Archive: Aug 2011

Time for another collection of gendered kids’ stuff!

First, the blog-o-sphere is all over this one already and apparently JC Penney has already pulled the t-shirt, reading “I’m to pretty to do homework so my brother has to do it for me.”  Really? I like how Jezebel framed the issue with a big “NO”:

Thanks for Caroline Heldman, Tom Megginson, Mana T., Carmel L., Heidi S., Melissa B., Alli, and Ed A.-N. (on our Facebook page) for sending in that doozy.

Next, Jessica M. and Amanda G. each sent in a photo of gendered baby rattles, both in terms of the design (girls get a purse and diamond ring, boys get a hammer and saw) but also in the description — girls are “sweet,” boys are “busy”:

Don’t worry; once your daughter outgrows the diamond ring rattle, there are other products available to remind her that the most important thing in the world is to get a diamond ring, specifically in the form of an engagement ring. Liz saw this for sale in the toy section at Wal-Mart, which was a relief, because as she said, girls these days just “don’t have enough pressure to get hitched at age 8+”:

Hishaam S. noticed that Target had four tie-dye kits — camo, neon, primary, and girly:

Laura M. sent us an image Jenga Girl Talk Edition, originally posted by Elena Barbarich. The game (which comes in two versions, pastel blue and purple and “exclusive pink”) includes blocks with girl-specific questions to stimulate conversation, such as who you have a crush on and the truly brilliant “What is your favorite website?”

There are many versions of Jenga — Donkey Kong, the Nightmare before Christmas, Transformers, and so on — but there doesn’t appear to be a version specifically labeled for boys. [NOTE: Reader JF says there’s a board game called Girl Talk, so this is being cross-branded with it.]

Esther M.-E. noticed a recent Seventh Avenue catalog contains an example of the “masculinized things are for everyone, but feminized things are only for girls” cultural pattern. The catalog had two facing pages of bed sets, the one on the left called Air Guitar (featuring guitars on the sheets, in a blue room with a basketball on the floor) and the one on the right called Jungle Queen (in a pink room with a cat):

The description of the Air Guitar set, however, describes it as appropriation for boys or girls, while the Jungle Queen set doesn’t include the same language (and its very name specifically genders it):

Seventh Avenue, of course, is marketing in this manner — actively including girls in the product that might otherwise be defined as masculine while not doing the same for boys with the feminized product — because our cultural norms surrounding gender value the masculine over the feminine. Girls who like “boy” things are often seen as cool, sassy, even smart. Boys who like “girly” stuff, though, are not cool. Even if a boy asked for a pink animal-print bedroom set, his parents are less likely to support the choice than if a daughter chose a masculine-gendered item. Seventh Avenue is simply writing copy based on this larger cultural pattern, and in so doing, reinforcing it.

And now, something that just goes in the “wtf?” category, which I include here for no reason other than the pure surreality of its existence. J.O. was looking at the girls’ toys section at All Modern Baby, and among the Fashion and Beauty Fun there were several sets of rubber bands in various shapes, including…the Kama Sutra package, with four positions:


You won’t be surprised to learn they have been removed from the site, and I found a few other kid-related websites that had them listed as no longer available as well, though if you’re dying for a set, several non-child-oriented sites carry them. The perils of modern inventory management: you order a bunch of perfectly ordinary sets of silly bands, and among the space ship and animal shapes, no one catches that you’ve also posted a sex-themed version.

If I ran the Federal scary anti-smoking image warning program, I might show smokers the list of health-related terms that show up most in the states with the highest cigarette smoking rates.

If you take the smoking rates by state, and throw them into the Google Correlate hopper, you can see the 100 search terms that are most highly correlated with that reported smoking behavior. That is, the terms that are most likely to be used in high-smoking states and least likely to be used in the low-smoking states.

Is the result just a lot of noise? Maybe, but I don’t think so. Here are the smoking-related terms in the top 100:

  • camel no 9
  • cigarette coupon
  • cigarette coupons
  • marlboro coupons
  • my time to quit
  • safe cigarettes
  • stopping smoking
  • time to quit
  • fire safe cigarettes
  • ways to stop smoking

So that’s good for face validity — a list of random search terms isn’t likely to have all those smoking terms on it.

But after the smoking terms, the thing that jumps out is the health-related terms. We know from the Google flu tracker that people search for their symptoms. So these caught my eye.

Here is a screen shot of the first page of results:

I selected “stages of copd” as the term to map. The map on the left is the smoking rates; the one on the right is the relative frequency of searches for “stages of copd.” That is, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, a nasty disease the most common cause of which is smoking.

Here is the complete list of health-related terms among the top-100 correlates with smoking rates:

Lymph node swelling, which is implicated in the jaw and neck searches, most often reflects infection — which smoking causes.

How strong are the connections? They’re not the strongest I’ve seen on Google Correlate. The “stages of copd” search is correlated with smoking rates at .77 on a scale of 0 to 1. It’s not uncommon to find correlations of .93 (which is the relationship between “quiche” and “volvo v70 xc”).

But considering the smoking rates come from a sample survey (the National Survey on Drug Use and Health) which includes random error, and states are somewhat arbitrary geographic units, that correlation seems pretty high to me. Here’s the scatterplot:

What is the correlation causality story here? I can’t say. But the simplest explanation is that these are the terms smokers (and maybe those who know or care for them) are most likely to Google relative to non-smokers — not that they are the most common searches smokers do, of course, but the searches that differentiate them from non-smokers. The simplest explanation is the best place to start.

I like this list of conditions because in my experience smokers sometimes have the attitude of “you have to die of something.” But it’s not just the chance of dying that smoking increases — it’s a lot of possible forms of suffering along the way.

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The Google Correlate tool is showing the great potential for using Internet search activity to investigate layers of behavior and meaning behind other observable social phenomena, such as race/ethnic compositionhealth behavior, and family patterns.

Whether you are in college or not, fall semester 2011 is upon us. Below, courtesy of Everyday Sociology, is a graph illustrating the rising cost of college, controlled for inflation.

Public College/University Tuition, Room and Board (held constant in 2007-2008 dollars):

Consequent to this increase, the average student in 2008 graduated with twice the debt as a student in 1996, from $12,750 to $23,200.

The pay-off of a college education, however, is higher than ever. So why don’t more people go?

In the seven-and-a-half minute video below, UC Berkeley Professor Michael Hout gives a history of higher education putting all of this in perspective. The answer is class-specific and how different classes think about debt and possibility. More:

Lisa Wade, PhD is a Visiting Scholar at Tulane University. She is the author of American Hookup, a book about college sexual culture; a textbook about gender; and a forthcoming Introduction to Sociology text. You can follow her on Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram.

We have posted a number of times about the unequal effects of the current economic crisis: the worsening of the racial gap in homeownership, the more severely negative economic situation of African Americans and Latinos than of Whites, including among African American and White college graduates, higher unemployment for men than for women (this post also has a lot of info about race, sex, and job loss), the fact that older workers who lose their jobs remain unemployed longer than younger workers, that job losses have been accompanied by increased corporate profits, and that wealthier households have weathered the crisis better than less prosperous ones.

Dmitriy T.M. sent along an April 2011 Gallup poll that asked 1,013 Americans about their perceptions of the economy. Overall, results were more positive than when the same question was asked in September 2008, when the economic meltdown really became apparent. Though more than half of respondents said the U.S. is in either a recession or a depression, that’s down significantly from the 69% who said so in late 2008, while the 27% who said the economy is growing is an enormous jump compared to the mere 3% who thought it was in September 2008:

But perceptions of the economy differed significantly by income level. Nobody thought it was doing great; over half of every income group still thought the economy was in either a recession or a depression. However, those making less than $30,000 a year had a notably more negative outlook on the economy than those with higher incomes. Not only were they more likely to think the economy is doing poorly, but nearly half thought we’re experiencing a depression — twice as high as the proportion of those making $75,000/year who thought so:

Interestingly, perceptions of the economy also varied widely by political affiliation, with Democrats feeling much more positive about the economy than any other group, and Republicans and Tea Party supports feeling markedly more negative:

Meanwhile, the Gallup daily tracker poll on the state of the economy (which only shows overall results) shows a marked downturn in Americans’ perceptions of the economy throughout the summer of 2011, with 77% now reporting the economy is “getting worse”:

For more on the economic crisis and its uneven effects, see Philip Cohen’s post on race and job loss, differences in optimism about the future, unemployment by race/sex/education, occupation, median earnings, and race, and the geography of job loss.

That’s Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg and, behind him, his “law of information sharing.” The equation and graph illustrate, in his own words:

…that next year, people will share twice as much information as they share this year, and next year, they will be sharing twice as much as they did the year before.

The norms surrounding privacy are changing and new apps and services for us to display ourselves are being invented. Because of this, Zuckerberg predicts that we will share more and new types of information as time passes.

Facebook and the rest of social media (Twitter, Tumblr, Google+ and so on) need us to share more and more information. Facebook, for instance, uses our personal information to attract advertisers who want to better “target” their advertisements to us. Change your relationship status to “engaged” and you may be quickly targeted with wedding ads.

So what? 

Karl Marx said that we are “exploited” when we are not paid in wages the full value of our labor (our bosses, instead, skim some off the top).  Since our sharing makes Facebook valuable, it is our work that makes it the digital goldmine that it is (valued at around $84 billion). We, in turn, are paid no wages at all.

Should the average Facebook user feel exploited? 

Facebook users get non-monetary rewards from using the site, such as self-expression and socializing with others.  Perhaps personal connection or social attention is just another type of currency, one that Marx didn’t fully account for.  Then again, Marx never argued that workers weren’t compensated at all, only that their compensation was not equal to the value they brought to the employer.

So, what do you think? Is Facebook exploitative? Are monetary and social currencies fundamentally different?

Does a Marxist analysis work on Facebook? Or do we need a different theory to make sense of it all?

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Nathan Jurgenson is a graduate student in sociology at the University of Maryland and co-edits the Cyborgology blog.

If you would like to write a post for Sociological Images, please see our Guidelines for Guest Bloggers.

Sociology PhD candidate Kjerstin Gruys recently guest posted about her effort to shun mirrors for one year in the hopes of improving her body image.  As any really interesting and challenging project should, it’s begun to get some major media coverage, including a story at Yahoo News.  When a political project starts getting mass media attention, though, it risks being contextualized and even co-opted by the status quo.  This is a case in point.

Interspersed among the article about Gruys’ project are links, an effort on the part of the website to get readers to spend more time on its pages and the pages of its advertisers.  These are probably randomly generated according to the content of the article.  So, since Gruys’ project is about her feelings about her body and avoiding mirrors for six months before and after her wedding day, the links center around beauty and weddings.  The first two links nestled in among the first few paragraphs read “Are you Satisfied with Your Face?” and “A Wedding Dress to Fit Your Body Shape.”

By publicizing her project, Kjerstin is trying to make the personal political.  But one of the only means of drawing awareness to her work includes losing control of how it’s talked about and delivered.  While she wants women to feel better about themselves, and some may be inspired by her project, in some ways this is also another instance of the mass media reminding women to think about the appearance of their face and body. The inserted links, further, can be read as upholding the very standards that Gruys is trying to combat.  And in at least some cases, they do. The “Are you Satisfied with Your Face?” link, in this vein, goes to a site sponsored by super-beauty project corporation L’Oreal.

Thanks to my student, Kirsten Easton, for sending along this link!

Lisa Wade, PhD is a Visiting Scholar at Tulane University. She is the author of American Hookup, a book about college sexual culture; a textbook about gender; and a forthcoming Introduction to Sociology text. You can follow her on Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram.

Presidential hopeful and U.S. Congressman Ron Paul (R-TX) made the news over the weekend arguing, among other things, that the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) is unnecessary or, even worse, creates a kind of moral hazard in populations who come to depend on Federal relief efforts. In remarks reported Friday, Rep. Paul said that Hurricane Irene should be handled “like 1900,” the year that a large storm killed approximately 8,000 individuals in Galveston and a few thousand more onshore, when it struck the low-lying island and nearby small communities on the Texas coast.

It is certainly true that the Federal response to the destruction of Galveston was relatively minor. Systematic Federal management and provision of aid to individuals in disaster crystallized in response to the Mississippi River’s catastrophic flooding in 1927.  In 1900, it was limited for the most part to President McKinley sending surplus Army tents to house the newly homeless residents of Galveston, and loaning some ships to transport relief goods.

The nation as a whole, on the other hand, quickly mobilized relief donation efforts through newspapers, state and city governments, and the dense network of fraternal organizations that characterized American civil society in 1900. The nation’s response was along the lines of the civic and political institutions of the time, with all that entailed.

[Credit: Rosenberg Library’s Galveston and Texas History Center archives]

So, for instance, some of the citizens of Galveston who survived the storm were given liquor for their nerves and pressed into service at gunpoint by local authorities to clear dead and putrefying bodies from the wreckage; some were later partially compensated for their time with a small sum of money. Property owners, however, were exempted from mandatory clearing of debris and corpses.

Voluntary associations – often segregated by gender, race, ethnicity, and class – took care of their own members as best they could, but the broader distribution of relief supplies arriving from other areas was handled by committees of Galveston’s social and economic elites, based on their knowledge of their city’s political districts. Distribution efforts throughout the Texas coast were controversial enough that hearings were held by the Texas State Senate to investigate reports of improper relief distribution, some of which were borne out by testimony but none of which were pursued.  Survivors’ letters suggest that in some cases the nicer relief goods – the distribution of which was handled by committees of Galveston’s social and economic elites on the basis of what they knew about their city’s political districts – went to the wealthier victims’ districts, when they weren’t re-routed by less wealthy and somewhat disgruntled Galvestonians tasked with actually lugging the supplies around the city.  And Galveston’s African-American community was wholly shut out of the rebuilding process and denied a seat on the Central Relief Committee, despite efforts to secure a place in helping shape the collective destiny of the city. This is hardly surprising: poorer Americans tend to suffer disproportionately in most disasters, and are often left out of planning and rebuilding efforts.

There is much to be said for the response of Galveston’s Central Relief Committee. Under their leadership the city built the seawall that helps protect the city to this day and they initiated a series of successful municipal reforms that became widespread during the Progressive era. But we should not let unexamined nostalgia blind us to the realities of the situation in Galveston in the months after the 1900 storm.

Nor should we forget that the techniques that might have been more or less appropriate in 1900 were attuned to a society that has since changed quite a bit. It would be hard to imagine contemporary Americans pressed into service to clear bodies, barring a truly exceptional event. And despite its shortcomings, American culture is on the whole more egalitarian in 2005 than it was in 1900.

But the dense network of associations through which much assistance flowed to the city simply does not exist in the contemporary U.S. for a variety of reasons, none of which are reducible to the growth of the Federal government.  Instead, Americans support each other in crises by way of donations to highly professionalized and technically adept disaster relief organizations like the Red Cross, and by maintaining government organizations charged with preparing for the worst disasters and catastrophes with their tax dollars.

This makes sense in part because contemporary cities and the economic arrangements which undergird them are much more complex beasts than they were in 1900. The following chart property damage and deaths caused by major disasters over the 20th century:

[Source: The Federal Response to Hurricane Katrina: Lessons Learned, p. 6.]

The overall trend is toward less lethal but much costlier disasters, which in turn causes significant disruptions to the ordinary functioning of local businesses and municipal governments that depend on tax revenues from those businesses. This necessitates more Federal involvement, as cities and state governments struggle to get their own houses in order, and to pay for the resources and technical know-how needed to rebuild infrastructure, modern dwellings, and businesses. As Lawrence Powell, a historian at Tulane University in New Orleans, asked of the influx of well-meaning volunteers in response to Katrina, “Can the methods of a nineteenth-century barn raising drag a twenty-first-century disaster area from the mud and the muck?”.

The 20th century history of Federal disaster policy can be described as a cycle of expansion and contraction. Increasingly complex disasters draw forth ad hoc solutions, which are then formalized and later institutionalized until they grow unwieldy and are periodically consolidated in efforts to provide more efficient, systematic, and effective services that are less prone to fraud or waste.

Small and big business, social movement organizations, academics, professionals, voluntary associations and NGOs have all helped shape the trajectory of that cycle, as when civil rights organizations successfully lobbied Congress and the Red Cross after Hurricane Camille in 1969 to provide a baseline of minimum assistance to hurricane victims, rather than the older policy that granted aid on the basis of pre-disaster assets (and which thus tended to favor wealthier victims on the basis that they had lost more than had the poor).

In recent decades, this has tended toward deregulation of coastal development in deference to free market ideals and a Congressional movement in the mid 1990s that sought to pay for disaster relief by, in large part, cutting social service programs that serve the poor. (See Ted Steinberg’s Acts of God for one good historical and political economic critique of U.S. disaster policy.)

How Federal disaster mitigation efforts can be more efficient, just, or effective is certainly a worthy conversation to hold. How best to arrange – and pay for – social relationships around economic, ecological, and technological risk is also an excellent topic for deliberation and debate. But to seriously argue that we should strive to make our disaster response regime more like that enjoyed by Americans in the early half of the twentieth century is, for lack of a better word, silly.

(For that matter, it’s hard to understand what Rep. Paul means by his call for more control by the States; the decision to request the involvement of the Federal government and FEMA already rests with the State governors, as per the Stafford Act.)

Former generations of Americans saw a patchwork of state government solutions as inadequate to managing modern disasters, particularly those that overwhelm municipal or State governments. They built Civil Defense agencies, the Office of Emergency Preparedness, and later FEMA in an effort to combine accountability and economies of scale and expertise, and to ensure that in times of disaster Americans could count on their Federal government to marshal tools and talent when local and State governments are overwhelmed and help is asked.

And as my own research shows, the efforts of these state organizations have long been understood by victims and outside observers alike as expressing and relying on bonds of fellow citizenship and civil solidarity. That in recent decades this legacy has been tarnished with cronyism and mismanagement from above says more about those political actors and the institutions of American electoral politics than it does about the inherent worth of Federal disaster management organizations.

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Brady Potts is a lecturer in the Department of Sociology at the University of Southern California. His current research focuses on the history of public discourse and narratives around risk and hurricane disasters, and the role of civic culture in American disaster response.

If you would like to write a post for Sociological Images, please see our Guidelines for Guest Bloggers.

The Demographics

During disasters, poor people, people of color, and the elderly die in disproportionate numbers (source), and Katrina was no exception. Many decisions were made in the days leading up to and shortly after Katrina that amplified loss of life for these groups. New Orleans is both a poor (23% poverty rate pre-Katrina – twice the national average) and segregated city, and these factors led to loss of life. First, an effective evacuation plan was not in place that accounted for the 112,000 poor, mostly black New Orleanians without cars. Additionally, the timing of the storm at the end of the month meant that those receiving public assistance were unusually cash-strapped. To make matters worse for poor people with children, school had just started so expenses for the month were higher than usual.

The immobile poor were disproportionately left behind and lost their lives. A comprehensive study of evacuees to Houston (who had stayed behind during the storm) found that 22% were physically unable to evacuate, 14% were physically disabled, 23% stayed in New Orleans to care for a physically disabled person, and 25% were suffering from a chronic disease (source). Also,

• 55% did not have a car or a way to evacuate
• 68% had neither money in the bank nor a useable credit card
• 57% had total household incomes of less than $20,000 in the prior year
• 76% had children under 18 with them in the shelter
• 77% had a high school education or less
• 93% were black
• 67% were employed full or part-time before the hurricane

Age was also a factor in fatalities. Nearly 40% of those who died in Katrina were elderly, and many more elderly individuals died from the stress of evacuation and home loss.

Government Response

Mayor Nagin received nearly $20 million to establish a workable evacuation plan in plenty of time for Katrina, but it’s questionable whether it was ever developed, and it was never disseminated. Two months before Katrina, Nagin spent money to produce and distribute DVDs in poorer neighborhoods to inform residents that they would be on their own if a storm hit because the city could not afford to evacuate them.  In the days before the storm, Nagin sent empty Amtrak trains out of the city, failed to mobilized available school and other buses, and waited an entire day to call for a mandatory evacuation so he could determine whether the City would face lawsuits from local businesses (source). All of these decisions were deadly.

The federal response was no better. The city was quiet after the storm whipped through late Sunday night/early Monday morning when President Bush announced that New Orleans had “dodged a bullet.” Within hours, three major levees breaches and over fifty minor breaches flooded the city. Despite Governor Blanco’s request for federal assistance on Saturday (two days before the storm made landfall) and concern from local media on Sunday (one day before the storm) that the levees wouldn’t hold, they breached on Monday morning with only two Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) workers on the ground (see the timeline). It would take two days for 1,000 additional officials to arrive.

Once on the ground, FEMA slowed the evacuation with unworkable paperwork and certification requirements. Marc Cresswell, a medic from a private ambulance company, reported that “At one point I had 10 helicopters on the ground waiting to go, but FEMA kept stonewalling us with paperwork. Meanwhile, every 30 or 40 minutes someone was dying.” FEMA was also criticized for turning away personnel, vehicles, medical equipment, food and other supplies, and diesel fuel.

The 30,000 people who evacuated to the Superdome (per Nagin’s instructions) were stranded for a week. Those who evacuated to the Superdome experienced deplorable conditions – unbearable heat, darkness, the stench of sewage, and a lack of food and water. They were not allowed to leave, and, according to several evacuees I interviewed in Texas shortly after the storm, this led one man to take his life by jumping from a balcony. This death was one of only six deaths at the Superdome: one person overdosed and four others died of natural causes. Another 20,000 people gathered at the Convention Center for assistance, an evacuation site the federal government was unaware of until three days after the storm.

President Bush was otherwise occupied during this time. The day Katrina hit, he traveled to Arizona and California to promote his prescription drug plan, had birthday cake with John McCain, and attended a Padres game.

Panicked at the slow federal response, Governor Blanco sent an urgent request: “Mr. President, we need your help. We need everything you’ve got.” The president retired to bed that night without responding to Blanco. The next day, he sang songs with country singer Mark Willis and returned to Texas for the final night of his vacation. The President was so oblivious to the suffering in New Orleans that his staff made a video of news coverage four days after the storm to sensitize him. And, in response, President Bush’s team assembled a carefully crafted PR plan to blame local officials seven days into the ordeal while thousands of people were still stranded. Later that same day, President Bush made the infamous statement, “Brownie, you’re doing a heckuva job.”

Cross-posted at Caroline Heldman’s blog.