Monthly Archives: March 2011

Sexting and the Criminalization of Teen Desire

The New York Times recently ran an expose on teen “sexting” as a part of a slew of recent articles on the topic. Unfortunately, this article failed to take into account the fact that teens, especially girls, have sexual desire. A couple of quotes from the article:

“Having a naked picture of your significant other on your cellphone is an advertisement that you’re sexually active to a degree that gives you status,” said Rick Peters, a senior deputy prosecuting attorney for Thurston County.

Perhaps, but what about the fact that the teen might want to enjoy the photo for themselves, too? Inner-desire is continuously ignored in the article in favor of the view that teens (again, especially females) engage sexually in order to please others.

“You can’t expect teenagers not to do something they see happening all around them,” said Susannah Stern, an associate professor at the University of San Diego who writes about adolescence and technology. “They’re practicing to be a part of adult culture,”

Teens do not need anyone to tell them to play show-me-yours. More than practicing for when they get older, teens are also attempting to explore and enjoy their sexuality in the present. It is not just adults who have sexual desire. In fairness, the New York Times did run another article that quotes teens on the topic, who are clear that sexting is the result of desire. So, why do most articles dismiss this fact?

I can accept that culture influences sexual behaviors, I am a sociologist, but to not even bring sexual desire into a conversation about sexting is erroneous. Acknowledging teen sexual desire should be at the center of how to deal with the issue of sexting moving forward. We should be promoting sexual agency, not dismissing it. Better than shaming teens is to start a conversation around how to best express themselves sexually at their age.

There are consequences to this perspective that views teen sexual behaviors as not stemming from desire but instead only as something taught. Adults too often feel they can simply squash teen sexuality through shaming and even criminalization. A scenario described in the article and that is occurring all too often is that teens are being escorted from school in handcuffs, locked up and forced to register as sex offenders simply because they shared nude photos with a significant other their own age. This over-reaction demonstrates Michel Foucault’s point: that by seemingly ignoring teen sexual desire, we’ve only succeeded in turning it into an obsession.

Declining Racial Segregation and Racial Inequality

“Many US Blacks Moving to South, Reversing Trend” reads a recent headline from the New York Times.  This article evokes more than a reversal of geographic mobility as it cites a “New South.” This article follows, an article from a few days earlier entitled, “Black and White and Married in the Deep South: A Shifting Image.” Based on 2010 Census data, these articles suggest an America where the reversal of racial migration flows and long-standing taboos may signal an end to racial inequality.

Other recent articles have noted that suburbia, the once all-white enclaves that allowed its inhabitants to hoard resources gained in a discriminatory labor market, are now places where new immigrants settle and an emerging black middle class embraces home ownership.  The population shifts and more fluid racial boundaries that allow a growing number of people to identify as “mixed race” are encouraging signs. Certainly growing segregation and hardening racial boundaries would be unwelcome.

While these articles qualify as “good news”, I am both skeptical of the perennial overarching claims about the “end of racism” as well as concerned because the factors which continue to perpetuate racial segregation and its negative impacts still require attention. (more…)

Excellent Teaching…

Bill Gates’ address to the National Governor’s Association last month was an ode to excellent teaching. Except that it wasn’t.

What we have to do, Gates chirped (to the tune of former DC Public Schools Chancellor Michelle Rhee), is “measure, develop, and reward excellent teaching…We have to identify great teachers, find out what makes them so effective, and transfer those skills to others.”

But excellent teaching –as sociologists Lori Dance (2002) and Sarah Lawrence-Lightfoot (1984) have shown through their research, and as engaged students and teachers everywhere have long known and felt–excellent teaching is about deeply human and humanizing relationships. Excellent teaching is about knowing students as people, knowing where they are when they enter the classroom.

In her classic The Good High School, Harvard Distinguished  Professor Lawrence-Lightfoot studies urban and suburban, public and private, privileged and underfunded high schools around the Northeast and Midwest and finds that the one recurrent quality of good teachers is that the good teacher knows his or her students and is engaged in an ongoing practice of reflecting on each student and the students’ needs and acting to try to meet those needs. The good teachers, Lawrence-Lightfoot finds, never stop asking self-critical, self-reflexive questions about their practices in the context of student needs.

Lori Dance’s Tough Fronts, an ethnographic study of Black adolescent boys from low-income communities articulates similar insights. The boys’ most frequent lament about school, Dance observes, is the short supply of teachers who believe in their ability to excel in school – and who show that belief through their willingness to act as mentors and friends, their constant show of (tough! not gushy) empathy and caring, their recognition of the pressures the boys face, and their ability to call students’ bluffs on “hard” postures. The students with whom Dance works are full of praise and ready to learn from and put forth effort for the teachers who are sensitive their needs both in school and out. In other words, the teachers who know students – and who show every day that they want to know students – are the teachers whom students acknowledge to have made a crucial difference in their lives.

Students’ understandings of themselves as students are inevitably shaped by the experiences that they have in school. If teachers and administrators relate to them as test scores, then their ideas about what they can achieve and how they can achieve it will be limited to achievement as pre-defined by the test. As a learning specialist at one “high-achieving” in education scholars’ Linda Valli and Robert Croninger’s (2009) study Test Driven confesses: “I don’t always know them by face, but I know them by data.” Compare that with findings the State of North Carolina and Duke University’s Project Bright Idea: treating every student as a “gifted” student makes students perform like gifted students. The good teachers are the ones who have taken the time to understand what it takes to help students want to share and develop their gifts in the classroom.

Gates has conflated measuring with understanding. And he’s not alone. Michelle Rhee gained fame for talking this talk and walking this walk. And the District of Columbia’s new Chancellor Kaya Henderson, is not entirely willing to concede the relationship between good teaching and the number of students with whom a teacher needs to work to develop relationships (aka “class size”). It would make measuring and transferring the skills of “effective” teachers so much easier if it didn’t.

Taking real humans and real human relationships out of a process is always going to crank out efficient, predictable, calculable, controlled “results” (see McDonalds). But alas teacher-student relationships are not efficient, predictable, calculable or controllable. They can’t be transferred from one technician to another because what makes those relationships “good” and “effective” is not a static, moveable quality. The goodness comes from a relationships sustained by on-going engagement, self-reflexive questioning, and willingness to be for and work with another. Another human being.

Efficiency, Predictability, Calculability, and Control: George Ritzer’s McDonaldization

Authors in Focus: Sophia Nathenson discusses her article, “Critical Theory and Medical Care in America: Changing Doctor–Patient Dynamics”

 

In this edition of Authors in Focus, Sociology Compass author Sophia Nathenson discusses the utility of critical theory for understanding the  doctor-patient relationship, as well as some of the broader issues in health care today.

Listen to the informative interview by clicking  HERE…

And then read the article by clicking here

 

Movements against nuclear power

The threat of a nuclear crisis in Japan has summoned pro- and anti-nuclear power debaters to the streets (over 200,000 Germans across the country participated in anti-nuclear protests last week), and to online outlets (“nuclear power” showed up in over 76 millions websites last week, compared to 1.87 million websites during the same period last year). Several countries, including Germany and China, have suspended plans for nuclear power expansion.

There is a striking amount of variation among countries in the use of nuclear power for electricity, and this variation does not simply map onto differences in resources and technological training: for example, France has 58 nuclear power plants while Germany has 17.

Status of Commercial Nuclear Power Plants Globally, data updated May 2009

The factors accounting for this variation are abundant, and enough to fill several volumes. One interesting variable, the indications of which have seen in Germany, is the presence and relative success of anti-nuclear social movements across countries. Various scholars (e.g. Samuel Walker in his book on the Three Mile Island crisis) have suggested that these movements have been important in shaping nuclear policy (for a more comprehensive account of how social movements effect policy across issues and countries, see Marco Giugni’s book, Social Protest and Policy Change; he argues that political opportunity structures, public opinion, and issue type shape the impact of a social movement on policy outcomes). So, why are Germans particularly organized against nuclear power at this moment? Why do we not see similar protests in the U.S., where there are over five times as many nuclear power plants?

First, some background on the use of nuclear power globally. As of January 2011, there were 442 nuclear power reactors in the world, almost one fourth of them in the United States, the largest consumer of nuclear energy in the world. Based on 2005 data, the U.S., Japan, and France accounted for 56.5% of all nuclear power used internationally (measured in terawatt hours). Nuclear power provides about 75% of electricity in France (a figure topped only by Lithuania, which derives over 76% of its electricity from nuclear, according to I.A.E.A. figures in 2010), and about 20% of electricity in the U.S. in 2009 . In contrast, there are only 6 nuclear power plants across all of Africa, South America, and the Middle East.

The anti-nuclear movement, unlike other types of social movements, has the feature of being periodically reinvigorated around extreme, potentially cataclysmic disasters such as at Three Mile Island, Chernobyl, and the Fukushima Daiichi plant. In explaining the presence and success of anti-nuclear movements, a number of analysts have pointed to the importance of political opportunity in shaping the nature and success of those movements. Political opportunity (or political opportunity structure) theory has provided a central framework for understanding social movements broadly. This approach argues that the nature of social movements (e.g. what kinds of claims are made, what types of relationships between people or organizations are forged, what tactics are utilized) and the impact of a movement on policy depend on features of the political environment (e.g. the extent of state capacity, or the relative distribution of power in a political system) in which people are mobilizing.

Christian Joppke (in his book, Mobilizing against Nuclear Energy) argues that part of the difference between anti-nuclear social movements in the U.S. and Germany can be attributed to the political structure of the countries. The multi-level and fragmented nature of the U.S. political structure allows for new issues to arise, but often dilutes their strength, while in Germany, an exclusionary state structure facilitated a more unified movement. Koopmans and Duyvendak (1995) compare responses to the 1986 Chernobyl disaster in Germany, France, the Netherlands, and Switzerland, where Germany was the only country with a substantial increase in the number of anti-nuclear protest events. They argue that the objective conditions (how much radiation the countries received after the disaster) had no bearing on anti-nuclear mobilization in the countries. Instead, the state of anti-nuclear movements and the political landscape in those countries at the time, in addition to the ability to control interpretation of events, drove differences in the response to Chernobyl. The authors conclude that political opportunities– especially the distribution of political power– determined the degree of success of anti-nuclear movements in the 1960s and 1970s, which influenced later movement mobilization.

The social movements literature reminds us of all the intermediary steps between complaints and successful mobilization to address those complaints. Political opportunity structure and control over the interpretation of recent events in Japan may be most important in determining what shape anti-nuclear protests in the U.S. take now.

 

Read more about political opportunity explanations of social movements in the Blackwell Companion to Social  Movements here.

 

The Problem with “Failing Schools”

Most states define “failing schools” as those with a certain percentage of students scoring below grade level on state tests.  In other words, a failing school is a school with a large percentage of failing students.  However, since no politician would define the problem as “failing children,” the debate centers around “who is failing these students and why is that failure concentrated in certain schools?” (more…)

Problem Solving Courts

In mid February 2011 The Guardian newspaper published an edited version of David Faulkner’s contribution to the United Kingdom’s Centre for Crime and Justice Studies’ report “Lessons for the Coalition” which was written in response to the first report of the National Preventative Mechanism – a new body set up under the optional protocol to the UN convention against torture. The National Preventative Mechanism’s report highlighted problem areas in the UK’s approach to mental health, resources, vulnerable groups such as women, children, those with disabilities and those who misuse drugs or alcohol, the size of the prison population and the right to dignity.

Mr. Faulkner’s contribution to the Lessons for the Coalition report asks, specifically, what can be done to improve the criminal justice system in a time of austerity? He highlights the shift in approach to criminal justice in terms of expected outcome. He charts a shift from moderation and restraint in the use of punishment to also making the system fairer and work better rather than also working to understand how to solve the problem of crime through more effective policies. He notes that despite some overall improvements, “there is still confusion in the courts, especially over sentencing; a prison system in constant crisis; and continuing demand for reforms in the police and penal system.”

In an effort to move forward in criminal justice improvements in a time where the funding for a variety of public policies is under scrutiny, Faulkner discusses the emphasis on partnerships and collaboration between government departments, local authorities, statutory services and the private and voluntary sectors. In this way, rehabilitation can continue to be a central focus but with greater consolidation of efforts through collaboration rather than the bureaucratic duplication of processes. However, he is also careful to point out that there are some important gaps that will need to be tended to- particularly in the connection made between rehabilitation and the social conditions enabling crime to take place, including deficiencies in other areas of social policy.

It is precisely this gap that concerns sociologist Rebecca Tiger. In her article “Drug Courts and the Logic of Coerced Treatment”, published in the March 2011 issue of the Sociological Forum, Tiger examines how scientific theories couple with moral considerations to create a more “enlightened” approach to the incredibly complex problem of addiction. In examining the model of coerced treatment through drug courts Tiger highlights the rehabilitative and repressive approaches that characterize the criminal justice system in the United States. (more…)

IBM’s Watson on Jeopardy! Blurring the Line between Humans and Technology

To the left is a 1917 portrait of Thomas J. Watson, founder of IBM. A few weeks ago, IBM debuted its latest supercomputer, named after this giant of innovation (Watson), on the TV game-show Jeopardy! Though it seemed as though Watson was standing in between the two other competitors on the show, as Jeopardy! provided the computer with the same electronically-equipped podium as the other contestants, and even wrote “his” name on said podium, the brains behind this powerful supercomputer capable of answering complicated trivia questions, in fact, looks a great deal like the computer to the bottom left, one of the original IBM machines from the 1960′s. Like this primitive machine, Watson is monstrous, though certainly more “brilliant” than the room-sized machine that was too cumbersome for anyone to actually own as a personal item. Watson roundly defeated former Jeopardy! champions. Though I won’t dare pretend to be schooled enough in technology to delve into the details of Watson’s inner workings, I’ll summarize for the purposes of this piece by saying that the machine functions by recognizing key words and concepts, much like a human being, when faced with the need to process information at top speed.

While there are myriad issues of interest here, I’d like to propose that we think about the presentation of machines as something with human qualities – specifically, the use of human names to talk about machines – and what that does to the perception of machines. Consider the Mars rovers, Spirit and Opportunity, who were not named to seem particularly human. Nonetheless, the rovers were often described as adorable, or cute, and people truly feared for those little rovers, and mourned them when they ceased to respond to signals from earth, allowing their human friends back in the control room to assume they were longer functioning, or, had died. Naming these machines, making them look like human beings (with human-body-like features), makes it easier to think of them as people. For more information on sociological work or this nature, see Janet Vertesi’s work. Just as many people have, for decades, named their vehicles, people name their computers, cell phones, ipods, etc. But a computerized Jeopardy! contestant with the same name as the IBM founder, that (or who) buzzes in to answer questions, and uses word recognition to do so (however imperfectly) is a new step in blurring the line between human and machine.

Though Watson has a human name, it doesn’t have a face or a body or any “real” human characteristics. The Time Magazine article linked below suggests that computers are rapidly becoming more capable of human-like functioning. Millions of people tuned in to watch Watson live and online after the show, but what if this were a life-like “being,” something that, for all intents and purposes appeared human?What if Watson were a human-looking machine connected to a room full of technology rather than just an empty space behind a podium with a mechanical-sounding voice? Lev Grossman of Time Magazine explains:

“…if computers are getting so much faster, so incredibly fast, there might conceivably come a moment when they are capable of something comparable to human intelligence. Artificial intelligence. All that horsepower could be put in the service of emulating whatever it is our brains are doing when they create consciousness — not just doing arithmetic very quickly or composing piano music but also driving cars, writing books, making ethical decisions, appreciating fancy paintings, making witty observations at cocktail parties”

If there is a likelihood that the line between the human and the computer might become rapidly blurrier as we hit a new threshold with this kind of advancement – the ability to create machines that seem very human – might the feeling of threat increase? Watson was exciting and intriguing to most people, but not scary. What about if we were not able to tell the computer apart from the human quite as easily? What if, as Grossman suggests, computers could actually be smarter and just as (if not more) capable than humans? How might this change the nature of humanity? The nature of technology? The nature of social interaction?

IBM – Watson

Watson’s Jeopardy Win…What Did we Discover?

2045: The Year Man Become Immortal

Technology, Philosophy of – in The Blackwell Encyclopedia

Lessons learned from Hollaback!: On the development of social networking sites for qualitative research

While social networking sites such as Facebook and Twitter have gained global notoriety for their influential stake in recent political movements, a recent article in the New York Times has shed light on another form of new media praxis that includes neither a “like” button nor a hashtag. The article, titled “Keeping Women Safe Through Social Networking,” brings attention to the success of an organization called Hollaback!, a project that, according to the website, “is a movement dedicated to ending street harassment using mobile technology.” Hollaback! began as a blog in 2005 and by 2010, has become an organized movement that includes various city-based sites covering areas such as Buenos Aires, London, and Portland, Oregon. Emily May, the organization’s current executive director, partnered up with Oraia Reid, executive director of the New York City-based RightRides for Women’s Saftey, “to launch a mapping project that would allow folks to map their sexual harassment experiences in real time for the first time in history.” If an individual experiences sexual harassment, the website offers three ways to share their story: through a phone application, email (through phone or computer), or submitting the story on the website. The ability to send in a story through an individual’s mobile device allows for instant reporting and allows the user to send in a picture of either the site or the perpetrator, or both.

Through its function as a database for collecting personal accounts of sexual harassment, Hollaback! is a project that is working toward not only awareness of these offenses, but their eradication as well. By contextualizing each incident through mapping, Hollaback! visually tracks reported offenses so that users can witness their material nature. According to the website, “By collecting women and LGBTW folks’ stories and pictures in a safe and share-able way with our very own mobile phone applications, Hollaback! is creating a crowd-sourced initiative to end street harassment. Hollaback! breaks the silence that has perpetuated sexual violence internationally, asserts that any and all gender-based violence is unacceptable, and creates a world where we have an option – and, more importantly – a response.” While the website does not offer a detailed strategic plan in terms of ending street harassment, it appears that their database will serve as evidence for policy change or the updating of current laws regarding sexual harassment. Along with larger plans for social change, the site offers a sense of immediate community for women who have experienced sexual harassment while alone on a business trip, traveling, or any other number of unfortunate experiences. (more…)