Monthly Archives: November 2011

Brain and Behavior

New scientific evidence, prompted by the invention and diffusion of new technologies, often stimulates a period of social reckoning: what does this new evidence mean for our existing beliefs and practices? Can they be reconciled or must something be profoundly rethought? The explosion of neuroscience research, much of which uses functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI), is no exception. Findings in the early 1990s led to the development of fMRI, which measures change in blood flow in the brain based on neural activity, and which has transformed the fields of neuroscience, as well as the study of cognitive and social psychology. Recently, there has been a new round of inquiry by scientists and writers into the philosophical and legal implications of the biological basis of behavior: is there free will? What can individuals be held responsible for? How should our legal system deal with this evidence? Much of the buzz, both by writers and scientists, about new findings from neuroscience has more than a whiff of determinism; the physical brain seems to drive much of behavior, an immutable device in control of our bodies and decisions. (A more nuanced discussion of the meaning of free will and its connection to neuroscience is here.)

Sociologists Will Kalkhoff, Joseph Dippong, and Stanford Gregory, Jr. in their Sociology Compass article “The Biosociology of Solidarity,” make two interventions regarding the role of neuroscience in the social sciences: first, social scientists should take findings from neuroscience seriously (as others including Freese et al. 2003 and Massey 2002, have argued about biological evidence in general) in order to understand the mechanisms underpinning large social processes such as social solidarity. Second, the brain should be seen as a “dependent variable whose structure and function is strongly influenced by sociocultural factors throughout adulthood” (942); the goal of “biosociology” (not to be confused with sociobiology) is to understand how the interaction of biological factors and other types of factors produces behavior.

In order to understand solidarity—feelings of interpersonal connectedness or membership—we need to understand what happens physically when individuals interact with one another, the authors argue. Small-scale processes involving the brain within interactions affect the feelings we have about the interaction, and the other person or people involved. The authors take Simmel’s proposition that “society is the result of ‘countless minor syntheses’”(945) as a starting point, and marshal evidence, for example, that we adjust the rhythm and tone of our voice in conversation to match the other person. When these nonverbal vocal cues are eliminated, the quality of the interaction declines (Gregory 1983; Gregory et al. 1997). Electroencephalogram (EEG) recordings indicate that during interactions, skeletal muscular electrical activity between individuals becomes synchronized (Condon and Ogston 1967). (Recent work using fMRI by neuroscientist Uri Hasson suggests a parallel finding: the pattern of neural response of an individual listening to another person tell a story becomes similar to that of the storyteller. The more neural coupling there is between the listener and the storyteller, the greater the reported comprehension of the story.) I would also throw in the large literature on the role of mimicry in interactions, an excellent of review of which is here.

Importantly, when we treat synchronized brain activity as a mechanism by which interactions might improve or deteriorate, the role of the brain becomes non-deterministic. The question becomes whether or not synchronicity is achieved, and if so, how it changes the interaction. The implication is that when quality of the interaction is improved, the possibility of feelings of solidarity increases. (This line of inquiry parallels that of Randall Collins, who calls the feelings and motivation generated in interaction “emotional energy,” and theorizes that the affect and emotional energy produced in interactions scales to larger phenomena because social life is a concatenation of “interaction ritual chains.”)

The authors discuss three areas of brain research they find particularly intriguing for sociologists in general, but especially for sociologists interested in coordination and cohesion, or failures thereof: mirror neurons, nonconscious cognitive processes, and neural plasticity. Mirror neurons fire both when an individual performs an action, and when the individual sees others perform that action. As such, they facilitate understanding of joint action as occurs in interactions, and may be implicated in what we call empathy. Cognitive processes that proceed below our conscious awareness, often referred to as automatic processes, are a much larger part of our psychological life than we may realize. These nonconscious processes may be particularly relevant to how we perceive and adapt to others in interactions. And finally, scientists have known that the brain adapts to its environment at many levels, from neurons and synapses to entire cortical regions, but recent findings have demonstrated neural change and growth well into adulthood.

At least part of the “biophobia” around incorporating biology into social science is due to the lingering scars from historical claims with political implications: social Darwinism, eugenics, intelligence testing. New evidence regarding the plasticity of the brain in adulthood provides fertile ground for exploring the feedback mechanisms between the brain and social context that avoids these older, deterministic approaches.

Will Kalkhoff, Joseph Dippong, and Stanford Gregory, Jr. 2011. “The Biosociology of Solidarity.” Sociology Compass 5: 936-948.

(Image from Art off the grid)

 

The New Wave of Deterrence and its Internalization

The notion of deterrence has no doubt become a mainstay in criminal justice for understanding and preventing criminal activity. Today’s use of deterrence highlights its influence seeing that its principles can be traced to the work of Cesare Beccaria in 1764. Reflecting the utilitarian framework, he noticed that citizens give a measure of their freedom to the government so that it can enforce agreed upon laws to keep the public safe and secure (social contract). Beccaria, reacting to the harsh conditions of punishment of the time, argued That the government’s prevention of crime should be seen as worthy, if not more so, than punishing crime.

Later, Jeremy Bentham (1789), in effort to progress this thinking, formalized deterrence theory. He, similar to Beccaria, proposed that as the (1) celerity, (2) certainty, and (3) severity of punishment increase, crime would decrease. While each were thought to enhance the deterrence aspect of punishment, all three were considered necessary so long as they were employed fairly. By viewing individuals as rational actors, Beccaria and Bentham posit that criminality would occur less once individuals calculate in these principles of deterrence and punishment.

More recently, scholars have noticed that the perception of certain punishment is most influential for reducing crime (Paternoster, 1989). While improving due process and intensifying criminal sanctions may enhance swiftness and severity, increasing certainty is a bit more problematic. So, the question then becomes: How does the criminal justice system enhance the perception of certain detection and punishment of criminal activity. Traditionally, this has translated into tightening criminal statutes, intensify crime control efforts, and building more prisons. However, this has been less than effective and scholars are starting to take note of conditions that may be altering the very principles of deterrence and how it is carried out. (more…)

The Morass of Corruption

When Indian anti-corruption activist Anna Hazare went on an indefinite hunger strike last April in Delhi, his main demand was the passage of legislation (the Jan Lokpal bill) creating an independent body to address public corruption. The hunger strike lasted only four days, as the Indian government agreed to re-introduce the bill in Parliament. (The bill has yet to be passed.)

Hazare is the most public face of an active social movement regarding government corruption in India that has included conferences, investigations and judicial action, formal complaints, and protests. Many middle class Indians, who are often considered politically apathetic (I don’t know whether or not this actually the case), have participated in the protests; their participation is seen as representing serious public will behind anti-corruption measures. (The organization behind many of the events over the last couple of years, India Against Corruption, has U.S. branches in many states, including New Jersey and New York.)

But, despite the ostensibly pro-social goal of reducing and eventually eliminating corruption, there is skepticism regarding both the bill and the movement around it. Novelist and activist Arundhati Roy has argued that because the anti-corruption movement is funded by the World Bank and private foundations (e.g. the Ford Foundation) presumably in the interest of promoting international commerce, the motivations behind the movement are suspect. (Hazare has also received money from right-wing Hindu nationalist groups.) Additionally, she argues, the bill creates a “panel oligarchy” of ten non-democratically chosen elites. Others have questioned the exact nature of the body created by the legislation, to whom it is accountable, the extent of its judicial powers and its relationship with the courts, and whether it is extra-constitutional.

Both the public demonstrations in support of anti-corruption measures and the criticism of the Jan Lokpal bill illustrate just how serious, and how slippery, a problem corruption is. It is slippery on many fronts: hard to define, hard to measure, hard to change.

Take the recent example of ticket fixing in the New York Police Department. Police officers routinely changed the parking tickets of their friends and family members so that they did not have to pay the fines. In the aftermath of the charges, several former police officers have discussed how widespread, common, and accepted this practice was for several decades. They discussed how their superior officers demanded that they fix tickets for individuals from powerful constituencies, or the City Council staff members. Not only were police officers not charged for doing this, but they were occasionally punished if they did not participate. Of course, what the officers were doing was explicitly illegal; some might see their actions as violating moral codes of conduct, while others might argue that it was a simple perk of the job to which they were entitled. (One might debate why these officers are being prosecuted for ticket fixing at this point in time, given that ticket fixing was a common practice for so long; perhaps because so many officers were involved and the evidence was particularly strong, perhaps because some officers were involved in other criminal activities (the initial investigation was launched in response to a report that an officer was protecting a drug dealer), or perhaps because the revenue source provided by parking tickets is now more important to the city than previously because of the recession.)

The ambiguity around the example of ticket fixing (if indeed you see any ambiguity) illustrates sociologist Mark Granovetter’s argument in his paper, “The Social Construction of Corruption,” that the local meanings and norms attached to transactions are very important in understanding and defining corruption. A good deal of social scientific writing on corruption focuses on how individual incentives make corruption more or less likely, Granovetter notes. In these accounts, the creation of such incentives and the social and cultural apparatus supporting such incentives is often neglected. Plenty of types of transactions can be codified as illegal, but if the individuals involved in the transactions see them as legitimate, as part of the rights and rewards of an organizational position or role, then they will be very difficult to change.

For example, few people would consider bringing sweets and other gifts to employees of an archive in Egypt in order to facilitate access to documents to be bribery. Instead, they understand these behaviors as part of the local context in which gifts to officials are basic norms. Local context, and individuals’ perceptions of the prevalence and social acceptability of transactions, are essential to both understanding what is locally considered corruption, what effect certain forms of corruption may have, and how to change corrupt practices. We call transactions we consider illegitimate corruption; but determinations of legitimacy and illegitimacy depend on a good deal more than general moral standards. This is not to argue for extreme relativism regarding corruption, but to point out that there is a lot of ambiguity in practice in the transactions that take place between officials and non-officials. (See Granovetter’s paper for a number of great examples and a nuanced discussion of how the relationship between transaction partners (the status differences between the individuals involved) and the social context of transactions (market vs. network-based), in addition to different standards for embezzlement and bribery, contribute to the sense of transactions as legitimate or illegitimate.)

Each year, Transparency International puts together a “Corruption Perceptions Index,” a country-level measure of perceptions of the “misuse of public power for private benefit” using a variety of surveys of the opinions of individuals involved in business or performance assessments from analysts. In 2010, India received a score of 3.3 on a scale of 10, similar to China, Greece, and Peru (all with scores of 3.5), above countries like Iraq (1.5), Sudan (1.6), Russian (2.1) and Paraguay (2.2), and below countries like Turkey (4.4), Malaysia (4.4), Poland (5.3), and South Korea (5.4). But the measure is subject to a good deal of criticism for a lack of standardization, incomplete data collection across countries, and changing methodology between years which makes it hard to compare across years. Two critiques are more fundamentally damaging, however. One argues that by virtue of whose opinions and analyses are included in the index, the perceptions index captures mainly the perceptions of (often Western European and American) business elites. Not only might these individuals use particular definitions of corruption, but presumably they are focused on corruption in areas related to conducting business; they are likely unaware of corruption in other areas of life. Another critique points out that there is evidence that perceptions of corruption and the actual experience of corruption are very different—this measure does not take into account the impact of corruption on everyday lives and without that, it is difficult to understand exactly what consequences corruption has. The experience of corruption of the type where telephone company workers demanding additional payment for installing a telephone line might be very different, and have different political consequences, than governors offering senate seats for a fee, to take a not-so-hypothetical example, or when local officials require international corporations to use a particular local construction company.

In addition to these problems of definition and measurement, there the additional issue of the political use of corruption charges. As historian William Gould reminds us, charges of corruption have been utilized strategically for political purposes in India, in particular during periods of rapid political transition as during the first General Election of 1951-52. Corruption charges have been wielded in the service of questioning the role of government and current leaders. (Gould also has an interesting discussion of the legacy of the British colonial bureaucracy in shaping corrupt transactions in India. Gould writes, “conditions of colonial rule by a western power in India largely exacerbated certain forms of corruption, by basing power on particular kinds of authoritarian administrative structures. These structures allowed a whole range of public servants to effectively allow corrupt transactions to continue, since government was not accountable.”)

These issues drastically complicate understanding corruption as people experience it, and tackling those transactions between officials and citizens that are most harmful to individuals’ lives.

For more corruption-related readings, see:

Globalization and Corruption.” WARNER, CAROLYN. The Blackwell Companion to Globalization. Ritzer, George (ed). Blackwell Publishing, 2007  OR Corrupt Exchanges: Empirical Themes in the Politics and Political Economy of Corruption. Della Porta, D. and Rose-Ackerman, S. (eds), 2002.

(Photo by Pushkar V)

Illness or Deviance: A Contested Space Between Criminal Justice and Medicine

Foucault wrote that the nineteenth century ushered in a new way to inspect the body; recognizing that medical personnel had placed the patient under “perpetual examination” (1975). His interest, however, was on the discourse that produced, maintained, and extended the medical look or “gaze” (1975). The “clinic,” for Foucault, became an apparatus of examination; a site of knowledge production bound by rules and regulations. It became an authoritative institution where the individual became the object of scrutiny (Long, 1992).

Following Foucault, there can be little doubt that the medical field has garnered power and authority in today’s society. Its utility and influence can be found in school immunizations, sports-related physicals, annual check-ups, seasonal vaccinations, yearly shots, and the like. However, as Conrad (2007) notes, this is only part of the picture. He, among others, proposes that the medical field has grown beyond shots and treatment; those in the medical profession now have the authority to define and/or redefine once thought non-medical issues as medical conditions. (more…)

College Students and Social Media: Making Meaning of Everyday Activities in the Classroom…

When Harrisburg University in Harrisburg, PA attempted a week-long social media “blackout” in September 2010, national news media swarmed the campus. A “smartly dressed correspondent from NPR stalk[ed] the staircase,” the Chronicle of Higher Education reported, and as soon as the Chronicle itself spirited away some students for an exclusive interview, a reporter from the Associated Press came barging in. “Oh no—not another one,” one student cried out. Another, weary, explained with a sigh that he had just finished begging off the BBC.

In the end, the Chronicle headlined the outage as more of a “brownout” than a “blackout,” and NPR corroborated that conclusion with sound bites from students describing increased text messaging and some tenacious hacking. Even Jimmy Fallon jumped in on the analysis in his late-night comedy show, quipping: “Check this out: A college in Pennsylvania is blocking computer access to social-networking sites for an entire week, and then requiring the students to write an essay about the experience. Yep. The essay will be called, ‘We all have smart phones, dumb-ass.’” Nevertheless, campus officials declared the experiment a success with in-house surveys revealing that 33% of the private university’s 822 students reported feeling less stressed during the week of the outage and 21% stating they’d spent more time doing homework. These were happy fringe benefits, however, as the primary objective of the project had been somewhat more metaphysical—encouraging students to “push, prod, question and generally explore social media.” Or, as one speaker invited to campus during the week of the ban put it, to encourage dialogue around the question of:

“Why are we posting on Facebook? Why are we sharing, why are we disclosing in this way and for what purpose? Many people are already in the habit of, ‘I have to go post on Facebook, I have to go see what’s happening, I have to update my status.’ Why? You don’t have to…”

Last year I asked my Introductory Sociology students to approach this discussion from a different starting point—starting with how they actually used social media—and how they were using it to make and share meaning in their daily lives. For 24-hours, students recorded their social media interactions in written logs, describing what they did (texting, updating a status, sending a message, posting a photo, commenting on a photo, “liking” a comment, replying to a comment, tweeting, re-tweeting, and so on) and the context in which the action took place (home, dorm room, living room, classroom [alas!]), and reflecting briefly on what they felt about the interaction at the time (for example: “I hate that picture of me, so I untagged it”). I compiled the logs into a “data package” that they could read and reflect on before coming together in groups to discuss what they saw as emerging themes—meanings that they seemed to share about how they and their classmates were using social media in their daily lives.

What follows—with many thanks to my students!—is one approach to that oft-repeated wail of “WHY! Why are students posting/ tweeting/ texting status updating?” But social media use doesn’t happen in a vacuum. It happens in a social context. Structures, disciplinary practices, cultural understandings, and interpersonal relationships shape interactions in any context. For these students, the classroom stood out as one particular context that created a need for social media use. In my own research, I argue that this is because power relationships shaping the classroom have informed students’ understandings of the classroom as a private place, a place where individuals need to “take in” information, but don’t necessarily get to connect to their own experiences, interests, and concerns while they are there. This social environment facilitates a sense of boredom among students.

Social media use during class was one of the most commonly observed themes from the data I collected (over 20,000 words of logs—and approximately 30 groups of students over the course of 3 semesters!). In the examples cited below, this theme is presented and described by students Christi G., Ellen N., Clare B., and Robby B. Particularly, these students point to the connection between their use of social media and boredom in the classroom.

Boredom During Class
(by Christi G., Clare B., Ellen N., and Robby B.; SOCY100 Spring 2011)

Often times, people get bored during class, but there are many different reasons for this. One of the more common reasons is because the professor lectures in a very quiet and monotone voice, which puts people to sleep. Another cause of boredom is general lack of interest in the class, such as someone taking a core elective that they aren’t actually interested in. Social media is sometimes seen as the answer to boredom in class, but could also be the problem. Social media is seen as a good answer to boredom, because it can be a small time commitment or an activity for the whole class period. People can talk with their friends rather than listening to lectures. Lectures are isolating because you sit and try to write everything down, and social media lets people connect with other people. Also, in large lecture halls, there is probably someone nearby on Facebook doing something potentially distracting. The person on Facebook is probably using it because they are bored with the class and looking for something to do. Another reason for being on Facebook during class would be that there’s some kind of very exciting event or conversation taking place that you want to take part in.

Example 1:
11:42am – Trying to focus in Econ but I can’t. Text other roommate telling her how boring econ is

Example 2:
12:15pm – Hopped on Facebook because I was bored in class.

Example 3:
12:00pm – I was in biology class. This class just gets boring almost every day, so I pulled out my cell phone to check if someone texted me. No text message, so I initiated a text conversation with a guy friend.

Example 4:
BBMing [Blackberry Messaging] my friend “Chris” because I am bored in [the library].

Example 5:
10:00 AM- playing wordmole on my blackberry during a very boring STAT [statistics] class.

Example 6:
12:15 am: Hopped on Facebook because I was bored in class.

12:30 am: Checked my Twitter for any mentions and @ replies from the Party tweets I put up earlier on the weekend.

12:43 am: Mentioned my roommate in a tweet that fried him up for putting up so many tweets in like 5 min. when u needs to be studying. I put it up on twitter and facebook so that everyone else would notice and fry up my roommate also.

12:45 am: My roommate replied back to be asking where am I at because Twitter can be used as a person to person communication medium.

12:48 am: I reply back with a [Tweet] “at class bored” because no one uses direct messages in college.

Example 7:
10:00 am class starts and I wish I had my laptop to keep me entertained

Example 8:
2:24 pm I hear my phone buzz but am doing a group project and don’t want to be rude so I ignore it

2:40 pm class is almost over and another member of the group checked his phone so I check mine. My cousin, A, texted me about her college visit to Ohio State and how she is jealous of our warm weather since it’s not as nice there. I have another text from C saying she fell asleep outside where I left her but is feeling better

Example 9:
8:01 PM- Bored in Physics class so I end up playing games on my phone

Example 10:
1:02pm: I texted my boyfriend during class because it was extremely boring and I needed something to occupy my brain. (Don’t worry…it wasn’t SOCY!) We texted for the rest of class and I don’t remember anything from lecture.

***
In short, when students examine their uses of social media sociologically, they reflect on their own identities, the social contexts in which those identities have developed, and the interactions that take place in those contexts. Through their reflections and dialogues via social media, they construct, share, and evaluate knowledge. These processes become particularly visible via social media. But when students reflect on their lived realities in their school work, sometimes they can become visible in the classroom too.

Engaging Sociologically with Students’ Facebook Usage

It’s the middle of class. Looking out into the classroom, a dim light reflects on students’ faces as they stare or type into the devices in front of them.  Walking up and down the aisles, blue-tinted Facebook pages on the students’ screens are usually the source of the reflected light.

While such students might seem withdrawn from the class, this familiar scene holds a potential goldmine of sociological exploration and examples.

If these students are already intently interested in, or “studying” the profiles and usage of their friends and themselves, why not engage them to do so via in-class assignments and beyond? The setting seems ripe for investigation on topics like presentation of self, production of identities, symbolic boundaries, and social interaction of all sorts.

Some sociology departments anchor courses in such investigations. According the article “College Offers Facebook Sociology Course,” Nell Vidyarthi explains,

As a student, I was always amazed by the abilities of students to simultaneously “pay attention” and browse Facebook, but a new course from Bowdoin College in Maine brings Facebook into the course load.  Entitled “In the Facebook Age”, the course analyzes sociological concepts and applies them to the emerging phenomena of Facebook and other social networks.  The course itself is fluid, and its material responds to the changes that occur every day in the social sphere.

Other sociology courses could find ways to weave their themes and concepts into things that could be analyzed by using Facebook (as long as bias and investigation are incorporated into such assignments or discussions). With the many facets and pieces of information we all provide for each other via Facebook and the time our students already spend interacting through it, it seems absurd not to engage them to sociologically utilize the time they spend there.

 

 

 

 

In what ways do you or others engage sociologically with students’ Facebook usage?