Tag Archives: discourse/language

Saturday Stat: The Invention of the “Illegal Immigrant”

Citing the immigration scholar, Francesca Pizzutelli, Fabio Rojas explains that the phrase “illegal immigrant” wasn’t a part of the English language before the 1930s.  More often, people used the phrase “irregular immigrant.”   Instead of an evaluative term, it was a descriptive one referring to people who moved around and often crossed borders for work.

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Rojas points out that the language began to change after anti-immigration laws were passed by Congress in the 1920s.  The graph above also reveals a steep climb in both “illegal immigrant” and “illegal alien” beginning in the ’70s.

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.

#IfTheyGunnedMeDown Attacks Portrayals of Black Men Killed by Police

This has been a hard week.  Another young, unarmed black man was killed by police. The Root added Michael Brown’s face to a slideshow of such incidents, started after a black man named Eric Garner died after being put in a chokehold by officers less than one month ago.  This week’s guilty verdict in the trial of the man who shot Renisha McBride left me feeling numb.  Nothing good could come of it, but at least I didn’t feel worse.

The shooting of Michael Brown, however, is still undergoing trial by media and the verdict is swayed by the choices made by producers and directors as to how to portray him. When Marc Duggan was killed by police earlier this year, they often featured pictures in which he looked menacing, including ones that had been cropped in ways that enhanced that impression.

Left: Photo of Duggan frequently used by media; right: uncropped photo in which he holds a plaque commemorating his deceased daughter.

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As the media coverage of Brown’s death heated up, the image that first circulated of Brown was this:

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Reports state that this was his current Facebook profile picture, with the implication that media actors just picked the first or most prominent picture they saw.  Or, even, that somehow it’s Brown’s fault that this is the image they used.

Using the image above, though, is not neutrality.  At best, it’s laziness; they simply decided not to make a conscious, careful choice.  It’s their job to pick a photograph and I don’t know exactly what the guidelines are but “pick the first one you see” or “whatever his Facebook profile pic was on the day he died” is probably not among them.

There are consequential choices to be made.  As an example, here are two photos that have circulated since criticism of his portrayal began — the top more obviously sympathetic and the bottom more neutral:

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Commenting on this phenomenon, Twitter user @CJ_musick_lawya released two photos of himself, hashtagged with #iftheygunnedmedown, and asked readers which photo they thought media actors would choose.

Top: Wearing a cap and gown with former President Clinton; bottom: in sunglasses posing with a bottle and a microphone.

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The juxtaposition brilliantly revealed how easy it is to demonize a person, especially if they are a member of a social group stereotyped as violence-prone, and how important representation is.  It caught on and the imagery was repeated to powerful effect. A summary at The Root featured examples like these:

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The New York Times reports that the hashtag has been used more than 168,000 times as of  August 12th.  I want to believe that conversations like these will educate and put pressure on those with the power to represent black men and all marginalized peoples to make more responsible and thoughtful decisions.

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.

Skirting Ochobo: Big Business Finds a Way around Local Customs

Ten women marched in defiance of the stigma against women smoking cigarettes as part of the New York Easter Day Parade in 1929.  The interesting thing was, however, it was all a sham. The tobacco industry had set the whole thing up with the help of public relations mastermind, Edward Bernays.  American Tobacco Company President George Hill  knew cigarette sales would skyrocket if more U.S. women smoked, a behavior reserved for men in the 1920s that had closed off the female market.

Within one year of Bernay’s stint, women were smoking.

Today, similarly, Japanese fast-food has found a way to bypass the cultural stigmas that impede their profits. One food chain noticed many women would not buy their biggest-sized burgers.  The culprit was ochobo, a Japanese custom that prevents women from opening their mouth widely in public.  Small mouths are considered beautiful and opening them widely is considered “ugly” and “rude.”  The restaurant concluded that it would get into the business of “freeing women from the spell of ‘ochobo.’”

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The burger chain invented a wrapper that would allow women to open their mouths larger, but not be seen: the liberation wrapper. It is a profitable tactic touted as a cultural solution.

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You can watch them introduce the wrapper in this short video:

The liberation wrapper was welcomed in Japanese media and social networks, spreading its popularity.  Similarly, Bernay’s public relation’s stint in 1929 garnered much of its success from the media hype that ensued then.

The approach has produced results. Sales of the Japanese chain’s biggest burgers jumped 213% after the wrappers were made because they allowed the burgers to become “socially available” to women.

Of course, the irony is that the burger chain’s “solution” isn’t actually liberating women.  By hiding the deviation behind a paper mask, it is actually reinforcing Ochobo. After all, the social reality remains — it is not acceptable for Japanese women to display an open mouth in public.

Michael Lozano is a graduate of CSULB’s Sociology Honors program and frequent contributor to NewAmericaMedia.org and VoiceWaves.org, a hyper-local news site based in Long Beach, CA.

Wealth or Good Parenting? Framing the Privileges of the Rich

“What is it that I want?”

Jane Van Galen asked herself this question after reading a gushing profile of an “island cabin” in The Seattle Times.   It begins: “Lots of folks have lots of reasons for wanting their own piece of land out of town” and quotes one of the new cabin’s owners who, when pregnant, came to realize: “I can’t raise a child just in the city … I wanted woods, salamanders and pileated woodpeckers.”

So, she and her husband “went right out,” bought nine acres on an island, and built this:

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Writing at her site, Education and Class, Van Galen processed her reaction to this article. She added up the costs, figuring that the owners spent close to a million dollars.  “I knew that my unease,” she wrote, “was not just straightforward jealously.”  So, what did she want?

She knew what she did not want:

Narratives in which the wealthy are held up as model parents who upon hearing of the dangers of the modern world, “go right out” to provide acres of weekend woods for their children; narratives that invite us to admire their paint colors and beautiful windows and solid black granite bathtub without asking too many questions about how it is that relatively young parents can ensure that their child has access to acres of his own private salamanders, and especially not to ask too many questions about how all children might have room to grow and thrive...

She wanted, “for once,” to hear wealthy people just admit they’re rich — for whatever reason — instead of framing their decision to build a vacation home as simply what any good parent would do.

“I love having this for my son,” the owner is quoted.  But Van Galen wants to know: What about everyone else’s children?

Cross-posted at Global Policy TV.

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.

That’s Fishy: From Scent to Suspicion and Back

Earlier this year I reviewed a study that found that, simply by changing the weight of an object in hand, psychologists can manipulate how seriously a person takes an issue.  In other words, when holding something heavy, matters seem heavy.  Or, concerns seem weightier when one is weighed down.

Thanks to an email from USC professor Norbert Schwarz, I was introduced to a whole series of studies on what psychologists call metaphorical effects.  These are instances in which a metaphor commonly used to describe a psychological state or social reality can, in turn, induce that state or reality.  So, for example, holding a warm cup of coffee makes people feel warmly toward each other (here), getting the cold shoulder makes people feel cold (here), people placed in a high location seem to be high in a hierarchy (here), and cleaning one’s hands makes a person feel morally clean (here).

Schwarz was the co-author, with Spike W.S. Lee, on another example of a metaphorical effect.  They wanted to know if smelling something fishy made people suspicious.  It did!

Asked to participate in a fake study on whether they’d be willing to invest money in a scheme, subjects who were exposed to a fishy smell invested less than those exposed to no smell and less than those exposed to another icky smell that was “metaphorically irrelevant”: fart.

From sensory perception to psychological state.  Boom.

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Lee and Schwarz were also interested in the reverse process.  Did being suspicious increase the likelihood that they would identify a fishy smell as fishy.  Sometimes smells can be hard to figure out, but when people are primed with the answer, they are more likely to get it right.  Would the metaphorical effect work in the other direction: from psychological state to sensory perception?

They asked another group of subjects to sniff five different vials and attempt to label each smell.  Half the time, they induced suspiciousness by having the experimenter say: “Obviously, it’s a very simple task and, you know, there’s . . . there’s nothing we’re trying to hide here.”  The experimented would then spot a document on the table, whisk it away nervously and repeat:

Sorry, it shouldn’t have been there. But . . . ahem . . . anyway. Where was I? Oh yes, it’s all very simple. There’s nothing we’re trying to hide or anything.

Did subjects induced to be suspicious identify the fishy smell correctly more often?  Yep!

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This is a fun literature, but it has serious implications.  It reveals that the associations we have in our minds impact how we perceive the world and each other.

Sociologists believe that essentially all of life is socially constructed, meaning that we collectively learn and internalize arbitrary connections between things: like being male and computing or being black and athleticism.  These connections literally structure our brain, such that thinking about one is likely to trigger thoughts of the other.

Fishy and suspicious are connected in our minds and, so, when we are exposed to one, we are more likely to experience the other.  In other cultures, Lee and Schwarz point out, it is not fishiness, but other smells that are associated with suspicion.  These things are not natural or universal, but they drive our perceptions nonetheless.

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.

Overweight Americans Have the Lowest Risk of Premature Death

Last year the Journal of the American Medical Association released a study aiming to determine the relationship between body mass index and the risk of premature death. Body mass index, or BMI, is the ratio between your height and weight. According to the National Institutes of Health, you are “normal weight” if your ratio is between 18.5-24.9.  Everything over that is “overweight” or “obese” and everything under is “underweight.”

This study was a meta-analysis, which is an analysis of a collection of existing studies that systematically measures the sum of our knowledge.  In this case, the authors analyzed 97 studies that included a combined 2.88 million individuals and over 270,000 deaths.  They found that overweight individuals had a lower risk of premature death than so-called normal weight individuals and there was no relationship between being somewhat obese and the rate of early death. Only among people in the high range of obesity was there a correlation between their weight and a higher risk of premature death.

Here’s what it looked like.

This is two columns of studies plotted according to the hazard ratio they reported for people.  This comparison is between people who are “overweight” (BMI = 25-29.9) and people who are “normal weight” (BMI = 18.5-24.9).  Studies that fall below the line marked 1.0 found a lower rate of premature death and studies above the line found a higher rate.

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Just by eyeballing it, you can confirm that there is not a strong correlation between weight and premature death, at least in this population. When the scientists ran statistical analyses, the math showed that there is a statistically significant relationship between being “overweight” and a lower risk of death.

Here’s the same data, but comparing the risk of premature death among people who are “normal weight” (BMI = 18.5-24.9) and people who are somewhat “obese” (BMI = 30-34.9).  Again, eyeballing the results suggest that there’s not much correlation and, in fact, statistical analysis found none.

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Finally, here are the results comparing “normal weight” (BMI = 18.5-24.9) and people who are quite “obese” (BMI = 35 or higher). In this case, we do see a relationship between risk of premature death in body weight.

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It’s almost funny that the National Institutes of Health use the word normal when talking about BMI. It’s certainly not the norm – the average BMI in the U.S. falls slightly into the “overweight” category (26.6 for adult men and 25.5 for adult women) — and it’s not related to health. It’s clearly simply normative. It’s related to a socially constructed physical ideal that has little relationship to what physicians and public health advocates are supposed to be concerned with.  Normal is judgmental, but if they changed the word to healthy, they have to entirely rejigger their prescriptions.

So, do we even have an obesity epidemic? Perhaps not if we use health as a marker instead of some arbitrary decision to hate fat.  Paul Campos, covering this story for the New York Times, points out:

If the government were to redefine normal weight as one that does not increase the risk of death, then about 130 million of the 165 million American adults currently categorized as overweight and obese would be re-categorized as normal weight instead.

That’s 79%.

It’s worth saying again: if we are measuring by the risk of premature death, then 79% of the people we currently shame for being overweight or obese would be recategorized as perfectly fine. Ideal, even. Pleased to be plump, let’s say, knowing that a body that is a happy balance of soft and strong is the kind of body that will carry them through a lifetime.

Cross-posted at Adios Barbie.

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.

Becoming Wealthy: The Myth of Meritocracy

Flashback Friday. 

How do people in the U.S. become wealthy?  According to the myth of meritocracy, they do so by hard work: blood, sweat, tears, a trace of talent, and a tad bit of luck.  This is the story told in this two-page ad for U.S. Trust in The New Yorker:

On the first page we learn she’s rich, but she’s still a home-town girl at heart. On the second page, we learn a little about how she might have gotten so wealthy:

Note the first few sentences:

Who’s to say how it happened. A big idea. A gutsy work ethic. A lucky break here and there.

Well, uh…what about, “She inherited it”? That’s a pretty common way to end up with a whole bunch of houses and in need of a wealth management team.

The notion that rich people are rich because their parents are rich, however, interrupts the American mystique, the one where we are a country of self-made immigrants who pulled ourselves up by our bootstraps.  People, even people who inherited wealth, like to think that they’re rich because they worked hard.  Hence, the romanticization of the self-made millionaire in the ad and the corresponding invisibility of the inheritance loophole.

On the flipside, this narrative also supports the converse idea that the poor are poor because of their lack of personal efforts and merits.  Perhaps they didn’t have a “big idea’ or the “gutsy work ethic” that enabled them to profit from the lucky break that they inevitably encountered, right?

This ad is just one drop in the sea of propaganda that makes it seem right and normal that a small proportion of our population is able to hoard wealth and property.

This post originally appeared in 2008.

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

Saturday Stat: Women’s Refusal to be Deferent and the Words that Describe Them

According to data gathered from the Corpus of Contemporary American English by linguistics PhD student Nic Subtirelu, women are called “pushy” twice as often as men, while men are more likely to be described as “condescending.”

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At his blog, Linguistic Pulse, Subtirelu argues:

Condescending seems to differ from pushy and bossy in an important way, namely that it seems to acknowledge the target’s authority and power even if it does not fully accept it.

Subtirelu has also ran the numbers for “bossy” and found that it was used to described women 1.5 times more often than men.

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.