Monthly Archives: July 2012

Physician-Assisted Suicide: A Topic of Growing Importance

Source: Seattle Municipal Archives

In recent years, debates have swirled over whether or not physicians should be allowed to hasten the death of their incurable patients. Although the Hippocratic Oath forbids medical doctors from prematurely ending the lives of their patients, questions still remain over how physicians should respond to the needs and to the wants of terminally ill individuals. Although the legality and ethics surrounding assisted suicide have been pondered since antiquity, these issues were brought to the forefront in the U.S. during the early 1970s with the arrival of the pro-euthanasia movement. The goal of this movement was to increase the rights of people with terminal illnesses and to give these people more control over their destinies (Menon 1991). Since this time, physician-assisted suicide (PAS)—which Schroepfer (2008)defines as the event wherein a physician provides a competent, terminally ill patient with a prescription of lethal drugs—has become increasingly recognized as a phenomenon deserving of more attention. (more…)

On Civil Litigation, Part 1: Narratives About Plaintiffs and Lawsuits

Author’s Note: This post is the first in a series that looks at the civil justice system and various narratives about lawsuits. Today’s post uses a well-known 1994 case, Liebeck v. McDonald’s Restaurants, as a starting point to discuss a few of the more common ideas surrounding tort litigation.  

Poor Stella Liebeck. All she wanted was a cup of McDonald’s coffee. The 79-year old woman certainly never intended to become famous, or infamous, depending on which versions of the narrative prevail. In any case, Stella got her cup of coffee, along with extremely painful 3rd degree burns on her thighs and groin, which required hospitalization and skin grafts to correct. Ms. Liebeck never disputed that she spilled the coffee on herself while trying to add cream and sugar; McDonald’s never disputed that the coffee was served at temperatures between 180 and 190 degrees (approximately 82 to 87 degrees Celsius for our non-American readers). An Albuquerque jury awarded Ms. Liebeck $160,000 in compensatory damages, primarily for medical expenses, and $2.7 million in punitive damages – an amount reduced by the judge to $480,000 and reduced further still on appeal, before settling on an undisclosed amount.

The above story is the (very) short version; the details of Ms. Liebeck’s case have been thoroughly documented elsewhere. For film fans, the HBO documentary Hot Coffee (2011) is worth a look, while those interested in a more academic analysis should check out Chapter 6 of William Haltom and Michael McCann’s Distorting the Law (the entire book is well worth the read). But it would be nearly impossible to discuss narratives about civil litigation without at least mentioning Ms. Liebeck, whose case ignited major debates over personal injury lawsuits and tort reform.


Colorblind Racial Bias and the Courts

After a New Jersey Supreme Court ruling, jurors in the state of New Jersey will now be asked to consider problems regarding the reliability of eyewitness identifications.  The new court-mandated jury instructions warn jurors, among other things, that, “research has shown that people may have greater difficulty in accurately identifying members of a different race.”  Judges must now ask jurors to “consider whether the fact that the witness and the defendant are not of the same race may have influenced the accuracy of the witness’s identification.”  The acknowledgement of race and racial bias in criminal proceedings may have effects beyond the role of witness testimony.

When a judge asks a jury to consider the unconscious racial biases of witnesses, s/he may, in effect, encourage jury members to not only examine the reliability of eyewitness testimony but also examine their own biases.  When people consider how race affects their evaluations of information, they create an opportunity to challenge racial biases. (more…)

Summer TV and Critical Disability Studies

Source: Wikimedia Commons

Characters with “disabilities” are being more regularly depicted in entertainment media: The lead character of House suffers from chronic pain and walks with a limp; Glee has characters with Down’s syndrome, severe OCD, and mobility restrictions requiring wheelchairs; Perception has a schizophrenic crime-solving professor. And, this coming October, Turner Classic Movies will be showcasing some 20 movies featuring disabilities and disabled characters in a series the channel is calling “The Projected Image: A History of Disability in Film.” While not all depictions of minority groups in the media are necessarily good—in fact, we generally must be quite vigilant about how the media represents socially marginalized individuals—it has been nice to see an uptick in the visible presence of the differently-abled. Exposure through the media can help to normalize identities, bodies, and ways of being that seem abnormal or foreign.


“Real Moms” and Embodied Pregnancy.

Recently, it seems as though every newspaper and headline in the media includes the words,“diet, new regimen, or lose ten pounds instantly.” The amount of media reports can prove to be very confusing, problematic, and undermining of the larger health issues at hand. In 2010, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention issued a report titled “Obesity Trends Among U.S. Adults Between 1985 and 2010,” which offers an interactive map and state-by-state breakdown of obesity rates in the United States.

Source: Our Baby News

According to the CDC, “no state has met the nations Healthy People 2010 goal of lower obesity prevalence of 15%.” Research also indicates that more than half of all women in the United States are overweight or obese (Mehta, et al. 2010). The increase in obesity rates has further garnered attention from television producers. Americans seemed to be intrigued with stories of weight loss, with millions tuning into watch weight loss shows like, “The Biggest Loser”, MTV’s “I Used to Be Fat”, and “Extreme Makeover.” For many, then, it would seem that obesity rates and unhealthy lifestyles are important, if not entertaining, social issues. But when does all of this become unhealthy? How do individuals perceive weight loss goals, and do they vary by race, class, and gender?


On the Colorado Shooting

I feel compelled to write something about the shooting that occurred last night in Aurora, Colorado. I have nothing planned or scripted to offer, nor any profound sociological analysis designed to provide insight into why events like these happen. Likewise, I will neither use this moment to propagandize about supporting gun control, nor engage you in some hyperbolic ideological debate about the causes of mass homicide like you will probably find on all of today’s cable news outlets. Instead, I will simply write that everyone at Sociology Lens offers our condolences to the victims, their families, and the entire University of Colorado-Denver community.

Fiction in the Sociology Classroom?


Source: Sense Publishers

This summer, I tried something new with my sociology of gender class. Rather than assigning a traditional textbook or a reader, I had the class read a work of fiction based on social science research (along with a few topical nonfiction works). I was nervous to see if my students, who are used to big lecture halls and multiple choice tests, would feel comfortable discussing the novel and would come away from the class with a better understanding of the social scientific themes embedded throughout the text. But my fears quickly went away. In fact, the discussions the work of fiction inspired were some of the best of the semester.

My sociology of gender class read Low Fat Love, a social science fiction novel by Dr. Patricia Leavy. This novel is based on the author’s many years of research about pop culture, women’s identities, self-esteem, and body issues. Leavy introduces the reader to two female protagonists, Prilly and Janice, who work together at a publishing house in New York City. Both Prilly and Janice struggle with their jobs, their relationships, and their senses of self.  Prilly is a bright young woman with a promising job. Despite her many accomplishments, Prilly’s self-esteem is easily derailed by (and maybe even at times, dependent on) her relationship with Pete, a guy who actively avoids commitment.  Janice also has unfulfilling relationships, particularly with her husband, her son, and her extended family. To compensate, she throws herself completely into her work and even tries to sabotage other women by setting unrealistic expectations for them to achieve. To the outside world, Janice may seem hardworking and driven, but inside, Janice is quite sad and lonely.


The State of Oklahoma vs. Female Offenders: Vengeful Equality at Work?

Source: Andrew Bardwell

In January 2010, 24-year-old Patricia Spottedcrow was arrested for selling $31 worth of marijuana to a police informant from her home in Kingfisher County, OK. Because her children were home at the time, Spottedcrow was charged with possession of a dangerous substance in the presence of a minor in addition to being charged with distributing a controlled substance. Since she had no prior criminal record and since the amount of marijuana sold was small, Spottedcrow elected to enter into a blind plea before the judge, meaning that she pleaded guilty without a prior sentencing arrangement. To her shock, she was then sentenced to 12 years in prison and assessed approximately $2,740 in fines. Although most first time drug offenders in Oklahoma receive suspended sentences and some are ordered into treatment, Spottedcrow was treated much more severely. For the wife, mother of four, and former nursing home employee, the foreseeable future looked grim and bleak. (more…)

Woody Guthrie Turns 100: The Folk Icon, His Music, and Social Movements

Woody Guthrie, with his guitar and iconic sticker reading “This machine kills fascists.” Source: Wikimedia Commons.

Two days ago marked what would have been the centennial birthday of iconic folk artist Woody Guthrie (1912-1967), perhaps best known today for his classic “This Land is Your Land.” His biography is a fascinating (and short) read and provides some context for the scathing social commentary in many of his 100+ songs. Much of his music is raw, simple, and emotionally charged – just a man and his guitar. But it was also forged in his own contentious politics and experiences traveling the country in the 1930s – a time when economic and environmental disasters (the Great Depression and Dust Bowl, respectively) ravaged the country making breadlines, Hoovervilles, and civic unrest easier to find than a decent job. Guthrie’s music may reflect that era but many of his songs, especially the anthems he wrote in support of the labor movement and other protest music, remain well-recognized and relevant today.

As sociologist William F. Danaher (2010) shows, music can be a key component of social movements that “[provide] a means for solidarity around shared causes and resistance from those who prefer the status quo.” Danaher reviews the literature and identifies four ways that music may aid a movement: fostering collective identity, staking out space (which may be physical or social), invoking emotion, and acting as a cultural resource. For brevity’s sake I focus only on the first two, but encourage readers to look through the article. Nevertheless, taking a closer look at just a few of the songs in Guthrie’s catalog lends support not only to Danaher’s argument but also Guthrie’s legacy as a musician and activist.


“Deserving” and “Undeserving” Welfare

Over a decade since the 1996 welfare reform bill, welfare is in the news again.  The latest controversy is over laws that seek to limit what welfare recipients can spend money on.  This comes shortly after state legislatures passed laws to require drug testing of welfare recipients.  These new laws are not a direct attack on what remains of anti-poverty programs in America.  Instead, these initiatives allow for both a deserving and an undeserving poor.  A moral evaluation of the poor, however, contributes to the notion that poverty as an individual failing rather than a social problem.   (more…)