100B8130The New York Times recently featured an op-ed by David Brooks on the role of sports in American society.  Commenting on the teachings of sociologist Eugen Rosenstock Huessy:

He used literary and other allusions when he wanted to talk about ethics, community, mysticism and emotion. But none of the students seemed to get it. Then, after a few years, he switched to sports analogies. Suddenly, everything clicked.

“The world in which the American student who comes to me at about twenty years of age really has confidence in is the world of sport,” he would write. “This world encompasses all of his virtues and experiences, affection and interests; therefore, I have built my entire sociology around the experiences an American has in athletics and games.”

Brooks summarizes Michael Allen Gillespie’s take on how American sports are organized:

Throughout Western history, Gillespie argues, there have been three major athletic traditions. First, there was the Greek tradition. Greek sports were highly individualistic. There was little interest in teamwork. Instead sports were supposed to inculcate aristocratic virtues like courage and endurance. They gave individuals a way to achieve eternal glory.

Then, there was the Roman tradition. In ancient Rome, free men did not fight in the arena. Roman sports were a spectacle organized by the government. The free Romans watched while the slaves fought and were slaughtered. The entertainment emphasized the awesome power of the state.

Finally, there was the British tradition. In the Victorian era, elite schools used sports to form a hardened ruling class. Unlike the Greeks, the British placed tremendous emphasis on team play and sportsmanship. If a soccer team committed a foul, it would withdraw its goalie to permit the other team to score. The object was to inculcate a sense of group loyalty, honor and rule-abidingness — traits that were important to a class trying to manage a far-flung empire.

Gillespie argues that the American sports ethos is a fusion of these three traditions. American sport teaches that effort leads to victory, a useful lesson in a work-oriented society. Sport also helps Americans navigate the tension between team loyalty and individual glory. We behave like the British, but think like the Greeks, A. Bartlett Giamatti, a former baseball commissioner, once observed.

Brooks also makes the case for the role of collective effervescence that college sports provide:

Several years ago, I arrived in Madison, Wis., for a conference. It was Saturday morning, and as my taxi got close to campus, I noticed people dressed in red walking in the same direction. At first it was a trickle, then thousands. It looked like the gathering of a happy Midwestern cult, though, of course, it was the procession to a football game.

In a segmented society, big-time college sports are one of the few avenues for large-scale communal participation. Mass college sports cross class lines. They induce large numbers of people in a region to stop, at the same time, and share common emotional experiences.

The crowds at big-time college sporting events do not sit passively, the way they do at a movie theater. They roar, suffer and invent chants (especially at Duke basketball games). Mass college sports are the emotional hubs at the center of vast networks of analysis, criticism and conversation. They generate loyalties that are less harmful than ethnic loyalties and emotional morality plays that are at once completely meaningless and totally consuming.

Day 167/365 - Pure EvilMany skinny Americans are fed up with obesity, reports the Los Angeles Times:

“Americans as a society are getting fed up with the matter of obesity. No doubt about it,” said Douglas Metz, chief of health services for American Specialty Health, a San Diego-based company that offers wellness programs to employers. “Some pockets of society are taking positive action, and unfortunately others are taking negative action. That’s what happens when a society hasn’t figured out what the fix is.”

Recent notable actions include:

* A recent and ultimately unsuccessful plan at Lincoln University in Pennsylvania sought to take the body mass index of every enrolling student and require the obese to lose weight or take a fitness class before they could graduate.
* In Mississippi, legislators tried to pass a bill to let restaurants prohibit obese people from dining.
* In an interview with the New York Times last August, Toby Cosgrove, chief executive of the Cleveland Clinic, one of the nation’s largest medical centers, provoked national outrage when he said that, if it were up to him, he would stop hiring the obese. He later apologized for his remarks.
* Last summer in Florida, animal rights activists at People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) took aim at heavy women in a “Save the whales” billboard campaign that featured an overweight, bikini-clad woman. It read: “Lose the blubber. Go vegetarian.” Angry reactions caused the organization to remove the signs.

Statistics about obesity are being assessed in the current debates on how to reduce the nation’s health care costs:

A report by Emory University researchers projected last November that by 2018 the United States could expect to spend $344 billion on healthcare costs attributable to obesity. Obesity-related costs would account for 21% of healthcare spending, up from 9.1% today, said the report, sponsored in part by the United Health Foundation and the American Public Health Assn.

Providing a different take on the issue, it’s time to call in the sociologist:

“In our society, being heavy has become more of a stigma lately because we’re struggling with other issues of consumption,” says Abigail Saguy, associate professor of sociology at UCLA.

The economic climate, a recent history of people buying more than they can afford as well as environmental issues, including the depletion of our planet’s resources, are making people feel more angry about society’s overconsumption, she says. Obviously overweight people are an easy target.

“They’re almost a caricature of greed, overconsumption, overspending, over-leveraging and overusing resources,” says Saguy. “Though it’s not entirely rational, it’s an understandable reaction, especially in a country founded on the Puritan ethics of self-reliance, sacrifice and individual responsibility. If people feel they’re sacrificing, then see someone spilling over an airplane seat, they feel angry that that person is not making the same sacrifices they are.”

Research indicates that discrimination based on weight has been increasing in recent years:

Rebecca Puhl, a researcher at Yale University’s Rudd Center for Food Policy and Obesity, published [two papers] last January — one in the journal Obesity, the other in the International Journal of Obesity — Puhl reported that weight discrimination in the United States increased 66% over the prior decade.

“Weight discrimination is highly prevalent in American society and increasing,” said Puhl, who cites several possible reasons. Among them are a lack of legislation to prohibit weight discrimination and an increase in media coverage of obesity (up fivefold from 1992 to 2003). Most media framed the problem of obesity as one of personal responsibility, she reported.

115.365 - Porn for Women: VacuumingDoes a rise in women’s earning power have benefits to marriage beyond economic stability?  In an attempt to address this question, a recent New York Times article summarized some of the recent social scientific evidence on the rise of working women:

Last week, a report from the Pew Research Center about what it called “the rise of wives” revived the debate. Based on a study of Census data, Pew found that in nearly a third of marriages, the wife is better educated than her husband. And though men, over all, still earn more than women, wives are now the primary breadwinner in 22 percent of couples, up from 7 percent in 1970.

While the changing economic roles of husbands and wives may take some getting used to, the shift has had a surprising effect on marital stability. Over all, the evidence shows that the shifts within marriages — men taking on more housework and women earning more outside the home — have had a positive effect, contributing to lower divorce rates and happier unions.

The article points to demographic and sociological evidence that suggests greater marital stability and egalitarianism when a woman is more economically independent:

While it’s widely believed that a woman’s financial independence increases her risk for divorce, divorce rates in the United States tell a different story: they have fallen as women have made economic gains. The rate peaked at 23 divorces per 1,000 couples in the late 1970s, but has since dropped to fewer than 17 divorces per 1,000 couples. Today, the statistics show that typically, the more economic independence and education a woman gains, the more likely she is to stay married. And in states where fewer wives have paid jobs, divorce rates tend to be higher, according to a 2009 report from the Center for American Progress.

Sociologists and economists say that financially independent women can be more selective in marrying, and they also have more negotiating power within the marriage. But it’s not just women who win. The net result tends to be a marriage that is more fair and equitable to husbands and wives.

The changes are not without their challenges. “With women taking on more earning and men taking on more caring, there’s a lot of shifting and juggling,” said Andrea Doucet, a sociology professor at Carleton University in Ottawa. Her study, the Bread and Roses Project, tracks couples in the United States and Canada in which women are the primary breadwinners. But the dynamic is “not as easy as you’d think it would be,” she said. “You can’t just reverse the genders.”

Men, for instance, sometimes have a hard time adjusting to a woman’s equal or greater earning power. Women, meanwhile, struggle with giving up their power at home and controlling tasks like how to dress the children or load the dishwasher.

Highlighting additional sociological evidence:

Kristen W. Springer, a sociologist at Rutgers, has found that among men in their 50s, having a wife who earns more money is associated with poorer health. Among the highest earning couples in her study, a husband who earns less than his wife is 60 percent less likely to be in good health compared with men who earn more than their wives.

And despite the sweeping economic changes in marriage over the last 40 years, all is not equal. Even among dual-earning couples, women still do about two-thirds of the housework, on average, according to the University of Wisconsin National Survey of Families and Households. But men do contribute far more than they used to. Studies show that since the 1960s, men’s contributions to housework have doubled, while the amount of time spent caring for children has tripled.

And the blurring of traditional gender roles appears to have a positive effect. Lynn Prince Cooke, a sociology professor at the University of Kent in England, has found that American couples who share employment and housework responsibilities are less likely to divorce compared with couples where the man is the sole breadwinner.

Professor outfit 1

The New York Times recently highlighted recent research by sociologists Neil Gross and Ethan Fosse on the tendency for professors to be liberal:

New research suggests that critics may have been asking the wrong question. Instead of looking at why most professors are liberal, they should ask why so many liberals — and so few conservatives — want to be professors.

In their findings, Gross and Fosse chalk this one up to typecasting:

Conjure up the classic image of a humanities or social sciences professor, the fields where the imbalance is greatest: tweed jacket, pipe, nerdy, longwinded, secular — and liberal. Even though that may be an outdated stereotype, it influences younger people’s ideas about what they want to be when they grow up.

Jobs can be typecast in different ways, said Neil Gross and Ethan Fosse, who undertook the study. For instance, less than 6 percent of nurses today are men. Discrimination against male candidates may be a factor, but the primary reason for the disparity is that most people consider nursing to be a woman’s career, Mr. Gross said. That means not many men aspire to become nurses in the first place — a point made in the recent Lee Daniels film “Precious: Based on the Novel ‘Push’ by Sapphire.” When John (Lenny Kravitz) asks the 16-year-old Precious (Gabourey Sidibe) and her friends whether they’ve ever seen a male nurse before, all answer no amid giddy laughter.

Nursing is what sociologists call “gender typed.” Mr. Gross said that “professors and a number of other fields are politically typed.” Journalism, art, fashion, social work and therapy are dominated by liberals; while law enforcement, farming, dentistry, medicine and the military attract more conservatives.  “These types of occupational reputations affect people’s career aspirations,” [Gross] added.

Gross adds a bit of history to where this typecasting came from:

From the early 1950s William F. Buckley Jr. and other founders of the modern conservative movement railed against academia’s liberal bias. Buckley even published a regular column, “From the Academy,” in the magazine he founded, The National Review.

“Conservatives weren’t just expressing outrage,” Mr. Gross said, “they were also trying to build a conservative identity.” They defined themselves in opposition to the New Deal liberals who occupied the establishment’s precincts. Hence Buckley’s quip in the early 1960s: “I’d rather entrust the government of the United States to the first 400 people listed in the Boston telephone directory than to the faculty of Harvard University.”

In the 1960s college campuses, swelled by the large baby-boom generation, became a staging ground for radical leftist social and political movements, further moving the academy away from conservatism.

Gross and Fosse also note that stereotyping is not the only reason for the liberal leanings of the academy:

The characteristics that define one’s political orientation are also at the fore of certain jobs, the sociologists reported. Nearly half of the political lopsidedness in academia can be traced to four characteristics that liberals in general, and professors in particular, share: advanced degrees; a nonconservative religious theology (which includes liberal Protestants and Jews, and the nonreligious); an expressed tolerance for controversial ideas; and a disparity between education and income. 

Can't VoteAccording to the Seattle Times, evidence gathered by University of Washington sociologists Katherine Beckett and Robert Crutchfield overturned the state of Washington’s law banning incarcerated felons from voting.  The case, Farrakhan v. Gregoire, was decided on January 5, 2010:

The surprising ruling, by a three-judge panel of the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals in Seattle, said the law violates the 1965 Voting Rights Act by disenfranchising minority voters.  The decision is the first in the country’s federal appeals courts to equate a prohibition against voting by incarcerated felons with practices outlawed under the federal Voting Rights Act, such as poll taxes or literacy tests.

The two-judge majority apparently was persuaded by the plaintiffs’ argument that reams of social-science data filed in the case showed minorities in Washington are stopped, arrested and convicted in such disproportionate rates that the ban on voting by incarcerated felons is inherently discriminatory.

The article details the sociological research in question:

[The case] was built on research by University of Washington sociologists who found that blacks are 70 percent more likely — and Latinos and Native Americans 50 percent more likely — than whites to be searched in traffic stops.

The research also showed that blacks are nine times more likely to be incarcerated than whites, despite the fact that the ratio of arrests for violent crime among blacks and whites is less than four-to-one. One result of that: 25 percent of black men in Washington are disenfranchised from voting.

The decision, written by Judge A. Wallace Tashima, said the studies “speak to a durable, sustained indifference in treatment faced by minorities in Washington’s criminal justice system — systemic disparities which cannot be explained by ‘factors independent of race.’ “

The state of Washington is appealing this ruling to the U.S. Supreme Court.  To read a somewhat sociological editorial on this decision, you may also want to check out an editorial by Seattle Times columnist Jerry Large.

Voter Disenfranchisement Statistics:


New research on the social network effects of obesity was recently reported in the Guardian UK:

Children at schools where older students are obese or otherwise overweight are significantly more likely to suffer weight problems themselves, researchers report.

For each one per cent increase in the prevalence of obese students aged 16 to 18 years, the odds of a student at 14 to 16 years old attending that school also being overweight increased significantly.

“It was the one risk factor that held true across every school we looked at,” said Dr Scott Leatherdale, the chair of research at Cancer Care Ontario and lead investigator with the School Health Action, Planning and Evaluation System.

Commenting on the obesity connection between older and younger students, Leatherdale says:

It could be that younger students look up to older students, and so emulate their sedentary behaviour and bad eating habits and do not judge the older children’s body shape.  Or it could be that the school doesn’t encourage enough physical activity among its students, and the older students’ weight issues are an indication of that.

Sociologist Steve Fuller at Warwick University concurs with his assessment:

Obesity is one phenomenon that medical sociologists have nominated as an ‘epidemic’ that is transmitted by copying the behaviour of peers.  Certain connections between overeating and social activities become contagious. Young people gather together in more stationary modes than in the past: in front of computers and video games rather than sports.

The reason it’s called an ‘epidemic’ is because the pattern is reinforced by regular contact, so that if one is not in regular contact with the pattern, one doesn’t spontaneously do it The idea is that you overcome obesity by breaking up the networks where it’s transmitted.

Divorce Cakes a_006The Christian Science Monitor recently reported on shifting trends in divorce rates during the Great Recession:

The divorce rate fell 4 percent in 2008 to 16.9 divorces per 1,000 married women, according to Census Bureau data. It had previously been on an upward path, rising from 16.4 divorces per 1,000 married women in 2005 to 17.5 in 2007.

The economy may play a role in this decline:

“Many couples may be rediscovering the long-standing sociological truth that marriage is one of society’s best social insurance plans,” said W. Bradford Wilcox, a sociology professor and director of the National Marriage Project at the University of Virginia, in a new report on the state of US marital unions.

Some couples may be staying together only temporarily. If past trends are any guide, some of the decline in the divorce rate may be due to couples delaying divorce because they cannot afford it, or need the resources of an estranged spouse.

But others may be rediscovering why they got married in the first place. Recession reminds them that marriage can be more than an emotional relationship. It is also an economic partnership and social safety net, points out the National Marriage Project report, “The State of Our Unions 2009”.

“There’s nothing like the loss of a job, an imminent foreclosure, or a shrinking 401(k) to [help spouses] gain new appreciation for a wife’s job, a husband’s commitment to pay down debt, or the in-laws’ willingness to help out with childcare or a rent-free place to live,” according to the report.

Power to the PeopleA recent New York Times article highlighted the phenomenon of African Americans downplaying racial markers in their resumes in order to compete in the job market:

Tahani Tompkins was struggling to get callbacks for job interviews in the Chicago area this year when a friend made a suggestion: Change your name. Instead of Tahani, a distinctively African-American-sounding name, she began going by T. S. Tompkins in applications.

Yvonne Orr, also searching for work in Chicago, removed her bachelor’s degree from Hampton University, a historically black college, leaving just her master’s degree from Spertus Institute, a Jewish school. She also deleted a position she once held at an African-American nonprofit organization and rearranged her references so the first people listed were not black.

Black job seekers said the purpose of hiding racial markers extended beyond simply getting in the door for an interview. It was also part of making sure they appeared palatable to hiring managers once race was seen. Activism in black organizations, even majoring in African-American studies can be signals to employers. Removing such details is all part of what Ms. Orr described as “calming down on the blackness.”

The article provides some sociological data on how African Americans are faring in the labor market:

[The] Popular perception that affirmative action still confers significant advantages to black job candidates…is not borne out in studies. Moreover, statistics show even college-educated blacks suffering disproportionately in this jobless environment compared with whites.

“The average organization either doesn’t have diversity programs, or has the type that is not effective and can even lead to backlash,” said Alexandra Kalev, a University of Arizona sociologist who has studied such efforts. “So in the average organization, being black doesn’t help.”

Playing down one’s black identity may carry a psychic toll for those who do so:

In “Covering: the Hidden Assault on Our Civil Rights,” Kenji Yoshino, a law professor at New York University, wrote about this phenomenon not just among blacks but also other minority groups. “My notion of covering is really about the idea that people can have stigmatized identities that either they can’t or won’t hide but nevertheless experience a huge amount of pressure to downplay those identities,” he said. Mr. Yoshino says that progress in hiring has meant that “the line originally was between whites and nonwhites, favoring whites; now it’s whites and nonwhites who are willing to act white.”

John L. Jackson Jr., a professor of anthropology and communications at the University of Pennsylvania and author of “Racial Paranoia,” said he wondered about the “existential cost” of this kind of behavior, even if the adjustments were temporary and seem harmless.

“In some ways, they are denying who and what they are,” he said. “They almost have to pretend themselves away.”

Nr.187A recent piece in the New York Times challenges the conventional wisdom that bad economic times are a hotbed for criminal activity:

[New York] Police Department statistics show that the number of major crimes is continuing to fall this year in nearly every category, upending the common wisdom that hard times bring more crime.

“The idea that everyone has ingrained into them — that as the economy goes south, crime has to get worse — is wrong,” said David M. Kennedy, a professor at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice. “It was never right to begin with.”

To make sense of this, let’s call in the sociologists….

Experts have long studied how shifts in crime might be attributed to economic indicators like consumer confidence, unemployment or a faltering housing market, particularly when it comes to property crime, burglary and robbery. The findings have been “rather equivocal,” said Steven F. Messner, a sociology professor at the State University of New York at Albany who has studied homicides in New York City.

While there is generally thought to be a lag between changing economic conditions and new crime patterns, he said, it is curious that there has been no pronounced jump in street crimes associated with the most recent recession, which took root last year.

“But it could take a while to work its way through the system and into people’s psychology,” he said. “I would say the jury is still out on the impact of this most recent economic collapse.”

Jesenia Pizarro, a criminologist at Michigan State, said that crime is indirectly related to the economy:

Most crime is committed by the poor and uneducated, she said, and a bad economy can aggravate poverty in ways that are not obvious.  “The bad economy leads to social processes that are then more directly related to crime,” she said, citing “less services for youth and young people who are less occupied and don’t have the guardianship they need” or cuts in education “that can lead to crime.”

Japanese Lantern Lighting FestivalThe Sacramento Bee recently reported on a political battle unfolding over the 2010 Census that brings sociologists and demographers center stage.   The fight has begun over whether and how to count legal and illegal immigrants in the Census.

The context:  Senator David Vitter of Louisiana wants only legal citizens to be counted in the Census.  Steve Gándola, president and chief executive officer of the Sacramento Hispanic Chamber of Commerce, wants to count all Latinos in the 2010 census, including millions of noncitizens.  Meanwhile, Rev. Miguel Rivera, who heads the National Coalition of Latino Clergy and Christian Leaders, wants illegal Latino immigrants to boycott the Census as a way to show their displeasure with Congress’ refusal to overhaul national immigration laws.  His motto: “No legalization, no enumeration.”

A sociologist weighs in on the stakes at hand:

With the largest Latino population in the nation, California has a big stake in the debate.  The Golden State would lose five of its 53 House seats if noncitizens were not counted, according to a study by Andrew Beveridge, a professor of sociology at Queens College in New York.

Some historical context on the issue:

Citizenship has never been a requirement, dating back to the first census in 1790, when each slave was counted as three-fifths of a person, said Clara Rodriguez, a sociology professor and census expert at Fordham University in New York.  “Slaves were not citizens,” she said. “They did not become citizens until after the Civil War.”

Rodriguez sympatheizes with Rev. Rivera’s goals but thinks the effort is misguided: 

“I don’t think it’s a good idea,” Rodriguez said. “I think that they’re shooting themselves in the foot. I think if people are here, they should be counted. Whether they’re here in an undocumented fashion or not, you’re here. And most of these people have to work and pay taxes.”

Rodriguez said an organized boycott would just complicate the work of the federal officials who fret about undercounts every 10 years, when the census is conducted. In the past, she said, individuals have decided on their own whether or not to participate.

“The census has had a very hard time in the past getting people to cooperate, for a variety of reasons,” Rodriguez said.

“Some people don’t want to be bothered. Some people don’t want government interference. Some people don’t want to fill out all those forms. They don’t think the government should know all that. And some people don’t want the government to know that they’re here.”