war/military: terrorism

One way to study social problems is to take a social constructionist approach.  This approach suggests that the degree to which a social problem is perceived as problematic, as well as the kind of problem it is understood to be, is a function of social interaction.  For example, many Americans consider drunk driving to be a very bad thing and a serious threat.  Drunk driving is not only embarrassing, it is punishable by law, and a conviction could result in social opprobrium.  It wasn’t always that way, and it still isn’t all that stigmatized in some parts of the U.S. and, of course, elsewhere.

So, social problems aren’t immediately obvious, but need to be interpreted and presented to us.  And, of course, some people have more power to deliver a message to the public than others.

Artist Susannah Hertrich developed this graphic (via) designed to bring to consciousness the difference between the likelihood of harm from certain threats and public outrage:


I am unsure as to how she measured both “public outrage” and “actual hazard” but, giving her the benefit of the doubt and assuming that this information is based on some reasonable systematic measurement, the image nicely draws our attention to how some social problems can receive a disproportionate amount of outrage, contributing to their social construction as significant or insignificant social problems (or, alternatively, their social construction as public problems for which outrage is appropriate and useful, versus private problems that have no public policy dimensions).

So, for example, heat is seen as relatively harmless even though, as Eric Klinenberg shows in his book Heat Wave: A Social Autopsy of Disaster in Chicago, it kills many, many people every year and is severely exacerbated by social policies both directly and indirectly related to weather.  But the people who die from heat, and those who love them, tend to be relatively powerless members of our society: usually the elderly poor.

Conversely, the threat of terrorism attracts a great deal of public outrage, but is not a significant threat to our individual well-being.  Still, certain members of our society with an ease of access to the media and authoritative roles in our society (mostly politicians and pundits) can raise our fears of terrorism to disproportionate levels.

Similarly, bird flu makes for a fun story (as all gruesome health scandals can) and gun crime feeds “mainstream” fears of the “underclasses” (often perceived as black and brown men).  Both make for good media stories.  Less so, perhaps, pedestrian accidents.


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

In this ad American Freedom Center at Valley Forge asks for donations to support the fight against terrorism:


Via Vintage Ads.

In her book, The Averaged Americans, Sarah Igo talks about the development of statistical methods.  Their development allowed for the emergence of the idea of an “average American.”  An idea that carried moral weight; “average” was “good.” 

Looking at the famous “Middletown” study, the Kinsey Reports, and the invention of polling, she discusses how methods aimed at identifying the average Amerian often reproduced preconceived notions of who was a real American.  In the Middletown study, Blacks were ignored because the researchers decided they didn’t count as average Americans.  Similarly, polling methodology is aimed at getting a representative sample, but representative of who?  Deciding who is being over- or under-represented in a sampling strategy is always a choice.

The invention of the “average American” as an idea is interesting in light of the McCain/Palin rhetoric about “main street” and “real America” and the way in which being a “typical” American is being framed as morally good (image from Stuff White People Do)


As with Middletown, the idea of the average American used by McCain/Palin is still racially-coded.  We Are Respectable Negroes lists 69 terms–including “regular folks,” “responsible Americans,” and “good hard-working people”–used by speakers in this election to mean middle-class white person.  Here are Palin’s words:

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Which brings me to Joe the Plumber.  Joe the Plumber, of course, is supposed to represent an “average” American.  But every in-group needs an out-group and, like all incarnations of the average, Joe has to be differentiated from the extremes, the non-average, the tails of the distribution: the blacks, the traitors, the poor, the Muslims, etc.  Here he is making exactly such an argument about Obama:

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Indeed, convincing us that Obama is Other has been a central part of the McCain/Palin strategy (see here, here, a here, a here, here, here, here).

This is why Gwen was pessimistic about the New Yorker cover.  Another product sold at the Texas Republican Convention:

Also sold at the Texas Republican Convention: If Obama is President… Will We Still Call it the Whitehouse?

Found here via Copyranter.

In case you haven’t seen the FOX News commentary in which the host suggests that a fist bump between Obama and his wife is a secret terrorist signal, you can see it here.  (And I thought this was bad.)

Here’s an image of the infamous terrorist signal:


NEW! It’s not an image, but Patrice Evans has an interesting essay on the “fist bump heard ’round the world,” arguing we should celebrate National Fist Bump Day.

In case you hadn’t seen it already, this is the ad that is causing all the hullabaloo about Rachel Ray and Dunkin’ Donuts being in bed with Muslim terrorists (via lawgeek):

The incident might be useful in illustrating the social construction of social problems, moral panic, and racial politics after 911.