Image of people each standing 6 feet apart from the others by Gordon Johnson from Pixabay

Over the past month with lightning speed the phrase ‘social distancing’ became part of the American vocabulary. Epidemiologists invented the phrase in earlier epidemics to refer to avoiding close contact with other people during the outbreak of a contagious disease. The word now evokes such actions as staying six feet away from others, avoiding crowded places, stop handshakes and hugs and even washing your hands a lot.

But the phrase is not perfect. In fact, the World Health Organization and quite a few bloggers have called for use of an alternative phrase, ‘physical distancing’ to bring clarity. Their argument is that the word ‘social’ in social distancing suggests we should cut off relations with people. But in a pandemic, we desperately need social connecting via technology to avoid the social isolation that distancing demands.

From a sociological perspective another consideration is worth noting. Most of us have been advocating the reduction of social distance in the sense of reducing distance among race, class and sex-based groupings. Furthermore, almost 100 years ago a sociologist Emory S. Bogardus designed the research tool called the Bogardus Social Distance Scale. The tool measures the degree of separateness rather than closeness among any kind of social groups including race, class and gender. 

The long tradition of sociological measurement of social distance implies another argument against using ‘social distance’ to talk about being safe in an epidemic. We don’t want to inadvertently suggest people increase their distance with minority ethnic groups. We are living in a time when white nationalism has been rising and there are many reports of prejudice and discrimination toward Asians. We need to build less, not more social distance.

It is probably too late to get most people to switch phrases from ‘social distancing’ to ‘physical distancing’ or just ‘distancing.’ But you can add your thoughts about this issue to the dialog on Wikipedia or elsewhere on this important topic. And you can be more precise in your own use of distancing terminology.

Happy Friday! This week, we feature new research on stereotypes and reporting, algorithms used to drive policy, and the importance of Census data for understanding race, diversity, and inequality.

Discoveries:

Traffic Accident Reporting Drives Gender Stereotypes” by Jean Marie Maier. We bring you new research investigating how gender stereotypes about bad drivers are perpetuated by the media.

Algorithmic Blues: Accuracy Versus Morality in Policy Debates” by Mahala Miller. New research explores how policymakers feel about insurance companies’ use of credit scores to predict prices–one consequential example of a predictive algorithm used to set policy.

There’s Research on That:

A #TSPClassics Collection: The Sociology of the Census” by Neeraj Rajasekar. We round up research on the history and methods of conducting the Census, and how social scientists have used Census data in research and theory-building.

From Our Partners:

Contexts

Con Corazón San Antonio” by Fabio Rojas.

Healthcare and Critical Infrastructure” by Rashawn Ray and Fabio Rojas.

COVID-19 Impact on Asia and Beyond” by Rashawn Ray and Fabio Rojas.

Council on Contemporary Families

Online learning will be hard for kids whose schools close – and the digital divide will make it even harder for some of them” by Jessica Calarco.

From Our Community Pages:

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Welcome back! This week, we provide resources to help instructors move the courses they designed to teach in person fully online. We also bring you new research examining colorism in NCAA basketball commentary, and a roundup of research on the impact of economic recessions on family life.

Discoveries:

Throwin’ Shade On the Court” by Christine Delp. New research helps us to understand how NCAA broadcast announcers talk differently about the physical performance, physicality, and mental ability of lighter and darker-skinned players.

There’s Research on That:

Portent of Things to Come? How the Great Recession of 2008 Changed Family Life” by Mahala Miller. We round up research on how the Great Recession of 2008 impacted families’ decision-making to help us imagine what might lie ahead.

Teaching TSP:

Using TSP to Teach Online” by Allison Nobles. We offer a guide to the clear, concise, and public-facing sociological content on our site, and suggestions for how to incorporate it in lessons for undergraduates! 

Teaching Something Suddenly-Online that you Designed for an In-Person Course due to #COVID19” by Erika Sanborne. This post offers helpful and reassuring advice for making online courses accessible, delivering course content, and assessing student learning.

From Our Partners:

Contexts

The Global Coronavirus Epidemic: Commentary on East Asia’s Response” by Rashawn Ray and Fabio Rojas.

Council on Contemporary Families

Love in the time of Corona: How to stay connected with family when we “gotta keep ’em separated”” by Patricia N. E. Roberson.

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Welcome back! This week, we bring you new research on rural college-goers and a TSP Classic on the sociology of public outings. We also bring back a popular piece from Soc Images that helps us understand the relationship between social inequality, fears about health, and pandemics.

Discoveries:

Parents’ Lack of Education Fuels Push for Children’s Education” by Nick Matthews. New research helps us to understand how rural parents, often lacking financial resources or higher education, can be an asset to their children’s college-going.

Best of 2018: More Than Just a Walk in the Park” by Brooke Chambers. We bring back this TSP Classic exploring how our public outings are influenced by social factors, like identity and bias.

From Our Partners:

Contexts

Call for Papers: The Global Impact of the Coronavirus” by Rashawn Ray and Fabio Rojas.

Working to Live: Winter 2020” by Rashawn Ray and Fabio Rojas.

Gender in the One Percent” by Jill Yavorsky, Lisa Keister, and Yue Qian.

American Academics’ Apathy and Complicity in Palestinian Oppression” by Johnny E. Williams and David G. Embrick.

Sociological Images

Back by popular demand! We reposted “Social Inequality, Medical Fears, and Pandemics” by Joseph O. Baker, Ann Gordon, L. Edward Day, and Christopher D. Bader.

From Our Community Pages:

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Welcome back! This week, we round up research on disease and discrimination to help make sense of the coronavirus from a sociological perspective. And, as spring break looms large, we offer a collection of scholarship on celebration and solidarity, and new research on exchange rates.

There’s Research on That:

Disease Exposes Discrimination” by Allison Nobles. We bring together research on the long, problematic history of blaming marginalized groups for the spread of infectious disease.

The Social Science of Spring Break” by Neeraj Rajasekar. Partying is packed with sociological ideas, and we round up research unpacking the social processes of rituals, festivals and trips.

Discoveries:

Vitriol & Volatility: How Trump’s Tweets Affect the Peso” by Jillian LaBranche. New scholarship finds a relationship between the President’s derogatory tweets about Mexico and the U.S. Dollar-Mexican Peso exchange rate.

From Our Partners:

Sociological Images

Social Inequality, Medical Fears, and Pandemics” by Joseph O. Baker, Ann Gordon, L. Edward Day, and Christopher D. Bader.

Does Blindness Beat Bias?” by Evan Stewart.

Council on Contemporary Families:

Working Parents are Leaders” by Stew Friedman and Alyssa Westring.

From Our Community Pages:

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Welcome back! This week, we bring you research on graduate student debt, and a review of a new book investigating the stress and sleeplessness of Gen X women. We also feature a roundup of 16 TSP Classic posts that demonstrate why it’s important to celebrate Black history all year long.

Discoveries:

Graduate Student Debt is Growing but Stratified” by Jean Marie Maier. New research on student loans identify graduate school as a major contributor to rising debt. Find out which students are better positioned by their degrees to pay it off.

The Editor’s Desk:

American Women on the Verge: A review of Ada Calhoun’s Why We Can’t Sleep” by Syed Ali.

From Our Partners:

Council on Contemporary Families:

The Puzzling Persistence of Gendered Dating” by Ellen Lamont.

Sociological Images:

Hopeful Research on Romance” by Evan Stewart.

From Our Community Pages:

TSP Classics:

As Black History Month draws to a close, we bring you “From the #TSPClassics Collection: Black History Month, a TROT that rounds up our favorite, timeless posts about the history, meaning, and importance of celebrating Black history.

Presidents Pick the Power Elite” by Mark Lee. This TSP Classic Clipping draws on sociological expertise to understand the influence of millionaire investors on government leaders.

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What are you losing sleep over? Sociologist Syed Ali reviews a new book that engages the question for middle-aged American women.

Ada Calhoun, Why We Can’t Sleep: Women’s New Midlife Crisis, Grove Press, 2020.

Generation X women can’t sleep—a third of them get less than seven hours a night. They sleep less than other adult age groups, and, compared to Generation X men, they have a harder time falling asleep and staying asleep. Why?

The answer to this question is at the core of Ada Calhoun’s brilliant new book, Why We Can’t Sleep, the story of about today’s middle-class American women and their midlife crises.

Why We Can’t Sleep: Women’s New Midlife Crisis looks specifically looking at the women of Generation X, born between 1965-1980, who are caught in between and are distinct from Boomers and Millennials. (Calhoun understands that many people, like my former Contexts Magazine co-editor Philip N. Cohen, think the idea of a generational experience is nonsense. She’s using it anyway.) These women have come of adult age as college tuition increased (so they have more debt, and more agita about debt, than their parents), wages have stagnated (daughters born in the 1980s have a 25% chance of out-earning their fathers—and no, that’s not a typo), and age of first marriage and first child have increased so these women are taking care of children and aging parents at the same time. For these women, who are the beneficiaries of the feminist struggles of the 1960s, “the belief that girls could do anything morphed into a directive that they must do everything.” To say these middle-class women of varied ethnic/racial and regional backgrounds have a lot of pressure on them is, well, an understatement.

Calhoun is one of these women. Born in 1976, she writes that, “[s]ince turning forty a couple of years ago, I’ve been obsessed with women my age and their—our—struggles with money, relationships, work, and existential despair.” She started off by calling a reporter friend and asked, “Do you know anyone having a midlife crisis I could talk to?” The friend, after thinking about it, said, “I’m trying to think of any woman I know who’s not.”

Sleep, or the lack of it, is just the tip of the iceberg, an entry point to this book’s thoroughly sociological analysis of women’s midlife crises. Calhoun knows that what matters is Contexts (my favorite word and magazine), and indeed that is the story she is most interested in telling. “The context for Generation X women is this: we were an experiment in crafting a higher-achieving, more fulfilled, more well-rounded version of the American woman. In midlife many of us find that the experiment is largely a failure. We thought we could have both thriving careers and rich home lives and make more and achieve more than our parents, but most of us have gained little if any advantage.” The book is a deep dive into the divergence between aspirations and reality, the structural factors that keep women from having it all, and the psychological toll this takes. Individually, a woman’s midlife crisis can be seen as her issue; but we know it goes well beyond her.

What are these factors that go well beyond the individual? Again, shifts in the economy and in terms of women’s rights have led far more women to enter the workforce. On the one hand, this means economic power. On the other hand, it means economic responsibility. As the age of marriage and childbirth has gone up, they’re taking care of children at the same time as they’re often taking care of their parents and their in-laws. Even if women are childless, they’re still stressing about work and parents and partners and money and retirement and health insurance and and and. The debt levels that people of this generation face are higher than for older folk at the same age, cost of living (especially childcare and rent/mortgages) is higher and wages are stagnant in the middle so paying off debt is harder, and they save less. They get laid off. They’re forced to freelance/work part-time/be unemployed. With so much on their plates and so much financial insecurity, even for the richer among them, it’s not surprising that some of the many balls these women are juggling will fall. A response Calhoun heard from some women about careers and kids and husbands not panning out as hoped was: “What did *I* do wrong?” (Emphasis added.) They blame themselves instead of others or their structural circumstances; they swallow their despair, quietly. This is not something men do.

*********

That said, a lot has gone right for these women of a certain age. The wage gap has shrunk some. There are more professional opportunities. Title IX has expanded educational and sports opportunities in K-12 and higher ed. Men do more work at home. There’s some pushback against sexism. “The complaints of well-educated middle- and upper-middle-class women are easy to disparage—as a temporary setback, a fixable hormonal imbalance, or #FirstWorldProblems.”

So, there’s lots of reasons why Generation X women shouldn’t feel bad. And here’s the central question of the book that Calhoun poses: “So why do we?”

What to do when you’re a middle-aged woman who’s feeling bad, feeling depressed, feeling physically discombobulated, and you can’t sleep? There’s no shortage of people giving advice—doctors, other women, men (so many men), the fashion mags, the morning shows, Gwyneth Paltrow. Take anti-depressants. Supplements. Pollens and oils. CBD. Put jade eggs in your vagina. Long walks in nature, take the stairs, drink lots of water, limit caffeine and alcohol, do your planks.

And yet still they feel bad. And still they can’t sleep. But no one hears them. Calhoun points out the stereotypical male midlife crisis involves busting stuff up—marriages, careers, etc. But women’s are usually quieter. Sometimes, yeah, there’s an affair, “but more often she sneaks her suffering in around the edges of caretaking and work. From the outside, no one may notice anything amiss.” One of the women she interviewed bought herself that well-known marker of the male midlife crisis—a car. But not a fancy, new sports car. She turned in her minivan for a Prius. A ten-year-old one at that.

Calhoun’s triumph is to put the personal in a sociological perspective, in a very convincing way. You don’t have to take it from me, a cisgender, hetero middle-aged male. My wife, Eli Pollard, who’s turning 50 this year (note to self: start party planning now), confiscated the book from me when I bought it two weeks ago. She devoured it and, like so many other women have commented in public forums, said she felt like this book was written just for her. Kristi Williams, badass sociologist and demographer (and editor of the Journal of Marriage and Family) told me this when I asked her what she especially liked about Calhoun’s work: “That my crippling insomnia might be related to the intersection of age, period, and cohort rang true in a geeky demographer kind of way.” I said, “Dude—please let me quote that!” To which she said, “Fuck yeah! Add menopausal hormone chaos to that demographic cocktail as well.”

And speaking of menopause, I like that Calhoun puts hormonal changes due to perimenopause and menopause as factors in the midlife crisis and sleep deprivation near the end of the book. She starts with the sociological, then goes to the physiological, and shows the interplay. She put it this way in an adapted excerpt in Time Magazine: “The unique confluence of stressors and hormonal shifts poses a sort of chicken-or-egg problem for Gen X women: the symptoms of hormonal fluctuation (like sleeplessness) are exacerbated by stress, while those symptoms (like not sleeping) in turn raise stress levels.”

Her penultimate chapter is on something all too familiar—the crippling effects of too much social media. But instead of going on about this (something she could have easily and successfully done), she pivots to something much more useful conceptually: the benefits of a networked life. She gives plenty of examples from others and herself, and solid advice. “[T]he second you start having perimenopausal symptoms: start a club. A book club gives you a reason to read and to get together with friends. A stitch and bitch. A going-out-dancing club. Margarita Mondays. A try-every-pizza-place-in-town club. [SA: This only applies to New Yorkers.] A New Midlife Crisis Initiation Club,™ perhaps!”

Her concrete advice in this chapter, and throughout the book, really, is a welcome, sociologically informed, corrective to the multiple streams of well-meaning though often ineffective and sometimes just bad advice women get from doctors, the fashion mags, the morning shows, Gwyneth Paltrow. Some things people suggest to middle-aged women who are feeling bad, feeling depressed, feeling physically discombobulated, and can’t sleep: Take anti-depressants. Supplements. Pollens and oils. CBD. Put jade eggs in your vagina. (Don’t put jade eggs in your vagina.) Take long walks in nature, take the stairs, drink lots of water, limit your caffeine and alcohol intake, do your planks.

They do these things, and yet still they feel bad. And still they can’t sleep. But no one hears them. Calhoun points out the stereotypical male midlife crisis involves busting stuff up—marriages, careers, etc. But women’s are usually quieter. Sometimes, yeah, there’s an affair, “but more often she sneaks her suffering in around the edges of caretaking and work. From the outside, no one may notice anything amiss.” One of the women she interviewed bought herself that well-known marker of the male midlife crisis—a car. But not a fancy, new sports car. She turned in her minivan for a Prius. A ten-year-old one at that.

*********

I should have said this earlier, but I’ll say it now—I’m friends with Calhoun, so of course I’m her cheerleader. But that’s ok, because this book really is great. (There are See the dozens of positive reviews online, if you don’t believe me.. And Pollard’s and Williams’s words above.) Who should read this book? Generation X women for sure. Anyone who has a Generation X woman in their lives—partners, parents, children, friends, coworkers—needs to read this to understand their situation. You want to know why this woman can’t sleep? Calhoun has answers. You want to know how you can help? There are implicit and explicit answers. Do more for this woman. Bosses, pay her more and give her better job opportunities. Partners, do half the cooking, cleaning, and childwork. Make your their teenage kids read this and tell them to be better to their mothers! (Ok, about that last one…)

Since most of you reading this review will probably be sociologists/related geeks, anyone who teaches courses on aging, gender, marriage and family should assign this bookuse this. Calhoun makes the point that research on aging still often skips middle age, and it’s typically on men. This book fills a gaping hole, and it’s an easy, fast, satisfying read. Your students will actually read it and love it and tell you all about it and understand all you were talkingthe nuanced points you were making about the whole semester in class through their understanding of this book. Do it.

For the sociology geeks, I need to stress Calhoun’s writing style is wonderful. It’s a little bit memoir and a lot sociology. There’s a lot of data and analysis, and a lot of storytelling. Remember my geeks, she’s written a book that she wants people to read and wants it to sell. So, you know, she can make some money. Because she’s a freelancer paying the equivalent of a mortgage every month for health insurance, hefty credit card debt, and she’s never sure how long until the next gig. So the book has to be interesting—the content of course, but especially how you present it. I’m fascinated by her personal stories, but I’m also fascinated when she gives me FOUR PAGES IN A ROW OF STATISTICS. Numbers don’t have to be boring. And she’s a great interviewer—the stories of pain and occasional joy these women tell her are the product of a sympathetic ear and asking the right question of the right person at the right time. This book will be highly instructional for qualitative interviewers, but also for all of us who strive to find a broader reading audience.

There’s a lot here for sociologists to quibble over, and even be annoyed by. And that’s ok. Calhoun’s stepping into your turf. If you don’t like it, read this book even more carefully. Write better so that others might read your book. You’re probably not going to get the readership she has. But you might.

Calhoun ends on a hopeful note: “Just in the course of writing this book, I saw the lives of many of the women I spoke with change, mostly for the better. They found new jobs or new towns or new partners or figured out how to better enjoy the ones they had. They got on hormones or got off hormones or started exercising or stopped exercising. Time passed. Things were different.”

So the midlife crisis is not a permanent state. The importance of this book is in bringing these women’s private stories into the public, telling women they’re not alone in this, there are factors beyond their control that are contributing to thistheir midlife crises and inability to sleep, that this is ok, it’s normal, and there are better ways to cope. This is a big idea book, and it delivers.

Syed Ali is a former co-editor of Contexts Magazine, an aspiring potter in Brooklyn, and the grievance officer for Local 3998, @LIU_FF. He is the co-author (with Margaret M. Chin) of The Peer Effect: Lessons from the Best High School in America for Improving Our Educational System, which is forthcoming (at some point) from NYU Press. He tweets @skyedali.

Happy Valentines Day! This week, we bring you research on diamonds and their often exploitative extraction, as well as research that evaluates the promises of longhand notetaking. We also feature a new Discovery about American parenting.

There’s Research on That:

Updating the Debate on Longhand Notetaking” by Jean Marie Maier. We introduce new research that extends and complicates what we know about the benefits of taking notes by hand.

Mining Love” by Jillian LaBranche. As Valentine’s Day engagements cause diamond sales to rise, this roundup of research reminds us that diamonds have many symbolic meanings, and not all of them are positive.

Discoveries:

American Parents Emphasize Hard Work” by Mahala Miller. New research sheds light on which traits parents most want to pass on to their children and how it’s changed over the past three decades.

From Our Partners:

Council on Contemporary Families:

Highlights from the 2020 CCF Conference” by Arielle Kuperberg.

From Our Community Pages:

TSP Classics:

Just in time for the Oscars, we bring you, “The Sociology of Oscar-Winning,” a TSP Classic from Clippings and an exposé on what it takes to win big at the Academy Awards.

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Happy Friday! This week, we bring you research on the sexual socialization of boys and racial inequalities among newly hired coaches in college athletics. We also feature a new teaching resource for assessing students’ critical thinking about racial narratives.

There’s Research on That:

Boys, Masculinity, and Sexual Expectations” by Allison Nobles. We round up research on how boys and young men understand the relationship between beliefs about “being a man,” peer pressure, and sex.

Discoveries:

Race and Organizational Pathways in College Coaching” by Jean Marie Maier. To shed light on racial inequalities in the NCAA, new research examines who is likely to fill vacant coaching positions in Division I basketball.

Teaching TSP:

Assessing Popular Narratives on Race: A Final Project for ‘Race and Racism in the U.S.’” by Monica Jarvi. Check out this great resource for implementing a final project focused on racial narratives in your Race and Racism course!

From Our Partners:

Contexts:

Will a NFL Player Take a Knee at the Super Bowl?” by Simón E. Weffer, Rodrigo Dominguez-Martinez, and Raymond Jenkins.

Council on Contemporary Families:

National Spouses Day Was Last Week…. Feeling Any Pressure? A Fact Sheet on Prospects for Marriage in Contemporary America” by Daniel L. Carlson and Stephanie Coontz.

Sociological Images:

The “New” Gender-Neutral Doll” by Martha McCaughey.

From Our Community Pages:

TSP Classics:

Just in time for the Iowa primary debacle, we bring you The (Retrospective) Charm of an Iowa Caucus,” a TSP Classic from Cyborgology and a now-ironic homage to the past simplicity of its technology.

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Welcome back! As the first month of the year draws to a close, we bring you a roundup of scholarly work on blood donation, and new research on how parents choose new homes and how courts handle crisis.

There’s Research on That:

Individuals, Institutions, and Blood Donation” by Jillian LaBranche. In light of critical blood shortages across the US, we bring you research illuminating factors that prompt more people to donate. Surprisingly, altruism is only part of the story.

Discoveries:

Make Yourself at Home, unless You’re Renting” by Amy August. New research in Social Forces explores how the goals of searching for a new home differ depending on families’ income level.

Courts in the Context of Crisis” by Jillian LaBranche. New research compares U.S. citizens and non-citizens’ likelihood of receiving prison sentences in the aftermath of 9/11.

From Our Partners:

Council on Contemporary Families:

Giving Up Marriage for the Baby Carriage?” by Jennifer Randles.

From Our Community Pages:

TSP Classics:

As the Corona virus spreads worldwide, we bring you Evan Stewart‘s TSP Classic, “Ebola and the Epidemic Mindset,” which rounds up research on how media and governments shape the way citizens respond to outbreaks.

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