For the last week of December, we’re re-posting some of our favorite posts from 2011.


The US economy faces a number of challenges—among them a lack of job creation and an ever-growing trade deficit. Many policy-makers believe that encouraging business innovation is the best response to these particular challenges. Sounds plausible but experience suggests otherwise.

The best example of why simply encouraging business innovation is not the answer for our employment and trade problems is Apple and its iPhone.

The iPhone was introduced in 2007 and has been incredible successful.  U.S. sales soared from 3 million units in 2007 to over 11 million in 2009.  Global sales topped 25 million in 2009.

While the iPhone is designed and marketed by Apple, almost all the phone’s components are produced by foreign companies operating outside the United States.  These components are then shipped to China where Foxconn, a Taiwanese company, oversees their assembly and their export to the United States and other countries.  As a result, the iPhone generates few jobs in the United States.

Two economists, in an Asian Development Bank working paper, examined the iPhone 3G production process in some detail.  The table below, taken from their study, highlights the main suppliers and the costs of the components they produce for a single phone.  Most of the components are supplied by Japanese, South Korean and German firms, although there are also some U.S. suppliers (although who knows where they actually produce their compnents).

The total component cost of an iPhone in 2009 was $172.46.    Workers in China assemble the iPhone, but because their wages are low the assembly cost per phone (labeled manufacturing costs in the table below) is quite small, only $6.50 a phone.  The total production cost per phone is $178.96.


Because the iPhone is assembled in China all sales in the U.S. mean an increase in Chinese exports (even though the phone is largely composed of inputs produced outside of China) and an increase in U.S. imports.  In 2009, China exported more than $2 billion worth of iPhones to the United States.  Thus, the iPhone, because of the Apple’s production strategy, also adds to the U.S. trade deficit.

Apple is not alone in embracing China as its production base.  China is now the world’s largest exporter of manufactured goods. And, as the chart below shows, the share of Chinese exports that are labled high technology is growing.  This trend has encouraged many analysts to claim that the U.S. is now locked in fierce economic competition with China.


However, as we see next, more than 80% of China’s high technology exports are actually produced by foreign companies operating in China.  Moreover, these foreign companies have significantly increased their control over this production.  In 2002 foreign owned firms that were 100% foreign owned (which means that they had no Chinese partner) accounted for only 55% of Chinese high technology exports.  In 2009 they accounted for 68%.


Why do so many transnational corporations choose to locate production in China?  The answer is obvious: profits. Apple again serves as a good example.  The table below, taken from the Asian Development Bank working paper cited above, shows Apple’s profit-margin on the iPhone.  In 2009 it was a whopping big 64%.


Struck by the size of Apple’s profit-margin, the authors of the Asian Development working paper considered whether the iPhone could reasonably be made in the United States.  As they note:

The role of the PRC in the production chain of iPhones is primarily the assembly of all parts and components into the final product for re-shipment abroad. The skills and equipment required for the assembly are very basic and there is no doubt that American workers and firms are capable of assembling iPhones in the US. If all iPhones were assembled in the US, the US$1.9 billion trade deficit in iPhone trade with PRC would not exist. Moreover, 11.4 million units of iPhone sold in the non-US market in 2009 would add US$5.7 billion to US exports.

For the sake of discussion, they assumed that assembly line wages in the U.S. are ten times higher than in China.   Given that Chinese production workers earn roughly $1 an hour, that is not an unreasonable assumption.  The higher wages would mean that the total assembly cost per phone would rsie to $65 and the total manufacturing cost would approach $238.  If Apple continued to sell the iPhone for $500, the company would still earn a very respectable 50% profit margin.

Moreover, as the authors point out:

In this hypothetical scenario, iPhones, the high-tech product invented by the U.S. company, would contribute to U.S. exports and the reduction of the U.S. trade deficit, not only with the PRC, but also with the rest of world. More importantly, Apple created jobs for U.S. low skilled workers; those who could not be the software engineers needed by Apple. Giving up a small portion of profits and sharing them with low skilled U.S. workers by Apple would be a more effective way [than depreciation of the exchange rate] to reduce the U.S. trade deficit and create jobs in the United States.

Of course, shifting production to the United States would mean that Apple would earn less money and there is little reason to believe that the company is prepared to sacrifice its profits for the good of the country.  If we want to tackle our employment and trade problems were are going to have to do more than promote more attractive conditions for business.


Cross-posted at Family Inequality.

There’s an interesting example of how to interpret scientific results — and draw policy implications from them — from the world of birth practices and safety.

The subject of the debate is a major new study from the British Medical Journal. The study followed more than 60,000 women in England with uncomplicated pregnancies, excluding those who had planned caesarean sections and caesarean sections before the start of labor. They compared the number of bad outcomes — from death to broken clavicles – for women depending on where they had their births.

One comparison stands out in the results. From the abstract: “For nulliparous women [those having their first birth], the odds of the primary outcome [that is, any of the negative events] were higher for planned home births” than among those planned for delivery in obstetric units. That is, the home births had higher rates of negative events. The difference is large. Here’s a figure to illustrate:

The error bars show 95% confidence intervals, so you can see the difference between home births and obstetric-unit births is statistically significant at that level. These are the raw comparisons, but the home-versus-obstetric comparison was unchanged when the analysts controlled for age, ethnicity, understanding of English, marital or partner status, body mass index, “deprivation score,” previous pregnancies, and weeks of gestation. Further, by restricting the comparison to uncomplicated pregnancies and excluded all but last-minute c-sections, it seems to be a very strong result.

But what to make of it?

In their conclusion, the authors write:

Our results support a policy of offering healthy nulliparous and multiparous women with low risk pregnancies a choice of birth setting. Adverse perinatal outcomes are uncommon in all settings, while interventions during labour and birth are much less common for births planned in non-obstetric unit settings. For nulliparous women, there is some evidence that planning birth at home is associated with a higher risk of an adverse perinatal outcome.

But in what way do the results “support a policy”? The “higher risks” they found for planned home births are still “uncommon,” by comparison, with those in poor countries, for example. But the home birth risk is 2.7-times greater.

The Skeptical OB, who is a reliable proponent of modern medical births, titled her post, “It’s official: homebirth increases the risk of death.” She added some tables from the supplemental material, showing the type of negative events and conditions that occurred. Her conclusion:

“In other words, any way you choose to look at it, no matter how carefully you slice and dice the data, there is simply no getting around the fact that homebirth increases the risk of perinatal death and brain damage.”

I guess the policy options might include include whether home births should be encouraged, more regulated, covered by public and/or private health insurance, banned, penalized or (further) stigmatized.

Home birth seems safer than letting children ride around unrestrained in the back of pickup trucks, which is legal in North Carolina – as long as they’re engaged in agricultural labor. On the other hand, we have helmet laws for kids on bicycles in many places. And if a child is injured in either situation, hopefully an ambulance would take them to the hospital even if the accident were preventable.

In other words, I don’t think policy questions can be resolved by a comparison of risks, however rigorous.

Cross-posted at Family Inequality.

Let’s just stipulate that using a personal electronic device while driving increases the risk of an accident and should be avoided.

Let me just make sure I have the rest of the facts straight.

1.  The total number of traffic deaths is at its lowest level since 1949, even as the population, number of vehicles, and number of miles driven have all increased radically.

2.  The number of mobile phone subscribers has increased more than 1,000% since the early 1990s.

3.  “Distraction-affected” crashes accounted for less than 10% of traffic fatalities in 2010.

4.  Deaths attributed to drivers age 17 and younger have fallen by about half since 1990.

5.  The National Transportation Safety Board “is recommending that states prohibit all drivers from using cellphones, for talking or texting.”

Here’s a visual on some of the trends, in one figure:

Pay no attention to the man behind the curtain. Here are my previous posts on this.


Sources: National Highway Traffic Safety Administration: 2009-2010 deathsdeaths trends;  Federal Communications Commission: phone trends; CTIA: 2009 phone subscriptions.


The clothier H&M is in the news this week and Craita, Ann C., and Marjukka O. all sent in links to the story.  It turns out that they are using a mannequin to display their clothes. Nothing new here.  Except that the mannequins are appearing on their website (instead of their brick-and-mortar stores) and they are photoshopping heads of real models onto the figure and changing the skin color, giving it the illusion of being a real person.

The practice is getting plenty of vaguely negative press (ABC, FOX, Guardian, Jezebel). The critique seems to be that the use of a “virtual mannequin” creates even more unrealistic bodily expectations for women than the use of “real” models (with “real” in quotes because of the degree of photoshopping that goes into creating any images of women that appear in fashion-related advertising).

To be honest, I’m having a hard  time feeling that this is either qualitatively or quantitatively different than the range of techniques used to produce impossibly idealized bodies (including photoshopping images, using mannequins in stores, using models with unusual body types, and requiring those women to exercise and diet their bodies to achieve an extreme look even given their biologies).  (In fact, Nadya Lev at Coilhouse has a positive spin on it.)

What is more interesting, in my opinion, is the way this illustrates the deskilling of labor. Models no longer have to have just the right body, nor do they have to be good at modeling (e.g., posing in ways that flatter clothes while simultaneously looking natural, not to mention the endurance and emotion work).  No, instead, modeling is reduced to a pretty face that can be nicely composed.  Everything else is done digitally.

Those in the modeling industry, then, don’t see this as an insult to women everywhere, they see it as an insult to models specifically.  FOX quotes Michael Flutie of E!’s model search show “Scouted” saying:

It is disrespectful and lazy. It is the job of the brand to properly scout for their models and find those that represent their brand in every aspect. They need to take the responsibility of looking deep into the model pool to find the right people instead of digitally creating what they need…

If this continues, models may face the same deteriorating working conditions that factory workers and many other segments of the U.S. workforce have faced: becoming increasingly obsolete.

For more on modeling, see our posts on the invisibility of labor in modeling, the dismal pay in the modeling industry, the fraudulent “model search,” and the contrasting aesthetics for “high” and “low end” modeling (all based on the work of ex-model, now-sociologist, Ashley Mears).

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.

Kathy H. sent in a link to a story about a start-up in Los Angeles, Scopely, that’s trying to use humor to compete with the budgets of bigger companies.  Their aim is to hire engineers who are willing to trade a higher salary to get in on the ground floor of a promising, but nascent endeavor.  How are they doing it?  By promising silly signing-prizes, like $11,000 wrapped in bacon.  Cute, right?  But in their creative planning, they forgot that women exist. Here’s their list of bonuses:

Cigars and beer are masculinized items, but tuxedos, cologne, and beard grooming oil are actually for men.  Maybe the spear gun is for women?   They do, to be fair, show a pair of breasts operating it.

Maybe if Scopely recognized the other half of the population, they wouldn’t have to try so hard to find employees.

UPDATE: A reader, who also happens to be a female engineer, noticed that Scopely throws in another sexist (and this time heterocentrist) LOL on its job application form, where it prompts applicants to put in their girlfriend’s phone number if they’re confident (and, yes, this could include lesbians, but I don’t think that’s what they were going for):

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 now have evidence that media coverage of the Occupy Movement has increased after each clash with police.  Many of these clashes have resulted in photographs and videos that appear to show police acting violently against peaceful protesters.  To many this is an unjustified use of force by the government, one that makes the state look like the bad guy and the movement look like the good guy.

This very process — media coverage of peaceful activism and violent backlash by the state — contributed to the success of the Civil Rights Movement.  And it couldn’t have happened before TV.

In 1950, only 9% of homes had a TV.  One year later, 24% of homes did.  And by 1963, when Martin Luther King told the world his dream, 91% of America could have tuned in.


The media frequently covered the protests positively, while the backlash was undeniably horrific.  So Americans sitting at home watching the TV could be simultaneously inspired by the activists and horrified by the establishment.  In the two videos below we see both sides of this coin.  In the first, a newscaster introduces and contextualizes the March on Washington before King begins his famous speech; in the second, we see news footage of a violent police attack on peaceful protesters in Selma, Alabama (trigger warning, also known as “Bloody Sunday”).

Television coverage of King’s speech:

Television coverage of the attack in Selma (trigger warning):

Ultimately, the success of the Civil Rights Movement must be credited to the people who gave their energy, heart, time, and lives to it. The invention of the television, though, and its introduction to so many homes at just the right moment in history, had an interesting role to play as well.

With this history in mind, it seems likely that aggressive responses to peaceful protests will likely raise support for Occupy.  And, with digital cameras, smart phones, youtube, facebook, twitter, and the like… the role of the media may be more important than ever.

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 Cyborgology.The Human Microphone was created by Occupy Wall Street as a way to get around New York City’s ban on amplified sound in Zuccotti Park. In other words, it is a tool–and a form of non-digital technology–designed to facilitate communication and discussion in large crowds. But like any form of technology, its use isn’t confined to what it was originally created to do.

This is Karl Rove being “mic-checked” while delivering a speech at Johns Hopkins on November 14th. It starts about 1:48 in (be aware, there’s a huge jump in volume at that point).

The evolution of the techniques and technologies used by activists — their “repertoires of contention”, in the words of Charles Tilly — is a feature of any social movement. Clearly that’s happening to the Human Microphone now: what was a tool of communication is now also a tool for directed and targeted protest. Communication is still a huge part of this; it can’t not be, given that one grievance common to many members of the Occupy movement is a perceived lack of “voice” in politics. Communication, in this instance, is protest. And the technology and the protest itself are fundamentally intertwined.

This also stands against the fallacy that technology itself is neutral: in its very design the Human Microphone is imbued with the ideology of its makers — especially given that its components are actual human voices, used with intent and consent. It might be used for any number of things, but it is inseparable from the people who created it and the people who bring it into being every time it’s used.

It will be interesting to see if President Obama and his as-yet undecided GOP opponent find themselves mic-checked on the campaign trail next year.


Sarah Wanenchak is a PhD student at the University of Maryland, College Park. Her current research focuses on contentious politics and communications technology in a global context. She has also done work on the place of culture in combat and warfare, including the role of video games in modern war and meaning-making. More generally, she has long been interested in narrative and storytelling, and how stories work to shape wider social discourses. She is an occasional blogger at Cyborgology.

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

I like this post. And it’s the two-year anniversary of Bruce Snowdon’s death. So, here’s my toast to the last sideshow fat man.

He’s so big and so fat it takes four girls to hug him and a box car to lug him.  When he dances you’ll swear he must be full of jelly, cause jam don’t shake that way.  And you know girls!  He is single and lookin’ for a wife, he’ll make some lucky girl a fine husband, why he’s so big and fat, he’ll provide you with a lot of shade in the summertime, keep you nice and warm in the winter time and give you lots of good heavy lovin’ all of the time!

— Carnival Spiel by Ward Hall

On Nov. 9th 2009, Harold Huge, a man billed as the very last sideshow fat man, died.  He weighed 607 pounds or so.

Harold’s real name was Bruce Snowdon.  He had degrees in paleontology, anthropology and chemistry. In 1977, he found himself bored with his work and stumbled across the idea of being a Fat Man:

I had put on a lot of weight between the time I was 20 and 25. I was up to about 450 in those days. I went to the local library, and I was poking through some old circus books and I see this one picture about a sideshow, maybe circa 1905, and I’m looking at this fat man and I’m saying to myself, “He can’t weigh more than 350 pounds.”

Now, I ask myself, how the hell would I go about getting into a sideshow? I’d never even seen a sideshow in my lifetime. In the late ’70s the industry was a very pale ghost of its former self. Instead of thousands, there were maybe dozens left then. So I figured, logically, there’s got to be some sort of trade journal for the carnival industry. It’s Amusement Business. And I’m looking through the AB. Taking a lucky stab, I wrote the editor, Tom Powell. And Tom Powell happens to be a very good friend of Ward Hall. Bingo. I had the job.


In an interview with James Taylor (from which the above quote is also taken), Snowden explained:

I don’t mind being enormously fat… I come from a long line of fat people. My old man tortured himself for 40 years going from 200 to 300 [pounds] and back again. He eventually lost the weight, but he also lost his mind.

Snowdon played Harold Huge for 26 years.  The year of his retirement, in 2003, he played himself in the movie, Big Fish:

So the sociological question I would like to pose is: Why is Snowdon the last fat man?

Marc Hartzman suggests that fat men and woman became less of a curiosity because “waistlines expanded and obesity became less of a laughing matter.  As the years went by, spotting a man who weighed more than quarter of a ton was not that unusual…”  So there’s two  hypotheses: (1) we see fat people everywhere and so it’s no longer a curiosity and (2) obesity has become a very serious matter, not to be played with at sideshows or elsewhere.

Another hypothesis might involve (3) a growing distaste for objectifying and dehumanizing those who are unusual.   As the human rights era evolves, we increasingly embrace difference and promote tolerance.

(4) Perhaps sideshows themselves are simply out-of-fashion, a drab alternative to Avatar in 3D or a Wii.  Or, (5) maybe the internet has made all curiosity easier to quench.  With a click of the button, we can see DD breasts, thalidomide babies, and cats playing the piano… who needs a sideshow?

I can think of reasons to endorse and reject all of these hypotheses.

So, in honor of Snowdon’s 26 years of service and delightful sense of humor (“If there’s a bitchy type of human being, it’s somebody on a diet”), let’s speculate.

Sources: Sideshow World, AOL News, Shocked and Amazed, Randall Levenson photography, and Shapely Prose.

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.