation above the mean have an 8.2% increase in mortality among Blacks. The searches were related, also, to an increase in the rates of cancer, heart disease, and stroke. “This,” they explain, “amounts to over 30,000 [early] deaths among Blacks annually nationwide.”

When they controlled for area level demographics and socioeconomic variables, the magnitude of the effect dropped from 8.2% to 5.7%. But these factors, they argued, “are also influenced by racial prejudice and discrimination and therefore could be on the causal pathway.” In other words, it’s not NOT racism that’s making up that 2.5% difference.

Directly and indirectly, racism kills.

H/t to Philip Cohen for the link.

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.

Do the Categories of Democrat and Republican Reflect American Values?

In the U.S., we recognize two main party platforms: Republican and Democrat. Each party packages together specific positions on economic and social issues together into ideologies we call conservative and liberal. The desire for a small government, for example, is lumped with opposition to same sex marriage, while believing in a larger role for government is lumped together with support for abortion rights.

Do all people neatly fit into these two packages? And, if not, what are the consequences for electoral outcomes?

In the American Journal of Sociology, Delia Baldassarri and Amir Goldberg use 20 years of data (1984–2004) from the National Election Studies to show that many Americans have consistent and logical political ideas that don’t align with either major party’s ideological package. These voters, whom the authors call alternatives, are socially liberal and economically conservative (or vice versa).

The images below show correlations between social and economic liberalism or social and economic conservativism. Strong correlations are dark and weak are light. The top image is of the opinions of ideologues — those who adhere pretty closely to the existing liberal and conservative packages — and the bottom images shows the opinions of alternatives.

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In this data, being an alternatives is not just about being unfocused or uncommitted. Baldassarri and Goldberg show that their positions are logical, reasoned, consistent, and remain steady over time.  The study makes it clear that the ties between economic and social issues made by the left and the right, which many people see as normal or natural, represent just two among the many belief systems that Americans actually hold.

When it comes to the ballot box, though, alternatives usually vote Republican. The authors write that the most conservative among the alternatives’ views tend to hold sway when it comes to picking a party. It appears that the salience of moral issues is not the primary reason for Republicans’ electoral success. Instead, for as-yet unknown reasons, alternative voters follow their more conservative leanings at the ballot, whether economic or social.

Cross-posted at The Reading List.

Jack Delehanty is a graduate student in sociology at the University of Minnesota. His work is about how social movement organizations can reframe dominant social narratives about inequality. In his dissertation, he explores how white Protestant-influenced discourses of poverty, family, and individual choice are being critically reshaped in the public sphere today.

Why Rich People Think They’re Middle Class

Chris Christie’s net worth (at least $4 million) is 50 times that of the average American. His household income of $700,000 (his wife works in the financial sector) is 13 times the national median.  But he doesn’t think he’s rich.

I don’t consider myself a wealthy man. . . . and I don’t think most people think of me that way.

That’s what he told the Manchester Union-Leader on Monday when he was in New Hampshire running for president.

Of course, being out of touch with reality doesn’t automatically disqualify a politician from the Republican nomination, even at the presidential level, though misreading the perceptions of “most people” may be a liability.

But I think I know what Christie meant. He uses the term “wealth,” but what he probably has in mind is class.  He says, “Listen, wealth is defined in a whole bunch of different ways . . . ”  No, Chris. Wealth is measured one way – dollars. It’s social class that is defined in a whole bunch of different ways.

One of those ways, is self-perception.

“If you were asked to use one of four names for your social class, which would you say you belong in: the lower class, the working class, the middle class, or the upper class?”

That question has been part of the General Social Survey since the start in 1972. It’s called “subjective social class.” It stands apart from any objective measures like income or education. If an impoverished person who never got beyond fifth grade says that he’s upper class, that’s what he is, at least on this variable. But he probably wouldn’t say that he’s upper class.

Neither would Chris Christie. But why not?

My guess is that he thinks of himself as “upper middle class,” and since that’s not one of the GSS choices, Christie would say “middle class.”  (Or he’d tell the GSS interviewer where he could stick his lousy survey. The governor prides himself on his blunt and insulting responses to ordinary people who disagree with him.)

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This  self-perception as middle class rather than upper can result from “relative deprivation,” a term suggesting that how you think about yourself depends on who are comparing yourself with.* So while most people would not see the governor as “deprived,” Christie himself travels in grander circles. As he says, “My wife and I . . . are not wealthy by current standards.” The questions is “Which standards?”  If the standards are those of the people whose private jets he flies on, the people he talks with in his pursuit of big campaign donations – the Koch brothers, Ken Langone (founder of Home Depot), Sheldon Adelson, Jerry Jones, hedge fund billionaires, et al. – if those are the people he had in mind when he said, “We don’t have nearly that much money,” he’s right. He’s closer in wealth to you and me and middle America than he is to them.

I also suspect that Christie is thinking of social class not so much as a matter of money as of values and lifestyle – one of  that bunch of ways to define class. To be middle class is to be one of those solid Americans – the people who, in Bill Clinton’s phrase, go to work and pay the bills and raise the kids. Christie can see himself as one of those people. Here’s a fuller version of the quote I excerpted above.

Listen, wealth is defined in a whole bunch of different ways and in the end Mary Pat and I have worked really hard, we have done well over the course of our lives, but, you know, we have four children to raise and a lot of things to do.

He and his wife go to work; if they didn’t, their income would drop considerably. They raise the kids, probably in conventional ways rather than sloughing that job off on nannies and boarding schools as upper-class parents might do. And they pay the bills. Maybe they even feel a slight pinch from those bills. The $100,000 they’re shelling out for two kids in private universities may be a quarter of their disposable income, maybe more. They are living their lives by the standards of “middle-class morality.” Their tastes too are probably in line with those of mainstream America. As with income, the difference between the Christies and the average American is one of degree rather than kind. They prefer the same things; they just have a pricier version. Seats at a football game, albiet in the skyboxes, but still drinking a Coors Light. It’s hard to picture the governor demanding a glass of Haut Brion after a day of skiing on the slopes at Gstaad, chatting with (God forbid) Euorpeans.

Most sociological definitions of social class do not include values and lifestyle, relying on more easily measured variables like income, education, and occupation. But for many people, including the governor, morality and consumer preference may weigh heavily in perceptions and self-perceptions of social class.

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

Is Marijuana a Gateway Drug? Findings Lean from Mixed to No

All politicians lie, said I.F. Stone. But they don’t all lie as blatantly as Chris Christie did last week in repeating his vow not to legalize marijuana in New Jersey.

Every bit of objective data we have tells us that it’s a gateway drug to other drugs.

That statement simply is not true. The evidence on marijuana as a gateway drug is at best mixed, as the governor or any journalist interested in fact checking his speech could have discovered by looking up “gateway” on Wikipedia.

If the governor meant that smoking marijuana in and of itself created a craving for stronger drugs, he’s just plain wrong. Mark Kleiman, a policy analyst who knows a lot about drugs, says bluntly:

The strong gateway model, which is that somehow marijuana causes fundamental changes in the brain and therefore people inevitably go on from marijuana to cocaine or heroin, is false, as shown by the fact that most people who smoke marijuana don’t. That’s easy. But of course nobody really believes the strong version.

Nobody? Prof. Kleiman, meet Gov. Christie

Or maybe Christie meant a softer version – that the kid who starts smoking weed gets used to doing illegal things, and he makes connections with the kinds of people who use stronger drugs. He gets drawn into their world. It’s not the weed itself that leads to cocaine or heroin, it’s the social world.

That social gateway version, though, offers support for legalization.  Legalization takes weed out of the drug underworld. If you want some weed, you no longer have to consort with criminals and serious druggies.

There are several other reasons to doubt the gateway idea. Much of the evidence comes from studies of individuals. But now, thanks to medical legalization, we also have state-level data, and the results are the same. Legalizing medical marijuana did not lead to an increase in the use of harder drugs, especially among kids. Just the opposite.


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First, note the small percents. Perhaps 1.6% of adults used cocaine in the pre-medical-pot years. That percent fell slightly post-legalization. Of course, those older people had long since passed through the gateway, so we wouldn’t expect legalization to make much difference for them. But for younger people, cocaine use was cut in half. Instead of an open gateway with traffic flowing rapidly from marijuana through to the world of hard drugs, it was more like, oh, I don’t know, maybe a bridge with several of its lanes closed clogging traffic.

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

Renaming Unpopular Fish Gets Them To Your Plate

Flashback Friday.

In an NPR segment, Professor Daniel Pauly discussed overfishing of the world’s oceans. In particular, populations of popular fish such as cod and bluefin tuna have dropped significantly (the increased global desire for sushi having a major impact on tuna).

So what’s a fishing industry to do as it becomes harder to find fish? Of course, they can go farther out into the ocean, or fish deeper into it, looking for populations of popular fish that haven’t been overharvested yet, and they did that. The other option? Switch to species of fish that haven’t been heavily fished yet, usually because they weren’t popular.

As a result, Pauly points out that in the past decade we’ve seen a number of formerly unpopular fish rebranded in an effort to make them seem more palatable.

So, for instance, the “slimehead”…

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…becomes the “orange roughy.”

And the “Patagonian toothfish”…

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…is now the “Chilean sea bass” (which was subsequently depleted).

It’s a great example of rebranding; what’s especially interesting to me is that the reason for it is the collapse of so many popular fish populations. The fishing industry has to convince people to eat fish that were previously unappealing because it has largely destroyed the basis of its own existence.

Originally posted in 2009. For a different example of rebranding fish, see our post on PETA’s Sea Kitten campaign.

Gwen Sharp is an associate professor of sociology at Nevada State College. You can follow her on Twitter at @gwensharpnv.

Designing for Profit: On “Instructions for Use”

Flashback Friday.

When companies offer instructions as to how much of their product to use, what do you think drives their decisions as to what advice to give?

Theory 1:  They give the best advice.

Theory 2:  They give reasonably good advice, erring on the side of you using more product versus less.

I’m with Theory 2.  The quicker you go through their product, the more frequently you have to purchase it, and the richer they get.  So they have an interest in your over-using their product.

Dan Myers agrees.   He put up a great example of this on his website, Blue Monster. He writes:

When you buy laundry detergent these days, the cap usually serves as a handy measuring cup… Now, if you were a company that wanted to get people to use it up as fast a possible (read: waste as much of it as possible) so you could get some more out of them, what would you do? Well, having a devious mind myself, I’d make the cup bigger that it needs to be hoping people would consistently use more than they need. Especially given that people are more likely than not to fill the cup up to the top.

And that is exactly what you get on with the TIDE packaging. The cap, shown here, has three measuring lines in it: 1, 2, and 3. All of these are significantly lower than the top of the cap.

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Furthermore, if one actually takes the time to read the instructions on the bottle, the 1 line is for “medium” loads, the 2 line is for large loads, and the 3 line is not even mentioned!!!

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Why is it there if it isn’t mentioned? I say that it’s because for those who actually look at the cup instead of just filling it up, they want to give you the impression that 1 is small, 2 is medium, and 3 is large–thereby getting you to use more than necessary every time you launder. Scam Masters!!!

In another illustration, Myers videos himself brushing his teeth with the liberal swirl of toothpaste seen in your average advertisement. The result is a hilarious excessive frothing. A blob of toothpaste the size of a pea is likely sufficient for most of us, but toothpaste companies would probably prefer that you overdo it.

Relatedly, I’ve always been suspicious of how gas stations order the gas by quality/expense. Sometimes it goes cheaper on the left to expensive on the right, which is what you’d expect because we read left to right, but sometimes it’s reverse. Do people sometimes hit the far left button, assuming it’s the cheap gas, and accidentally spend more than they have to? I bet they do.

There must be hundreds of examples of this kind of trick.

This post originally appeared in 2009.

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.