“Once again, it is not the sheer size of the catastrophe—millions upon millions forced by war and desperation to leave their homes—but a single tragedy that has clarified the moment.”
The conflict in Syria has lasted almost five years now. With more than half the population forced to leave, the United Nations reported that the Syrian conflict now represents the largest displacement crisis in the world. Over 12 million people require some form of humanitarian assistance. And almost half of those displaced are children. Like Mohammed Bouazizi’s self-immolation that sparked Arab Spring (and, coincidentally, the current civil war in Syria), the image of Aylan, too, has the capacity to change the world. Bouazizi was not the first person to set himself alight in protest, just as Aylan was not the first child to wash ashore on Mediterranean beaches.
Indeed, those who have been following the refugee crisis over the past four years have viewed countless tragic images. But there is—for the moment, at least—something significant about this particular photograph. It could be because the image is deceptively peaceful, failing to reflect the violence that pushed his parents to flee or the family’s terrifying experience at sea that ultimately led to the deaths of Aylan, his brother Galip, and their mother Rehan. It may also be because of his clothing: red shirt, blue shorts, and Velcro sneakers. He could be anyone’s son, brother, nephew.
Although it is unfortunate that it takes something as tragic as the body of a boy lying alone on a beach to solidify public resolve, it is also an important reminder that we are, as Goffman suggested, “dangerous giants.” We have the capacity to enact change on a level that is difficult to imagine as an individual.
The graph below shows Twitter activity both before and after the photo of Aylan went viral. Tweet volume about Syria has more than doubled since the world was shown the image. Tweets welcoming refugees from the region showed and even larger increase. And, although tweets with Aylan’s name appear to have been short-lived, perhaps the international attention they produced can be harnessed as people are forced to learn more about why this tragedy occurred and pledge support.
When we georeference and map tweets containing the hashtags #RefugeesWelcome and #AylanKurdi, we can also see how this unfolded around the world. Twitter is a crude measure of impact. Yet, just as Barnard and Shoumali suggested, a single tragedy amidst a conflict that has led to the deaths of so many seems to have helped to capture the attention of the world. See the snapshot of Twitter activity around the world using the hashtags #AylanKurdi (green) and #RefugeesWelcome (blue) two days after the photograph went viral (below).
So, can an image of a child change the world? Typically, no. But, a powerful image under the right conditions might have an impact no one could have predicted.
I sit opposite Lila , the 25-year-old research assistant, in a small room at a satellite office of Mass General Hospital. She is warm and professional, and we have already discovered that she went to college at the same university where I went to graduate school. She took classes with some of my favorite professors, and we may have been in the same room at one point, when I came back to give a talk on campus. This is a nice ice-breaker. But now, in this room, Lila is in the driver’s seat. She has just finished asking me a load of questions about my health, lifestyle, and social networks. I will be there a total of four hours by the time I complete the entire process, which includes a bone density scan and a few other tests they’ve added this year.
In 1996, right after I completed my Ph.D. in Sociology, I was randomly selected as one of 3,302 women from diverse racial/ethnic backgrounds to participate in this mid-life women’s health study called SWAN – or Study of Women’s Health Across the Nation. The study is following women as we transition through menopause, to better understand the physical, biological, psychological and social changes we experience during this period. SWAN aims to help scientists, health care providers and women “learn how mid-life experiences affect health and quality of life during aging”. 
SWAN participants or “subjects” were all between 42 and 52 years old “at baseline” – that, is, when the study began – and we represent seven cities around the country, including my own city of Boston.
When I got the call inviting me to join the SWAN study, I had just completed a lengthy project that involved a lot of interviewing. I welcomed the opportunity to answer someone else’s questions! It also felt great to be a part of important research that had the prospects of influencing medical science. But when I said “yes” to participating in SWAN nearly 20 years ago, I could not have predicted that I would be interviewed by at least 10 or more 20-something research assistants, most of them en route to medical school following this “real-life” experience.
Last year, there was a funding hiatus for the study. I was having a tough year myself and barely noticed that I hadn’t gotten my annual call to set up an appointment. Then a month ago, a letter arrived. SWAN was back in biz, and I’d be getting a call soon! I was thrilled that the study was re-funded in this era of budget cuts for basic science and social science research. I was also feeling grateful that my health was back on track. It struck me that SWAN gave me a regular opportunity to reflect on my life’s circumstances, and to think about how I’m handling growing older, even if it’s only because of a series of questions read to me by a young research assistant whom I’ve just met.
Lila was trained to draw blood, and as she jabs me with the needle, I think, wow, she’s pretty good. We continue to chat, as she measures my waist and hips, clocks how fast I can walk down the narrow hallway, and how long I can balance in a variety of different positions. I’m feeling pretty cocky, until we get to the cognitive test, which they instituted about four years ago. Even though I think my memory is pretty good, being quizzed by a millennial is unnerving. I tell Lila that this test makes me anxious, and she says “yeah, everyone hates it”. That’s only somewhat reassuring, but I appreciate her attempt to normalize my response. Once it’s over – after I spat back a series of numbers and letters in order, and re-told a story about three children in a burning house being saved by a brave fire fighter – I tell myself, “good enough”. That was something my father used to say in moments of stress.
The SWAN Study has taken care to ensure that we are a diverse sample of participants.
In Boston, researchers over-sampled African-American women, meaning that the study has intentionally included a larger percentage of African-Americans than are represented in the general population. Other cities have ensured that the sample includes large numbers of Chinese, Japanese, and Hispanic women. This oversampling strategy allows researchers to investigate the influence of race and ethnicity on health outcomes of women as we age.
SWAN-affiliated researchers, Drs. Robin Green and Nanette Santoro, found that most symptoms of menopausal women varied by ethnicity. They write,
“Vasomotor symptoms were more prevalent in African-American and Hispanic women and were also more common in women with greater BMI, challenging the widely held belief that obesity is protective against vasomotor symptoms”.
They also found that vaginal dryness was present in 30-40 percent of SWAN participants at baseline, and was most prevalent in Hispanic women. But even among Hispanic women, “symptoms varied by country of origin”. The researchers conclude that “acculturation appears to play a complex role in menopausal symptomatology” and that “ethnicity should be taken into account when interpreting menopausal symptom presentation in women”.
By including an ethnically diverse sample, the SWAN Study is able to compare the experiences of women from varied backgrounds, which has pointed to important differences that should be of great benefit to health care practitioners. Moreover, SWAN researchers provide participants with information about our health, and flag issues we should explore further. For example, I discovered that I had high cholesterol, something that runs in my family. I’m now being monitored by a specialist, who asked me to take a very lose dose of a Statin. And overall, I’m more conscientious about my diet. The upshot is that my cholesterol levels are under control.
Gathering the SWANS…
In the past couple of decades, the SWAN team held a number of gatherings to bring Boston SWAN “subjects” together. It’s awesome to be in a room with hundreds of women with one thing in common: we are mid-life women who have gone through menopause! What fun to talk about all the crap we are experiencing without feeling judged or worrying that we might be boring someone.
The first gathering I attended offered workshops where “experts” could answer our questions about sleep (like hot flashes keeping us awake) or provide us with alternatives to Hormone Replacement Therapy. One year, SWAN researchers organized an event that featured the brilliant and outspoken Jocelyn Elders, former U.S. Surgeon General who was a lightning rod for speaking her mind, in support of legalizing marijuana, the distribution of contraceptives in schools, and even suggesting that masturbation might be a means of preventing young people from engaging in riskier forms of sexual activity. Sitting in a diverse crowd of mid-life women and cheering for Elders, whom I have admired for years, was positively thrilling.
Lila tells me a little about this year’s gathering, which I unfortunately missed. I learn that one of the Boston-based Principal Investigators, Dr. Joel Finkelstein, is a serious art aficionado and at the last SWAN Study gathering, he showed a series of paintings by an older woman. His message was that we can continue to grow and be creative as we age. When the interview is complete, Lila hands me my gift. In past years, it has been a cup or a small tote bag, marked with the graceful SWAN logo. But this year, it’s a small box, the top graced with a floral design from this artist.
In the abstract of his 2014 application to the National Institutes of Health, Dr. Finkelstein concluded by saying, “SWAN will fill important gaps in understanding the impact of the menopausal transition and mid-life aging on women’s health and functioning in the postmenopausal years. Accordingly, it will provide useful information to guide clinical decisions in mid-life and beyond in women who have diverse life experiences and socioeconomic and racial/ethnic characteristics”.
I’m grateful to be a part of this longitudinal study, to know that the aggregate data being collected reflects a diverse population of women, and that we are collectively contributing to scientific knowledge that can improve the lives of women as we age.
 The SWAN Study is co-sponsored by the National Institute on Aging (NIA), the National Institute of Nursing Research (NINR), the National Institutes of Health (NIH), Office of Research on Women’s Health, and the National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine.
As sociologists and feminists we are quick to critique, which does have merit. We tend to look structurally and think individuals are for the psychologists. While we can offer needed critiques on society, it seems our limitation is in proposing solutions that look at both structure and agency, including an understanding of the daily lives of people, especially those who are marginalized in society and have less agency.
I started thinking of this post this the summer when numerous articles posted on the internet reported how a teen with Down Syndrome started modeling. While the articles were positive, I happened to see a comment on Facebook on a feminist group about this young woman modeling. Again, while most of the comments were positive, one person stated how this teen with Down Syndrome should not be modeling or aspiring to be a model because in so many words it reinforced gender subordination. It made me stop and think.
Yes, the modeling industry is not always an ideal industry. Airbrushed images have pushed women (and men) into eating disorders and unrealistic expectations of body image. Yet, do we critique the industry or the teen? A teen who has lived her life with Down Syndrome in a society that is not always friendly to different abilities? Can we change our lens to see this as someone changing the face or nature of the industry? The comment in ways could be read as critiquing the person, not the industry. How can we critique structures while also remembering how people may have limited options or want to feel included or normal. Can we think of how agency can change the structure?
While we study social problems and issues from a structural view and advocate what we think changes should be, we cannot forget the people who we as a society have not given agency to, such as those with differing abilities. Can we have a focus of inclusion, which sees these individuals as having agency as something that does change the structure for the better?
We can say “embrace your differences” all day long or “normal is boring”, yet it seems part of human nature to want to be included and to feel normal. Or at the least, not just treated with only sympathy and woe, but seen as a person who has something to contribute to society. This does not mean that structural change does not need to happen.
Spot a bow tie, meet a sex and gender scholar (or someone lucky enough to have donned a bow tie on our day)! The Sex & Gender Section of the American Sociological Association will celebrate its members, increase the visibility of sex and gender researchers at the summer meeting, and support conversation and networking with a “wear-a-bow tie” campaign. The Section’s Membership Committee encourages all members to wear a bow tie on Saturday, August 22nd, Sex & Gender’s designated section day.
Members can wear their own bow ties, pick up one of the free 500 bow tie pins at the Section Business Meeting on Saturday (from 9:30-10:10am), or get creative with jewelry, broaches, bow tie print apparel and other displays. The bow tie is fun way to boost our Section visibility with a trendy gendered style accessory. You can find bow ties clip art and designs in all sorts of places including on phone cases, mugs, socks, various forms of jewelry, emoji, photo editing apps, and, or course, actual bow ties. I personally watch the same YouTube video each time I’ve tied one. And, if you choose to brave one you need to tie yourself, I’ll just highlight the most important piece of information distilled in this How-To video: “Remember, there’s no such thing as a perfect bow tie.”
To discuss the campaign in more detail, I asked Kristen Schilt, chair of the Sex and Gender Membership Committee, and section member D’Lane Compton to join us in a brief digital interview.
Tristan: How was the bow tie decided upon for the campaign?
Kristen: Sex & Gender is one of the largest sections at ASA – in fact, this year, we surpassed all of the other sections with over 1200 members! With such a big section, however, it can be difficult for newer members to find a way in and to meet people. Our idea with this visibility campaign was to come up with a common symbol for all members to display on “sex and gender” day at ASA. Our hope was for it to be an ice-breaker for newer members and a way to show the general ASA what an important part of the discipline the field of sex and gender has become. We asked for suggestions for possible images and the bow tie came out as the winner among the section council. We felt that it was visible – seeing a large group of ASA members in bow ties would raise conversation. The bow tie also has a history of gender transgression in fashion, from Marlene Dietrich to butch subcultures in the 1950s. We recognized that not all members would be excited about the bow tie, but, we also felt no symbol would have full consensus in such a large and diverse section. We decided to move forward with this visibility campaign so we would be taking action on increasing the sense of community among newer and more established members. We imagine that if this campaign is a success that the Sex & Gender section will solicit member suggestions for a new symbol. We look forward to seeing what people come up with!
Tristan: What if members don’t want to wear a bow tie but do want to participate?
Kristen: Sex & Gender has commissioned 500 bow tie buttons that members without bow ties can wear on Saturday, August 22nd. We will give out these buttons at the Sex & Gender business meeting at 9:30 am. Any remaining buttons will be available at Sex & Gender sessions throughout the day. Just look for Jessica Fields, chair of the section, Kristen Schilt, head of Membership, or members D’Lane Compton and Tristan Bridges, who helped promote the winning bow tie idea.
D’Lane: Beyond the free buttons the section will be handing out, there are other ways you can get creative. For example, while I will be sporting a bow tie on Saturday, I also plan to draw a bow tie on my coffee cups that day. I will likely have a sharpie on hand if folks want to borrow it. I have also heard of some folks who were talking about bow tie-themed socks and various pieces of jewelry including earrings, broaches, hair combs, and necklaces. I will also be playing “I spy…” looking for those folks.
Tristan: What do you like about the campaign?
D’Lane: Beyond the visibility and promotion of the section, what I like most about the campaign is that I am certain it will generate a great deal of interaction whether it be online or on the streets, so to speak. I think it will also offer up different avenues in which we can learn new things about our colleagues and friends and of course just be a simple icebreaker for making new connections. It also gives us something to talk about other than work and may allow some insights into our tastes, likes, and dislikes.
Maybe it’s in my roots growing up under the Friday night lights of Texas stadiums, but I love spirit and “spirit days”. Wearing mismatched clothes on Wacky Wednesday, Thursday was tie day, and of course school colors on Friday. I remember having tie day in high school and loving the fact I had an “appropriate” reason to wear a tie and wouldn’t catch slack for wearing menswear that day. For some wearing a bow tie may feel like drag for the first time, irrespective of sex. Could be professional drag, or dandy drag, some combination, or other types of drag.
Despite all critiques, spirit days made for increased engagement and social bonding. It gave us something new to try, a place to play with who we are; and it was fun. You could also be really annoyed by it and opt out…which still allowed you to engage with others and bond over how ridiculous joiners are or the particular activity was and how over it all you were. It is with this mind set I approach my enthusiasm over the campaign.
Tristan: How are you considering participating?
D’Lane: I plan to wear a bow tie, and, assuming they are down with it, I will take as many pictures as I can of other bow ties and bow tie representing folks to share online. I know people who will not be in attendance plan to show their support by wearing a bow tie Saturday and tweeting it. I have also already changed some of my profile pictures to represent the section. And maybe I will instigate a #ASABowTieScavengerHunt hashtag searching for a collection of the ingenuity of members finding clever ways to participate!
Tristan: Thanks so much for telling us more about it. It sounds like a fun event. The new logo for the section even found a bow tie for the event, thanks to logo designer Eli Alston-Stepnitz. (See the July newsletter for an essay by Eli, Tristan, and Jessica Fields on the process of producing the new logo.) I’ll be wearing a bow tie on Saturday to participate. I chose one from a “conversation starter” line online.
Make sure you participate using the #ASABowties2015 hashtag on social media. And tag @asanews in your posts. In addition to making a show of the size and enthusiasm of our section at ASA, we’re also hoping that this sparks us to make some digital noise this year.
We hope section members will help live tweet the sessions they attend. In addition to flagging posts with session numbers, consider using #ASAGender15 in your tweets during presentations. The Sex & Gender twitter account (@asasexandgender) promoted the hashtag. We are an extremely vibrant section on social media. I’m excited to see whether we can connect our social media energy with this suggestion.
Thanks to Kristen Schilt and D’Lane Compton for the campaign and the interview. We’re all excited to see everyone this weekend. See you soon and safe travels!
On August 22, I’ll be facilitating a workshop at the American Sociological Association’s annual meeting in Chicago on a topic close to my heart: turning your dissertation research into a book. If only I’d had such information 15 years ago! At that point I was wading through my dissertation on breast cancer and wondering how I would ever get my research to those who could use it most.
Nonetheless I completed my dissertation, wrote several scholarly articles, and eventually learned enough about my topic to transform it into a cross-over book (Pink Ribbon Blues) that did make its way to people who could use it — researchers, graduate and undergraduate students, health practitioners, science writers, breast cancer survivors and advocates, and educated public audiences interested in the social and cultural forces affecting illness, or the war on cancer in general. It was a long road. I learned a lot in the process.
In this year’s professional development workshop, I share some of the lessons I learned along with information and resources to help others who are considering the dissertation-to-book path. Having presented this material in workshop and webinar form multiple times with different colleagues, it now reflects the insights of seven of us who wrote a dissertation-based book: Astrid Eich-Krohm (German Professionals in the United States), Meika Loe (The Rise of Viagra), Adina Nack (Damaged Goods), Wendy Cadge (Heartwood), and this year’s presenters Dawn Norris (Job Loss, Identity, and Mental Health) and Tristan Bridges (manuscript in progress on ‘contemporary transformations in masculinities’).
The From Dissertation to Book Workshop outlines: (1) the differences between the dissertation and the book manuscript; (2) the intermediate stages in transforming dissertation research into a full-length manuscript; (3) common barriers and strategies to overcome them; (4) elements of a book prospectus; (5) audience Q&A and breakout discussion with hands-on work. Dawn participated in the workshop in 2012 and has since developed her book manuscript and secured a contract. Tristan is in the early stages of book development. My book has been on the market a few years. Together, we present varied stages of the book process and tips from past presenters, too.
If you’re in Chicago for ASA this summer, come by on Saturday, August 22 from 4:30 to 6:10 pm. The location will be announced in the program.
If you’re a graduate student, the ASA Student Forum is pleased to offer a Professional Development Certificate (PDC) for its members who attend six approved sessions, meetings, or workshops. Click here for more information about the certificate program, the signature forms, and the list of recommended sessions (which includes ours)!
We’ve all had them, and maybe some of us are them! (No, not us!) As a sociologist who has spent many years studying workplaces, I am indebted to a number of bad bosses. Although some of them made my life miserable, they inspired me to understand why. So in the spirit of acknowledgment, I must first say thank you to the boss who told me I was destroying my life by leaving the job to pursue another direction. (Destroying whose life?) And thank you, too, to the psychotic boss who knew that I supported a particular political cause, and out of nowhere screamed at me, “Don’t ever let me see you on television with a sign in your hands supporting that Communist (crap).” Whoa! It hadn’t occurred to me, but now that you mention it…And thank you to the newly appointed manager who, in her first month on the job, falsely accused me of serious financial improprieties. (One month, and many sleepless nights later, I was vindicated.)
Given these experiences, it has been therapeutic to study the American workplace and to dissect some of the problems that contribute to “bad-bossism”. Despite having been “stung” by a few bad bosses, I still believe that people – including some bosses – are basically good!
So what is it that leads some people in management positions to “behave badly?” Well for a start, the workplace is a microcosm of our larger culture and society. Societal problems that exist outside the office are likely to surface within it as well, playing out via power dynamics between and among employees, based on their occupational status, their gender, and their racial and ethnic backgrounds.
Political economist and philosopher, Karl Marx, laid the groundwork for understanding the intrinsic tension between labor and management (or, as he would say, capital), in which a capitalist system favors profit over people. In this system, he argued, management would necessarily exploit workers with long hours and poor working conditions, in order to get more productivity out of workers, which in turn would maximize profit. With the advent of laws that limit working hours in manufacturing settings, and the regulation of working conditions, Marx’s critique and analysis continues to provide a useful framework, even though it’s probably more relevant to manufacturing work in Third World countries, where many multinational corporations have moved their operations in search of cheaper labor.
In the U.S., our current economy has increasingly shifted to knowledge-based work and services, and the lines that are drawn between workers and managers are often painted as more subtle. Nonetheless, stratification of the labor force ripples through multiple levels of professional and managerial workers. How do these dynamics affect the contemporary workplace?
Studies suggest that a number of factors shaping workplace environments contribute to the “bad boss” phenomenon:
1. Male model of the ideal worker
In this model, the “normal” trajectory of the worker is based on a “male model” of the ideal worker, a person who can work throughout his (her?) career in a continuous and uninterrupted manner, taking no time for non-work (e.g., personal, family) activities. Sociologist Erin Kelly, et al calls it a “masculinist work culture”, commenting,
“Working long hours is a sign that employees are readily available and eager to meet others’ needs; it further reinforces the ideal worker as someone – most often a man – who does not have, or does not attend to, other pressing commitments outside of work.”
With this model, work comes first. When managers perceive that’s not the case for one or more employees, it’s viewed as an affront to the company, a deviation from employee loyalty. Managers who “buy into” a “masculinist work culture” are likely to be critical of workers who challenge this norm. In a study I conducted on parental leave policy in a large financial services company, the norm was so powerful that men chose not to use the company’s generous parental leave policy, and women who used the policy took very short leaves, even though legally, all employees were entitled to longer leaves.
2. Structural issues that create a culture of competition
in our current American workplace, where the bottom line rules, there are economic pressures to produce. In line with the prevailing capitalist ethic, a culture of competition is viewed by many managers as necessary to foster productivity, with long hours as the norm. In order to sustain productivity, managers feel pressure from above to push employees to produce more, even when they realize that it’s not humanly possible. In a number of the workplace studies I’ve conducted, I’ve learned that being in a middle managerial position is often isolating. This makes these managers depressed and grumpy. Most have little support to figure out a better way, and they realize quickly that too much empathy for their “subordinates” takes too much time. Ergo, they may “act badly.”
3. Poor economic times makes managers even more grumpy
In our crisis economy, the financial pressure is even more intense, and some managers may exhibit more controlling behavior towards their employees. Managers are being more closely monitored on financial performance, and they may be even less likely to take the time to attend to employees’ feelings or needs under these conditions.4. “Deal with it; I did!”
Some managers worked hard to get where they are, and along the way, they experienced a lot of pain themselves. When they get to the top (or close to it), some pass on what is familiar. While many of the managers I’ve interviewed worked very hard to respond to the needs of those under their supervision, some were less than understanding.5. Lack of management training
Some managers who are good workers are rewarded by being moved up to management positions. While some organizations prepare their workers for this type of promotion, others fail to prepare them for the pressures they encounter once they are in charge. Without adequate management training, some bosses make mistakes, even lots of mistakes. Sometimes they find themselves in positions of power and it feels uncomfortable. They’re being asked to do things with and to workers that they wouldn’t have liked themselves. They know that. But they don’t know how to challenge or work with the system without jeopardizing their reputation or losing their jobs. This can make for frustration and grumpiness.
6. Personality problems
Some managers just shouldn’t be managing people. Their “management style” may look good to upper-level managers because it fits in with a culture of competition and drive. But they may be making the people who work for them miserable. Because of an “us” and “them” dichotomy, other managers may even side with them.
Perhaps we all have a story about the crazy or mean or incompetent boss. Are all managers bad bosses? No, of course not. But the problem is clearly pervasive: Google “bad boss” and you’ll find over 7 million citations, with countless workers publicly venting about their negative experiences, and experts offering advice on how to deal with that mean and disrespectful supervisor.
What is a good boss? There’s plenty written about good bosses as well. Google “good boss” and you’ll find over 14 million citations! Hopefully we’ve also had them (and maybe even are them!). Here’s an excerpt (slightly tweaked) from a 10/10/10 article in the Chicago Tribute by Mary Schmich about what makes a “good boss.”
* A good boss understands that all power is fleeting and borrowed, and doesn’t take advantage of this moment.
* A good boss realizes that her/his real power comes not from those above him, but from the rank-and-file.
* A good boss listens, and can see a problem before it turns into a crisis. If it does turn into a crisis, the good boss works with an employee to resolve the situation.
* A good boss understands that your time is important too.
* A good boss is a good communicator, responding to your concerns and questions in person and via electronic communications.
* A good boss treats employees with respect. S/he does not treat people differently based on their occupational status, gender, race or sexual orientation.
* A good boss tries to make everyone feel special and included.
* A good boss is self-aware and tries to understand how his/her behavior affects others.
* A good boss has the courage to deal with problem employees, and does it professionally.
* A good boss tells you when you screwed up and forgives you.
* A good boss does not take credit for your ideas, nor does s/he demand credit when s/he gives you an idea.
* A good boss is not afraid of people as smart as s/he is.
* A good boss sees what you do best, matches your job to your talents, and gives you room to bloom.
* A good boss remembers how s/he felt about bosses before s/he was one.
* A good boss reveals just enough about her/his personal life to remind you that bosses are people too.
* A good boss doesn’t take bonuses when the workers can’t get a raise.
* A good boss knows how to apologize and how to laugh, sometimes at him/herself.
* And a good boss understands how much we all yearn for a good boss.
At some point we as a country will have to reckon with the fact that this type of mass violence does not happen in other advanced countries. And it is in our power to do something about it. I say that recognizing that politics in this town foreclose a lot of those avenues right now. But it would be wrong for us not to acknowledge. (here)
President Obama was primarily referring to gun control in the portion of his speech addressing the cause of attacks like this. Not all mass shootings are racially motivated, and not all qualify as “terrorist” attacks—though Charleston certainly qualifies. And the mass shooting that occurred a just a month later in Chattanooga, Tennessee by a Kuwati-born American citizen was quickly labeled an act of domestic terrorism. But, President Obama makes an important point here: mass shootings are a distinctly American problem. This type of rampage violence happens more in the United States of America than anywhere else (see here for a thorough analysis of international comparisons). And gun control is a significant part of the problem. But, gun control is only a partial explanation for mass shootings in the United States. Mass shootings are also almost universally committed by men. So, this is not just an American problem; it’s a problem related to American masculinity and to the ways American men use guns. But asking whether “guns” or “masculinity” is more of the problem misses the central point that separating the two might not be as simple as it sounds. And, as Mark Follman, Gavin Aronsen, and Deanna Pan note in the Mother JonesGuide to Mass Shootings in America, the problem is getting worse.
We recently wrote a chapter summarizing the research on masculinity and mass shootings for Mindy Stombler and Amanda Jungels’ forthcoming volume, Focus on Social Problems: A Contemporary Reader (forthcoming, Oxford University Press). And we subsequently learned of a new dataset on mass shootings in the U.S. produced by the Stanford Geospatial Center. Their Mass Shootings in America database defines a “mass shooting” as an incident during which an active shooter shoots three or more people in a single episode. Some databases define mass shootings as involving 4 shootings in a single episode. And part of this reveals that the number is, in some ways, arbitrary. What is significant is that we can definitively say that mass shootings in the U.S. are on the rise, however they are defined. The Mother Jones database has shown that mass shootings have become more frequent over the past three decades. And, using the Stanford Mass Shootings in America database, we can see this trend here (below) by relying on data that stretches back a bit further.
Additionally, we know that the number of victims of mass shootings is also at an historic high (below).We also produced a time-lapse map of mass shootings in the United States illustrating both where and when mass shootings have occurred using the Stanford Geospatial Center’s database to illustrate this trend over time (see below).
Our map charts mass shootings with 3 or more victims over roughly 5 decades, since 1966. The dataset takes us through the Chattanooga, Tennessee shooting, which brought 2015 to 42 mass shootings (as of July).* The dataset is composed of 216 separate incidents only 5 of which were committed by lone woman shooters. Below we produced an interactive map depicting all of the mass shootings in the dataset with brief descriptions of the shootings.
In our chapter in Stombler and Jungels’ forthcoming book, we cull existing research to answer two questions about mass shootings: (1) Why is it men who commit mass shootings? and (2) Why do American men commit mass shootings so much more than men anywhere else? Based on sociological research, we argue that there are two separate explanations–a social psychological explanation and a cultural explanation (see the book for much more detail on each).
A Social Psychological Explanation–Research shows that when an identity someone cares about is called into question, they are likely to react by over-demonstrating qualities associated with that identity. As this relates to gender, some sociologists call this “masculinity threat.” And while mass shootings are not common, research suggests that mass shooters experience masculinity threats from their peers and, sometimes, simply from an inability to live up to societal expectations associated with masculinity (like holding down a steady job, being able to obtain sexual access to women’s bodies, etc.)–some certainly more toxic than others. The research on this topic is primarily experimental. Men who are brought into labs and have their masculinity experimentally “threatened” (see here for more details) react in patterned ways: they are more supportive of violence, less likely to identify sexual coercion, more likely to support statements about the inherent superiority of males, and more. This research provides important evidence of what men perceive as masculine in the first place (resources they rely on in a crisis) and a new kind evidence regarding the relationship of masculinity and violence. The research does not suggest that men are somehow inherently more violent than women. Rather, it suggests that men are likely to turn to violence when they perceive themselves to be otherwise unable to stake a claim to a masculine gender identity.
A Cultural Explanation–But certainly boys and men experience all manner of gender identity threat in other societies. Why are American boys and men more likely to react with such extreme displays? To answer this question, we need an explanation that articulates the role that American culture plays in influencing boys and young men to turn to this kind of violence at rates higher than anywhere else in the world. This means we need to turn our attention away from the individual characteristics of the shooters themselves and to more carefully investigate the sociocultural contexts in which violent masculinities are produced and valorized. Men have historically benefited from a great deal of privilege–white, educated, middle and upper class, able-bodied, heterosexual men in particular. Social movements of all kinds have slowly chipped away at some of these privileges. So, while inequality is alive and well, men have also seen a gradual erosion of privileges that flowed more seamlessly to previous generations of men (white, heterosexual, class-privileged men in particular). Michael Kimmel suggests that these changes have produced a uniquely American gendered sentiment that he calls “aggrieved entitlement.” Of course, being pissed off about an inability to cash in on privileges previous generations of men received without question doesn’t always lead to mass shootings. But, from this cultural perspective, mass shootings can be understood as an extremely violent example of a more general issue regarding changes in relations between men and women and historical transformations in gender, race, and class inequality.
Mass shootings are a pressing issue in the United States. And gun control is an important part of this problem. But, when we focus only on the guns, we sometimes gloss over an important fact: mass shootings are also enactments of masculinity. And they will continue to occur when this fact is combined with a sense among some men that male privilege is a birthright–and one that many feel unjustly denied.
*The mass shootings in Charleston, South Carolina in June of 2015 and Chattanooga, Tennessee in July of 2015 were not in the dataset when we received it. The data ran through May of 2015. So, we’ve added the Charleston and Chattanooga shootings into the dataset for the graphs and maps on this post.
Graphic arts engage readers in a way text cannot. Told with sequences of pictures, along with narration and dialogue (often in the form of speech bubbles), graphic arts have become increasingly popular media for education and communication as well as social commentary. From disaster preparedness to questioning high-tech medical advancements, comics and other forms of graphic art are effective in sharing information and insight. For some, they are a more accessible format as they encourage readers to develop critical thinking, cultural literacy, and a motivation to engage in individual and social change.
Communication and Education
In 2011, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) developed a free downloadable comic book, Preparedness 101: Zombie Pandemic, as a way to help prepare the public for general emergencies.
The 40-page graphic novella tells the story of a young couple and their dog during an escalating zombie apocalypse who manage to stay safe with the help of the CDC’s disaster preparedness instructions. The vivid images focus the reader’s attention, and the story line is clear and compelling.
As the impending disaster approaches the characters receive frightening information from official channels. Julie hears a voice on the radio:
“Stay in your homes. Do not go outside. If you or your family begin showing symptoms such as slowed movement, slurred speech, or violent behaviors, quarantine them to a secure area of the house. Stay tuned for more information on where to go…Stay in your…”
The images and text are geared toward a range of literacy levels and cognitive abilities and together promote recognition and recall. Yes, we’ll stay right here and wait for instructions! The graphic tale conveys this specific information as it creates an emotional connection with readers to motivate behavior.
The CDC’s story is likely to be nonthreatening to most people (unless they believe in zombies), thereby encouraging open-mindedness toward the message. Man scratches chin and says:
“I’ve been thinking…we should really make an emergency kit in case something happened. What if we were stuck in the house or had to evacuate? We need to have a plan!”… “Ok, but I’m serious…I think we need to make an emergency kit.”
“I hear ya!”
Message sent, and received. People learn in different ways and for some, visualizing a message is more compelling than seeing words on a page.
Comics for Social Commentary
In a culture bombarded by images, we are increasingly conditioned to learn through visual entertainment. Graphic arts take the form of this “entertainment” to inform and engage, and to incite action. “Notification! You’ve Got Cancer” is a comic strip by Adam Bessie and Josh Neufeld that provokes critical inquiry into an important social issue, the rise in medical technology and biomedical surveillance.
The short comic strip suggests that advances in high-tech cancer detection might get so invasive that someone could potentially receive a text message about some new diagnosis via smart device. The narrative does not go into detail about the practical or emotional implications of such advancements. It merely suggests that biomedical surveillance has become so increasingly routine, with patents on new technologies emerging at record speed, that the technology of cancer detection is likely here to stay whether we’re prepared for it or not.
Adam received his brain cancer diagnosis from a doctor. Imagine getting news of your cancer diagnosis on your watch while shopping for fruit! This take on technology’s reach is not far fetched. The comic strip makes mention of recent developments such as GOOGLE’s newly patented cancer detecting pill and the iT bra that supposedly detects breast cancer using a smart phone and cloud-based analysis.
A flippant sequence featuring the author moves the reader’s attention beyond the shock of impersonal, inopportune diagnosis toward another serious flaw: personalized detection technology outpaces successful treatment.
In pointing out this problem, Notification! raises a crucial question about the technologicalimperative, or the inevitability and necessity of new technologies. Namely, is it necessarily for the greater good?
The authors suggest that there may be little to gain in live-streaming one’s tumor and waiting to be saved. What’s more, the matter illuminates the uncertainty that inherently exists in technology and biomedicine.
Biomedical uncertainty refers to the ways in which knowledge is limited about how to prevent, diagnose, and treat a varied range of diseases and conditions. This shouldn’t be news. Talcott Parsons argued in 1951 in The Social System that the incessant advancement of science and medicine increases biomedical uncertainty as doctors rely more fully on scientific advancements and specialized technology to consult with patients and construct diagnostic and treatment protocols. Yet technological advancements march along while indeterminate diagnostics, controversial medical evidence, and ambiguous treatment outcomes are often a stark and surprising reality for the diagnosed.
As the biomedical enterprise colonizes greater expanses of health and illness domains, it must move ethical and practical considerations such as those discussed in this comic strip to the heart of its research and development. Otherwise Adam’s future stressed out descendants might find themselves live-streaming their tumors on their fit bits while recording their gradual demise on their Snapchat Spectacles.
Southern drag kings are interrupting the gender binary and making the South a safer place for queer people. Yes, drag kings do exist in the South, even the rural South. In our recent study (coauthored with Kimberly Kelly), we examine 27 South Carolina drag kings’ ideas about and experiences with drag in the South. The goal of this project is to make queer life in the South more visible and to explore how it differs from larger metropolitan areas that are more often the subject of academic research. Drag culture in the South is thriving and we wanted to know more about its impact.
Our findings suggest that Southern drag kings do not share intentions with drag kings in larger cities. Southern drag kings do not wish to overtly challenge the gender status quo. Unlike drag kings in other areas, they do not think of their performance as political. In contrast, Southern drag kings understand drag as a safe and fun outlet for expressing a female masculinity not respected in their everyday lives. As one king explains, “From all the experiences I’ve had, it’s just about fun and escape.”
The majority of drag kings in the South entered drag to express their long-term identification with masculinity. Many use drag as a testing ground for gender transition. Southern drag kings often described difficulty finding spaces where their masculine, or otherwise queer, identities were accepted. Performing drag was one place where many kings felt accepted and received positive messages about queer culture and transgender identities. Through drag they were able to receive information about gender identity and sexuality that many perceived unavailable outside these venues in the South. One drag king explains that drag is a place where transgender people can feel more comfortable. He says, “I guess more people are naturally drawn to that if they don’t feel comfortable in their skin because it’s like the first arena where you’re accepted as your new persona.”
Although their intentions are largely individualistic, for entertainment or gender transition, we argue the performance of drag in the South still has the effect of challenging the gender order and leads others to push for change in our society. Intentionality is not necessary for political impact. By performing as men, drag kings question the innateness of masculinity and show its performative nature. That Southern drag kings do not overtly state these challenges to the gender order does not eliminate the power of their performances.
Though the South may not be ready for an overt challenge to the gender hierarchy, drag provides a safe space for those who wish to step outside the gender binary. Southern drag kings understand the conservative nature of the South, and rather than challenge it directly, seek to remove themselves from it, if only for one show. Although change may be slower in the South than other areas of the country, drag provides a glimmer of hope for overcoming the gender hierarchy, especially in a context where the gender binary is so rarely interrupted.
Ashley A. Baker recently completed her PhD in Sociology at Mississippi State University and begins a position as an Assistant Professor of Sociology and Social Work at Simpson College in the Fall of 2015. Her coauthor, Kimberly Kelly, is an Associate Professor of Sociology and the Director of Gender Studies at Mississippi State University.
Their article “Live Like a King, Y’all: Gender Negotiation and the Performance of Masculinity among Southern Drag Kings” will be released for OnlineFirst publication at Sexualities soon.
In April 2015, Olympic athlete and reality television star Bruce Jenner sat down with ABC’s Diane Sawyer to reveal his gender identity. Born male, Bruce declared that he always felt female and was going through the process of becoming a woman. In June, an image of Jenner dressed in a cream-colored bustier was the cover of Vanity Fair magazine, captioned by the pronouncement, “Call me Caitlyn.”
Those of us born in the last forty years have had little choice but to be affected by waves of cultural change. Every generation has this, of course, but generations who have been branded like cattle with the letters “x” and “y” have been placed in the unique position of both benefiting from the feminist and queer activism of those who came before us while also participating in a massive technological, Internet-based, and over-exposed celebrity culture which saturates our socialization. For feminist pop culture scholars like myself this is thrilling, especially considering the impact pop culture can have on society.
My generation was pushed into the “We are the World” phenomenon, the 1985 song whose proceeds benefited USA for Africa. We saw Magic Johnson announce his HIV status, forever cementing a childhood hero’s vulnerability and shattering ideas about ‘who gets AIDS.’ We were young and impressionable when Madonna came on the scene, her music and images pushing against gender roles.
In the decades that followed, we have witnessed our country’s shift in gay and lesbian rights, through comediennes like Ellen DeGeneres, pop stars and actors such as Lance Bass and Neil Patrick Harris as well as countless others who came out and then continued to have thriving careers.
My generation has watched as pop culture shined a light on issues such as violence against women, in part, because of the work of people like musician Tori Amos who co-founded RAINN, Angelina Jolie’s status as a U.N. goodwill ambassador and even men like WWE legend Mick Foley who regularly raise hundreds of thousands of dollars to support the work of RAINN and volunteer for the hotline.
Yet, these examples are of people acting intentionally and using their time and talent to better the world. Which is why it is surprising that a reality show, whose premise is to follow a wealthy family’s quest for stardom, is becoming part of social change.
Like most people, I know that beings called Kardashians and Jenners exist. The reality television show Keeping Up with the Kardashian’s has run regularly since 2008, featuring the blended family of Kris Kardashian and Bruce Jenner. The family’s popularity has had huge monetary gains and spurred a list of products too long to mention (here is a link to most of them), while simultaneously being critiqued for the “reality” created by the show’s producers.
It is because of the widespread impact of the show that leads me to think that the transition of Bruce Jenner to Caitlyn Jenner may be one of the single most important moments in pop culture for multiple generations. Whether we think of Caitlyn as an Olympic athlete, father or reality TV star, her transition from man to woman in such a public and well-orchestrated way is inescapable. Very few Americans can now say they do not know of someone who is transgender.
Caitlyn’s public revelation will undoubtedly help people who are struggling with transgender issues, being able to see ourselves and identify with another person is part of social development. It will also feed the masses of skeptical or cynical people who reject the power of celebrity. This is the beauty and brutality of popular culture.
Incredibly, watching the way Jenner has chronicled her life-long struggle with gender has placed terms like “gender identity” and “sex vs. gender” into media culture. The social construction of gender is becoming part of a national conversation, and gender studies scholarship is leaping into daily coverage of Jenner’s transition. Terms like ‘intersectionality’ are entering discussions about age (Jenner is 65), social class (she can afford the best surgical procedures) and privilege (unlimited resources aid her ability to transition and pass as a woman). Currently, gender studies is a focus of national media, something that was evident in the Keeping Up with the Kardashian’s special, “About Bruce” when Kim bluntly asked her step-father, “So if you’re a ‘woman’ and you used to have sex with my mom, does that mean you’re a lesbian?” In that moment, queer theory entered the Kardashian household. Millions of people were challenged to think about the spectrum of sexuality. Now, frank conversations about gender roles are popping up at dinner tables and coffee shops around the country.
Of course, Jenner’s experience does not speak for all transgender people. (How could it?)
As coverage of the Vanity Fair cover unfolded, comments about Caitlyn’s appearance were abundant. Being able to “pass” as male/female allows a certain amount of privilege for transgender people, their image conforms to set gender norms. There is comfort in men and women resembling our socially constructed ideas of male/female. Additionally, transitioning the way Caitlyn did was costly, the multiple surgeries and cosmetic procedures are not available for all. Further, as Jon Stewart noted, the media’s appetite for breaking down women’s looks is insatiable, as they did when the Vanity Fair image was released.
For transgender people there is already a high level of scrutiny about their bodies and, for transgender women, her cultural capital is based on her beauty. Jenner is lucky, she met these social expectations, CNN even declared her to be “stunning.” Passing is not as easy for many transgender people. There are limited resources for most to have a perfect coming out.
Regardless, the spotlight Caitlyn has elected to shine on herself is going to change lives. Gender, in all its inceptions, needs to be a part of the national conversation and Caitlyn Jenner is doing just that. I can’t wait to see what happens next.
Adrienne Trier-Bieniek PhD is a gender and pop culture sociologist. She is the author of Sing Us a Song, Piano Woman: Female Fans and the Music of Tori Amos (Scarecrow Press, 2013) and co-editor of Gender and Pop Culture: A Text-Reader (Sense, 2014). Her writing has appeared in various academic journals as well as xoJane, The Mary Sue, Gender & Society Blog, Feministing, and Girl w/Pen, and she runs the Facebook page Pop Culture Feminism. Adrienne Trier-Bieniek is a professor of sociology at Valencia College in Orlando, Florida.
About Feminist Reflections
Thinking through everyday lives with feminist sociological lenses... Read more.
Founders, Contributing Editors, and Guest Authors, include:
Kristen Barber sociologist and professor at Southern Illinois University, Carbondale.