Flashback Friday.

Two of my favorite podcasts, Radio Lab and Quirks and Quarks, have stories bout how inertia and reliance on technology can inhibit our ability to find easy, cheap solutions to problems.

Story One

The first story, at Radio Lab, was about a nursing home in Düsseldorf, Germany.  As patients age, nursing homes risk that they will become disoriented and “escape” the nursing home.  Often, they are trying to return to homes in which they lived previously, desperate that their children, partners, or even parents are worried and waiting for them.

When they catch the escapee in time, the patient is often extremely upset and an altercation ensues.  If they don’t catch them in time, the patient often hops onto public transportation and is eventually discovered by police.  The first outcome is unpleasant for everyone involved and the second outcome is very dangerous for the patient.  Most nursing homes fix this problem by confining patients who’ve began to wander off to a locked ward.

An employee at the Benrath Senior Center came up with an alternative solution: a fake bus stop placed right outside of the front doors of the nursing home.  The fake bus stop does two wonderful things:

(1)  The first thing a potential escapee does when they decide to “go home” is find a bus stop.  So, patients who take off usually get no further than the first bus stop that they see.  “Where did Mrs. Schmidt go?”  “Oh, she’s at the bus stop.”  In practice, it worked tremendously.  This meant that many disoriented patients no longer needed to be kept in locked wards.

(2)  The bus stop diffuses the sense of panic.  If a delusional patient decided that she needed to go home immediately because her children were all alone and waiting for her, the attendant didn’t need to restrain her or talk her out of it, she simply said, “Oh, well… there’s the bus stop.”  The patient would go sit and wait.  Knowing that she was on her way home, she would relax and, given her diminished cognition, she would eventually forget why she was there.  A little while later the attendant could go out and ask her if she wanted to come in for tea.  And she would say, “Ok.”

Listening to this, I thought it was just about the most brilliant thing I’d ever heard.

Story Two

The second story, from Quirks and Quarks, was regarding whether it is true that dogs can smell cancer.  It turns out that they can.  It appears that dogs can smell lots of types of cancer, but people have been working specifically with training them to detect melanomas, or skin cancers.  It turns out that a dog can be trained, in about three to six weeks, to detect melanomas (even some invisible to the naked eye) with an 80-90% accuracy rate.   If we could build a machine that was able to detect the same chemical that dogs are reacting to (and we don’t know, at this time, what that is) it would have to be the size of a refrigerator to match the sensitivity of a dog’s nose.  When it comes to detecting melanomas, dogs are better diagnosticians than our best humans and our most advanced machines.

Doggy doctors offer some really wonderful possibilities, such as delivering low cost cancer detection to communities who may not have access to clinical care.  A mobile cancer detection puppy bus, anyone?

Both these stories — about these talented animals and the pretend bus stop — are fantastic examples of what we can do without advanced technology. I fear that we fetishize the latter, turning first to technology and forgetting to be creative about how to solve problems without them.

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 a textbook about gender. You can follow her on Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram.

Flashback Friday.

In her fantastic book, Talk of Love (2001), Ann Swidler investigates how people use cultural narratives to make sense of their marriages.

She describes the “romantic” version of love with which we are all familiar.  In this model, two people fall deeply in love at first sight and live forever and ever in bliss .  We can see this model of love in movies, books, and advertisements:

She finds that, in describing their own marriages, most people reject a romantic model of love out-of-hand.

Instead, people tended to articulate a “practical” model of love.  Maintaining love in marriage, they said requires trust, honesty, respect, self-discipline, and, above all, hard work.  This model manifests in the therapeutic and religious self-help industry and its celebrity manifestations:

But even though most people favored a practical model of love in Swidler’s interviews, even the most resolute realist would occasionally fall back on idealist versions of love. In that sense, most people would articulate contradictory beliefs. Why?

Swidler noticed that people would draw on the different models when asked different kinds of questions. When she would ask them “How do you keep love alive from day to day?” they would respond with a practical answer. When she asked them “Why do you stay married?” or “Why did you get married?” they would respond with a romantic answer.

So, even though most people said that they didn’t believe in the ideal model, they would invoke it. They did so when talking about the institution of marriage (the why), but not when talking about the relationship they nurtured inside of that institution (the how).

Swidler concludes that the ideal model of love persists as a cultural trope because marriage, as an institution, requires it. For example, while people may not believe that there is such a thing as “the one,” marriage laws are written such that you must marry “one.” She explains:

One is either married or not; one cannot be married to more than one person at a time; marrying someone is a fateful, sometimes life-transforming choice; and despite divorce, marriages are still meant to last (p. 117-118).

That “one,” over time, becomes “the one” you married. “The social organization of marriage makes the mythic image true experientially…” (p. 118, my emphasis).

If a person is going to get married at all, they must have some sort of cultural logic that allows them to choose one person. Swidler writes:

In order to marry, individuals must develop certain cultural, psychological, and even cognitive equipment. They must be prepared to feel, or at least convince others that they feel, that one other person is the unique right ‘one.’ They must be prepared to recognize the ‘right person’ when that person comes along.

The idea of romantic love does this for us. It is functional given the way that contemporary institutions structure love relationships. And, that, Swidler says, is why it persists:

The culture of [romantic] love flourishes in the gap between the expectation of enduring relationships and the free, individual choice upon which marriage depends… Only if there really is something like love can our relationships be both voluntary and enduring (p. 156-157).

Presumably if marriage laws didn’t exist, or were different, the romantic model of love would disappear because it would no longer be useful.

The culture of love would die out, lose its plausibility, not if marriages did not last (they don’t) but if people stopped trying to form and sustain lasting marriages (p. 158).

Even when individuals consciously disbelieve dominant myths [of romantic love], they find themselves engaged with the very myths whose truths they reject—because the institutional dilemmas those myths capture are their dilemmas as well (p. 176).

Cultural tropes, then, don’t persist because we (or some of us) are duped by movies and advertisements, they persist because we need them.

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 ideology of intensive motherhood is a cultural approach toward parenting that suggests that competent childcare demands “copious amounts of time, energy, and material resources” and that providing such childcare should take priority over everything else a mother might like or need to do.  In South Korea, this imperative is at work even before babies are born and the practice is called tae-gyo. A reporter for the Korea Herald, a local newspaper, explains:

Since over 600 years ago, expectant mothers in Korea have been practicing taegyo, a series of prenatal routines aimed at nurturing a healthy, virtuous and skilled child. They try to see and hear only the most pleasant things starting from three months of pregnancy.

Koreans believe that a mother’s state of mind and ongoing education during pregnancy determines a baby’s prospects. Their educational and occupational future, even their personality, is dependent on what their mothers do while they’re pregnant. A reporter, below, quotes a South Korean figure who claims that “nine months of prenatal education is more valuable than nine years of post-natal learning.”

Interest in tae-gyo is escalating thanks to declining birth rates and hyper-competition. Fewer Korean couples are having more than one child and they want to give these “single” children an edge by helping them from the womb.  They want their children to survive in a hypercompetitive educational environment.

Accordingly, while the most common tae-gyo used to be listening to classical music, women are facing increasing pressure to do more and more for their child before it is born. During the past 20 years, tae-gyo has incorporated learning calligraphy or floral arrangement, crafts like knitting and sewing, and doing yoga. Expected mothers are doing English and math tae-gyo, meaning that they study English and do math for their unborn children to ensure that they will excel in those skills. Korea’s tourism industry have developed a “taegyo travel package,” which is supposed to be beneficial for babies in the womb.

This can all be quite intensive, as you might imagine, as women are expected to personally practice all of the skills and traits they hope their baby will have. Intensive mothering in South Korea, then, starts before the baby is born.

Cross-posted at Pacific Standard.

Sangyoub Park, PhD, is an associate professor of sociology at Washburn University, where he teaches Social Demography, Generations in the U.S., and Sociology of East Asia. His research interests include social capital, demographic trends, and post-Generation Y.

In a new blog post, Brad Wilcox and Nicholas Wolfinger ask, “are red or blue spouses happier?” Their answer — suspense — red.

Using the 2010-2014 General Social Survey, they start with this descriptive figure:


Then they do adjustments, and show how their statistical controls explain the “Republican advantage in marital satisfaction.” And get this:


So, with all those controls, the “Republican advantage” remains.

That was enough for the sadly credulous David Leonhardt, editor of the New York Times Upshot site, to conclude:

Liberal attitudes toward gender equality, sexual orientation and education all seem to foster stronger, more stable family lives. But Mr. Wilcox’s recent writings strike me as significant because they’re a reminder that conservatism also has values and cultural attitudes — about the importance of marriage and family life — that seem to improve the environment in which children grow up.

Quite a conclusion to draw from a 3% net difference in a question on marital happiness — not exactly the best measure of “the environment in which children grow up.” But more importantly, I think it’s empirically wrong anyway.

Wilcox and Wolfinger left out all the details of their analysis, but it was easy to replicate it pretty closely. As a left-versus-right story it just doesn’t hold up. The GSS allows people to specify eight party identifications (including “other party”), not just three (Democrat, Republican, Independent). Wilcox and Wolfinger code those as “Independent, near Democrat/Republican” as identifying with the parties, but they don’t show the whole pattern:


The upward slope toward “strong Democrats” undermines the left-right story. Still, the figure skews right. When I apply the statistical controls, however, the differences are muted:


Now the “strong Democrats” appear happier than all but the “strong Republicans.” And not even the “strong Republicans” are significantly more likely to say they’re “very happy” in marriage than the “strong Democrats.” Here’s the relevant part of the table:


Lots of ways you could interpret this. But I’m pretty sure the Wilcox and Wolfinger conclusion is not supported: “married Republicans are more likely than married Democrats to say they are in very happy marriages.” And the Leonhardt conclusion is just ridiculous (insofar as it’s based on these data).

Note: I did this really quickly. If I made a mistake, feel free to correct me. But I’m still calling this a “research brief” and a “report.”  More methodological details here.

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

A child that was 7 years old when Hurricane Katrina hit New Orleans will be 17 today. When the storm hit, he would have just started 2nd grade. Today, that 17-year-old is more likely than his same age peers in all but two other cities to be both unemployed and not in school. He is part of the Katrina generation.

(September 3, 2005 New Orleans) -- Evacuees and patients arive at New Orleans airport where FEMA's D-MATs have set up operations.  Photo: Michael Rieger/FEMA
(September 3, 2005 New Orleans) — Evacuees and patients arive at New Orleans airport where FEMA’s D-MATs have set up operations.
Photo: Michael Rieger/FEMA

When the city was evacuated, many families suffered a period of instability. A report published nine months after the storm found that families had moved an average of 3.5 times in the first nine months. One-in-five school-age children were either not enrolled in school or were only partially attending (missing more than 10 days a month).

Five years later, another study found that 40% of children still did not have stable housing and another 20% remained emotionally distressed. 34% of children had been held back in school (compared to a 19% baseline in the South).

(September 3, 2005 New Orleans) -- Evacuees and patients arive at New Orleans airport where FEMA's D-MATs have set up operations.  Photo: Michael Rieger/FEMA
(September 3, 2005 New Orleans) — Evacuees and patients arive at New Orleans airport where FEMA’s D-MATs have set up operations.
Photo: Michael Rieger/FEMA

With so much trauma and dislocation, it is easy to imagine that even young people in school would have trouble learning; for those who suffered the greatest instability, it’s likely that their education was fully on pause.

At The Atlantic, Katy Reckdahl profiles such a family. They evacuated to Houston, where they suffered abuse from locals who resented their presence. At school, boys from New Orleans were getting picked on and getting in fights. So the mother of three kept her 11- and 13-year-old boys at home, fearful for their safety. Indeed, another New Orleanian boy that they knew was killed while in Houston. The boys missed an entire year of school.

“An untold number of kids,” writes Reckdahl, “probably numbering in the tens of thousands—missed weeks, months, even years of school after Katrina.” She quotes an educator who specializes in teaching students who have fallen behind, who estimates that “90-percent-plus” of his students “didn’t learn for a year.”

When the brothers profiled by Reckdahl returned to New Orleans one year later, they were placed in the correct grade for their age, despite having missed a year of school. The system was in chaos. Teachers were inexperienced thanks to charter schools replacing the public school system. One of the boys struggled to make sense of it all and eventually dropped out and got his GED instead.

No doubt the high number of unemployed and unenrolled young people in New Orleans and other Gulf Coast cities devastated by Katrina is due, in part, to the displacement, trauma, and chaos of disaster. Optimistically, and resisting the “at risk” discourse, the Cowen Institute calls them “opportunity youth.” If there is the political will, we have the opportunity to help empower them to become healthy and productive members of our communities.

For more, pre-order sociologist Alice Fothergill and Lori Peek’s forthcoming book, Children of Katrina, watch an interview about their research, or read their preliminary findings here.

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.

Who believes that the climate is changing? Researchers at Yale’s Project on Climate Change Communication asked 13,000 people and they found some pretty interesting stuff. First, they found that there was a great deal of disagreement, identifying six types:

  • The Alarmed (18%) – believe climate change is happening, have already changed their behavior, and are ready to get out there and try to save the world
  • The Concerned (33%) – believe it’s happening, but think it’s far off or isn’t going to affect them personally
  • The Cautious (19%) – aren’t sure if it’s happening or not and are also unsure whether it’s human caused
  • The Disengaged (12%) –  have heard the phrase “climate change,” but couldn’t tell you the first thing about it
  • The Doubtful (11%) – are skeptical that it’s happening and, if it is, they don’t think it’s a problem and don’t think it’s human caused
  • The Dismissive (7%) – do not believe in it, think it’s a hoax

As you might imagine, attitudes about climate change vary significantly by state and county. You can see all the data at their interactive map. Here are some of the findings I thought were interesting.

More Americans think that climate change is happening (left) than think it’s human caused (right); bluer = more skeptical, redder = more believing:


Even among people who say that they personally believe in climate change (left, same as above), there are many who think that there is no scientific consensus (right) suggesting that the campaign to misrepresent scientific opinion by covering “both sides” was successful:


People are somewhat worried about climate change (left), but very, very few think that it’s going to harm them personally (right):


Even though people are lukewarm on whether it’s happening, whether it’s human-caused, and whether it’s going to do any harm, there’s a lot of support for doing something about it. Support for regulating CO2 (left) and support for funding research on renewable energy (right):


Take a closer look yourself and explore more questions at the map or read more at the Scholars Strategy Network. And thanks to the people at Yale funding and doing this important work.

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.

In the contemporary U.S., individuals choose who to marry based on personal preference, but there is a specific script by which those choices become a wedding day. Not everyone follows the script, but everyone knows it: the man decides to ask the woman to marry him, he buys a ring, he arranges a “special” event, he proposes, and she agrees. Many of us grow up dreaming of a day like this.

But this isn’t the only possible way to decide to marry. A reverse script might involve female choice. We can imagine a world in which, instead of hoping to be chosen, women decide to propose and men can only marry if they get asked. Another alternative script might involve no proposal at all, one in which two people discuss marriage and come to a decision together without the pop question and uncertain answer.

Of course, many couples essentially decide to marry through months or years of discussion, but these couples frequently act out the script anyway because, well, it’s so romantic and wonderful.

Or is it?

Andre M. sent in a clip of John Preator, a finalist on a previous season of American Idol. In the clip, he proposes to his girlfriend Erica on Main Street at a Disneyland Resort. The clip exaggerates the patriarchal underpinnings of both marriage and the marriage proposal. It may or may not be real, but it doesn’t really matter for our purposes.

Here it is:

First, Andre says, the spectacle is a shining testament to our commitment to the idea of marriage as an ideal state. Everyone loves marriage! As Andre writes:

A whole rainbow of characters come out of the shadows to push her towards yes, from the smiling Asian janitor, to the African American guy knighted by our hero and his plastic phallus, to the disabled woman who wishes to trade her fate with the bride-to-be.

We are supposed to think: “How wonderful! How sweet! How perfect!” What is made invisible is the fact that, in addition to a potential site of wedded bliss, marriage is the site of the reproduction of patriarchal privilege (especially through women’s disproportionate responsibility for housework and childcare) and heterosexist (still excluding same sex couples). But the audience knows that they are supposed to feel elated for the couple and privileged to witness their special moment (whether they feel these things or not).

Second, the public nature of the proposal put a lot of pressure on her to say “yes.” The audience is asked to participate in urging her to agree to marry him (“come on folks, how about a little encouragement?!”). And the performers, as well as the performance itself, create conditions that look a lot like coercion. Could she have said “no” if she wanted to? As if breaking his heart wouldn’t have been deterrent enough, saying “no” would have disappointed the onlookers and ruined the performance. He put so much work into scripting the proposal and it was very clear what her line was. How many women, with less pressure, have nonetheless felt it difficult or impossible to say “no”?

Okay, so let’s assume that Erica did want to marry John and that they will live happily ever after. And let’s also assume that most marriage proposals in the U.S. do not come with this degree of pressure. The clip is still a nice reminder of (1) just how taken-for-granted marriage is as an ideal state (can you imagine her saying, “I love you more than life itself and I want to be with you forever, but marriage, no thanks!”) and (2) the way that the proposal script puts men in the position of getting to choose and women in the position of having to agree or go off script.

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.

I saw “Trainwreck” last night. The 7:00 p.m. showing at the 68th Street AMC was full. Maybe people had come just to get out of the apartment and yet avoid the beastly heat, but they enjoyed the movie.  Sometimes the laughter lasted long enough to cover up the next joke.

The “Trainwreck” story is standard rom-com: Amy Schumer plays a young woman who rejects the idea of commitment and love. Circumstances put her together with a man she seems to have nothing in common with. You can guess the rest.

But this is Amy Schumer’s movie, so there’s an important twist – the conventional sex roles are reversed. It’s the man who is sweet and naive and who wants a real relationship; the woman has a lot of sex with a lot of different guys, drinks a lot, smokes weed, and resists love until at the end, she decides to become the woman he wants her to be.

Here is the R-rated version of the trailer:

What interested me was not the movie itself, but the reaction in some conservative quarters. For Armond White at the National Review, the movie triggered something like what Jonathan Haidt calls “disgust” – a reaction to the violation of strong taboos that surround things like food, sex, blood and other bodily matters, and death. These taboos are often arbitrary, not rational. Pork is an “abomination,” for example, because… well, because it is, and because pigs are “unclean.”

“Trainwreck” has no pork, but it does have what some find unclean.

Schumer’s tampon jokes and gay jokes, female versions of locker-room humor, literally drag pop culture to the toilet. A girl-talk scene set in adjoining restroom stalls — one revealing dropped panties, the other panty-less (obviously Amy) — is just Apatow using women to show off his indecency.

As a comedian and now as a filmmaker, Schumer talks about women-things: body functions and body parts. These jokes seem to elicit two different kinds of laughter. Back when researchers studying small group interaction were trying to code and categorize behavior, laughter posed a problem (see this earlier post). It could be coded as “Shows Tension,” but it might also be “Shows Tension Release.”

With Amy Schumer jokes, the male laughter is mostly a nervous, full of tension about a taboo subject. But the female laughter seems much less inhibited – tension release, maybe even a relief, as if to say, “Someone is finally talking publicly and frankly about things we could only whisper about,” since most of the time they have had to pretend to share the male taboo.

Indecency indeed. But something is indecent only to members of groups that deem it indecent. Some groups are not at all disgusted by pork.  And for some audiences, tampon jokes and toilet-stall conversations about Johnny Depp movies are not indecent; they’re just funny. What audiences might those be? Women.

Take the tampon joke that the National Reviewer finds indecent. It would seem obvious that used tampons look different depending on where you are in your period – less bloody on the final day, more so a few days earlier. But at the mere mention of this fact in “Trainwreck,” hilarity ensues, especially among women in the audience.

The thing about taboos – ideas about what is indecent or disgusting – is that entire social structures get built around them. To violate the taboo is to threaten the entire edifice. Powerful taboos on women-things often go with male domination. So for the National Review, the “Trainwreck”reversal of rom-com gender roles makes the movie dangerous and subversive.

Here are some excerpts from the review just to give the flavor of this Purity-and-Danger-like conflating of taboo, female sexuality, and social/political threat to the established order (emphasis mine):

Schumer turns female sexual prerogative into shamelessness

the degradation of sex — and women

uses sex to promote feminist permissiveness.

She enjoys a sexual license

Amy brazenly practices the same sexual habits as men

. . . old-fashioned sense of shame,

It’s merely brazen, like Lena Dunham’s HBO series, Girls (also about a promiscuous female writer

Schumer’s film can be seen to distort human relations into smut.

This is not just disrespectful, it confirms Schumer’s project of cultural takeover,

she aims to acquire cultural power

Schumer disguises a noxious cultural agenda as personal fiat. She’s a comedy demagogue who okays modern misbehavior yet blatantly revels in PC notions about feminism, abortion, and other hot-button topics


I should add that not all conservative publications felt so threatened. Joe Morganstern at the Wall Street Journal gave the movie a warm review. Breitbart saw the movie’s essential conservatism (“The anti-slut message is a healthy one”) and praised Schumer as a comic actor.  Still, the National Review piece seems emblematic of something broader in the cultural conservative camp: a taboo-like reaction to female sexuality.

Originally posted at Montclair SocioBlog.

Jay Livingston is the chair of the Sociology Department at Montclair State University. You can follow him at Montclair SocioBlog or on Twitter.