This week, Harvard University students are taking a stand against a controversial 2009 dissertation, “IQ and Immigration Policy,” which argues that Hispanics have lower IQs and develops contentious suggestions for U.S. immigration reform based on this assumption. Jason Richwine, the author of the dissertation and currently a research contributor for The Heritage Foundation, ultimately recommends that U.S. immigration policy should be based on intelligence, excluding individuals with lower IQ scores and including individuals with higher scores. Though Richwine claims that he does not endorse ethnicity-based immigration reform, his use of IQs disaggregated by race and ethnicity raises questions about the intent of his work. (more…)
Last Wednesday, Cheryl posted an interesting analysis of the nature vs. nurture debate that has plagued the social and biological sciences since their emergence. More and more research, from both disciplinary areas, is accumulating to overturn this simplistic dichotomy. Rather than thinking of ourselves as purely determined by our body chemistry and structure OR by our social environment, it is useful to think of ourselves as what Donna Haraway terms “material-semiotic” entities—that is, as unique combinations of natural and cultural elements. This way of theorizing the relationship between nature and culture—or rather, the mutual and continuing construction of nature and culture—is given to us by critical science studies scholars. By thinking, as Haraway does, in terms of “naturecultures,” we escape the nature/nurture divide, merging the two inseparably. What we call “nature” and “culture”/“nurture” are actually mutually constituted. (more…)
In the most recent issue of Sociology Compass, Lisa Wade contributed an article, “The New Science of Sex Difference,” about the relationship between biology and social identities and inequalities. The debate about socialization usually boils down to two seemingly opposed positions: nature versus nurture. Historically, biologists, and other fans of the life sciences, contended that natural forces in the body, like hormones, genes, and brains, determine the development of an individual. On the other hand, sociologists refute the claim that human behavior and identity can be reduced to biological phenomena; instead, our social environment, and how we are nurtured within that environment, constrain and enable our actions, life outcomes, and sense of self.
Yet, Wade cautions against this false dichotomy. Many biologists and sociologists now recognize the importance of social structures and experiences on the actual fabric of the body. That is, the issue should not be nature versus nature, but instead both nature and nurture. Wade points to numerous scientific and sociological studies that begin to bridge the gap between two previously polarized sides: these scholars show how our hormones, our brains, and even our genes are structured, and at times restructured, by our social experiences and encounters. (more…)
Last fall, like any good teacher of the sociology of gender, I introduced my class to the patterns of gender bias in STEM fields (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics). My students were not shocked by the observation that few women enter these fields in college. In fact, one of my students raised her hand and explained the bias first hand. She was a computer science major, enrolled in a computer science course held in the same lecture hall in the time block before our class. She would see the composition of the classroom change as one course ended and the other began: mostly men would leave the computer science class, and then relatively equal numbers of men and women entered the sociology of gender class. My class discussed many ways to eliminate the gender bias in STEM fields, including high school level interventions to enable girls to excel in these majors. This is why I was so excited to open the New York Times this week and read an article about Girls Who Code, an organization that teaches computer code to high school girls in order to prepare them for a college major in computer science. (more…)
Hanauer discusses the perceived wisdom or false premise that tax cuts for the rich creates jobs.
Source: Consumer Reports
In mid-October, I posted about a recent study that assesses the relationship between rates of sexual activity-related outcomes and the Human Papillomavirus (HPV) vaccination. The researchers found that injection of the vaccine is not associated with elevated rates of sexual activity-related outcomes in young girls, specifically pregnancy, contraceptive counseling, and sexually transmitted infection testing and diagnosis. While removing the stigma around the vaccine will help girls and women, I asked why the vaccine continues to be associated with women, even though Gardasil is approved for men, too.
Gardasil, the vaccine that prevents 70% of HPV-related cervical cancers and 90% of genital warts, was first approved for use in women by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) in 2006. Soon after, the Center for Disease Control (CDC) recommended that the vaccine become a part of the normal vaccination schedule for girls. In 2009, the FDA approved the vaccine for men, but the CDC initially did not recommend the vaccine as part of the normal vaccination schedule for boys (the CDC changed its mind in 2011, though). In this next post, I will go into more depth about the research guiding the CDC’s initial decision and suggest that the guidelines were only possible when assuming a heteronormative model of transmission, as well as women’s general responsibility for reproductive health. Both of these assumptions continue to perpetuate the link between the vaccine and women.
In a recent article in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences in the United States, a group of scholars reported on the continued gender discrimination in the hard sciences. The researchers asked 127 male and female professors in biology, chemistry, and physics to rate male and female job candidates for a position in their labs. The portfolios of the candidates were exactly the same, but half used the name, “Jennifer,” and the other half, “John.” The professors rated the male candidates as more competent and hireable; they also decided on higher starting salaries for the men.
The findings from this study are disturbing, but not so surprising. Decades of research documents higher salaries and more job opportunities for men in most careers and professions. What surprised me most about this study was that, in addition to rating male candidates as more competent and hireable, the professors reported that they would be less willing to mentor the female candidates. Since mentoring often goes hand in hand with job opportunities, achievements, and salaries, perhaps I should not be so shocked. Still, this finding from the study sits uneasily with me.
As a graduate student, I know the importance of a good mentor (fortunately, I have benefited from great mentoring at every step of my graduate and undergraduate career). In her Sociology Compass article, Feminist Mentoring and Female Graduate Student Success: Challenging Gender Inequality in Higher Education, Priya Dua explains the many benefits of good mentoring, especially for women: female students with mentors are more likely to be involved in professional activities and are more productive than those without mentors; the status of female student mentees increases with the encouragement of faculty mentors; female students learn how to balance the expectations of academia and other aspects of life (including family responsibilities) when they have a supportive role model. These are all great reasons why the mentor/mentee relationship between faculty member and student is so important.
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.
A careful understanding of epigenetic mechanisms allows sociologists to include a new biological perspective into research designs – when it is incorporated carefully and not used casually or blindly as a deus ex machina explanatory device that is.
Epigenetics provides us with one of several “mechanisms by which social influences become embodied” (Kuzawa and Sweet 2008: 2). A promising place for sociologists to enter into this research or use it fruitfully is to examine how social environments and inequalities become embodied as epigenetic imprints, altering gene expression and consequently affecting a wide array of health outcomes. Additionally, while mapping the epigenome, epigeneticists are exploring differences in the plasticity of particular alleles at various points in the lifecourse. Could the inclusion of epigenetic biomarkers in sociological work allow for the separation of early life events from cumulative ones?
These mechanistic stories are bound to be messy, but such feedback loops and the enmeshment of social and biological processes are inescapable. With the knowledge and technology available today, we are far beyond oversimplified nature versus nurture debates. Many biologists who do epigenetic work realize that in order to get a complete, complex mapping of these mechanisms, the social needs to be included. These biologists view sociological and cultural variables as more of a signal rather than just contextual noise. Sociologists should not only collaborate with such researchers, but also help shape what these projects look like.
Further, sociologists should be aware of developing epigenetic discourse and how it is being received in the media. Over the past year or so, non-scientific magazines from Time to Newsweek have picked up on epigenetic findings, publishing articles for the general public on the topic. However, not all of this reporting clearly emphasizes epigenetics’ softening of geneticization’s hard line determinism. Further, some of it mistakenly over-emphasizes our agency in the changing of our own and our future generations’ genetic code. Sociologists should be aware of such reporting, lest it follow the route of the powerful, persuasive, and pervasive hold the narrative of geneticization has in everyday, non-scientific talk (Chaufan 2007) – especially since general understandings of genetic findings often easily allow genetics to take the stage as a deus ex machina of causal efficacy despite findings that clearly prove otherwise.
What is Epigenetics?
Controlling Your Genes
DNA: How You Can Control Your Genes, Destiny
Ghost in Our Genes