One way to study social problems is to take a social constructionist approach.  This approach suggests that the degree to which a social problem is perceived as problematic, as well as the kind of problem it is understood to be, is a function of social interaction.  For example, many Americans consider drunk driving to be a very bad thing and a serious threat.  Drunk driving is not only embarrassing, it is punishable by law, and a conviction could result in social opprobrium.  It wasn’t always that way, and it still isn’t all that stigmatized in some parts of the U.S. and, of course, elsewhere.

So, social problems aren’t immediately obvious, but need to be interpreted and presented to us.  And, of course, some people have more power to deliver a message to the public than others.

Artist Susannah Hertrich developed this graphic (via) designed to bring to consciousness the difference between the likelihood of harm from certain threats and public outrage:


I am unsure as to how she measured both “public outrage” and “actual hazard” but, giving her the benefit of the doubt and assuming that this information is based on some reasonable systematic measurement, the image nicely draws our attention to how some social problems can receive a disproportionate amount of outrage, contributing to their social construction as significant or insignificant social problems (or, alternatively, their social construction as public problems for which outrage is appropriate and useful, versus private problems that have no public policy dimensions).

So, for example, heat is seen as relatively harmless even though, as Eric Klinenberg shows in his book Heat Wave: A Social Autopsy of Disaster in Chicago, it kills many, many people every year and is severely exacerbated by social policies both directly and indirectly related to weather.  But the people who die from heat, and those who love them, tend to be relatively powerless members of our society: usually the elderly poor.

Conversely, the threat of terrorism attracts a great deal of public outrage, but is not a significant threat to our individual well-being.  Still, certain members of our society with an ease of access to the media and authoritative roles in our society (mostly politicians and pundits) can raise our fears of terrorism to disproportionate levels.

Similarly, bird flu makes for a fun story (as all gruesome health scandals can) and gun crime feeds “mainstream” fears of the “underclasses” (often perceived as black and brown men).  Both make for good media stories.  Less so, perhaps, pedestrian accidents.


Lisa Wade is a professor of sociology at Occidental College. You can follow her on Twitter and Facebook.

I am in Munich for the month and last week I visited the Dachau Concentration Camp Memorial. I was struck by the difference between the tour I took here and the tour I took of the Lara Plantation just outside of New Orleans in May. Visiting Dachau put the two modes of remembrance into stark contrast. Without trying to argue that the holocaust and U.S. slavery are the same in every way, I would like to suggest that both are tragic histories that included unimaginable human suffering. Yet, the tours were very different.

I’ll start with Dachau.

The first thing that our tour guide did was impress upon us, in no uncertain terms, that Hitler was a terrible man, that the things that happened under his rule were indescribably inhumane, and that the concentration camps were death camps, pure and simple, with or without a gas chamber. In case his words were not clear enough, we took in a 22-minute video featuring photographs and narratives, all camp specific. No details, no horror, no gore was spared.

The entry gates lead to the main square in the camp where prisoners were required to congregate each morning and evening. What dominates the square today isn’t the guard towers, though they are present and meticulously reconstructed, it is the memorial by Yugoslav sculptor Glid Nandor. I had seen this sculpture in pictures before and have always found it to be one of the most impactful pieces of art I have ever seen.

The artist, who had been a prisoner in one of Hitler’s concentration camps himself, meant for the sculpture to commemorate the prisoners who had committed suicide by throwing themselves against the electrified gates of the camp. I appreciate that the sculptor makes no attempt to ease our acknowledgment of the horror and hopelessness of life in the camps.

This main memorial sculpture was one of many. There were four memorial buildings, about six monuments, the museum, and a convent that had been located on the site. And memorials are still being added. The gift shop sold books and documentaries.

My impression was that the Germans took this deadly seriously and I was impressed by the way that the Germans are handling their national tragedy. They seem fully committed to owning this tragedy so as to never ever allow anything like it to happen anywhere again. Never did the guide try to sugarcoat the holocaust, minimize the tragedy, or put anything into a measured perspective.

All of this may seem unremarkable. We’ve all heard that Hitler and his concentration camps were bad before. Hitler is, no less, synonymous with evil. Accordingly, it may seem to you that it could not be otherwise; it may seem that this tour of the Dachau concentration camp was the only possible tour that could exist.

Let’s turn to the Lara Plantation tour. The main story in this tour was about the glamorous lives of Lara (the strong-willed female head of the plantation) and her family members. Plantation life was romanticized: strong women, dueling men, wine collections, expensive furniture, distinguished visitors, breeze basking and mint julep drinking, and an ever-expanding fortune.

The plantation was done up to look gorgeous:


I would guess that about 15-20 percent of the tour was spent on slave life. They showed us some documents listing the slave “inventory” at its peak, they talked about laws regarding slaves and how they differed from laws elsewhere in the U.S., they revealed that the Br’er Rabbit stories were originally collected from slaves there, they discussed the extent of the sugarcane fields, and they allowed us to walk through this reconstructed two-family cabin (mentioning that slaves were allowed to have gardens):


In contrast to the almost obscene documentation of the abuse and murder of concentration camp prisoners, this was the only image of a slave that I saw during the entire tour:


The image shows one slave and the two rows of slave cabins reaching back into the sugar cane from the year behind the main house. You can compare the reconstructed cabin with those in the image. It’s hard to say, but I’m not sure I see cute picket fences and gardens.

Here are some things that were not included in the tour: extended discussions of the health of slaves, their physical and emotional abuse, the breeding programs, rape, their punishing labor, the destruction of their families, the age at which slaves began to work, and all of the other indescribably inhumane things about human slavery.

The gift shop sold jam and honey, CDs, yummy smelling candles, candy bars, New Orleans hot sauces, dried alligator heads, little angels made out of picked cotton… and Lara’s memoirs.

The contrast with the Dachau tour was nothing short of stunning.

Could the Lara Plantation do a tour that mirrored that of Dachau? Absolutely.
Should they do that tour? Absolutely.

Plantations were many other things, but they were also the engine of slavery.  It is this that should stand out as the most important thing about them. Concentration camps were many other things as well (e.g., a military training site, a daily job site for German soldiers, a factory producing goods, and a strategic part of the war effort), but we have absorbed the important lessons from them so thoroughly that it is difficult to even imagine what an alternative tour might look like. In contrast, one can visit the Lara Plantation and come away not really thinking about slavery at all, in favor of how pretty the china was and oooh did you smell that candle as we walked by? Delicious. I need a coke, you?

A lot of Americans, when Germany is mentioned, express disbelief that a people could live with a history like the holocaust. But Americans do live with a history like the holocaust, we just like to pretend it never happened. While Germany is processing its participation in a human rights tragedy, the U.S. is denying its own; while Germany is confronting its own ugly history for the betterment of the world, we are busy preserving the myth of U.S. moral superiority.

The plantation pictures are mine and the Dachau pictures are borrowed from here and here.


Lisa Wade is a professor of sociology at Occidental College. You can follow her on Twitter and Facebook.

Lisa Wade, PhD is an Associate Professor at Tulane University. She is the author of American Hookup, a book about college sexual culture; a textbook about gender; and a forthcoming introductory text: Terrible Magnificent Sociology. You can follow her on Twitter and Instagram.

In my Intro to Soc course I assign K.R. Thompson’s article “Handling the Stigma of Handling the Dead: Morticians and Funeral Directors” (Deviant Behavior 1991, v. 12, p. 403-429). Thompson looked at how those involved in preparing the dead for burial and planning funerals try to manage the negative perceptions they suspect much of the public has of them. Language was a major way they tried to do this–redefining themselves as “funeral directors” rather than “morticians” or “undertakers,” referring to dead people as “the deceased” rather than “the body” or “the corpse,” “casket” rather than “coffin,” and so on. The point was to try to reduce the association with death–to never blatantly refer to death at all.

They also tried to avoid what they felt were stereotypes of funeral directors. Some mentioned trying not to wear black suits, and one man went so far as to keep hand warmers in his pockets so his hands would be warm when he shook family members’ hands–a reaction to what he said was a belief that funeral directors have cold, clammy hands. Others lived in a different town than where they worked and tried to keep their careers secret.

All of this was an attempt to avoid the stigma often placed on those who handle the dead (found in many cultures). We often suspect those who do so, thinking they must be creepy to be willing to do that kind of work. In addition, funeral directors are often depicted as unethical individuals who profit from a family’s pain and who can manipulate people while they are emotionally vulnerable.

I thought of that article when Lisa sent me a link to an article in Obit Magazine about the 2008 Men of Mortuaries calendar, which raised money for a breast-cancer charity:

1256_men of mort cover

9239_March With Copy

The article directly discusses stereotypes:

Aren’t undertakers old, gray of complexion, gaunt and, well, creepy?

Four hundred morticians and funeral directors from across the country who defy that stereotype sent applications to Kenneth McKenzie’s funeral home in Long Beach, Ca., to vie for a month in the calendar…


McKenzie sees the calendars as a humorous way to dispel the notion that morticians “are gray-haired and hunchbacked with no personality.”

Interestingly, the article does use the word “mortician,” so apparently some in the industry are still comfortable with the term. But overall, I think the calendar and the quotes from the article demonstrate the effort to manage stigma quite well.

CLARIFICATION: In light of a previous post about a calendar featuring nudity, some commenters are conversing about whether this calendar is objectifying or humanizing. That is an interesting, appropriate question and certainly worth discussing. I wanted to clarify, though, that I wasn’t trying to answer that particular question in this post. I only meant to suggest that the calendar was an example of an attempt at humanizing funeral directors in order to manage perceived stigma, which isn’t the same as saying it’s a good or effective attempt (or a bad or ineffective one, for that matter).

In the documentary Dreamworlds 3: Desire, Sex, and Power in Music Video, Sut Jhally investigates how images of sex and violence, and sexualized violence against women, are used in music videos, and how music videos help shape ideas of what is sexy. Here’s a clip:

The entire, unabridged version of the film is available here.

Elle sent in a link to the video for Lady Gaga’s song “Paparazzi,” which features one extended scene of sexualized violence (starting at about 1:45) and several other glimpses of women throughout the video who appear to be dead (it’s really worth watching the entire video–it’s something else):

Of course, Lady Gaga would probably argue that this video is in fact opposing violence against women, since in the end the evil paparazzi boyfriend gets killed. But there’s the same imagery Sut Jhally discusses: the mixture of sexuality with violence and hints of brutality, and of injured or dead women in glamorous, sexy clothing. Notice that in the opening sequence, the “normal” sex doesn’t look too much different than the violence that follows.

Other examples of sexualized or glamorized violence: strangling a woman with your necktie, suffering women as a turn-on, murder in a Wrangler’s ad, photo shoot with Rene Russo, t-shirts trivialize violence against women, is it a passionate embrace or an attack?, condom ads, ad for “The Tudors,” women’s discomfort is fashionable, Hunting for Bambi, the infamous Dolce & Gabbana ad, and “American’s Next Top Model.”

Eric S. drew our attention to an ad campaign for Jawbone, a noise cancelling headset.  Eric was disturbed by the way the women were used in the advertising.  Take a look:





It is interesting that a product that must be actively used (it’s for talking) is advertised with such passive women.

Some scholars, Jean Kilbourne among them, have noted that ads often include women who appear to be dead (see here, here, here, and here).  If these women do not appear to be dead, they at least appear doll-like.  Their eyes are blank, staring at nothing.   It seems to me that one or both of these are going on here… in either case, the strategy dehumanizes the women, making them into objects.

Also in women as racks on which to place product: men’s shoes and accessories.

Much of the discourse around the benefits of being thin revolves around the assumption that extra pounds are harmful to health.  Ampersand at Alas A Blog posted about a study in the New England Journal of Medicine (citation below) that shows that  those who are overweight (according to the BMI scale) are not at a higher risk of premature death than those who are deemed of “normal” weight.   The boxes in red are categories in which the risk for premature death is equal to or less than the reference group (normal weight people).


This is Ampersand’s conclusion (and his table, too).

The authors of the study, as commenter A.C. pointed out,  come to the opposite conclusion.  They argue, after looking at the data in different ways, say that overweight persons are at a higher risk for death.

Ampersand doesn’t buy it.  He offers a critique here where, among other things, he points out:

In order to produce the finding that “overweight” is less healthy than “normal weight,” Dr. Adams did a very dishonest statistical manipulation – he compared just one “normal” BMI range, representing the heaviest people in the “normal” range, to the entire “overweight” range. This is because the majority of people in the “normal weight” categories had a greater risk of death than the majority of people in the “overweight” category.

This might be a great way to discuss how methods and statistics never speak for themselves.

Relatedly, this post offers a really great visual critique of the BMI scale.

Citation:  Adams, K., et al., “Overweight, Obesity, and Mortality in a Large Prospective Cohort of Persons 50 to 71 Years Old.” New England Journal of Medicine, 2006. 355(8): p. 763-8.  Here if you have a subscription to ProQuest.

I’ve always found it troubling when I hear people use the word “Nazi” metaphorically.  Terms like “fashion nazi,” “food nazi,” even Seinfeld’s famous “soup nazi” episode, seem to trivialize the Holocaust.  Of course, we often recognize the hyperbole and that’s part of what is supposed to make it funny.  But do we really want to make fun with such an idea?   Lots of people didn’t like it when PETA did it.

In any case, I was thinking about similar uses of the word “rape.”  The word “rape” seems to be everywhere.  People use it not just for its literal meaning, but to describe all manner of unpleasant experiences.  For example, in this story at bestweekever:


Do other societies use words like rape and murder metaphorically?  Have we always done so?  Must we?  Or are there alternatives that may be more sensitive to people who lost loved ones in the Holocaust, were raped, or knew someone who was murdered?

Lisa Wade, PhD is an Associate Professor at Tulane University. She is the author of American Hookup, a book about college sexual culture; a textbook about gender; and a forthcoming introductory text: Terrible Magnificent Sociology. You can follow her on Twitter and Instagram.

We used to have a post up about Milgram’s famous obedience study, in which he led people to think they were giving other participants electric shocks, including some that were supposedly at a fatal level. It’s often used as an example of unethical research, since some participants suffered mental distress because they thought they had seriously hurt or even killed someone. We took the original post down when the videos we linked to disappeared, but I just found another video of some footage. For some reason it won’t embed, but here’s a link.

UPDATE: The original footage has been taken down, but the BBC did a replication: