Flashback Friday.

Eden H. sent in an exploratory study about kids’ stereotypes of scientists. The U.S. Department of Energy’s Fermilab asked 7th graders to draw and describe a “scientist” before and after visiting the lab on a class trip. They first read about the Fermilab, then came to the lab and meet with some of the scientists and talk about their work. From the Fermilab website:

What we changed for this field trip was the before and after descriptions and small group sessions for each student to meet with two of three physicists rather than one large group session. We deliberately chose a typical white male, a young female and an African American physicist. We let the students and physicist take their discussion where they wanted.

Here are some of the before-and-after pictures and descriptions (all 31 are available here):

In general, the students seemed to come away with an idea of scientists as being more like “normal” people, not just stereotypical geeks in lab coats. But some of the other changes are interesting, too. The author of a post about the study at Restructure! analyzed the before-and-after images (as best as she could identify the sex of the drawings):

  • Among girls (14 in total), 36% portrayed a female scientist in the “before” drawing, and 57% portrayed a female scientist in the “after” drawing.
  • Among boys (17 in total), 100% portrayed a male scientist in the “before” drawing, and 100% portrayed a male scientist in the “after” drawing.

I looked through all of them and only saw one instance (posted above) where the child changed the scientists to be clearly non-White.

Of course this is a small sample, but the results seem to reproduce what other studies have found regarding the importance of role models and gender stereotyping, in particular, that girls are more likely to imagine themselves  in careers when they see women doing them. For instance, the relative lack of female professors in male-dominated departments such as engineering may play a role in discouraging women from choosing to major in such fields (as well as other factors such as steering, concerns about family/work conflicts, etc.).

Originally posted in 2010.

Gwen Sharp, PhD is a professor of sociology and the Associate Dean of liberal arts and sciences at Nevada State College. 

Rumors are circulating that the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) has plans to euthanize 44,000 wild horses. The rumor is partly true. An advisory board has authorized the BLM to do so; they have yet to make a decision as to whether they will. Even the possibility of such a widespread cull, though, has understandably sparked outrage. Yet the reality of the American mustang is not as simple as the love and admiration for these animals suggests.

Mustangs are powerful symbols of the American West. The modern mustang is the descendant of various breeds of horses worked by everyone from Spanish conquistadors to pioneers in wagon trains into the Western US. Some inevitably escaped over time and formed herds of feral horses. Wild herds in the east were generally either driven west or recaptured over time as the frontier moved ever westward (the wild ponies of Assateague Island off the coast of Virginia being a famous exception). Over time, they became inextricably entwined with perceptions of the West as still wild and free, not yet fully domesticated. The image of a herd of beautiful horses against a gorgeous but austere Western landscape is a striking one, perhaps something like this:


So how do we get from that to these mustangs penned up in a pasture running after a feed truck in Oklahoma (a screenshot from the video below):

2 (1)

It’s a complicated story involving conflicts surrounding federal land management, public attitudes toward mustangs, and unintended consequences of public policies.

Wild horses fall under the purview of the BLM because most live on public range (particularly in Nevada, California, and Idaho, as well as Washington, Wyoming, and other Western states). Mustangs have no natural predators in the West; mountain lions, bears, and wolves kill some horses each year, but their numbers simply aren’t large enough to be a systematic form of population control for wild horse herds, especially given that horses aren’t necessarily their first choice for a meal. So wild horse herds can grow fairly rapidly. Currently the BLM estimates there are about 67,000 wild horses and burros on public land in the West, 40,000 more than the BLM thinks the land can reasonably sustain.

Of course, managing wild horses is one small part of the BLM’s mission. The agency is tasked with balancing various uses of federal lands, including everything from resource extraction (such as mining and logging), recreational uses for the public, grazing range for cattle ranchers, wildlife habitat conservation, preservation of archaeological and historical sites, providing water for irrigation as well as residential use, and many, many more. And many of these uses conflict to some degree. Setting priorities among various potential uses of BLM land has, over time, become a very contentious process, as different groups battle, often through the courts, to have their preferred use of BLM land prioritized over others.

The important point here is that managing wild horse numbers is part, but only a small part, of the BLM’s job. They decide on the carrying capacity of rangeland — that is, how many wild horses it can sustainably handle — by taking into account competing uses, like how many cattle will be allowed on the same land, its use as wildlife habitat, possible logging or mining activities, and so on. And much of the time the BLM concludes that, given their balance of intended uses, there are too many horses.

So what does the BLM do when they’ve decided there are too many horses?

For many years, the BLM simply allowed them to be killed; private citizens had a more or less free pass to kill them. There wasn’t a lot of oversight regarding how many could be killed or the treatment of the horses during the process. Starting in the late 1950s, the BLM began to get negative press, and a movement to protect wild horses emerged. It culminated in the Wild Free-Roaming Horses and Burros Act, passed in 1971. The law didn’t ban killing wild horses, but it provided some protection for them and required the BLM to ensure humane treatment, guarantee the presence of wild horses on public lands, and encourage other methods of disposing of excess horses.

One such method is making such horses (and burros) available to the general public for adoption. The BLM holds periodic adoption events. However, currently the demand for these animals isn’t nearly large enough to absorb the supply. For instance, in 2010, 9,715 wild horses were removed from public lands, while 2,742 were adopted.

So, there aren’t enough people to adopt them and killing them has become increasingly unpopular. Controlling herd populations through some form of birth control hasn’t been widely implemented and has led to lawsuits. What to do?

One solution was for the federal government to pay private citizens to care for mustangs removed from public lands. Today there are 46,000 wild horses penned up on private lands, fed by feed trucks. Something for which the American taxpayer pays $49 million dollars a year. Holding wild horses has become a business. Here’s a news segment about one of these wild horse operations:

The ranch in video is owned by the Drummond family, a name that might ring a bell if you’re familiar with the incredibly popular website The Pioneer Woman, by Ree Drummond. They are just one of several ranching families in north central Oklahoma that have received contracts to care for wild horses.

In addition to the sheer cost involved, paying private citizens to hold wild horses brings a whole new set of controversies, as well as unintended consequences for the region. Federal payments for the wild horse and burro maintenance program are public information. A quick look at the federal contracts database shows that in just the first three financial quarters of 2009, for example, the Drummonds (a large, multi-generational ranching family) received over $1.6 million. Overall, two-thirds of the BLM budget for managing wild horses goes to paying for holding animals that have been removed from public lands, either in short-term situations before adoptions or in long-term contracts like the ones in Oklahoma.

This is very lucrative. Because prices are guaranteed in advance, holding wild horses isn’t as risky as raising cattle. And, if a horse dies, the BLM just gives the rancher a new one. But this income-generating opportunity isn’t available to everyone; generally only the very largest landowners get a chance. From the BLM’s perspective, it’s more efficient to contract with one operation to take 2,000 horses than to contract with 20 separate people to take 100 each. So almost all small and mid-size operations are shut out of the contracts. This has led to an inflow of federal money to operations that were already quite prosperous by local standards. These landowners then have a significant advantage when it comes to trying to buy or lease pastures that become available in the area; other ranchers have almost no chance of competing with the price they can pay. The result is more concentration of land ownership as small and medium-sized ranchers, or those hoping to start up a ranch from scratch, are priced out of the market. In other words, the wild horse holding program contributes to the wealth of the 1%, while everyone else’s economic opportunities are harmed.

This is why the BLM is considering a cull. Not because they love the idea of killing off mustangs, but because they’re caught between a dozen rocks and hard places, trying to figure out how to best manage a very complicated problem, with no resolution in sight.

Revised and updated; originally posted in 2011. Cross-posted at Scientopia and expanded for Contexts.

Gwen Sharp, PhD is a professor of sociology and the Associate Dean of liberal arts and sciences at Nevada State College. 

Flashback Friday. 

Outlet malls are often in the middle of nowhere, in places that are hard to get to, or in places that you wouldn’t think of as retail magnets. For instance, you’ve got the outlet mall in Barstow, California:



Barstow is roughly mid-way between L.A. and Las Vegas, so locating it there might be a smart move to try to get some of the weekend traffic between the two cities. And there are some logical reasons you might want to locate outlets in places like Barstow: by putting them in outlying cities, you make sure they don’t overlap too much with the customer base for the main stores, potentially stealing customers who would otherwise pay full-price for new products rather than going to the outlet. You want the outlet to be complement the regular store, not compete with it.

And aside from that, surely real estate is cheaper in Barstow than in either L.A. or Las Vegas, which would keep costs down for building or renting retail space.

That’s part of the story. But there’s some interesting psychology going on, too, as Ellen Ruppel Shell explains in Cheap: The High Cost of Discount Culture. It turns out that being difficult to get to is, in fact, part of the appeal of outlet malls. The fact that they often require a drive of an hour or more signals to consumers that they must have really good deals. That’s the payoff for inconvenience — it’s harder and more time-consuming than going to your local mall, but in return you’re getting a great bargain. Right?


Well… not really. I remember driving two hours once to go to this outlet mall I had heard so much about — friends would go and come back with bags full of clothes, telling me about all the money they’d saved. I got there and was shocked by the prices; they didn’t strike me as particularly cheap at all. I ended up going home without buying anything, trying to figure out how I had missed the great sales racks.

According to Shell, though, that’s pretty typical of outlet malls: they often don’t really provide great bargains. Instead, they provide the illusion of bargains, and a motivation for thinking you’re finding them.

It turns out that the more trouble people go through to get to an outlet, the more they overestimate the amount of savings compared to prices at regular stores. The very fact that it was hard to get to convinces people that it must provide something fantastic; if you aren’t saving a lot of money by going there, why on earth would it be so far out of the way? And the more remote it is, the cheaper the products must be!

Our efforts to understand the placement of outlet malls actually leads us to think we’re getting better deals than we are, because we must be. Otherwise it doesn’t make sense for them to be where they are. And so the location of outlet malls becomes proof that they’re cheap. Why else would they be there?

We have another powerful motivation to believe this. If you’ve driven an hour or more one-way to get great deals at the outlet mall, you are primed to believe you’re getting bargains because otherwise you just wasted a lot of time, effort, and gas for nothing. Once you get there, you’re psychologically motivated to believe your effort was worth it, and you do that by buying stuff and thinking the price is a steal.

As a result of these two factors, research shows that people perceive merchandise found at out-of-the-way outlet malls as being more of a bargain than they do if they see similarly-priced items closer to home. We overestimate what the original value of the item must have been and focus on the difference between that hypothetical price and the outlet price, rather than on the objective price itself. And consumers tend to discount the cost of getting to the outlet, not including the cost of gas and their time into the price of the items they buy.

So the placement of outlet malls isn’t just a simple reaction to real estate prices or an effort to not compete with the regular-priced store. The placement itself is an important element of marketing, signaling to consumers that wonderful bargains await those who are willing to accept a little inconvenience. When you combine this with the meaningless discount, you have a powerful marketing tool, a way to convince consumers they are saving more money, or getting higher-quality products, than they actually are.

Originally posted in 2010.

Gwen Sharp is an associate professor of sociology at Nevada State College. You can follow her on Twitter at @gwensharpnv.

Flashback Friday.

A study by doctor Ruchi Gupta and colleagues mapped rates of asthma among children in Chicago, revealing that they are closely correlated with race and income. The overall U.S. rate of childhood asthma is about 10%, but evidence indicates that asthma is very unevenly distributed. Their visuals show that there are huge variations in the rates of childhood asthma among different neighborhoods:


The researchers looked at how the racial/ethnic composition of neighborhoods is associated with childhood asthma. They defined a neighborhood’s racial make-up by looking at those that were over 67% White, Black, or Hispanic. This graph shows the percent of such neighborhoods that fall into three categories of rates of asthma: low (less than 10% of children have asthma), medium (10-20% of children have it), and high (over 20% of kids are affected). While 95% of White neighborhoods have low or medium rates, 56% of Hispanic neighborhoods have medium or high rates. However, the really striking finding is for Black neighborhoods; 94% have medium or high prevalence. And the racial clustering is even more pronounced if we look only at the high category, where only a tiny proportion (6%) of White neighborhoods fall but nearly half of Black ones do…a nearly mirror image of what we see for the low category:


Rates of asthma and racial/ethnic composition (the color of the circles) mapped onto Chicago neighborhoods (background color represents prevalence of asthma):


Asthma rates don’t seem to be highly clustered by education, but are highly correlated with overall neighborhood incomes:


It’s hard to know exactly what causes higher rates of asthma in Black and Hispanic neighborhoods than in White ones. It could be differences in access to medical care. The researchers found that asthma rates are also higher in neighborhoods that have high rates of violence. Perhaps stress from living in neighborhoods with a lot of violence is leading to more asthma. The authors of the study suggest that parents might keep their children inside more to protect them from violence, leading to more exposure to second-hand smoke and other indoor pollutants (off-gassing from certain types of paints or construction materials, for instance).

Other studies suggest that poorer neighborhoods have worse outdoor environmental conditions, particularly exposure to industries that release toxic air pollutants or store toxic waste, which increase the risk of asthma. Having a parent with asthma increases the chances of having it as well, though the connection there is equally unsure–is there a genetic factor, or does it simply indicate that parents and children are likely to grow up in neighborhoods with similar conditions?

Regardless, it’s clear that some communities — often those with the fewest resources to deal with it — are bearing the brunt of whatever conditions cause childhood asthma.

Originally posted in 2010.

Gwen Sharp is an associate professor of sociology at Nevada State College. You can follow her on Twitter at @gwensharpnv.

Trigger warning for racist language and discussions of racial violence.

After the storm had passed, while New Orleans was still in a state of crisis, residents of a predominantly white neighborhood that had escaped flooding, Algiers Point, took it upon themselves to violently patrol their streets.

“It was great!” says one man interviewed below. “It was like pheasant season in South Dakota. If it moved, you shot it!” According to one witness testimony, they were looking for “anything coming up this street darker than a paper bag…” At least 11 black men were shot.

Here is a short interview with two of the men of Algiers Point, from the documentary Welcome to New Orleans:

This next video, sent in by reader Martha O., includes some of the footage above, but focuses much more on the experiences of several African American men who lived in the neighborhood and were shot or threatened by their White neighbors.

The men talk about the panic and terror they felt during these incidents. Toward the end, Donnell Herrington watches footage of the White residents bragging about their exploits. It’s brutal to watch this man listening to the militia members talk about shooting African Americans casually and with obvious enthusiasm and pride.

The video is part of an in-depth story about the Algiers Point shootings featured in The Nation in 2008. And as Martha explained, it’s a harrowing example of how swiftly organized violent racism can emerge when external constraints are even briefly weakened.

Originally posted in 2012. Watch the full documentary here.

Gwen Sharp is an associate professor of sociology at Nevada State College. You can follow her on Twitter at @gwensharpnv.

Flashback Friday.

The AP has an interesting website about wildfires from 2002 to 2006. Each year, most wildfires occurred west of the Continental Divide:

Many of these areas are forested. Others are desert or shortgrass prairie:

There are a lot of reasons for wildfires–climate and ecology, periodic droughts, humans. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service reports that in the Havasu National Wildlife Refuge, the “vast majority” of wildfires are due to human activity. Many scientists expect climate change to increase wildfires.

Many wildfires affect land managed by the Bureau of Land Management. For most of the 1900s, the BLM had a policy of total fire suppression to protect valuable timber and private property.

Occasional burns were part of forest ecology. Fires came through, burning forest litter relatively quickly, then moving on or dying out. Healthy taller trees were generally unaffected; their branches were often out of the reach of flames and bark provided protection. Usually the fire moved on before trees had ignited. And some types of seeds required exposure to a fire to sprout.

Complete fire suppression allowed leaves, pine needles, brush, fallen branches, etc., to build up. Wildfires then became more intense and destructive: they were hotter, flames reached higher, and thicker layers of forest litter meant the fire lingered longer.

As a result, an uncontrolled wildfire was often more destructive. Trees were more likely to burn or to smolder and reignite a fire several days later. Hotter fires with higher flames are more dangerous to fight, and can also more easily jump naturally-occurring or artificial firebreaks. They may burn a larger area than they would otherwise, and thus do more of the damage that total fire suppression policies were supposed to prevent.

In the last few decades the BLM has recognized the importance of occasional fires in forest ecology. Fires are no longer seen as inherently bad. In some areas “controlled burns” are set to burn up some of the dry underbrush and mimic the effects of naturally-occurring fires.

But it’s not easy to undo decades of fire suppression. A controlled burn sometimes turns out to be hard to control, especially with such a buildup of forest litter. Property owners often oppose controlled burns because they fear the possibility of one getting out of hand. So the policy of fire suppression has in many ways backed forest managers into a corner: it led to changes in forests that make it difficult to change course now, even though doing so might reduce the destructive effects of wildfires when they do occur.

Given this, I’m always interested when wildfires are described as “natural disasters.” What makes something a natural disaster? The term implies a destructive situation that is not human-caused but rather emerges from “the environment.” As the case of wildfires shows, the situation is often more complex than this, because what appear to be “natural” processes are often affected by humans… and because we are, of course, part of the environment, despite the tendency to think of human societies and “nature” as separate entities.

Originally posted in 2010.

Gwen Sharp is an associate professor of sociology at Nevada State College. You can follow her on Twitter at @gwensharpnv.

Flashback Friday.

My great-grandma would put a few drops of turpentine on a sugar cube as a cure-all for any type of cough or respiratory ailment. Nobody in the family ever had any obvious negative effects from it as far as I know. And once when I had a sinus infection my grandma suggested that I try gargling kerosene. I decided to go to the doctor for antibiotics instead, but most of my relatives thought that was a perfectly legitimate suggestion.

In the not-so-recent history, lots of substances we consider unhealthy today were marketed and sold for their supposed health benefits. Joe A. of Human Rights Watch sent in these images of vintage products that openly advertised that they contained cocaine or heroin. Perhaps you would like some Bayer Heroin?



This alcohol and opium concoction was for treating asthma:

Cocaine drops for the kids:

This product, made up of 46% alcohol mixed with opium, was for all ages; on the back it includes dosages for as young as five days:

A reader named Louise sent in a recipe from her great-grandma’s cookbook. Her great-grandmother was a cook at a country house in England. The recipe is dated 1891 and calls for “tincture of opium”:

The recipe from the lower half of the right-hand page (with original spellings):

Hethys recipe for cough mixture

1 pennyworth of each
Antimonial Wine
Acetic Acid
Tincture of opium
Oil of aniseed
Essence of peppermint
1/2lb best treacle

Well mix and make up to Pint with water.

As Joe says, it’s no secret that products with cocaine, marijuana, opium, and other now-banned substances were at one time sold openly, often as medicines. The changes in attitudes toward these products, from entirely acceptable and even beneficial to inherently harmful and addicting, is a great example of social construction. While certainly opium and cocaine have negative effects on some people, so do other substances that remained legal (or were re-legalized, in the case of alcohol).

Often racist and anti-immigrant sentiment played a role in changing views of what are now illegal controlled substances; for instance, the association of opium with Chinese immigrants contributed to increasingly negative attitudes toward it as anything associated with Chinese immigrants was stigmatized, particularly in the western U.S. This combined with a push by social reformers to prohibit a variety of substances, leading to the Harrison Narcotic Act. The act, passed in 1914, regulated production and distribution of opium but, in its application, eventually basically criminalized it.

Reformers pushing for cocaine to be banned suggested that its effects led Black men to rape White women, and that it gave them nearly super-human strength that allowed them to kill Whites more effectively. A similar argument was made about Mexicans and marijuana:

A Texas police captain summed up the problem: under marijuana, Mexicans became “very violent, especially when they become angry and will attack an officer even if a gun is drawn on him. They seem to have no fear, I have also noted that under the influence of this weed they have enormous strength and that it will take several men to handle one man while under ordinary circumstances one man could handle him with ease.”

So the story of the criminalization of some substances in the U.S. is inextricably tied to various waves of anti-immigrant and racist sentiment. Some of the same discourse–the “super criminal” who is impervious to pain and therefore especially violent and dangerous, the addicted mother who harms and even abandons her child to prostitute herself as a way to get drugs–resurfaced as crack cocaine emerged in the 1980s and was perceived as the drug of choice of African Americans.

Originally posted in 2010.

Gwen Sharp is an associate professor of sociology at Nevada State College. You can follow her on Twitter at @gwensharpnv.

Flashback Friday.

Back when I was in high school and college, I learned that one of the major things that separated humans from other species was culture. The ability to develop distinct ways of living that include an understanding of symbols, language, and customs unique to the group was a specifically human trait.

And, ok, so it turned out that other species had more complex communication systems than we thought they did, but still, other animals were assumed to behave according to instinct, not community-specific cultures.

But as with so many things humans have been convinced we alone possess, it’s turning out that other species have cultures, too. One of the clearest examples is the division of orcas into two groups with distinct customs and eating habits; one eats mammals while the other is pescetarian, eating only fish. Though the two groups regularly come in contact with each other in the wild, they do not choose to intermingle or mate with one another. Here’s a video:


Aside from the obvious implications for our understanding of culture, this brings up an issue in terms of conservation. Take the case of orcas. Some are suggesting that they should be on the endangered species list because the population has declined. What do we do if it turns out at some point that, while the overall orca population is not fully endangered, one of the distinct orca cultural groups is? Is it enough that killer whales still exist, or do we need to think of the cultures separately and try to preserve sufficient numbers of each? In addition to being culturally different, they are functionally non-interchangeable: each group has a different effect on food chains and ecosystems.

Should conservation efforts address not just keeping the overall population alive and functioning, but ensure that the range of cultural diversity within a species is protected? If this situation occurred, should we declare one orca culture as endangered but not the other? Are both ecological niches important?

I love these questions. If we recognize that creatures can have cultures, it challenges our sense of self, but also brings significantly more complexity to the idea of wildlife preservation.

Originally posted in 2010.

Gwen Sharp is an associate professor of sociology at Nevada State College. You can follow her on Twitter at @gwensharpnv.