Tag Archives: discourse/language

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.

Elite University Degrees Do Not Protect Black People from Racism

Disentangling the effects of race and class on the social mobility of black Americans is one of sociology’s important jobs. A new study by S. Michael Gaddis is a nice contribution.

Gaddis sent resumes to 1,008 jobs in three parts of the United States. Some of these fictional job applicants carried degrees from an elite university: Stanford, Harvard, or Duke. Some had names that suggested a white applicant (e.g., Charlie or Erica) and others names that suggested a black applicant (e.g., Lamar or Shanice).

Both phone and email inquiries from people with white-sounding names elicited a response more often than those from black-sounding names. Overall, white-sounding candidates were 1.5 times more likely than black-sounding candidates to get a response from an employer. The relationship held up when other variables were controlled for with logistic regression.

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Gaddis goes on to show that when employers did respond to candidates with black-sounding names, it was for less prestigious jobs that pay less.

Comparing applicants who are black and white and have elite vs. more middle-of-the-road university degrees, blacks with elite degrees were only slightly more likely than whites with less impressive degrees to get a call back. As is typically found in studies like these, members of subordinated groups have to outperform the superordinated to see the same benefit.

H/t Philip Cohen.

 

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.

Language and Presidential Addresses: We, Free, and the Public Good

What do we mean when we say “we”? Or more to the point, what does the president mean when he uses that word?

The Atlantic has an interactive graphic (here) showing the relative frequencies of words in State of the Union addresses. (“Addresses” because I’m choosing my words carefully. These were not “speeches” until Wilson. Before that, it was written text only.) Here “we” is.

The rise of “we” seems to parallel the rise of big government, starting with Wilson and our entry into a world war, followed by a brief (10-year) decline. Then FDR changes everything.  “We,” i.e., the people as represented by the government, are doing a lot more.

Sorting the data by frequency shows that even in the big-We era, big-government Democrats use it more than do Republicans.  (JFK used We less frequently than did the GOP presidents immediately before and after him. But then, it was JFK who said not to ask what the government could do for us.)

Other words are less puzzling. Freedom is a core American value, but of late (the last five or six presidents), it’s the Republicans who really let it ring.

As with We, Freedom gets a big boost with FDR, but Freedom for Reagan and the Bushes is not exactly FDR’s four freedoms – Freedom of speech, Freedom of religion, Freedom from want, Freedom from fear – especially the last two. Nor is it the kind of freedom LBJ might have spoken of in the civil rights era, a freedom that depended greatly on the actions of the federal government.  Instead, for conservatives since Reagan, freedom means the freedom to do what you want, especially to make as much money as you can, unbothered by government rules, and to pay less in taxes.

Freedom in this sense is what Robert Bellah calls “utilitarian individualism.”  As the word count shows, freedom was not such a central concern in the first 150 years of the Republic. Perhaps it became a concern for conservatives in recent years because they see it threatened by big government.  In any case, for much of our history, that tradition of individualism was, according to Bellah, tempered by another tradition – “civic republicanism,” the assumption that a citizen has an interest not just in individual pursuits but in public issues of the common good as well.

That sense of a public seems to have declined. Even the “collectivist” Democrats of recent years use the term only about one-tenth as much as did the Founding Fathers. Washington, Adams, Jefferson, Madison – their SOTUs had more than ten publics for every freedom.

I checked one other word because of its relevance to the argument that the U.S. is “a Christian nation,” founded on religious principles by religious people, and that God has always been an essential part of our nation.

The Almighty, at least in State of the Union addresses, is something of a Johnny-come-lately. Like We, He gets a big boost with the advent of big government. FDR out-Godded everybody before or since, except of course, the Bushes and Reagan.

Thank you and God bless you, and God bless the United States of America.

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Update: I just noticed that the two “Gods” in that sentence work out to a rate of 200-300 per million. If tag lines like that are included as part of the text, that accounts for the higher rate since FDR. It’s not about big government, it’s about radio. Prior to radio, the audience for the SOTU was Congress. Starting with FDR, the audience was the American people. Unfortunately, I don’t know whether these closing lines, which have now become standard, are included in the database. If they are included, the differences among presidents in the radio-TV era, may be more a matter of the denominator of the rate (length of speeches) than of the numerator (God). FDR averaged about 3500 per SOTU. Reagan and the Bushes are in the 4000-6000 range. Clinton and Obama average about 7000. So it’s possible that the difference that looks large on the graph is merely the difference between a single God-bless closing and a double.

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

Girl-on-Girl Action: A New Visual Landscape

2Perusing my Facebook feed, I came across a photo proudly posted by a former student — now a hair and makeup artist — of two brides at a wedding.  It was beautiful and the young, conventionally attractive brides were leaning in for a kiss.  Like these:
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When I saw the image, my mind immediately pulled up similar images it has in storage — frequently described as girl-on-girl action — and I was struck by the similarity of the images and their powerfully different messages.

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Until recently, “hot girl-on-girl action” was the primary visual that involved women kissing.  In mainstream culture, genuine and open female same-sex attraction was almost entirely invisible, hidden and denied.  Today, the proliferation of same-sex marriages offer a new visual landscape for framing what it means for two women to kiss each other.

The meaning, moreover, could not be more different.  Though often women with same-sex desire use this assumption to explore real attraction, girl-on-girl action shots are ostensibly between two heterosexually-oriented women who are kissing for male attention.  These brides are presumably doing the opposite of that.  They are displaying love and commitment to one another. The kiss is for them and no one else and they are, implicitly if not actually, openly committing to making themselves sexually unavailable to anyone else, male or female.  This is far from the notion that they are just kissing a girl to get guys to think they’re sexy.

I wonder how these images — ones that depict sexual intimacy between women who love one another and do not seek male attention — will ultimately change how we think about “girl-on-girl” action in the U.S.  As they proliferate, will they push back against the male-centrism and heterocentrism of our society?  I think they very well might.

Congrats to the newlyweds! Their wedding photos can be found herehere, and here.

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.