Photo by Dawn Derbyshire via

At the American Sociological Association’s Annual Meeting in Denver, researchers presented their on-going research to colleagues in the field. This week, several news sources have covered sociologists’ findings about how events in the lifecourse (like getting married, divorced, or having kids) are related to health issues.

Medical News Today reports on a study by Adrianne Frech and Sarah Damaske, finding that moms who work full-time are healthier at age 40 than are other mothers. Particularly concerning is that the least healthy mothers at age 40 are those who are persistently unemployed or in and out of work, not by choice. Consistent work, these findings suggest, may be good for women’s health.

Co-author Adrianne Frech, Assistant Sociology Professor at the University of Akron in Ohio, told the press, work is good for both physical and mental health, for many reasons:

“It gives women a sense of purpose, self-efficacy, control and autonomy.”

“They have a place where they are an expert on something, and they’re paid a wage,” she added.

NBC News details research conducted by Michael McFarland, Mark Hayward, and Dustin Brown exploring how marriage is related to biological risk factors, such as high blood pressure. They found that women who were continuously married for longer periods of time had fewer cardiovascular risks, whereas women with experiences of divorce or widowhood had increased risk factors.

For women, the researchers found, the longer the marriage, the fewer cardiovascular risk factors. The effect was significant but modest, McFarland said, with every 10 years of continuous marriage associated with a 13 percent decrease in cardiovascular risk.

But when marriage is disrupted, it can be hard on the health. Women who were continuously married had a 40 percent lower count of metabolic risk factors than women who experienced two episodes or divorce or widowhood, the researchers found.

Finally, Deseret News picked up on research presented by Corinne Reczek, Tetyana Pudroyska, and Debra Umberson (also highlighted on Citings&Sightings). Their research found that being in a long-term marriage was associated with more alcohol consumption for women (compared to divorced or recently widowed women). In an interesting contrast, however, married men drink less than other men.

Our survey results show that continuously divorced and recently widowed women consume fewer drinks that continuously married women,” they wrote. “Our qualitative results suggest this occurs because men introduce and prompt women’s drinking and because divorced women lose the influence of men’s alcohol use” when the marriage fails.

As these studies indicate, it is essential to consider how social factors may be related to health outcomes, and sociologists are well positioned to contribute cutting-edge research on these issues.


Google Doodle screenshot via 5tjt
Google Doodle screenshot via 5tjt

The doodle on the Google home page today may have raised a few eyebrows. Featuring a dark-skinned man running over a course of hurdles on a pink track lined with green grass, for some, it conjures up the historically problematic association of African Americans with watermelons. An op-ed in Five Towns Jewish Times contemplates whether the doodle is racist, or if it should be dismissed as an unfortunate coincidence. The piece cites a post by Lisa Wade, sociologist and TSP blogger, to unpack why such images are offensive when placed in historical context:

“African Americans,”  the argument went, “were happy as slaves.  They didn’t need the complicated responsibilities of freedom, they just needed some shade and a cool, delicious treat.”

The pervasive association with watermelons has reinforced the stereotype of African Americans as simple-minded and inferior, thus justifying systems of oppression and inequality. With this problematic history, perhaps Google would do well to reconsider this doodle.

Family dinners are often thought of as a sort of magical hour each night, where parents and children connect, laughing and talking about their day over steaming dishes of mashed potatoes and green beans. So, where does that leave (perhaps the majority of) families for which this illusive ideal doesn’t quite become daily reality? Past research has suggested that regular family dinners do have many positive outcomes in kids’ lives, but new work by Ann Meier and Kelly Musick suggests the relationship may not simply be a straightforward case of cause and effect. Writing in The New York Times, Meier and Musick wonder:

[D]oes eating together really make for better-adjusted kids? Or is it just that families that can pull off a regular dinner also tend to have other things (perhaps more money, or more time) that themselves improve child well-being?

Our research, published last month in the peer-reviewed Journal of Marriage and Family, shows that the benefits of family dinners aren’t as strong or as lasting as previous studies suggest.

They did find that kids who had regular family dinners exhibited less depressive symptoms, drug and alcohol use, and delinquency. However, the relationship significantly weakened after accounting for factors like the quality of their family relationships, other activities they do with their parents, how their parents monitor them, or their family’s income. Additionally, Meier and Musick didn’t find lasting effects of family dinners when they analyzed data collected years later, when the kids were young adults.

What, then, should you think about dinnertime? Though we are more cautious than other researchers about the unique benefits of family dinners, we don’t dismiss the possibility that they can matter for child well-being. Given that eating is universal and routine, family meals offer a natural opportunity for parental influence: there are few other contexts in family life that provide a regular window of focused time together…

But our findings suggest that the effects of family dinners on children depend on the extent to which parents use the time to engage with their children and learn about their day-to-day lives. So if you aren’t able to make the family meal happen on a regular basis, don’t beat yourself up: just find another way to connect with your kids.


The Ottawa Citizen recently explored the portrayal of fathers on the small screen, unpacking the common perception that TV dads are increasingly shown as inept, lazy, or immature. Think Ward Cleaver as compared to Tim Taylor, Ray Barone, or Homer Simpson. Diana Miller, a sociology graduate student at the University of Toronto, designed a study to compare fatherhood in 1950’s sitcoms to more recent shows like Two and a Half Men and Everybody Loves Raymond. She found, actually, more similarities than differences:

There is almost no difference in how often men express anger or emotional attachment. And men in the 1950s were almost as likely to say they were being victimized by someone else, such as their boss, as they do in the recent sitcoms.

Men in both sets of sitcoms also show almost equal amounts of self-deprecating behaviour. In Make Room for Daddy, Danny Thomas made affable comments about his mechanical ineptitude. Fast-forward 35 years and Chandler Bing of Friends was often revealed as deeply insecure. It’s a different kind of self-deprecation, but there’s not much difference in the number of these incidents on television, says Miller.

Probably the greatest difference Miller noted is that men in the recent sitcoms make fewer imperative statements, are less likely to be respectful to others, and less likely to be respected by others. It might signal a decline in male authority, but it’s also a sign of all-around lower standards of decorum and politeness, she says.

Men in the recent sitcoms are also more likely to be immature. In Miller’s recent sample, there were about five times as many incidents of immaturity as in the 1950s series. But sitcom women have also become increasingly immature.

“The shows that tell our stories have changed less than we acknowledge,” says Miller. “Men are getting more immature. But women are as well.”

Sitcoms do often rely on the bumbling or childlike man to produce some comedy value, but commitment and love for their families seems to be a mainstay. Old school gender roles are in TV-land flux, as men are often seen as taking on responsibilities in the household (though they also often try to shirk these tasks), and women are picking up the roles of disciplinarian and decision maker. Despite this, 1950s-style values still seem to permeate these make-believe families. Historian Judy Kutulas comments:

No matter how non-traditional families appear to be on the surface, they are still traditional to the core, says Kutulas, who points out that Modern Family has been cited as a favourite both with U.S. President Barack Obama’s family and Republican presidential contender Mitt Romney.

The show’s three families might be unconventional, but the husbands are breadwinners and their significant others are stay-at-home caregivers; this holds true even for the gay couple with an adopted daughter. The characters live in relative affluence and everyone has time for family gatherings.

Miller concludes by saying that studying sitcoms is like looking into a “funhouse mirror” of society, in which the reflection of reality is distorted. While it’s true that real life and TV life are not direct reflections of one another, there does seem to be a reciprocal relationship between them, with television both reflecting and shaping shifting cultural values and social structures. Exploring the world of sitcoms and their connection to broader social changes may give new, powerful meaning to the idea of reality TV.

Bank customers in Germany recently voted among potential images to be printed on their bank cards, and a bronze bust of Karl Marx emerged as the clear favorite. As Marx glares at the MasterCard logo, we as sociologists wonder what he might have to say about this curious turn of events.

Reuters reports on the potential significance of Marx as a symbol for the residents who voted for the image in the German city of Chemnitz:

Before the fall of the Berlin Wall, citizens of Chemnitz – then known as Karl-Marx-Stadt – and the rest of East Germany would have seen Marx’s face on their 100-Mark banknotes.

Flattened during World War Two, Chemnitz was rebuilt as a model socialist city and still boasts a seven meter-tall bust of Marx in its center. The city has been economically depressed since the end of communism and its population has shrunk by 20 percent.

The east has witnessed a wave of nostalgia in recent years for aspects of the old East Germany, or DDR, where citizens had few freedoms but were guaranteed jobs and social welfare.

Visit NPR for an image of the card and to contribute to a forum of potential Marx-inspired taglines.

After the recent shock of a federal indictment of 29 Somali and Somali American individuals on sex trafficking charges, the New York Times reports on the Minnesota Somali community’s attempts to deal with the situation.

The allegations of organized trafficking, unsealed this month, were a deep shock for the tens of thousands of Somalis in the Minneapolis area, who fled civil war and famine to build new lives in the United States and now wonder how some of their youths could have strayed so far. Last week, in quiet murmurings over tea and in an emergency public meeting, parents and elders expressed bewilderment and sometimes outrage — anger with the authorities for not acting sooner to stop the criminals, and with themselves for not saving their young.

The indictment was the latest in a series of jolting revelations starting around 2007, when a spate of deadly shootings in the Twin Cities made it impossible to ignore the emergence of Somali gangs. Then came the discovery that more than 20 men had returned to Somalia to fight for Islamic extremists, bringing what many Somalis feel has been harsh and unfair scrutiny from law enforcement and the news media.

A sociologist weighs in on why this pattern of problems seems to be continuing:

Cawo Abdi, a Somali sociologist at the University of Minnesota, said that past surges in concern about troubled youths had not been followed up with money and programs to help them. “This is viewed as such a huge scandal and outrage,” she said of the new charges, “that it has to lead to some kind of action.”

Read the rest of the article for discussion of some of the challenges facing Somali people in the Twin Cities.

Morningside Heights/HarlemSince the 1960s, sociologists have shied away from explaining the persistence of poverty in terms of cultural factors, instead emphasizing the social structures that create and perpetuate poverty. Now, the New York Times reports, there seems to be a resurgence of analysis linking culture and persistent poverty.

The old debate has shaped the new. Last month Princeton and the Brookings Institution released a collection of papers on unmarried parents, a subject, it noted, that became off-limits after the Moynihan report. At the recent annual meeting of the American Sociological Association, attendees discussed the resurgence of scholarship on culture. And in Washington last spring, social scientists participated in a Congressional briefing on culture and poverty linked to a special issue of The Annals, the journal of the American Academy of Political and Social Science.

This, however, is not a reproduction of ‘culture of poverty’ scholarship; current work is significantly different:

With these studies come many new and varied definitions of culture, but they all differ from the ’60s-era model in these crucial respects: Today, social scientists are rejecting the notion of a monolithic and unchanging culture of poverty. And they attribute destructive attitudes and behavior not to inherent moral character but to sustained racism and isolation.

Harvard sociologist Robert J. Sampson says that how people collectively view their community matters.

The shared perception of a neighborhood — is it on the rise or stagnant? — does a better job of predicting a community’s future than the actual level of poverty, he said.

Sociologists try to unpack what this means:

Seeking to recapture the topic from economists, sociologists have ventured into poor neighborhoods to delve deeper into the attitudes of residents. Their results have challenged some common assumptions, like the belief that poor mothers remain single because they don’t value marriage.

In Philadelphia, for example, low-income mothers told the sociologists Kathryn Edin and Maria Kefalas that they thought marriage was profoundly important, even sacred, but doubted that their partners were “marriage material.” Their results have prompted some lawmakers and poverty experts to conclude that programs that promote marriage without changing economic and social conditions are unlikely to work.

The article speculates about several reasons why a cultural approach to studying poverty is reemerging, including a new generation of scholars, advancements in data collection and analysis, and shifts in broader discourse and attitudes outside the university, as well.

Take a look at the full article.

Two weeks into Breast Cancer Awareness Month, the pink ribbons have been fluttering in full force. A New York Times blog urges a little reflection on the meaning of this now ubiquitous phenomenon:

The pink ribbon has been a spectacular success in terms of bringing recognition and funding to the breast cancer cause. But now there is a growing impatience about what some critics have termed “pink ribbon culture.” Medical sociologist Gayle A. Sulik, author of the new book “Pink Ribbon Blues: How Breast Cancer Culture Undermines Women’s Health” (Oxford University Press), calls it “the rise of pink October.”

“Pink ribbon paraphernalia saturate shopping malls, billboards, magazines, television and other entertainment venues,” she writes on her Web site. “The pervasiveness of the pink ribbon campaign leads many people to believe that the fight against breast cancer is progressing, when in truth it’s barely begun.”

The campaign builds on a long history of breast cancer activism, beginning in the 1970s, and now represents mainstream recognition of the cause.

So how can the pink ribbon be objectionable? Among the first salvos against the pink ribbon was a 2001 article in Harper’s magazine entitled “Welcome to Cancerland,” written by the well-known feminist author Barbara Ehrenreich. Herself a breast cancer patient, Ms. Ehrenreich delivered a scathing attack on the kitsch and sentimentality that she believed pervaded breast cancer activism.

A few additional critiques:

In “Pink Ribbon Blues,” Ms. Sulik offers three main objections to the pink ribbon. First, she worries that pink ribbon campaigns impose a model of optimism and uplift on women with breast cancer, although many such women actually feel cynicism, anger and similar emotions.

And like Ms. Ehrenreich, Ms. Sulik worries that the color pink reinforces stereotypical notions of gender — for example, that recovery from breast cancer necessarily entails having breast reconstruction, wearing makeup and “restoring the feminine body.”

Finally, Ms. Sulik closely examines what she calls the “financial incentives that keep the war on breast cancer profitable.” She reports that the Susan G. Komen Foundation, which annually sponsors over 125 annual Races for the Cure and more than a dozen three-day, 60-mile walks, has close to 200 corporate partners, including many drug companies. These associations, she warns, are a potential conflict of interest.

Read the rest.

Defining a family has legal significance, of course, for matters such as taxes or employee benefits, but this question is even more complex when trying to understand how people think about what constitutes a family, more generally. Understanding which types of arrangements “count” as a family and which do not reveals a lot about shifting cultural expectations and social norms.

New research by Brian Powell, reported by ABC News, suggests that having children is a key ingredient for many people in defining a family, particularly when asked about unmarried or same-sex couples.

“Children provide this, quote, ‘guarantee’ that move you to family status,” Powell said. “Having children signals something. It signals that there really is a commitment and a sense of responsibility in a family.”

For instance, 39.6 percent in 2010 said that an unmarried man and woman living together were a family — but give that couple some kids and 83 percent say that’s a family.

Thirty-three percent said a gay male couple was a family. Sixty-four percent said they became a family when they added children.

However, despite what labels others may place on you, most respondents thought self-identification was more important:

Sixty percent of Americans in 2010 said that if you considered yourself to be a family, then you were one.

Oliver Wang from The Atlantic recently wrote about the complicated relationship between sociologists and the media, an issue at the heart of this Citings and Sightings endeavor:

Here’s an age-old beef between scientists (social or otherwise) and journalists: the former tend to be exceptionally careful about drawing conclusions from their research. It’s one thing to argue, “Data X and Data Y show a relationship,” it’s another thing altogether to actually argue, “Data X is the cause of Data Y.” This is what’s known as the correlation vs. causality distinction and it is absolutely fundamental to any kind of responsible research methodology and discussion.

The problem is, journalists—or perhaps better said, editors—aren’t such big fans of that kind of nuance. They want an attention-grabbing headline that definitively states to the casual reader, “X causes Y.” A headline reading, “X and Y show a relationship but future research is needed to prove a causal link” is not so sexy. And hey, I work in journalism, I understand the importance of a sexy headline …but sexy + responsible are not always soul mates.

One example of this is the post-ASA media interpretation of a study presented by sociologists Bill McCarthy and Eric Grodsky. The eye-catching titles include:

“Study: Teen Sex Won’t Always Hurt Grades” (Time)
“Sex in romantic relationships is harmless” (Times of India)
“How Teen Sex Affects Education” (BusinessWeek)
“Teen sex not always bad for school performance” (AP)

Wang wonders, however, what nuances these intriguing titles may ignore:

Of this batch, all of them insinuate a direct relationship between teen sex and school performance. But you read the actual articles themselves, you get practically no useful information about the study except what the headline implies. Most of these articles are very short, just a few hundred words (if even that) and most barely include anything from the actual researchers (the Time post, for example, has nary a quote), telling the reader what conclusions they’re actually drawing and why. The one article that actually bothers to do any of this is the BusinessWeek post but it too is still relatively short.

Here’s the thing: I’m not saying this study is being reported wrong, i.e. that the headlines actually misinterpret the study. But if I had reported on this, the very first thing I would have done is contact the two lead researchers, UC Davis’ Bill McCarthy and U-Minn’s Eric Grodsky and ask, “couldn’t it be the case that students with high grades are more likely to pursue stable sexual relationships vs. students with low grades are also more likely to engage in casual sex?” In other words, maybe grades and relationship types are linked by some third factor: personality type, home stability, parental oversight, etc.

Now that’s journalism with a sociological eye. The article goes on to take an in-depth look at the research findings from the recent Contexts feature article on “hooking up”. Read the rest.