CNN covers the Word of Life death in upstate NY. Click for report.
CNN covers the Word of Life death in upstate NY. Click for report.

Recently in New York, two siblings were severely beaten—one to death—by their parents and other members of the congregation of the Word of Life for wanting to leave the “faith.” This cult is based in a former school building in which members of the church live and congregate in isolation from the greater community.

Sociologist Bernadette Barton told Broadly Vice:

When a group is isolated, they’re not beholden to a larger organization. If they’re part of a hierarchy, they’ll answer to other folks, so there are more likely to be other eyes on abuse and interventions into it. The more isolated a group is, the more likely violence can emerge.

Barton describes a “sin/fall” paradigm, where members of the cult are faced with psychological, emotional, and physical threats if they deviate from church ideology. She elaborates:

It excludes people, creates a climate of fear, scares participants, makes people monitor their own and other’s behaviors and thoughts, enables physical and sexual abuse, while absolving all individuals of wrong-doing since all of this is done (presumably) by divine order.

We hope it won't come to that. Photo by DigitalGirl via
We hope it won’t come to that. Photo by DigitalGirl via

When things start to get crazy, the “bystander effect” can kick in. As seen in many public incidents (notably when bystanders took photos of a man about to be killed on NYC train tracks), the bystander effect is generally considered a powerful force in determining whether someone intervenes in a dramatic indecent. Basically, people are less likely to intervene if others are around—they assume someone else will deal with the problem. That said, a recent study by graduate student Michael Parks of Penn State shows that the bystander effect may not be as strong as was once thought.  In an interview for MedicalXpress, Parks explains what he saw in observing bar fights:

These bystanders used nonaggressive interventions to break up about 65 percent of the fights between two aggressive males. Most bystander interventions were classified as nonviolent interventions, which included verbally stopping the fight, or separating the fighters.

Parks worked with Wayne Osgood and Richard Felson, both professors of Penn State; Samantha Wells of the University of Ontario; and Kathryn Graham of the University of Toronto. The team’s study found that bystanders were most likely to intervene when they felt the violence was getting “too severe.” Bystanders were most likely to step in when it was male-to-male aggression, since most assume the violence escalates most quickly. Surprisingly, bystanders generally avoided breaking up male-to-female aggression (though, anecdotally, police officers do say intervening in partner violence is risky, since both partners may turn their aggression on the interloper).

“It seems a little upsetting that people didn’t intervene in incidents that involved a man harassing a woman, but the results showed that this was indeed the case,” said Parks. “Our data showed that this type of violence had the lowest level of severity, so one explanation for the lack of intervention in these incidents is that third parties perceived that the events won’t escalate into higher levels of violence, something that does not have the potential to be dangerous or an emergency.”

The International Criminal Court (ICC)

We’ve all heard that there is no peace without justice and vice versa.  But, when policy makers and leaders discuss how to handle national and international conflicts, peace and justice are often pitted against each other.  Recently, the trial of Hosni Mubarak and the Internal Criminal Court’s opening hearings on Kenya have elicited many criticisms that prosecuting leaders who have grossly violated human rights will in fact undermine democracy and exacerbate conflict.  Political Scientist Kathryn Sikkink considers these claims in a New York Times Op-Ed.

Critics argue that the threat of prosecution leads dictators like Col. Muammar el-Qaddafi of Libya and Omar Hassan al-Bashir of Sudan to entrench themselves in power rather than negotiate a transition to democracy. In El Salvador, where domestic courts have refused to extradite officers accused of murdering Jesuit priests 22 years ago, critics claim that such a prosecution would undermine stability and sovereignty.

But, Kathryn’s research provides evidence to question some of these concerns.

My research shows that transitional countries — those moving from authoritarian governments to democracy or from civil war to peace — where human rights prosecutions have taken place subsequently become less repressive than transitional countries without prosecutions, holding other factors constant.

Of 100 countries that underwent a transition from 1980 to 2004 (the period for which extensive data is available), 48 pursued at least one human rights prosecution, and 33 of those pursued two or more. Countries that have prosecuted former officials exhibit lower levels of torture, summary execution, forced disappearances and political imprisonment. Although civil war heightens repression, prosecutions in the context of civil war do not make the situation worse, as critics claim.

Kathryn believes that the possibility of punishment and disgrace deters future leaders from violating human rights.

From the final Nuremberg trials in 1949 until the 1970s, there was virtually no chance that heads of state and government officials would be held accountable for human rights violations. But in the last two decades, the likelihood of punishment has increased, and newly installed officials may be more cautious before deciding to murder or torture their political opponents.

So, while confronting the past may be painful and difficult, it could result in a better future.




For several months my husband has been trying to get me to read ESPN The Magazine.  So when he said, “Hey, a sociologist is cited in here,” I thought his ploy continued.  But, as he pushed the magazine across the table, I had to admit I was intrigued.

In the article, Shaun Assael asks, “Why do fans riot?”

You’ve probably heard or read about the uprisings in Buenos Aires over soccer and in Vancouver over hockey. What amazed me weren’t the images of violence that went viral, causing the word “hooligan” to pop as a trending topic. And it wasn’t even the fact that the riots followed historic losses — a playoff defeat for River Plate that demoted Argentina’s version of the Yankees to a lower division for the first time in 110 years, and a bitter Game 7 Stanley Cup loss that left the long-suffering Canucks still searching for a title.

No, what stunned me was the realization that this kind of violence rarely happens in American pro sports. We riot after wins.

To help understand why Americans can be better losers than winners, he turned to sociologist Jerry M. Lewis, who studies outbreaks of sports violence.

…Here are the three warning signs he’s learned to spot: a) a hotly contested championship final; b) watched by lots of young men; c) in a common urban gathering spot with a history of violence.

Lewis mainly focuses on celebratory violence and believes the prevalence of many professional sports and teams in America means that Americans don’t get upset about any particular one.  This contrasts to countries where a single sport, like hockey or soccer, dwarfs all others.

Read the rest here.




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.

Istanbul 2010 - A Panasonic Lumix TripFor many Istanbul stands as a symbol of success. It’s growing status as a ‘global city’ and a European Capital of Culture has attracted tourists, foreign investments, and massive development projects. Luis Gallo’s recent article in the Hürriyet Daily News provides a reminder that with development and prosperity there are rarely winners without losers.

[I]n the shadow of those skyscrapers, there is another Istanbul, a little-seen realm where the urban poor are coming face-to-face with the bulldozers clearing ground for the sparkling new city. The neighborhood of Sulukule, perhaps the world’s oldest Roma community, is already flattened, with just a few holdouts living amid the rubble.

This raises difficult questions as development continues.

With massive amounts of money, and the city’s international reputation, at stake, fierce debate is raging over the government’s “urban transformation” programs: They may be beautifying and enriching the city, but at what social cost?

Critics are quick to point to the increasing inequality that ‘success’ is bringing. Ozan Karaman, an urban-geography scholar from the University of Minnesota, explains

“Lack of representation will result in further marginalization of the urban poor and perhaps the emergence of a new type of poverty, in which the poor have no hope whatsoever for upward mobility and are in a state of permanent destitution.”

Tansel Korkmaz and Eda Ünlü-Yücesoy, professors of architectural design at Istanbul Bilgi University, argue that the government ignoring the plight of the poor is not simply an unexpected result of development. Instead, they claim that the government’s goal is to to hide the urban poor in 21st-century Istanbul.

“The following statement by Prime Minister Recep Erdoğan about the neighborhoods of the urban poor summarizes the essence of the official approach: ‘cancerous district[s] embedded within the city.’ Planning operations in Tarlabaşı, Fener-Balat and Sulukule are [intended] to move the urban poor to the outskirts of the city and to make available their inner-city locations for big construction companies for their fancy projects,” Korkmaz said.

Recently, in the rapidly changing Tophane neighborhood in Istanbul’s Beyoğlu district, dozens of people attacked a crowd attending an opening of art galleries. The  violence is a sign that frustration over being displaced in the name of gentrification has finally boiled over and is likely not a one time occurrence.

Experts say clashes between newcomers and longtime residents could become more frequent if people feel they have no say in the transformation of their neighborhoods and believe they must resort to violence in order to make their voices heard.

Even with the increasing tension, Ozan Karaman manages to hold onto hope while remaining critical of the current development approach.

“Urban redevelopment projects should be executed in collaboration with citizens and residents, not despite them. There is no need to re-invent the wheel; there are plenty of models of community-based development that have been successful since the 1970s.”

Wild Card WeekendRecent medical reports on the long-term effects of head injuries have resulted in increased concern about the medical risks of participating in football. While the N.F.L. has increasingly shown concern over the safety of its players, a solution has not been found. The safety issues came to a head this past Sunday when a number of players were injured as a result of highlight reel hits.

Michael Sokolove’s article in the New York Times examines the moral issues surrounding consuming a sport where players place themselves at such a high risk. As medical studies continue to build the link between head injuries in football and depression, suicide, and early death, Sokolove asks the timely question:

Is it morally defensible to watch a sport whose level of violence is demonstrably destructive? (The game, after all, must conform to consumer taste.) And where do we draw the line between sport and grotesque spectacle?

To provide insight into the question Sokolove turns to a series of cultural theorists and philosophers who have interest in the role of violent pursuits in society.

The writer Joyce Carol Oates has written admiringly of boxing, celebrating, among other aspects, the “incalculable and often self-destructive courage” of those who make their living in the ring. I wondered if she thought America’s football fans should have misgivings about sanctioning a game that, like boxing, leaves some of its participants neurologically impaired.

“There is invariably a good deal of hypocrisy in these judgments,” Ms. Oates responded by e-mail. “Supporting a war or even enabling warfare through passivity is clearly much more reprehensible than watching a football game or other dangerous sports like speed-car racing — but it may be that neither is an unambiguously ‘moral’ action of which one might be proud.”

Other ‘experts’ argue that the dangerous activity may serve a communal goal.

“We learn from dangerous activities,” said W. David Solomon, a philosophy professor at Notre Dame and director of its Center for Ethics and Culture. “In life, there are clearly focused goals, with real threats. The best games mirror that. We don’t need to feel bad about not turning away from a game in which serious injuries occur. There are worse things about me than that I enjoy a game that has violence in it. I don’t celebrate injuries or hope for them to happen. That would be a different issue. That’s moral perversion.”

Fellow philosopher Sean D. Kelly, the chairman of Harvard’s philosophy department, shares Solomon’s emphasis on the potential positive value of sports:

“You can experience a kind of spontaneous joy in watching someone perform an extraordinary athletic feat,” he said when we talked last week. “It’s life-affirming. It can expand our sense of what individuals are capable of.”

He believes that it is fine to watch football as long as the gravest injuries are a “side effect” of the game, rather than essential to whatever is good about the game and worth watching.

Sokolove concludes with the difficult question that football fans, as well as organizers and sponsors of the sport at all levels, must now ask themselves:

But what if that’s not the case? What if the brain injuries are so endemic — so resistant to changes in the rules and improvements in equipment — that the more we learn the more menacing the sport will seem?

5th Offense 07252009 (22)

In June this year, a mixed martial arts (MMA) competitor died as a result of a head injury sustained during a sanctioned bout in South Carolina.  Sociologist David Mayeda, writing for online sports site, uses this tragedy as the impetus to reflect upon the intrinsic competitive nature of sport, MMA’s evolving structure, and how society regulates violence in sport.
Mayeda explains that MMA, a rapidly popularizing sport, is by its nature a violent sport.

MMA is at its core, violent. Injuries, even death, are a risk in all sports. Even in non-contact sports, such as long distance running, deaths occur on occasion (though the absolute number of long distance runners is massive in comparison to MMA). However, in most sports, there is not intent to harm. In combat sports, “the intentional use of physical force…against…another person” is required and formally sanctioned.

Even with the brutal nature of the sport, the larger leagues have been efficient at regulating and protecting fighters.

Within the United States, prominent MMA organizations such as the Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC) and Strikeforce have the resources and existing infrastructure to prevent, or at least minimize, the most serious, tragic levels of violence. Earlier this year UFC welterweight contender, Thiago Alves, was forced to withdraw from competition because of a discovered brain irregularity.

However, it is in the smaller and less visible levels of competition, that lack the money and regulation, where the danger lies.

None of the major MMA organizations provide smaller, regional ones with the financial backing that would allow for a more robust medical infrastructure and help prevent the most serious ramifications of sporting violence. Thus, up and coming fighters must gain experience in smaller organizations, where the risky consequences of more serious violence and injury rise.

Mayeda concludes by arguing that the injuries that occur at the smaller leagues must not be written off as collateral damage or disconnected from the popularity of the large MMA leagues that have dominated pay-per-view and made their way on to network television. It is the success at higher levels that is often at the root of the pressure to risk more for less at the lower levels – a lesson applicable to all types of sport.

Professional and semi-pro mixed martial artists – frequently seduced by the financial gains and popularity that the sport’s biggest stars enjoy – should be treated as human beings, not as collateral damage dismissed in the wake of the sport’s growth. Neither society’s thirst for violence nor a sport’s increasing popularity should be cited to justify or excuse athlete safety.

The Chicago Tribune reports on recent public violence in China:

A series of grisly attacks in China, including school stabbings, a courthouse shooting and a slashing rampage on a train, have forced the public and officials to confront what experts say is the long-hidden problem of spiraling violent crime.

Criminologists at home and abroad say violent incidents in China have long been underreported by police, but it’s becoming harder for authorities to stifle news about the worst cases when ordinary people are quick to spread information via mobile phones and the Internet.

Some criminologists and sociologists are skeptical about China’s official crime statistics:

According to official statistics, violent crime in China jumped 10 percent last year, with 5.3 million reported cases of homicide, robbery, and rape. It was the first time since 2001 that violent crime increased, said the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences in its Chinese Rule of Law Blue Book released in February.

Experts like Pi Yiyun, a professor of criminology at the China University of Political Science and Law in Beijing, are skeptical about those figures.

Pi said he doesn’t know what the actual rates are, but he doesn’t think it’s plausible that violent crime was falling between 2001 and 2008. He said provincial or county level officials, not the central government, are likely misreporting their data.

“Many local officials believe the crime rate is just a number that can be randomly modified,” he said. “They tend to cover up the truth and report a false number, because a high crime rate might affect their chance of being promoted.”

He said the big jump in 2009 could be an attempt to bring the figures closer in line with the real situation.

Borge Bakken, an expert on Chinese crime and professor of sociology at the University of Hong Kong, said his research indicates violence, particularly homicides, has been climbing since 1980.

“The real crime problem is much higher than the recorded official crime rates, and the police are well aware of that fact,” he said.

Social scientists weigh in on what underlying causes of the violence may be:

Experts say China’s problem is not a lack of police, high-tech security equipment or surveillance cameras, which are plentiful in the big cities, but simmering and widespread frustration over the growing wealth gap, corruption and too few legal channels for people who have grievances.

“Societies are pressure cookers — and Chinese society, arguably, is particularly high-pressure and has relatively few legitimate avenues for recourse and few legitimate ways to release intense psychological pressure,” said Harold Tanner, a professor of Chinese history at the University of North Texas. “The system as a whole, even when it is working more or less as designed, does not provide people with enough legitimate avenues for pursuit of justice.”

Pi, the Beijing criminology professor, said he considers the school attacks and the court killing similar examples of social anger boiling over into violence.

“We can’t just say those people were angry, lost control. They won’t do it for no reason, and we have to ask, ‘Where does that anger come from?'” Pi said. “The benefits of economic reform have been exhausted and now it’s a turning point. The wealth gap is widening, the unemployment problem and corruption are becoming more severe.”

Pi said the government needs to tackle all these issues but “most importantly, they must provide a proper channel for appeal.”

Read more.

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.