A child is fed in the South African refugee camp De Dooms. Photo by Courtney Brooks via flickr.com.
A child is fed in the South African refugee camp De Dooms. Photo by Courtney Brooks via flickr.com.

Amidst the uncertainty surrounding the health of Nelson Mandela, it’s an interesting time to reflect on the legacy of race and inequality in South Africa. Although the work of Mandela and others has extended human rights to black South Africans, a recent Al Jazeera article by Minnesota sociologist Cawo Abdi illustrates the continued violence and racism against Somali immigrants in South Africa, as highlighted by the recent gruesome murder of a young Somali refugee.

Relegated to informal housing settlements, many Somali refugees work as entrepreneurs in the informal economy. They open shops, called spazas, that provide goods and services to neglected, poor black neighborhoods. These neighborhoods themselves are rife with violence, both criminal and vigilante. Abdi writes:

Labeling violence against migrants as simply xenophobic diverts attention from the context of violence, the generalized criminality that is a daily reality for those in informal settlements. The brutality forces us to confront the limited access that many South Africans have to the social, economic, and political rights enshrined in the country’s progressive constitution.

Historically considered an issue of racial equality between black and white South Africans, Abdi demonstrates that issues of economic inequality and anti-immigrant sentiment are just as pervasive in the country.

Photo by David Noah via Flickr.com.
Photo by David Noah via Flickr.com.

It is old news that many women are postponing childbearing until after they have established their careers. Those of us who have rounded to the other side of thirty have been warned repeatedly, by doctors, mothers, and the general public alike, about the impending, relentless ticking of our biological clocks and our diminished chances of pregnancy. With this demographic trend has come the tired yet all-too-relevant trope of the childless urban professional suddenly obsessed with pregnancy. (See, for reference, half of the characters in Sex and the City and all three female leads on Friends.)

However, men are actually just as baby-crazed, if not moreso, than their female counterparts, according to an article by Katie McDonough at Salon.com. Sociologist Robin Hadley from Keele University surveyed 81 women and 27 men on their feelings about not having children. While men and women both expressed a desire for children at about the same rate, men were more likely to feel depressed, angry, isolated, and jealous about not having children. In fact, 69% of childless men surveyed “had experienced yearning for a child, in comparison to just 11% of women.”

According to Hadley,

This challenges the common idea that women are much more likely to want to have children than men, and that they consistently experience a range of negative emotions more deeply than men if they don’t have children.

A chart from O'Rourke's paper, via the Boston Globe.
A chart from O’Rourke’s paper, via the Boston Globe.

A social problem examined by sociologists for decades, the white-black wealth gap has widened to record highs during the recession, with the median wealth for white households at twenty times that of their black counterparts. On the Boston Globe’s Brainiac blog, Kevin Hartnett shares a recent study by Princeton sociology graduate student Rourke O’Brien. The study quantitatively tests the idea that this wealth discrepancy is due, in part, to giving or loaning money to relatives.

Middle-income blacks are more than twice as likely as middle-income whites to have a poor sibling and more than four times as likely to have parents below the poverty line. And because of these relationships, they’re called upon more often to provide financial assistance.

Whereas investments can be used to generate more wealth, gifts and informal loans to family members are usually spent  paying bills or covering immediate financial needs. O’Brien argues that informal financial support networks can account for roughly 27% of the white-black wealth gap.

In the wake of Superstorm Sandy, Occupy Wall Street shifted its efforts to neighborhood-level storm relief. Image via Daniel Latorre via flickr.com.

Like Hurricane Katrina and other natural disasters affecting urban areas, Superstorm Sandy reminded many that U.S. cities are unprepared for the effects of climate change. According to sociologist Eric Klinenberg in a recent issue of The New Yorker, the U.S. lags far behind other countries in “climate-proofing,” or investing in infrastructural developments that will protect cities and their inhabitants from increasingly-severe natural disasters and rising water levels.

Beyond investing in physical infrastructure, preparing for and surviving climate change, Klinenberg writes, will involve “recognizing the importance of social infrastructure: the people, places, and institutions that foster cohesion and support.” Harvard sociologist Robert J. Sampson has emphasized the importance of strong social ties during natural disasters. In their research on the 1995 Chicago heat wave that killed over 700 people, Klinenberg and Sampson found that neighborhoods with a strong sense of community and many churches and civic organizations—neighborhoods where people look out for one another—fare better when disaster strikes.

Although infrastructure investment and development play a major role in mitigating the effects of climate change, it may well prove that “civil society will ultimately determine which people and places will withstand the emerging threats from climate change.”

The controversial New York Post cover, cropped so as not to show the victim, nor the word DOOMED (all caps in the original). Image via nypost.com.

On a busy bridge in Detroit during a traffic jam, Deletha Word was pulled from her car by Martell Welch, whose car she had sideswiped. In view of more than forty people, former football-player Welch savagely beat Word, tearing off her clothes. Welch jumped off the bridge to escape her attacker and subsequently drowned. When I heard this story on the evening news back in 1996, I was horrified that not one of the many onlookers attempted to stop Word’s attack or to pull her from the river (she initially survived the fall, but couldn’t swim). I will never forget my first introduction to the “Bystander Effect,” the social phenomenon in which individuals are less likely to intervene to help someone in distress if there are other people nearby.

The Bystander Effect was highlighted again recently as a result of the notoriously-tactless New York Post’s front-page publication of photographs of a man about to be killed by an oncoming New York City subway train. The man had been pushed onto the tracks after an altercation was struggling to get back onto the platform. Facing criticism for photographing the man’s death, rather than helping pull him from the tracks, the photographer has defended himself in the media. He’s said he could not have gotten to the victim in time to save him, but by taking photos—thus causing his camera’s flash to go off and possibly alert the driver of the train—he hoped to help. Plus, many other people were closer to the man, but did nothing to pull him up.

Arguably, social media has exacerbated the Bystander Effect. Tim Knapp, a sociologist at Missouri State University, commented in an article about the NYC incident, “Now everyone can be a journalist and some times, at the expense of being a good Samaritan.” That is, no longer are onlookers passive observers who “do not want to get involved” or risk their own personal safety; now many bystanders film or photograph the incidents in which they fail to intervene.

Barter Photo by Irina Slutsky via flickr.com
Barter Photo by Irina Slutsky via flickr.com

The global recession has caused a crisis of trust in both the political and financial systems. In his new book Aftermath, Spanish sociologist Manuel Castells turns his attention to the current financial crisis and life beyond the crisis. Speaking to the BBC’s Paul Mason recently, Castells talked about his particular interest in how the recession has forced people to reimagine their lives outside of their identity as a consumer. It has, he says, produced new, “non-capitalist” forms of economic behavior operating outside the financial system, rather than seeking to reform it.

A kind of protest counterculture, these growing alternative economies directly resist individualistic consumer culture through strategies such as no-interest lending, barter networks for goods and services, and co-operatives through which consumers can collectively access and raise resources. This financial system backlash also includes the rise of “ethical” banks, which forbid the kind of speculative investment and lending that created the financial crisis in the first place.

Another cooperative ethical model includes “crowdfunding,” in which individuals collectively raise money toward a specific goal. Made famous by websites such as Kickstarter and Indiegogo, crowdfunding has been used for software development, independent movie and music ventures, and political campaigns. It has also been used as grassroots activism. This summer, as documented in a Christian Science Monitor article, the Spanish government refused to investigate the collapse of one of its major banks, which taxpayer money had bailed out. Through crowdfunding, the Spanish version of the Occupy movement raised enough money to initiate a class action lawsuit against the bank—an incentive for the government to launch its own investigation into the bank’s collapse.

The significance of alternative economic movements for Castells, then, lies in the control that it gives to individuals and groups otherwise rendered powerless by political and economic structures.

At The Reason Rally 2012 in Washington, DC. Photo by makelessnoise via flickr.com.

Americans are extremely dubious about the integrity of atheists. In fact, an article by several of Minnesota’s own sociologists, “Atheists as Other,” found that atheists are the least trusted minority. Most Americans think that the absence of belief in the divine renders one prone to turpitude and without basis for morality.

According to Rohan Maitzen in a recent article from Salon, the remedy for this ethic-less reputation lies in the most unlikely of places, namely the semi-obscure novel Silas Marner: The Weaver of Raveloe by famous atheist George Eliot. In contrast to Richard Dawkins’ and Christopher Hitchens’ confrontational stance toward religion, Eliot understood “religion as the form through which many people have, historically, expressed their best moral impulses.” She did not mind religiosity so long as it fostered feelings of sympathy and responsibility for human suffering.

At once a “stringent moralist and an unbeliever,” Eliot wove a tale of human suffering, loss, and redemption through the experiences of the title character, using the “affective power of fiction to convert us to faith, not in God, but in humanity.” Indeed, through the tale of Silas Marner and her own letters to her deeply religious family, Eliot poignantly makes the case for the morality of atheism, mainly because “in a material universe there are no rewards or punishments to come later.” Summing it up, Eliot explained to another writer,

It is a pang to me to witness the suffering of a fellow-being, and I feel his suffering the more acutely because he is mortal—because his life is so short, and I would have it, if possible, filled with happiness and not misery.