Tag Archives: politics: the state

DEAD! Executions and the Power of Photography

In 1928 readers of the New York Daily News were shocked by this cover.  It was the first photograph ever taken of an electrocution.

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The executed is a woman named Ruth Snyder, convicted of murdering her husband.  The photographer was a journalist named Tom Howard.  Cameras were not allowed in the execution room, but Howard snuck a device in under his pant leg.  Prison officials weren’t  happy, but the paper was overjoyed.

The fact that the image was placed on the front page with the aggressive headline “DEAD!” suggests that editors expected the photograph to have an impact.  Summarizing at Time, Erica Fahr Campbell writes:

The black-and-white image was shocking to the U.S. and international public alike. There sat a 32-year-old wife and mother, killed for killing. Her blurred figured seemed to evoke her struggle, as one can imagine her last, strained breaths. Never before had the press been able to attain such a startling image—one not made in a faraway war, one not taken of the aftermath of a crime scene, but one capturing the very moment between life and death here at home.

It is one thing to know that executions are happening and another to see it, if mediated, with one’s own eyes.

Pictures can powerfully alter the dynamics of political debates.  Lennart Nilsson‘s famous series of photographs of fetuses, for example, humanized and romanticized the unborn.  They also erased pregnant women, making it easier to think of the fetus as an independent entity. A life, even.

Unfortunately, Campbell’s article doesn’t delve any further into the effect of this photograph on death penalty debates.  To this day, however, no prisons allow photography during executions.  What if things were different?  How might the careful documentation of this process — with all our technology for capturing and sharing images — change the debate today?  And whose interests are most protected by keeping executions invisible?

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.

Money as a Social Construction

We all know that, on some basic level, money is purely symbolic.  It only works because everyone collectively agrees to participate in the fantasy that a dollar bill is worth a dollar, whatever that is.  Moreover, most of our money these days is purely electronic, represented by ones and zeros and real only in the most abstract sense possible.

Christopher Ingraham at the Washington Post offered another way of thinking about money as a social construction: how much it costs to make it.  None of our coins are actually worth what they cost, and pennies and nickels are worth quite a bit less.

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The excess cost of producing pennies and nickels means a budget deficit for the Treasury. In 2013, producing the coins cost the government $105 million dollars above and beyond the coins’ value.

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Interestingly, moves to eliminate pennies have been successfully opposed by the zinc industry for years, illustrating another sociological phenomenon: the power of corporations to shape government 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.

Saturday Stat: The U.S. is a “Low Tax Country”

This chart comes from Chuck Marr at the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities.  As Marr explains:

The United States is a relatively low-tax country, as the chart shows.  When measured as a share of the economy, total government receipts (a broad measure of revenue) are lower in the United States than in any other member of the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), even after accounting for the modest revenue increases in the 2012 “fiscal cliff” deal and the taxes that fund health reform.

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Martin Hart-Landsberg is a professor of economics at Lewis and Clark College. You can follow him at Reports from the Economic Front.

Where Did Your 2013 Tax Dollars Go?

Each  year the National Priorities Project releases a visual illustrating how our tax dollars are spent.  This is the one for 2013, sans medicare and social security taxes.

1At the end of Sociology 101, I like to ask my students: “What is the state for?”  This often takes them aback, as most of them have never considered the question before.  Is it for defense?  It is to maximize happiness or reduce misery?  Is it for maximizing GDP?  Protecting private property?  Do we want to use it to influence other countries?  How?

There are many questions to ask and they are not purely theoretical.  I like how the spending of our tax dollars helps make the conversation more concrete.

Cross-posted at Business Insider.

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.

Diverse Countries Do Better with Female Heads of State

Countries with a lot of ethnic diversity generally show weaker economic growth than homogeneous countries.  A new study, however, discovered a variable that strongly reverses the trend: women leaders.

Management professor Susan Perkins and her colleagues compared the economic growth rate of 139 countries over 55 years.  They found that diverse countries did significantly better when a woman was at the helm.  The more diverse the country, the stronger the effect.

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Perkins and her co-authors cautiously attempt to explain their data (here), but think that it may have something to do with leadership style.  Female leaders have been shown to be more collaborative and non-authoritarian than men. Co-author Nicholas Pearce speculates:

In countries with a lot of internal conflict, oftentimes people are looking for signals that the person in charge is going to be collaborative and not dictatorial or self-interested. Women’s gender role is symbolic of collaboration, that they’re going to empower marginalized voices.

Because of gender stereotypes, then, women may seem more trustworthy. Meanwhile, real differences in leadership style may affirm those expectations and be more effective in practice.

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.

U.S. Army Releases Racially Biased Hairstyle Regulations

1Sgt. Jasmine Jacobs of the National Guard in Georgia has always plaited her hair into two twists around her head. She has been in the military for six years and has worn her hair natural (meaning no chemical treatments [perms] or hair extensions [weaves]) for four of those years. But according to the new hair-grooming requirements the U.S. Army recently released, her hair is now out of regulation.

And so are the Afro-centric hairstyles of many black women in the Army, who make up 31 percent of Army women.

Jacobs, who said she is “kind of at a loss now with what to do with my hair,” has started a White House petition asking the Army to rethink its new hair guidelines. The petition has collected more than 7,000 signatures from soldiers and civilians, but needs to reach 100,000 signatures by April 19th in order for the White House to address it.

The petition states:

Females with natural hair take strides to style their natural hair in a professional manner when necessary; however, changes to AR 670-1 offer little to no options for females with natural hair… These new changes are racially biased and the lack of regard for ethnic hair is apparent.

The new Army Regulation 670-1  was published Tuesday and illustrates with photos the types of hairstyles that are unauthorized for women. Those include dreadlocks, twists or any type of matted or coiled hair. A particularly cumbersome requirement disallows the bulk of a woman’s hair to “exceed more than 2″ from her scalp.” That rules out Afros and most types of non-chemically altered black hair.

Basically, almost every natural hair option that black women in the Army could wear is now off limits. One of the few traditionally natural hairstyles that was listed as appropriate is cornrows, but a slew of specifications and rules surrounded even that. The diameter of each cornrow can’t be more than one-fourth of an inch, and no more than one-eighth of an inch of scalp may be shown between cornrows.

The only way to realistically meet the new standards would be to shave one’s head, perm one’s hair or wear weaves or wigs.

Jacobs said twists like the one she wears are very popular among black women soldiers because the style requires little maintenance when in the field. Her hair’s thickness and curliness makes pulling her hair back into a bun (a style popular among white women soldiers) impossible.

A spokesperson for the Army said the grooming changes are “necessary to maintain uniformity within a military population.” When that need for “uniformity” erases the ethnic differences of a group of women and forces them to constrain themselves to European standards of hair, it presents a serious problem.

“I think, at the end of the day, a lot of people don’t understand the complexities of natural hair… I’m disappointed to see the Army, rather than inform themselves on how black people wear their hair, they’ve white-washed it all,” said Jacobs.

Screenshots taken from Army Regulation 670-1.

Anita Little is the associate editor at Ms. magazine, where this post originally appeared. You can follow her on Twitter.

Should Drug Treatment Aim to End Use or Reduce Harm?

In the wake of Philip Seymour Hoffman’s sad death, many are calling for various “harm reduction” approaches to substance use. Proponents of harm reduction have identified lots of ways to reduce the social and personal costs of drugs, but they often require us to shift our focus from the prevention of drug use itself to the prevention of harm. Resistance to such approaches often hinges on the notion that they somehow tolerate, facilitate, or even subsidize risky behavior.

This tension emerged clearly in my new article with Sarah Shannon in Social Problems. We re-analyzed an experimental jobs program that randomly assigned a basic low-wage work opportunity to long-term unemployed people as they left drug treatment. In some ways, the program worked beautifully. The job treatment group had significantly less crime and recidivism, especially for predatory economic crimes like robberies and burglaries. After 18 months, about 13 percent of the control group had been arrested for a new robbery or burglary, relative to only 7 percent of the treatment group. Put differently, 87 percent of those not offered the jobs survived a year and a half without such an arrest, relative to 93 percent of the treatment group who were offered jobs.

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A randomized experiment that shows a 46 percent reduction in serious crime is a pretty big deal to criminologists, but the program has still been considered a failure. In part, this is because the “treatment” group who got the jobs relapsed to cocaine and heroin use at about the same rate as the control group. After 18 months, about 66 percent of the control group had not yet relapsed, relative to about 63 percent in the treatment group. So, there’s no evidence the program helped people avoid cocaine and heroin.

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From an abstinence-only perspective, such programs look like failures. Nevertheless, even a crummy job and a few dollars clearly helped people avoid recidivism and improved the public safety of their communities. So, did the program work? From a harm reduction perspective, a jobs program for drug users surely “works” if it reduces crime and other harms, even if it doesn’t dent rates of cocaine or heroin use.

Chris Uggen is a professor of sociology at the University of Minnesota and the author of Locked Out: Felon Disenfranchisement and American Democracy, with Jeff Manza. You can follow him at his blog and on twitter. This post originally appeared at Public Criminology.

Republicans, Democrats, and Trust in the Government

A survey question is only as good as its choices. Sometimes an important choice has been left off the menu.  I was Gallup polled once, long ago. I’ve always felt that they didn’t get my real opinion.

“What’d they ask?” said my brother when I mentioned it to him.

“You know, they asked whether I approved of the way the President was doing his job.”  Nixon – this was in 1969.
“What’d you say?”

“I said I disapproved of his entire existential being.”

I was exaggerating my opinion, and I didn’t actually say that to the pollster.  But even if I had, my opinion would have been coded as “disapprove.”

For many years the American National Election Study has asked:

How much of the time do you think you can trust the government in Washington to do what is right – just about always, most of the time or only some of the time?

The trouble with these choices at that they exclude the truly disaffected. The worst you can say about the federal government is that it can be trusted “only some of the time.”  A few ornery souls say they don’t trust the federal at all. But because that view is a write-in candidate, it usually gets only one or two percent of the vote.

This year the study included “never” in the options read to respondents.  Putting “no-way, no-how” right there on the ballot makes a big difference. And as you’d expect, there were party differences:

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Over half of Republicans say that the federal government can NEVER be trusted.

The graph appears in this Monkey Cage post by Marc Hetherington and Thomas Rudolph. Of course, some of those “never” Republicans don’t really mean “never ever.”  If a Republican becomes president, they’ll become more trusting, and the “never-trust” Democrat tide will rise.  Here’s the Hetherington-Rudolph graph tracking changes in the percent of people who do trust Washington during different administrations.

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This one seems to show three things:

  1. Trust took a dive in the 1960s and 70s and never really recovered.
  2. Republican trust is much more volatile, with greater fluctuations depending on which party is in the White House.
  3. Republicans really, really hate President Obama.

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.