Just like April’s TSP Media Award for Measured Social Science winner Barbara Risman, there have been quite a few examples lately of sociologists contributing their thoughts and talents to opinion pieces for major news sources. Last week, the New York Times featured op-eds from Arlie Russell Hochschild and Elizabeth Armstrong.

Bravo TV's Millionaire Matchmaker, Patti Stanger, promises to find love... for a price.

First, Hochschild, a professor emerita of sociology at the University of California, Berkeley, wrote about the expanding presence of the capitalistic marketplace in our personal lives. It may seem like second nature to hire a professional to help with a task or develop a skill we lack. But, according to Hochschild’s piece, the sheer extent of services available for purchase is shocking: dating coaches, rental friends, and professional potty trainers. Hochschild goes on to look at some of the more invasive manners in which the market has seeped into our intimate lives, as well as what this says about our society.

Hochschild brings in the work of Michael Sandel, a  professor of government at Harvard, who adds that you can now purchase an upgrade in prison cells in California or buy carpool lane access for solo drivers in Minneapolis (see more, here, with Sandel in recent interview on The Colbert Report about the moral limits of the marketplace).

This increasing tendency to hire professionals to take on personal tasks, Hochschild writes, has some unexpected consequences. She describes our ever-increasing relationship with the free market as a self-perpetuating cycle:

The more anxious, isolated and time-deprived we are, the more likely we are to turn to paid personal services. To finance these extra services, we work longer hours. This leaves less time to spend with family, friends and neighbors; we become less likely to call on them for help, and they on us. And, the more we rely on the market, the more hooked we become on its promises.

In the end, Hochschild sums up, offering a warning about outsourcing our personal lives and emotional attachment:

Focusing attention on the destination, we detach ourselves from the small — potentially meaningful — aspects of experience. Confining our sense of achievement to results, to the moment of purchase, so to speak, we unwittingly lose the pleasure of accomplishment, the joy of connecting to others and possibly, in the process, our faith in ourselves.

Figure from "Breastfeed at Your Own Risk," Julie Artis, Contexts (Fall 2009).

Later in the week, the Times featured Princeton professor Elizabeth Armstrong discussing the harmful effects of  distributing free baby formula samples to new mothers at hospitals. In her op-ed, Armstrong maintains that breast-feeding offers many health benefits to babies, and hospitals should be encouraging women in the practice (she makes no mention of whether “Macho Mothering” like that featured on the controversial cover of TIME will help or hinder such efforts). When hospitals give away formula samples, reports show women are more likely to give up breast-feeding sooner. According to Armstrong, though, it’s easy to see why the hospitals continue to provide the samples:

In exchange for giving out samples, formula manufacturers provide hospitals’ nurseries and neonatal intensive care units with much needed free supplies like bottles, nipples, pacifiers, sterile water and more formula.

Armstong argues that arrangement like these lead to a hypocritical healthcare system. Doctors and medical organizations can preach about the benefits of breast-feeding but when “hospitals send new mothers home with a commercial product that often bears scientific claims on the label about digestion and brain development, it sends a very different message.” For Armstong, the answer is simple:

[H]ospitals should help women get breast-feeding off to a good start by adapting baby-friendly policies like helping mothers initiate breast-feeding after birth, allowing mothers and babies to stay in the same room and, most important, ensuring that infant-feeding decisions are free of commercial influence.

Each of these pieces is a great example of a sociologist putting their own work out into the world in a way that allows everyone to see the benefits of sociological insight and its application to, well, society. Congrats to both professors for so frequently daring to peek out from the pages of journals.

For more on breast-feeding and public service efforts to encourage it, we recommend Julie Artis’ Contexts article “Breastfeed at your own Risk,” available in full online at Contexts.org.

Stars by takingthemoney via flickr.com
Just gotta find the gold one! Photo by takingthemoney via flickr.com

In what is becoming both an honor and an increasingly-enjoyable process, the Citings & Sightings section at The Society Pages couldn’t be more proud to announce April’s recipient of the TSP Media Award for Measured Social Science. Our site strives to go beyond just pointing out social scientists  in the news by recognizing journalists and media outlets who take advantage of the unique perspective and data social scientists can provide—and the sociologists willing to provide that perspective. So, without further ado, the winner for April 2012:

Barbara Risman, “Phony ‘mommy wars’ avoid real issues for women,” CNN.com, April 20, 2012.

As we discussed in our coverage of the piece, prominent sociologist Risman points out just four of the many contradictions between society’s values and actions that put the lie to the valorization of care-giving. Her use of thoughtful sociological reasoning provides an important and nuanced look at a hot button issue and demonstrates that post-war workplaces aren’t serving millenial families.

We admit the selection process for this award isn’t exactly scientific or exhaustive, but we did, as a board, work hard to winnow down to our favorite bunch-o-nominees and debate more from there. We also don’t have the deep pocketbooks to offer the winners Stanley-Cup-sized trophies or cash prizes, but we hope our informal award offers both cheer and encouragement to continue the important work of bringing social scientific knowledge to the broader public. Here’s to April’s best!

Happy reading!

The Society Pages

Stars by takingthemoney via flickr.com
Just gotta find the gold one... Photo by takingthemoney via flickr.com

Here in the Citings & Sightings section at The Society Pages we strive to go beyond simply turning your attention to the social scientists getting their work and names in the news. We also aim to commend journalists who, in the pursuit of bringing depth and context to their pieces, reach out to social scientists and take advantage of the unique perspective and data they provide. Without further ado, we are proud to announce the winner of our  TSP Media Awards for Measured Social Science for the month of March 2012:

Stephanie Hegarty, “The myth of the eight-hour sleep.BBC News, February 22, 2012.

As we discussed in our write up of the piece, this article uproots conceptions of “the way it has always been” by highlighting the implications of  historical research. Something as common as our nightly sleep patterns and how we understand “normal sleep” are challenged by Hegarty’s treatment of historians and sleep scientists in a rich and though-provoking manner.

We admit the selection process for this award isn’t exactly scientific or exhaustive, but we did, as a board, work hard to winnow down to our favorite bunch of nominees, and then debate more from there. We also don’t have the deep pocketbooks to offer the winning journalists Stanley-Cup-sized trophies or cash prizes, but we hope our informal award offers both cheer and encouragement to continue the important work of bringing social scientistific knowledge to the broader public. Here’s to March’s best!


The Society Pages

Photo by Quinn Dombrowski via flickr.com
Photo by Quinn Dombrowski via flickr.com

The ever-expanding world of Google has opened the door for all kinds of large-scale statistical analyses, and in a paper published in Science, physicists Alexander Petersen, Joel Tenenbaum, and their co-authors demonstrate the utility of all that data. They mined through Google’s massive collection of scanned books to discover patterns behind the life and death of words.

The Wall Street Journal picked up on the physicists’ study and recently ran an article on their language evolution findings. For starters, the study makes the most accurate estimation yet of words in the English language—a whopping 1 million, much higher than previous dictionaries have ever recorded (Webster’s Third New International Dictionary has 348,000). And, even though it seems like slang outpaces even dedicated text-decryptors, it appears the English language is growing more slowly than in past decades, partly because the language has already grown so rich there isn’t much use for new words. The words that are born, though, get relatively high frequency of use since they are usually created to describe something new (think “Facebook”).

According to the authors, the world of words is “an inherently competitive, evolutionary environment. All these different words are battling it out against synonyms, variant spellings, and related words.” According to Tenenbaum, the WSJ reports, synonyms seem to be stuck in “Darwinian battles.”

In examples related by the WSJ, the authors document how “Roentgenogram” was the most popular term for “X-ray” (or “radiogram,” another contender) in the 20th century, but is now effectively dead (that is, it’s extremely rare). Similarly, the article cites that “loanmoneys” died circa 1950, killed off by “loans,” and “persistency” is breathing its last, out-competed, appropriately enough, by “persistence.”

Homogenization, the WSJ relates, may be another reason for faster word death rates in the modern era. For instance, William Clark (of Lewis & Clark fame) “spelled ‘Sioux’ 27 different ways in his journals (‘Sieoux,’ ‘Seaux,’ ‘Souixx,’ etc.), and several of those variants would have made it into 19th-century books.” Now, between auto-correct and copy editors, such “chaotic variety” is weeded out much more quickly, essentially speeding up natural selection in the warring world of words.

Furthermore, the study suggests a “tipping point” for words. At around 30 to 50 years old, new words either become long-standing staples of the language of fall out of style like so many Zubaz. The authors suggest this may be because that stretch of decades marks the point when dictionary makers approve or disapprove new candidates for inclusion. Or perhaps it’s generational turnover: ever-innovative children accept or reject their parents’ coinages and the words they leave behind don’t make it to the next generation of speakers.

Photo by Daniel Rothamel via flickr.com
Photo by Daniel Rothamel via flickr.com

In recent weeks, media outlets including the New York Times have reported what once would have been a startling finding: a majority of babies born to women under age 30 are being born, specifically, to unwed mothers. The Times gave a nuanced account by reaching out to social scientists to consider whether marriage still counts as one of the most important legitimators of a “family.”

One group, college graduates, appears to be resisting this trend. The highly educated are overwhelmingly waiting until after tying the knot to have children and, thus helping make a certain type of family structure (married with kids) an indicator of a new class divide. University of Pennsylvania sociologist Frank Furstenberg claims “marriage has become a luxury good,” in reference to the social and economic capital. They are, Furstenberg tells the Times, increasingly reserved for the highly educated. Sara McLanahan, a Princeton sociologist, argues particularly that there’s a specific quality among educated men that makes them more likely to give women equal authority in a relationship: “they are more willing to play the partner role.”

Another question raised by article asks, for parenting, does marriage really matter? After all, according to the data almost all the rise in nonmarital births has occurred among couples living together. A study by University of Michigan sociologists Pamela Smock and Fiona Rose Greenland found that, in the United States, cohabitating parents are twice as likely to split as married parents (according to Smock and Greenland, two-thirds of couples living together split up by the time their child turned ten).

The Times also sought to answer why some of these couples with children decided to remain unmarried. The article states, “[F]ifty years ago, researchers have found, as many as a third of American marriages were precipitated by a pregnancy, with couples marrying to maintain respectability.” So what has changed? According to some of the sources the article’s writers spoke with, if cohabitating couples married, their official household income would rise, resulting in a possible loss of government benefits. University of Virginia sociologist W. Bradford Wilcox, government policies like no-fault divorce signal that “marriage is not as fundamental to society” as it once was.

Finally, Johns Hopkins’ sociologist Andrew Cherlin was called upon to discuss what Americans expect from marriage now that it is no longer merely a matter of practical support. That is, why do people keep getting married at all? Cherlin, author of The Marriage Go-Round, maintains, “[F]amily life is no longer about playing the social role of father or husband or wife, it’s more about individual satisfaction and self-development.”

Indeed, the simple fact that these data depicting generational shifts in family composition may seem alarming to some readers or mundane to others shows that the question of marriage remains important in the U.S. The New York Times’ ability to reach out to social scientists, though, allows for an article rich with context, scholarship, and a conceptual link to guide readers from a statistic about unwed mothers to a glimpse at larger social forces at work in the U.S.

Photo by gadgetdude via flickr
Photo by gadgetdude via flickr

The concerns of unemployment—especially within the last few years—have even the college-educated uncertain about the value of their diploma. The Chronicle of Higher Education reports that a new article shows the type of knowledge and critical thinking skills acquired in college can have a dramatic effect on later employment success. The journal article, by Richard Arum, Josipa Roksa, and a few new additions to their team, is a followup to their influential, yet controversial, 2010 book Academically Adrift.

After spending last spring surveying a large sample of students they’d previously studied for their book, the researchers found stark differences in post-graduation success between those developed top-notch critical thinking skills and those who struggled on that measure. Students who scored in the bottom 20 percent on a critical thinking skills test were three times more likely than those who were in the top 20 percent to be unemployed (9.6 percent compared with 3.1 percent). Additionally, graduates who’d scored low on critical thinking were twice as likely to be living at home with their parents and significantly more likely to have amassed credit card debt (51 percent compared with 37 percent). According to the Chronicle, “The results that [Arum] and his colleagues found were so arresting, he said, that they chose to release them earlier than the follow-up book that they are planning to publish in the next year or two.”

Despite some criticisms about the initial book’s validity and methodology, Arum maintains the sharp differences in post-college achievement are worthy of attention. “That’s a dramatic, stunning finding,” said Mr. Arum, “What it suggests is that the general higher-order skills that the Council for Aid to Education assessment is tracking is something of significance, something real and meaningful.”

Photo by Ben+Sam via flickr
Photo by Ben+Sam via flickr

Raising healthy kids is usually seen as a result of some magical combination of resources and education in a child’s home, school, and neighborhood. A newly released study by Penn State sociologists Molly Martin, Michelle Frisco, and Claudia Nau and the Census Bureau’s Kristin Burnett, however, finds poverty at schools has a greater effect on adolescent obesity than poverty or low education at home.

Well-educated parents are less likely to raise overweight children, but according to the study’s findings, if the student attends a poor school, the effect of his or her parents’ education is minimized. According to the online news source Futurity‘s report on the research , “A parent with a graduate degree who has a child in a poor school is more likely to raise an overweight adolescent than a parent with an eighth grade education who has an adolescent enrolled in a rich school.”

“The environment can actually limit our ability to make the choices that we all think we make freely,” Frisco says. Martin maintains that poor schools influence a student’s weight even beyond the typically-blamed unhealthy food choices. Low-funded schools have a difficult time offering athletic or fitness programs. Martin also argues that low income schools may house students with higher levels of stress. “Schools with limited financial resources tend to be more stressful environments,” Martin says. “Stress promotes weight gains and usually the worst kinds of weight gains.”

Data tells us that as a group, professors are about as self-identifying liberal as they come. In fact, according to an intensive survey ran by University of British Columbia sociology professor Neil Gross and Solon Simmons of George Mason University, “professor” is the most liberal major job group in America. According to the findings roughly 20 percent of professors identified themselves as “any shade of conservative,” a number much lower than a third of the general population. Meanwhile, two-thirds of professors considered themselves some version of liberal as opposed to 23 percent of Americans overall.

Leaning Tower by Kerben via flickr.com
Leaning Tower by Kerben via flickr.com

A recent Op-Ed in the Star Tribune sought to explain this pattern and its consequences. Just like the profession the article investigates, the arguement is rife with empirical evidence. Some scholars and pundits are quick to assume this underrepresentation of conservatives is congruent with other instances of underrepresentation, the product of discrimination. Neil Gross, however, claims the data shows otherwise. “If you look at surveys that have asked professors whether they’ve been discriminated against on political grounds… only something like 7 percent of those surveyed said they have been,” says Gross.

Graduate schools, the pipelines towards professorship, are also leftward leaning, which makes sense when observing the  higher proportion of liberal faculty, but also points the discrimination theory towards graduate school acceptance. To test this, Gross crafted an email based experiment to test how subtle expressions of political affiliation were received by various graduate programs. The findings? “Only the slightest hint—no significant evidence—of bias or discrimination.”

If discrimination isn’t the answer, many hypothesize personal reasoning—values, moneymaking, or personality—are behind the political disparity. Gross doesn’t seem sold on these theories, and offers a different explanation, a process of “political typing” that encourages self-selection. For a long time university culture grew along the lines of inquiry and as a challenge to existing systems of power and wealth, something that naturally shepherded in liberals.

So does this liberal lean matter? Gross doesn’t seem to think it distorts the legitimacy of academia. “In my field of sociology, people will say your politics incidentally will shape what you study, but it doesn’t necessarily shape what you find,” Gross argues. Social psychologist Jonathan Haidt, on the other hand, sees this as a major problem:

When a scientific community shares sacred values… a tribal moral community arises, one that actively suppresses ideas that are sacrilegious, and that discourages nonbelievers from entering. I argued that my field has become a tribal moral community, and the absence of conservatives, not just their underrepresentation, has serious consequences for the quality of our science.

The popular perceptions of academia as a home for liberals makes it seem unlikely it will change any time soon. Especially if Republicans continue to see this exclusion as an advantage by discrediting academia for having a bias. The closing thoughts of the Star Tribune’s Op-Ed eloquently summarizes the consequences of this enduring trend.

Unfortunately, the estrangement will serve only to reinforce the lopsidedness of university politics, undermine the confidence of a large share of the public in expert opinion, and jeopardize the role of the university in public life whenever conservatives are in power.

Photo by Jan Siefert via flickr
Photo by Jan Siefert via flickr

Some experience discrimination throughout their lives, while, for others, it’s simply living long enough that leads to discrimination. According to research from Clemson University sociologist Ye Luo and her team that’s reported in The New York TimesNew Old Age blog, nearly two thirds of those over age 53 report having been discriminated against—and the leading cause they report isn’t gender, race, or disability. It’s age.

Now, on its own, this statistic isn’t terribly surprising—many studies have turned up high levels of ageism. But Luo told the Times she was shocked that, over the two-year period of their study, everyday discrimination was found to be associated with higher levels of depression and worse self-reported health. The association held true even as the researchers controlled for general stress resulting from financial problems, illness, and traumatic events. As the Times reports:

Interestingly, the discrimination effect was stronger for everyday slights and suspicions (including whether people felt harassed or threatened, or whether they felt others were afraid of them) than for more dramatic evens like being denied a job or promotion or being unfairly detained or questioned by the police. “Awful things happen and it’s a big shock, but people have ways to resist that damage,” Dr. Luo said. “With maturity, people learn coping skills.” Every day discrimination works differently, apparently. “It may be more difficult to avoid or adapt to,” Dr. Luo suggested. “It takes a toll you may not even realize.”

Although trends may shift as more data comes into focus, it’s already clear that the well-being of older adults is being affected when they experience ageism in their social interactions.

In some circles the social sciences are criticized for “discovering” what common sense supposedly already tells us. But sometimes, societal trends can cause even the experts to scratch their heads. During the recent recession, for example, unemployment rates in the United States rose sharply and many scholars and politicians expected crime rates to follow suit. According to recently released FBI crime statistics, though, they haven’t.

Violent crimes have fallen 6.4 percent in the last year while property crimes dropped 3.7 percent. Plus, last year’s crime decrease was just a continuation of a downward pattern since 2008; since 1991, the homicide rate has fallen 51 percent and property crimes dropped by 64 percent.

Photo by Cyndy Sims Parr via flickr

When this data went public, news sources like National Public Radio, the LA Times, and MSNBC.com looked to see how experts in criminology reacted to the findings. Richard Rosenfeld, professor at the University of Missouri-St. Louis and former president of the American Society of Criminology, was, “surprised by the overall decline in both violent and property crime during and since the recent recession.” He went on, “I’ve studied crime trends in relation to economic conditions for some time, and the 2008-09 recession is the first time since WWII that crime rates have not risen during a substantial downturn in the economy.” Many, including Rosenfeld, attribute some of the decline to smarter policing, but admit that can’t account for all of it, since in many places policing hasn’t changed much in the past ten years or during the recession.

Franklin Zimring, a criminologist and UC Berkeley law professor, was also a puzzled to see a decline in crime during the last three years when incarceration rates have stalled and the economy has soured. “By both the left- and right-wing leading indicators we should be in a lot of trouble—except [we’re] not,” Zimring maintains. “Everything we thought we knew are deeply challenged by events by the last three years.” In an email written to msnbc.com, Zimring does, though, suggest one possible factor affecting this decline: Inflation. “High rates of inflation are connected with high crime rates, so when inflation drops we should expect corresponding declines in crime, in the first instance property crime.”

Although bewilderment in the face of a crime decline is a relatively good problem to have, most scholars and public officials still agree on the importance of getting to the bottom of what’s causing it—particularly if it might be replicable.