Photograph by: Red Huber , Orlando Sentinel/MCT

The Trayvon Martin case has become a national media event complete with competing individual evaluations, competing definitions of racism and competing blame narratives.  In these “racial events,” Americans propensity for individualistic analysis coalesces with America’s racialized culture in order to produce a mix of individual evaluations and sweeping claims about racial groups and the institutional privileges and disadvantages of different racial groups.  In my experience, this process reinforces many of the flawed ideas about race that sociologists regularly debunk and challenge. more...

I’ve read a lot about the shocking revelation that a former coach at Penn State allegedly molested up to 8 boys and raped at least one.  The story is all the more shocking given the grand jury testimony that points to a possible cover up by Penn State officials.  Indeed, media coverage of who knew what and when has almost eclipsed coverage of the original alleged crimes.  Two Penn State administrators were charged with perjury and amid the outrage the University board fired the University President and long-time football coach Joe Paterno.

Like every scandal or tragedy, news reporters have called this a teachable moment.  Here I want to consider how such a case is teachable for sociologists.  I am somewhat hesitant about these kinds of events.  After all, one case does not make a social trend or constitute the kind of empirical evidence from which sociologists make claims about society.  In addition, social claims do not automatically predict or explain single incidents.  Indeed, I consistently remind students that to make such assumptions is a misuse of sociology.  So, after spending the semester explaining the sociological imagination how can I use a single case as a teachable moment? more...

Most states define “failing schools” as those with a certain percentage of students scoring below grade level on state tests.  In other words, a failing school is a school with a large percentage of failing students.  However, since no politician would define the problem as “failing children,” the debate centers around “who is failing these students and why is that failure concentrated in certain schools?” more...

In the last presidential election, “hope” that Washington could be a less partisan and ultimately a less corrupt and more transparent place, coupled with a longing for “change,” propelled Obama into office. That, and an intense disappointment with the previous administration. However, the economic meltdown and the generally painful economic situation for a large number of Americans has lead even many Obama supporters to question whether anything is actually different and whether our president can be pragmatic and effectual in difficult times. This had lead, for instance, one woman at the recent CNBC question and answer session with the President to say: “Quite frankly, I’m exhausted….defending the mantle of change I voted for.” She, in fact, rattled off a list of exhaustion, including how unpleasant life is for many “middle class” Americans today. Most are in historically unheard of debt, even if they don’t have college loans (but if they do, it’s even worse), many are losing their houses, some are reportedly even resorting to food banks because they simply can’t make ends meet. And this is in the middle class.

This CNBC press conference, largely because the audience consisted of Obama supporters, calls into question what those who voted for Obama are feeling about the economic situation. Who do you blame when things are bad if you voted for the person in charge? And, if I’m unemployed, caring about hope and change may not only be irrelevant now, but it may anger me that those were the more intangible values upon which I based my feelings in the last campaign. Not wanting to direct my feelings of frustration at myself, the party I voted for and the politicians I had a hand in electing will surely bear the brunt of my anger. Social psychological studies inform us that we are more likely to attribute blame to others or external forces for bad consequences and think of ourselves as having a role in the ones that prove to be useful or have a positive outcome in some way. So, I might feel good about the Democrats’ role in health care reform and feel as though my vote had something to do with it, but when it comes to the economy, the death of soldiers in two wars, etc., I might instead blame the administration and likely the President as the figurehead. And, what does this mean for the the 2012 political season? Frustrations are high and people don’t want to blame themselves, so they blame the administration (and that’s the Democratic supporters!). Looking forward to the next election, I have to wonder if there’s any way for the democrats and the President to escape this blame game unscathed.

Disappointed Supporters Question Obama

Attribution Theory

vote hereBy Dena T. Smith

In elections, we determine who to vote for via a number of factors: party affiliation, the economy, the character of the candidate, advertising, etc. It’s a complicated process. One key force in determining the outcome of elections is who is attributed responsibility for both the pitfalls and promise of a given state of the nation, state, city or even district.   The process of attribution, generally explored by social psychologists, and usually used to describe blame for negative events, plays a key role in our voting practices, especially where incumbents are concerned. For instance, the incumbent party is less likely to maintain dominance when the economy is bad because constituents are likely to blame said faction for economic woes. The heated races in Virginia, New Jersey and upstate New York taking place today will, in their aftermath, be prime examples of attributing blame to candidates based on the party that is nationally dominant. President Obama’s campaigning for Jon Corzine is no coincidence in a year where democrats desperately want to maintain their majority, but fear that people will attribute the blame for the still sluggish economy to the party itself. Democrats are likely also concerned that things like the lack of movement on health care and the increasing disappointment with how the war in Afghanistan is being handled may even cause some conservative democrats to vote against the party – to attribute the blame for these situations to the various Democratic Candidates running today, even though they have had nothing to do with these decisions. Finally, attribution, in this case, might work in the opposite direction; if democrats lose offices today, those losses will likely be attributed to failures of the Obama administration, thereby assigning blame to the President for a loss of faith in democratic leadership.  Conservatives are hoping that voters blame Democrats for such things as the high rate of unemployment and that this attribution will lead them to regain a little bit of the power lost in January.



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Member of the World Economics Association – promoting ethics, openness, diversity of thought and democracy within the economics profession

scale-feetBy Dena T. Smith

Part of MSNBC’s lineup includes an hour-long daytime show hosted by the physician, Dr. Nancy. In a segment of her show on Monday, August 31st, she hosted a panel to address the “war on fat people.” Panel members discussed topics such as the etiology of obesity and how the obese are treated in the US. Articles of a similar nature have appeared elsewhere, including the one below, which was featured in a recent edition of Newsweek. Overweight Americans have long been a target of criticism and mockery and even as other behaviors, addictions and illnesses have been at least partly de-stigmatized, obesity seems to be left in the cold. In other words, the discussion surrounding obesity has a similar tone to debates over other conditions and/or illnesses that are under scrutiny both in American society and globally. The tension is about the attribution of blame and the pendulum swings back and forth between personal responsibility and genetic predisposition. Who or what do we blame for obesity, depression, diabetes, addiction, etc.? How do we assign responsibility for the existence of illnesses when there is evidence that biology and lifestyle, environment, culture and elements of the social structure of a society impact said condition? Of late, most mental illness (both “milder” afflictions such as depression and anxiety as well as more severely impairing conditions like schizophrenia), and physical illness are attributed to problems in biology or chemical imbalances.  However, when it comes to obesity, Americans are quite reluctant to accept the biological blame game and this is highly consequential for the way in which overweight individuals are seen and understand themselves and their experiences.