Image via Flickr CC, David Trawin.
Image via Flickr CC, David Trawin. Please, oh please, click through for the description.

There’s a new generation of parents on block. They’re not the “cool” moms and dads who let their kids run wild, nor are they disciplinarians who shut down any mention of sex, drugs, or alcohol with a morality tale of dire consequences. Instead, these parents are simply trying to communicate.

According to an article by Maclean’s, “rather than telling their kids not to drink or do drugs or have sex, many of today’s parents, it seems, are choosing to educate them in how to drink, do drugs or have sex more safely.” For some parents this simply means not freaking out when their kids tell them about their experiences partying or having sex. One mother in the piece puts out a bowl of condoms for her 13-year-old son, and another buys her son pot candies so he won’t smoke the drug. As sociologist Frank Furedi told the Guardian of a British finding that a third of parents were unconcerned about their kids trying marijuana, “the old-fashioned parent is fast becoming a cultural minority.”

Research by sociologist Amy Schalet shows how parents in the Netherlands communicate with their children about sex by talking about using caution as well as contraceptives and staying true to their own sense of “readiness.” Many Dutch parents told Schalet they allow teenagers to have sleepovers with intimate partners to avoid secrecy.

As some lament the loss of old-fashioned parenting or believe new, more communicative parenting is irresponsible—a free pass creating out-of-control kids—it seems many believe shutting down the conversation is the worst thing any parent can do. Plus, as we learned in a previous “Clipping” on the research of Joel Best and Kathleen Bogle, kids these days are hardly as deviant as their parents were.

VW devil logo, Spatz_2001, Flickr CCC
Spatz_2011, Flickr CC

Investigations into the Volkswagen emissions scandal, wherein the iconic German car maker had installed software in their diesel models to cheat American emissions tests, are ongoing, and the U.S. government is still considering the fines it will levy. But the software, according to VW America CEO Michael Horn in a congressional hearing, was no indication of a company-wide conspiracy. Instead, it was, Horn said, snuck in the design by a couple of rogue engineers. But surely some management or higher-ups had to have known, right?

An article by Paul Kedrosky in the New Yorker uses work by Columbia sociologist Diane Vaughan to delve into how cultures and patterns could actually explain the engineering genesis of Volkswagen’s “defeat device,” without any one person choosing to cheat. The effect of the defeat device was substantial; when tested, a car emitted forty times less nitrogen oxide than during regular use. But with Vaghan’s research, it appears possible that it was not the product of an elaborate scheme—just the result of accumulated fudging. more...

best-bogle_kidsgoneDamn kids today. Do we have to do everything for them? I, for one, do not have the time to egg cars and throw basement parties. But if Joel Best and Kathleen Bogle are right, teens are less deviant than ever, no matter how prurient the headlines.

Bogle explains to Salon,

in previous generations they were worried about going steady, they were worried about lipstick, they were worried about miniskirts, they were worried about rock music. It’s not new for parents to worry about kids or that their pop culture interests or their access to the opposite sex is going to lead to trouble. We’ve been worried about that for a long time…

But rainbow parties! But red bracelets! But twerking! more...


Many people view aggressive behavior as the behavior of social outcasts.  But, a new study covered by LiveScience (and many other news sources) found that popular adolescents, except for those at the very top of the social ladder, are the ones who are more likely to bully their peers.

It isn’t aggression that makes kids more popular. But becoming more popular makes kids more aggressive, said study author Bob Faris, a sociologist at the University of California, Davis — suggesting that those kids see tormenting others as a way to gain and cement status.

Robert Faris and his co-author Diane Felmlee used data on 8th, 9th, and 10th graders from 19 public schools in North Carolina.  Rather than just looking at the individual traits of bullies, they looked at the social networks in which bullying takes place.

“For the most part, we find that status increases aggression,” Faris told LiveScience….The gradual increase of aggression with popularity continues until you reach the top 2 percent of popular students, Faris said. At that point, aggression suddenly drops off. The top 2 percent are even less aggressive than the kids at the very bottom of the heap, Faris said.

The sociologists also complicated this story by examining gender.

On the whole, kids with many friends of the other gender are 16 percent less aggressive toward their same-gender peers, Faris said. Schools where boys and girls mix and mingle are also less aggressive on the whole. But in schools where mixed-gender friendships are rare, the few kids who do have them tend to be more aggressive, Faris said.

These cross-gender ambassadors (Faris calls them “gender bridges”) are rare, Faris cautioned, so it’s harder to be certain of the results. What may be happening, he said, is that gender bridge kids are proportionately more popular, thanks to their ability to connect the guys to the girls and vice versa.

See LiveScience for the complete story.

A new study shows higher rates of suicide among middle age adults in recent years. CNN reports:

In the last 11 years, as more baby boomers entered midlife, the suicide rates in this age group have increased, according to an analysis in the September-October issue of the journal Public Health Reports.

The assumption was that “middle age was the most stable time of your life because you’re married, you’re settled, you had a job. Suicide rates are stable because their lives are stable,” said Dr. Paula Clayton, the medical director for the American Foundation for the Prevention of Suicide.

But this assumption may be shifting.

A sociologist explains:

“So many expected to be in better health and expected to be better off than they are,” said Julie Phillips, lead author of the study assessing recent changes in suicide rates. “Surveys suggest they had high expectations. Things haven’t worked out that way in middle age.”


Baby boomers (defined in the study as born between 1945 and 1964) are in a peculiar predicament.

“Historically, the elderly have had the highest rates of suicide,” said Phillips, a professor of sociology at Rutgers University. “What is so striking about these figures is that starting in 2005, suicide rates among the middle aged [45-64 years of age] are the highest of all age groups.”

The 45-54 age group had the highest suicide rate in 2006 and 2007, with 17.2 per 100,000. Meanwhile, suicide rates in adolescents and the elderly have begun to decline, she said.

“What’s notable here is that the recent trend among boomers is opposite to what we see among other cohorts and that it’s a reversal of a decades-long trend among the middle-aged,” said Phillips, who along with Ellen Idler, a sociologist at Emory University, and two other authors used data from the National Vital Statistics System.

Several theories have been proposed to explain this trend, including higher suicide rates among boomers during adolescence.

Baby boomers had higher rates of depression during their adolescence. One theory is that as they aged, this disposition followed them through the course of their lives.

“The age group as teenagers, it was identified they had higher rates of depression than people born 10 or 20 years earlier — it’s called a cohort effect,” said Clayton, from the American Foundation for the Prevention of Suicide, who read the study.

Others cite health concerns:

Some say health problems could be a factor in increased suicide rates among baby boomers.

Boomers have their share of medical problems such as high blood pressure, diabetes and complications of obesity.

“There’s a rise of chronic health conditions among the middle aged,” Phillips said. “In the time period from 1996 to 2006, we see fairly dramatic chronic health conditions and an increase in out-of-pocket expenditures.”

Some speculate that the increase in baby boomer suicides could be attributed to stress, the number of Vietnam veterans in the age group or drug use, which was higher in that generation. Boomers are also the “sandwich generation,” pressed between needs of their children and their aging parents who are living longer, but have health problems like Alzheimer’s or dementia.

Finally, economic woes may be to blame.

All this is unfolding in a lagging economy, meaning boomers could be affected by the “period effect.”

“One hypothesis is that the economic pressure during this period might be a driving force, with the recession in the early 2000s — loss of jobs, instability, increases in bankruptcy rates among middle age,” Phillips said.

Unemployment correlates with increased rates of suicide. People who are unmarried and have less education are also more at risk.

Times SquareTwo recent failed terrorism attempts have some wondering if terrorists are losing their touch. Christian Science Monitor reports:

Faisal Shahzad, the Pakistani-born US citizen arrested and charged with the attempted attack, appears to have had little real training in explosives technique, according to US officials. And the Times Square bungle was preceded by the Christmas Day incident in which a Muslim Nigerian man on a Northwest Airlines flight tried, and failed, to ignite plastic explosives sewn into his underwear.

Are these twin flops evidence of systemic ineptitude? Perhaps. But it is at least as likely that they show Al Qaeda and its allies have moved towards a new, more decentralized, method of targeting the US and other Western nations.

Although the attacks on 9/11 were spectacular and highly destructive, experts note that typical terrorist attacks are generally less coordinated and more amateurish.

In a way, what the US is seeing now may be judged a return to more usual terrorist tactics.

After all, terrorism, by definition, is an attention-getting strategy employed by those without the ability to mount conventional military attacks.

Criminologist Gary LaFree explains:

“Terrorism is a tool of the less-powerful, and they use what they have at hand,” says Gary LaFree, a professor of criminology and director of the National Consortium for the Study of Terrorism and Responses to Terrorism at the University of Maryland in College Park.

The deadly successes of the 9/11 attacks perhaps have made Islamist terrorists appear more competent than they are, in general. Mr. LaFree counts some 50 or 60 thwarted attacks linked to Al Qaeda or its allies since 2001.

“Terrorists use readily available, low-tech weapons, and they often screw up,” says LaFree.

Admiração:BBC News recently reported on the concept of “parental determinism,” as discussed by Kent University (England) sociology professor Frank Furedi:

There was a pervading prejudice that virtually all of society’s problems were caused by poor parenting.  There was an attempt to “weed out” unfit parents and intervene before they even had children, he said.  In an article for Spiked online, he likened “parental determinism” to Hitler’s eugenics and Stalinism.

He said: “The idea of a one-dimensional causal relationship between parenting and socioeconomic outcomes, dreamt up by the British think-tanks and policy makers, threatens to take public discourse to a new low.

He points to the roots of “parental determinism” in Britain:

The idea of early intervention was conceived by Tony Blair’s regime which “promoted the fantasy that the government could fix society’s problems by getting its hands on the nation’s toddlers before their parents had chance to ruin them”.

“He believed it was possible to spot tomorrow’s ‘problem people’ even before they were born,” he added.  This notion of parental determinism allowed politicians to promote the “most absurd prejudices…Over the weekend, Iain Duncan Smith the former Tory leader, argued that children from broken homes and dysfunctional families have underdeveloped brains and start school with the mental capacity of one-year-olds,” he said.

Furedi argues that “parental determinism” is particularly damaging in the realm of education:

This was because of the way it could erode adult responsibility and authority, he said.  If adults were reluctant or confused about giving guidance to the younger generation, then the challenge facing the teacher in the classroom could be “overwhelming”, he said.  “It is hard to be the last bastion of authority in a society where adult authority seems to be crumbling,” he added.

He called for adult authority to be affirmed both in and out of the classroom and for the relationship between parents and teachers to be re-drawn.  “There is a difference between raising children and educating them, and this distinction must be re-established to allow for a clearer and more constructive relationship between parents and teachers,” he concluded.

Click here to read Furedi’s full article in Spiked.

western unionAccording to the Jamaica Gleaner, University of West Indies sociologist Claudette Crawford-Brown has identified a new phenomenon: Western Union children.  She said this is replacing “barrel children” in Jamaica:

Barrel children in the past were identified as those who did not have the physical presence of their parents, but were sent goodies through shipments from overseas.  The sociologist, however, said that the barrel-children phenomenon has been surpassed by parents who give their children remittances. The difference between the two is the amount of care involved.

“You don’t have the barrel children as I highlighted seven years ago, where you had parents sending children things in a barrel. We now have what you call ‘Western Union’ children, and these are children who are parented by cellphones and they are sent the money. However, when you have a barrel child, that mother goes into K-Mart or Wal-Mart and I see them and watch them and they say: ‘I wonder if this going fit Sasha’, and she takes out the shoes with the mark out on the paper and match it with the shoes, and say this will fit her, this will fit her. You know what that shows? Some amount of care,” she said.

There are consequences of these changes in long-distance care:

Crawford-Brown pointed out even with remittances and barrels, the absence of mother in a child’s life has the same impact on youths as the absence of fathers. She noted that the absence of parental guidance leaves these children vulnerable to negative influences, where many turn to violence and drugs to cope.

According to her, many of these children who receive money through remittances are not given proper guidance, thus the money they have access to can be used to purchase drugs or facilitate their participation in illicit activities.

The noted child advocate and sociologist said many behavioural problems shown among some children are as a result of the breakdown in the family and exposure to violence. Crawford-Brown also said that Jamaica needs to tackle apathy towards murder in the society, which has trickled down to children she has worked with.

Crawford-Brown’s research on “Western Union children” was also recently featured in a column in the Jamaica Observer.

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:


.01/.02 cent tables on full tiltTIME reports that a sociology doctoral student at Cornell University has found that knowing when to fold ’em is a valuable skill beyond the poker table.

You can learn a lot about gambling if you’re willing to analyze 27 million hands of online poker. Don’t have time for that? No worries; sociology doctoral student Kyle Siler of Cornell University has done it for you. His counterintuitive message: the more hands you win, the more money you’re likely to lose — and this has implications that go well beyond a hand of cards.

Siler, whose work was published in December in the online edition of the Journal of Gambling Studies and will appear later this year in the print edition, was not interested in poker alone but in the larger idea of how humans handle risk, reward and variable payoffs. Few things offer a better way of quantifying that than gambling — and few gambling dens offer a richer pool of data than the Internet, where millions of people can play at once and transactions are easy to observe and record.

Why the more you win, the more you lose?

The reason for the paradoxical results was straightforward enough: the majority of the wins the players tallied were for relatively small stakes. But the longer they played — and the more confident they got — the likelier they were to get blown out on one or a few very big hands. Win a dozen $50 pots and you’re still going to wind up far behind if you lose a single $1,000 one. “People overweigh their frequent small gains vis-à-vis occasional large losses,” Siler says.

According to Siler, these results can be applied to life in general.

Investing, driving, buying a house and merely crossing the street are all acts that involve discernible risks and uncertain rewards. The more small returns you get from your small investments in stocks, the likelier you are to make — and lose — a big investment. The more times you get behind the wheel and speed a little bit, the likelier you are to speed a lot — with deadlier consequences.

“These kinds of calculations are made every day,” says Siler. “Adultery is another good example. People get away with it countless times but they get caught just once and they lose everything.”

The social implications?

And unlike the risks at the poker table, where your losses are just yours, in the larger world, you can take down a lot of other people with you. “Organizational malfeasance in general depends on this kind of risk analysis,” says Siler. “Look at a place like Enron. People took a lot of small chances and won, then took big chances and lost big.” Indeed, Siler points out, during the recent financial crisis, an entire nation — Iceland — went bankrupt in a similar way, trusting high-risk, high-reward investments that quit paying off.