Author Archives: Sara

Rethinking Sex Education

kondomby theoryforthemasses

Public debate about the content of sex education in U.S. schools has been raging for decades.  On one side of the fence are proponents of programs that teach abstinence-only sex education; on the other side are those who advocate for a more comprehensive program that teaches students how to engage in sexual activity more safely.  The educational system has long been the site of this debate.  However, a recent New York Times article explores a program in North Carolina that allows teenagers to text their questions about sex to trained professionals who text answers back to them.  Programs like this are being developed in other U.S. cities, but critics are concerned that they may undercut abstinence-only messages that states like North Carolina advocate within their public schools.

In her book, When Sex Goes to School, Kristin Luker follows four different communities as they debate the consequences of sex education in schools.  What she finds is that questions about sex education aren’t just about whether children should be taught about abstinence or contraceptive use.  Instead, the sex education debate is really about the relationship of sex to marriage and how women and men should relate to one another (Luker frames the debate in heterosexual terms since this is how it is understood in the communities she studied).  She suggests that encouraging our kids to abstain from sex or use contraceptives may not be enough.  Rather, we may do better to elucidate the conflict we feel about sex and gender, historicize the debate, and talk about its political implications… messages that may be far too complex for a single text.

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square-eye6P. Alldred on the sex education debate

Constructing Prenatal Testing

syringeby theoryforthemasses

A recent New York Times article highlights the current debate surrounding the prenatal testing of women for thyroid problems. Doctors suggest that many women conflate the effects of pregnancy with symptoms of unchecked hypo- or hyperthyroidism. They explain that thyroid problems can lead to miscarriage, preterm delivery, and pre-eclampsia, and even have long-term negative effects on their children’s intelligence. While “high risk” women are regularly screened for thyroid problems, some medical professionals are now advocating for widespread prenatal testing in the hopes of identifying and treating women with the mild, and more common, subclinical hypothyroidism.

In his book, Backdoor to Eugenics, sociologist Troy Duster discusses prenatal testing and other forms of genetic screening. He suggests that screens may open the door to the biomedical domination of particular populations, and that the taken-for-grantedness of prenatal screens overshadows the critical need for debate regarding the larger social consequences of their use. He tacitly argues that individuals should be more critical consumers of “scientific” knowledge, especially since research programs and policies regarding such screens are imbued with political and bureaucratic concerns. In discussing the assessment that a child’s IQ is affected by its mother’s hypothyroidism, one doctor says, “Once you believe that, it would seem to me illogical not to be sure that all women have normal thyroid function during pregnancy.” Many people would probably agree after reading this article, but the more interesting question is why. Indeed, that question speaks to the ways in which we construct and consume knowledge.  It is a process that is inseparable from politics and the hegemony of “scientific” discourse, and that may prop open the backdoor Duster envisions.

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square-eye10Structures of Knowledge

Is Evolutionary Psychology Just Sociology in Disguise?

800px-ape_skeletons_bgby theoryforthemasses

A recent book written by philosopher Dennis Dutton draws from the burgeoning field of evolutionary psychology to explain the biological foundations of creativity.  Dutton attempts to synthesize Darwin’s theory of evolution with culture, suggesting that creative capacities have been passed on from one generation to the next as a mode of survival.  Storytellers, for example, would have been able to work out “what if” scenarios through making up stories, a practice that would keep them from risking their lives by attempting dangerous activities.  According to Dutton, these individuals, along with their attentive listeners, may have had better of odds of survival.

What Dutton and other evolutionary psychologists seem to ignore, however, is the issue of power.  They seem to suggest that “survival of the fittest” implies that some people or groups naturally have more power than others.  This could be the case if all humans were able to reach a state of natural, uninhibited production.  Mechanisms and conduits of power, however, are unequally and often arbitrarily distributed (on the basis of such characteristics as race, ethnicity, gender, sexuality, ablebodiness, geographic location, etc.).   An “evolutionary” explanation of creativity may therefore be nothing more than a sociological one.

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square-eye3 E. Burnstein and C. Branigan on evolutionary analyses

(Untold) Storytelling

immigrants_1951by theoryforthemasses

Immigrants’ stories of sacrifice and (re)settlement are often overshadowed by statistics about demographics like educational attainment, income, and family size; the stories themselves remain untold. A recent New York Times article explores the impact of these stories on the children of immigrant families. Each year sociologist and Hunter College professor Nancy Foner teaches a class entitled “The Peopling of New York” wherein she asks students to interview a close relative about recent family history. Given that many of Foner’s students are children of immigrant parents, the stories they collect often involve accounts of immigration and the sacrifices it entailed. Students are surprised to learn these stories, and many develop a new appreciation and gratitude for the sacrifices their parents made. Understanding the reasons why these stories are pushed aside upon arrival, and the effects of their telling, may have important implications for understanding the processes of both assimilation and identity formation for immigrants and their children alike.

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square-eye23Carola Suárez-Orozco on immigrant families

Rethinking Childhood Gambling

gambling_chipsby theoryforthemasses

A recent article in the Archives of Pediatrics & Adolescent Medicine suggests that children who display impulsive behavior in kindergarten are more likely to engage in gambling at a young age. Researchers asked kindergarten teachers to rate their students’ inattentiveness, distractibility, and hyperactivity; six years later the students were asked to report the frequency with which they participated in activities such as buying lottery tickets and placing bets at sporting events. The researchers identified a positive relationship between the teachers’ assessments and the students’ gambling behaviors. What these researchers did not seem to consider, however, is the ways in which teachers’ perceptions can shape students’ identities and behaviors. Labeling theory, as proposed by sociologist Howard Becker, suggests that people with more power sometimes place labels on those with less power. These labels can have a profound impact on how the latter group see themselves. This can create a self-fulfilling prophecy whereby those labels are internalized, and the expected behaviors are exhibited. Perhaps we would do better to understand the social factors that affect students’ “impulsive” behaviors rather than assume they are related to their “natural” hyperactivity.

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square-eye3 R. Matsueda on labeling theory

Race and Distrust in a Texas Town

800px-downtown_wylieby theoryforthemasses

The killing of a young black man in Paris, Texas last September reignited racial tensions in the community, tensions which federal mediators have recently been dispatched to resolve. The victim, Brandon McClelland, was run over and dragged by a pickup truck driven by two white men with whom McClelland was friends. Despite this reported friendship, some community members remain suspicious. Paris has a longstanding history of racial violence and conflict, and the killing is reminiscent of the James Byrd Jr. slaying in Jasper, Texas in 1998. Moreover, Paris is residentially segregated into largely white suburbs and largely black housing projects. This segregation is reflected in both the racial make-up and quality of area schools. Given these circumstances, it should come as no surprise that suspicion and distrust are mainstays in the community.

The concept of a “racial project” put forth by sociologists Michael Omi and Howard Winant can be used to explore the ongoing racial tensions in Paris. According to Omi and Winant, racial projects involve the simultaneous interpretation of racial dynamics and redistribution of social resources. This process links the meanings people attach to race to the structural experiences of race, and it can happen on both the macro and micro levels. The experience of racism by blacks in the United States can be understood, both historically and currently, as a racial project wherein suspicion and distrust are fostered. Whether or not the McClelland murder was an accident may be known only to his killers. The larger issues that his slaying brings forth, however, are a reminder that the matter of race is far from being resolved.

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square-eye25 C. Knowles on race

Multiple Births as Media Spectacle

lancelets_embryo_4_cellsby theoryforthemasses

In the past week considerable debate has emerged over the birth of a set of octuplets to a California woman. Controversy has surrounded both the doctors who facilitated the births as well as the mother herself, who is single, unemployed, and has six other children. The attention that is being paid to this family by both the media and ordinary people who are eager to share their opinions on fertility treatments and parental responsibility has created nothing short of spectacle. In his work on media, culture, and spectacles, Douglas Kellner suggests that popular media spectacles often tell us a great deal about the values, experiences, and conflicts of our times. From this perspective, the octuplet birth may cast a light on such issues as the role of biotechnology in pregnancy and childbirth, medical ethics, and the role of the state in regulating the clinics and doctors who facilitate multiple births. The hostility that has been directed toward the mother of fourteen also suggests contemporary notions about what constitutes “appropriate” parenting. At the same time, however, the woman has been praised by some for her decision not to terminate her pregnancy. We may compare the octuplet birth spectacle, then, to a microscope through which we can take a closer look at the issues, conflicts, and problems that are present in contemporary society, but not always visible to the naked eye

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square-eye5R. Bennett and J. Harris on reproductive choice

A "New" Economics 101

 

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In a recent New York Times op-ed, columnist David Brooks questions whether the old, “rational,” Keynesian model of economics is truly useful for trying to understand the current economic crisis. He suggests that while economists have traditionally built elegant economic models of efficient markets based on rational actors, the process of making economic decisions is actually much more complex. Brooks explains that these complexities, which are informed by actors’ various strategies, memories, and intuitions, are what influences economic decisions and ultimately markets. In other words, markets are not simply efficient manifestations of reasonable actions; they are confluences of decisions made by individuals who are deeply influenced by their historical, social, political, and cultural contexts. Sociologist Mark Granovetter has drawn from the ideas of economist Karl Polanyi in order to elaborate this very point.

Granovetter has developed a “new economic sociology,” a theoretical framework that suggests that interpretation and social interaction are at the crux of economic action. He sheds the view that economic markets are increasingly separate from the individuals who constitute them. Rather, he argues that economies are “embedded” in ongoing social interactions among individual actors. Economic action is therefore not just a matter of individual, rational decision-making; instead it is patterned along elaborate social networks and influenced by various culturally-defined goals and priorities. Perhaps once we begin to let go of our old assumptions about human nature, specifically that “man” is a rational barterer of economic goods and services, we may be better able to understand the complex causes and consequences of economic collapses, including the one currently in our midst.

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square-eye21E. Mingione and S. Ghezzi on social embeddedness

The Rise of the Commuter Marriage

computer_keyboard1by theoryforthemasses

The nuclear family is often understood in terms of propinquity, or the physical nearness of parents and their children to one another. While it is typical for extended families to live apart from one another, we generally assume that married couples and their children live together.  In coping with a challenging economy, however, many couples are being forced to reevaluate their responsibilities and priorities in unexpected ways. One manifestation of this is the rise of “commuter marriages” wherein one partner lives apart from the other and sometimes their children. Many couples are beginning to consider this kind of arrangement necessary given the faltering economy and scarcity of jobs. They are expressing a willingness to go where the best and most lucrative jobs are, though they may be unwilling to uproot their families or jeopardize their partner’s careers. This structural change to the institution of the family is being facilitated in part by technologies such as cell phones, email, and Skype.

While the economic benefits of a commuter marriage are considerable, work-family conflict is inevitable. For example, parents’ interactions with their children are changing, as are partners’ interactions with one another. Partners are having to reconsider their own statuses and roles within the family structure which may cause stress for both partners and their children.

What it means to be a family has been reconstructed, redefined, and renegotiated over time and in response to various social, political, cultural, and economic challenges. The commuter marriage is yet another outcome of this process, one that is sure to have a significant impact on family structure and interaction.

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square-eye2S. Winslow-Bowe on work-family conflict

 

The Reality of A "Team of Rivals"

lincolnby theoryforthemasses

Election fever has dissipated for most Americans since President-Elect Obama’s November 4th victory. The word “change,” which characterized Obama’s candidacy, no longer dominates the language of news anchors, correspondents, and pundits. As Obama makes his Cabinet selections, however, a new idea is being embraced: the “team of rivals” paradigm. The “team of rivals” refers to the cabinet that Abraham Lincoln appointed at the commencement of his presidency and was popularized by presidential historian Doris Kearns Goodwin. As a recent CNN article suggests, however, Lincoln’s team of rivals, while admirable in theory, was not necessarily effectual. Ready to glom on to popular phraseology, however, the news media have de-historicized the “team of rivals” concept by praising Obama for taking cues from the Lincoln presidency without discussing the realities of its failures. The concept therefore has become reified as it has been presented in the media, and has begun to lose its historical meaning.

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square-eye5A. Edgar on reification