Bentham and Foucault might have been interested in the panopticon but every December we get a view of  true social control in the form of an overweight man at the North Pole. Santa Claus (or Sandy Claws, as he is sometimes called) is just the latest in a long line of beings whose sole purpose is to control children through fear (Krampus is another example, as is the Belsnickel, as Dwight demonstrated on The Office). Recently, though, Santa has been doing his spying by proxy (giving him more time to bully young reindeer).

In Santa’s place are his elves on the shelves, a team of small elves who began taking up residence in people’s homes in 2005. These elves observe the behavior of children and then fly back to the North Pole to report their observations to Santa each night. The magical ability to do so begins when the elves are named (before this point they are apparently in some sort of coma during which they can be sealed in boxes and sent to stores around the country) but the elves are in danger of losing their magic if touched. Upon returning each night, the elves hide in a new place and children delight in finding them each morning. Apparently, some of the elves also like to get into mischief, making them both spies and hypocrites.

Warning: Spoilers Ahead

If you have continued reading, prepare yourself for a shock. The elves are actually inanimate objects with neither magic nor the ability to report to Santa Claus each night. Instead, adults in each household are responsible for moving the elves around (thus touching them and ruining any magical potential that they may have had). As you can imagine, this creates quite a bit of work for these adults, to the point that there are posts dedicated to dealing with the fact that they forgot to move the elves. The elves have also been copied in various ways. Telling children that Santa can see them when they’re sleeping and knows when they’re awake and knows if they’ve been bad or good seems much easier, especially since adults are likely to run out of creative places to hide the elf after about the third day.

Assuming that the intention of Santa, Krampus, the Belsnickel, and the elves on the shelves is social control, it seems that the elves would be both the least effective and the biggest pain in the ass. Imagine if the prison designed by Bentham made it possible that prisoners could be observed at any time unless they touched the prison wall, in which case a door came down that cut off the potential view of the guards. There might be no escaping Santa’s creepy spying or the Belsnickel’s judgment, but if I was a kid and I wanted to get away with bad behavior you can bet that the first thing I would do is touch the damn elf.

John is a pseudonymous assistant professor at a small liberal arts college (SLAC).  He finished his Ph.D. at a top-25 sociology program in the summer of 2009. He blogs at Memoirs of a SLACer, where this post originally appeared.

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:

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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:

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

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

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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.

I don’t have much to add on the “consensus plan” on poverty and mobility produced by the Brookings and American Enterprise institutes, referred to in their launch event as being on “different ends of the ideological spectrum” (can you imagine?). In addition to the report, you might consider the comments byJeff Spross, Brad DeLong, or the three-part series by Matt Bruenig.

My comment is about the increasingly (to me) frustrating description of poverty as something beyond simple comprehension and unreachable by mortal policy. It’s just not. The whole child poverty problem, for example, amounts to $62 billion dollars per year. There are certainly important details to be worked out in how to eliminate it, but the basic idea is pretty clear — you give poor people money. We have plenty of it.

This was obvious yet amazingly not remarked upon in the first 40 minutes of the launch event (which is all I watched). In the opening presentation, by Ron Haskins — for whom I have a well-documented distaste — started with this simple chart of official poverty rates:

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He started with the blue line, poverty for elderly people, and said:

The blue line is probably the nation’s greatest success against poverty. It’s the elderly. And it basically has declined pretty much all the time. It has no relationship to the economy, and there is good research that shows that its cause at least 90% by Social Security. So, government did it, and so Social Security is the reason we’re able to be successful to reduce poverty among the elderly.

And then everyone proceeded to ignore the obvious implication of that: when you give people money, they aren’t poor anymore. The most unintentionally hilarious illustration of this was in the keynote (why?) address from David Brooks (who has definitely been working on relaxing lately, especially when it comes to preparing keynote puff-pieces). He said this, according to my unofficial transcript:

Poverty is a cloud problem and not a clock problem. This is a Karl Popper distinction. He said some problems are clock problems – you can take them apart into individual pieces and fix them. Some problems are cloud problems. You can’t take a cloud apart. It’s a dynamic system that is always interspersed. And Popper said we have a tendency to try to take cloud problems and turn them into clock problems, because it’s just easier for us to think about. But poverty is a cloud problem. … A problem like poverty is too complicated to be contained by any one political philosophy. … So we have to be humble, because it’s so gloomy and so complicated and so cloud-like.

The good news is that for all the complexity of poverty, and all the way it’s a cloud, it offers a political opportunity, especially in a polarized era, because it’s not an either/or issue. … Poverty is an and/and issue, because it takes a zillion things to address it, and some of those things are going to come from the left, and some are going to come from the right. … And if poverty is this mysterious, unknowable, negative spiral-loop that some people find themselves in, then surely the solution is to throw everything we think works at the problem simultaneously, and try in ways we will never understand, to have a positive virtuous cycle. And so there’s not a lot of tradeoffs, there’s just a lot of throwing stuff in. And social science, which is so prevalent in this report, is so valuable in proving what works, but ultimately it has to bow down to human realities – to psychology, to emotion, to reality, and to just the way an emergent system works.

Poverty is only a “mysterious, unknowable, negative spiral-loop” if you specifically ignore the lack of money that is its proximate cause. Sure, spend your whole life wondering about the mysteries of human variation — but could we agree to do that after taking care of people’s basic needs?

I wonder if poverty among the elderly once seemed like a weird, amorphous, confusing problem. I doubt it. But it probably would if we had assumed that the only way to solve elderly poverty was to get children to give their parents more money. Then we would have to worry about the market position of their children, the timing of their births, the complexity of their motivations and relationships, the vagaries of the market, and the folly of youth. Instead, we gave old people money. And now elderly poverty “has declined pretty much all the time” and “it has no relationship to the economy.”

Imagine that.

Originally posted at Family Inequality; re-posted at Pacific Standard.

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

I recently moved to a neighborhood that people routinely describe as “bad.” It’s my first time living in such a place. I’ve lived in working class neighborhoods, but never poor ones. I’ve been lucky.

This neighborhood — one, to be clear, that I had the privilege to choose to live in — is genuinely dangerous. There have been 42 shootings within one mile of my house in the last year. Often in broad daylight. Once the murderers fled down my street, careening by my front door in an SUV. One week there were six rapes by strangers — in the street and after home invasions — in seven days. People are robbed, which makes sense to me because people have to eat, but with a level of violence that I find confusing. An 11-year-old was recently arrested for pulling a gun on someone. A man was beaten until he was a quadriplegic. One day 16 people were shot in a park nearby after a parade.

I’ve lived here for a short time and — being white, middle-aged, middle class, and female — I am on the margins of the violence in my streets, and yet I have never been so constantly and excruciatingly aware of my mortality. I feel less of a hold on life itself. It feels so much more fragile, like it could be taken away from me at any time. I am acutely aware that my skin is but paper, my bones brittle, my skull just a shell ripe for bashing. I imagine a bullet sheering through me like I am nothing. That robustness that life used to have, the feeling that it is resilient and that I can count on it to be there for me, that feeling is going away.

So, when I saw the results of a new study showing that only 50% of African American teenagers believe that they will reach 35 years of age, I understood better than I have understood before. Just a tiny — a teeny, teeny, tiny — bit better.

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I have heard this idea before. A friend who grew up the child of Mexican immigrants in a sketchy urban neighborhood told me that he, as a teenager, didn’t believe he’d make it to 18. I nodded my head and thought “wow,”‘ but I did not understand even a little bit. He would be between the first and second column from the right: 54% of 2nd generation Mexican immigrants expect that they may very well die before 35. I understand him now a tiny — a teeny, teeny tiny — bit better.

Sociologists Tara Warner and Raymond Swisher, the authors of the study, make clear that the consequences of this fatalism are far reaching. If a child does not believe that they might live to see another day, what motivation can there possibly be for investing in the future, for caring for one’s body, for avoiding harmful habits or dangerous activities? Why study? Why bother to see a doctor? Why not do drugs? Why avoid breaking the law?

Why wouldn’t a person put their future at risk — indeed, their very life — if they do not believe in that future, that life, at all?

If we really want to improve the lives of the most vulnerable people in our country, we cannot allow them to live in neighborhoods where desperation is so high that people turn to violence. Dangerous environments breed fatalism, rationally so. And once our children have given up on their own futures, no teachers’ encouragement, no promise that things will get better if they are good, no “up by your bootstraps” rhetoric will make a difference. They think they’re going to be dead, literally.

We need to boost these families with generous economic help, real opportunities, and investment in neighborhood infrastructure and schools. I think we don’t because the people with the power to do so don’t understand — even a teeny, teeny tiny bit — what it feels like to grow up thinking you’ll never grow up. Until they do, and until we decide that this is a form of cruelty that we cannot tolerate, I am sad to say that I feel pretty fatalistic about these children’s futures, too.

Re-posted at Pacific Standard.

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

This November, a wave of student activism drew attention to the problem of racism at colleges and universities in the US.  Sparked by protests at the University of Missouri, nicknamed Mizzou, we saw actions at dozens of colleges. It was a spectacular show of strength and solidarity and activists have won many concessions, including new funding, resignations, and promises to rename buildings.

Activists’ grievances are structural — aimed at how colleges are organized and who is in charge, what colleges teach and who does the teaching, and what values are centered and where they come from — but they are also interpersonal. Student activists of color talked about being subject to overtly racist behavior from others and being on the receiving end of microaggressions, seemingly innocuous commentary from others that remind them that they do not, as a Claremont McKenna dean so poorly put it, “fit the mold.” That dean lost her job after that comment. Many student activists seem to embrace the policing of offensive speech, both the hateful and the ignorant kind.

Negative reactions to this activism was immediate and widespread. Much of it served only to affirm the students’ claims: that we are still a racist society and that we, at best, tolerate our young people of color only if they stay “in their place.” Other times, it was confusion about the kind of world these young people seemed to want to live in. Why, some people asked, would anyone — especially a member of a marginalized population — want to shut down free speech?

Well, it may be that the American love of free speech is waning. The Pew Research Center released data measuring attitudes about censorship. They asked Americans whether they thought the government should be able to prevent people from saying things that are “offensive to minorities.” Millennials — that is, today’s college students — are significantly more likely than any other generation to say that they should.

In fact, the data show a steady decrease in the proportion of Americans who are eager to defend speech that is offensive to minorities. Only 12% of the Silent generation is in favor of censorship, compared to 24% of the Baby Boomers, 27% of Gen X, and 40% of Millennials. Notably, women, Democrats, and non-whites are all more likely than their counterparts to be willing to tolerate government control of speech.

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Americans still stand out among their national peers. Among European Union countries, 49% of citizens are in favor of censorship, compared to 28% of Americans. If the Millennials have anything to say about it, though, that might be changing. Assuming this is a cohort effect and not an age effect (that is, assuming they won’t change their minds as they age), and with the demographic changes this country will see in the next few decades, we may  very soon look more like Europe on this issue than we do now.

Re-posted at Pacific Standard.

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

Barbie has never exactly been a feminist icon, but last week Mattel was celebrated for a new advertising campaign that some say empowers young girls. In the “Imagine the Possibilities” commercial, the viewer sees young girls in professional settings — a science museum, a veterinary office, a soccer field — where they lead adults as if they are the ones in charge. At the end of the ad, the scene shifts to a girl acting out her role as a college professor with Barbie dolls in her bedroom. Across the screen flashes, “When a girl plays with Barbie, she imagines everything she can become.”

But does the Barbie commercial really send an affirmative message about women in male-dominated occupations? And how does it stack up against actual Barbie products?

To answer the first question, I invite you to watch the commercial with a special focus on how the adult observers treat the young girls who are acting out their career fantasies. From the very first scene, everyone the girls encounter has the same reaction: laughter. The idea that these girls can fill the roles they’re imagining strikes the adults as so silly that the only complete sentence any of the adults says to these girls is, “You’re kidding.”

The girls are cute or funny, but never a force to be taken seriously. While the storyline may seem to encourage women’s participation in the labor force, the laughter throughout the commercial suggests that the girls’ aspirations are seen as adorable or silly.

Is it just because they’re kids? I don’t think so. Compare the Barbie ad to toy commercials that target boys. The clearest example I found was the commercial for the i-Que Robot. Like in the Barbie commercial, children take the central speaking roles as adults react to them. Unlike the Barbie commercial, these adults appear captivated and impressed by the boys’ pitches about their toy. By the end of the commercial, it’s easy to imagine these boys as successful salesmen or engineers, everyone has already treated them as such.

Does Barbie back up their message, though, with actual opportunities for play? My quick search on Amazon for the phrase “Barbie office” was pretty disappointing. The commercial, in other words, is disingenuous; it’s out of line with the actual Barbie products available for purchase. After limiting the results to only those produced by Mattel or Barbie, the only office settings I found were a pediatrician’s office and a bright pink veterinary office — which are both associated with stereotypically feminine careers — and a post office that was discontinued in 1995.

There was also a computer and desk intended to be placed in a home setting. From my search for “Barbie office,” I more commonly found  career sets for Ken than viable work-oriented play sets for Barbie. Given the options, I find it hard to image how Mattel sees girls playing with Barbie the way the newest ad suggests they might.

As it turns out, Barbie’s new advertising campaign is just the latest in a long string of commercials that try to go viral by appealing to feminist audiences. I would be more impressed if the ad made girls aspiring to male-dominated occupations seem like forces to be reckoned with or, at least, made products that reflected their appropriation of feminist ideals.

Cross-posted at Pacific Standard.

Nicole Bedera is a PhD student in sociology at the University of Maryland, College Park. She is currently studying college sexual assault and construction of young men’s sexualities.

Flashback Friday.

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The image above is a photograph of a snowflake taken in the late 1800s by Wilson Bentley. Bentley, a 19-year-old farmer in Vermont, was the first person to ever photograph snowflakes. From the Guardian:

Bentley’s obsession with snow crystals began when he received a microscope for his 15th birthday. He became spellbound by their beauty, complexity and endless variety.

“Under the microscope, I found that snowflakes were miracles of beauty; and it seemed a shame that this beauty should not be seen and appreciated by others. Every crystal was a masterpiece of design and no one design was ever repeated. When a snowflake melted, that design was forever lost. Just that much beauty was gone, without leaving any record behind,” he said.

Bentley started trying to draw the flakes but the snow melted before he could finish. His parents eventually bought him a camera and he spent two years trying to capture images of the tiny, fleeting crystals.

He caught falling snowflakes by standing in the doorway with a wooden tray as snowstorms passed over. The tray was painted black so he could see the crystals and transfer them delicately onto a glass slide.

To study the snow crystals, Bentley rigged his bellows camera up to the microscope but found he could not reach the controls to bring them into focus. He overcame the problem through the imaginative use of wheels and cord.

Bentley took his first successful photomicrograph of a snow crystal at the age of 19 and went on to capture more than 5,000 more images.

What struck me about this story, other than the pretty pictures and neat historical trivia, was the fact that nearly every schoolchild in the Western world knows what a snowflake looks like under a microscope, even as their experience of snowflakes  is mostly of them as cold, fuzzy, frozen blobs, if they have any regular experience with snow at all.  They know because we teach them.

The idea of the meme is one way to discuss our ability to transfer elusive knowledge like this. A meme is a unit of knowledge or a type of behavior that’s passed on from generation to generation culturally. The gene is its evolutionary cousin, passing along knowledge and behavior genetically.  In the US, this particular knowledge meme is found in books or scientific discussions, but it has also become a common arts and craft project: many of us learn about snowflakes when we are shown how to make them from construction paper:

It’s quite amazing to consider how every human generation since Bentley understands the snowflake just a little bit differently than anyone before him.  Because of the advantage that human culture gives each new generation, nearly every child learns to appreciates their beauty.

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See a slide show of his photographs at The Telegraph. This post originally appeared 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 Gender, a textbook. You can follow her on Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram.

Flashback Friday.

The term “fetal alcohol syndrome” (FAS) refers to a group of problems that include mental retardation,  growth problems, abnormal facial features, and other birth defects.  The disorder affects children whose mothers drank large amounts of alcohol during pregnancy.

Right?

Well, not exactly.

It turns out that only about 5% of alcoholic women give birth to babies who are later diagnosed with FAS. This means that many mothers drink excessively, and many more drink somewhat (at least 16 percent of mothers drink during pregnancy), and yet many, many children born to these women show no diagnosable signs of FAS. Twin studies, further, have shown that sometimes one fraternal twin is diagnosed with FAS, but the other twin, who shared the same uterine environment, is fine.

So, drinking during pregnancy does not appear to be a sufficient cause of FAS, even if it is a necessary cause (by definition?). In her book, Conceiving Risk, Bearing Responsibility, sociologist and public health scholar Elizabeth M. Armstrong explains that FAS is not just related to alcohol intake, but is “highly correlated with smoking, poverty, malnutrition, high parity [i.e., having lots of children], and advanced maternal age” (p. 6). Further, there appears to be a genetic component. Some fetuses may be more vulnerable than others due to different ways that bodies breakdown ethanol, a characteristic that may be inherited. (This may also explain why one fraternal twin is affected, but not the other.)

To sum, drinking alcohol during pregnancy appears to contribute to FAS, but it by no means causes FAS.

And yet… almost all public health campaigns, whether sponsored by states, social movement organizations, public health institutes, or the associations of alcohol purveyors tell pregnant women not to drink alcohol during, before, or after pregnancy… at all… or else.

The Centers for Disease Control (U.S.):

The National Organization on Fetal Alcohol Syndrome:

Best Start, Ontario’s Maternal Newborn and Early Child Development Resource Centre:

Nova Scotia Liquor Commission:

These campaigns all target women and explain to them that they should not drink any alcohol at all if they are trying to conceive, during pregnancy, during the period in which they are breastfeeding and, in some cases, if they are not trying to conceive but are using only somewhat effective birth control.

So, the strategy to reduce FAS is reduced to the targeting of women’s behavior.

But “women” do not cause FAS. Neither does alcohol. This strategy replaces addressing all of the other problems that correlate with the appearance of FAS — poverty, stress, and other kinds of social deprivation — in favor of policing women. FAS, in fact, is partly the result of individual behavior, partly the result of social inequality, and partly genetic, but our entire eradication strategy focuses on individual behavior. It places the blame and responsibility solely on women.

And, since women’s choices are not highly correlated with the appearance of FAS, the strategy fails. Very few women actually drink at the levels correlated with FAS. If we did not have a no-drinking-during-pregnancy campaign and pregnant women continued drinking at the rates at which they drank before being pregnant, we would not see a massive rise in FAS. Only the heaviest drinking women put their fetus at risk and they, unfortunately, are the least likely to respond to the no-drinking campaign (largely due to addiction).

Originally posted in 2010 and developed into a two-page essay for Contexts magazine.

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