In The Lucifer Effect: Understanding How Good People Turn Evil, Philip Zimbardo tries to explain how seemingly ordinary, average people can become involved in, or passively fail to oppose, evil acts. Zimbardo is the researcher who designed the (in)famous 1971 Stanford prison experiment,  in which students were randomly assigned as “prisoners” or “guards” for an experiment on how prison affects human behavior. The experiment, meant to last two weeks, had to be called off after 6 days because of the extreme negative effects on, and brutality emerging among, the participants. Zimbardo’s study, as well as others such as Milgram’s obedience experiment, highlighted the role of conformity to social norms and obedience to apparent authority figures in leading people to engage in actions that would seem to be so ethically unacceptable that any decent person would refuse.

Dolores R. sent in a Candid Camera clip from 1962 that illustrates the power of conformity:

As Zimbardo says on his website,

We laugh that these people are manipulated like puppets on invisible strings, but this scenario makes us aware of the number of situations in which we mindlessly follow the dictates of group norms and situational forces.

From Open Culture, via Boing Boing.

Cross-posted from Family Inequality.

The Supreme Court’s decision in the Dukes v. Wal-Mart case, Justice Scalia acknowledged that Wal-Mart’s many local managers had a lot of discretion in their personnel decisions, even though the company had a written policy against gender discrimination (who doesn’t?). But he gave the company credit for a vague policy and let it off the hook for a systematic pattern of disparity between men and women. So, when does a toothless, vague policy with wide discretion lead to a bad outcome, and is failing to prevent it the same as causing it?

A path-breaking sociological analysis of organizational affirmative action outcomes has shown that the companies that successfully diversify their management are most likely to have policies with teeth – where accountability is built into the diversity goal. In light of the Wal-Mart case, this led to a rollicking debate about how to think about “corporate culture” versus policies, and when to blame whom, legally or otherwise – which even divided sociologists.

Smoking in the movies

Here’s an interesting, at-least-vaguely related case. Positive depictions of smoking in the movies are widely understood to be harmful. Yet, smoking is also glamorous, artistic, and popular – representing both anti-adult rebellion and maturity. So, what to do? The Centers for Disease Control, in the always-riveting Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report, has published a fascinating report on this topic. They report the number of tobacco incidents* in top-grossing, youth-rated (G, PG, PG-13) movies, and divide them between those that implemented an anti-tobacco policy and those that didn’t — helpfully cutting the movie industry roughly in half — and provide a simple before-and-after tabulation:

From 2005 to 2010, among the three major motion picture companies (half of the six members of the Motion Picture Association of America [MPAA]) with policies aimed at reducing tobacco use in their movies, the number of tobacco incidents per youth-rated movie decreased 95.8%, from an average of 23.1 incidents per movie to an average of 1.0 incident. For independent companies (which are not MPAA members) and the three MPAA members with no antitobacco policies, tobacco incidents decreased 41.7%, from an average of 17.9 incidents per youth-rated movie in 2005 to 10.4 in 2010, a 10-fold higher rate than the rate for the companies with policies. Among the three companies with antitobacco policies, 88.2% of their top-grossing movies had no tobacco incidents, compared with 57.4% of movies among companies without policies.

The difference is dramatic, as indicated by this image about the images. (Because I turned the columns into cigarettes, this is not just a graph, but an infographic):


The policies provide what may be an ideal mix of accountability and responsibility, short of a simplistic ban.

[The policies] provide for review of scripts, story boards, daily footage, rough cuts, and the final edited film by managers in each studio with the authority to implement the policies. However, although the three companies have eliminated depictions of tobacco use almost entirely from their G, PG, and PG-13 movies, as of June 2011 none of the three policies completely banned smoking or other tobacco imagery in the youth-rated films that they produced or distributed.

Maybe this formula is effective because there already has been a strong cultural shift against smoking — as strong, even, as the shift against excluding women from management positions?

Graphic addendum (disturbing image below)

Whether smoking in movies actually encourages young people to take up smoking is of course a not a settled issue — especially on websites sponsored by tobacco sellers, as seen in this ironic screen-shot from Smokers News:


One reason to have an explicit policy is that it’s easy to assume viewers will see through the glamour to the negative outcomes. “Surely no one will want to be like that character…” But people – maybe especially young people? – have an amazing capacity to celebrate selectively from the characters they see. I have learned from experience that, in children’s stories, even those who get their comeuppance in the end still manage to emerge as role models for their bad behavior. So maybe some people want to relive this from Pulp Fiction…

…and aren’t put off by this:


* “A new incident occurred each time 1) a tobacco product went off screen and then back on screen, 2) a different actor was shown with a tobacco product, or 3) a scene changed, and the new scene contained the use or implied off-screen use of a tobacco product.”

My wife introduced me to two television shows, both built on a similar premise but with radically different results.

First, check out this clip from Clean House, airing on the Style Network.

Now, compare that to this ad for Hoarders, airing on the A&E Network.

This is a wonderful example of medicalization. We have people engaging in almost the exact same behavior, but their actions are interpreted in two diametrically opposed ways. Clean House generally (though not exclusively) frames their subjects as having poor habits that, with a little tough love, can be corrected. Hoarders, on the other hand, frames their subjects as having serious mental illnesses. Indeed, they regularly bring in clinicians to treat their subjects. The former invokes judgment (note the eye-rolling and smirking in the first clip), while the latter invokes sympathy (hear the dire music).

Our behaviors do not come with meaning necessarily embedded in them. We have to made sense of them, and the way that we ultimately do so has consequences. We did this in the past with the behavior of children, particularly of little boys. Is Johnny being rambunctious? There once was a time when Johnny was sent to the principal’s office for a spanking, but today, he is much more likely to be diagnosed with ADHD and given a pill. As we medicalize more and more in our society, our acceptance of and reaction to our behaviors change.


Bradley Koch, PhD, is an assistant professor of sociology at Georgia College. Brad primarily studies religion but is also interested in sexuality, stratification, teaching and learning, and higher ed. Brad muses, appropriately enough, at Brad’s Blog.


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

Originally posted Feb. 11, 2009.  Reposted in honor of the anniversary of the Stonewall Riots.

I found a collection of images relating to gay and lesbian studies put together at Columbia University, including this scan of a NYT article on what came to be known as the Stonewall Riots, when crowds reacted violently when police attempted to raid a club on June 28, 1969 (skirmishes continued for several days):


Graffiti from the Stonewall Riots (published in the Village Voice):


There are also some other good photos unrelated to Stonewall such as this one, from 1962, of entertainers at a drag club being hauled off by police after a raid:


The database might be useful if you’re interested in what is generally seen as the start of the gay rights movement.

Cross-posted at Jezebel and AOL’s Black Voices.

In a new book called “The Protest Psychosis: How Schizophrenia became a Black Disease,” psychiatrist and cultural critic Jonathan Metzl draws on a variety of sources — patient records, psychiatric studies, racialized drug advertisements, and popular metaphors for madness — to contend that schizophrenia transformed from being a mostly white, middle-class affliction in the 1950s, to one that identified with blackness, volatility, and civil strife at the height of the Civil Rights movement.

The racialized resonance between emerging definitions of schizophrenia and anxieties about black protest seem clear in pharmaceutical advertisements and essays appearing in leading American psychiatric journals during the 1960s and 70s.  For instance, the advertisement for the major tranquilizer Haldol that ran in the Archives of General Psychiatry shows an angry, hostile African American man with a clenched, inverted, Black Power fist.

The deranged black figure literally shakes his fist at the assumed physician viewer, while in the background a burning, urban landscape appears to directly reference the type of civil strive that alarmed many in the “establishment” at that time.  The ad compels psychiatrists to conflate black anger as a form of threatening psychosis and mental illness.  Indeed the ad seems to play off presumed fears of assaultive and belligerent black men.

As the urban background suggests, this fear extended beyond individual safety to social unrest.  In a 1969 essay titled “The Protest Psychosis,” after which Metzl’s book is named, psychiatrists postulated that the growing racial disharmony in the US at the height of the Civil Rights Movement, reflected a new manifestation of psychotic behaviors and delusions afflicting America’s black lower class.  Accordingly, “paranoid delusions that one is being constantly victimized” drew some men to fixate on misguided ventures to overthrow the establishment.  Luckily, pharmaceutical companies proposed that chemical interventions could directly pacify the masculinzed, black threat depicted in advertisements like the above.  “Assaultive and belligerent?” it asks.  “Cooperation often begins with Haldol.”

Moreover, ads for Thorazine and Stelazine during this period often conjured up images of the “unruly” and “primitive” precisely at a time when the demographic composition of this diagnosis was dramatically shifting from a mostly white clientele, to a group of predominately black, confined, mental patients.  It is telling that within this context, the makers of Thorazine would choose to portray the drug’s supposed specificity to schizophrenia in their advertisements by displaying a variety of war staffs, walking sticks, and other phallic artifacts from African descent.

The below ad for Thorazine, for example, exclaims western medicine’s superiority in treating mental illness with modern pharmaceuticals, by contrasting the primitive tools used by less enlightened cultures.

Notably, these claims of superiority and medical efficacy drew from a particular set of pejorative ideas of the “primitive” that were already well established within some sectors of psychiatry that equated mental illness with primitive, animalistic and regressive impulses.   As Metzl contends in his book:

…pharmaceutical advertisements shamelessly called on these long-held racist tropes to promote the message that social “problems” raised by angry black men could be treated at the clinical level, with antipsychotic medications.

These adds are in sharp contrast to previous marketing campaigns that framed schizophrenia in the 1950s as a mental condition affecting mostly middle class patients, and especially women.  Also shown below, ideas of schizophrenia were at that time an amorphous collection of psychotic and neurotic symptoms that were thought to afflict many women who struggled to accept the routines of domesticity.

While schizophrenia is certainly a real, frightening, debilitating disease, Metzl reminds us that cultural assumptions of the “other” shape how psychiatry understands and treats the condition.


Arturo Baiocchi is a doctoral student in Minnesota interested in issues of mental health, race, and inequality.  He is writing his dissertation on how young adults leaving the foster care system understand their mental health needs.  He is also a frequent contributor to various Society Pages podcasts and wanted to post something related to a recent interview he did about the racialization of mental illness.

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


Cross-posted at Ms.

Growing up in America, we learn that sweets and junk food are “guilty pleasures.” Women, especially, are supposed to refrain from such indulgences.  And, if they cannot — if they, for example, desire more than that modest slice of cake served to each birthday guest — then they should feel not only guilt, but shame.  For overindulging is grotesque and it, accordingly, should be hidden and kept secret.

This is the cultural background to Lee Price‘s realist paintings of women (mostly her) eating sweets and junk food.  She draws two contrasts.  First, she makes very public something we are supposed to do only in private.  Not only do the paintings literally display the transgression, the birds eye view and frequent nudity exaggerates the sheer display of the indulgence.  And, second, she takes something that is supposedly disgusting and shameful and presents it in a medium associated with (high) art, challenging the association of indulgence with poor character and a lack of refinement.  Fascinating.


Visit Lee Price’s website.
Via BoingBoing.

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.

What is a norm?  How important is it that we follow them?  And what happens when we break one?

Nathan Palmer, a lecturer at Georgia Southern University and founder of the blog Sociology Source, recruited his entire class of 262 students to go into the world and do nothing (an idea he borrowed from Karen Bettez Halnon).  It was sort of like a flash mob in which absolutely nothing happens.

Palmer’s aim was to reveal a norm (in this case, that we all must always be doing something), expose his students to the feelings one has when breaking a norm (even a consequence-less one like this), and show them the range of reactions that observers have to norm breaking.  And he recorded the whole thing for us:

Read Palmer’s entire write-up of the experiment at Sociology Source.

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.

The New York Times has made available a digital copy of The Gentleman’s Directory, a guide to New York City published in 1870. The guidebook informs travelers of a particular type of local attraction: brothels. Of course, the information was for curiosity’s sake only:

Not that we imagine the reader will ever desire to visit these houses. Certainly not; he is, we do not doubt, a member of the Bible Society, a bright and shining light…But we point out the location of these places in order that the reader may know how to avoid them… (p. 6-7)

Certainly passages like this, from p. 13, make it clear that such establishments are to be avoided:

It also included pages that were simply ads for particular brothels:

Interestingly, the NYT checked the 1870 Census for the houses listed in the guide. In general, the women living there were described by Census workers as domestic servants or women who “kept house.” However, they found a few cases where the Census openly listed them as working at a “house of prostitution” or “house of assignation.”

A doctor advertised “imported male safes,” i.e., condoms:

His ad also describes an unspecified cure for women that may very well refer to abortions (at the time, products that caused abortion were often advertised as helping with menstrual regulation or any type of “menstrual stoppage”):

In addition to an article about the directory, the NYT put together a map showing the locations of the establishments it mentions (which were a small proportion of all brothels in NYC, where prostitution was illegal but widely available at the time):