Monthly Archives: September 2012

The Social Construction of Scientific Knowledge: The New AAP Policy on Male Circumcision

The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) recently released a revised policy statement regarding male circumcision. Unlike previous policies on the issue, this one got a lot of media attention, probably because male circumcision itself has been in the news more than usual. The past few years have seen increasing mobilization against male circumcision (for example, intactivists (the term activists fighting for genital integrity have given themselves) tried to ban the practice in the city of San Francisco last year, though the attempt was unsuccessful). And the surgery gained some global attention this year after a German court ruled that it constituted grievous bodily harm against a minor. Many national governments and religious groups/leaders spoke out against the court ruling, the court’s decision has caused many to think a bit more about neonatal circumcision.

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Progressing from game theory to agent based modelling to simulate social emergence

This article discusses some of the fundamental flaws in game theory and discusses agent based modelling as a successor to model social emergence.

Axelrod (1984) made a major contribution to Game Theory in his book “Evolution of Cooperation” but thirteen years later he, dissatisfied with game theory, moves onto agent based modelling to rework his view of cooperation in his book in 1997 “The complexity of Cooperation: Agent-based Models of Competition and Collaboration”.  In a similar move, the Santa Fe Institute in the US was established in 1984 to grapple with complex social issues and used agent based modelling amongst other techniques to “collaborate across disciplines, merging ideas and principles of many fields — from physics, mathematics, and biology to the social sciences and the humanities — in pursuit of creative insights that improve our world”.  Additionally, the EU acknowledges the failure of traditional economics so adopts agent based modelling.

Agent based modelling captures the interaction between agents to simulate emergence whether at the physical or social level. NetLogo  provides an extensive library of simulations of both physical and social emergence that shows the diversity of application of agent based modelling.  These sample simulations can be readily tailored to meet the needs of social scientists.  The software is free and there is a thriving enthusiastic community support group.

Why is there a move by a prominent game theorist, the Santa Fe Institute and the EU to agent based modelling?  The article Game Theory as Dogma by Professor Kay (2005) discusses ample reasons to search for alternative techniques to model competition and collaboration  and emergence in general.  For instance.

The trouble with game theory is that it can explain everything. If a bank president was standing in the street and lighting his pants on fire, some game theorist would explain it as rational. (Kay 2005, p. 12) (more…)

Feminism and Migration Studies

Source: http://www.unescap.org/sdd/issues/migration/migration.asp

The relationship between gender and migration is a hot topic in the social sciences and humanities. Increasingly, more books and articles, as well as conferences and working groups of scholars, tackle how gender intersects with migratory processes. For example, I am part of a group of 2011 Social Science Research Council (SSRC) Dissertation Proposal Development fellows, all of whom situate their work in the field of “gender and migration.” The rise of this type of work can be attributed to the acknowledgement of feminist theory in mainstream social sciences and humanities. In terms of this particular field, scholars recognized that works on migration had a masculine bias; the research overlooked women’s experiences. In response, we have seen a proliferation of works that address both male and female (though mostly female) migrants and the gendered components of their movements.

Yet, despite the increase in these works, Stephanie Nawyn, in her 2010 Sociology Compass article Gender and Migration: Integrating Feminist Theory into Migration Studies , explains that mainstream sociological migration studies has not fully acknowledged a feminist theoretical perspective. Most works from the mainstream describe the economic motivations and push/pull factors of migration; these are topics that surely have a gendered component, but few works adequately incorporate gender into their analyses. In fact, Nawn explains that we still know very little about why people migrate (theories of migration) and how migrants improve their social statuses (theories of assimilation) from a feminist perspective.

Nawyn’s discovery is not surprising. This is certainly not the first time that scholars have pointed out that feminist theory is missing or undervalued in sociology. Stacey and Thorne’s article, The Missing Feminist Revolution in Sociology, comes to mind. But what I found most interesting about Nawyn’s article was her suggestion for future directions. Rather than looking at gender as an individual status or attribute, she suggests that scholars analyze gender as “a system of power relations that permeates every aspect of the migration experience.”

How might migration scholars move past conceptualizing gender as a binary variable measuring an individual’s status to analyzing gender as a system of power relations? Nawyn suggests that ethnographic work is particularly useful for parsing out gender as a dynamic concept that shapes experiences of migration at the structural and individual level. But Nawyn is not convinced that ethnographic research is enough. She also wants quantitative research with large scale, macro data sets. While quantitative researchers generally utilize gender as a binary variable (measured as male or female, man or woman), Nawyn would like to see researchers take a feminist approach when designing their studies. For example, a feminist perspective predicts that the presence of children will have different impacts on men’s and women’s migration experiences. Since childrearing is a gendered phenomenon, men and women will have different responsibilities and roles with regard to their children, and thus men and women will have different earnings in the migration process. A feminist perspective would allow researchers to choose appropriate variables and ask the right questions when investigating gender and migration.

Nawyn, therefore, suggests that we need better survey research on gender and migration. I am not a survey methodologist and so I am curious to know how other people think that we can achieve Nawyn’s call for analyzing gender as a system of power relations through macro-level quantitative analysis. What questions could a researcher ask to achieve Nawyn’s goal?

Suggested readings:

Donato, K.M., D. Gabaccia, J. Holdaway, M. Manalansan IV, and P.R. Pessar.  2006.  “A Glass Half Full?  Gender in Migration Studies.”  International Migration Review 40(1): 3-26.

Hondagneu-Sotelo, P. 2011. “Gender and Migration: An Overview from a 21st Century Perspective.” Migraciones Internacionales 6(1): 219-233.

Cantu Jr., L., N. Naples, and S. Vidal-Ortiz. 2009 The Sexuality of Migration: Border Crossings and Mexican Immigrant Men. New York: NYU Press.

Bystander (Non)Intervention: What Separates the “Doers” from the “Ignorers”?

Angel Arce Torres shortly after being hit by a car.
Source: Hartford Police Department via Associated Press

It’s the type of story that we too often hear on the news. In 2008, 78-year-old Angel Arce Torres tried to cross Park Street in Hartford, Connecticut. Before he could make it across, a car driving on the wrong side of the road hit him. The driver left the scene of the accident as the elderly man lay bleeding in the middle of the street in the notoriously high-crime area. Nine other cars then drove around his body and it took about 40 seconds for bystanders to leave the sidewalk to get a closer look at Torres. About a minute later, a police officer in the area saw Torres and called for an ambulance. Before the officer’s arrival, four people had called 911 although no one directly came to the victim’s aid. It was later found that Torres had been paralyzed from the accident; he ended up dying from his injuries about a year later. He never left the hospital. (more…)

Yes, You Are a Statistic

I can no longer stomach certain clichés.  Last night at the Democratic National Convention, I heard one of these.  A university student, who introduced Dr. Jill Biden, wife of the Vice-President, noted that she “shouldn’t be here” and was “almost a statistic.”  My immediate response, to my computer screen, was “You still are a statistic and you don’t understand what statistics are.”  I know that she was just rehashing a cliché, but it is a cliché that privileges “self-help culture” and undermines social science.

To be fair, by this point I had listened to a number of speakers say little to nothing of substance for over an hour and was not in the best of moods.  Still, the defiant tone of “I didn’t want to be a statistic” and  “I shouldn’t be here” treat social statistics (not the social reality but the reporting of such statistics) as some form of oppression from which she, with the help of Dr. Biden, freed herself. (more…)

Vote. Seriously, go vote.

Source: Wikimedia Commons

Four years ago, President Obama was elected, at least in part, because he was able to generate excitement among young voters. In fact, in 2008, some 84% of young people who were registered to vote actually did vote. But recently, I’ve noticed growing apathy among some in my social media circle. While I can’t be certain that my facebook “friends” are representative of today’s young people, this trend on my newsfeed has caused me some concern. Gallup polls also indicate that young people are reporting a lower likelihood of voting in this election than in previous ones. Not good.

Voting is one of our most important rights. That should be reason enough to vote, to protect a fundamental freedom that many have fought for. The year 1869—that’s when black men got the right to vote. It’s been less than a century since women secured the right to vote. Less than 50 years ago, Congress declared poll taxes unconstitutional, removing limitations on poor people’s ability to exercise their voting rights. It has been a long road, but voting rights are now a reality for most American citizens (though, admittedly, there are still serious flaws in our system). And now, instead of seizing that right in significant numbers, my generation is thinking about saying NO to voting. Here’s the explanation I’ve heard from friends: “Why should I vote when my choices are both bad?” “What’s the point of voting, it’s all corrupt.” “If we don’t participate in this flawed system, we can send a message that we want it to change.” “How do I pick the lesser of two evils?”

I understand people’s disappointment and their desire for something different. But not voting is a privileged action, not a revolutionary one. What do I mean by privileged? I mean that the option of not voting is only viable if you have a certain amount of power in our society. Generally speaking, not voting might seem like an option to middle (and upper) class, white, heterosexual, American-born men. For them, the election may not seem particularly important; their rights, power and social visibility aren’t particularly threatened by any elected official. So I’m beginning a list of people who don’t have that privilege, whose freedoms, rights, livelihoods, and maybe even their actual lives, depend on the outcomes of elections. Perhaps if you’re considering not voting, you’ll think of these groups and change your mind.

  1. Poor people. The outcome of this and any election will have major ramifications for people living in poverty. Cuts in social services, programs for the homeless, public education, and health services can mean the difference between life and death for already impoverished people.
  2. Children. Children need to be educated. Elected officials will determine what kinds of funds go to schools, whether school lunch programs continue, and if teachers will be paid enough to continue in this often undervalued profession. Kids also need wellness check ups, dental care, and healthy food. Elected officials have a lot to say on these issues too.
  3. The LGBTQIA community. We’ve entered an era where LGBTQIA rights—to marriage, civil unions, adoption, etc.—are becoming more and more of a reality. Elected officials will play a huge role in upholding or overturning these civil rights.
  4. Women. Women, especially poor women and women of color, but even relatively privileged white women, are at risk of losing ground in a number of ways. Our reproductive rights, and our right to be free from violations like rape and violence, are currently at risk.
  5. Immigrants. Documented and undocumented immigrants are in danger of increasing harassment and violence. Elected officials will play a large part in determining what immigrant life will look like in the years to come.
  6. Ethnic and racial minorities. If Arizona is an indicator of anything, it is that the rights of non-white Americans are up for grabs. Their freedom to learn about their history (and for us to learn about it too), and their ability to move freely in this country without fear of police harassment will depend on the outcomes of future elections.
  7. People from the global south. The environmental crisis we are facing will have ramifications around the globe. Negative impacts are likely to be greatest in the poorest nations around the world. Moreover, political decisions about foreign policy (aid, humanitarian interventions, war, etc.) will have clear effects on the lives of people living outside the U.S.

I’m certain that this list isn’t exhaustive and I encourage readers to expand on it. And, in case it wasn’t already clear, I encourage readers to vote this November. Seriously, go vote.

 

Further Reading

Case, Kim A. and Jonathan Iuzzini (issue editors). 2012. Special Issue- Systems of Privilege: Intersections, Awareness, and Applications. Journal of Social Issues 68(1).

Perrin, Andrew J. and Katherine McFarland. 2008. The Sociology of Political Representation and Deliberation. Sociology Compass 2(4): 1228-1244.

Book Review: Latina Activists across Borders Women’s Grassroots Organizing in Mexico and Texas by Milagros Pena

The start of a new academic year is upon us and we are back to hectic days and endless nights. This year will be more busy than usual for me as I plan to defend my M.A. thesis in Sociology.  Anyone who has ever written a thesis knows how much work goes into it. As part of my venture through this exciting (yet very difficult) time I will be using some of my bi-weekly posts to highlight some of the sociological studies that proved particularly useful to me. Ideally, thesebooks would help those interested in transnational migration, gender, and activism.  I hope these posts help others through this process as well as stimulate interesting dialogue about the intersections of migration and social movements. The first of these reviews will follow with a short criqitue of LatinaActivists Across Borders.

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Sustainability, social progress, environmental protection, economic growth and energy

Sustainability, social progress, environmental protection, economic growth and energy are discussed using the sustainability framework in Figure 1, where sustainability is at the confluence of social progress, environmental protection and economic growth.

Figure 1 Sustainability framework

(Source: IUCN 2006)

There are designs being made toward Ecological Civilization and welcome moves to address the shortcomings of GDP in Completing the picture – environmental accounting in practice by the Australian Bureau of Statistics .  Extending the national accounts to include degradation of natural resources makes a measurable target for politicians to focus on rather than purely GDP.    However, there are problems when social progress is overlooked in the move toward more environmental protection. (more…)