Sunday, December 28, 2008

smoking up the joint - in Kentucky

One day during this past fall term, I stepped into the elevator at work, and was nearly overcome by the stench of cigarette smoke. Since smoking is prohibited in all state buildings, including college buildings, I wondered if someone had been smoking in the parking garage (also not allowed, but not enforced on our campus), next to the elevator access door.

I mentioned the smell to one of our staff. He explained the source of the problem. The majority of the students in our respiratory care program smoke, and when they get their short breaks, they rush, en mass, from their third floor classroom, to the elevator and step outside the building, where they fire up their smokes for 10 minutes, and then at the last minute cram themselves back in the elevator carrying the putrid smell with them.

I have always found it disturbing that such a high percentage of our students smoke, and that every break between classes is a cigarette break. But as an asthma sufferer, I find it obscene that the majority of our respiratory care students are smokers. These are the people who hope to be entrusted with the care of people who suffer from breathing disorders.

Kentucky ranks number 1 in the percentage of adults who are smokers. More than 28 percent of Kentuckians smoke (2007 CDC report) . A study done in 1999-2000 found that 23 percent of pregnant women in Kentucky smoked. Though I have no hard data, I'm certain that both figures are higher in eastern Kentucky than in the urban portions of the state.

The political power of tobacco interests and smokers in Kentucky shows in the low cigarette taxes; only 30 cents per twenty-pack in 2008, lower by at least half compared to all but one of the state surrounding Kentucky. Other evidence of political power: the state of Kentucky has declared smokers a "protected class," and it is illegal to discriminate against smokers in employment and education (Cincinnati Enquirer October 22,2008), despite the well documented fact that smokers are more expensive employees than non-smokers. They are more likely to be absent, their medical costs are higher on average, and they always seem to be out taking a smoking break when you need them.

It seems more than reasonable to me that being a non-smoker should be a requirement for entry into certain fields of employment -- respiratory therapy being one of those. If nothing else, allied health programs (nursing, respiratory care, radiography, physical therapy assistant, and so forth) ought to put a high priority on developing "quit smoking" programs for their students. Many medical facilities, even in Kentucky, are creating smoke free campuses; that is they are eliminating smoking not only in all their buildings, but in all the outside areas between the buildings. Imagine being some one who smokes a pack or more a day, and discovering that in your job at a hospital or medical complex that you have to walk a block or more, and then stand on a busy public street in order to smoke. The Appalachian Regional Hospital (ARH) chain that serves eastern Kentucky has not yet moved in the direction of smokeless campuses, but not all graduates of allied health programs in eastern Kentucky will remain in the region.

Kentucky needs to consider raising cigarette taxes as well. It makes good health policy and would provided needed revenue.

Thursday, December 11, 2008

Without all that troublesome knowledge

It is the end of the semester, the final day, final deadline for all written work. One of my students, handed me an entire semesters worth of work -- six essays on topics from as long ago as August -- today. Unlike some faculty, I do accept late work, but I do penalize it, on the earliest essays she will lose at least 50 percent of the points as a late penalty. This isn't particularly unusual. Every semester I have a few students who do this, wait until the last few days of the semester and turn in a pile of essays.

This student's essays were well written, no problems with grammar, sentence structure, spelling or punctuation. They were neat (although hand written which is unusual in this day and age). They were original, no plagiarism -- for which I was deeply grateful. All too often the student who waits until the last day to turn in the semesters work, hopes to slide past you with egregiously plagiarized work, copied in large part (or in whole) from some Internet site. [Somehow they never seem to realize that if they could find the information, so can I]. What disturbed me about these essays, was something, unfortunately, not unique to this student -- there was no evidence in the essays that she had even opened, much less read, any of the assigned readings, or learned anything at all from the course materials. Instead she held forth on her personal opinions about American society, opinions that she'd held before she entered my classroom, and which were no more informed today, after 16 weeks by the facts and research, than they had been when she started the class.

One of the problems with our college students (and one that is fairly wide spread today) is that a larger and larger percentage of the students attending community and lower level state colleges do not actually want a college education (and are not prepared for it in any case). What they want is a good job that will pay a living wage. They have no interest in learning, no thirst for knowledge. In fact, many of them actively resist learning anything new, especially things that might challenge their most precious prejudices and preconceptions. But they have been told (over and over from many sources) that if they want to decent job they have to get a college degree.

So they do want credit for classes and they'd prefer A's over B's and B's over C's -- although they don't want to have to learn anything to get those grades, they want me to give them a grade for spouting back what they already knew when they walked into the classroom. [Note math teachers and sciences teachers do not have this particular problem, because students realize they don't know anything about math and science when they walk into the class -- the problem math and science teachers face is students who want good grades for "trying" regardless of whether or not they actually learn anything.

The source of the problem lies in our economic system which bit by bit has stripped away most of the jobs (manufacturing, basic materials fabrication) that used to exist that would provide a decent, living wage for someone with a high school diploma (or less). We've sent those jobs to other countries (where a living wage is a lot less, and therefore profits are higher), or we've replaced live workers altogether with robots and computerized, programmable technology.

My students are right; to get a decent job that will pay a living wage today, generally does require at least a two year degree, if not a bachelor's degree or more. They just want to get the degrees, as my husband likes to say "without all that troublesome knowledge."

Wednesday, November 26, 2008

roots of anti-intellectualism in recent years

In the wake of this November's election of Barack Obama, dozens of media commentators have heralded this as a welcome respite in the anti-intellectualism that has dominated American society and American politics for the past thirty years.

One media pundit (sorry I can't remember who) has said that Obama, unlike other presidents of the last forty years is "openly intellectual." Sure Clinton was a scholar during his college years, but he down played his scholarly background behind a folksy southern persona, leading voters to think that he just might be a "red-neck." [By the way, if Jeff Foxworthy is right, I too just might be a red-neck, since the instructions on how to reach my house include "and then you turn off the paved road" and my house originally came with wheels].

It is tempting to say that the roots of anti-intellectualism in American politics come from the simple lack of brainpower of the common man (or woman). They aren't so smart so they mistrust anyone who is openly interested in the life of the mind and intellectual ideas. Given that Obama, "openly intellectual" as he is, garnered the largest percentage and larger number of the popular vote in recent history, suggests that such a simple explanation is not sufficient. Perhaps that is the motivation of a few individuals here and there, but it doesn't help to account for the way in which anti-intellectualism is structured into our society, especially into our educational system. Also it doesn't explain why Republicans candidates and voters are more likely to exude contempt of intellectual accomplishment even more than Democrats do.

The key to understanding anti-intellectualism is found in our economic system and its current troubles. It is clear, beyond doubt, that our economy depends upon people buying things. When consumer confidence goes down, and people cut back on their purchases, our economy tanks. Regardless of all the sanctimonious sermons about people spending more than they earn, and going into credit card debt, the reality is, that our economy has been built on people spending beyond their means.

In troubled times like these, the rational choice for individuals is to save their money and not spend it, but what makes sense for individuals is exactly opposite what is needed to recharge the economy. Certainly there are economic systems that do exist and have existed that do not rest on consumerism and credit, but ours is not one of them.

When the health of the economy depends upon ordinary people spending and consuming larger and larger quantities of material goods, society must provide incentives to make people desire to spend beyond their means. One important tool in doing this is to attach cultural and social values to material things. Advertising is one means of doing this. Through advertising values of family, success, achievement, sexiness, love, and many others, are attached to material products.

More than a hundred years ago, Thorsten Veblen coined the term "conspicuous consumption" to describe the role of consumption in establishing status. The only thing that has changed since Veblen's time is that the use of consumption of luxury goods has been pushed further and further down the income scale. As a result, even low income teenagers will pay $36-$46 dollars for an Abercrombie & Fitch logo t-shirt, rather than $4-$6 for a similar quality blank t-shirt at Walmart. Where the wealthy rely on their peers knowledge of designers style (if you couldn't recognize a Chanel suit, a Lily Pulitzer frock, or an Dior gown, on sight your opinion hardly mattered), lower middle class and working class young people rely on large graphics of "high class" names spread across their chests, backs and down their arms.

When consumption is the bedrock of the economy, and appeals to status are crucial to encouraging continual consumption, there is little room to tolerate alternative, non-consumption based sources of status. Intellectual, creative and artistic pursuits -- except to the degree that they represent monetary exchange -- need to be actively discouraged since they can distract people away from consumption.

Degrees are fine, especially if they come from expensive schools, its knowledge and thinking that are viewed as bothersome. About fourteen years ago, the commencement speaker at the public four year college where I was then employed was a politically appointed state bureaucrat in a Republican administration. He congratulated the graduates on receiving their degrees, and then offered himself as an example of someone who had managed to get a college degree "without letting college change" him, or his beliefs and opinions in any way. This young Republican bureaucrat was proud of the fact that he had come through four years of college unscared by any troublesome knowledge that would undermine in any way the prejudices and attitudes with which he had entered college.

Similarly, art that commands high sale prices is fine, but art for art's sake is not. Negative attitudes toward the National Endowment for the Arts, and the artists that it supports demonstrate this latter view. Conservatives consider the only good art is that which has commercial value. The only artistic value is the value of the market place.

The ordinary individual who expresses distrust, fear and contempt for intellectualism or artistic creativity, is not thinking about promoting consumerism, but there are those in positions of leadership and influence, in government and the media, who are consciously undermining non-commercial sources of status and life satisfaction such as intellectual and artistic endeavor.

Thursday, November 13, 2008

failure of the sociological imagination

The topic in my social problems class today was drug abuse. We looked at the data, and tracked the trends, outlined the extent of the problem. Then we turned to the question of "why?" -- why so much more drug abuse in our region than in the past. [We live in the epicenter of the Oxycontin phenomenon.]

We looked at the issues of the availability of drugs, of the economic and social conditions, of the cultural attitudes encouraged by the media, the pharmaceutical industry, and the medical profession, that pills are a solution to most of life's problems (sexual problems - take Viagra, anxious in social situations - take Paxil, etc.).

One of the students in the class, Mary*, has worked on several local media projects and films about drug abuse in this region, and as a result has talked to a lot of people who have become entangled in abuse. Mary pointed out that the reason given by most of the people that she talked to was that they couldn't cope with the pressures and problems of their lives and took drugs to relieve the pressure, to be distracted, to forget about things for a while. Mary noted that this reason made her mad and disgusted. She didn't think it was a valid reason; that people were just weak and that should just learn to deal with things as she did. The other students in the class offered their agreement with Mary. They too viewed drug abuse as weakness and moral failing to which they were immune.

I asked the class to consider why it might be that more people today found themselves unable to cope with problems and pressure without drugs. I was hoping that they might think about ways in which the circumstances of living in the region had changed. I hoped they might think about how family situations and child rearing had changed (two working parents for example), how job opportunities had declined in the region, how out migration had reduced family networks, how political changes and budgetary cuts meant less in the way of social support, and finally how stagnating middle class and working class incomes and rising costs had eroded the standard of living.

Mary, however, suggested that circumstances had not changed that much, that it all boiled down to people being "weaker" today than they were in the past. People, she suggested weren't willing to "deal with" things as they were in the past (or as she implied as she was). The rest of the class vocally concurred with this view.

So I asked the class, if people were "weaker" today, how had that happened. What was it that had changed to make them weaker? This is the problem with us sociologists, we always think there is a reason for changes that they don't just come out of the air. Unfortunately Mary's response was, "it just happened. I don't don't want to call it evolved [we know from previous classes that Mary doesn't believe in biological evolution], it just happened." Mary suggested that people just naturally changed for the worse over time. Other students in the class offered agreement. There wasn't any reason for change, it just happened they all agreed. Society gets worse, people get worse. People today are weak -- except for us -- that's why they abuse drugs, was the unanimous opinion of my students.

We stopped the discussion at that point to see a short film made locally about Oxycontin abuse in the region. While I tinkered with the VCR, rewinding the film and cuing it up, I could hear Mary speaking quietly with the woman next to her. She was recounting her own history with the use of Paxil for the "terrible anxiety" she suffered after her baby was born, and how she "would not have been able to cope" without her doctor's help and the medication. I could tell by Mary's tone of voice that she did not consider her own inability to cope without medication to be a sign of weakness.

Despite my best efforts this is clearly a group of students who have not grasped the sociological imagination -- that ability to see connections between the biography of the individual and the broader social, economic, political and cultural trends that C. Wright Mills collectively called "history." Worse than that they seem to lack empathy for others, and the ability to see "there but for fortune go I."
*names changed to protect identity.

Wednesday, November 05, 2008

reaping the whirlwind

The 44th President of the United States gave an awesome, inspiring, uplifting speech last night. But Obama's was not the only fine speech of the evening. The real John McCain, the reasonable, thoughtful, American patriot, gave a moving speech in which he conceded the presidency to Barack Obama.

"I urge all Americans who supported me to join me in not just congratulating him, but offering our next president our good will and earnest effort to find ways to come together to find the necessary compromises to bridge our differences and help restore our prosperity, defend our security in a dangerous world, and leave our children and grandchildren a stronger, better country than we inherited.
Whatever our differences, we are fellow Americans. And please believe me when I say no association has ever meant more to me than that.
It is natural. It's natural, tonight, to feel some disappointment. But tomorrow, we must move beyond it and work together to get our country moving again."

-- John McCain, United States Senator

For the full text and video see CNN.

If Senator John McCain had conducted his entire campaign the way he conducted his concession speech, last night might have had a different outcome. Last night we saw the man of integrity, the man for whom "country first" is an abiding truth not a campaign slogan. It was painfully clear at several points during the speech (including the one captured in the photo below) that McCain is dismayed with the kind of vitriol that his campaign inspired in many of his supporters.
McCain's speech, the reaction of some of the crowd and McCain's discomfort with that reaction, reminds me of Hosea 8:4,7.

They have made kings,
But not with My sanction;
They have made officers,
But not of My choice.
Of their silver and gold
They have made themselves images,
To their own undoing.

They sow wind,
and they shall reap whirlwind---
Standing stalks devoid of ears
And yielding no flour.
If they do yield any,
Strangers shall devour it.

Photo credit: CNN/Art

Saturday, October 25, 2008

Spreading the wealth $257 dollars at a time has a wonderful, satirical piece, dripping with irony, by a mythical "Bob the Banker"
"The numbers don't lie. So here they are.*

So, as I said, I make $280,000 annually after business expenses. I'm married and filing jointly. Under Obama, my itemized deductions would actually increase slightly — I'd get $49,420 in itemized deductions, while under McCain I'd get $48,975. But my personal exemptions would increase slightly under McCain — he'd give me $6,911, whereas I'd only get $6,132 from Obama.

That leaves my taxable income at $213, 766 under Obama, $213,433 under McCain. Now we have to factor in the bracket cutoff, which for 2009 is $208,850. Anything below that figure for married couples filing jointly is taxed at the fourth tier, 28 percent. Any income above it, until you get up to near $400,000, is taxed at the fifth tier. And this is where the raving income-redistribution scheme of Barack Robespierre Obama kicks in.

As you can see, my taxable income is about $5,000 higher than the cutoff. McCain is going to tax that $5,000 at the current rate, which is 33 percent. But Obama's crazed plan calls for raising that rate to — get ready for it — 35 percent.

And here's what this means. Under McCain, my total tax bill would be $48,254. Under Obama, it would be $48,511.

That's a difference of $257. I'll say it again: Two hundred and fifty-seven dollars.

That's not two hundred and fifty-seven dollars I, or America, can afford.

Things are tough right now. Average working Americans like me are really struggling. They're angry. And when they see the effects of Obama's spread-the-wealth lunacy on an average angry struggling American like me, they'll be even more angry, average, and struggling.

Let me lay it out for you. Right now, I take home about $19,000 a month after the government skims off its share. And I don't have to tell you that $19,000 a month isn't what it used to be.

Take my Jaguar. Do you have any idea how much it costs just to have that thing tuned up? It's like a BMW repair bill on steroids. We're talking $500 just to open the hood.

The hard times are taking a toll on my family life, too. My wife has had to completely cut out having her colors done, and her personal shopper is threatening to walk if we keep cutting back on her hours. We're tightening our belts, but you can only tighten so far before there's no more room to pull.

Then there's food prices. All across America, families are angry and struggling as they try just to get by. We're in the same boat. It's getting harder and harder just to put food on the table. We're only eating filet mignon twice a week, and under Obama's crazed far-left regime, we may have to completely give up Maine lobster and Macanudo cigars.

And those are just a few examples. I could go on and on. The point is, under Obama Big Government is going to take $21.40 out of my pocket every month — money I could use to start another business, help the economy grow, or watch a couple of softcore porn movies on demand."

*All figures about the comparative tax bills under Obama and McCain come from an interview with Gerald Prante, an economist at the nonpartisan Tax Foundation.

Enough said.

Thursday, October 09, 2008

Answering a students question

Recently, one of my students asked what sociology might make of the current financial crisis. As I explained in the class, the current financial crisis is multidimensional, and has a number of different causes. The housing collapse of the housing market and the housing financing market is just one of several threads in the situation, but it helps illustrate some sociological principles of interest to us -- such as the distinction between use value and exchange value.

The use value of a house is that it protects its occupants from the elements, from cold or heat, rain or sleet. The use value includes the functionality of its bathrooms and kitchens. Its use value also includes the pleasure the owners get from privacy or from enjoying the way their house looks or feels. Moreover, ownership versus renting housing adds use value through the ability to make changes, alterations, and modifications to the home, the freedom to have pets, put up fences, and outbuildings that might be restricted by leases or rental agreements. The use value of a house can decline -- wiring and plumbing can break down, roofs can leak, paint can fade and crack, families can grow larger and the space may no longer be adequate, or undesirable "neighbors" can move in next door (like a strip mine)and lessen the pleasure or privacy derived from the home. But declines in use value tend to be slow and incremental. The decline in housing value over the past year or two has been a decline in exchange value, not use value; a decline in what one can sell one's home for (exchange it in the market place). The recent plunging market or exchange value of houses across the country has little to do with the use value of homes. Moreover, the rise in housing costs over the past two decades, had little to do with increases in the use value of housing. So why did housing prices rise so much, and why have they now crashed? How does the housing market and the financial market interconnect?

Let's begin with talking about the rising cost of housing. First, the facts on how the cost of housing has risen. In 1970 the median (mid-point) family income was $7,550 a year, and in 1965 the median (mid-point) price of a new home was $23,300. So the cost of the average, mid-point house was only 3.1 times the income of the average (mid-point) family's income. By the year 2000 the median (mid-point) new housing cost was $169,000, while the 2000 median (mid-point) family income was $41,990, making the average, mid-point house 4 times the average (mid-point) family's income. In other words it was a whole lot harder for the average family to afford the average house. Thing were even worse by 2007. In 2007, the median price of a new home had jumped to $247,900 while the median family income had only risen to $50,233, making the average, mid-point new house 4.9 (or almost 5) times the average, mid-point, family income.

Why did the cost of housing rise so much? For one thing, there was increased demand for housing, population grew. But even more important was that the age structure of the population changed. Beginning in 1965, a big "boom" of young people (the Baby Boomers who were born beginning in 1945) began to hit their 20's and begin looking to start families and buy houses. There was a huge flood of new home buyers moving into the market in the late 1960's and early 1970's. But these were mostly young people with young families, and they did not have large incomes, so even though there was a demand for new houses, the cost of those houses remained modest to meet the incomes of the young families that needed them. By 1990 and 2000, however, the number of young couples and young families looking for housing was fewer than the numbers of middle aged (40's and 50's) Baby Boomers looking to purchase housing (either to upgrade as they received promotions or to change due to their children growing up and leaving home). These middle aged Boomer house hunters had high incomes and were interested in more luxury in their homes. Luxury is to some extent related to use value; some of the greater cost of luxury items comes from them being longer lasting, more durable, more reliable, or just working better. But some luxury is purely a matter of exchange value (a result of supply and demand). The luxury good may not be more functional or useful, and is some times actually less so, depending upon the needs of the houses residents. For example, a synthetic Corian counter top will probably last longer, resist stains better, and require less maintenance than a marble slab counter top, but has a lower exchange value.

Home developers and builders were far more interested in providing homes for these more affluent buyers than they were in providing homes for the smaller number of young couples and young families with less money to spend. The reason is that there is more profit to be made from an expensive, high end house than there is from a smaller lower cost house. For example, if a developer can make a 20% profit (over costs) on a new house (a modest estimate just for arguments sake, profits are sometimes higher and sometimes lower), then the developer makes $20,000 on a $100,000 house, but $100,000 on a $500,000 house. The developer can only build so many houses, and the amount of time to build a house $100,000 house is not much less than to build a $500,000 house, so clearly the preference would be to build $500,000 houses, if you can find buyers for them.

Rising costs of housing were beginning to price a larger percentage of Americans out of home ownership in the 1980's and 1990's. Those lower income Americans wanted homes and had few choices at the low end of the price spectrum (since developers prefer to build higher cost houses). The percentage of families being home owners began to drop in the 1990's. What should have happened when home purchasing began to slide was that builders should have started to offer more lower cost housing. But they didn't do that, because developers and builders really wanted more buyers for their higher end houses. At the same time financial sector was looking for new opportunities for profit(in the interest they charged on loans). The interests of the building sector and the interests of the financial sector coincided, and focused on trying to find ways to expand credit to new customers, and make more people able to afford the rising cost of housing.

Between 1980 and 2007 the financial industry turned to the federal government to have the government remove some of the controls and regulation that limited lending practices. Lobbying by the banks and other financial institutions contributed to the repeal or overturn of several key laws that had existed to regulate the financial industry, giving banks and financial institutions more freedom to loan money to people who previously would not have qualified either because they were borrowing for risky projects (like "flipping" houses) or because their income or credit history was not suitable. Some of these changes made by Congress began in the 1980's but most took place between 1999 and 2004.

The financial sector, freed from controls over lending practices developed some new types of loans, such as new types of Adjustable Rate Mortgages that reset to much higher rates after a period of time, and "interest only" loans that require payment only of interest for an initial period before principle payments kick in. The lenders begin to target people who have been priced out of the housing market, with loans that looked affordable or at least the initial few years of payments look affordable, but which are actually well beyond the means of the consumer. As a result, people making the median income of $50,000 a year, were buying median houses of $200,000, because the banks and other lending institutions were making the first few years of payments something that was affordable. [A family with $50,000 income should not be purchasing a home worth more than $100,000, and even that's pushing it -- but the number of homes less than $100,000 are few and hard to find and often not large enough for young growing families].

So a housing industry (developers and builders) looking for more profits and a banking/finance industry looking for more profits (and allowed to make more risky loans by removal of regulation), offered loans to speculative borrowers and "subprime" (lower income) borrowers, loans that those borrowers could not really afford in the long run. Speculative borrowers are people who buy a house they can't really afford to pay for in the long run, in order fix it up and sell it for a higher price, and make a profit. Called "flipping" the buyer of the house is not planning on living in the house and can only afford to make a few months worth of payments. Their plan is to remodel the house and make it attractive to high end buyers, in homes of making $50,000 to $200,000 in profit in a couple months time.

The banking and finance industry had argued that it was okay to make loans that would have low payments initially and after some years would reset to higher payments because (so the argument went) people's salaries and earning went up as they got older, and the economy expanded over time and wages and salaries increase. The problem is that while it was true that salaries and wages had increased during the 1990's (from 1993 to 1999), the same was not true from 2000 to 2007. Wages and salaries stagnated, and did not keep up with inflation. In recent years, the increasing costs of petroleum and energy caused inflation to rise much faster than wages and salaries.

Of course, some of the blame has to go to the consumers who borrowed more money than they could really afford. They were sometimes pressured by banks and loaning institutions to do so, and were not always given all the information that they needed to make good decisions. But do hold some responsibility for taking on more debt that they could afford. Substantial responsibility lies on the banks and financial institutions that saw loaning to subprime and speculative borrowers as a way to make more money in the short run, because they should have and could have foreseen what would happen. Some responsibility lies on the builders and developers who were unwilling to construct more affordable housing and accept slightly lower profits. Everyone was short sighted, they went for the big bucks up front, and ignored the high likelihood of big losses down the road.

Why does a problem like this in the home building/ home financing area of our economy have so much spill over into other areas? One reason is that the home construction industry is a huge purchaser of goods from other industries -- from raw materials (lumber, steel, glass, plastic), to manufactured products (carpet, appliances, furnaces, doors, counter tops, etc.). Also new home owners also spend a great deal of money themselves on new furnishings (furniture, drapes, lamps, etc.). This has always been true about the housing industry. However, one very new thing, that makes the problem with the housing and finance industry in 2008 a more serious problem is changes in the rules governing financial institutions.

In 1933, the Glass-Steagall Banking Act was passed that said that banking (taking people's money in checking and savings deposits, and making home loans and small personal loans), and that neither banks nor insurance companies could do "investment" (using their own capital to invest in business as well as helping connect people with capital to invest with businesses looking for capital to fund their activities). Banking, is an activity that the government insures, so that people know that their money is safe, and "banks" are required to hold on to a certain percentage of the money deposited to have it on hand at all times to meet depositors needs. Investment businesses make no promises at all about customers money, they take the money and place it in investments, the money is not insured, and there is no requirement to keep cash on hand, and no promise that investors will get any of their money back; although most of the time investors get more money back than they put in, there is no guarantee that this will happen -- banks on the other hand guarantee that every penny you put in you will get back, and insurance companies guarantee that if you pay your premiums without fail and you have a qualifying disaster then you will get more than your money back.

So the 1933 Glass Steagall act, said these businesses, which have very different purposes and very different requirements in dealing with money should not be allowed to be merged together in a single company. In 1999, that law was repealed, and this allowed banks, insurance companies and investment companies to all merge together into large financial institutions. This allows problems in one area of finance to spill over into other areas of finance -- for housing loan problems to affect business investment and vice versa.

Saturday, September 20, 2008

changing sexual norms and Twilight

Fifty and even forty years ago fear of disease and pregnancy were fairly effective in getting most teenagers, at least teenage girls, to view sex before marriage as dangerous and risky.

I remember quite well the film that we were shown sophomore year of high school that was intended to discourage sex. A teenage boy and girl were shown getting into the back seat of a car, the car did some rocking, and the teenagers got out with rumpled clothes; fast forward a few weeks and you see the teenage girl with her doctor getting the news that she has some unnamed, loathsome disease that could render her sterile. While we were amused by the car rocking and rumpled clothes we believed in the disease risk.

But the real fear of sex in the 1950's and 1960's came from the risk of pregnancy. The pill was quite new and hard for teenagers to obtain; with the much higher dosages of the time the pill had more negative side effects; few if any alternatives to the pill were available to teen girls, and the attitudes of the time -- that condoms were only used with prostitutes -- meant that a "good" girl would be offended in the extremely unlikely case that her boyfriend suggested them. Abortion was of course illegal in the 60's, and while some girls found a way, there were often deadly consequences of illegal abortions. If you got pregnant in 1968, your world came to an end, or so it seemed to us at the time. Pregnant girls were thrown out of regular school; the girls who got pregnant and dropped out were the subjects of scandalized whispering campaigns.

Books written for teenage girls in the fifties and sixties, could and did realistically depict ordinary teenage girls, deeply in love with their ordinary boyfriends steadfastly resisting sex, and saving themselves for marriage. The tension and drama of those novels was generated by an accepted tension between fear (of pregnancy and disease) and desire. Few of us who consumed those novels thought this was ridiculous or silly or old fashioned, we found that tension reasonable and realistic, and romantic.

While today there are religious people, including religious teens, that consider sex before marriage sinful, or at the very least undesirable, the type of mortal fear of sex that existed in the 1950's and 1960's has disappeared from popular thought. Diseases like gonorrhea and syphilis are, rightly or wrongly, viewed as easily cured and inconsequential. Even AIDS, an incurable life shortening disease, doesn't work well as a scare tactic because, true or not, popular belief view AIDS as a disease that only affects homosexuals, needle using drug addicts, and poor black people.

It is extremely unlikely that teens would view pregnancy as the life ending event we did in the sixties, when they observe classmates who are pregnant, and know girls with babies going to college. In a time when a conservative, evangelical, Republican candidate for Vice President is open and accepting of her teenage daughter's pregnancy, the idea that pregnancy will ruin one's life and destroy one's reputation are viewed as nonsensical by today's teens.

In this world in which the old dangers of sex no longer hold water with young people, enters Stephenie Meyer and her Twilight series. On her website she writes:
I am also a member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (or Mormon, as we are commonly called—for more info on what that means, see ) and that has a huge influence on who I am and my perspective on the world, and therefore what I write (though I have been asked more than once, "What's a nice Mormon girl like you doing writing about vampires?").
I would argue that Stephenie Meyer writes about vampires because she is a Mormon.

Her religious tradition like most conservative, Christian traditions views sex outside of marriage as sinful, and preaches that young people (male and female) should preserve their virginity until marriage. There are many Christian novels written, published and in bookstores these days that tell stories of romance between young people who remain celibate and do not consummate their relationship until after the marriage vows are complete. None of those novels ever makes it on to the best seller lists -- but the Twilight series has had phenomenal commercial success.

The genius of the Twilight books, is that Stephenie Meyers (as the result of a vivid dream) has found a way to recapture the old fashioned romantic tension between danger and desire, without being viewed as out-dated or absurd. Instead of fear of sexual transmitted diseases or pregnancy, we have fear of the vampire lover who might lose control during sex and devour his partner. By evoking an iconic and well established fantasy creature -- the vampire -- Meyer can deliver her message of abstinence within a framework that seems exciting, dangerous and modern, rather than old fashioned.

Tuesday, September 09, 2008

cultural change and language change

In our last two sessions, my SOC 101 class (the one in the classroom)and I have been focusing on the elements of culture, beginning with language, and talking about changes in culture. Last Thursday we were coming up with examples of words that have come to have different meanings -- both denotations (the direct, explicit, dictionary meaning) and connotations (implied or suggested meaning).

In light of this conversation with my students I find it interesting, that apparently the meaning (both denotation and connotation) of the noun "barracuda" has evidently undergone some changes. According to my Merriam-Webster Dictionary (copyright 2004) the second meaning of "barracuda" is a person who "uses aggressive, selfish, and sometimes unethical methods to obtain a goal, especially in business."

Now my 1941 Merriam-Webster Collegiate Dictionary, doesn't even have that meaning, it just defines barracuda as "voracious pike-like marine fish." So the application of the name to humans is one example of the changing nature of language.

Now, it would appear, that the Republicans either like the idea of Sarah Palin being labeled "aggressive, selfish, and sometimes unethical" or they think the word means something entirely different. Certainly the Heart song "Barracuda" that the Republicans have chosen (with out the group's permission) as Palin's theme song, does not use the term in a wholly complementary way --the person being called "barracuda" appears to be a preditory and lying person.

Sunday, September 07, 2008

cultural values and social practices

Cultural values often are disconnected from social practices. The values reflect ideals that are often disconnected with the realities of daily life.

I am suddenly reminded of a joke from my childhood, when the primary method of birth control used by Catholics was the rhythm method.

Old Joke:
"What do you call a couple who uses the rythm method?"

New joke:
"What do you call parents who teach abstinence-only to their teens?"

Monday, September 01, 2008

norms, the nomos and the antinomian

Sociologists define norms as rules for behavior that are shared by a group of people. Those rules can vary in seriousness from things like "don't kill" or "don't steal" to "keep your elbows off the table" and "cover your mouth when you cough."

Our everyday life activity is governed by thousands of rules, most of which do not rise to the level of consciousness for us, unless some one violates them. While some norms are viewed as sufficiently serious to require coding into laws with formal sanctions (punishments) attached to them, most norms are enforced in ways that are less formal and less visible to us.

As humans we desire the company and approval of others and generally seek to avoid the criticism and lack of approval of people who are important to us (family, friends, neighbors, co-workers, teachers, bosses). It is not necessary for some one to actually criticize us for, say not keeping our lawn mown, as long as we are aware that the people we care about say negative things about others who do not mow their lawns. The less serious a norm is, the easier it is to violate it without significant disapproval by those who matter to us, or to pass over the occasional criticism as unimportant.

I've previously discussed how language is used to establish the acceptable order (nomos) and what is outside the acceptable order (antinomian). Norms are another important part of defining the nomos, and the violation of norms can be an indicator of what is antinomian. But people do not judge all violations of norms (regardless of level of seriousness) the same. Much depends upon who is violating the norms, when and where.

In graduate school one of my professors, Dwight Billings (still on the graduate faculty at the University of Kentucky) spoke of the concept of "deviance credits." The idea of deviance credits is that some types of people are given leeway for violating norms that others are not. For example, children and very old people are not held to quite the same standards of politeness and propriety that adults are; artists are often expected to be outrageous and dramatic in their behavior; doctors, police, fire fighters, and others intent on saving lives are excused some of the niceties of politeness.

However, the reverse is also true, some people are held to higher standards than others. This has long been the curse of ministers and their families. College presidents are often held to standards that are not applied to CEO's of corporations. Witness the recent resignation of Robert A. Paxton, president of Iowa Central Community College when a photo of him partying on a boat with his son's friends, was made public; none of the young people in the photo or one the boat were below drinking age, and none except his son were students at his college, however, the standard of behavior for college presidents is higher regarding some types of behavior than for other individuals.

The nomos or social order is often maintained by making an example of those who hold positions that are in the limelight, holding them to a higher level of adherence to norms than one might for one's family, friends or neighbors -- or even oneself. Politicians for high national office are among those individuals generally held to higher standards of norm following.

One of my students posted the following comment in our discussion on norms:
Over the weekend, my family and I attended the rodeo at I---. Toward the end of the show, 4 riders came out on horses, each holding a flag belonging to one of the four branches of the military. Those flags were followed by the American flag being held by a female rider. Though many people stood up out of respect for our flags, others did not. There were people in the crowd who didn't remove their hats either, even during the National Anthem. I thought it to be the norm, to always remove your hat, place your hand on your heart, and stand for our Anthem. I found the behavior of those who didn't to be very disappointing and disrespectful.
Obviously this student was disturbed by the breaking of this norm, but the larger point her story reveals is that many people in the audience did not follow this norm. Either because they do not hold the same understanding of the rules governing flag respect or because they view them as minor norms with no serious repercussions (sanctions) for violation of this norm. Recent public reactions to Obama merely standing in respect but not putting his hand over his heart during the National Anthem, support the contention that higher standards of norm following on this matter is applied to presidential candidates.

Wednesday, August 13, 2008

power, the individual and the community

People often feel powerless in the face of changes in the economy and decisions by state and federal governments. However, when ordinary citizens come together on common issues, and especially when they work through their local government representatives (majors and town councils) they can have considerable influence on the course of broader events.

Chris McClure at Common Sense Agriculture, Conservation and Energy has an interesting post about a film Texas Coal Wars (see widget in side bar for link to film), that shows how Texas communities large and small came together in a coalition with other groups to oppose construction of new coal-fired electric plants.

Sunday, August 10, 2008

political advertising and values

Campaign advertising is an interesting art form. In just 30 to 60 seconds an advertisement wants to use images, sound, and a small amount of text to strike a chord in potential voters. Positive ads aim to provide images and words that will make viewers identify with a candidate, often by appeals to values (family, patriotism, smaller government, environmental protection, education, and so on). Negative ads aim to conjure adverse reactions to one's opposition with unpleasant images and phrases (like "higher taxes" or "soft on crime" or "liar").

Over the last week or so, I've found McCain's ad campaign curious and confusing. Never before have I seen the ads of one candidate (the ads actually "approved by" the candidate) feature positive and attractive images of his opponent so prominently, for such a large percentage of the ad time. Yet that is exactly what the McCain ads do. Yes, the big evil word "TAXES" is display prominently next to Obama's picture in one part of the ad, but for the most part the images of Obama are attractive, show him smiling, show people smiling at him. This is unprecedented in national campaign advertising, especially negative advertising where the few pictures of the candidate being slammed are generally chosen to be unflattering and appear only briefly. Which left me puzzled -- why would McCain promote these positive images of Obama?

This afternoon, while watching the Olympics my husband and I were talking about how Americans view athletes who immigrate from other countries to the U.S. and compete on our teams. My husband, a serious competitive runner, who spends a lot of time on-line on running discussion boards and blogs, has told me that many of the people on the boards have expressed negative feelings about Bernard Legat and Lopez Lomong, as "foreigners" who should have stayed where they belonged. We were watching women's gymnastics at the time, and the performance of Nastia Liukin a member of the U.S. women's team. Liukin is the daughter of a former USSR Olympic medalist in men's gymnastics; in other words she is an immigrant like Legat and Lomong. We were speculating whether attitudes about immigrants similar to those expressed in the running world were expressed in gymnastic circles about Liukin. We wondered if age made a difference. Then we wondered if race and ethnicity made a difference; do you get a pass if you are blonde and blue-eyed?

Suddenly I had a flash of an idea. What if the unspoken subliminal message of the McCain ads is "Look at this extraordinarily popular BLACK man -- he just might get to be president! Be afraid, be very afraid." What if, the McCain ads are aimed at the unspoken reservoir of racism that they know runs deeply under the surface of American life? What if the ads are just simply to visually underline the one thing that they are not allowed to actually say -- "oh, my God, this is a BLACK man."

I'd like to think it isn't true, but the more I think about it, the more I wonder. Let me be clear, I am most definitely not saying that McCain is a racist. Nor am I saying that the individuals who plan and produce McCain's ads are racists (I don't know who those people are and would not presume to attach that label to someone I didn't know well). What I am suggesting is that the people responsible for the content of the ads may be hoping to strike a chord with the racist values of some Americans, values that they know exist out there in America, and that if they can mobilize some voters around that particular value, McCain is likely to benefit. What do other people think?

Friday, August 08, 2008

restructuring the economy

Current U.S. Department of Labor figures show that in July 2008, the number of involuntary part-time workers (in jobs formerly full-time but cut to part time due to "Slack work or business conditions") was 4,174,000 compared to only 2,693,000 one year ago (July 2007). While the change from 2007 to 2008 was unusually large, it is part of a longer historical trend to a greater reliance on part-time and temporary workers across the economy.

The trend to greater reliance on part-time workers is one for which high education has unfortunately been in the forefront. Universities, colleges and community colleges have shifted more and more of their teaching responsibilities to adjunct faculty, who teach part-time, have few if any benefits, who frequently are given no office space and who have little contact with students other than in the classroom. Community College's in particular have grown more and more dependent on part-time adjunct faculty. Research by Grace Banachowski shows the trend:
According to Lombardi (1992), part-time faculty constituted 38.5% of the instructors in 698 junior colleges in 1962. This number increased moderately to 40% in 1971, and three years later grew to nearly 50%. By 1980, nearly 60% of the faculty in two-year colleges were employed part-time, and 65% in 1993 (National Center for Education Statistics in American Association of Community Colleges, 1995).
As community colleges deal more and more often with under prepared students needed extensive developmental (or as they used to be called remedial) course work to be ready for college work, the trend towards relying on adjunct faculty is troubling.

Yesterday (August 7) was the annual first meeting of the Kentucky Community and Technical College System (KCTCS) Faculty Senate. Representatives from the 13 college districts around Kentucky gathered at the KCTCS offices in Versailles, Kentucky. At the end of the morning general sessions there was an unscheduled appearance by the KCTCS president Michael McCall. McCall offered general remarks of encouragement and optimism for the upcoming academic year, then opened the floor for questions.

The first question from the assembled faculty and academic deans dealt with the rising percentage of instruction being done at KCTCS college's by part-time adjunct instructors. The speaker raised concerns about the impact this was having on the quality of instruction. McCall's response was vague and general, full of platitudes about serving students and maintaining quality. McCall ended his response with a suggestion that individual colleges within the system would need to "examine" the balance between full-time and part-time instruction. [Notice this says nothing about changing the balance, or reversing the trends, only "examining" the balance.]

The next question Dr. McCall fielded was about on-line instruction and the new KCTCS Virtual Learning Initiative (VLI). The VLI is working to translate several KCTCS degree programs into a format in which all courses are offered in self-guided modules. Each course would be divided into smaller units, that could be taken in a week or two. Entry into modules would be 7 days a week, 365 days of the year, on demand from students. Because courses in the VLI program are detached from the traditional semester structure, and offered for fractional credit, all instruction for the program will be done by part-time instructors. Even full-time faculty who decide to participate as instructors will do so as overloads to their normal loads, but the plan is that most of the staffing will be done by new, part-time instructors, who will be paid on a per student per credit basis.

McCall's response to the question made it clear that he believes that this new model of on-demand education should replace all other forms of education in the KCTCS system. While he noted that we would have to wait to see how successful it the Virtual Learning Initiative was, he expressed the belief that it would be successful and that this model was preferable to the traditional model based on semesters.

Given McCall's response to this second question on the Virtual Learning Initiative, it is likely that when he said that KCTCS college's should "examine" the balance of full-time to part-time instruction, he really meant that they should be thinking in terms of moving entirely to part-time instruction!

Saturday, August 02, 2008

Musing about the Future, Part II

Rising fuel prices are bringing some reversals to globalization trends, and bringing some traditional forms of manufacturing back to the United States.

I would like to say "I told you so," but apparently I didn't. After careful perusal of my archives it appears that many of the thoughts I've had about the future of energy and global markets never made it to the electronic page. So far, only my husband, and my colleagues on the Technology Committee have had to listen to those ideas, which were prompted last summer by reading Thomas Friedman's The World is Flat

Today, the New York Times has a piece "Shipping Costs Start to Crimp Globalization" which documents that changes I was predicting for the future have already begun. Globalization, the dispersion of economic activities across the world is driven by the search for cheaper and cheaper labor, and considerations of monetary exchange rates, tax policies, and environmental restrictions. Globalization has been made possible by cheap transportation and the global spread of instantaneous digital communications. Friedman and others have viewed the globalization process as moving in one direction only, to greater and greater integration of all localities into one world-wide economic web.

Thomas Friedman's description of what happened to the world up through 2006 is excellent. However, as I read The World is Flat last summer, it occurred to me that Friedman's predictions for the future did not take into consideration what would happen when the cost of fuel made transportation a more important cost than labor. That was in July 2007, when the cost of oil was approximately $70 a barrel. The cost of oil yesterday, August 1, 2008, was $125 a barrel an increase of seventy-nine percent - and this is nearly $10 less than the all time weekly high of $134 a barrel last month (July 2008).

Since cutting costs is the driving force behind globalization, it seemed to me logical and reasonable, that as the cost of moving goods across oceans become more expensive this would offset other costs (such as labor, taxes, and environmental controls) and make production of goods closer to end consumers more appealing. Moreover, a rise in transportation costs seems inevitable given the finite nature of the primary transportation fuel - petroleum.

As much as oil prices have risen (and with expanding economies in Asia to blunt any declines in consumption from the U.S. and other advanced industrialized countries) traditional economic theory would predict rises in world oil production. Albeit that many oil producing nations (especially within OPEC) are not market economies, even state owned industries are not completely immune to the pull higher prices can have on production levels. However, the Energy Information Agency of the U.S. Department of Energy gives oil production figures that show only small increases in world production in recent years, and even small declines in early 2008.

Oil production from Saudi Arabia where oil is state owned rose from August 2007 to January 2008, and then declined slightly in the first quarter of 2008. In Russia, where major efforts have been made to privatize and modernize oil production, saw small but steady production declines from August 2007 through April 2008. The overall pattern of world oil production in this time of rising prices suggests that oil is becoming more difficult and more expensive to find and produce. The easing of oil prices (and the price of gasoline at the pump) in the last three weeks, does not signal a long term return to cheap fuel, but a short term adjustment to the downturn in demand in the U.S. The long term outlook is for fuel prices to continue to rise.

The NYTimes article provides some specific examples of industries that have already bucked to the globalization trend due to increased costs. One of particular interest to people in central Appalachia were I'm located is a return of furniture manufacturing to the region.

Until recently, standard practice in the furniture industry was to ship American timber from ports like Norfolk, Baltimore and Charleston to China, where oak and cherry would be milled into sofas, beds, tables, cabinets and chairs, which were then shipped back to the United States.
But with transport costs rising, more wood is now going to traditional domestic furniture-making centers in North Carolina and Virginia, where the industry had all but been wiped out. While the opening of the American Ikea plant, in Danville, Va., a traditional furniture-producing center hit hard by the outsourcing of production to Asia, is perhaps most emblematic of such changes, other manufacturers are also shifting some production back to the United States.
Among them is Craftmaster Furniture, a company founded in North Carolina but now Chinese-owned. And at an industry fair in April, La-Z-Boy announced a new line that will begin production in North Carolina this month.

The U.S. steel industry is another that has seen resurgence due to rising transportation costs, while steel imports from China have been steadily declining in recent years.

The assumption by Friedman (and others) that all industries would eventually move into "just-in --time" supply lines that span the globe, is likely to run afoul of rising transportation costs and greater uncertainty of fuel supplies. The NYTimes article gives a few specific examples of industries opting for local suppliers for components in their products, which hints at a future in which more localized neighborhood based integration of groups of producers and suppliers may reappear in the American landscape.

This does not mean that there will ever be a complete retreat from global trade. As Brian Fagan discusses in The Great Warming even during the unpredictable precipitation in the Sahara Desert during the "medieval warm period" camel caravans carrying a variety of goods continued to be regular feature of northern Africa's economy. However, it does mean that the future global economic landscape may not be as "flat" as it is today.

Saturday, July 26, 2008

the process of science

A few years back, Michael Crichton published State of Fear, which was far less a novel than an inept position paper. Possessed of a tortured and unbelievable plot, wooden characters, and many pages of highly selective scientific data (replete with charts and footnotes) and pseudo-scientific exposition, the book was only worth reading for insight into the minds of climate contrarians (or deniers depending on your preferred terminology). The book had two essential premises: 1) those who support the idea of anthropogenic global warming do so for reasons of personal, professional and organizational economic gain and aggrandizement, and that these people are therefore willing to go to any lengths, including the wholesale murder of entire populations through manufactured environmental catastrophes, to protect their interests and promote acceptance of anthropogenic global warming by the public and politicians; and 2) governments (that is the "state" in the title) require the maintenance of fear in order to exert control in the population, and in the absence of old enemies (communism), government has turned to an environmental bogeyman to exert control.

Let's deal with premise number two first. Governments have used fear as a mechanism of control, especially when bent on limiting civil liberties and political opposition, and expanding the power of office holders. This describes the Bush administration. However, the Bush administration spent seven of its eight years denying global warming, and doing its best to silence scientists in NASA, NOAA, the EPA and CDC and stifle data supportive of the anthropogenic global warming. The Bush administration favorite bogeyman is "Islamic terrorism" not global warming. Which leads us to premise number one. Certainly millions of dollars of research money, from both government and industry is at stake for scientists, their departments and their institutions. But under the Bush administration, large-scale government monies were not flowing to scientists studying climate change, and the industries (coal, electricity generation, oil, etc.) with the most money to spend on climate research are largely those whose stake is in undermining the anthropogenic global warming hypothesis.

Why spend so much time talking about a bad novel? Because those two key premises are widely believed by many people. Over and over, in blogs, in on-line discussions, on talk shows, on Fox News, and many other media outlets, the belief is expressed that those who support the idea of anthropogenic global warming are motivated by the exact same things -- greed and power -- that motivate those who oppose the idea.

Americans have become disenchanted with politics (many sociologists would call it alienation). Quite accurately, Americans are aware of the role of money in politics. They know that the pharmaceutical corporations spend millions in lobbying money and campaign contributions and public relations ads to insure that they will continue to make billions and billions in profits on drugs. They know that corporations like Halliburton and its subsidiaries have made millions in profits on no-bid contracts in Iraq while American soldiers and Iraqi civilians die -- sometimes as a direct result of the shoddy work done on those contracts, like the soldiers electrocuted by poor wiring jobs done by a Halliburton subsidiary. Americans also know that things that their government identifies as threats often turn out not to be supported by fact. Many Americans believe that Bush and Cheney knowingly lied about the presence of weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, whipping-up fear to support a war that had far more to do with shoring up the dollar and protecting access to oil supplies, than it ever had to do with terrorism and military threat. So it is not surprising that many Americans also look at claims about the dangers of global warming with distrust.

They have come to expect people to act politically only out of self-interest in amassing wealth and power, and to expect that fear-mongering will play a major role in promoting that self-interest. The idea that scientists might operate on different, more disinterested principles, requiring rigorous testing, verification and review is beyond the comprehension of most people. This is not to say that scientists are not human and that they care nothing at all for career advancement, salaries, or grants; of course they are and they do.

Individual scientists fake data and lie about their results. However, they are usually caught at it and disgraced, because the scientific endeavor as a whole has built into it many mechanisms for feedback, review, oversight, and correction based on empirical evidence.

Most Americans do not understand that science is a process and a social process at that. Our educational system is at fault in this. The only exposure of most people to science is reading a few dry textbooks that present a list of terms, facts and numbers to be memorized and accepted by fiat. The social process of science in which the results of each individual scientists study are reviewed by many others, and tested repeatedly by others in other settings, has built into it corrections that tend to weed out that which is cannot be replicated and supported.

Science is not infallible. Scientists do sometimes go down the wrong alley, but this is always corrected by other scientists. Climate change science has been around a lot longer than the general public has been aware of it - and contrary to some media claims has been focused on global warming not cooling. Long before it became climate change became a political issue, the scientific process of review pruned away most of the false leads and blind alleys. There is still a great deal of uncertainty on specific mechanisms, specific consequences, and the specific patterns and timetables through which the general trend of anthropogenic global warming will play out.

Politicians and the political process may "squelch dissent," but science uses a process of peer review to sort between that which has the greatest empirical support and that which fails the tests of reviews and replication. This means that some people don't get their papers and their research published. This is not sinister, its how the scientific process works. Sometimes this means that good ideas and groundbreaking research doesn't get published. But if there's validity in it, other people will pick it up and work on it, providing more data, more corraboration, until ultimately it will get recognized.

Monday, July 07, 2008

childhood socialization and values

Almost every introductory sociology textbook carries in it the obligatory discussion of "nature versus nurture," and while sociology acknowledges some role for genetic inheritance in human behavior, the essence of sociology is to focus on the nurture side or what we call socialization. [Anthropologists refer to the same process as enculturation -- a term that results in less student confusion.]

Sociologists explore the role of learning from others (socialization) on everything from eating and controlling bodily functions, to language, to following the rules of daily life (norms), to developing beliefs and values.

If you doubt the role of socialization (learning from others) in eating behavior, then you've never spent any time with a baby or small child. They will put anything in their mouths to taste, and I mean anything, so the only thing standing between a human child and eminent death by poisoning is socializing agents such as parents, grandparents, older siblings and other caretakers, who teach (socialize) the child to distinguish between proper "food" and other consumables. This of course also includes teaching the child that many things that non-poisonous and are acceptable as food in other cultures are off limits and "nasty" in our own -- such as insects, worms, and dirt.

Of greater interest to most sociologists are the learning processes (socialization) for acquiring cultural norms, beliefs and values -- the non-material aspects of human culture. Sociologists and anthropologists vary in their views of how much of our adult attitudes, believes and values are socialized (enculturated) in childhood, and how much continues to evolve throughout our life time. Like many sociologists I am most influenced by thinkers like George Herbert Mead who view socialization and the development of the self as life long processes. While key developments happen in early childhood, the self and the attitudes, beliefs and values of the self are an on-going process shaped by the continuing interaction with others.

Another part of the sociological debate over socialization concerns the relative importance of various agents of socialization: parents, siblings, relatives, teachers, peers (friends, schoolmates), ministers and Sunday school teachers, and in the modern world media (books, magazines, television, music, movies, video games, etc.). Few sociologists question the primacy of parents or other primary caregivers in infancy; and much research has been done that establishes that television (especially televised violence) has an impact on childhood socialization. During the 1970's a great deal of research explored the role of children's books in shaping children's perceptions and attitudes about gender and gender roles.

In that spirit a new book, Little House, Long Shadow: Laura Ingalls Wilder's Impact on American Culture (University of Missouri Press) by Anita Clair Fellman, now chair of the women's-studies department at Old Dominion University, investigates the impact of this popular series of books on the political values and attitudes of recent generations of Americans. As reported in the Chronicle of Higher Education "Note Bene" July 11, 2008 [sorry, this is a subscription only article]:

She [Fellman] found, perhaps unsurprisingly, that Wilder's own staunch individualism had informed the tenor of the novels. "Distraught by New Deal policies that created an expanded role for government," Wilder had, in her books, expressly depicted government as "nothing but rules and bureaucracies destructive to the enterprising individual," sometimes manipulating the facts of her youth — on which the books are based — to achieve this effect. The Little House books instead champion the self-reliance, isolationism, and "buoyancy of spirit" Wilder felt had made America great.

Fellman carefully notes, "Looking at the Little House books in this way would be only a case study for my starting proposition that sources other than overtly political thinking and rhetoric might have contributed to a continued appreciation for individualist ideas." Yet, she continues, "there are not many people who are aware of the formative influence of what they read in childhood on their core political views."

As a sociologist, I am suspicious of this sort of purely textual analysis. Until research actually links the reading of these books in childhood, to the development of conservative, individualistic values in adulthood in specific individuals, Fellman's work remains highly speculative. Moreover, one would have to explore the interaction of exposure to books like this with the political values expressed within the family.

My own experience causes me to question the value of Fellman's conclusions. No one I knew growing up spent more time reading Laura Ingalls Wilder's books than I did. I read the entire series several times before the age of 18, and the last four books (dealing with Laura's adolescence and early adulthood) in the series more than a dozen times during the same period, and have probably read it another 5 or 6 time since that. Many of the girls I knew never read it at all, and none of the boys -- including my two brothers -- I knew read it or had it read to them. Despite my fondness for the series, and my admiration for the pioneer spirit expressed within it, my own political values were far more influenced by my parents, who were (and still are) staunch liberals. The fact that my father gave me The Communist Manifesto to read at age 11, and encouraged me to read his union paper every week, were far more influential on my political values than the Wilder series, no matter how beloved.

Moreover, my family experience suggests that adult experience is also influential on political values. One of my brothers, who read neither the Laura Ingalls Wilder books, nor The Communist Manifesto as a child, but was exposed to the same liberal political rants at the dinner table, grew up to be a Reagan (and Bush) conservative. I strongly suspect that his adult political values have a lot more to do with his economic self interest (he's been much more affluent than myself by 400 to 600 percent for the past 3 decades) in low taxes and policies that benefit investors than with any childhood influences. My own adult experiences both as a knowledge worker at the lowest end of the scale for my occupation, and as a faculty advisor and friend to many women struggling with the welfare system also continued to mold me into a liberal.

A current candidate for president also made an excellent argument, though much maligned, for the role of adult experiences on shaping political values. Although, as a sociologist I would suggest that the words "disaffected" or "alienated" would be more accurate than "bitter," his assessement of the impact of frustration on political attitudes reflects what I have observed in the working class and lower middle class communities where I have lived and taught.

My general sense, contrary to Fellman's argument, is that the swell of conservatism that brought Reagan to office had more to do with those who read little or nothing in childhood and whose only contact with the Wilder story was through the Michael Landon TV series, than it had to do with the influence of a series of children's books. But the only way the question could be answered would be to actually measure the political attitudes of individuals and compare that to their childhood reading experiences.

Friday, July 04, 2008

social construction of the nomos and antinomos

Language is what separates humans for the other animals. Language isn't just communication. Lots of animals communicate. My dog sends greetings to other dogs in the neighborhood. She loudly announces that there is a suspicious vehicle in the neighborhood that requires our attention. She voices her approval and encouragement to the neighbors' dog Mr. Tuggles as he harasses one of the neighborhood cats. But my dog can't communicate about things that happened yesterday, things that happen outside the range of her sight, smell or hearing, or things that might possibly happen tomorrow. Only humans with our symbolic language can do those things.

One of many the ways that humans use language is to define what is part of the acceptable order (nomos) and what is outside the acceptable order (antinomian). In this day and age, we have the technological capacity to disseminate our attempts at defining the nomos and antinomos to thousands of people in a short period of time through the Internet. Many e-mails are sent everyday designed to convince readers to view the world in particular ways, to define somethings as within the order of the nomos, and other things as antinomian.

This week I received such an e-mail, from one of those acquaintances who rarely sends personal messages, but has decided, without a by-your-leave, to include their entire address book in mass mailings; a behavior which, by the way I consider rude in the extreme (why I make an issue of this will become apparent below). This particular e-mail, like many was designed to call attention to antinomian action, and thus galvanize its readers into action to support and protect the nomos. What that action might be, other than forwarding the message on to everyone in one's own address book, is left suitably vague. The subject of the e-mail? A woman, an ordinary citizen with a good singing voice, was invited to perform The Star Spangled Banner at her local (Denver) city council meeting. In a move that was ill-advised but hardly sinister, the woman substituted the song Lift Ev'ry Voice and Sing by James Weldon Johnson. Both songs speak of liberty, freedom, God and love of country. [Click here if you are unfamiliar with Johnson's song,and click here if you can't remember The Star Spangled Banner -- as many Americans cannot.]

The incident was discussed on local radio, where the Governor of Colorado defined the woman's actions as "actions were 'wrong' and 'outside the bounds.'" In other words the governor labeled the actions antinomian -- against the nomos. Local papers picked up the story, pointing out that the song Lift Ev'ry Voice and Sing "is also known as the 'black national anthem.'" This is technically incorrect; the NAACP adopted the song as "The Negro National Anthem" in 1919, and it was entered into the Congressional Record in 1990 as "African American National Hymn." Unlike the phrases "Negro National Anthem" and "African American National Hymn" the phrase "Black National Anthem" conjures in some people's minds the wraith of "Black nationalism," a separatist movement that arose in the late 19th century, and which has been associated with militant movements in the twentieth century. There is, of course, no connection what so ever between this song and that movement.

The e-mail I received strongly suggested that the actions of the singer were seditious (although the vocabulary of the e-mail was far cruder), an attempt to subvert the legitimate government, through a plot to replace one national allegiance with a foreign - non-American - allegiance. Curious, I did some Googling, found the original story (which included the lyrics). I wondered if the people who sent the e-mail, who seemed so incensed about this anti-American action, were at all familiar with the words. So I hit "reply all" and mailed the lyrics back to them (and everyone on the list of course).

This morning I received a reply from my acquaintance. She acknowledged that "It is a beautiful song but when someone is asked to sing a specific song and they agree, they should not change the song without asking those who extended the original invitation. All politics aside, it is just rude."

My response to her: Yes. I agree, it is rude and it is inappropriate when you are asked to provide a specific service to substitute another service (regardless of quality) without first asking. She should not have done it without asking first. [Just as people should ask the folks in their e-mail address book whether they wan to receive mass mailings.] But if my acquaintance (who lives no where near Denver), or the governor of Colorado, or Fox news, or anyone else who has promoted and forwarded this story, thought that the problem was "rudeness," then there would never have been a story. Because I guarantee that rude behavior happens at city council and town council meetings nation-wide on a regular and recurring basis, and never gets further than the local media -- if that. Rudeness is annoying but it doesn't warrant a nation-wide flurry of communications to warn folks of attacks upon the nomos.

Here's my bet -- if this woman had substituted Amazing Grace for The Star Spangled Banner how upset would these same people be? Would it have made a national news story? Or if a white woman had sung these exact same words, with no one mentioning the phrase "black national anthem" wouldn't these same people be defending her against the ACLU for bringing God (mentioned 4 times in Lift Ev'ry Voice and only 1 time in The Star Spangled Banner) into a political arena?

Wednesday, July 02, 2008

understanding the nomos

Sociologist Peter Berger defined the "nomos" as "a meaningful order" which makes the "antinomian" the opposite of meaningful order. One who is antinomian deliberately stands against existing norms and laws.

It is a long established principle in anthropology and sociology that it is difficult for people to recognize and articulate what is normal or normative, because the nomos to truly work in providing meaningful order it must be taken-for-granted. The nomos must be accepted as natural, unquestioned, and therefore to some extent unconscious. It is only when confronting the antinomian, that individuals within a society are able to articulate the nomos, and then only in part, because the nature of the nomos is that it must be taken-for-granted to be effective.

Emile Durkheim demonstrated in his research and theory that the existence of deviance in a society is functional (beneficial) because the existence of deviance and the sanctioning of deviance serves by comparison to define and reinforce adherence to the norms of society (nomos).

Consequently, for more than one hundred and fifty years, anthropologists and sociologists (not to mention psychologists) have used the examination of antinomians and deviants as the best means through which to access the unquestioned, unexamined nomos of society.

Recently David Edmunds a Family Foundation policy analyst asked in a Louisville Courier Journal op-ed piece, how the research of Professor Kaila Story of the University of Louisville on "how the black male-bodied Drag Queen's presence within queer "subcultures' disrupts mainstream notions of what is considered natural and fixed signifiers of black femininity and/or womanhood" moves Kentucky forward. The answer, as any anthropologist, sociologist or psychologist could tell him, is that it is only by examining the deviant and antinomian, that we can understand "what is considered natural and fixed signifiers of black femininity and/or womanhood."

who/what defines a terrorist?

Tuesday July 1, President Bush signed into law H.R. 5690, which "authorizes the Departments of State and Homeland Security to determine that provisions in the Immigration and Nationality Act that render aliens inadmissible due to terrorist or criminal activities would not apply with respect to activities undertaken in association with the African National Congress in opposition to apartheid rule in South Africa." In doing so, Bush removes Nelson Mandela, winner of the Nobel Peace Prize from the United States terror watch list.

Does this mean that Mandela and the ANC didn't engage in acts of violence in their fight against apartheid -- of course not. The U.S. government has finally decided to bow to public opinion that view these acts of violence as the acts of "freedom fighters." It doesn't hurt that the ANC is now the ruling party in a country in which many U.S. citizens and businesses have significant economic interests.

Many of us, myself included, never considered Mandela and the ANC terrorists, but our government did. Just as there are some Americans today who do not consider Hamas to be terrorists, but view them also as freedom fighters. The point here is that the label of "terrorist" is not based on some objective measure of the level of violence employed, or the number of deaths and injuries incurred. It is a political label based on prevailing attitudes and sentiments, and it can change when the circumstances and attitudes change.

As sociologists point out over and over again, political, economic and social reality is socially constructed. It is constructed through the process of attaching meaning to things. We humans construct those meanings, and determine how things, people, and events will be defined; because our world is socially constructed, it can be reconstructed and redefined. Power and powerlessness often determine whose sets of meanings will get the backing of governments and military might. When the lines of power shift, things are often redefined to reflect those changes in power.

Saturday, June 28, 2008

LeapFrog gone wrong

This should be filed under "did they really do that?" category. I'm not sure what bothers me most about LeapFrog's latest television advertisement for their TAG reading system: the ad itself or the possibility that there are actually parents out there who would be swayed by the commercial.

The commercial shows an adult standing next to a child sized table with two books and a line of children waiting to have access to one of the books. The adult attempts to interest the first child in line, a boy, about 7 years old in one of the books, a beautifully illustrated book on nature. The most prominent illustration is a gorgeous, realistic, detailed painting of a frog. The book is clearly a book about nature and animals. The child contemptuously turns his back on that book, in preference for the second book, illustrated with the crude, primary colored Sponge Bob characters because this book comes with the "magic" TAG stylus that will read the words in the book out loud to the child. The thrust of the advertisement is to convince parents to buy the "magic" book and stylus (the TAG system) for their kids.

I find this commercial disturbing. First, I am disturbed that anyone would wish to encourage children to prefer a simplistic book with crude illustrations of a commercial cartoon characters over a beautiful, artistic, realistically illustrated and scientifically informative book. Second, the more I think about what the TAG system does, the more I suspect that it discourages learning to read on ones own.

I don't doubt that the TAG system and other technology like it helps children with word recognition. The child can see the word and hear it pronounced. There are also interactive games in many of the books, in which an adult voice asks the child to touch a specific word, and thus promote word recognition. But the development of reading skill is involves far more than word recognition.

The TAG system is marketed for the age range from 4 years to 8 years. While perhaps appropriate for 4 year old, the TAG system seems woefully out of touch with what 8 year old should be doing with reading -- devouring entire books on their own. The television commercial features children at the upper end of this age range, rather than the lower end of the range.

I think about how I became interested in reading and developed proficiency. My parents, especially my mother, selected books from the library to read out loud. Some of the books I remember her choosing include Beverly Cleary's Henry, Ramona and Beezus stories, Travers' Mary Poppins series, Heinlein's Red Planet, Baum's Oz books (our favorites were the less familiar books, like Ozma of Oz), and many others. My mother would read only one or two chapters each night. While this was fine when I was 4 or 5, as I got older, I became impatient to know more. My mother neither blocked nor encouraged me, but simply had the books available in the house, where I could find them on my own during the daytime, to read ahead. By the time I was 8 years old, I was consuming entire books on my own, regardless of whether they were "age appropriate" or not. For example, I read the entirety of Louisa May Alcott's Little Women the summer between second and third grade, when I was 8 years old. This was followed in short order by The Five Little Peppers and Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm as well as other young people's classics.

The parent who reads to the child a book that is interesting, but just at the upper edge of the child's reading ability, encourages a curiosity and models the skill of reading. By failing to satisfy fully the child's desire to hear more of the story, and being unavailable to read out loud every time the child is interested, parents create a situation in which children must must stretch themselves to satisfy their craving for more story.

So I wonder what happens, when the child can satisfy that desire to hear more of the story read to them at any time? If they don't have to wait for mom or dad to sit down and read to them, but can use their TAG stylus, what impetus is there for them to read on their own. Moreover, the library of books developed for use with TAG are, at this point, focused on popular cartoon characters with simplistic vocabulary and stories. Books that feature Sponge Bob, Disney's Little Mermaid, the Cars from the animated feature film, Kung Fu and Diego from TV dominate the book line up. There is one classic story (the Little Engine Who Could). I must admit that Walter the Farting dog is quite entertaining, and what child (or adult) could resist being able to produce fart noises from a book! But none of these picture books provide the challenge to stretch and learn for an eight year old.

Most of my community college students can read a sentence, or a short paragraph, and they can look for answers to question that are specific, factual, and phrased in exactly the same vocabulary as the text. But few can generalize or summarize from readings longer than a page or two, and are likely to give you a blank stare if you ask them "what is the book about?" I can't help but fear that technologies like LeapFrog's TAG will produce more rather than fewer poor readers.

Friday, June 27, 2008


I applaud a stalwart colleague, Jess Rivas, at Somerset Community College in Somerset, Kentucky. He presents a first rate argument in today's Lexington Herald-Leader that President Chavez of Venezuela is not "anti-American" and that another, closer to home fit that description far better.

In case you some how miss who Rivas is referring to, check out the complete text of the Articles of Impeachment against George W. Bush entered into the Congressional Record by Rep. Dennis Kucinich.

Sunday, June 22, 2008

alone together

Alone Together: How Marriage in America is Changing by Paul R. Amato, Alan Booth, David R. Johnson, and Stacy J. Rogers, might not be a book that most people would read for pleasure. It is however, a sociologist's delight. Amato, Booth, Johnson and Rogers are sociologists at Pennsylvania State University, an institution well known in the discipline for large scale quantitative research. This book is the result of two major surveys done twenty years apart (1980 and 2000) which asked the exact same questions of a representative sample of married Americans under 55 years old. Their primary research question was "how is marriage in American changing?" What they found was that there were many changes, but that one could not make simple generalizations. Their data suggests that neither the folks who say that marriage is in decline, nor those that consider marriage to be changing but in fine health, are entirely correct. Their research suggests that marriage is a multi-faceted relationship, the quality of which varies on more than one dimension, and not always in the same direction.

Amato, Booth, Johnson and Rogers identified five dimensions of marital quality (all based on the reports of subjects): marital happiness, marital interaction, marital conflict, marital problems, and "divorce proneness" (meaning how often the individual thought about getting a divorce, talked to others -- including spouse -- about possibility of divorce, etc.). Over the twenty years between the two studies, the researchers found: 1) that reported levels of marital happiness and “divorce proneness” did not change; 2) that (on the positive side) reported levels of marital conflict and marital problems declined moderately; and 3) that overall levels of marital interaction declined. So on two of the five measures marital quality stayed the same for 20 years, on two marital quality improved, and on one, “interaction,” there was a decline (although I know some husbands and some wives who consider less interaction with their spouse to be a blessing at times).

Each of these dimensions also has multiple factors, which sometimes vary in the same way, but not always. For example, the dimension of “marital happiness” is one in which the factors vary in contradictory ways. The factors the researchers included in “marital happiness” were “agreement” with spouse, assessment of “strength of love,” evaluation of “sex life,” and whether or not they view their marriage as “better than most.” Between 1980 and 2000 “agreement” and “strength of love” increased (improved), while “sex life,” and “marriage better than most,” declined. [One could argue that a decline in assessing one’s marriage “better than most, does not represent a decline in one’s own marital quality but rather an upward assessment of the general state of marriage, or just simply greater realism]. On the other hand, the factor of marital interaction is one in which all four factors (eating main meal together, going out of leisure together, visiting friends together, and working around the home together) all declined from 1980 to 2000.

The authors’ overall conclusion: that reports of the decline and death of marriage are premature, but that all is not perfect in matrimonial land.

The research reported is sound, and provides fascinating insight into the ways that marriage has changed. I have one complaint. The authors refer throughout the book to “rise of individualism” as the cause of many of the changes that they observe, but they have not operationalized nor measured this variable in any way. They depend upon other people’s writing on the topic of individualism (none of which appears to be based on systematic empirical research). Occasionally, the authors use one of their own outcome measures as an indicator of “individualism,” but that involves fallacious circular reasoning. If one argues that an increase in individualism causes marital partners to spend more time alone, one cannot then turn around and say that spending time alone is a measure of increased individualism. That’s like saying that a job is highly paid because it is important, and we know it is important because it is highly paid.