Originally posted at Inequality by (Interior) Design.

One of my favorite sociologists is Bill Watterson. He’s not read in most sociology classrooms, but he has a sociological eye and a great talent for laying bare the structure of the world around us and the ways that we as individuals must navigate that structure—some with fewer obstacles than others. Unlike most sociologists, Watterson does this without inventing new jargon (or much new jargon), or relying on overly dense theoretical claims. He doesn’t call our attention to demographic trends (often) or seek to find and explain low p values.

Rather, Watterson presents the world from the perspective of a young boy who is both tremendously influenced by–and desires to have a tremendous influence on–the world around him. The boy’s name is Calvin, and I put a picture of him (often in the company of his stuffed tiger, Hobbes) on almost every syllabus I write. Watterson is the artist behind the iconic comic strip, “Calvin and Hobbes,” and he firmly believed in his art form. I’m convinced that if you can’t find a Calvin and Hobbes cartoon to put on your syllabus for a sociology course, there’s a good chance you’re not teaching sociology.

The questions and perspectives of children are significant to sociologists because children offer us an amazing presentation of how much is learned, and how we come to take what we’ve learned for granted. In many ways, this is at the heart of the ethnographic project: to uncover both what is taken for granted and why this might matter. Using the charm and wit of a megalomaniacal young boy, Watterson challenges us on issues of gender inequality, sexual socialization, religious identity and ideology, racism, classism, ageism, deviance, the logic of capitalism, globalization, education, academic inquiry, philosophy, postmodernism, family forms and functions, the social construction of childhood, environmentalism, and more.

Watterson depicts the world from Calvin’s perspective. He manages to illustrate both how odd this perspective appears to others around him (his parents, teachers, peers, even Hobbes) as well as the tenacity with which Calvin clings to his unique view of the world despite the fact that it often fails to accord with reality. Indeed, Calvin ritualistically comes into conflict with his social obligations as a child (school, chores, social etiquette, and norms of deference and respect, etc.) and the diverse roles he plays as a social actor (both real and imaginary). Calvin is a wonderful example of the human capacity to play with social “roles” and within the social institutions that frame and structure our lives.

Quite simply, Calvin often simply refuses to play the social roles assigned to him, or, somewhat more mildly, he refuses to play those roles in precisely the way they were designed to be played. And in that way, Calvin helps to illustrate just how social our behavior is.  Social behavior is based on a series of structured negotiations with the world around us. This doesn’t have to mean that we can act however we please—Calvin is continually bumping into social sanctions for his antics. But neither does it mean that we only act in ways that were structurally predetermined. The world around us is a collective project, one in which we have a stake. We play a role in both social reproduction and change.

Understanding the ways in which our experiences, identities, opportunities, and more are structured by the world around us is a central feature of sociological learning. Calvin is one way I ask students to consider these ideas. Kai Erikson put it this way in an essay on sociological writing:

Most sociologists think of their discipline as an approach as well as a subject matter, a perspective as well as a body of knowledge. What distinguishes us from other observers of the human scene is the manner in which we look out at the world—the way our eyes are focused, the way our minds are tuned, the way our intellectual reflexes are set. Sociologists peer out at the same landscapes as historians or poets or philosophers, but we select different details out of those scenes to attend closely, and we sort those details in different ways. So it is not only what sociologists see but the way they look that gives the field its special distinction. (here)

Calvin is a great example of the significance of “breaching” social norms. Breaches tell us something important about what we take for granted, and if your sociological imagination is well-oiled, you can often learn something about the “how” and the “why” as well. A great deal of the social organization goes into the production of our experiences, identities, and opportunities is subtly disguised by these “whys” (or what are sometimes called “accounts”). Calvin’s incessant questioning of authority and social norms illuminates the social forces that guide our accounts surrounding a great deal of social life–subtly, but unmistakably, asking us to consider what we taken for granted, how we manage to do so, as well as why. This is a feature of some of the best sociological work—a feature that is dramatized in childhood.

In Erikson’s treatise on sociological writing, he concludes with a wonderful description of an interaction between Mark Twain and a “wily old riverboat pilot.” Researching life on the Mississippi, Twain noticed that the riverboat pilot deftly swerves and changes course down the river, dodging unseen objects below the water’s surface in an attempt to move smoothly down the river. Twain asks the pilot what he’s noticing on the water’s surface to make these decisions and adjustments. The riverboat pilot is unable to explain, offering a sort of “I know it when I see it” explanation (interviewers know this explanation well). The pilot’s eyes had become so skilled in this navigation that he didn’t need to concern himself with how he knew what he knew. But both he and Twain were confident that he knew it. Over the course of their interactions, Twain gradually comes to learn more about what exactly the riverboat pilot is able to see and how he uses it to move through the water unhindered. This, explains Erikson, is the project of good sociology—“to combine the eyes of a river pilot with the voice of Mark Twain.”

Through Calvin, Watterson accomplishes just this. Calvin offers us a glimpse of wonderful array of sociological ideas and perspectives in an accessible way. Watterson has a way of seamlessly calling our attention to the taken for granted throughout social life and his images and ideas are a great introduction to sociological thinking. I like to think that Calvin’s life, perspectives, antics, and waywardness help students call the systems of social inequality and the world around them into question, learning to see sociologically. Calvin is a great tool to help students recognize that they can question the unquestionable, to learn to problematize issues that might lack the formal status of “problems” in the first place. Watterson used Calvin to help all of us learn to see the ordinary as extraordinary–a worthy task for any sociology course.

Tristan Bridges, PhD is a professor at The College at Brockport, SUNY. He is the co-editor of Exploring Masculinities: Identity, Inequality, Inequality, and Change with C.J. Pascoe and studies gender and sexual identity and inequality. You can follow him on Twitter here. Tristan also blogs regularly at Inequality by (Interior) Design.

Flashback Friday.

Add to the list of new books to read Delusions of Gender: How Our Minds, Society, and Neurosexism Create Difference, by Cordelia Fine. Feeding my interest in the issue of sexual dimorphism in humans — which we work so hard to teach to children — the book is described like this:

Drawing on the latest research in neuroscience and psychology, Cordelia Fine debunks the myth of hardwired differences between men’s and women’s brains, unraveling the evidence behind such claims as men’s brains aren’t wired for empathy and women’s brains aren’t made to fix cars.

Good reviews here and here report that Fine tackles an often-cited study of newborn infants’ sex difference in preferences for staring at things, by Jennifer Connellan and colleagues in 2000. They reported:

…we have demonstrated that at 1 day old, human neonates demonstrate sexual dimorphism in both social and mechanical perception. Male infants show a stronger interest in mechanical objects, while female infants show a stronger interest in the face.

And this led to the conclusion: “The results of this research clearly demonstrate that sex differences are in part biological in origin.” They reached this conclusion by alternately placing Connellan herself or a dangling mobile in front of tiny babies, and timing how long they stared. There is a very nice summary of problems with the study here, which seriously undermine its conclusion.

However, even if the methods were good, this is a powerful example of how a tendency toward difference between males and females is turned into a categorical opposition between the sexes — as in, the “real differences between boys and girls.”

To illustrate this, here’s a graphic look at the results in the article, which were reported in this table:

They didn’t report the whole distribution of boys’ and girls’ gaze-times, but it’s obvious that there is a huge overlap in the distributions, despite a difference in the means. In the mobile-gaze-time, for example, the difference in averages is 9.7 seconds, while the standard deviations are more than 20 seconds. If I turn to my handy normal curve spreadsheet template, and fit it with these numbers, you can see what the pattern might look like (I truncate these at 0 seconds and 70 seconds, as they did in the study):

Source: My simulation assuming normal distributions from the data in the table above.

All I’m trying to say is that the sexes aren’t opposites, even if they have some differences that precede socialization.

If you could show me that the 1-day-olds who stare at the mobiles for 52 seconds are more likely to be engineers when they grow up than the ones who stare at them for 41 seconds (regardless of their gender) then I would be impressed. But absent that, if you just want to use such amorphous differences at birth to explain actual segregation among real adults, then I would not be impressed.

Originally posted in September, 2010.

Philip N. Cohen is a professor of sociology at the University of Maryland, College Park. He writes the blog Family Inequality and is the author of The Family: Diversity, Inequality, and Social Change. You can follow him on Twitter or Facebook.

1To Post Secret, a project that collects personal secrets written artistically onto postcards, someone recently sent in the following bombshell: “Ever since we started getting married and buying houses,” she writes, “my girlfriends and I don’t laugh much anymore.”

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Her personal secret is, in fact, a national one.  It’s part of what has been called the “paradox of declining female happiness.” Women have more rights and opportunities than they have had in decades and yet they are less happy than ever in both absolute terms and relative to men.

Marriage is part of why. Heterosexual marriage is an unequal institution. Women on average do more of the unpaid and undervalued work of households, they work more each day, and they are more aware of this inequality than their husbands. They are more likely to sacrifice their individual leisure and career goals for marriage. Marriage is a moment of subordination and women, more so than men, subordinate themselves and their careers to their relationship, their children, and the careers of their husbands.

Compared to being single, marriage is a bum deal for many woman. Accordingly, married women are less happy than single women and less happy than their husbands, they are less eager than men to marry, they’re more likely to file for divorce and, when they do, they are happier as divorcees than they were when married (the opposite is true for men) and they are more likely than men to prefer never to remarry.

The only reason this is surprising is because of the torrent of propaganda we get that tells us otherwise. We are told by books, sitcoms, reality shows, and romantic comedies that single women are wetting their pants to get hitched. Men are metaphorically or literally drug to the altar in television commercials and wedding comedies, an idea invented by Hugh Hefner in the 1950s (before the “playboy,” men who resisted marriage were suspected of being gay). Not to mention the wedding-themed toys aimed at girls and the ubiquitous wedding magazines aimed solely at women. Why, it’s almost as if they were trying very hard to convince us of something that isn’t true.

But if women didn’t get married to men, what would happen? Marriage reduces men’s violence and conflict in a society by giving men something to lose. It increases men’s efforts at work, which is good for capitalists and the economy. It often leads to children, which exacerbate cycles of earning and spending, makes workers more reliable and dependent on employers, reduces mobility, and creates a next generation of workers and social security investors. Marriage inserts us into the machine. And if it benefits women substantially less than men, then it’s no surprise that so many of our marriage promotion messages are aimed squarely at them.

Lisa Wade, PhD is a professor at Occidental College. She is the author of American Hookup, a book about college sexual culture, and a textbook about gender. You can follow her on Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram.

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. 

Flashback Friday.

In the U.S. men’s and women’s bikes are built differently, with women’s bikes lacking the bar that goes from the handlebar to just below the seat. The bar is a matter of tradition.  According to Andrea at Bike City Recyclery, when women began riding bikes in the 1800s, they were required to wear heavy skirts.  The low bar allowed them to mount the bikes “modestly” and was a space for their skirts to go.  Back then, bikes also had “clothes-guards” that would keep women’s skirts from being caught up in the mechanics of the bike.  This picture is from the 1890s:

Today most women riding a bike do not wear heavy skirts and clothes-guards are rare, but the low bar persists.  This ad from 1971 assures parents that  “girl bikes” can be converted to “boy bikes” and vice versa. The upper bar is purely “decorative,” but boys apparently must have it.

Selected text:

A popular 16-inch beginner’s bike. Top bar removes easily to convert it from a boy’s to a girl’s bike in minutes… The perfect first bike that’s built to last from child to child.

This goes to show how strongly we invest in purely symbolic gender differentiation.  There is no need for a high bar and there is no need to differentiate bikes by gender in this way. We could do away with the bar distinction in the same way that we did away with the clothes-guard. But the bar is a highly visible signal that we are committed to a gender binary (men and women are “opposite” sexes). It is some men and the defenders of masculinity who are most opposed to this because collapsing the gender differentiation means collapsing a devalued category into a valued category. For individuals who embrace the valued category, this is a disaster. A male-coded bike frame is just one small way to preserve both the distinction and the hierarchy.

Originally posted in 2010.

Lisa Wade, PhD is a professor at Occidental College. She is the author of American Hookup, a book about college sexual culture, and a textbook about gender. You can follow her on Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram.

The great Louisiana Floods of 2016 have led to the closure of at least 22 of the state’s 70 public school districts, with additional districts calling off classes as a precaution given the immense devastation. This means that as many as one-third of the state’s public school students were out of school last week ,and potentially for many weeks to come. That equates to more than 241,000 children who are not in classrooms where they belong; and these figures do not even account for the many thousands of private and charter school students also out of school across the water-logged state.

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Almost exactly 11 years ago, Hurricane Katrina disrupted some 370,000 school-age children. For our book, Children of Katrina, we spent nearly a decade examining how their lives unfolded in the years after the catastrophe. We focused on education as a key “sphere” of children’s lives. It is a special sphere in that it is unique to children and youth and it has specific time parameters: when the window for schooling is gone, children cannot get it back. Missing school means missing critical stages in cognitive and social development and likely suffering irreparable harm in terms of their intellectual growth, development, and future educational goals.

The school sphere, as with the other spheres of children’s lives, is marked by inequality, with some students having access to greater advantages than others. Some school districts, often segregated by race and class, have more resources and support than others; some families have the ability to enroll children in private schools that require tuition or arrange to be in a high-quality school district, while other families do not have those options.

Keeping this in mind, and recognizing the importance of education during displacement and recovery, there are many things that can and should be done, to support disaster affected children and youth and their educational process. These include:

  • Reopening schools (including childcare centers and pre-schools) as quickly as possible after a disaster; this means allocating proper resources to repair, rebuild, and/or revive schools in disaster zones;
  • In receiving communities that receive large numbers of displaced children and youth, providing pathways for their rapid enrollment;
  • Offering emotional support through optional peer-oriented and/or peer-led support groups as well as licensed professional counselors, social workers, and school therapists;
  • Training all school staff—from upper-level administrators, to teachers, to custodians—how to be supportive of children and youth who have been affected by disaster as well as those who are in receiving communities who are now welcoming disaster-affected youth into their classrooms;
  • Designing and implementing disaster preparedness, response, and recovery curriculum within classrooms;
  • Providing opportunities for children to help their schools’ and classmates’ recovery; this could, for example, come in the form of service learning, fundraising, mentoring programs, or community action activities;
  • Offering immediate and long-term support for teachers, who are often recovering from disaster themselves; this may include financial, professional, and emotional support;
  • Intervening against bullying and stigma that may be attached to “disaster survivor” status for youth; reminding these professionals that bullying may be exacerbated based on region of origin, gender, age, race, or other characteristics;
  • Integrating displaced children in classrooms with familiar faces if possible;
  • Making school days as predictable as possible and re-establishing routines within classrooms and schools;
  • Allowing children and youth the opportunity to work on projects that help them process their disaster experience;
  • Funding school programs in arts, music, drama, and creative writing to encourage expression and foster healing.

Alice Fothergill, PhD is an associate professor of sociology at the University of Vermont. She is a member of the Social Science Research Council Research Network on Persons Displaced by Katrina. Fothergill’s book, Heads Above Water: Gender, Class, and Family in the Grand Forks Flood, examines women’s experiences in the 1997 flood in North Dakota. She is also co-editor of Social Vulnerability to Disasters.

Lori Peek, PhD is an associate professor of sociology and Co-Director of the Center for Disaster and Risk Analysis at Colorado State University. She also serves as the Associate Chair for the SSRC Task Force on Hurricane Katrina and Rebuilding the Gulf Coast and is a member of the SSRC Research Network on Persons Displaced by Katrina. Peek is the author of the award-winning book Behind the Backlash: Muslim Americans after 9/11 and co-editor of the volume Displaced: Life in the Katrina Diaspora.

Together, Fothergill and Peek are the authors of the award-winning book, Children of Katrina, the longest-term ethnographic study of children in disaster.

Media have tended to depict childfree people negatively, likening the decision not to have children to “whether to have pizza or Indian for dinner.” Misperceptions about those who do not have children have serious weight, given that between 2006 and 2010 15% of women and 24% of men had not had children by age 40, and that nearly half of women aged 40-44 in 2002 were what Amy Blackstone and Mahala Dyer Stewart refer to as “childfree,” or purposefully not intending to have children.

Trends in childlessness/childfreeness from the Pew Research Center:

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Blackstone and Stewart’s forthcoming 2016 article in The Family Journal, “There’s More Thinking to Decide”: How the Childfree Decide Not to Parent, engages the topic and extends the scholarly and public work Blackstone has done, including her shared blog, We’re Not Having a Baby.

When researchers explore why people do not have children, they find that the reasons are strikingly similar to reasons why people do have children. For example, “motivation to develop or maintain meaningful relationships” is a reason that some people have children – and a reason that others do not. Scholars are less certain on how people come to the decision to to be childfree. In their new article, Blackstone and Stewart find that, as is often the case with media portrayals of contemporary families, descriptions of how people come to the decision to be childfree have been oversimplified. People who are childfree put a significant amount of thought into the formation of their families, as they report.

Blackstone and Stewart conducted semi-structured interviews with 21 women and 10 men, with an average age of 34, who are intentionally childfree. After several coding sessions, Blackstone and Stewart identified 18 distinct themes that described some aspect of decision-making with regard to living childfree. Ultimately, the authors concluded that being childfree was a conscious decision that arose through a process. These patterns were reported by both men and women respondents, but in slightly different ways.

Childfree as a conscious decision

All but two of the participants emphasized that their decision to be childfree was made consciously. One respondent captured the overarching message:

People who have decided not to have kids arguably have been more thoughtful than those who decided to have kids. It’s deliberate, it’s respectful, ethical, and it’s a real honest, good, fair, and, for many people, right decision.

There were gender differences in the motives for these decisions. Women were more likely to make the decision based on concern for others: some thought that the world was a tough place for children today, and some did not want to contribute to overpopulation and environmental degradation. In contrast, men more often made the decision to live childfree “after giving careful and deliberate thought to the potential consequences of parenting for their own, everyday lives, habits, and activities and what they would be giving up were they to become parents.”

Childfree as a process

Contrary to misconceptions that the decision to be childfree is a “snap” decision, Blackstone and Stewart note that respondents conceptualized their childfree lifestyle as “a working decision” that developed over time. Many respondents had desired to live childfree since they were young; others began the process of deciding to be childfree when they witnessed their siblings and peers raising children. Despite some concrete milestones in the process of deciding to be childfree, respondents emphasized that it was not one experience alone that sustained the decision. One respondent said, “I did sort of take my temperature every five, six, years to make sure I didn’t want them.” Though both women and men described their childfree lifestyle as a “working decision,” women were more likely to include their partners in that decision-making process by talking about the decision, while men were more likely to make the decision independently.

Blackstone and Stewart conclude by asking, “What might childfree families teach us about alternative approaches to ‘doing’ marriage and family?” The present research suggests that childfree people challenge what is often an unquestioned life sequence by consistently considering the impact that children would have on their own lives as well as the lives of their family, friends, and communities. One respondent reflected positively on childfree people’s thought process: ‘‘I wish more people thought about thinking about it… I mean I wish it were normal to decide whether or not you were going to have children.’’

Braxton Jones is a graduate student in sociology at the University of New Hampshire, and serves as a Graduate Research and Public Affairs Scholar for the Council on Contemporary Families, where this post originally appeared.

“[A]n analysis of traffic can enrich sociological theory.” (Schmidt-Relenberg, 1968: 121)

Almost everywhere we go is a “gendered space.” Although men and women both go to grocery stores, different days of the week and times of the day are associated with different gender compositions of shoppers. Most of our jobs are gendered spaces. In fact, Census data show that roughly 30% of the 66,000,000 women in the U.S. labor force occupy only 10 of the 503 listed occupations on the U.S. Census. You’d probably be able to guess what some of these jobs are just as easily as you might be able to guess some of the very few Fortune 500 companies have women CEOs. Sociologists refer to this phenomenon as occupational segregation, and it’s nothing new. Recently, I did read about a gender segregated space that is new (at least to me): traffic.

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Photo from kkanous flickr creative commons

When I picture traffic in my head, I think of grumpy men driving to jobs they hate, but this is misleading. Women actually make up the vast majority of congestion on the roads. One way of looking at this is to argue that women are causing more congestion on our roads. But another way to talk about this issue (and the way to talk about this issue that is consistent with actual research) is to say that women endure more congestion on the roads.

Women were actually the first market for household automobiles in the U.S. Men generally traveled to work by public transportation. Cars sold to households were marketed to women for daily errands. This is why, for instance, early automobiles had fancy radiator caps with things like wings, angels and goddesses on them. These were thought to appeal to women’s more fanciful desires.

Traffic increased a great deal when women moved into the labor force. But this is not exactly what accounts for the gender gap. In the 1950s, car trips that were work-related accounted for about 40% of all car use. Today that number is less than 16%. The vast majority of car trips are made for various errands: taking children to school, picking up groceries, eating out, going to or from day care, shopping, and more shopping.  And it’s women who are making most of these trips. It’s a less acknowledged portion of the “second shift” which typically highlights women’s disproportionate contribution to the division of labor inside the household even when they are working outside of the household as well.

Traffic research has shown that women are more than two times more likely than men to be taking someone else where they need to go when driving.  Men are  more likely to be driving themselves somewhere.  Women are also much more likely to string other errands onto the trips in which they are driving themselves somewhere (like stopping at the grocery store on the drive home, going to day care on the way to work, etc.). Traffic experts call this “trip chaining,” but the rest of us call it multi-tasking. What’s more, we also know that women, on average, leave just a bit later than men do for work, and as a result, are much more likely to be making those longer (and more involved) trips right in the middle of peak hours for traffic.

Who knew? It’s an under-acknowledged gendered space that deserves more attention (at least from sociologists). Traffic is awful, and if we count up all that extra time and add it to the second shift calculations made by Arlie Hochschild, I think we have a new form of inequality to complain about.

Tristan Bridges, PhD is a sociologist at the College at Brockport (SUNY). With CJ Pascoe, he is the editor of Exploring Masculinities: Identity, Inequality, Continuity and Change. He blogs at Inequality by (Interior) Design, where this post originally appeared. You can follow Dr. Bridges on Twitter.