Monthly Archives: September 2010

“Hope” and “change” don’t pay the bills – and for that, the democrats will pay

In the last presidential election, “hope” that Washington could be a less partisan and ultimately a less corrupt and more transparent place, coupled with a longing for “change,” propelled Obama into office. That, and an intense disappointment with the previous administration. However, the economic meltdown and the generally painful economic situation for a large number of Americans has lead even many Obama supporters to question whether anything is actually different and whether our president can be pragmatic and effectual in difficult times. This had lead, for instance, one woman at the recent CNBC question and answer session with the President to say: “Quite frankly, I’m exhausted….defending the mantle of change I voted for.” She, in fact, rattled off a list of exhaustion, including how unpleasant life is for many “middle class” Americans today. Most are in historically unheard of debt, even if they don’t have college loans (but if they do, it’s even worse), many are losing their houses, some are reportedly even resorting to food banks because they simply can’t make ends meet. And this is in the middle class.

This CNBC press conference, largely because the audience consisted of Obama supporters, calls into question what those who voted for Obama are feeling about the economic situation. Who do you blame when things are bad if you voted for the person in charge? And, if I’m unemployed, caring about hope and change may not only be irrelevant now, but it may anger me that those were the more intangible values upon which I based my feelings in the last campaign. Not wanting to direct my feelings of frustration at myself, the party I voted for and the politicians I had a hand in electing will surely bear the brunt of my anger. Social psychological studies inform us that we are more likely to attribute blame to others or external forces for bad consequences and think of ourselves as having a role in the ones that prove to be useful or have a positive outcome in some way. So, I might feel good about the Democrats’ role in health care reform and feel as though my vote had something to do with it, but when it comes to the economy, the death of soldiers in two wars, etc., I might instead blame the administration and likely the President as the figurehead. And, what does this mean for the the 2012 political season? Frustrations are high and people don’t want to blame themselves, so they blame the administration (and that’s the Democratic supporters!). Looking forward to the next election, I have to wonder if there’s any way for the democrats and the President to escape this blame game unscathed.

Disappointed Supporters Question Obama

Attribution Theory

Seeking Refuge: the battle for stability and support in times of economic hardship

A recent Seattle Times report shed light on the growing, but often invisible, problems faced by the United States’ refugee population. Approximately 80,000 refugees will resettle in the U.S. this year, hailing from war-torn countries such as Somalia, Myanmar (Burma), Iraq, and Bhutan.

These individuals leave desperate situations- some living in camps in borderlands for ten years- with the hope of making a new life. However, refugees are warned before they decide to depart their native region that the U.S. may not be the bastion of opportunity they desire.

Increasingly, life in the U.S. means a struggle with homelessness. Among a whole host of difficulties, it can take years to acquire the language skills needed to secure employment. Additionally, it can be very difficult for refugees to navigate support programs. When government assistance runs out, leases expire, rent rises, or family structures change, refugees are often left with few options.

These individuals, who frequently come from cultures of mutual support, sometimes surf from home to home of fellow refugees sleeping 10 to a room for as long as possible without ever finding a stable residence. Because many are not physically on the streets, the problem of refugee homelessness can be very difficult to track.

With the American economy is just now struggling out of recession, the situation for refugees has become increasingly bleak in a number of ways. Most of the nation has been negatively affected by the economic downturn which does not bode well for a community that is forced to rely heavily on charity and goodwill.

While refugees receive a variety of assistance from both the state and Federal government in the form of food stamps, Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF), and upfront monetary assistance, these programs often rely on funding appropriated by elected officials who depend upon positive public opinion to keep their jobs. When sentiment toward refugee groups goes sour due to the economic insecurities of U.S. citizens, assistance may begin to decrease when it is needed most.

Sociologist Gareth Millington, writing for the Sociological Review, explored the varying, and profoundly negative, narratives about asylum seekers in the United Kingdom and drew many lessons which might be applied in the States. In his article, “Racism, class ethos and place: the value of context in narratives about asylum-seekers,” Millington focuses particularly on the class divide in racial narratives. He observes that the most affluent, suburban residents of the small U.K. community tend toward the abstract, while less wealthy, more centrally located, residents focus on context dependent stories. (more…)

The Medical Marijuana Hype: It’s Not As Easy As THC

Let’s get it out there up front: I’m not a medical doctor or a medical researcher, so this is not going to be a discussion of the physiological effects of THC.  Instead, I want to step back for a moment and engage in a cultural critique of the hype surrounding medical marijuana.  Put simply, I’m not concerned here with what marijuana actually does; rather, I’m concern with the place that marijuana (particularly, when used for therapeutic purposes) holds in our culture.

Marijuana, in its current, largely unregulated form (“unregulated” because it is, in most cases, illegal), represents one of the few remaining vestiges of a history of mystic and shamanic practices that span millennia.  This, in a world where science and bureaucratic organization have seemingly stamped out every last bit of mystery and uncertainty in our lives.  Over the course of the last century, every aspect of  our lives has been subject to increasing efficiency, calculability, predictability, and control (see: George Ritzer, The McDonaldization of Society).  The result is that the activities comprising our daily lives have become increasingly mechanical.   We feel as though forces external to us determine our every action.  In the bleakest terms (those of Max Weber), we come to feel as though we are trapped in a great iron cage.  And, when aspects of life are so limited and predictable, they become disenchanted (see: George Ritzer, Enchanting a Disenchanted World).

Because a century of legal restrictions have made marijuana extremely difficult to study and efficiently distribute, it has long represented an escape from the rationalization and disenchantment that characterizes modern medical practice, and, in particular, the pharmaceutical industry.  The effects of various marijuana crops on the humans who consume them have varied widely and dosages have tended to be imprecise.  Moreover, users tend to have a very personal connection to the  particular dose they are consuming, because they have had to undergo some sort of trial to obtain it (e.g., an encounter with a dealer or the long, invested process of cultivation).  Even the experience of going to a licensed medical marijuana dispensary is likely to be far more idiosyncratic than a trip to a conventional pharmacy.   As a result, the experience of marijuana use has retained an unpredictable, “magical” quality.

While it is quite possible that this experience of enchantment may improve the well-being of individuals, it is, perhaps, more interesting (at least when we are wearing our sociologist caps) to consider whether marijuana – as a symbolic bulwark against rationalized medicine or, more broadly, the rationalization of all aspects of society – has therapeutic effects for our culture writ large.  I contend that this therapeutic effect – this sense that something mysterious and unpredictable remains a very real part of our lives – accounts for our culture’s current obsession with marijuana.  One might even say we are addicted to the mystique of marijuana.

No doubt, THC pills derived from the plant will one day be made as efficient, calculated, predictable, and controlled as ever other facet of our culture.  Sadly, the great irony is that, as marijuana becomes legalized, it will inevitably become more rationalized, robbing it of what is, perhaps, its most important feature (i.e., its mystique).

The wide usage of antipsychotic medications may indicate social rather than biological etiology

There are many lessons to take away from the New York Times article linked below that describes a rambunctious little boy whose life was nearly ruined by anti-psychotic medications. Increasing numbers of children have been prescribed this class of drugs as of late for conditions ranging from Tourette Syndrome to bipolar disorder, which psychiatrists have begun to diagnose in children at younger and younger ages. There is controversy surrounding the very ability to diagnose these conditions in young children and certainly over the utility and safety of prescribing the most potent of the psychiatric medications for this population.  The issues associated with medicating children, especially with this class of medications, as well as the dangers to them, their families and society more broadly are innumerable (even if there are benefits in some cases, which most biological psychiatrists argue there is). But for now, let’s take this as an example of the increasing diagnosis of disorders such as bipolar disorder, which is an intriguing phenomenon that needs exploration at the aggregate level.

In the debate over whether any disorders are purely biological entities, sociologists generally adhere to the argument that bipolar disorder and schizophrenia seem to be heavily rooted in biology, since the rates of these disorders are relatively stable over time and place. As opposed to depression, anxiety, substance abuse, etc., the former disorders do not seem affected by culture (though the course of the illnesses are) or the social environment more broadly. In other words, there is fairly wide agreement that bipolar disorder and schizophrenia are in fact organic conditions, not likely to be born of  social or environmental factors alone (or maybe at all). However, as these diagnoses become increasingly common (this does not yet seem to be the trend with schizophrenia but certainly is the case with bipolar disorder), what does this say about the assumption of biological etiology?

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