Archive for the Sociology in Focus Category

Men & Clothes Age, but Women Stay Forever Young

this post was originally published at Sociology In Focus on September 9, 2013.

In this post, Stephanie Medley-Rath explores how aging is portrayed in a fashion magazine to explore the norms of aging in popular culture. 

I picked up a copy of the August issue of Vogue at the newstand. This particular issue is “The Age Issue.” The cover proclaims: “Fall Looks for Everyone.”

I saw advertisements with Kate Winslet, Nicole Kidman, and Jennifer Aniston completely wrinkle-free. No surprise here, but disappointing, considering the issue’s theme is aging. I’m younger than all these women, yet I have more wrinkles than them. Of course, I have never found myself accurately reflected in the a fashion magazine.

Very quickly, I realized this issue of Vogue is not about growing old gracefully or even looking good at any age. The magazine was chock-full of advertising promising “younger looking skin in 15 minutes” or “fighting 7 signs of aging.” One advertisement was for some sort of serum that has “complete age control concentrate” on the packaging. Age control in a bottle. What? What does that even mean? The message I got from all of this is that the appearance of age can be controlled.

Shortly before reaching the mid-point of the magazine is an advertisement for cigarettes. Absent from the ad was any indication that smoking cigarettes causes wrinkles. For an editorial message completely bent on “controlling” aging, one would think that accepting advertising for a product that accelerates the appearance of aging would have been refused.

I read on (let’s be real, I skimmed). The writers of Vogue ask the tough questions:

  • “Can you wear grunge when your kids are wearing it” (p. 106)?
  • “Is traditional [plastic] surgery passé” (p. 120)?
  • “Is height loss inevitable as we age” (p. 134)?


That last question deserves a bit more attention. Importantly, one risk factor associated with stunted height, loss of bone density, and osteoporisis is smoking cigarettes. The cigarette company R.J. Reynolds has three full-page ads in this issue. While Vogue does mention the link between cigarettes and osteoporisis, it is hidden under the subheading of “Skip the Soda.” I’m sure this underemphasis on cigarette smoking is just an oversight on the part of Vogue’s editors and has nothing to do with the advertisers or the lack of medical credentials on the part of the writer, Jancee Dunn. Dunn is a former MTV2 VJ/host, without any medical or health background.

The most interesting feature in this “age” issue (note, “age” not “aging”) is the “All-Ages Show” fashion spread. The magazine labeled each spread for the age-appropriateness of the outfit: 20-something, 30-something, 40-something, 50-something, and 60-something.Vogue, however uses the same model for each layout! The only difference is the clothing. The 60-something is nearly covered from head to toe, while the 20-something wears significantly less clothing.

Looking one’s age is about the clothing one wears, not the biological processes of aging. Vogue consistently denies the biological facts of aging. In this world, women do not shrink, gray, or wrinkle as they age. Only the clothing changes.

Vogue reinforces the mainstream American value of youth over age. In fact, while the cover proclaims, “Fall Looks for Everyone,” the reality is that no one over a certain age can be found in this issue. And then, when older people are portrayed, they are made invisible through the substitution of a younger body (e.g., a young model dressed as a 60-something) or are only written about but not photographed (e.g., “Points of Pride,” which is about 50-year-old former hand model, Nancy Hass). Upon further investigation, the young model in the photo spread is barely 21-year-old, Karlie Kloss–just old enough to portray a 20-something.1 Though it might be tempting to brush this off as typical of a fashion magazine, a similar phenomenon exists in Hollywood. Kyle Buchanan at Vulture finds,leading men age, yet their love interests don’t.

Women, then, are not supposed to age beyond the clothing they wear. Men, on the otherhand, are free to gray and wrinkle.

Dig Deeper:

  1. Visit this link. View the slideshow of the “All-Ages Show.” There are ten photos. Specify which photo is illustrating clothing for a 20-something, 30-something, 40-something, 50-something, and a 60-something. I’ll give you a hint: three are 20-something, one is 30-something, three are 40-something, two are 50-something, and one is 60-something. Be prepared to provide a rationale for each categorization.
  2. Vogue uses the same model for each age category. What does this communicate about how age is valued in the United States? Do you agree with the author that youthfulness is valued over aging? Why or why not?
  3. Watch 30 minutes of TV (e.g., a sitcom, the local news, a reality show). Note the age of everyone portrayed in the show and also in the commercials that air during the show. How does the portrayal of age on TV vary compared to that described by the author? In class, work with 2-3 other students and discuss what you watched. How are your findings similar and different from one another? Why?
  4. There is a discipline that studies aging, called gerontology. Visit The Geronotological Society of America website to learn what geronotologists do. Summarize what a gerontologist does in 3-4 sentences.

1Kloss turned 21 on August 3, which means she was at most 20-years-old in the photographs!

Learning Demography with the Guess Who? Board Game

This post was originally published at Sociology in Focus on August 14, 2013. 

What can a board game teach us about demography and the U.S. population? In this post, Stephanie Medley-Rath explains how the board game Guess Who? fails to accurately reflect the U.S. population.

I realize that board games are supposed to be “fun” (at least that is what non-sociologists say), but as a sociologist, I feel the need to ruin everything.

My child was super-excited to find Guess Who? at the thrift shop last week. I recall this game existed when I was child, but I don’t recall ever playing it. So when we got home, my daughter immediately showed me how to play. My first observation about the game was that while it does a  semi-acceptable job of portraying racial diversity, it does an especially poor job at portarying gender or age as it actually exists in the United States.

As I examined the people on the board, I began thinking about how representative this board game is of America. While my daughter asked me if any of my people had “eyeballs looking to the side,” I was busy doing a census of the demographics portrayed on the board.

Here’s how race, gender and age demographics (or characteristics) are represented in the game:

  • White = 19 (79.17%)
  • Black = 5 (20.83%)
  • Men = 19 (79.17%)
  • Women = 5 (20.83%)
  • Elderly (or those who have gray hair) = 5 (20.83%)
  • Children = 0
  • Adults (18-65) =19 (79.17%)

Based on this board game, the typical American is a white man aged 18-65. Hmmm….sounds a lot like Hollywood. So how far off is Guess Who? from the American population?Let’s look at the actual percentages from the U.S. Census:

  • White = 77.9%
  • Black = 13.1%
  • Men = 49.2%
  • Women = 50.8%
  • Elderly (or those 65 or older) = 13.7%
  • Children = 23.5%
  • Adults (18-65) =62.8%

Analysis

Black men and women are overrepresented on the board game. White people are slightly overrepresented on the board game compared to their numbers in the U.S. population overall. The overrepresentation of black people on the board game is a result of the lack of other types of racial diversity. None of the people appear to be Asian American, Latino, Native American, or multiracial. Two of the spaces should be filled with these other groups.

Of the black people on the board, four are men and one is a woman. None are over age 65.

The same gender pattern found among black people on the board holds true regarding age. Four of those over age 65 are men and one is a woman. The Scientific American reports

  • Women outlive men by about five to six years. By age 85 there are roughly six women to every four men. At age 100 the ratio is more than two to one.

A more realistic portrayal would mean that three of the older Americans are women and two are men.

Speaking of gender, Guess Who? does an appalling job of representing men and women as they actually exist within the U.S.  To be representative on gender, the manufacturer would need to replace 7 men with women. Women are portrayed as a numerical minority, which they are not.

Dig Deeper:

  1. In your own words, explain what is meant by the term demography.
  2. A board game is just a board game, right? Why might a sociologist argue that board games do matter in how representative they are of the actual population?
  3. Now it’s your turn to ruin something. View a television show or movie, read a magazine, or play a different board game than I did. Find something with people in it and start counting. Create a table with the number of people in the item and make note of race, age, and gender. Compare your results to the U.S. Census. How close does your item come to being representative of the U.S. population?
  4. Visit the U.S. Census website. To the left and middle of the page, you will find QuickFacts. Select your state. How does your state’s demographics on age, race, and gender compare to the U.S. population? Does your state “look like” the nation? If not, how does it differ?

Watch Out NYC!: The Sociologists are Coming (to Share Research)

This post was originally published at Sociology in Focus on August 5, 2013. 

Sociologists are about to descend upon New York City for their annual professional conferences. In this post, Stephanie Medley-Rath explains that this ritual is just a step in the research process, that of sharing research. 

Remember back in junior high when you did a science fair project? You selected a topic, developed a hypothesis, did the experiment, prepared a poster, and presented your research to a small audience. Well, this week thousands of sociologists will visit New York City to do our version of a science fair: the annual sociology conferences, where we share our research.

Sharing our research is an important part of the research process. We share our research in a variety of ways, but the typical way of sharing research is through presenting our research at a professional conference, publishing in a peer-reviewed journal, or ideally both.

I first attended the American Sociological Association in 2002 as part of the Undergraduate Honors Program. It was beyond overwhelming! I attended by myself as an undergraduate and got my first experience of actually presenting research to other people interested in sociology. I presented my mediocre paper at the Undergraduate Honors Program Roundtables. I had no idea what a roundtable was! This certainly was not like the science fair I did in junior high, nor was it like anything I had even done in college. There were no posters. I did not have to stand up in front of the room. Instead I got to sit during my presentation. At a roundtable, papers are typically grouped by topic with 3-4 other papers. Each person takes a few minutes to present their research to the other presenters at her or his table and sometimes an occasional audience member. This was the first time I was able to share my “research” outside of the classroom.

I  also learned that this was the conference where many of the presentations would eventually find their way into peer-reviewed journals as articles. A conference presentation is an early stage of the peer-review process. The researcher presents his or her research to an audience (which could range to a packed room, to just a couple of people). The audience has a chance to ask the researcher questions to which the researcher can respond. This enables the researcher to go back and answer some of these questions before submitting the paper to a peer-reviewed journal.

So what is peer review? 

Peer review means that other scholars that are experts in the specialty area that your paper fits in review your paper to determine whether it is worth publishing or not. The reason other experts on your subject review your paper is because they know the literature on the topic. This means that they can assess whether you really are making an original contribution to the literature. They review your research to make sure it follows appropriate research methods.

These peer reviewers recommend to the editor of the journal whether the article should be published. One of the first things I learned in graduate school, was the the acronymn R&R. R&R does not mean “rest and relaxation.” We learned that you wanted an R&R, which stands for “revise and resubmit” (actually, you want acceptance the first time you submit your article, but those very rare). The realization that sharing your research is a process that takes time is reaffirmed with the knowledge of R&R.

A couple of years later, I had finished my master’s in sociology and began working on publishing a peer reviewed article based on my master’s thesis. I was fortunate to go through a Writing for Publication course while completing my doctorate and began learning what it really took to get something published in a peer reviewed journal. I exchanged papers with classmates and our professor for several revisions. At the end of the semester, my paper was ready to be submitted.

I aimed high. See, peer reviewed journals are also ranked in that some publications “count” more than others. (Despite studying stratification as part of our job, sociologists like to also reinforce hierarchies.) My paper was rejected. I did not get an R&R. It was upsetting, but even with a rejection, you still get feedback on your paper from experts. This feedback can be used to improve your paper. I took their feedback and revised my paper again and a few months later, it was submitted to a different, less prestigious journal. Instead of receiving an R&R, I received a conditional acceptance. A conditional acceptance meant I needed to go back and fix a couple of things and then it would be accepted for publication!

Have you kept up with my timeline thus far? I began my thesis research in 2003. My article was published in 2007. So, it took four years from the time the research project began to getting it published in a peer reviewed journal. The point is that research takes time. Doing the research project takes time, but sharing the research may take just as long or even longer. In the case of my MA thesis, it took longer to share my research than actual do the research, which begs the question as to why bother sharing your research at all?

Sharing research is in some ways, the most important part of the research process.  It allows you to become part of the larger conversation on your research area. Your research might change the way people think about a given topic or even how public policy is implemented around your topic. So the next time, your instructor asks you to present your own research project in front of class, realize that you are being asked to bring the research project full circle by sharing your results.

There are dozens of professional sociology associations. These are a few that are meeting this week and next in New York City.

And to all the sociologists who will be at any of these conferences, please look beyond someone’s name tag. You might be encountering a scared undergraduate who is overwhelmed, but thinks they want to do what you do when they eventually grow up.

Dig Deeper:

  1. How do sociologist share their research? Why do they share their research?
  2. Click onto one of the above links for the different professional sociology associations. What does the organization do? How long have they existed? Why did they form?
  3. What is your major? What is your intended career? Does that major or career have a professional organization (or several)? Find a website of a professional organization in your field to learn about what the organization does and report back to your class.
  4. What is peer review? Ask one of your professors about their personal experience with the peer review process. (Tell your professor that I said to be kind when answering you.)

 

On the Menu: Fried Cicadas, Hummus, and Guacamole

This post was originally published at Sociology In Focus on July 8, 2013.

Bugs. They’re what’s for dinner? The foods we eat are a product of our culture and as our world becomes more interconnected we have seen the delicacies of one culture spill over into another. In this post, Stephanie Medley-Rath defines this process as cultural diffusion and explains why she just might serve fried cicadas at her next dinner party.

A feature of culture is that it varies across time and space. Think about it. The clothing that you wear as a young adult probably looks a bit different than what your grandparents wore as a young adult. Food, like clothing, is a cultural artifact and what counts as food varies across time and space. Along with your clothing, the food you eat probably differs from the food people in other cultures eat and perhaps deviates from what your grandparents ate when they were your age. For example, I never ate guacamole until I was an adult and have since introduced it to my 90-something-year-old grandmother.

Today, guacamole is quite commonplace and no longer “exotic.” Hummus, is another example of a once “exocitc” food for Americans, yet is increasingly popular. Hummus originates in the Middle East and its popularity has spread to the United States. The process of cultural products (e.g. foods, clothing, music, etc) gaining popularity in one region and then spreading around the world is known as cultural diffusion. As foods and other cultural products diffuse into a new region they can quickly go from being “exotic” to being “ho-hum”.

Let’s consider eating bugs for dinner. 

Though I like to think of myself as foodie and a semi-adventurous eater, I have only knowingly eaten a bug once. I ate chocolate covered ants (tasted exactly like a Crunch bar) in my sociology of food class (yes, that is a real class and it was awesome!). They were good. This barely counts as eating bugs, as there was maybe one entire ant in the large piece of chocolate. I probably unknowingly ate more bugs with my breakfast cereal.

Bugs are a legitimate and already consumed food source by humans. “The UN’s Food and Agricultural Organization recently released a report touting the nutritional and environment benefits of eating our many-legged friends (or pests)” (Hill 2013). Moreover, as cicadas emerged in the Northeast, the blogosphere lit up with posts of recipes for cicadas.

Will American culture change to include bugs as both an acceptable and normative food source? Cicada recipes emerged alongside the emergence of the cicadas. Taken together, sharing cicada recipes and the promotion of bugs as food by the UN, suggests insects as a food sources is not as deviant as Americans tend to think. Bugs are already a common food in many regions of the world.

Regardless, I think I just might serve fried cicadas alongside hummus and guacamole at my next dinner party.

Dig Deeper:

  1. Can you think of any examples of food Americans eat that outsiders might view as deviant? What is it and why did you select it?
  2. Ask an older relative about the food they ate when they were your age. Do they eat the same foods today? Why or why not?
  3. With 2-3 classmates, do research presenting either an argument for or against eating bugs. Be prepared to discuss your argument in class.
  4. Try a new food. What new-to-you food did you try? Why did you select this food item? What was your reaction to the food? Will you incorporate this food into your regular diet? Why or why not? Share your experience with your class.

Reference

Hill, Kyle. 2013. “I Hate to Break it to You, but You Already Eat Bugs.” Scientific American Retrieved June 12, 2013 (http://blogs.scientificamerican.com/overthinking-it/2013/06/05/i-hate-to-break-it-to-you-but-you-already-eat-bugs/).

Putting the McDonald’s Back into McDonaldization

This post was originally published at Sociology in Focus on June 17, 2013. 

McDonald’s restaurant once served as a model of rationality; customers would come in and be feed ina smooth, precise, and efficient standardized process. Today, its bloated menu (with oodles of choices and combinations) threatens its reputation as the standard for rationality. In this post, Stephanie Medley-Rath explains how McDonald’s is putting the McDonald’s back into McDonaldization.

George Ritzer coined the termMcDonaldization to describe how McDonald’s restaurant provided an archetype of rationality, which served as a model for other bureaucracies. Rationality refers to how bureaucracies come to operate under formal rules and procedures. A bureaucracy is characterized by a hierarchy of authority, a division of labor, reliance on written rules, and impersonality of positions. For example, your college is an example of a bureaucracy. Let’s get back to McDonald’s.

Ritzer chose McDonald’s because of its pervasiveness throughout not only the United States (where you are never more than 107 miles from one in the lower 48), but throughout the world (they serve 1% of the world every day). McDonald’s is seen as a powerful business success and a symbol of America.

Principles of McDonalidzation include:

  • Efficiency
  • Predictability
  • Calculability
  • Control

How do these principles exist within McDonald’s?

Efficiency refers to “the optimum method for getting from one point to another” (Ritzer 2006:15). Think about the assembly line method of food production in a McDonald’s restaurant. Instead of one person making your complete meal, the task is split up into its basic components along a hamburger assembly line. This means your meal gets to you more quickly.

Predictability means “that products and services will be the same over time and in all locales” (Ritzer 2006:16). Predictability is ensured through the use of scripts. Many years ago I worked at McDonald’s. These were the days of super-sizing meals. We were expected to ask every customer if they would like to super-size her or his meal. Consider, too, how the McDonald’s menu looks pretty much the same around the country and even world. There might be some regional variation. For example, Hawaiian McDonald’s serve spamand the McRib was never a seasonal treat, but a permanent feature of the Midwestern McDonald’s where I worked. Despite this variability, you can always get a happy meal and order your meal by number rather than name. This predictability.

Calculability is “an emphasis on the quantitative aspects of products sold (portion size, cost) and services offered (the time it takes to get the product)” (Ritzer 2006:15). Think about it. When I worked at McDonald’s in the late 1990s, the cashiers made the customer’s drinks. The soda machine had three buttons for each drink: small, medium, and large. The machine poured out enough to fill the appropriate cup with the standard amount of ice. Yes, standard amount of ice. For most sized drinks, this was one scoop of ice. Though customers make their own drinks today (efficiency), customers are limited on the number of condiments for things like McNuggets. You are only allowed a set number of barbecue sauces before you are charged extra. This is calculability.

Control exists specifically through nonhuman technology. Control “is exerted over the people who enter the world of McDonald’s” (Ritzer 2006:17). There are certain expectations on the customer and the employee. McDonald’s historically has had purposefully uncomfortable seating, lighting, and color scheme to get customers in and out quickly. They have since added TVs, softer lighting, wi-fi, more snacking options, and more comfortable seating but they still encourage people to get out quickly. For example, I attempted to work at a McDonald’s like I do my local coffee shop, but struggled to find an outlet for my laptop.

Putting the McDonald’s Back into McDonaldization

Today, McDonald’s includes 145 menu items (a 70% increase since 2007). The menu is too complex challenging the very aspects of McDonaldization of which the restaurant once was the standard. The sheer size of the menu decreases the efficiency of the workers. The number of choices on the menu limits McDonald’s ability to predict consumer behavior. If McDonald’s has dificulty predicting consumer behavior, then this alsochallenges calcuability. If I can’t predict what customers are likely to buy, then I have difficulty knowing what to order from my supplier. These factors then limit the restaurant’s ability to control both workers and customers. Too many choices makes it more difficult to break down each task to its simplist parts for workers making it more likely for employees to work “off script.” Customers are given more power as their number of choices increase, too. It is more difficult to develop technology to replace more complex behaviors.

Recently McDonald’s announced it is putting the McDonald’s back into McDonaldization byshrinking its menu.

Dig Deeper:

  1. What is rationality? Why did Ritzer use McDonald’s to apply the concept of rationality?
  2. Where else do we see the ideas of efficiency, predictability, calculability, and control dominating how we interact with one another in a business setting?
  3. What is lost when we become a highly rationalized society? You’re answer can’t be “nothing”, because every change causes us to gain somethings and lose/give up something else.
  4. Apply the four principles of McDonaldization to another social phenomenon (e.g., movie-viewing, dating, or higher education).

 

Reference:

Ritzer, George. 2006. “An Introduction to McDonaldization.” Pp. 4-24 in McDonaldization: The Reader. 2nd ed., edited by G. Ritzer. Thousand Oaks, CA: Pine Forge Press.

A Common Sense Guide to Gun Violence

This post originally appeared at Sociology In Focus on June 3, 2013.

Sociologists study common sense because what we take to be common sense does not always match reality. In this post, Stephanie Medley-Rath explores the ways in which common sense about gun violence differs from the realities of gun violence.

Hand Gun

Sociologists often study common sense. Common sense refers to those things that everyone knows are true. Think about all of those warnings on many products. For example, a coffee cup with the warning that it is hot. Common sense tells us that coffee is hot. We shouldn’t need this warning, but it remains. These warning labels are in place because somebody once was harmed by the product. We often assume that they were harmed due to a lack of common sense (or lapse in judgement), rather than the product or manufacturer is at fault. So what does a warning lable on a coffee cup have to do with sociology?

Sociologists use research to access the accuracy of common sense because much of what we take as common sense is actually either incorrect or just a bit off from reality. Take gun violence, for example.

In recent months, gun violence has taken center stage as a focus of concern. Due to tragic, mass shootings, we have once again become occupied with what we perceive to be increasing gun violence (we were concerned with it in the late 1990s due to Columbine and other school shootings). Mass shootings, once again, appear to be on the rise. When school teachers and childrenmovie goers, and mall shoppers are gunned down at seeming random, we are reminded of what we believe about gun violence, that it is random and unpredictable. Any one of us could be an innocent bystander. The reality is that most gun violence is not all that random and innocent bystanders are newsworthy because they are typically rare.

Gun violence can take the form of homicide. Our perception is that they are increasing and we are all potential victims. Pew Research Center (as reported by NPR) found that:

  • 6 percent of people believe the number of gun crimes is higher than it was two decades ago. Only 12 percent said they think the number of gun crimes is lower, while the rest said they think it remained the same or didn’t know.

The reality is that gun homicides are dropping. Yes, dropping. Gun homicides have fallen between 39 and 49 percent since 1993 and non-fatal crimes with guns have fallen 70 percent. Like our perception on teen pregnancy, our perception on how common gun homicides are is skewed. In this case, newsworthy gun violence (think mass shootings involving white, middle class children), becomes a recurring segment on the news. Our perception becomes skewed. We begin believing that it is happening more often and we are all risk.

Our common sense belief about gun violence is reaffirmed that it is increasing and we are all potential victims. Our mythology of gun violence is that it is random. The reality is that gun violence victimization is socially structured. We all do not have the same risk of being a victim of gun violence. Some of us have a much greater risk of gun violence victimization compared to others.

In fact, our race, age, and gender are correlated with different types of gun violence. Pew Research finds that

  • America’s pattern of gun deaths is split across black and white, with the vast majority of whites dying from suicide and a similar proportion of blacks dying from homicide.

Blacks are more likely to die due to gun homicide and whites are more likely to die due to gun suicide. In other words, our race is correlated with the type of gun violence we are likely to experience, if we experience gun violence at all.

Though most Americans will never be impacted by gun violence and gun violence is decreasing, this does not meant that all is well. The United States, afterall, continues tohave higher rates of gun violence compared to other western nations (e.g., France, Germany, Australia).

Dig Deeper:

  1. In your own words, what is common sense? Why do sociologists study common sense?
  2. If gun violence is decreasing, why is our perception that gun violence is increasing? Read about our perception of teen pregnancy. Why is our perception different from reality? What are the potential implications (i.e., consequences) of our perception being different from reality?
  3. Take a look at this diagram on gun violence victims in Chicago during 2012. What is the relationship between income, race, education, and age with risk of living near a murder?
  4. With a classmate, choose one of the following “common sense” notions to research: (1) Bicycle helmets make us safer or (2) Walking while drunk is safer than driving while drunk. Before you begin, write a paragraph on what you think the research will show. Now, find at least two sources that either support your common sense explanation or contradict your explanation.

Suggested Reading, Listening, and Viewing:

A Macaroni Necklace to Make-Up for Workplace Discrimination: Happy Mother’s Day!

This post originally appeared at Sociology In Focus on May 20, 2013.

Despite our gushy Hallmark cards, floral arrangements, macaroni necklaces, and brunch celebrating mothers, U.S. social policies regarding mothers continue to be dismal. In this post, Stephanie Medley-Rath explores some of the ways in which mothers in particular are penalized for “choosing” motherhood & the role social structure plays in the “choice” of parenthood.

Career or Family Signs
In the United States, motherhood (and parenthood) is viewed as a choice. Parenthood as a choice is a good thing in that it has decreased the stigma placed on the childless and childfree. The downside of choice-based parenthood is that it leaves society off the hook for supporting people who choose parenthood. While we have expanded support for families through the addition of workplace protections for breastfeeding mothers, our social policies remain lacking.

Let’s look at some of the social policies directed at families. The Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA) turns 20-years-old this year. This means that for many of today’s traditional-aged college student, their parents were the first to have job protected leave to care for a newborn.

Many? Why not all? FMLA only covers employees who have been employed with their company for at least a year and work in companies with 50 or more employees. This means if your parent(s) worked in a company with 49 employees or worked there less than a year, then they would not have qualified.

Even if your parent(s) qualified, FMLA provides only 12 weeks of unpaid job-protected leave for the care of newborns (FMLA also covers adopted children and ill family members). What this means is that you will have a job after your leave, but not necessarily the exact same job you left. It is also unpaid, though some companies offer paid or partial paid leave. For example, some companies may allow a person to use their sick leave as part of their parental leave. This means they get paid their sick days, but once they run out of sick time, they are no longer paid. In other words, many employees simply can not afford to take any leave. If you are one of the four in 10 Americans living paycheck to paycheck, you can not afford to take any leave time.

FMLA is something, but how does the United States compare to the rest of the world regarding parental leave? Put simply, not good. We offer zero weeks of paid leave for parents. In contrast, Pakistan and Mexico offer 12 weeks of paid leave and Canada offers 50 weeks of paid leave. Leave time around the world may be split between parents depending on the nation. This map shows how leave time is paid. What this means is that dad could take leave time, too.

Not only do our parental leave policies leave much to be desired, moms experience a“mommy penalty” in terms of wages. We all know that women earn less than men for comparable work, but moms earn less than men with or without children and women without children. Motherhood in the United States is framed as a choice, and as a choice, results in more (pay) discrimination in the workplace.

But is motherhood (and parenthood) a choice? In sociology, we talk about structure and agency. Agency implies choice, while structure refers to how our choices are limited by social institutions & public policy. A woman who finds herself pregnant could keep her child, place her child up for adoption, or abort the fetus. These are all choices, right? A woman could delay having a child until she is established in her career. Yet, health risks for the fetus increase as the age of the mother and the father increase. Moreover, though the stigma placed on those without children has decreased, a stigma is attached to people who are childless or childfree. In other words, there is societal pressure to become a parent and to do so at the “right” age. We have agency to not choose parenthood, yet our social structure encourages us to choose parenthood.

Of course if we were purely rational creatures, the lack of societal support for parents should have us opting out of parenthood. And it has to some extent. There are increasing numbers of only-child households (my household adds to this trend). And there are women who are leaving the workforce altogether because they are not paid enough to cover childcare expenses, they are not given enough flexibility in the workplace to be both a parent and an employee, or both. The choices people make about parenthood are influenced by our social structure and are not simply individual choices.

Dig Deeper:

  1. What do sociologists mean by structure and agency? For instance, what aspects of social structure affected your decision to go to college or affected your education in any way?
  2. How is parenthood framed as a choice in the United States? How does the social structure shape this choice?
  3. Investigate the family leave policies at the company you work for or the college you attend (yes, some colleges have policies in place for students). What is the policy? Do you think this policy is sufficient? Why or why not? What are the potential limitations of the policy?
  4. Why does family leave remain unpaid? Should it be paid? If so, how should it be paid (investigate how it is paid for in other countries)? If it should remain unpaid, why?

Deviant Dining: Bringing in Outside Food & Drink to a Restaurant

This post originally appeared at Sociology In Focus on April 4, 2013.

Is it ok to bring outside food and drinks into a restaurant? In this post, Stephanie Medley-Rath explains under what circumstances this behavior is considered deviant. 

To-Go Coffee Cup

Sociologists spend a lot of time studying deviant behavior. What might surprise you about deviant behavior is that it is not necessarily behavior that is harmful or criminal, but is simply any violation of norms. This means that deviant behavior can range in seriousness from less harmful to more harmful.

Deviance is also culturally specific. This means that what might be considered deviant in the United States, might not be deviant in another part of the world. Let’s consider deviant behavior in the context of restaurant dining.

During my last two restaurant dining experiences, I witnessed deviant dining: restaurant patrons bringing in outside food or drink to consume in the restaurant.

Both incidents involved a family of three: mom, dad, and child.

In the first incident, mom had brought in a plastic cup and poured her son some Sprite from a can she brought into the restaurant. I heard the can open, which brough my attention to what was going on at the booth across from us. She poured the soda below the table and then hid the can behind the promotional material on the table. They left the can at the table when they left the restaurant for the servers to dispose. The son was probably seven or eight-years-old. I mention this because age matters in terms of whether or not this might be considered deviant.

I am guilty of bringing in outside food for a child. I would bring in outside food when dining with my daughter who was transitioning from breastmilk to solid food. When she was one, the only restaurant food that struck her interest were the lemons in our glasses of water. Once she moved onto grilled cheese and pasta, she eats off the menu. Occasionally, we have to get creative with what menu item she will eat, but we always figure something out off the restaurant’s menu.

I think most restaurants are ok with this, but it never dawned on me to ask. Let’s be real, it is unreasonable to expect a restaurant to buy chicken nuggets for an infant transitioning to solids. I also am sure to tip to account for the work the server still has to do with when outside food is brought into a restaurant for a child. In other words, outside food brought in for a child might not be considered deviant depending on the age of the child and whether or not the customer accounts for this in her or his tip. 

In the second incident, the patron was a bit more brazen. This time dad brought in food he purchased at the restaurant next door for his consumption. Using my sociological imagination, I can understand a scenario involving bringing in outside food for an older child or an adult if there is a food allegery concern or even a behavioral concern that is controled by the presence of outside food. Based on the food this grown man brought in and the restaurant we were in, however, I doubt either of these were concerns.

Some may argue that bringing in outside food and drink is always deviant. Consider though that people with food allergies or very young children may want to be able to dine with their friends and family in a restaurant. They may be traveling and have few other dining options. Parents may wish to socialize their children into normative restaurant behavior from a young age.

Some may wonder why bringing in outside food is ever considered deviant, especially if other people at your table are paying customers. For a restaurant, deviant diners may be seen as better than no diners. Here are a couple of reasons why this behavior is typically considered deviant:

  • You are taking the seat of a paying customer. In both incidents, the restaurants were very busy. Neither had waiting customers, but they were very close to having waiting customers. Either way, the restaurant workers were very busy and did not need additional work during the rush.
  • Servers still have to clean up after you, without you providing any sale to them.Even if you throw away everything you brought in, the restaurant workers still have to wipe down your table and take the trash out of the restaurant. You are using services that you did not pay for.

In some situations, it is perfectly acceptable to bring in outside food and drink. For example, Major League Baseball stadiums typically allow you to bring in outside food and drink even though they also sell these items. Some concert venues allow outside food and drink. Restaurants may allow customers to bring in their own bottle of wine or birthday cake, but they typically will charge a corkage fee or a cake serving fee. In other words, there are norms around bringing in outside food or drink. The baseball stadium may allow outside beverages, but might not allow alcohol or glass bottles. The restaurant may charge an additional fee for bringing in a bottle of wine. With deviant behavior, social context matters. Though usually deviant, bringing in outside food and drink is not always deviant behavior.  

Dig Deeper:

  1. How do sociologists define deviant behavior? Give an example (not in this post) of deviant behavior. Explain why it is deviant.
  2. The author explains that under most circumstances, bringing in outside food or drink to a restaurant is deviant behavior. Think of other examples of deviant behavior associated with eating in restaurants (for example, how do you order food or tip in a restaurant?). Explain.
  3. The author considers bringing food or drink into a restaurant for a very young child as typically understood as not deviant. Do you agree? Why or why not? Think of other examples of behaviors that are considered deviant for adults and older children, but not for very young children.
  4. Visit the following post, “Bring Your Own? Please Don’t” at I’m Your Server, Not Your Servant. Read the post and some of the comments (at least ten). Under what circumstances do servers agree it is ok to bring your own food or drink to a restaurant? Read a few more comments. Is there agreement among the commenters?

Princess Scientist

This post originally appeared at Sociology In Focus on March 25, 2013.

In this post Stephanie Medley-Rath explores how The Big Bang Theory relied on individual choice as the explanation for the lack of women in science instead of focusing on institutionalized sexism among scientists. 

Boy looking into microscope
The Big Bang Theory (BBT) jumped on the princess scientist trend in this week’s episode,“The Contractual Obligation Implementation.” The episode tackled a hot topic: recruiting more girls and women into the STEM fields (i.e., science, technology, engineering, and mathematics fields).

The white men of BBT where charged with figuring out how to increase the number of girls and women in STEM fields as part of their committee work at the university. Raj had his own dedicated storyline which involved a socially-awkward date fulfilling the “sexless Asian man” trope. Spoiler alert: Raj does not get a kiss good night.

The white men of BBT brainstormed to come up with brilliant ideas to recruit more women to STEM fields.

The first idea was to use blind peer review in the publication process. Blind peer review protects the identity of the author and the reviewers in peer-reviewed research. This means that the reviewers do not know who the author is and the author does not know who is reviewing his or her work. The idea is that then the work is judged on its own merits reducing bias among the reviewers towards the author. In sociology, most peer-reviewed research uses double-blind peer review where both the authors and the reviewers are unknown to one another. Blind peer review, though imperfect in the age of Google, is still important at reducing bias. For example, blind auditions for symphony orchestras increased the number of women invited to join symphony orchestras. I am unfamiliar with the peer review process in physics and engineering, so this very well could be a real issue that should be dealt with in these particular STEM fields.

The second idea the white men of BBT came up with was to peak girls interest in STEM while they are young. This way the girls are more likely to opt for a more math and science courses in high school setting them up for success in the STEM fields once they reach college. This actually is not a new idea. I attended an Expanding Your Horizons event when I was in junior high some twenty years ago. I took more science and math in high school than required not because was inspired to do so, but because my parents made me. Despite my parents’ efforts, I earned a C in my life science course for pre-veterinarian students. My high school science courses ranged from rigorous to worthless, which is how my high school science A-grades implied I was ready for the pre-vet science course. Today, the National Science Foundation has recommended high schools require more math and science in order to graduate. This is promising, as long as those courses are actually rigorous and will prepare students for the STEM courses for majors.

Now, back to the show…

The white men of BBT were awkward and certainly uninspiring to the junior high girls they talked to about STEM. The girls did gender-stereotypical things like look at their manicured nails and text message. The white men of BBT finally realized that it might be better if women scientists actually talked to the girls as they were failing miserably. So they called their PhD-holding girlfriends (including Amy Farrah Fowler, who is played byMayim Bialik who holds a doctorate in neuroscience in real life) who had just finished their–I kid you not–Disney princess makeovers at Disneyland. The women scientists were literally Princess Scientists because see girls, you can be both a princess and a scientist.

I thought, “what, you mean I don’t have to give up my lipstick and tiara in order to be a scientist?” I know I settled on sociology professor as a career choice because of the clothing options. (I am joking, of course, though the ability to dress just about anyway I want to in my job is appealing.)

While recruiting girls at a young age to enter STEM is important, it is also important to consider the structural issues at the other side of a STEM degree: the actual profession. For example, a recent study found gender bias among faculty hiring lab managers:

  • Faculty participants rated the male applicant as significantly more competent and hireable than the (identical) female applicant. These participants also selected a higher starting salary and offered more career mentoring to the male applicant. The gender of the faculty participants did not affect responses, such that female and male faculty were equally likely to exhibit bias against the female student.

…so exactly how Sheldon treated his assistant, Alex Jensen, in previous episodes this season. Alex ultimately filed a sexual harassment complaint with Human Resources against Sheldon. Sheldon is off the hook though for his sexual harassment because of his social awkwardness and inability to read people. Unfortunately, sexual harassment and sexual discrimination are real deterrents to women entering STEM fields (and other fields).

Perhaps if the white men of BBT took an inward look at themselves they might be able to increase the rate at which young girls opt to choose a STEM career and inspire women to continue that pursuit by actively reducing actual sexism within the STEM fields.

Dig Deeper: 

  1. Are you pursuing a career in STEM? Why or why not? How did you reach the decision to pursue or not pursue a STEM field?
  2. Inspiring young girls to pursue STEM fields is important, but is an individual level solution. It ignores the structural issues, such as institutionalized sexism among scientists. How can institutionalized sexism be addressed within STEM fields?
  3. The author does not explore the limited participation of racial minorities in STEM, but does comment on race in the above article. Read the following article about how racial minorities are underrepresented in STEM. What limits their participation? How does their experience compare to the experience of women in STEM?
  4. Does the “Princess Scientist” do more harm than good in recruiting girls into STEM fields? Explain.
  5. Watch “The Contractual Obligation Implementation.” Describe how the men scientists are portrayed compared to how the women scientists are portrayed. Pick another episode to watch. Is the portrayal consistent?

Read More:

New Study Exposes Gender Bias in Tech Job Listings

The Meaning of Helicopters: Unequal Access to Trauma Centers

This post originally appeared at Sociology In Focus on March 18, 2013.

In rural areas, helicopters come to symbolize unequal access to trauma centers. In this post, Stephanie Medley-Rath explains how the meaning of helicopters varies depending on whether you are in an urban or a rural area. 

Life Flight Helicopter
When I lived in the city, helicopters meant one of two things: the media or the police. The news crews were either providing overhead footage of weather or traffic conditions. The police were looking for someone, most likely, an alleged criminal. These helicopters were things I learned to ignore.

When I moved back to a small town, helicopters took on a whole new meaning. Helicopters are rarely seen or heard in a small town and when they are, it means someone is on their way to a trauma center. Now when I see a helicopter, I know that they are typically transporting a patient to a trauma center. Helicopters remind me just how far rural people, including myself, are from trauma centers.

Around here you can buy a membership for about $60 a year to an air ambulance company that provides coverage for helicopter transport provided it is from their company. The first time I saw my parent’s sticker indicating this coverage (on the back of their cars in case of a car accident and on a window by the front door of their house in case the problem starts at home), I thought they had been scammed. “What a waste of money,” I thought. Then it dawned on me.They live really far from a trauma center. There is a hospital in their town, but the nearest trauma center is 50 miles away. 50 miles really is not that far considering that there are much more isolated regions in America.  “Helicopter flights cost from $5,000 to $10,000, while the expense of an ambulance trip is $500 to $1,500” (Ostrow 2012) making membership to an air ambulance company appealing.

Helicopter emergency medical services (HEMS) are associated with a 1.5% increase in survival. My parents live right about the point where ground transport could take longer, but they do not have to travel too far from home to be even further from a trauma center. Critics point out that there are risks involved with HEMS, including higher crash rates than other air transport and the fact that many of these helicopters operate for-profit. In other words, HEMS are risky, expensive, and profit may motivate their use rather than best health care practices, yet they do increase survival rates.

Rural Americans not live further from trauma centers, but they have fewer trauma centers available to them. Check out this list of trauma centers in Illinois here. Region 7, 8, 9, 10, and 11 are all in the Chicago metro. Regions 1 through 6 serve the rest of the state. In other words, the Chicago metro is split up into five regions and has 44 trauma I and II centers. The rest of the state is split into six regions and has 19 trauma I and II centers, four of which are out of state. Granted, the out-of-state hospitals are on or near the border of Illinois, but consider that health insurance typically pays different rates depending on whether you are seeing providers inside or outside of your state.

The Chicago metro population is significantly larger than the rest of the state, so it makes sense that the city has more than twice as many trauma centers as the rest of the state. The problem is that for much of the state, residents live many miles away from a trauma center.

Branas et al. (2005) report

  • An estimated 69.2% and 84.1% of all US residents had access to a level I or II trauma center within 45 and 60 minutes, respectively. The 46.7 million Americans who had no access within an hour lived mostly in rural areas, whereas the 42.8 million Americans who had access to 20 or more level I or II trauma centers within an hour lived mostly in urban areas. Within 45 and 60 minutes, respectively, 26.7% and 27.7% of US residents had access to level I or II trauma centers by helicopter only and 1.9% and 3.1% of US residents had access to level I or II centers only from trauma centers or base helipads outside their home states.

More recent research reports similar findings: “Two thirds (67%) of the population in urban areas had easy access to trauma centers, and 12% had difficult access, whereas in rural areas, these percentages were 24% and 31%, respectively” (Hsia and Shen 2011:46). Hsia and Shen (2011) further point out that rural areas with higher concentration of vulnerable groups (African Americans and the near-poor) were at greater risk of difficult access to trauma centers. In other words, race and class intersect with geography creating even greater disparities.

Next time you see a helicopter, you might just be witnessing unequal access to trauma centers.

Dig Deeper:

  1. The author explains that helicopters have a different meaning to her living in a rural community compared to when she lived in an urban community. Can you think of other examples of how the meaning of some social phenomenon changes based on urbanicity?
  2. Research finds that not only rural residents, but rural communities with higher populations of African Americans and the near-poor also influence access to trauma centers. Using what you have learned in class this semester, how might racial or class inequality intersect with geography in terms of trauma center access?
  3. Having unequal access to trauma centers is not the same thing as having worse health outcomes. Using your library’s databases, search for peer-reviewed research that compares health outcomes of rural and urban residents. Do the authors explain why these groups have different or similar health outcomes? What is the explanation?
  4. How likely is it that a person needs use an ambulance or a helicopter ambulance? In other words, how often does a person require emergency transport to a trauma center over the course of their lifetime? Determine whether it would be more cost effective to open more geographically-dispersed trauma centers or provide greater subsidizes for helicopter ambulance transport.