In the Sociology of Gender textbook, I spend a chapter discussing the idea of institutions.  I define the term as “persistent patterns of social interaction aimed at meeting the needs of a society that can’t easily be met by individuals alone.”  These needs  include educating the next generation, providing health care, ensuring safety, and enabling efficient transportation.  These things are done better and more efficiently if we all chip in and put together a system.

What is interesting about institutions from a sociological perspective is that, once they’re in place, it is essentially impossible to opt out.  You can choose not to buy a car, for example, but the government is still going to spend your tax dollars on highway infrastructure.  You can amass as much medical knowledge and experience as you like, but you’ll still be a criminal if you practice medicine without a licence.  You can believe the government is corrupt and stay home on voting day, but Congress is still going to pass legislation to which you will be held accountable.

You get the picture.

In any case, I thought of this when I came across the striking photography of Eric Valli.  Valli seems to specialize in capturing the lives of people living very close to the earth.  In one series, he follows a group of individuals who have decided to live “off the grid.”  That is, they’ve “unplugged” from the social institutions that sustain us.

The photographs reveal people who are committed to being off the grid. It’s no joke.  And, yet, as I scrolled through them, I couldn’t help to notice how many trappings of the rest of the world were part and parcel of their lives (canoes, coats, oil lamps, cooking and eating utensils, halters, firearms, hot sauce, etc).

I’m not questioning, at all, whether or not these people are off the grid. They certainly appear to be.  But it is interesting to notice how much of the grid is still a part of their lives.

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.

Cross-posted at Montclair SocioBlog.

Air pollution is what economists call an “externality.”  It is not an intrinsic part of the economic bargaining between producers and consumers.  The usual market forces — buyers and sellers pursuing their own individual interests — won’t help.  The market may bring us more goods at lower prices, for example, but it can harm the air that everyone, in or out of that market, has to breathe. To create or protect a public good, the free market has to be a little less free.  That’s where government steps in.  Or not.

Case in point: My son and his girlfriend arrived in Beijing ten days ago.  The got-here-safely e-mail ended with this:

…was blown away by the pollution! I know people talk about it all the time, but it really is crazy.

And it is.  Here’s a photo I grabbed from the Internet:

Flickr creative commons by nasus89.

At about the same time, I came upon a this link to photos of my home town Pittsburgh in 1940.  Here are two of them:
Today in downtown Pittsburgh, the streetcars and overhead trolleys are gone.  So are the fedoras.  And so is the smoke.

The air became cleaner in the years following the end of the War.  It didn’t become clean all by itself, and it didn’t become clean because of free-market forces.  It got clean because of government — legislation and regulation, including an individual mandate.

The smoke was caused by the burning of coal, and while the steel mills accounted for some of the smoke, much of the it came from coal-burning furnaces in Pittsburghers’ houses.  If the city was to have cleaner air, the government would have to force people change the way they heated their homes.  And that is exactly what the law did. To create a public good — clean air — the law required individuals to purchase something — either non-polluting fuel (oil, gas, or smokeless coal) or smokeless equipment.*

Initially, not everyone favored smoke control, but as Pittsburgh became cleaner and lost its “Smoky City” label, approval of the regulations increased, and there was a fairly rapid transition to gas heating.  By the 1950s, nobody longed for the unregulated air of 1940.  Smoke control was a great success.**  Of course, it may have helped that Pittsburgh did not have a major opposition party railing against this government takeover of home heating or claiming that smoke control was a jobs-killing assault on freedom.


* Enforcement focused not on individuals but distributors.  Truckers were forbidden from delivering the wrong kind of coal.

** For a fuller account of smoke control in Pittsburgh, see Joel A. Tarr and Bill C. Lamperes, Changing Fuel Use Behavior and Energy Transitions: The Pittsburgh Smoke Control Movement, 1940-1950: A Case Study in Historical Analogy. Journal of Social History , Vol. 14, No. 4, Special Issue on Applied History (Summer, 1981), pp. 561-588.

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

NASA has posted a series of pairs of satellite images that show a range of changes around the world. They’re great for illustrating human-environment interactions; some of the changes are directly human-caused, while others, while others show the changing consequences of floods and fires as our settlement and agricultural patterns change.

For those of us living in Las Vegas, these images of the shrinking Lake Mead reservoir, which provides water and electricity, is not reassuring. The reservoir has gotten smaller due to multiple factors, including a long-term drought and more water being taken from the Colorado River upstream:

Deforestation in Niger, as land has increasingly been turned over to agriculture:

Here, we see increasing urban growth around Denver International Airport, which now takes up 53 square miles of what used to be farmland:

Algal blooms due to agricultural and household runoff into Lake Atitlan, Guatemala:

Changes to the Sonoran coastline in Mexico due to shrimp farming:

The dramatic shrinking of the Aral Sea, largely due to the amount of water taken out of rivers for irrigation:

The full set of 167 paired images is really striking, and if viewed in the “all images” layout, you can select among various topics, focusing on cities, water, human impacts, and so on.


Cross-posted at Montclair SocioBlog.

Hot enough for you?  Your answer might depend on who you’re voting for.

World views affect not just how we interpret what we see; these views influence what we actually experience.  That was the point of the previous post.

Do people who reject the idea global warming perceive the weather as being cooler?  Gallup just published the results of a poll that asked people if this winter was warmer than usual. Unfortunately, Gallup asked only for political affiliation, but it can stand as a rough proxy for ideas about global warming.  So the data are suggestive, not conclusive. But for what it’s worth, Democrats were more likely than Republicans to say yes, it’s been a warm winter.  Some of the difference can be attributed to geography (Democrats living in places that had a much warmer winter than usual). But I suspect that at least part of the 11-point difference is political.

Republicans reject the idea that the world is getting warmer — that’s a question of science — but they also experience their own immediate environment as cooler, which is a matter of perception.

As the graph shows, Gallup then asked those who did think that the winter was unusually warm what they thought the cause was — global warming or just normal variation..  As you might expect, political affiliation made a difference.   Democrats were more than twice as likely as Republicans to cite global warming as the cause.

Mother Jones magazine offers some comparisons. Highlights:

  • Its net sales is greater than the GDP of Norway.
  • Its entertainment sales is triple that of Hollywood.
  • It emits more CO2 than the 50 lowest-emitting countries together.
  • It employs a workforce the size of the population of the 50 smallest countries in the world.
  • Its square-footage exceeds that of the island of Manhattan.

The data:

Via SocProf.

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.

Evolutionary psychologists argue that when we find certain traits sexually attractive in others it may be because they signal reproductive fitness.  It goes something like this: People who have been sexually attracted to traits that tell the “truth” about genetic superiority have been more likely to choose mates with superior genetics and, therefore, have been more likely to produce healthy offspring that live to an age where they, in turn, can reproduce themselves.  Accordingly, nature has selected for individuals attracted to people who display signs of genetic excellence.

Culture throws a wrench in this theory because human can create their own systems of meaning, collectively convincing each other that certain traits are desirable regardless of the relationship between the trait and reproductive fitness.  The thinness ideal for women is an excellent example.  Judging by pop culture, heterosexual men have a strong preference for very thin women.  In fact, however, the weight idealized in mass media is not conducive to reproductive fitness; women won’t ovulate or menstruate below a certain weight because their body recognizes that it can’t support a pregnancy.

A new study — by Leigh Simmons, Marianne Peters, and Gillian Rhodes — offers another tantalizing piece of information regarding the relationship between attractiveness and reproductive fitness.  Pre-existing research shows that men with lower voices are judged more sexually attractive, so the authors decided to measure one indicator of their reproductive fitness, sperm count.

The results? Voice attractiveness is related  to sperm count, but in the opposite direction expected.  Men with higher voices, in fact, have higher sperm concentration, not lower.

The jury is still out about what this means, but it’s an intriguing addition to the ongoing conversation that social and biological scientists are having about how culture and nature interact to shape human experience.

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.

This photograph is of the Love Canal neighborhood in Niagara Falls, New York, where Hooker Chemical (now Occidental Petroleum Corporation) buried 21,000 tons of toxic, chemical waste:
In 1953, Hooker Chemical sold the land that they had been using for toxic waste disposal to the Niagara Falls School Board for $1. The sale deed contained warnings about the chemical waste and a disclaimer of liability. However, planners hastily built schools and homes on the contaminated land to accommodate the city’s growing postwar population. By the late 1970s, residents were reporting a litany of illnesses and birth defects. Scientists discovered high levels of carcinogens in the soil, groundwater, and air. The community mobilized to bring attention to the situation, and President Carter declared a federal health emergency in the area.
Elizabeth Blum, a professor of history at Troy University, has written about the environmental activism of Love Canal residents. Such activism, called “popular epidemiology,” attempts to link spikes in localized health issues to their origins. Despite such grassroots movements, though, the media tends to show little interest in the causes of cancer and greater interest in finding the cure.

The many “Stand Up to Cancer” ads, for example, urge people to donate money (or just use their credit card for purchases) to help fund the development of cancer treatments:

When media attention is focused on the causes of cancer, it usually takes an individualistic tone. Risk factors (smoking, poor diet, etc.) are blamed for various forms of cancer.

The thing is: there’s no money in prevention.

Mainstream media outlets have a vested interest in not exposing the causes of cancer.  The companies that pay to advertise on their channels, and often their parent companies or subsidiaries, often traffic in known carcinogens. Pharmaceutical companies, likewise, have a perverse incentive. Healthy people make them no money, neither do dead people; sick people though, they’re a goldmine.  Many organizations, including the multi-million dollar Susan G. Komen Foundation, are in the business of raising money “for the cure,” more so than prevention.

The politics of cancer, then suffer from the individualism characteristic of modern American and capitalist imperatives, leaving the causes of the cancer epidemic invisible and, accordingly, the unethical and illegal behavior of companies like Hooker Chemical.

Dan Rose is an assistant professor of sociology at Chattanooga State Community College in Tennessee.  His research focuses on medical sociology and health inequalities in minority neighborhoods.

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.

I’m a particular fan of looking at ways that society and nature intersect and a new study is a fantastic example.  Analysis of 15 years of storm data revealed that twisters and hailstorms were significantly more likely to occur during the week as compared to weekends.

According to the authors, Daniel Rosenfeld and Thomas Bell, the cause is pollution caused by commuting.  Charles Choi, writing for National Geographic, explains:

…moisture gathers around specks of pollutants, which leads to more cloud droplets. Computer models suggest these droplets get lofted up to higher, colder air, leading to more plentiful and larger hail.

Understanding how pollution can generate more tornadoes is a bit trickier. First, the large icy particles of hail that pollutants help seed possess less surface area than an equal mass of smaller “hydrometeors”—that is, particles of condensed water or ice.

As such, these large hydrometeors evaporate more slowly, and thus are not as likely to suck heat from the air. This makes it easier for warm air to help form a “supercell,” the cloud type that usually produces tornadoes and large hail.

So, there you have it. No need to choose between nature and nurture. We interact with our environment and shape it, just as it shapes us.

(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.