Category Archives: readings

Environmental Inequality, Class, and Life Chances

great expectations

A few years ago, I was a teaching assistant for an introduction to sociology course that structured every reading and lecture around exploring the idea that social class determines life chances. Reading the TSP special article Environmental Inequalities, by Hollie Nyseth Brehm and David Pellow, reminded me of what a powerful and simple framework that is to introduce new students to the discipline of sociology or discussions about social inequality in general.

In the article, Nyseth Brehm and Pellow tackle the issue of environmental injustice by looking at how low income people, immigrants, people of color, and indigenous communities are much more likely to live near a major environmental hazard. Dismissing the idea that this is an “environmental” problem, they explain that it is instead rooted in broader economic, political, and social inequalities that are imbedded in our social discourses, structures, and institutions. The people who live near these hazardous areas face profound risks: for example, pollution from two coal-fired power plants in Chicago is thought to be responsible for 42 premature deaths, 66 heart attacks, and 720 asthma attacks each year. Many more environmental hazards like this exist across the country and world.

This article would be a terrific way to introduce students to discussions on inequality, environmental policy, or climate change. But it would also be effective as part of a class that seeks to expand students’ understanding of the relationship between social class and “life chances”—or the odds that an individual will obtain the resources and opportunities necessary for a long and successful life.

There is tremendous evidence that the life chances of the poor in the US suffer in comparison to the wealthier strata of society. Wealthier individuals have increased educational opportunities, income earning potential, and employment prospects—all elements of living a successful life. But the evidence also suggests something more alarming: a host of studies have posited a relationship between class and mortality directly. Put simply, poor people in the US have lower life expectancies than their wealthier compatriots. There are a variety of mechanisms though which this inequality comes about: for instance, poor people may have less access to quality medical care and nutrition, in addition to a higher risk of occupational hazards (e.g. black lung or injuries from heavy machinery). Furthermore, as the article discusses, the poor disproportionately live in close proximity to environmental hazards that threaten their health.  Below are a few examples that you could draw upon to make these points in class.

Class and Life Chances in Disasters

The Titanic is the classic extreme example of the relationship between social inequality and mortality, and it could be used in a class setting to begin to illustrate how gender, race, and aspects of social class impact our lives. It is well known that a passenger’s chance of surviving the Titanic disaster was directly tied to gender and class. Because the ship was divided into 1st, 2nd, and 3rd class cabins, class stratification was exceptionally clear. 62 percent of 1st class passengers survived (97 percent of women and 32 percent of men), versus 43 percent of  2nd class passengers (86 percent of women and 8 percent of men) and 25 percent of 3rd class passengers (49 percent of women and 13 percent of men).  These percentages exclude children, and the source is found here.

Expanding this discussion to Hurricane Katrina and other more recent disasters would further the discussion, guided by the following questions:

  • Assess the statement: Nothing exposes social inequality like disasters. Do you agree? If so, why might this be the case? If not, why not? Can you think of examples of other natural disasters where this statement was accurate?
  • On the Titanic, what were some of the mechanisms that explain the relationship between ship class and mortality? (E.g. proximity of cabins to lifeboats, rumors of physical restraint of 3rd class passengers, social attitudes towards women and children, etc.)
  • During Hurricane Katrina, what mechanisms help explain the relationship between social class and chance of survival? (E.g. construction of houses, access to transportation, etc.)

There are untold other topics in this line of discussion—including on the relationship between social class and incarceration, illness, death in war, and crime (selected readings on these subjects are listed below). At this point it would be useful to bring in Nyseth Brehm and Pellow’s article to emphasize to students that even in a less “extreme” scenario, the relationship between social class and life chances is a defining feature of our social world that must be analyzed seriously.

The following discussion questions might be useful when discussing this article:

  • Assess the statement: Class determines place of residence. Do you agree? If so, why might this be the case? If not, why not?
  • How might a communities’ ability to demand better environmental protections also be mediated by race or class?
  • The article notes that climate change is another example of environmental inequality. How is this the case? What does this mean for certain populations around the world? What are some of the ways that climate change may disproportionately impact certain populations in the future? (e.g. destruction of crops, conflicts over water, desertification, etc.)
  • Can you think of other situations in which class, race, or gender may play a determining role in an individual’s life chances? Mortality? Chance of success in the future?

Supplemental Readings

To deepen the discussion about the relationship between social class and life chances, a variety of subjects and articles might be introduced. Below are several readings to get the discussion going:

On the link between social class and death in war:

Zeitlin, Maurice, Kenneth G Lutterman, and James W Russell. 1973. “Death in Vietnam: Class, Poverty, and the Risks of War.” Politics & Society 3(3):313-28.

Dunne, John Gregory. 1986. “The War that Won’t Go Away.” The New York Review of Books.

On the link between social class and health/life-expectancy:

Antonovsky, Aaron. 1967. “Social class, life expectancy and overall mortality.” The Milbank Memorial Fund Quarterly 45(2):31-73.

Donkin, Angela, Peter Goldblatt, and Kevin Lynch. 2002. “Inequalities in life expectancy by social class, 1972–1999.” Health Statistics Quarterly 15:5-15.

Deaton, Angus. 2003. “Health, inequality, and economic development.” Journal of Economic Literature 41(1):113-58.

Tavernise, Sabrina. 2012. “Life Spans Shrink for Least-Educated Whites in the US.” New York Times.

*Marie Berry is a graduate student in the Sociology Department at UCLA. Special thanks to Maurice Zeitlin for the inspiration for this post.

Understanding the Causes of Genocide

Our own Hollie Nyseth Brehm recently wrote a special feature for TSP entitled “The Crime of Genocide.” The article is a short and concise summary of the conditions that can lead to genocide, as identified by social science research. This would be a great article to use in a course on crime, as criminologists have largely neglected the study of genocide. It’s a great introduction to the topic!

A few questions to get the discussion going:

1. What does the word genocide mean and how did the word come to mean what we understand it to mean today?

2. Why have genocides generally been ignored by criminologists? What do they have in common with other types of crime more often studied by such scholars?

3. What does the metaphor “genocide doesn’t come like rain” mean? Why is this the case?

4. How do psychological and individual factors matter (or not matter) when trying to understand which people become perpetrators of genocide?

5. How can the government and characteristics of the state play a role in encouraging genocide? (The author gives several reasons. List them all.)

6. How can the international community play a role in preventing and stopping genocide? How do connections to other countries matter?

 

Using Political Commentaries to Teach Contentious Issues– Marriage Amendment Activity

With a marriage amendment looming in Minnesota, I decided to spend a day on this issue in my Sociology of Families class. I wanted to present both sides of the issue without having to do it myself–because I could have hardly been neutral on the subject–so I had the students read short commentaries on the subject in class and evaluate the persuasiveness of the arguments.

This activity could apply to any contentious political issue that you would like to discuss in class, but are wary of sounding biased.

Here’s a step-by-step guide on how I organized this activity in my class of 80 students:
(I allowed about an hour for this activity, but it could definitely have been longer.)

1. Before class, I collected several different commentaries from a major newspaper–half opposed to the amendment and half in favor of it. I paired one opposed with one in favor and stapled them together in a pack.

2. First, I split my class into groups of 4-5 and had each group read one commentary supporting the amendment and one opposing it–so each packet was being analyzed by two groups only.

3. I gave them 10 minutes or so read the commentaries, asking them to look for arguments that they found compelling or not compelling. I instructed them to underline and take notes on their handout, especially focusing on arguments that relate to themes we have discussed in class. For example, what have we learned in class that would serve as evidence to either suport or refute this claim?

4. Then, I had them discuss the articles with their small groups, and share which arguments they had focused on. This is the part that could have been a bit longer. Most groups appeared to be having spirited conversations about the articles.

5. Lastly, I asked them to share their analyses with the class. When they shared which arguments they had discussed, I prodded them to explain why they found that specific argument compelling or not compelling, and urged them to bring in material from class that would support their claim. (This part didn’t come as easy to them, which made me think that this would also be a great take-home exercise where they would have more time to reference their notes from previous classes). I took notes on their comments on the board, but I don’t think I would do that again. I feel it might have been a more fluid discussion without it.

Teaching Social Problems? Listen Up!

 

 

This past spring, TSP’s Sarah Lageson spoke with University of Delaware Professor Joel Best about his new textbook, Social Problems.  The episode of Office Hours briefly reviews the book and covers a few concepts that are important for anyone teaching social problems.  Best explains what poverty and globalization have in common, how he teaches students about social constructionism, and the impetus behind the book.  He also discusses how social problems are defined as well as his work on the flip side of social problems, social fads.

 

Scholars Strategy Network

If you haven’t seen it yet, check out the new post on the Editors’ Desk about the Scholars Strategy Network.  As Doug Hartmann explains, this new network of social scientists is working to bring knowledge to a broader public.  As part of this endeavor, they have written almost 90 policy papers, which are short (2 pages), accessible briefs on a variety of issues.  These would be great supplements to course readings, so check them out!

“Tiger Moms” and Educational Attainment

Last month, as a Special Feature on The Society Pages, Jennifer Lee (a sociologist at University of California at Irvine) provided our readers a sociological take on “Chinese mother phenomenon.”

Lee is responding to Yale Law professor Amy Chua’s highly controversial book Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother (2011). In advance of the book, The Wall Street Journal published “Why Chinese Mothers are Superior.” In the article and the book, Chua argues that Western parents do their children a disservice by not raising them with strict and demanding expectations for achievement.

Lee’s is another piece that is definitely going on my Sociology of Families syllabus in the fall, but it would fit well in any Intro to Sociology class or any class on education, culture, or youth. I would assign both Amy Chua’s WSJ article and Lee’s Tiger Kids and the Success Frame. What I love about Lee’s piece is that it does not reject Chua’s argument outright, but explores it from a sociological perspective. She asks (and answers):

How do we explain the academic achievement of Asians, especially when the patterns defy traditional status attainment models?

This topic is especially suited for most undergrads (18-22 year olds) in that they have only recently left their parents home and generally do not have families of their own. This life stage puts them in a unique position to compare how they were raised with how they want to raise their own (hypothetical) children when it comes to educational achievement.

For further context, check out the audio review of Chua’s book and parenting method on NPR and an excerpt from the book, as well as a response from Amy Chua to reader’s questions and a response her oldest daughter (age 18) to the criticism her mom received after publishing Battle Hymn.

 

Sociology of Sports–New Course Guide on Soc Images!

 

Sociological Images has posted a new course guide on the Sociology of Sports!

Check it out!

Check out The Reading List!

118:366 A quiet corner

One of TSP’s newer additions is The Reading List, which is (the start of) a compilation of both classic and new research that can help inform our understanding of current events.  Soon, it will be organized by theme, so don’t forget to check it out as you plan your courses!

Death Penalty in America

Abolish Death Penalty April 4 2011 Janet Valder 003

Photo by codepinkphoenix via flickr.com

The Office Hours Team recently sat down with Dr. David Garland, professor of sociology and law at New York University.  He spoke with the team about his most recent book, Peculiar Institution: America’s Death Penalty in the Age of Abolition.  The podcast, found here, would be a great assignment, as it provides a concise review of key arguments he makes in the book.  Below are a few discussion questions you could use in class or assign with the podcast.

1)   In Garland’s eyes, why is the death penalty a peculiar U.S. institution?

2)   What reasons are usually given in favor of the death penalty in the U.S., and what does Garland think about them?

3)   Are there patterns found among defendants on death row?

4)   Do you have an opinion about the use of the death penalty in the U.S.?  If so, what is it?

5)   What is one thing you learned from this podcast?

If the questions are assigned as homework:

6)   Conduct some quick online research.  When did states start outlawing the death penalty?  How many states allow it?

The Sociology of Living Alone

I’m planning a Sociology of Families course, and I am definitely putting Eric Klinenberg‘s New York Times article One’s a Crowd and Office Hours interview with him–Eric Klinenberg on Going Solo–on the syllabus. He cites many sociologists and sociological research in the NYT article. This article and the interview would be great for a Soc of Families class or any Intro class on the subject of families or individualism in Western culture.

In any discussion of families in the United States, we cannot forget about all the people (40-50% in prosperous American cities) who choose to live alone.  He points out that, because of new technologies–cell phones, internet, social networking, etc.–people who live alone are not alienated or isolated in ways that they may have been twenty years ago. I love the counterintuitive finding that people who live alone are actually more social than those with families.

This article and interview would be great for use in the classroom because many young people today view living alone as somewhat of a ‘rite of passage’ into adulthood, but do not envision themselves living along in middle-age. It would be very interesting to get students’ perspectives on this topic. Some discussion questions to get to conversation going or to have them answer at home:

1. Have you ever lived alone? Do you see yourself living alone at any time in the future? What are the advantages to living alone in your opinion? What are the disadvantages?

2. How is privilege related to living alone? Who gets to live alone and who doesn’t?

3. What do you think of Klinenberg’s point that people who live alone are actually more social than people who live with families?

4. Klinenberg discusses the internet and cellphones as tools that allow people to feel connected to others even when they live alone. How often do you communicate with people through text or on social networking sites like Facebook? How do you think this compares to face-to-face interaction? Do you think the rise in digital communication is a positive or negative development? Why?