Monthly Archives: March 2012

Embracing Civility or Intensifying Deviance….A Dialectic?

As prior posts may express, my attention has been gripped by the motivations and experiences of those engaged in deviant activity. More specifically, it is not major crimes under consideration but rather the marginal acts of expression and resistance – tagging, unsanctioned extreme sports, controversial fashions, and the like. While trying to empathetically understand the ‘deviant’ perspective, it seems this perspective is often dismissed as delinquent and nothing more, void of any further value. As scholars have often noted, this sentiment can be found along a rising fear of crime, profound sense of insecurity, and a perpetual need to safeguard against any act symbolizing little more than a threat to public order (see Garland, 2001; Hudson, 2003; Simon, 2007). This post then asks whether the practices and policies aimed at enhancing and maintaining civility are, in turn, provoking unrest, rebellion, resistance, and upheaval. (more…)

Disembodied Racism and the Search for Racist Intent: The Trayvon Martin Case


Photograph by: Red Huber , Orlando Sentinel/MCT

The Trayvon Martin case has become a national media event complete with competing individual evaluations, competing definitions of racism and competing blame narratives.  In these “racial events,” Americans propensity for individualistic analysis coalesces with America’s racialized culture in order to produce a mix of individual evaluations and sweeping claims about racial groups and the institutional privileges and disadvantages of different racial groups.  In my experience, this process reinforces many of the flawed ideas about race that sociologists regularly debunk and challenge. (more…)

Portrayals of Overweight Characters in Television Sitcoms: Implications for Obese Individuals in the General Society

During the periods of 1991 and 1998, obesity increased by 50 percent in the United States and at similar rates in other regions of the world. In 1993 alone, over 300,000 premature deaths were attributable to poor diet and inactivity. Obesity is a grander factor in chronic health problems, such as heart disease, diabetes, and hypertension among adults and children than smoking, poverty, or alcohol. The ramification of obesity directly affects one’s physical health and has profound implications for the social and emotional well-being of the overweight individual (Greenberg, Easting, Hofschire, Lachlan, & Brownell, 2003; Himes & Thompson, 2007; Whyte, 2010; Fouts & Burggraf, 2000).

Obese persons are more likely to be targets of negative stereotypes and treated with disrespect. Social bias and discrimination against these persons could culminate in poorer access to health care, education, and employment (Greenberg, Easting, Hofschire, Lachlan & Brownell, 2003). Targeted persons may feel reluctant to seek certain social and health services because they are sentient of their weight and may believe that they will be discriminated against by health officials (Greenberg, Easting, Hofschire, Lachlan, & Brownell, 2003; Whyte, 2010). This is not a preposterous supposition given that according to a national survey, some primary care physicians felt that overweight persons are lazy and non-compliant to treatment (Whyte, 2010)


Some critical thoughts about “critical thinking”

The two professors sat in front of me, making conversation before the talk. The speaker’s title slide already projected on the wall ahead: “What (if anything) are undergraduates learning during college?” The professors laughed at just how apt they thought the title was: “Isn’t that right?” “Yes, anything, please!” And then the more senior faculty member, a female, returned with a comment that made her junior colleague bristle: “Especially the boys. Some of those boys just try to get by with the minimum possible.” The junior colleague sat silent, and then spoke with sharpness spiking into the buoyant mood of moments before: “Well that was me in high school. But the thing is, I was just bored to tears.” His senior colleague stopped chuckling to nod, knowingly.

The slides belonged to Josipa Roksa, a co-author of the 2011 sociology/media sensation Academically Adrift (with Richard Arum) and of its 2012 follow-up report, “Documenting Uncertain Times: Post-graduate Transitions of the Academically Adrift Cohort.” The premise of the talk, as the premise of the book and the premise of its sequel, was that undergraduate students are not improving their critical thinking skills in college, that this claim is sustained by the failure of a putatively representative sample of 2,362 students at 24 four-year institutions to increase their average score on standardized tests of critical thinking, and that this failure in critical thinking is affecting them negatively in the labor market and in civil society (as indicated by the percentage with full time employment or graduate or professional school status, and by self-reported newspaper-reading habits).

The primary instrument with which Arum and Roksa document students’ drift away from critical thinking is the Collegiate Learning Assessment (CLA), a self-described “authentic assessment” or “test worth teaching to” developed by the Council for Aid to Education, non-profit organization created by a group of “enlightened business leaders” for the purpose of

…promot[ing] a better understanding of the substantial contribution which higher education makes to the effectiveness, skill, growth, and success of American business, and to the development of the country.

CLA claims to present test-takers with “real-life” scenarios, to which students respond in writing rather than multiple choice. Arum and Roksa (2011: 21-22) share an example: “You” are an assistant to the president of “Dynatech,” a company that wants to purchase a plane. But the model of plane Dynatech President Pat Williams wants to purchase was recently involved in a crash. “You” are charged with the assignment of writing a memo using news articles, consumer report data, and reports about the sorts of accidents it has encountered. You are to advise Pat Williams whether or not Dynatech should purchase the plane.

This “real-life” scenario begs the question for whom is this real-life? This is not a rhetorical question. The ways in which I make meaning of the scenario and my response to it are likely to be shaped by how I relate to “Dynatech”: am I really an employee, as the scenario dictates? Can I imagine a future as an employee? Can I imagine a future somewhere similar? Am I imagining a future somewhere else, concerned with quite different decisions? Or am I, like that junior faculty member sitting in front of me at the Research I institution where Roksa gave her talk, “bored to tears” by this test? And if so, is this instrument an adequate measure of the way I think and an adequate provider of feedback to the people – the faculty – who are supposed to be supporting me as I develop my thinking?

Engaging thinking means engaging people – their identities, their experiences, their imagined futures. Indeed, Arum and Roksa are correct that an ability to perform the sorts of tasks the CLA asks students to do is a necessity and an asset in what education scholar Lisa Delpit calls the culture of power. Equity in education, Delpit argues, calls for equipping students for success in the culture of power – while valuing and building on the cultural identities and resources they bring with them to school, especially when those identities and resources may be ignored, or even derogated by the culture of power. What happens when schools and teachers are asked – demanded, even – to focus solely on the culture of power without coming to know, and to draw in, and engage and develop, the resources students carry with them?

In documenting the “uncertain times” of the college graduates that Arum and Roksa identify as “academically adrift,” the authors observe that the students with stagnant CLA scores during college are more likely to be the young adults living at home after college, or not reading newspapers, or not finding full time jobs. What the authors do not observe is the extent to which their results speak to patterns of social reproduction – in which those whose home cultures are deeply tied to the culture of power are also those who perform best on the “real-life” abstractions of the CLA and are those for whom reading a newspaper constitutes a more legitimate form of civic engagement than reading a blog or a Twitter stream. Yet coverage of the murder of high school student Trayvon Martin did not trickle into the print of major newspapers until after weeks of deeply, civically engaged blogging and tweeting and talking and petitioning.

What Arum and Roksa count as “critical thinking” matters, no doubt. But it seems that the inequities in college learning about which they claim concern persist because they are so often relegated to the spaces akin to those that Arum and Roksa do not count, spaces of lived experience and meaning making through which one man can understand his being “bored to tears” as a sign of academic worthiness, and through which another might feel he’d be better off drifting out of academia. Again, engaging thinking means engaging people. So when it comes to assessing thinking, I say we need relationships before we need measurements, and when we measure, we need to do so in dialogue with those real, human relationships. But I hope you’ll share with me: what do you think?

Toward a Quantified Life?

Recently, I have been thinking a lot about how much of our lives are being captured and translated into numbers, percentages, and statistics. It seems that no matter where one turns, some aspect of our social life is being measured quantitatively. Of course, this is not a new phenomenon – things like age, weight, body mass index, intelligence quotient, height, and physical aptitude scores have been with us for some time now. However, it appears that this movement to quantify and measure aspects of our social life and then translate them into numbers and statistics has increased with great haste; perhaps resembling a juggernaut out of control. While gaining acceptance among many circles and embraced as a way to better one’s life, this movement as often been termed as the ‘quantified self’. (more…)

Investigating Female Delinquency: The Role of Gender Construction

The shared hypothesis that delinquency—by far and wide— is a male phenomenon is an erroneous conception. Even though males have historically been recognized as violent perpetrators and females as passive and non-threatening victims, the increase in female violence and gang membership has become a cause for concern in several cities across the country. There has been marginal emphasis placed on females’ involvement in crime and delinquency due to entrenched stereotypical notions of females as “biologically incapable” of committing certain heinous acts; the lack of attention to female involvement in delinquency stems from the interpretation of their involvement as petty indignities or as a form of rebellion during the  adolescence stage. However, social scientists are cognizant, based on statistical evidence, that this is not the case. In fact, females’ involvement in delinquency and other forms of crime bespeaks a far greater problem than what has been purported. According to the Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention, “Between 1985 and 2008, the number of delinquency cases involving females increased 102% (from 222,800 to 449,700 cases); for males, the increase was 29% (from 932,300 to 1,203,600 cases). The average annual growth in the female caseload outpaced that for males for all offense categories between 1985 and 2008. In 2008, more females were responsible for person and property offenses than males” (OJJDP, 2008, p.12-14).


The Legitimation of Deviance: Examining the Role of the State

Knee deep in studying for comprehensive exams, the literature has drawn my attention toward (1) how an illegal activity can have a legal counterpart, and (2) how a deviant activity becomes socially acceptable and celebrated within mainstream culture. As examples, there is skydiving and its illegal counterpart of base jumping; wall murals and their illicit sibling of extravagant graffiti; or the ‘world’s fastest growing sport’ of MMA versus the back-yard-brawls caught on tape. While the actual activity performed for each legal-illegal example above may be similar (free falling, spray-painting, fighting) with the end purpose being the same, there is a distinction between which is allowed and which is deemed deviant and illegal. This development, the creation of legal and illicit phenomena, highlights an important trend: that is, the power of the state and market working on culture through a dialectic process.

Prior research has examined capitalisms tendency to package social phenomena for mass consumption/popular culture. Although this position is instructive, it does little to observe the formal mechanisms of the state in this process. For instance, sociological and criminological scholarship has tended to overlook the legitimization/legalization of deviant activities. Perhaps there are nuances being missed – a nexus that exists between the state and market. In essence, this post highlights a perhaps false dichotomy existing between the state and market. More consequently, it considers the role that legalizing and commercializing forces played in ensuring the survival of once ‘deviant’ activities. (more…)