Monthly Archives: January 2011

Censorship or “focusing on strengths”: the ant-covered Jesus debate at the Smithsonian

On October 30th, the National Portrait Gallery at the Smithsonian opened an exhibit featuring the art of gay and lesbian artists entitled “Hide/Seek: Difference and Desire in American Portraiture.” Among the works featured was a video short by the late artist David Wojnarowicz, whose work commented on the suffering of AIDS patients. Embedded in the video was an 11-second segment showing a small crucifix covered with ants. In late November, incoming House Speaker John Boehner and the Catholic League President William Donohue decried the piece as “hate speech” and a misappropriation of public funds and threatened to decrease federal Smithsonian funding if the video was not removed from the exhibit. The gallery’s president, Martin Sullivan, promptly removed the video, while stating that although the museum did not want to shy away from the controversial, it wanted to focus the discussion on the “strengths” of the exhibit. (The Washington Post, Dec 1, 2010).

Where does removing distracting material and distracting political debates from publically and privately funded exhibits cross the line into censorship?   How should art and politics play together?  Or, are art and politics one, fused together by their very nature?

On one hand, one could argue that the political debate sparked by the video distracted from the larger message of the exhibit. From this viewpoint, the Smithsonian’s decision to remove the video protected the rest of the exhibit from political or religious scrutiny. The religious and political controversy sparked by the video arguably detracted from what the artist was trying to convey about suffering, and removing the artwork from the exhibit insured that the video would not be misconstrued as anti-Christian. From this perspective, the Smithsonian’s decision could be seen as protective of the artist and the artwork from being attacked and misunderstood.

Alternatively, the Smithsonian’s decision could be viewed as outright censorship and as bowing to political and financial pressures that are not only inappropriate, but also unnecessary, as this exhibit was largely funded by private, not public, funds (The Washington Post, Dec 1, 2010). Reminiscent of Ray Bradbury’s novel Fahrenheit 451 (1953), in which politicized “firemen” burned books for a living, this viewpoint positions the removal of the artwork as a troubling trend in which cultural productions are dictated by political and religious forces. From this perspective, no censorship is good censorship, and the political debate sparked by the exhibit is productive and part of the artistic process. Proponents of this viewpoint would argue that controversy over art is one of the public goods that art provides; a forum for people to debate values and perspectives.

A study by Lambe and Reineke (2009) suggests that public opinion on governmental censorship is mixed. Their work found that three different groups of opinion emerged: those who want government to stay out of censorship debates entirely, those who want the government to actively ensure the free expression of ideas, and those who want the government to censor certain expression in the favor of the greater good. In this case, censorship was justified as being for the greater good of the overall exhibit, but by removing the video, the museum was potentially limiting public discourse on the nature of suffering.

Washington Post coverage of the ant-covered Jesus

Public Attitudes about Government Involvement in Expressive Controversies

Wake Up and See the Carolina Blue: Color Blindness in Wake County, NC

“We have an achievement gap,” a Wake County, North Carolina School board member expounded during his Fall 2009 campaign. “One that is significant. 50% of our African American boys are dropping out. This drives up crime and societal costs. This is a skewed system that fails to adjust for the needs of children of poverty and in doing so we fail to challenge our most gifted or raise our most vulnerable. Too many of our children are falling behind.”

The Wake County School Board, of which he became a part, decided soon thereafter that the solution lay in revoking Wake County’s long-standing desegregation and districting policies. Students were being bused too far, the Board’s majority said. All this movement of students was distracting, unfair, and unhelpful.

“If we had a school that was, like 80% high-poverty,” the board member went on to imagine late last year, “the public would see the challenges, the need to make it successful. Right now, we have diluted the problem so we can ignore it…This is Raleigh in 2010, not Selma, Alabama in the 1960s – my life is integrated.”

But what, I wonder, does a single integrated life look like? How can an individual alone achieve integration? And if that were possible, what would that say about how we conceive of integration?

In her book Another Kind of Public Education (2009), sociologist Patricia Hill Collins observes that American public discourse increasingly seems to devalue anything that is public. Privatization then emerges as the seeming antidote to the problems of public institutions (2009: 22) – and this antidote allows individuals to claim to understand themselves without seeking to understand the social contexts that have shaped them. Race and social experiences of race are woven in to these contexts.

Refusal to acknowledge social experiences of race constitutes a significant aspect of what Collins and others call “color blind racism” – or, rhetoric and practices that, as Angela Davis writes, “ostracize” race from social and political discourse, making the racialized character of social relationships increasingly difficult to identify. Erasing consideration of race and of inequities related to race then becomes a way of ignoring injustice – and of justifying its continued reproduction. 
Privatization then appears as a strategy for discussing justice without attending to on-going injustice: if “my” life is integrated, then justice is already achieved. If existing power relationships are discussed only in terms of individual achievement, work ethic, “making good decisions,” and so on, then those with power can ignore and deny the advantages from which they have benefited. If public discourse is reduced to individuals without consideration of social contexts, then dialogue is jeopardized, because as Henry Giroux writes, “there is no language for translating private concerns into public issues” (2010: 87).
I remember having a similar conversation with the very first undergraduate group that I taught. We had read Collins’ book and were using what she calls a “domains of power framework” to discuss recent media discourses – particularly the state of Virginia’s April 2010 declaration of an annual Confederate History Month.

In Collins’ framework, four interrelated areas of social interaction – structural, disciplinary, cultural, and interpersonal—become starting points for inquiry about power, domination, injustice, and resistance. As an elected official, Virginia Governor Bob McDonnell—who created and declared the month-long Confederate memorial at first without mention of the Confederacy or the Civil War’s relationships to slavery—holds power through what Collins calls the structural domain, or the domain of institutions, of organizations, of states, laws, and other enduring structures. As elected representatives, Wake County school board members have power through this domain, too. The students and I considered this. We considered, too, comments in the vein of those made by Virginia state Attorney General Ken Cuchinelli – also empowered through the structural domain –who has stated that Virginia has “outgrown” institutionalized injustices related to race.

What happens, I ask the students, when we talk about injustice as something that is over, as something that is not a problem anymore? What happens when we talk about justice and democracy as things that we have already achieved? What happens to Patricia Hill Collins’ idea of democracy as a process—as a dialogue that cannot be mastered by individuals alone but rather that we as a public have to continue to work at?

One student – a returned missionary, an avowed conservative with a kind face and a halo of blond hair; a student always ready to read and to listen and to rethink ideas and questions– sat quiet, his upturned palms held in front of him. He touched them together like the outline of an open book. And then he closed it.

CNN Video: Wake County Protesters Arrested, July 21, 2010

Patricia Hill Collins Discusses Education, Privatization, and Color Blind Racism on Book TV

The Global Development Race: Why parts of East Asia are lagging behind

Tuesday evening President Barak Obama delivered his annual State of the Union address to the United States Congress and the American people. The theme of the President’s speech, ‘win the future,’ focused on a bipartisan effort to rise to the challenge of emerging Asian powers such as China and India.

However, on the heels of Chinese President Hu’s visit, Mr. Obama noted that the challenge is not limited to BRIC countries. South Korea’s emphasis on infrastructure and education did not go without mention. Indeed, the United States is forced more and more to look to East Asia for the next milestone of development and innovation; meeting these challenges will be essential to America’s retention of its global status. In his speech the President stressed, “We need to out-innovate, out-educate and out-build the rest of the world.” He later stated, “Our infrastructure used to be the best, but our lead has slipped… South Korean homes now have greater Internet access than we do… China is building faster trains and newer airports.” However, while much of Asia’s development is laudable, it is hardly universal. As China, Japan, India, Singapore and South Korea charge toward the future, Cambodia, Lao PDR, and Vietnam are left behind.

Much of the scholarship on Asian development currently focuses on the dramatic progress of the region’s success stories rather than the factors that continue to hold back its underdeveloped countries. In the Winter 2010 volume of The Sociological Quarterly sociologist Roy Kwon addresses this intellectual gap in his article “How the Legacy of French Colonization has Shaped Divergent Levels of Economic Development in East Asia: A Time-Series Cross-National Analysis.” The author examines what features of the region’s history influence this developmental divergence. Most notably for Kwon, many of the struggling nations of East Asia are former French colonies. (more…)

The Decline Effect, the Structure of Science, and ESP? How should sociologists think about replicability?

An intriguing article in the December 13th issue of The New Yorker by Jonah Lehrer explained the “decline effect” and presented some hypotheses for its existence; here I provide a summary of the article and discuss its relevance for the issue of scientific replicability in sociology. The article set the blog world abuzz; Google returns 947 cases of “decline effect” from November 30th to December 16th this year, while the same range last year yields 158 cases. The “decline effect” first referred to a 1930s study of extrasensory perception where a student who at first seemed to have ESP appeared to lose his ability; it has become applied in general to the tendency for the effect size of scientific studies to get smaller—or disappear— as scientists try to replicate earlier findings.

Lehrer discusses the decline effect in the case of verbal overshadowing in cognitive psychology (where individuals who are asked to describe something verbally seemed to remember it less well in the future), fluctuating asymmetry in ecology (where females of different species seemed to use external asymmetry as an indicator of genetic quality; more symmetrical males reproduced more often), and in medical clinical trials (where, for example, antipsychotic drugs seemed less effective than initially thought). He catalogs (both explicitly and less explicitly) a number of possible explanations for the effect: a) Time, where the power of an effect “loses truth” as time proceeds, b) Individual psychology, where loss of belief in an effect alters results (this seems to be the case with the ESP example), and c) Regression to the mean, where initially extreme cases are revealed to be outliers as the sample size increases or as the study is repeated. He is, however, particularly interested in three other explanations, which, working in concert, seem to best explain the effect:

  1. Publication bias, where positive results are far more likely than negative results to be published, something that has been widely observed across fields, and which has prompted repeated calls for a journal to publish null results,
  2. Selective reporting of results, where scientists select what data to initially document and they may obtain biased results through the unconscious influence of their prior beliefs and expectations, and
  3. Randomness, where many scientific results are the product of noise, or “a byproduct of invisible variables we don’t understand” (p. 57).

Lehrer closes with the observation that, beyond the reminder that scientists are biased, and that the structure of scientific fields facilitate fads (Kuhn’s paradigms), the decline effect serves as a reminder of how difficult it is to obtain definitive scientific proof.

The article raises plenty of interesting questions (e.g. to what extent are the effects of publication bias and the selective reporting of results amenable to organizational and institutional changes? Does ESP exist?!), including how much it upset many science bloggers (or, more likely, blogging scientists). There is much to say about the institutional features of scientific disciplines and the peer-review process that facilitates these types of outcomes, but I will focus instead on the meaning of replicability in sociology.

That I had not heard of the decline effect may be the byproduct of a much-bemoaned, little addressed feature of sociology: few attempts at replication coupled with such diversity in the cases used to establish effects that even the possibility of comparison across cases seems wildly bold. There are two issues here: first, attempts to replicate results with the same or similar data are extremely rare (there have, of course, been calls for replication in quantitative sociology—notably, the November 2007 issue of Sociological Methods & Research—mostly calling for sharing data and standards for analysis). Second, replicating effects across domains (and reporting the success or failure) is afforded little attention. Notably, the Blackwell Encyclopedia of Sociology entry on replication devotes most of its space to methods developed for testing the internal replicability of datasets, while noting the importance, and paucity, of external replicability. Sociology may be particularly susceptible to the whims of randomness—a leading culprit in the decline effect according to Lehrer— given how far removed most of us are from labs where dozens of factors can be controlled. More interestingly, beyond reproducing the same results from the same datasets, what would reproducing social facts, canonical findings and effects, look like across domains of inquiry? It seems worth considering whether sociologists should focus on replication in the way that those running mice through mazes do, or whether there is another way to think about the replicability of our results.

 For further reading, see Matthew David on “Sociological Knowledge and Scientific Knowledge” in Sociology Compass.

Identifying “play” as normalizing practice: Connecting LEGO’s Prison Transport Vehicle to the prison-industrial complex

By Rachael Liberman

In a recent critique posted on The Huffington Post (18 January), Bestselling Author and Speaker Rebecca Walker (note that this “title” introduction comes from The Huffington Post and fails to include her work as a prolific feminist) poses the following question, which also serves as the title of her article; “Does This Lego Toy Send the Wrong Message to Children?” Stemming from her concern over the possible normalization of the prison-industrial complex,” Walker points out that one of the Lego Group’s toys, the “Prison Transport Vehicle,” presents incarceration as “play,” which is similar to her, and other’s, conceptualization of the way that African Americans are treated in the criminal justice system vis-à-vis the disciplinary power elite. She writes, “But at a time when more African Americans are in the criminal justice system than were enslaved in 1850, the mass incarceration of one – arguably targeted – group is a lot like war, and thus the Prisoner Transport Vehicle most definitely qualifies as making ‘war seem like child’s play’. Or, in this momma’s speak: indoctrinating kids into a for-profit system that often denies citizens adequate legal representation; strips them of basic human rights; criminalizes them for a lifetime; and rarely offers hope of rehabilitation or opportunity for personal, psychological growth.”

Later in the article, Walker calls for “a little more scrutiny” over the Prisoner Transport Vehicle as well as other toys that “normalize incarceration.” So what aspects of incarceration is this toy normalizing? Drawing on Foucault’s reading that the process of normalization creates an effortless dichotomization of “normal” and “abnormal,” it appears that this toy has the potential to make getting transported to jail “normal,” getting handcuffed and arrested “normal,” etc. In other words, it seems that playing with the Prisoner Transport Vehicle allows for children/adults (the website offers products for individuals aged 0-12+) to channel their knowledge about the criminal justice system and incorporate it into “play.” Whether or not these children will incorporate the act of consciously “playing God, symbolically or otherwise,” as Walker suggests, is based on many factors, including their cultural context. That being said, Walker’s concern with the possibility of children combining this particular toy with racist ideologies they’ve learned from their particular socializing bodies is an astute observation. Normalizing practices come in many forms, including the body shape and size of Barbie, as well as the fact that when I went to the LEGO website there was a separate category for “girls” within the sixteen categories available for purchase. (more…)

Patient autonomy and the biomedical model

Recently, there have been many suggestions that a backlash against the unilateralism of the biological approach in medicine is on the brink. Perhaps, some suggest, patients have garnered some say in their treatment, even though many researchers suggest that modern medical practice strips patients’ rights to make their own decisions. But where ought the boundary between patient autonomy and doctor totalitarianism be? On the one hand, purely diagnostic, biomedical medicine that does not allow for patients’ own insight into their conditions,  makes patients feel objectified, as if they are nothing more than a disease. On the other hand, doctors have a certain expertise and patients may not always know what’s best for them. After all, medical training is difficult, arduous, and produces a professional with an important and valuable set of skills. Certainly, options beyond the biomedical model would allow patients to have increased autonomy and say in their care. The availability of, for instance, acupuncture and herbal supplements has allowed many patients with a range of conditions from depression to back pain to find relief in a treatment that, at one time, would never have been (and still often isn’t) considered acceptable treatment in a Western medical perspective.

What would it mean for the effectiveness of treatment if patients begin to have more of a say in their treatment? When patients come into doctors’ offices asking for certain procedures, tests, and even medicines, it represents an informed consumer, but also a patient who may be less receptive to the advice of doctors. The question is: how do we find a balance between patients being able to chose the kind of treatment they want and being truly listened to by their doctors (rather than simply diagnosed as a medical object)?

Nathenson (2010, see below) suggests that the biomedical model may not be the dominant lens in the future. While this seems like it is still a distant possibility, Nathenson describes an increasing medical pluralism because of more patient autonomy.  This is a crucial question – how should we study these various ways of treating illness and understand how the dominance of these models are maintained. I say we also need to examine how much autonomy is really useful in medical treatment. I’m not convinced that patients can be fully autonomous in any kind of treatment, though certainly some models preclude much more autonomy than others.

MRI’s as you see to the left, medications, and other medical technologies are powerful tools that reinforce the legitimacy of the medical profession, which is currently dominated by the biomedical model, for better or worse. And there are major benefits of this diagnostic model, even if it tends to ignore the patient’s voice. In the article below, Pauline Chen writes of how useful diagnoses can be in relieving patients’ fears about their symptoms. In doing so, she describes the utility of doctors’ expertise. While the biomedical model is oft critiqued for its cold, objectifying, and even dehumanizing tendencies ( and this is a serious problem), it also trains doctors who have highly specified knowledge that also offers an ability to solve problems that might otherwise be illusive. However, there must be a way to marry some sense of autonomy and humanity with the best that science and medicine have to offer.

Critical Theory and Medical Care in America: Changing Doctor-patient Dynamics

The Comfort of a Diagnosis

Sputnik Point of View: Deficit Language in U.S. Education

It was a Sputnik moment, President Obama said, when the OECD’s Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) standardized test scores were published late last year. The US ranked somewhere in the mid-20s for most subjects. “America is in danger of falling behind,” Obama warned.

We’re being “out-educated,” Education Secretary Arne Duncan cried.

Panicked pundits followed suit: “Wake up!” “Catch up!” Fill up that “gap!”

There’s no doubt that our everyday uses of language matter. The language we use can shape how we perceive our experiences, can shape the distinctions we make— can shape the distinctions we do not make. The language of education in the United States is increasingly a language of deficits. Oft-cited sociological concepts in this discourse– e.g. cultural capital (Bourdieu and Passeron 1977),social capital (Bourdieu 1984, Coleman 1988), human capital (Coleman 1988) — have, in many ways, advanced this sort of deficit thinking. In the language of “capitals” roughly, the knowledges and skills of particular sets of dominant groups are seen as “capitals” valuable to an existing matrix of power (Collins 2000). In this language, only certain knowledges “count” as capital. Other knowledges are discounted, and those who hold them are considered “at-risk” of a deficit or on the wrong side of an “achievement gap.”

Nevertheless, goals invoked in media and in policy continue to propagate this imagery of closing “achievement gaps,” overcoming “knowledge deficits,” marshalling “human capital,” and staunching the “alarming decline of U.S. educational attainment.” The picture painted becomes that of a great big sink hole; faced with that image, “filling the void” becomes the sought-after solution.

In his 1968 treatise for social justice in education, Pedagogy of the Oppressed, Paulo Freire lays out his famous criticism of the “banking concept of education.” In practice, such a concept approaches learning as a process that can be rationalized – made efficient, predictable, calculable, controllable – so that knowledge can then be transmitted, measured, invested, and measured again as if it were capital. Emphasis is on the getting: get an education, get more knowledge, get “facts” (and only facts), get ahead. In banking practices of education, students participate actively in their own learning only insomuch as they are “receiving, filing, storing” the knowledge they are told they must take in (Freire 1993: 73). The relationship between knower and known becomes like that between a piggy bank and some cash, a to-go cup and some coffee, a tick and the plasma of your poor dog: it is the relationship between a “receptacle to be filled” and the material that will fill it (Freire 1993: 72).

This is not to say that some of those materials (i.e. the school subjects on which students are being tested) aren’t really good stuff. Surely they are. But it is the way we engage with those materials and with the learning process – the ways we perceive them, the ways we see ourselves connecting with them— that comprises much of the trouble with the “banking concept.” Students are encouraged and rewarded not for questioning the assumptions undergirding course materials and ideas, nor for examining and challenging what gets left out in the inherently selective act of planning curricula.  Rather they are encouraged and rewarded for that “receiving, filing, storing”; they are encouraged and rewarded according to where they fall along a static, linear model of success. The banking concept, I will argue, marginalizes students’ critical identities in the classroom: the “21st century skills like problem-solving and critical thinking, entrepreneurship and creativity” that education policy-makers claim to prize are pushed to the side-lines of school days and school spaces in order to allocate sufficient resources for meeting standardized measures like Adequate Yearly Progress (AYP) and “value-added” teaching. Dialogue and collaborative, dynamic learning efforts –efforts that privilege the creation of connections rather than the attainment of fixed end—are sloughed off because they don’t quite fit into the package of conceptual deliverables like “accountability” and “teacher effectiveness.”

The Sputnik moment, then, is less of a moment than it is a point of view—a controlling image that focuses attention on deficits, fear, and falling behind;  an image of satellite surveillance, observing processes of teaching and learning from a position of power high above.  It is this hierarchical observation, this constant examination of learning as a linear process that can be evaluated against standardized measures. It is this Sputnik point of view that continues to engender a binarized idea of education: either we fill up, measure up, or we fall behind.  Spaces for exploring big, important questions, questions that may not have answers— or at least questions certainly don’t have any one answer—become the collateral casualties of this orbit. And that is a loss.

An Achievement Gap That Won’t Be Fixed in Schools

Social Capital and Education: Wiley Blackwell Encyclopedia of Sociology