Monthly Archives: February 2011

What Makes the College Classroom Relevant?

In August 2010, The American Council of Trustees and Alumni (ACTA), a self-described “independent, non-profit organization committed to academic freedom, excellence, and accountability at America’s colleges and universities” assigned letter grades A – F to universities nationwide. Johns Hopkins University received an F; St. John’s College of Annapolis, an A. The reasoning: Hopkins and many of its elite peers “don’t do a good job of providing their students with a coherent core,” ACTA President Anne Neal told The Washington Post. Students from St. Johns, on the other hand, “are perfectly capable of coming up to someone at a cocktail party and talking about their soul,” St. John’s senior faculty member Eva Brann gloated to the Post in response to her institution’s superior grade.

Hopkins fired  back at its ACTA grade: “Everything we teach constitutes essential human knowledge, but that’s a huge range of territory, and we encourage students to make some serious choices about what they specialize in.” This discourse represents the college classroom in two oppressively simplified ways: 1. The college classroom as a space for banking “essential human knowledge”; 2. The college classroom as preparation for stimulating conversation at a cocktail party.  And in doing so, this discourse fails to question its own assumptions of what constitutes this “essential human knowledge” – it wraps itself in what Henry Giroux calls “chauvinism dressed up in the lingo of Great Books” (2005: 19).  But perhaps even more significantly, it says little of how students might engage with this knowledge beyond receiving, like empty vessels, the knowledge that will fill them up and make them interesting enough for that cocktail party.

What do students make of the classroom thus-conceived? When Harvard University began to plan a major overhaul of its general education requirements in 2006, national news media paid attention. The NPR program Morning Edition began a report:

At Harvard, they’re known as the universe through a grain of sand courses, those classes that are extremely narrow and focused, and deep in detail, taught by scholars who’ve spent a career on something like Chinese imaginary space, the rise and fall of the samurai, or gladiatorial combat in ancient Roman games.

One student interviewed in the story—a freshman currently enrolled in the aforementioned ancient Roman games course in order to earn a history credit for his general education requirements—commented: “I mean like, I’m always going to tell my kids I took a class on gladiators, you know? I mean how cool is that? I can’t really tell you why, why this is important.” His classmate, however, responded somewhat less enthusiastically: “[I]t’s maybe actually really fascinating for the professor whose job is to research that particular thing, but it doesn’t necessarily have a relevancy to what the students will be doing in the future.” Or, in words heard many times a day on many a college campus: “When will I ever have to use this?”

For Richard Arum and Josipa Roksa (2011) this question is indicative of the “limited learning” of contemporary undergraduate students. Because college administrators and faculty members allow undergraduate education to slip below research and administrative priorities, academic rigor atrophies, and college students lose out on the support they need to develop skills of problem solving and critical thinking.  In their book  Academically Adrift: Limited Learning on College Campuses, sociologists Arum and Roksa argue that undergraduate students in fact seem to learn very little in college, and that moreover they (Arum and Roksa) can show just how much those undergraduates are learning by bringing their own quantitative data set Determinants of College Learning (DCL)—which surveys over 2,300 full time students at 24 four-year institutions on questions of family background, high school grades, and college experiences—together with scores from the Collegiate Learning Assessment (CLA), a standardized test that analyzes “core outcomes espoused by all of higher education”: critical thinking, problem solving, and writing. These “objective measures” Arum and Roksa continue, will hold institutions accountable and will fight the enemy they have named “limited learning,” or more precisely, the “absence of growth in CLA performance” (122). Arum and Roksa call for testing practices that monitor learning in the college classroom akin to those practices in place for primary and secondary students (55).  But the students who arrive on college campuses have more than likely spent up to twelve years in those very classrooms that are being so thoroughly monitored. Thus college students’ learning experiences –and their ideas about classroom learning — cannot not have been shaped by these monitoring practices.

For sociologist Michael Burawoy, sociology cannot afford not to listen to that question. If sociologists, as educators, are to believe that we make a legitimate claim on students’ time and attention, we must commit ourselves to “relevance” (Burawoy 2004: 14). Understanding this “relevance”, I would argue, necessitates considering – and reconsidering, and discussing – how the classroom connects to students’ lives, and how students perceive those connections. What would you say?

American Council of Trustees Discusses Academically Adrift

Michael Burawoy, 2004 ASA Presidential Address

 

 

Cochlear Implants: Miracle Technology or Cultural Genocide?

Deafness and hearing loss is a condition or state of being whose meaning is contested. The biomedical, or infirmity, understanding of deafness is that hearing loss is a disability that, in many cases, can be cured or ameliorated through advanced technological devices and procedures, including surgery and internal and external prostheses. The newest of these technologies, cochlear implants, can help a deaf infant hear and speak in almost the same way as a hearing person.

As opposed to the biomedical model, a cultural understanding of deafness understands deafness to be a physiological difference around which a rich linguistic and cultural heritage has evolved. The cultural model does not understand deafness as something to be corrected, but rather as a natural, unproblematic state. Deaf proponents of the cultural understanding of deafness identify as members of a linguistic minority and culture group, referred to as the Deaf-world.

It is tempting to reify physical conditions, such as deafness, as “real” biological entities that are outside the influence of social forces. Reification is the social process of attributing absoluteness and naturalness to the purely conventional, and carries with it the risk that reified processes appear to lose their social character. Reification turns human products into something other than human products, such as facts of nature, thereby allowing humans to forget their own authorship of the phenomenon in question. Because of the biological nature of physical abilities such as hearing, specialists and laymen alike forget the purely conventional and social nature of disability classifications, and instead attribute a profound natural power to these categories. As a result of this flexibility, bodies themselves are a highly contested space, in which competing cultures vie for the right to define and sculpt that body. Defining a body as disabled or abled does not occur in a vacuum, nor is it an automatic classification; instead, it is always in contrast to the normal that the abnormal is understood.

In the contemporary era, an adult or child is first identified as hearing or deaf through audiometric testing. In 2006, 96% of American newborns received their first audiometric test within hours of birth (National Center for Hearing Assessment and Management 2009). At the point of being so labeled, an individual or parent is faced with two broad options. They can chose to incorporate the infirmity model of deafness into one’s own world view and, accordingly, seek hearing and speaking correction in an attempt to conform and achieve normality. Those who adopt corrective technologies such as the cochlear implant in an attempt to conform affirm that deafness is in fact a disability that can and should be corrected. Alternately, one can resist the conforming process, thereby resisting the label and the association of deafness as a disability in need of correction.

The affirmation of the infirmity understanding of deafness leads to the search for new and better technologies to address deafness, including stem cell research and gene transfer therapies that aim to ultimately eliminate the birth of deaf infants. This work is done partially to eliminate the stigma of deafness. These advanced techniques, if “successful,” will have the effect of regulating and eventually eliminating Deaf culture, language, and Deaf people altogether. These attempts are seen by those adopting a cultural understanding of deafness as parallel to eugenics or genocide. Although the term eugenics implies the reduction or elimination of deafness through compulsory exogamous marriage and sterilization or through gene therapy, genocide evokes a more active attempt to eliminate a group of people or a culture. The word genocide recalls vast pogroms and systematic killing, however, the slow elimination of a minority group can occur by the destruction of the distinct elements that bind the collectivity, such as language, customs, and art forms. Because the infirmity model of deafness aims to eliminate the need for American Sign Language (ASL), the loss of this language could result in the loss of the culture itself. In this way, language death, or glottocide, can lead to the loss of cultural identity, and may represent the denial of the basic human and civil rights of children to speak their native language.

Perceptions of and Responses to Stigma

Military Brand Olive Oil? The politics behind military enterprise

The events in Egypt prompted renewed attention to the phenomenon scholar Ayesha Siddiqa refers to as milbus (military-business)— military ownership of property and businesses (the Pakistani military peddling cornflakes is a particularly vivid example). Siddiqa’s 2007 book, Military, Inc., provided an account of the Pakistani military’s involvement in the countries economy, including hotels, shopping malls, insurance companies, banks, farms and an airline (see a review here). She defines milbus as “military capital that is used for the personal benefit of the military fraternity, especially the officer cadre, but is neither recorded nor part of the defense budget.”

Some of the most pressing and frustratingly opaque issues during the ultimately successful Egyptian protests involved the military: what role were they playing in the conflict, who was the leadership loyal to, what were their long-term intentions for the country?  There was plenty of speculation, and little definitive knowledge among media observers. A segment on the NPR program Planet Money posited that the military did not violently repress protests at least in part because of their interest in not alienating their consumer base. As Robert Springborg, a professor of National Security Affairs at the Naval Postgraduate School, argued, the Egyptian military was primarily interested in stability during and after the protests in order to protect its businesses. This theory of the army’s behavior relies on the assumption that the Egyptian public both knows which businesses are military-owned, and has other options for buying necessary goods, neither of which I have the sources to address.

After relative stability emerged in the 1970s, and after the 1979 peace treaty with Israel, the military found themselves with many more young men in their ranks than they could keep occupied. So, they developed businesses to employ the former soldiers. The military gave private developers access to the land that served as coastal bases in exchange for shares in the resorts they built there. This was part of a deliberate strategy, developed under Nasser, to have a self-sufficient military. Some estimates put the military’s contribution to the Egyptian economy at 30-40 percent (other estimates claim a more modest 10 percent). A leaked diplomatic cable explained that Egyptian military-owned companies are “particularly active in the water, olive oil, cement, construction, hotel and gasoline industries.”

There are many types of milbus across the world, Siddiqa notes in her book. In countries like the U.S., U.K., France, Israel and South Africa, the military has many ties to civilian business, often mediated by the government, which others have referred to as the “military industrial complex.” In Iran, Cuba, or China, the military has partnered with the dominant party or leader to gain access to capital. And in places like Turkey, Indonesia, Pakistan, Myanmar and Thailand, Siddiqa writes, “the military is the sole driver of Milbus” (I would presume Egypt also falls into this group). In these cases, access to the information needed to study milbus in any detail is hard to come by, due to the secrecy surrounding these deals. (I might add that I can’t evaluate the utility of Siddiqa’s distinctions between the types of milbus here– something to follow up on.) One way in which milbus is not particularly extraordinary, no matter what flavor it comes in, is that elites in particular domains often parlay their influence into privileges in other domains (just ask C. Wright Mills in The Power Elite). The military often provides a trajectory by which individuals can gain access to, for example, leadership in business organizations or ownership of property, around the world.

Why do we (or should we) care about military involvement in business? In the most extreme cases, the financial independence (or near-independence) of a military can mean that it does not feel beholden to either the civilians it is ostensibly employed to protect or to other government leaders. Capital provides a military with a source of power not consensually or legitimately bestowed. Second, as suggested in the case of Egypt, military involvement in markets gives the military a different set of political interests and motivations, and they may act in a way to improve their own economic opportunities. In a diplomatic cable about Egypt from 2008, Ambassador Margaret Scobey wrote “We see the military’s role in the economy as a force that generally stifles free market reform by increasing direct government involvement in the markets.” Siddiqa also points out that the type of military-business relationship found in Pakistan both stems from and reproduces non-democratic “precapitalist” systems where, as historian Eric Hobsbawm describes, “assets are not only accumulated for deriving capital: rather they are acquired for accumulating power and influence.” Siddiqa argues that this fosters patron-client relationships between the military and those with other forms of political power. They end up needing each other.

The Egyptian revolution succeeded in part because it navigated (whether deliberately or incidentally) the military-government relationship. It will be worth watching how this relationship unfolds as a new government is selected.

Read more about the historical role of the military in the Middle East by Gareth Stansfield in the Blackwell Companion to the History of the Middle East here.

Read more about the study of militaries in the Blackwell Dictionary of Modern Social Thought here.



Lara Logan, agenda-setting, and the politics of sexual assault coverage in mainstream media

After CBS released a statement (15 February) that their chief foreign correspondent, Lara Logan, had been, “surrounded and suffered a brutal and sustained sexual assault and beating before being saved by a group of women and an estimated 20 Egyptian soldiers,” news of the unfortunate event (which occurred on 11  February, the day Mubarak stepped down) instantly spread to various mainstream news media outlets, including BBC News (“CBS’s Lara Logan attacked by Egyptian mob in Cairo”) to The Huffington Post (“Lara Logan Suffered ‘Brutal’ Sexual Assault in Egypt“) as well as feminist blogs including Feministing (“When rape is a risk that comes with the job”) and Jezebel (“CBS Reporter Lara Logan Sexually Assaulted in Egypt”). The Committee to Protect Journalists, an organization of which Logan is a current member, released the following statement from CPJ Chairman Paul Steiger: “We have seen Lara’s compassion at work while helping journalists who have faced brutal aggression while doing their jobs. She is a brilliant, courageous, and committed reporter. Our thoughts are with Lara as she recovers.” While sexual assault is an otherwise private matter for most, the CBS statement ended with the following – “There will be no further comment from CBS News and correspondent Logan and her family respectfully request privacy at this time” – confirming that the story was released with Logan’s consent. This story has received so much attention that by 10:07pm MST, The Huffington Post version of the story had been recommended by 4,564 Facebook users and had generated 1,346 comments.

After a review of comments from various posts/articles, it appears that this incident has been received with divergent reader reactions, including worries over the future of female journalists, worries over the worry over female journalists, anger at Egyptians, and anger at Logan for returning to Cairo after she was previously detained by Egyptian authorities. However, aside from reader reactions, other interesting and related questions remain: What are the politics behind releasing this particular story at this particular time? Why was a story about the sexual assault of a female journalist the primary story on The Huffington Post? Is this story being “used” politically? If we take into account the agenda-setting function of media and its notion that “media don’t tell us what to think but what to think about,” this particular story, officially released four days after the assault and during a wave of new protests from Islamic countries, may work to reignite fears about the Egyptian public, anger at Obama for supporting Egypt, fears about protests in Bahrain, etc. and, in addition, may serve as detrimental support for the argument that female journalists should no longer cover dangerous situations. On the other hand, however, this story could bring attention and success to the need to enact policy on the protection of female journalists (based on gender violence, not gender inferiority). According to Feministing’s post: “Doing everything in our power to ensure the safety of women reporters – and supporting them unequivocally when that safety is threatened or violated – isn’t just important on feminist grounds. It’s important on journalistic grounds, too.”

Unspoken: Foreign Correspondents and Sexual Abuse by Judith Matloff (Columbia Journalism Review)

Studying the Sociology of Journalists: The Journalistic Field and the News World by Roger Dickinson

Authors in FOCUS: An Interview with Wayne Brekhus On Cognitve Sociology and the Study of Race

Wayne Brekhus discusses his co-authored article,

On the Contributions of Cognitive Sociology to the Sociological Study of Race

In the interview, Dr. Brekhus answers questions such as:

  • What is cognitive sociology?
  • How did he become interested in the cognitive perspective?
  • Why is it so critical that we study race using the cognitive model?

To listen to the interview, CLICK HERE !!

AND…

After you watch the interview, read the article by clicking here!!

Sociology Lens & WIREs Debate: “Climate change knowledge and social movement theory”

Sociology Lens and WIREs (Wiley Interdisciplinary Reviews) are delighted to present a debate here around the following article:


Climate change knowledge and social movement theory
Andrew Jamison
(Department of Development and Planning, Aalborg University)

The following commentators will be discussing the issues raised in this article with the author using the comments thread below:

Patrick Gilham (University of Idaho)

Maria Kousis (University of Crete)

Liam Leonard (Institute of Technology, Sligo)

You can read the article under discussion for free here.

We encourage readers here to also join in the debate that unfolds below and to comment.

If you have any problems or questions, just email us.

Book Review – Academically Adrift by Arum and Roksa

Bless your hearts, Richard Arum and Josipa Roksa, for calling on institutions of higher education to prioritize undergraduate learning. With Academically Adrift: Limited Learning on College Campuses (University of Chicago Press 2011), sociologists Arum and Roksa argue that undergraduate students seem to learn very little in college, and that in fact they (Arum and Roksa) can show just how much those undergraduates are learning by bringing their own quantitative data set Determinants of College Learning (DCL)—which surveys over 2,300 full time students at 24 four-year institutions on questions of family background, high school grades, and college experiences—together with scores from the Collegiate Learning Assessment (CLA), a standardized test that analyzes “core outcomes espoused by all of higher education”: critical thinking, problem solving, and writing.

Democracy depends upon education that prepares its members for full participation, Arum and Roksa rightly contend. It depends on education to help members develop the critical reasoning and communication on which democratic participation is founded. What’s needed then, they say, are “objective measures” of students’ learning in relation to their social backgrounds and education experiences. Such measures, Arum and Roksa continue, will hold institutions accountable and will fight the enemy they have named “limited learning,” or more precisely, the “absence of growth in CLA performance” (122).

Arum and Roksa claim to “illuminate the multiple actors contributing to the current state of limited learning on college campuses” (120): students themselves, faculty members, administrators, and cultural messages of “college for all” in which the only measure of that access is the college credential that seems to say less and less about college learning. Yet Arum and Roksa remain unclear as to how those actors are positioned within multiple, intersecting systems of power. They remain unclear as to how schools and formal education itself are positioned within those multiple, intersecting systems of power.

Basil Bernstein (1977) and Paul Willis (1977) have discussed in different ways how education is a major force in structuring student experiences –and how the structure and culture of schools influences how students understand their own identities. Clearly passing over the arguments of Willis and Bernstein, Arum and Roksa call for “as much attention on monitoring and ensuring that undergraduate learning occurs as elementary and secondary school systems are currently being asked to undertake” (55). But the students who arrive on college campuses have more than likely spent up to twelve years in those elementary and secondary classrooms that are being so thoroughly monitored. These undergraduate students’ learning experiences and their ideas about learning cannot not have been shaped by these monitoring practices. But any role this might play in Arum and Roksa’s notion of limited learning is never discussed.

Arum and Roksa assume instead that learning is something that can be calculated. And that those calculations exist objectively and without connection to a political context. They assume that skills that can be “mastered” completely for participation in “today’s complex and competitive world” (31) rather than continuously engaged through the sort of “restless, impatient, continuing, hopeful inquiry” that Paulo Freire (1968: 72) envisions. They assume that critical thinking is something that can be “banked” in students by assigning certain numbers of pages of reading and writing and by encouraging students that the most effective means of study is to study alone rather than in dialogue (115-6). Critical thinking as Arum and Roksa present it, is not then about engaging with the world and with others, but rather seems to focus more on the about efficiently “receiving, filing, and storing”  of information.

The data that Arum and Roksa provide on CLA scores tabulated by race and ethnicity reveal that the test on which Arum and Roksa base much of their argument is clearly not so neutral. How is it that Whiteness can correspond to superior problem-solving unless there is something about the way the test conceives of and measures “problem-solving”?

Collegiate Learning Assessment: Mean Scores
(Four-Year College/University Students) 2006

Source: http://www.highereducation.org/reports/pa_aclearning/performance.shtml



Without acknowledging the political location of their own work and of the sorts of practices called for in it, Arum and Roksa present an idea of higher education stripped of imagination and possibility – stripped of the idea that possible futures do not have to look exactly like what is on display today. I whole-heartedly celebrate Arum and Roksa’s desire to make higher education “meaningful and consequential for students” (55), but Academically Adrift is not about engaging students – it rather seems to be about them as containers for holding fixed ideas and as technicians for discrete tasks that some external and allegedly objective entity has decided are definitive measures of critical thought and problem-solving.

More meaningful questions about undergraduate learning would likely not ask how to measure critical thinking or how to create an index of academic rigor. More meaningful questions would likely come from a different starting point: questions that look to students’ classroom experiences, to their broader social experiences, and to the structural contexts and the intersecting systems of power in which those experiences are situated. The classroom can be oppressive or it can be emancipatory. It can be privatized, individualized, compartmentalized – or it can be a place where students question each other and question what they are learning to try to situate it in relation to their world. When the latter is foregrounded, the classroom can be a space of democracy: one where students may come to realize that democratic possibilities don’t have to look like the kinds of democracy currently on display.

Personal Attacks on a leading Sociologist: How Should the Sociological Community Respond to the Attacks on Francis Fox Piven?

Sociologists have known about the work and viewpoints of Francis Fox Piven throughout her career. She is a leader in the field; she has taught at CUNY’s Graduate Center since 1982, helping begin the careers of numerous sociologists; in 2006/07, Piven was the president of the American Sociological Association, and she has won the ASA’s Lifetime Achievement Award for Political Sociology. She is widely published and respected throughout the field, but her renown outside the field of sociology was scant until recently, when Glenn Beck at Fox News began attacking her for an article she co-wrote with her late husband, Richard Cloward, in 1966. The article was titled “The Weight of the Poor: A Strategy to End Poverty” and advocated increased enrollment in social welfare programs.

The attacks on Piven have been personal, and have even led to death threats (New York Times, January 22, 2011). Requests to the Fox News Network to ask Beck to quiet his rhetoric against Piven, lest they inflame viewers to inflict physical harm on her, have reached deaf ears. The network insists that Beck’s attacks do not incite violence, and that comments on Beck’s website that imply readers intend Piven personal harm are not the responsibility of the network.

There are two issues at play here: first, who should be held responsible for the threatening comments made by Beck and his listeners/readers, and second, what should the response by the sociological community be to the attacks?

Beck himself should clearly be held responsible for his own comments, but the Fox News Network, which ostensibly “owns” everything Beck says on his television program, should also be held responsible. And although individual listeners/readers are responsible for their own comments on his website, Beck should take ownership of these, too, by publically condemning comments that appear on his blog that state an intent to physically harm Piven. The blog is Beck’s intellectual property, and he should take responsibility for everything that is written on it, even if not by him. A simple condemnation of all violence against others would suffice.

In terms of what the sociological community’s responsibility is, the ASA issued a press release on January 24th, calling for Fox News to stop Beck’s attacks against Piven. Other organizations have also spoken out: Credo Action has published a petition asking Roger Ailes, the president of Fox News, to stop Beck’s attacks on Piven (see below). Piven is a human being whose right to live in a safe and non-threatening environment is being impinged upon by Beck and those who write on his blog. The ASA’s press release is only the first step towards showing a united front in support of Piven. Sociologists should write and call Fox News and demand that the network take responsibility for Beck’s words and stop broadcasting editorials that threaten the very life of a respected scholar.

Blackwell’s Encyclopedia of Social Psychology: Rhetoric

Credo Action Campaign to stop Piven attacks

Spotlight from Glenn Beck brings CUNY Professor Threats

American Sociological Association calls on Fox News to Stop Beck’s Demagogic Attacks on Piven

The Push and Pull of Multiculturalism in Western States

Saturday, February 5th, British Prime Minister David Cameron spoke at a security conference in Munich. In light of the growing evidence that the United Kingdom has become a “safe haven” for Islamic militants, Mr. Cameron’s remarks strongly criticized Britain’s multicultural approach to the nation’s immigrants. The policy, initiated in the 1960s, recognizes the right of all people in Britain to live by their own traditional values. Many argue that this strategy is responsible for the fractured sense of British identity and lack of social cohesion 50 years on.

While Mr. Cameron is not the first leader to decry European “multiculturalism” – Chancellor Angela Merkel of Germany and President Nicolas Sarkozy of France have both weighed in on the potential dangers- he went so far as to encourage governments to practice less tolerance. Britain’s new leader argued that this “hands-off tolerance” had encouraged Muslims and other immigrants to cut themselves off from the mainstream, creating segregated communities in which extremism can thrive.

The British Prime Minister went on to call for an end to what he perceives to be a dangerous double standard, stating “We have even tolerated these segregated communities behaving in ways that run counter to our values. So when a white person holds objectionable views- racism, for example- we rightly condemn them. But when equally unacceptable views or practices have come from someone who isn’t white, we’ve been too cautious, frankly even fearful, to stand up to them.”

While the Mr. Cameron’s analysis may seem simplistic, it touches upon key spaces of analysis of race, immigration, identity, inequality, and the way that the last 10 years have introduced Islam as a particular factor. In the March 2011 issue of The Sociological Forum, Sociologists, Katja M. Guenther, Sadie Pendaz, and Fortunata Songora Makene explored many of these same themes in their article “The Impact of Intersecting Dimensions of Inequality and Identity on the Racial Status of Eastern African Immigrants.” While the research of Guenther, Pendaz, and Makene focuses primarily on east African immigrants in the American mid-west, many of the theses that the authors operate on serve as interesting lenses for the European multiculturalism debate. (more…)

Old=conservative, young=liberal? Age, Generation, and Voting Patterns

We now find ourselves in a unique media period: after the midterm election digestion, and before every news outlet begins twenty-four hour coverage of the 2012 election. So, this seems like a good time to talk about age-related voting patterns.

One of the most striking observations about the composition of voters in the midterm election was how few young people turned out, relative to their numbers in 2008. In 2008, about 18% of the voters were under thirty; about 16% were over 65. This time around, those under thirty made up closer to 11% of voters, and those over 65 made up closer to 23% of voters. (For context, the under 30 figure is close to the 2006 midterm participation of voters under 30 which was 12%– younger people do not relish midterm participation.) A widely circulating idea was that if young people had voted in the same proportions in 2010 as they had in 2008, the Democrats would not have suffered the magnitude of the defeat that they did. Underlying this statement was an assumption that younger people are more liberal and are thus more likely to vote for Democrats, while older people are more conservative, and thus more likely to vote for Republicans. This assumption prompts a question: are younger people are more likely to vote liberal because they are young, and when they age, they too will become more conservative (what demographers refer to as an “age effect”), or are they more likely to vote liberal because they belong to a new generation of voters which is at its core more liberal than previous generations were at that age (a “cohort effect”). (Another possible cause for differences in voting patterns is an event that affects everyone regardless of age (for example, 9/11), in a similar manner– a “period effect.”)

So what empirical evidence is there regarding the relationship between age and voting patterns? (I focus on research on the nature of how people vote over their lifetimes and across generations, instead of whether they vote, for which there is also a large literature.) The evidence is not definitive, at least in part because of the both geographical and temporal variety of the data used, and the lack of longitudinal data, but in general, the time during which you grew up (your generation or cohort) matters quite a bit for your later voting patterns.

There is limited support for the idea that voters necessarily become more conservative as they age.  Instead, most argue that much of the difference between older and younger voters should be attributed to cohort effects; people who grew up during a certain period (e.g. during the depression and WWII) are more likely to be conservative than those who grew up during a different period (e.g. post-WWII affluence) (see Braungart & Braungart 1986). Most likely, the effect age and generation on voting proclivities are interactive. Big events affect how age and generation matters: the voting patterns of individuals in eight post-Soviet countries in the elections of 1989 or 1990 reveal disproportionately conservative (in the sense of preserving the status quo) voting among older voters.  Younger voters, even wealthier younger voters who presumably enjoyed the benefits of previous Leninist regimes, selected change-oriented political parties at a much higher rate.  Schatz (2002) argues that this finding is due to a generational effect during the profound political transition; the effects of the Communist-era socialization of older voters were magnified in the context of the rapid social change.

Like many things, the effects of age and generation on voting patterns may not be consistently predictable and may differ by political context. A study comparing the voting patterns of British and West German voters in data from 1958 to 2002 finds a more nuanced picture that takes into account the nature of the electoral system. Goerres (2008) argues that age and generational effects are not alone sufficient to explain the voting patterns of older voters, because the extent to which these factors matter depends on the nature of the electoral system in which they participate (he discusses dealigned and proportional electoral systems in particular). (For reference, the study does not find evidence that voters choose more economically conservative parties as they age.)

What of the state of affairs in the U.S.?  A 2008 report from the New America Foundation uses data trends from 1972 on voting and political identity and finds a general age effect in previous generations where voters become more conservative as they age, but argues that there is a cohort effect for the “millennial” generation (which they define as those born between 1980 and 1986) such that millennials are substantially more liberal than earlier generations were at the same age).  For the effects of this generational shift, stay tuned…

Read more about determinants of voting behaviors here: Fabrigar & Krosnick on VOTING BEHAVIOR, in The Blackwell Encyclopedia of Social Psychology