Archive: Aug 2014

Every once in awhile I write something that hits a nerve and brings about a caustic response. One of the images I used to illustrate sexual objectification in breast cancer awareness campaigns in 2012 elicited, just recently, an angry message from the creator.

Here is the message I received, with identifying information removed.

Hi, I am the founder and creator of the [X] project… You listed my project in a rather bad light and used my images without permission. I’m curious why you made no attempt to contact me or get any of the real info about the project or even talk to some of our participating survivors or fans who have been touched or helped through the selflessness of our survivors sharing their stories. Often life is about perspective and I think if you made an effort you would see this project does NOT objectify these survivors or women at all. All have instead experienced a feeling of empowerment. You should make an effort to dig a bit deeper. We even have a magazine… now as well. I was very disappointed to see you disparaging the project and these survivors and making assessments and judgements based on zero background…I think you owe them an apology…They are much more then “eyecandy” and have proven to be a wonderful form of…therapy for both the participants and the viewers.

When I first received this message I was taken aback. It’s never easy to be yelled at, misunderstood, diminished. My breath got reedy as my heart folded into my chest. Where’s that thick skin I was supposed to develop to handle slings and arrows? My skin is just as thin as anybody’s. So every time I do that feminist/public sociology thing, I make myself more vulnerable. It would be easier and less risky to keep quiet.

But social thinkers taught me that understanding complexity and sharing it with others can inspire change. And provocative feminists showed me that “our silence will not protect us” anyway. Still, when speaking out makes me a target, I reflect. Is the response justified even if the delivery was not as skillful or generous as it could have been?

I thought about this person’s criticism for a few days. When he accidentally Googled my article, I think he might have felt the same way I did when I received his message — yelled at, misunderstood, diminished. This was not my intention, so I wrote him back.

Dear …,

Thank you for your inquiry. Clearly you are quite upset, and I’m sorry you feel this way. I actually do know about your project. In fact, I’m in occasional contact with one of the participants, who also found the project to be personally meaningful.

That said, my research as a social scientist requires me, often, to put intentions and motivations aside in order to look at trends and representations from a more detached perspective. This isn’t easy, especially for someone who is deeply committed to a topic and has been personally affected by it. I’ve lost many people to breast cancer over the years, and I do not take it lightly. That is why I study this illness and look at elements of the culture and the industry that frequently fall beneath the radar.

I’ve been studying breast cancer for almost 15 years and have, in that time, observed a number of trends. Commercialization of the disease took hold by about 1996, and by the 2000’s commoditization shot well past advocacy in terms of time, attention, and resources. Medicalization has been on the rise, and controversies about what is the “right” amount of medicine continue today often in a contentious way. Pink ribbon visibility started to replace deeper understanding of the complexities of the disease or the diversity of women’s (and men’s) experiences of it. The sexualization of women in cultural representations, both the diagnosed and non-diagnosed, increased dramatically especially in the last ten years. Breast cancer has gone from a hyper-feminine moral cause to a sexy cause. You don’t see the same kinds of representations for brain cancer or pancreatic cancer, prostate cancer, or any other disease for that matter.

As with all of my research, I try to identify trends and figure out how they work. My research question for the article you found (which is a series of two that builds from concepts discussed in my book on breast cancer culture) was:

How do breast cancer campaigns utilize sexual objectification techniques?

In accord with social science methods, I collected and analyzed cultural artifacts (image, music, text). Images from large awareness campaigns to posters and billboards to products to Facebook and magazine ads are included in this collection. It was straightforward to classify them into categories.

  1. Use women’s bodies as literal objects.
  2. Hone in on the breasts.
  3. Use objects in place of breasts.
  4. Objectify breasts with language.
  5. Depict breasts as things to be touched or groped.
  6. Show women to be objects of the male gaze.

Your project was classified under technique 1 (bodies as objects). If a person’s body is transformed into a canvass, which is an object, it fits the definition. If sexualized body parts are part of that canvass, it becomes a sexualized object.

Of the thousands of images in my collection, I chose images in my reporting that would clearly illustrate the trends. I share them in accord with the terms of Fair Use, which allows for the use of other people’s work for analytical and educational purposes.

The negative implications of sexual objectification are well known, and I include pertinent research in my reports. The question you raise, I think, is can objectification also lead to positive outcomes? You have personally witnessed an empowerment potential with [your project]. But to find out, as a social researcher, I would have to ask this question in an empirical way, and study a range projects with the same kind of detachment I used in this one. I don’t know what I would find. The trends I write about, and there are many, are an attempt to flesh out the picture of breast cancer advocacy and industry more fully to deepen understanding and give people a chance to think about aspects that may otherwise be ignored.

I’m not sure where this leaves us, [NAME], if anywhere. It would be highly unethical of me, and fraudulent, to remove a data point simply because its creator did not like the findings. I hope that is not what you are asking me to do. I don’t think it is. I think you want clarification and want me to know that you and others have witnessed positive outcomes to this project. I also believe that you have very good intentions with the project, as do the participants. If I have misinterpreted this, or you would like to discuss further, please get back in touch.


Gayle Sulik

I have not (yet) heard back from my non-fan. But explaining my intents and methods clarified for me that they were ethical, sound, legal, and grounded in a desire to elucidate rather than to quell. They too reminded me that intentions matter, and don’t matter.

After I sent my reply, I learned that the project creator had also posted his grievance on his project’s Facebook page:

Wow – that’s not very nice and it is a ton of assumptions about our project. Plus she made no effort to ever contact us for background info – survivor quotes or interviews or even to ask permission to use our images… I’m certain many of our fans and survivors would readily dispute that this project is objectifying in any manner… very sad

His posting engendered negative comments from his fans.

– This author has made a name for herself by creating an angry, negative anti-pink culture. Not a fan.

– good to know – too bad she seems to be such an authority… curious as I’m not sure if she is even a survivor??

– Not sure; she is a feminist and has a PhD behind her name. I think she gives feminists a bad name. While I agree with some of her theories, I think she goes over the top with some of her observations, such as the one on your organization.

– As my husband states, if you don’t like it, don’t look.

The project creator also lodged his complaint on the Breast Cancer Consortium Facebook page and, there, asked me to delete the images.

Mr. X’s attempt to thwart critique of his project is not surprising. If people consider its objectifying aspects they may no longer wish to support it. However, the Fair Use doctrine limits the copyright protection of cultural producers like Mr. X for purposes of criticism and comment, education, reporting, parody, benefit to the public, and a range of other uses.

The project remains in my analysis as a concrete example of sexual objectification, however I did honor Mr. X’s request to delete the images from my public writings. I instead included an additional notation to the analysis, stating that the images were deleted at the request of the project creator. I’m not so sure this was the right thing to do. When should one cultural producer’s protected expression override another one’s?

For more information on sexual objectification in breast cancer awareness campaigns, see the following articles on Psychology Today:

00 applied sociology graphicFor a couple of decades I have been an “applied sociologist,” meaning that my sociology leaves the classroom and situates itself in organizational contexts. There are many ways that applied sociologists “do sociology.” For the most part my work focuses on evaluating a range of programs and policies to help organizations get stronger and ultimately, bring in more funds so they can continue to do their work.

Applied sociology may be perceived by some as the step child of academic sociology.  “Professor” is a far classier title than Senior Research Associate or even, Wowza Evaluation Research Expert!  But academic and applied sociology are equally good options; the choice to pursue one or the other has more to do with the job market and one’s career goals and interests. That said, applied sociologists have fewer institutionalized steps along the career ladder to achieve “success,” and we experience less institutionalized scrutiny.  For better or worse, applied sociologists also don’t generally have a “family” of colleagues for life!

01 NSH and Wanda
Woman doing limbo at Nate Smith House, affordable housing for elders. Band was Tempo International Rhythm Section.

A lot of us “applied folks” are happy with our choice. The work is challenging, and the potential to improve programs and policies that improve people’s health, education, incomes, and more is satisfying. Many of us also love to teach, but generally when we do, we’re on the lowest rung of the totem pole as adjuncts, with low wages, no benefits and, depending on the institution, no status, even if one is a stellar teacher whose students adore you. But unlike adjuncts who are scraping a living together teaching multiple single courses, we may choose to teach a course, without fully depending on this income.

Sociology in Action

02 SterlingRhyne_at Betsaida Gutierrez porch_7.19.14
Sterling Rhyne performing at home of Betsaida Gutierrez, housing activist. Photo credit: Sam Sacks.

This spring, I discovered another way to put my sociology into action, when I joined with a friend to organize a neighborhood music festival on porches called “Jamaica Plain Porchfest.

My type of applied sociology had, for the most part, been stuck in a room, or on occasion, at an event or rally. But I felt ready to break out. While I have been evaluating arts-based programs for a number of years, I found that I could bring my sociological eye to designing and implementing a participatory arts-based musical event. Luckily I was partnered with a dear friend who brought the same sensibility and perspective.

03 JP Porchfest Sign
JP Porchfest banner, created by Hyde Square Task Force Youth Leaders.

Our sociological eyes went into motion from the beginning, as we identified the “outcomes” we wanted to achieve. We live in a community that is considered very diverse in terms of race/ethnicity, class, and sexual/gender orientation. But in reality, the community is very divided. There is a “Latin Quarter” which houses Cubans, Dominicans, Puerto Ricans and Central Americans; there are public housing developments that cloister poor people in large high rises; there are new mixed-income housing developments; there are sections of “town” that are entirely working class, and others that are entirely middle class. Our goal was to bring the various strains of the community together – bridging race/ethnicity and class – using music as the vehicle.

04 Damn Tall Buildings at JP Porchfest
Damn Tall Buildings. Photo credit: Damn Tall Buildings (selfie!)

The phenomenon of “porchfests” is not new.  The first one was organized in Ithaca, New York in 2007, and now there are 20 of them in cities and towns throughout the U.S., including Tucson, Napa Valley, Boulder, Buffalo (my home town!), Salt Lake City and in Somerville, Massachusetts, the porchfest that initially inspired us. From the looks of the incredible photos on each of their porchfest websites, we can see that they are joyous events that build community. From our conversations with the Ithaca and Somerville porchfesters, we also know how successful they are in promoting community bonding, as people come out on the streets to enjoy music together.

05 porchfesters black white pf day jane
Audience members at JP Porchfest. Photo credit: Jane Akiba.

In contrast to some of the neighborhoods where other porchfests take place, around half of Jamaica Plain’s residents are people of color, including 25 percent Latino, 14 percent African-American, 4 percent Asian, and 50 percent white. Our commitment was to promote bridging and bonding, by pursuing three strategies: include a diverse range of musicians in terms of their racial/ethnic backgrounds as well as musical genres; locate and include porches throughout the neighborhood where musicians can play; and engage and bring out diverse audiences. We hoped that these strategies would help to overcome some of the “tri-furcation” or “quadri-furcation” in the ‘hood.

Initially, we created a Facebook page with a call for musicians and porch hosts. But a lot of people don’t go on Facebook, including 27 percent of online adults who don’t use social media, and another group of people defined as Facebook “resisters.”

06 Screen shot JP PF
JP Porchfest Facebook Page.

So we reached out to local non-profit organizations, some of whom serve youth, others who manage low-income housing, others who coordinate small business activity, and yet others who run programs around maintaining a beautiful, large park in one of the neighborhood’s low-income neighborhoods. We also reached out to students at a highly renowned local music college. We even “scouted” musicians, sometimes at a local park or other venue, as well as musicians we heard of through friends.

07 JP Porchfest jpg
Promotional flyer for JP Porchfest

My organizing partner and I started with the idea that we’d do a “pilot” event with three bands and three porches. But if were to stay true to our goals, we needed to do more than that. Ultimately, we had 60 bands sign up and enough porches committed so that two bands could play on each porch. We spent hours poring over the mix of bands and porch hosts we would match, focusing on bringing together a mix of people from diverse backgrounds by race/ethnicity, gender, and where possible, class. In the end, diverse bands and solo musicians shared a stage – a.k.a. porch – hosted by a third party who generously offered her/his porch.

We had been informed that one of the other porchfests almost got shut down one year because there were crowds of people roaming the streets, obstructing traffic and trashing neighbor’s lawns. So we created a tiered structure, in which each porch had a “Porch Fun Manager,” each cluster of porches in a particular part of the neighborhood had a “Cluster Manager,” and the overall event had two “Network Managers” (me and my partner), who kept an eye on the whole thing. Organizational sociology in action…

08 Amy Hoffman pf day jane
The Amy Hoffman. Photo credit: Jane Akiba.

While the two of us organized this event, we realized we were operating within the construct of social institutions that needed to be privy to our plans, offer advice, and inform us of limitations. We met with officials from the City and the police, and from a neighborhood services department that does city permitting. (We were committed to NOT having permits for each porch! We didn’t have the budget, and we didn’t want to deal with the bureaucracy.)

And did I mention that we had NO budget whatsoever? This was one of the appeals of the event. Nothing commercial. No “brought to you by” banners, logos or even food trucks! We received a few in-kind donations: one from a friend, another from the City of Boston which paid for printing colorful maps of the porch routes to be used on the day of the event, and another from a printer who didn’t charge us for printing postcards to announce the event. For many people, the fact that JP Porchfest was commercial-free was a breath of fresh air.

09 wax and gold on pf day
Gut and Buttons. Photo credit: Sue Dorfman.

So how did it go?

On the day of the event, we had 7,000-8,000 people roaming throughout the neighborhood listening to music and hundreds show up at a local restaurant, Bella Luna Restaurant, and Milky Way Café for an after-party that served $5 all-you-can-eat pizza!

Anecdotally, it seemed that everyone loved the event from the audience to the musicians to the porch hosts. But a good “action sociologist” can’t just leave it there! We needed to evaluate the impact of the event.

010 Stickers PF
Porchfest Stickers!

To count the numbers in attendance we used porchfest stickers. We had intended to count the leftovers to gauge the size of the crowd, except we ran out of stickers in one hour! We consulted an audience researcher on how to calculate the final numbers and it’s her figures – 7,000-8,000 – we are citing.

We also distributed very short surveys with a few questions that would help us learn what worked and what didn’t as well as to identify the demographics of the porchfesters. Nearly 100 percent reported that the event was “excellent” or “very good” (we’re still working on analyzing this data).  In addition, we had two sociology graduate students from Brandeis University (my alma mater) traversing the event and interviewing participants about their experience.

011 Cornell and drum circle Blessed Sacrament Church
Cornell Coley and Hyde Square Task Force. Photo credit: Jane Akiba.

And we queried musicians and porch hosts to provide more detailed feedback on their experiences performing at JP Porchfest and learned that they made great connections with the band with whom they shared their porch, and with their porch hosts. They were pleased that they were able to add people to their mailing lists and increase their CD sales.

We heard that small businesses had also increased sales. One of our colleagues and friends from a local nonprofit conducted her own short survey to see if business picked up in the “Latin Quarter” and interestingly, small shops like the local beauty shop and local rotisserie chicken take-out place increased their business by anywhere from 100 to 400 percent!

012 Film Crew planning at Ula's
Filmmakers planning Porchfest videos.

Finally, we wanted to document the event. We put together a team of professional filmmakers who shot the event and will produce two videos.  One is a documentary about JP Porchfest that centers on three narratives: a long-time Latina political activist who had just moved into affordable housing and wanted to use porchfest as a way to unite her racially divided neighborhood; a veteran rock musician who writes songs about JP, and is a staple in the ‘hood; and a group of youth leaders from a local non-profit organization who were accompanied by two filmmakers who documented their response to the event and the different types of music. The other is a 5-minute “how-to” video, which will be accompanied by a training guide that we write, in order to help other communities produce their own porchfests!

013 son of Chris Riding Shotgun playing guitar at PF
Son of Chris Antonowich, Riding Shot Gun. Photo credit: Sue Dorfman.

Reflecting Back, Looking Forward

My organizing partner and I were initially worried that no one would show up, and then after the event, we worried that we would experience a post-event malaise. But we have been disproven twice!

We are now planning JP Porchfest 2015, this time knowing a lot more than we knew before we started. Soon we’re going to launch a Kickstarter campaign, and Bella Luna/Milky Way has offered us their venue for two fundraisers.

In the end, we determined that we had done a pretty good job, maybe even a really good job! While roughly one-third of our musicians were people of color, we want to increase the diversity of the audience, and we are developing a strategy to do so.

In a follow-up conversation I had with Ayanna Pressley, a brilliant African-American City Councilor who spoke at the event, I lamented that the audience wasn’t as diverse as we wanted it to be, and she told me, “you are acting like a woman!”  I was startled. What did she mean? She told me that the event was a great success, but I was focusing on the negative. “We’ll work on that for next year,”she reassured me.

Watch this video of Rick Berlin and the Nickel and Dime Band:  “I Love My Street.”

MindyFried_7.8.14Mindy Fried, M.S.W., Ph.D. is a sociologist with 30 years of experience conducting research, teaching, and conducting policy analysis on work and organizational issues. She is Co-Founder and Principal of Arbor Consulting Partners. Through Arbor and in her independent consulting, Mindy has worked with a wide range of diverse organizations, both on evaluation design and implementation, as well as in providing technical assistance on research design and organizational issues. Mindy has been teaching a Women’s Studies class at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology called Gender, Power, Leadership and the Workplace, and will soon be teaching evaluation research to Sociology graduate students at Boston College. Over the past four years, she has been writing “Mindy’s Muses.” Mindy received her Masters and Doctorate degrees in Sociology from Brandeis University, and a Masters in Social Work from Syracuse University, with a focus on Community Organizing and Social Policy Planning.

I often write from a personal perspective when I blog, and my research also relates to questions I am interested in personally. I’m not a specialist kind of expert with a long list of formal publications. I’m what you might consider a “generalist” sociologist with a wide range of interests. I love to teach and do research. I worked as an editor for a short time. Yet I find that after finishing graduate school, I now approach writing with trepidation. Blogging has been a way for me to rediscover my voice, to write what matters to me, to overcome my fears. I associated with Feminist Reflections because when I write about personal experiences I already tend to think about them from feminist sociological perspectives.

As one of most junior scholars in this blogging group I’ve published the least, but I write a lot. I started my own blog,Ms Knowledge Speaks,  a few years ago after I left a job in the business world where I felt silenced and needed an outlet. My blogging was sporadic for a while. Then after a major change in my life – landing a tenure track job and relocating my family from a liberal metropolitan area to a small town in the Deep South (what sometimes feels like a foreign country to me) – I felt compelled to blog again. This was in part for my own sanity but also to get back to the practice of writing. Still, I sometimes feel like I’m not getting it right.

On Facebook I am connected to colleagues all over the world who often share links to academics’ blogs in Sociology and related fields. It’s all great and interesting commentary on news and academic articles. When compared with these, I wonder if my personal reflections on my own blog appear to be just “naval gazing”? Is there a risk in exposing too much about myself, even though I do put limits on what I write? If I write about personal experiences within a more formalized sociological feminist framework, will this make me a legitimate feminist sociological blogger? Or am I an imposter?

I feel like an imposter when I blog because I do not always write about my research or offer a sociological analysis of current events, nor do I have my research cited in other’s blogs. I also feel like an imposter since I do not see myself as a “specialist” like many of the colleagues in my discipline. Gender is one of my areas of concentration, with a focus on reproduction issues, but I had to become a generalist when I worked as an adjunct instructor for many years and teaching any class available. After receiving my PhD in sociology, I continued to teach as an all-things-for-all-people adjunct. I worked as an analyst in market research, was a research manager and managing editor for a Center in a business school, and spent a summer working for the U.S. Census. Subsequently, and prior to my current academic position, I obtained a Master’s Degree in social work with a focus on clinical mental health, at the time intending work in mental health rather than academia.

Now that I’m back in the Academy, being a generalist is a plus for teaching because I’m using these experiences and education to teach sociology and social services courses. But it sometimes seems like sociologists who have general knowledge of the field or an ability to speak to other disciplines are not recognized for these skills. Someday I do hope to be seen as a specialist in an area that few sociologists study. I’ve already started a project on maternal mental health, specifically mental illness during pregnancy. But at times I feel like I know too much about the many subfields of sociology, feminist studies, and the related field of social work to be valued in a traditional way. So, to blog from this generalized, but well-informed perspective, scares me, especially when I talk about personal experiences. I’m afraid that I will be seen as a writer who lacks “expert legitimacy.”

Nate Palmer of Sociology Source, wrote a post titled, “I May Be an Impostor, but…” that also speaks to this self-doubt. He writes about how he felt like a fake because of his position in the hierarchy of academia and how the “imposter syndrome” held him back, resulting in missed opportunities. He also explains why sociologists, academics, applied sociologists, and activists do not blog more. First, we have a readily available platform to share our research and perspectives. Second, academics may have a harder time blogging because these writings are not published in a scholarly journal, which equates with polished work and prestige. Still, he believes we should take this risk and to share our research, teaching, and perspectives, to start a conversation.

To follow Nate’s advice, I need to get over my fears, overcome feeling inadequate or like an imposter, and write about what I find meaningful and relevant. A conversation could start. New ideas could be generated. Yet I still ask, is there room for my kind of blogging within these feminist and sociological spaces? To answer this, I refer to the first post on Feminist Reflections by Gayle Sulik, ” A Feminist Reflection on the Discipline of Sociology.”

Gayle begins with a story about speaking at a “woman’s” university and ties this back to the history of women in sociology. Many of the women sociological theorists analyzed social inequality because they wanted change it. They faced discrimination for this and for simply being women. This was also a time in sociology, where being “objective” was equated with being “academic.” Supposedly the discipline has moved on to become more inclusive of different perspectives and “more connected with the real world” as we do “public sociology” and applaud “public intellectuals.” However, as Gayle argues, and as I think most of us in Feminist Reflections would agree, we still need a feminist sociological place. In her words,

“We need a formal communal setting that is open to intellectual curiosity, the musings of everyday life and the emotions that set their tone…. We need to examine power, influence, and the construction of knowledge… We need to reflect, with a feminist perspective, on our lives as sociologists and human beings.”

In thinking about Gayle’s post on “needing a feminist room of our own,” Nate’s post on the “imposter syndrome,” and our rationale for starting Feminist Reflections, the notions of legitimacy, risk, and space come to mind. Even if other “academics” or “public intellectuals” blog about their specialty areas and their research, or have others blog about these and are therefore viewed as “legitimate,” those of us who teach, who are generalists, and/or who write from a personal perspective are also legitimate sociologists. We may be taking greater risks when writing about the personal, especially if we are not tenured or on a tenure track, but from a feminist perspective the personal matters. It is vital that we make more room for feminist sociologists of differing perspectives who write about different things. Feminist Reflections is a place to do this.

“I don’t know why women need to have children to be seen as complete human beings.” —Marisa Tomei

image from

In sixteen short words, Marisa Tomei sums up pretty much everything I think about having kids. It’s not for me but I understand it’s a choice that has meaning for lots of people. Whatever any woman’s choice, Tomei is right: it has nothing to do to with our completeness as human beings.

Tomei isn’t the only celebrity who’s been asked to account for her status as a non-mom. Last month, Cameron Diaz made headlines by sharing her thoughts about (not) having kids. Diaz explained,

“It’s so much more work to have children. To have lives besides your own that you are responsible for — I didn’t take that on. That did make things easier for me.”