A 1926 eugenics poster (from


From left to right the boxes say (and the left two are what we need less of, the right two what it says we need mroe of):

This light flashes every 48 seconds. Every 48 seconds a person is born in the United States who will never grow up mentally beyond that stage of a normal 8 year old boy or girl.

This light flashes every 50 seconds. Every 50 seconds a person is committed to jail in the United States. Very few normal persons ever go to jail.

This light flashes every 16 seconds. Every 16 seconds a person is born in the United States.

This light flashes every 7 1/2 minutes. Every 7 1/2 minutes a high grade person is born in the United States who will have ability to do creative work and be fit for leadership. About 4% of all Americans come within this class.

Here’s another example of the use of pseudoscience to make racial arguments (via):

racism science

Notice that the “woman mulatto” is draw to appear extremely unattractive, and that while the white man and mulatto woman have a “pass-for-white” daughter, the son on the far left isn’t “pass-for-black”–he really is black. The idea of “passing for black” made no sense at the time, while “passing for white” was a major concern. I am surprised to see here, though, that the baby of the pass-for-white woman and the white man is defined as entirely white.

Of course, none of this makes any logical sense at all, but lots of supposedly scientific studies at the time applied many statistical and other methods to prove various racial arguments.

Jean Piaget, a psychologist who published his most influential works from the late 1920s through the 1950s, is most known for his theory of stages of cognitive development. He suggested a four-stage model that children go through as they develop more complex reasoning skills.

Children start out in the sensorimotor stage, which lasts until they’re roughly 2. They have no sense of themselves as individuals, obviously, and wouldn’t recognize their hand as “theirs.” They aren’t afraid of heights or touching something hot because they can’t grasp the idea of falling or something being hot–those ideas are too abstract.

Here’s a video that illustrates some of the limits of reasoning at this age:

In the preoperational stage (Piaget said it lasted from around age 2 until about 7), kids start being able to grasp symbols. For instance, they can draw a series of squares with a triangle on top to represent a house. They also start to learn the alphabet, which is, of course, the set of symbols we use to read and write.

On the other hand, they don’t understand abstract concepts like amounts, speed, or weight. In one of Piaget’s most famous experiments, he showed that children at this stage can’t comprehend that if you pour liquid from a short, wide glass into a tall, narrow glass, it’s still the same amount:

By the concrete operational stage (roughly 7-12 years old) kids comprehend ideas like weight, amount, and speed, and can understand that the amount of liquid in the two glasses is the same:

They can also understand causal relationships, though not necessarily explain the reasoning behind them. Here, the younger kid says what would happen if you hit a glass with a feather based on what he knows about feathers, whereas the older child reasons from the previous statement and answers according to the logic proposed (despite it being obviously inaccurate):

Finally, Piaget said that in the formal operational stage (after about age 12) kids can understand abstract concepts and reason logically. If you ask them what “justice” means, they can explain it. The girl in the last video, who reasoned from the previous statement (which had been presented as true), illustrates formal operational thinking.

Of course, there are questions about Piaget’s model (described in Kimmel and Aronson, 2009, Sociology Now). Do we really only go through each stage once? Might we have to go through some of them again when we hit new life challenges or milestones? Do we have to completely master one stage before we can progress, or is it possible to have some overlap? Are these stages universal? Would we expect childhood mental development to occur in the same way in a society where people are middle-aged by 20 as they would in one where they aren’t middle aged until 35 or 40? Might the fact that kids in some societies are given more “adult” tasks at a young age affect their mental development?

Of course, another issue comes up about the formal operational stage…Kohlberg and Gilligan (1971, “The Adolescent as Philosopher,” Daedalus, p. 1051-1086) estimated that about 30% of people in the U.S. never actually develop advanced abstract reasoning skills. I will make no further comment on that.

Gwen Sharp is an associate professor of sociology at Nevada State College. You can follow her on Twitter at @gwensharpnv.


Tarte is a products sold by Sephora, which has a whole line of “naturally gorgeous” brands:


Naturally gorgeous could mean two things, I suppose:

1.  You are gorgeous without make-up.

LOL… moving on:

2.  Our make-up is natural.

This is what Sephora means.  But if you use their “naturally gorgeous” products, will your gorgeous be natural?  Not necessarily.  As Audrey at Triple Pundit points out, the USDA does not regulate cosmetics, and neither does any other governmental agency.  They can apply the word “natural” to any product because no entity ensures that the word actually means anything.

Audrey continues:

According to their website, their natural products are “formulated with high concentrations of plant-based and naturally-derived ingredients, and fewer to no parabens, sodium lauryl sulfate, phthalates, petrochemicals, and synthetic fragrances or dyes.” And the products in their organic section contain over 70% organic ingredients.

So Sephora says they’re natural.  The Environmental Working Group however, an organization with a wholly different agenda, says that products that Sephora labels natural–such as Tarte, Caudalie, Decleor, and Korres Natural Products–present a moderate to high toxin hazard.

I think this is a really nice example of how difficult it can be to figure out what’s true.  First, language is tricky and it’s used to trick us.  Second, we can’t trust corporations (we just can’t).  They say that they have our best interests in mind, but they do not.  Third, other entities also have agendas.  The Environmental Working Group is a non-profit organization, but it too has an agenda.  Audrey points out that if there is a make-up that doesn’t get labeled as toxic by the Environmental Working Group, she has yet to figure out what it is.

So how do we know?  More problematically, how do we know when there is a question like this to be asked of every single product and service we could buy?  Because even if we had time to do the real research to figure out the answer to the cosmetics question, no one has time to do the research to figure out the answers to all the questions.  And while there are website designed to tell you the answers (like the Environmental Working Group or this one on eco-labels), we still have to look more closely at them in order to know whether their answers are good.  So the work in finding the truth isn’t alleviated, it’s just one step removed.

See also this post on the framing of genetically-modified food by activists and this post on what “organic” looks like.

(Image via.)


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

The new National Review depicts Supreme Court nominee Sotomayor as a Buddha:


Many commentators have criticized the cover for using racial stereotypes.   They write as if the people at the National Review are ignorant (e.g., can’t tell the different between different races).   But it’s not an accident, it’s a purposefully racist joke.  Of all the commentary I’ve seen so far, Neil Sinhababu said it the most clearly (via):

…the joke actually depends on incongruities between the stereotypes of the nonwhite ethnicities involved. The Buddha-like pose and Asian features are tied to lofty pretensions of sagelike wisdom. And what sort of person is it who’s pretending to be some kind of sage? A Hispanic woman! As if.

The in-joke in this cover is for people who have already internalized a stereotype of Hispanic women as hotheaded and not that bright. Put one of them in the Buddha suit, and if you’ve absorbed the right racist stereotypes, the incongruity is hilarious.

I think the larger story here is not that the cover is racist, but that race-based criticism is fair game in contemporary U.S. politics.  The last election should have made this abundantly clear (see here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, and herefor examples).


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

Inspired by a recent post about a T-shirt where an Asian stereotype was saying I SPEAK ENGRISH, I thought of the perennial online popularity of “Engrish” in general., one of the oldest such compendia on the Web, offers a selection of photos from clothing, packaging, menus, signs, etc., largely from Asian companies. All of these photos have been collected for their supposed humor value because they contain text poorly translated into English, English text that seems incongruous with whatever it’s describing, and/or place names that sound taboo in English. Examples below the cut [some taken from the Adult Engrish section and thus possibly NSFW].  more...

Francisco (from GenderKid) sent in a cartoon that questions the benefits of the One Laptop per Child program, which aims to give a simple version of a laptop with internet access to kids in less-developed nations, and also Alabama (available at World’s Fair):

From the OLPC program’s website:

Most of the more than one billion children in the emerging world don’t have access to adequate education. The XO laptop is our answer to this crisis—and after nearly two years, we know it’s working. Almost everywhere the XO goes, school attendance increases dramatically as the children begin to open their minds and explore their own potential. One by one, a new generation is emerging with the power to change the world.

There are a number of interesting elements you might bring up here, such whether introducing laptops is necessarily the best method to improve education wordwide, or who decided that this was an important need of children in these regions (my guess is the MIT team behind OLPC didn’t go to communities and do surveys asking what local citizens would most like to see for their educational system). I recently heard a story about OLPC on NPR, and while there seemed to be benefits in some Peruvian communities, in others the teachers spent so much time trying to figure out how to use the machines to teach subjects, without really feeling comfortable with them, that almost nothing was accomplished during the day. But once the laptops were introduced, they overtook the classroom; teachers were pressured by the Peruvian government to use the laptops in almost every lesson, even if it slowed them down or it wasn’t clear that students were benefiting from them. Another problem was that, though the laptops are built to be very strong and difficult to break, on occasion of course one will break. Families must pay to repair or replace them, which of course most can’t do, meaning kids with broken laptops had to sit and watch while other kids used theirs in class.

Benjamin Cohen uses the OLPC in an engineering class and brings up  concerns about…

technological determinism — [the idea] that a given technology will lead to the same outcome, no matter where it is introduced, how it is introduced, or when. The outcomes, on this impoverished view of the relationship between technology and society, are predetermined by the physical technology. (This view also assumes that what one means by “technology” is only the physical hunk of material sitting there, as opposed to including its constitutive organizational, values, and knowledge elements.) In the case of OLPC, the project assumes equal global cultural values & regional attributes. It also assumes common introduction, maintenance, educational (as in learning styles and habits), and image values everywhere in the world. Furthermore, it lives in a historical vacuum assuming that there is no history in the so-called “developing world” for shiny, fancy things from the West dropped in, The-Gods-Must-Be-Crazy style, from the sky.

How could the same laptop have the same meaning and value in, say, Nigeria and Indonesia, Papua New Guinea and Alabama, Malawi and Mongolia?

These critiques aren’t to say there is no value in OLPC, but that there are some clear questions about whether this is the most effective way to improve education in impoverished or isolated communities and what its consequences are. I doubt the OLPC creators meant for teachers to face government pressure to use the laptops for every lesson, no matter what, but that’s what has happened in at least some areas.

Another problem the NPR story highlighted was that the kids they reported about in Peru live in areas where there are absolutely no jobs available to capitalize on their tech skills, nor any reason to believe there will be any time soon. The government is pushing laptops in education, but without any economic development program to bring jobs to the regions to take advantage of these educated students. So the question is, after you get your laptop, you learn how to use it, you graduate…then what? Will the laptops spur more brain drain and out-migration? Is this necessarily good? Are countries like Peru using the laptop program as a quick, flashy substitute for the more boring, difficult, challenging process of economic development and job creation? As an educator, I’m thrilled with the idea of valuing learning and knowledge for its own sake, but on a more practical level, these questions seem like important ones.

Thanks, Francisco!

UPDATE: In a comment, Sid says,

…there’s kind of a vaguely imperialistic nostalgia in the first image of “Darkest Africa” as a simpler, more wholesome place where kids still play together in front of the hut and there’s a sense of community that you just don’t get in the modern world and blahdee blahdee blah.   The entire thing kind of smacks of a enterprise…

Gwen Sharp is an associate professor of sociology at Nevada State College. You can follow her on Twitter at @gwensharpnv.

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about how certain characteristics–like intelligence, artistic talent, and athleticism–are often understood to be inborn, innate, or natural.  If intelligence, for example, is believed to be inborn, the idea that people can nurture their intelligence and get smarter can get lost.  In which case, it might seem to be a fool’s errand to work to become better at things in which we don’t believe we are naturally gifted.  What potential could we collectively tap if we believed, instead, that the intelligence, artistic talent, and athleticism in each of us could be grown through effort?

I was reminded of these thoughts by this Nike commercial called “Fate” (found here).  Comments after the video:

This commercial posits that LaDainian Tomlinson and Troy Polamalu were born to play football.  Such a narrative erases all of the incredibly hard physical and mental work that Polamalu and Tomlinson no doubt put in over their lives, at the same time that it discourages anyone who does not believe that “fate” has been so kind from trying to develop their own athletic ability.

Miguel pointed out that collected a list of “worst male-bashing ads,” all of which represent men as morons or useless oafs. Here are some of them:

1st for Women, a South African auto insurance company that only insures women:

A Domino’s ad in which the wife laughs at her husband’s sexual overtures:

A Sony Cyber-shot ad that depicts men as a horse’s ass (it’s the first clip; for some reason there are some FedEx clips afterward):

Men as easily manipulated by flirty women:

These might be useful for a discussion of masculinity and portrayals of men as idiots and morons, especially regarding family life, which serves to reinforce the idea that men can’t be trusted to cook or clean or care for children because they’ll just mess it up. Although it doesn’t come up in these ads, it’s also good to bring in the class element we see in shows like “King of Queens,” “The Simpsons,” “According to Jim,” and “Married with Children,” which all have working-class, generally pot-bellied idiot husbands married to smart, gorgeous women who sigh and put up with their childish behavior.

Also see the earlier post of a Roomba ad that portrays the husband as a literal ass (this ad also made it into the AskMen list).

Thanks, Miguel!

Gwen Sharp is an associate professor of sociology at Nevada State College. You can follow her on Twitter at @gwensharpnv.