Monthly Archives: March 2010

Editor’s Highlights: Social Context vs. Research

Looking at sex offender laws, Kelly M. Socia, Jr. and Janet P. Stamatel identify the unintended consequences of policies that are context driven rather than research driven.  Responding to a frightened public, legislatures across the US passed laws requiring sex offender registration, community notification, and residence restrictions.  Socia and Stamatel study the enactment of legislation, the ways these laws reflect assumptions or evidence, and research on the effectiveness of these laws in their article in the January 2010 edition of the Crime and Deviance section of Sociology Compass.  This extensive review of the scientific study of sex offender registration, community notification, and residence restrictions laws questions their effectiveness and shows that the laws produce harmful unintended consequences.  Based upon these findings, Socia and Stamatel urge lawmakers to move beyond expressive justice and instead work to craft evidence based policies.

Kelly M. Socia Jr. and Janet P. Stamatel on Assumptions and Evidence Behind Sex Offender Laws: Registration, Community Notification, and Residence Restrictions

Less is More: Political Ideology and the Paralysis of Progress

On March 13, CNN covered the genesis of another grassroots political movement in the United States. The Coffee Party –an obvious play on the vocal Tea Party which found its way into the headlines last summer- touts itself as a group of concerned citizens who are tired of being divided and anxious to be heard.

CNN reported that leaders of the movement, which began on Facebook, held between 350 and 400 events on the 13th. For now the members seem to agree that there is an elusive “something” wrong with the American political process and the way it operates. Party founder Annabel Park told CNN, “We don’t feel represented by our government right now, and we don’t really feel represented well by the media either. It’s kind of a simple call to action for people to wake up and take control over their future and demand representation.” (more…)

When critiquing harmful beauty practices becomes an ahistorical media spectacle: A reading of Jessica Simpson’s “The Price of Beauty”

By Rachael Liberman

In what appears to be a inauthentic contrast to its current menu of celebrity reality programming, VH1 has begun airing a program titled Jessica Simpson’s The Price of Beauty, which is summarized by Simpson in the following statement from the beginning sequence of the program: “I’m going to travel the world and see what makes a woman from different cultures feel beautiful.” Simpson, the singer-turned-reality show star who has been recently ostracized by media outlets for relationship drama and weight gain, is joined by two “friends” that assist her in an exploratory exercise that takes her to such places as Thailand, New Zealand and France. Some phrases that she offers in the opening of the program include: ““I wanted to sit with people and listen to what their definition of beauty is,” and, “I want to see the lengths that women go through to make them feel beautiful in their environment.” While the title of the show, The Price of Beauty, seems to embody a critical stance similar to a Media Education Foundation-style assault on harmful beauty practices, the message of the program seems to be less direct and more mixed, with apolitical, and ahistorical tendencies. In a particularly revealing cultural moment, Simpson remarks: “I thought Thai massages came with happy endings, I was just wondering where mine was.” (more…)

Health insurance for millions more and the future of medicalization

A bill to extend health insurance to millions more Americans and to cut premiums and force coverage for pre-existing conditions for all Americans passed the house this week. President Obama will sign the bill today. At the Eastern Sociological Society conference in Boston this past weekend, I attended a panel on resistance to medicalization where Peter Conrad, who one might call the father of contemporary medicalization theory,  presented a new project on the medicalization of chronic pain. The overarching theme of this panel was what seems to me a fascinating potential backlash to medicalization – the desire to keep certain experiences, behaviors, emotions from definition by the medical community. As I listened to the panel last Saturday, I began to wonder, as I have increasingly, whether insuring more people will propel medicalization. In the last several decades, there has been some backlash against or resistance to the dominant conceptualization of things such as depression, ADHD, alcoholism and even childbirth as medical (see the article below), but, if we insure more Americans, which is  a great victory for our society, there may be an unintended consequence of maintaining the medical definitions of these and many other conditions, since insurance companies base their decisions to pay for treatment of any condition on whether or not it is a genuine medical/biological illness. If it is, coverage is more likely. If it is not, denial more likely. Therefore, we will now have perhaps an even greater reason to maintain our medical thinking. We want more coverage for ourselves and our fellow citizens. So the question I pose is this: what will happen to medicalization in an America where even greater numbers of Americans feel they need to conceptualize human experience as medical in order to get treatment or relief? If health insurance is easier to come by, will this fuel medicalization because more people will be insured and therefore, as a society, there is a greater push to get things paid for? What does this mean for the future of the human condition – will we come to be seen as nothing more than the bearers of symptoms? Of course, it is equally possible that insuring more people will only make insurance companies attempts NOT to pay for whatever they can get away with more likely, in which case the effects on medicalization could be little to none. We shall soon see. In either case, medicalization is an important area of focus within medical sociology and one that we will likely have renewed interest in as the American health care system is modified, even if the changes are not overarching or particularly radical.

Obama to Sign Health Bill from MSNBC

Medicalization, Natural Childbirth and Birthing Experiences

wikipedia and the gender neutral voice

I recently came across a tool that has been around for a couple of years. GenderAnalyzer claims that it can determine the gender of the author of any text that you point it to. It learns to do this by looking at thousands of blogs and the corresponding gender of the author.

Give it a try: genderanalyzer.com

As of today, it looks like it has a 63% success rate; not impressive but better than chance. Leaving aside how serious we should take this particular tool, many feel that men and women write differently. These different performances of gender through the creation of text can be documented and predicted. This study concludes,

[…] females use many more pronouns and males use many more noun specifiers. […] female writing exhibits greater usage of features identified by previous researchers as “involved” while male writing exhibits greater usage of features which have been identified as “informational”.

All of this made me think of how Wikipedia strives for a “neutral point of view” in its articles. That is, “without bias.” For fun, I picked some Wikipedia articles and ran them through the GenderAnalyzer to see if they were deemed male, neutral or female. Results indicate a strong male bias in my very small and non-random sample:

  • Male: Coffee; bell hooks; oil; love; hip hop; rugby football; philosophy; sex; web 2.0; sexism; feminism; WNBA; Ani DiFranco; men’s health; welding; women’s suffrage.
  • Gender neutral: Childbirth; bread; donuts; gravity.
  • Female: Quilt; knitting.

Whatever the validity or reliability of GenderAnalyzer, the research cited above begs the question of how Wikipedia would best be organized given different male and female writing styles. Would the ideal Wikipedia contain only the gender neutral voice? Or would it strive for a more even distribution of male and female voices throughout?

Finally, is Wikipedia’s effort to achieve a “neutrality” a male endeavor? Some feminist epistemologists (Gilligan, Harding, etc.) have argued that objectivity and value-disinterestedness are inherently male. Thus, is the neutral voice actually quite gendered? ~nathan

Want An Egg? It’s as Easy as Faxing: Home and Efficiency

The invasion of time saving appliances and convenience food items is nothing new in American kitchens. Sociologically speaking this can (and has been) explained through a variety of theoretical paradigms. This could certainly be understood as an ideal example of Habermas’ notion of the (re)feudalization of the lifeworld, the colonization of the private sphere by the sphere of economy and consumerism. This phenomenon can also be explained through feminist theory as a source of liberation for women in particular, relieved from domestic duties. There is however, another aspect to this that is worth exploring. If we extend Arlie Hochschild’s work on the “Time Bind,” another picture emerges. According to Hochschild, it is not necessarily that our work lives have encroached upon our private/home lives but rather that they have switched places. This reversal sheds light on the fascination with streamlining and making more efficient the everyday tasks of home: poaching an egg, “dry cleaning” at home, instant potatoes. If the verbiage of work has indeed entered the home as she posits, then it is not surprising to see constant innovation and products aimed at making everything at home “easier.” The world of work now has fax machines, digital communication, printers, copiers, scanners, and automated answering systems. In fact, many people in offices even send emails to a co-worker even when their offices may be next to one another. As silly as some of these inventions may seem (see New York Times article below) such as toaster ovens that can simultaneously toast bread and poach an egg or a microwave that can cook omelets and pizza; understood through the lens of Hochschild’s work it makes perfect sense. Home has become a locus of efficiency and productivity a place that must juggle and manage multiple and conflicting demands. The reversal then of home and work has directed consumer-driven attention to make the daily tasks of home, like they did with the daily tasks of work, as easy as the push of a button.

“Honey, I’m Not Home” (discussing Hochschild)

“Kitchen Gadgets Take the Fast Food Mentality into the Home”

The British National Party: ‘Still Discriminatory’?

Today, the Central London County Court has delivered its verdict in relation to the British National Party’s [BNP] membership policy. Judge Paul Collins’ decision – whilst noting the BNP’s attempts to modify its constitution – found that the party recruitment policy was ‘still likely to be discriminatory.’

Since the proceedings have been initiated the BNP has removed any requirement for members to be white, although it retains many troubling conditions. For instance: the compulsory opposition to “integration or assimilation” of ethnic minorities into Britain, an explicit demand that members encourage and promote the “maintenance and existence of the unity and integrity of the indigenous British”, and an obligation to seek a reversal of immigration into the country. Alongside these demands, any individual who wishes to join the BNP is also expected to submit to a 2 hour long home visit by two members of the party (one male and one female) in order to ascertain their commitment to the BNP’s aims (and to identify any would-be saboteurs).

Perhaps understandably the BNP’s leader Nick Griffin has reacted to today’s events with belligerence, describing the ruling as ‘appalling’. However, it would seem that the Equality and Human Rights Commission are determined to bring an end to what many see as a dangerous political force with inherently racist policies.

Read more

Tanya Golash-Boza on A Confluence of Interests in Immigration Enforcement: How Politicians, the Media, and Corporations Profit from Immigration Policies Destined to Fail

Amir Saeed on Media, Racism and Islamophobia: The Representation of Islam and Muslims in the Media

Sexting turns a profit: A lesson from the pornography industry?

By Rachael Liberman

Although “sexting” is certainly not an isolated phenomenon, a recent case at Chenery Middle School in Belmont, Massachusetts deserves cultural consideration. According to reports, a nude photo of an underage student was circulated between seventh and eighth graders – approximately 40 to 50 according to Bill Grubbs, the school’s assistant headmaster. Further details provide that each of those students paid $5 for access to the “sext,” which was sent by the underage student’s “boyfriend.” This situation is currently under investigation: cell phones have been seized, students have been interviewed, and the phrase “child pornography” has been circulating in media reports.

However, while this case is yet another example of “sexting,” interviews with parents, via a report on WCVB-TV 5, reveal an interesting denial of current cultural and sexual trends, i.e., the pervasiveness of the profitable pornography industry through accessible electronic media (Internet). One parent states that, “The fact that another child thought it was okay to pay for that takes it to a whole other level.” Another parent responded to reporters with the following: “The idea of charging, that’s the cherry on the cake, or the icing on the cake. I can’t believe that at this age it crosses their mind to do this.” Both parents question the notion that individuals would pay for nudity. Do they truly believe that the success of the pornography industry would not penetrate the minds of puberty-stricken eighth graders? Interestingly, this case at Chenery Middle School appears to embody behaviors learned from the normalizing pornography industry, most notably, exploitation and profit. Where else would eighth graders learn that selling nude photography can generate capital?

Article: Police investigating alleged sexting incident at Chenery Middle School (including WCVB-TV 5 report)

the normative influence of prescription drugs – why do placebos work so well?

Inquiries as to whether many of the drugs that millions of Americans take are any more effective than say, a sugar pill, or any other placebo pill used in clinical trials are on the rise. Sadly, especially with many anti-depressants, it does not seem as though there is any clear evidence that the drugs are more effective than the placebos and this may also be an issue in non-psychotropic drugs. What if a blood pressure medication wasn’t any more helpful than a sugar pill? What if the drug you take for panic attacks wasn’t really preventing them? But my purpose isn’t to ask why the medicines don’t work as well as they should and often claim to (though someone should certainly be concerned with this), but rather to describe some of the cognitive reasons that might allow us to think a drug is working to the extent that it has an actual, physical effect on the body or the mind. Why, for instance, could we feel better on anti-depressants even if the re-uptake of Serotonin or Norepinephrine is not what’s actually making us less sad? One (of many) possibilities is the power of suggestion and, perhaps, what social psychologists call normative influence.

The concept of normative influence, in its most basic form, allows us to understand why one might conform to norms in order to be accepted or praised by others. However, it might also help to explain one of the reasons why placebos make people feel better. When one is given a medicine with a particular purpose, might one not feel as though the response the researchers, doctors or pharmaceutical reps are looking for is a positive response or the dissipation of symptoms? Of course, there is range of other reasons for which one might respond to a placebo – perhaps, in the case of something like depression, the relationship between doctor and patient itself may be comforting. Perhaps when given a heart medication, a patient, realizing her own possible fate, may also begin to exercise and eat better during the drug trial yet attribute improvement to the medication. Perhaps chronic heartburn was solved by changes in diet rather than prescribed medications. These are all possibilities as are many other explanations, but it is worth considering that, when handed a prescription, especially for a psychiatric condition, the feeling that one is supposed to feel better and of wanting to “impress” or just satisfy the doctor may influence patients to unintentionally make themselves feel better. Classic social psychological studies inform us that we generally seek conformity to expectations – no one wants to be criticized. Patients, as they would in any other life situation outside the realm of medicine, likely want to please their doctors and also family members and friends who might also have high hopes for a drug. Likewise, just the power of medicine in contemporary society puts doctors and/or medical researchers in a positions where patients would assume improvement because these professionals are considered legitimate sources of information and are associated with the belief that the medicine will work and make things better. This may go beyond a mere desire to please or conform, but may further be an example which kinds of situations make us more or less likely to conform. Medicine and doctors as purveyors of drugs and medical knowledge have power and influence. We are supposed to trust them. They should know more than the patient. Therefore, the pills they prescribe should work. And we may not “want” to challenge this impression either because it is threatening to us as believers in the system or because we value and or fear the response of the doctor. In any case, the reasons for which medicines or placebos might work may have more to do with social factors than biological or chemical ones, especially in the case of psychotropic drugs, but perhaps in the case of many other medicines as well.

The Growing Power of the Sugar Pill, NPR

Normative Influence. In the Blackwell Encyclopedia of Social Psychology.

Head Case, In The New Yorker

Immigration Reform: Misplaced Responsibility

The concept of immigration reform, like welfare reform focuses on symptoms and not the causes.  Many of the policies involved in immigration reform are band-aids, temporary solutions rather than systemic alternatives.  The New York Times recently reported on the failure of the Obama Administration to introduce a comprehensive bill designed to target immigration generally and immigrants specifically (see article below).

According to sociologist and immigration activist Grace Change, such reform bills reproduce/overlook three themes.  First, the goal of ‘reform’ efforts is to continue to extract cheap labor to the benefit of the U.S. while minimizing the responsibility of the U.S. to the actual laborers.  Second, reform emphasizes the need to “Americanize” and assimilate (i.e. a form of cultural imperialism).  Finally, and perhaps most important, reform never addresses the policies and actions of First World countries such as the U.S. that have resulted in a “push-pull” wave of necessary immigration.  U.S. economic and military actions overseas as well as development policies are the root cause of much of the debt, poverty, and structural inequalities in many of the countries that account for a large percentage of immigrants.  (Disposable Domestics, Grace Chang, 2000)

In essence, immigration reform casts immigrants themselves as problems to be addressed, people who need to be assimilated or sent back to their native countries.  Comprehensive reform should take into account the responsibility of the U.S. in (partially) creating the conditions in which individuals must uproot their lives, leave behind their families, their children, risk dying, and work in underpaid and precarious industries.

NY Times, “Reform on Ice”