Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Playing Gender Cards

I did policy debate in high school and a little bit in college. The activity – at least when I was doing it – rested on the ability to organize and present evidence for and against different arguments. We referred to this evidence as “cards.” In the 1970’s quotations from newspapers and journals were physically cut out of a photocopy of the original and taped to an index card. By the time I was involved in the activity, we would put 3-5 “cards” – or bits of evidence – on standard sized paper. Now, I assume, a lot of debate evidence is kept on laptops.

Last year when I delivered my presentation on gender, socialization, and the dearth of women in the top positions in science and math I felt a little bit like I was in a debate round, reading through my cards. I had so many quotations I wanted to share, but there was simply too much text on the PowerPoint slides and too much on-screen reading required of the students.

Today, I’m going to try to use few slides, but I want to make the information available to pursue at your leisure. Please note that many of these quotations are taken from the popular press (Time and New York Times). They refer to actual studies and experiences, but more persuasive evidence will be found in the actual studies themselves (appearing in specialized sociology and education journals).

So, here are the gender “cards” from last year. Please don’t challenge me to a debate – although I still get an occasional “talks too fast” on my course evaluations, I’m certainly out-of-practice for the oratorical rigors of academic debate!

Differential Access and Support Explains Sex Differences in Science and Math

“Measures of gender differences in such areas as verbal, mathematical, and spatial abilities have changed over time showing virtually no differences at the present time. While contestations remain in the research over explanations for the source of any differences in performance, the far greater explanatory power lies in differential access and support.” (Statement of the American Sociological Association Council on the Causes of Gender Differences in Science and Math Career Achievement: Harvard’s Lawrence Summers and the Ensuing Public Debate February 28, 2005)

Assumptions and stereotypes explain sex differences, not innate ability

Studies show that social and cultural assumptions and stereotypes about differences in women's and men's abilities are the cause of noticeable differences in their interests and performance. Not surprisingly, therefore, such assumptions also have a larger impact on judgments about people's potential job performance and success.

. . .

Studies also show that peer pressures to conform to stereotypical behavior and exposure to popular media affect women’s and men’s choices and opportunities in the occupational world. These changeable social factors, not innate biological differences, provide the most powerful explanation for the continuing gap between women's abilities and their occupational attainments.

(Statement of the American Sociological Association Council on the Causes of Gender Differences in Science and Math Career Achievement: Harvard’s Lawrence Summers and the Ensuing Public Debate February 28, 2005)

Decades of research point to social structure – not innate biological differences – as the key explanatory variable accounting for sex differences in math and science

Sociological research provides ample empirical evidence of the importance of social phenomena in creating the gender gap in science and math achievement at the highest levels and, therefore, why it is a social problem. . . . . As real structural opportunities have opened to women, as a result of legal challenges and other social pressures for change, they have demonstrated increased interest in, and rapidly joined, fields from which they had been excluded.

Decades of social-scientific research provide a solid base of empirical knowledge about the power of unequal opportunities, limitations in access to formal and informal training, a lack of social and domestic supports, and lowered expectations about women's capacity to achieve that sap their educational and professional confidence. (Statement of the American Sociological Association Council on the Causes of Gender Differences in Science and Math Career Achievement: Harvard’s Lawrence Summers and the Ensuing Public Debate February 28, 2005)

Cross-Cultural Evidence Supports Social Explanations for Sex-Differences in Science Performance

“One of the sharpest retorts to Summers comes from a man, Burton Richter, a Nobel Prize winner and former director of the Stanford Linear Accelerator Center, who notes that in 2003-04, girls in England ‘Presidents of universities,’ Richter snapped, ‘should not use their mouths before their brains.’” (Keay Davidson, The San Francisco Chronicle, “Harvard President Under Microscope,” January 31, 2005, A4.) outperformed boys in the highest levels of math and physics tests.

Group Abilities Change Over Time

“Critics say Summers ignored overwhelming evidence that such difficulties are caused by social factors. . . They note that boys’ and girls’ average test scores are the same, and that gender differences in scores have converged over the past few decades -- a convergence that no one suggests is due to a sudden transmutation of women’s DNA.”

(Keay Davidson, The San Francisco Chronicle, “Harvard President Under Microscope,” January 31, 2005, A4.)

Gender Socialization Shapes Math Education

“But there are other possibilities [for the relative dearth of women in top science positions] we should consider first. One of them is the damage done by the idea that there is something wrong about a girl or woman who is really good at math.

(Cornelia Dean, “For Some Girls, the Problem With Math Is that They’re Good at It.” New York Times, Feb. 1, 2005, pg. 3.)

Women are Discouraged from Math Education

I first encountered this thinking as a seventh grader who was scarred for life when my class in an experimental state school for brainiacs was given a mathematics aptitude test. The results were posted and everyone found out I had scored several years ahead of the next brightest kid. A girl really good in math! What a freak! I resolved then and there on a career in journalism.”

Cornelia Dean, “For Some Girls, the Problem With Math Is that They’re Good at It.” New York Times, Feb. 1, 2005, pg. 3.

Saying Girls are Bad at Math Creates a Self-Fulfilling Prophecy

“She [3rd grade daughter] came home and said to me, ‘I can’t do math.’ So I told her, ‘Sorry, but no daughter of mine is allowed to say that.’ We looked at her problems and she became thrilled to see that she could do them. Now imagine what might have happened if I had agreed with her, and said, ‘Yes, girls intrinsically aren’t very good at math.’ (Astrophysicist Wendy Freedman quoted in Cornelia Dean, “For Some Girls, the Problem With Math Is that They’re Good at It.” New York Times, Feb. 1, 2005, pg. 3.)

An Example of Discrimination & Social Closure

Lillian Pierce was Princeton’s valedictorian when she graduated in 2002 and received her master's in math from Oxford as a Rhodes scholar. Now back at Princeton, she's studying for her Ph.D. Even with that sterling resume, she says, "I myself have experienced behavior that is hard to explain in terms of anything but discrimination: senior male mathematicians ignoring my presence when I'm introduced to them or suggesting point-blank that I pursue another career, such as medicine."

Barbara Kantrowitz, “Sex and Science” Newsweek, Jan 31, 2005, pg. 36

An Example of Discrimination & Social Closure

She says too many of her female friends “drop out of graduate programs simply because they’re disillusioned with the environment, not because they can't handle the math.”

Barbara Kantrowitz, “Sex and Science” Newsweek, Jan 31, 2005, pg. 36

A Final Example of Discrimination & Social Closure

“Another friend, graduating as a math major, was advised not to bother applying for a graduate research assistantship because they were not given to women. She eventually earned a doctorate in math, but one of her early forays into the job market ended abruptly when she was told she should stay home with her husband rather than seek employment out of town.”

(Cornelia Dean, “For Some Girls, the Problem With Math Is that They’re Good at It.” New York Times, Feb. 1, 2005, pg. 3.)

~ Brian

Sunday, February 15, 2009

One Minute Social Capital

In this video, I attempt to explain Bourdieu's concept of social capital in about a minute. Obviously, I left a lot out, but hopefully this sparks your interest in learning more. By the phrase "we think we have friends," I am referring to the idea that agents often "misrecognize" the forms of capital that they possess. This is not to say that people don't have authentic friendships, only that we let the "authenticity" blind us to the social purposes of our friends and friend networks.

Wednesday, February 11, 2009

25 Random Things about Sociology (part 1)

This list is inspired by a current phenomenon on Facebook, the "25 Random Things" request. I wrote about seven of these. The Discussion Section instructors helped with the rest. If you're enrolled in Elements of Sociology this semester, (most of) this list could help you on the first exam.

  1. Sociologists balance ideas and evidence. Sociologists have ideas about society that they test with numerical data, observation, and other forms of evidence. Our theories about the social world inform our data analysis, and our data sharpens our theories.
  2. Both Durkheim and Marx argue that societies go through different stages of evolution. For Durkheim, societies evolve from primitive (mechanical solidarity; low division of labor) to modern (organic solidarity; high division of labor). For Marx, societies evolve from feudalism, to capitalism, to the final stages of socialism/communism.
  3. Like all natural disasters, the Chicago heat wave of 1995 wasn’t simply about bad weather. It affected some Chicagoans and not others. Sociologists want to know why.
  4. William Julius Wilson has published a series of influential books about urban poverty, including The Declining Significance of Race, The Truly Disadvantaged, When Work Disappears, and The Bridge Over the Racial Divide.
  5. According to Durkheim, the phenomenon of suicide is shaped by social forces: how connected one is to groups (social integration) and the level of structure in one’s life (social regulation).
  6. Sociologist Pierre Bourdieu presents a powerful critique and analysis of snobbery.
  7. Rebecca Moore points out that the people of Jonestown were not just being paranoid; government agencies, journalists, and the Concerned Relatives posed a legitimate threat to their settlement. This emphasis on the normality of the people at Jonestown places Moore within the 2nd wave of discourse on Jonestown.
  8. One experiences “anomie” if they’re disconnected from social bonds.
  9. A community might have mechanical solidarity when everyone performs the same job, while they would have organic solidarity when everyone relied on each other to perform a different role in society.
  10. Sociologists critique common sense, or doxa, to see whether commonly held theories about how society works are based in evidence.
  11. Most sociologists work within the conflict perspective, meaning that they focus on how different groups in society compete for resources and how inequality is reproduced.
  12. Eric Klinenberg used multiple research methods (statistical analysis, ethnographic observation, and document analysis) in his study of the 1995 Chicago heat wave.
  13. Mitchell Dunier illustrates how informal economies can rise in the inner city and give meaning to people's lives. Further, it is a classic example of how large structural forces outside of most people’s control strongly affect the way people navigate the world.
  14. The problem of urban poverty illustrates the incredibly complicated way that class and race intertwine. Sociology gives the most comprehensive account of urban poverty because it takes race, class and other inequalities into account.
  15. Durkheim and Marx can be used to examine the same phenomenon in different ways. Social theories are tools that allow us to look at things through different lenses. There is no official sociology narrative. Rather, we have competing and complimenting theories that attempt to explain the world in various ways.
  16. For Durkheim, crime is productive because it reinforces the collective conscience of the social group, reminding the group of its rules, values, and norms.
  17. Marx's theory of history is that class conflict is the driving engine of history. Other scholars would also include race, ethnicity, gender, sexuality, and religion (among others) as categories of conflict that have been historically important.
  18. Sociology doesn't study suicide out of sheer morbid curiosity. Rather, it is a clear example of a social phenomenon that has largely been characterized as a psychological problem.
  19. Sidewalk is endorsed by Spike Lee, perhaps making it the coolest sociology book you will ever read.
  20. You can use sociology to understand social problems and (hopefully) how to fix them.
  21. Consensus perspective views society held together by common productive experiences, beliefs, and values
  22. Bourdieu would say that when it comes to making distinctions, or displaying "taste," what matters is who is making the distinction rather than what the object (art, music, wine, etc.) of distinction is. Those with symbolic power define the dominant cultural code.
  23. If a person has agency, they have the ability to make changes in their lives.
  24. Sociologists often scrutinize common sense, or doxa, to see whether commonly held ideas about how society fits the evidence about how society works.
  25. Most sociologists work within the conflict perspective, meaning that they focus on how different groups in society compete for resources and how inequality is reproduced.

Wednesday, January 28, 2009

Emile on the Prairie

These are two short videos that describe Emile Durkheim's distinction between organic and mechanical solidarity. I argue that you can find elements of both in Walnut Grove.

Wednesday, April 30, 2008

Richard Ofshe & “The West Memphis Three”

In the final minutes of today’s movie, sociologist Richard Ofshe testified on behalf of Jessie Misskelley, one of the teens accused of murdering the three boys. Misskelley’s defense team hired Richard Ofshe to examine the interrogation transcript and, drawing on his considerable expertise in false memory syndrome and false confession, he testified that Jessie Misskelley offered a false confession resulting from a manipulative interrogation. Ofshe suggested that a psychologically coercive interrogation led Misskelley to confess to something he didn’t do. On the stand, he pointed to inconsistencies in Misskelley testimony and areas where the police were feeding him the answers that they wanted to hear.

If you’re enrolled in our Blackboard site, you can access an excerpt from his testimony as the top item in our Course Documents folder, or you can read his full testimony here:

Your GTA will show the final 40 minutes of the film focusing on the joint trial of Jason Baldwin and Damien Echols. There’s a lot left out, but you should be able to get the main outlines of the case and the central defense and prosecution strategies. Like the McMartin preschool case, the story of the West Memphis Three brings together some of the sociological themes and ideas we’ve covered so far: class inequality, cultural capital, labeling, media hegemony, and moral panic. Just as there are some people who insist that McMartin was a hotbed of santanism, some still insist on the guilt of Misskelley, Baldwin, and Echols. It’s safe to say that a consensus has grown over the last 15 years that they’re innocent, and most of the web resources will reflect that view. For an update on the case, you can read the article from the Economist (April 19, 2008) located in our Course Documents folder. There are plenty of online resources as well:

-- Brian

Tuesday, April 15, 2008

“Sociologist in Chief?” Where Do I Vote?

The President-Elect of the American Sociological Association is Patricia Hill Collins, social theorist extraordinaire and author of the now-classic Black Feminist Thought. Attaining presidency of the ASA places one atop of the sociology hierarchy, but “Sociologist in Chief” sounds much more important, much weightier.

On “Meet the Press,” political consultant Bob Shrum gave voice to the idea of a “Sociologist in Chief,” but suggested that presidential hopefuls should avoid running for that particular post. In a discussion about Barack Obama’s controversial comment about “bitter” working-class Pennsylvanians who embrace religion and guns, James Carville opined: “I have eight guns myself. I’m hardly bitter about things.” Bob Shrum responded, “Well, he’s not running for sociologist in chief, he’s running for president. So I think he wishes he hadn’t said it quite this way.” Later Shrum said “People go with sociology, and he shouldn’t be a sociologist. . . . sociology says that when people are in distress, when they’re economically deprived, they, they hold onto the things in their lives that give them some sense of security and identity. That’s faith, that can be hunting, that can be all of those things.”

(“Meet the Press,” NBC News Transcripts, April 13, 2008, via Lexis/Nexis)

Obviously, there are better places in the blogosphere to debate and discuss the presidential race. Here, I only want to point to Shrum’s perception of sociology and its social role. On a show like this, it’s impossible to explore ideas with any serious depth, so I shouldn’t have been surprised by a phrase like “sociology says that . . .” but it was still a little bit jarring to hear on a Sunday morning. But Shrum’s overbroad statement might be correct to the extent that sociologists universally believe (based on research from multiple angles) that economic deprivation does something. More importantly, I would expect most sociologists think that poverty and income inequality are important things to study and understand. We can all agree on that simple proposition, even if the line “sociology says that” generally suggests a false uniformity of thought amongst sociologists.

Personally, I’d love for more politicians to don their sociology cap and address the major fault lines of inequality in the US and (where appropriate) around the globe. Maybe we don’t need a Sociologist in Chief; maybe we need more “chiefs” who are sociologists. But I’ll be the first one at the voting booth if we do, indeed, decide to elect a Sociologist in Chief.

-- Brian

Thursday, April 10, 2008

PoMo and Talk Show: The Jerry Springer Opera

The last time I was in Britain (January 2005) the BBC was set to televise the latest smash hit from London's famous West End theatre district. No, it wasn't another adaptation of Noel Coward or Ibsen, nor was it an updated twist on a Shakespearean classic. It was, in fact, Jerry Springer: The Opera.

You may be scratching your head at the seemingly odd juxtaposition of "high brow" opera with the lowest of "low brow" talk shows, but I urge you to keep in mind the characteristics of postmodern art we have been discussing the past couple of weeks. Art forms in the postmodern vein blur the lines between high and low subject matter, they display as sense of playfulness, they mix genres, and seemingly everyday items are elevated to artistic subject matter. In this way, I argue Jerry Springer: The Opera represents a quintessentially postmodern approach to artistic performance.

This is not to say it was aired without protest. In fact, the BBC received its highest number of complaints ever even BEFORE the show was broadcast. While extremely foul language and sexually explicit content were the main objections given in complaints, as a sociologist I have to wonder what else might have been going on. After all, the BBC regularly airs full nudity in mainstream shows and is very accommodating of foul language, and the British tabloid media is world-renowned for the "trashiness" of its content. What else then was going on? Did the blending of high and low, the stretching of comfortable divisions between what was art and what was trash, the blurring of boundaries, touch a raw nerve with the British public? What differences might there have been between those who embraced talk show opera and those who dismissed it? Did they have different levels of education, different class backgrounds, different levels of cultural capital?

For those of you who are curious, Jerry Springer: The Opera made its debut State-side in Chicago in 2007. It played last January at New York's Carnegie Hall with the esteemed actor Harvey Keitel in the lead role, and is currently in production in numerous cities across the US. As an opera, it was fair, but I wish I'd seen Bat Boy: The Musical instead...
--Gabriella Smith