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April 24, 2015

The “Starbucks Effect”: Correlation vs. Causation

Headshot 3.13 cropcompressBy Karen Sternheimer

Earlier this year, several news organizations reported on a study that found that homes near a Starbucks increased in value at a rate higher than others during a fifteen year period. Did Starbucks cause this larger rise in home values?

The headlines seemed to suggest it had: “What Starbucks Has Done to American Home Values,” “Living Near a Starbucks Might Double Your Home’s Value” and “Starbucks Increases Neighborhood, Home Values”—all imply that the presence of Starbucks led to the increase in home value.

This story caught my eye for a number of reasons. While I’m not a coffee drinker, a new Starbucks just opened down the street (okay, about two miles down the street, so not that close) but if its presence further increased our home values that would be a plus. But more to the point, it drew my attention as a sociologist. The headlines seem to confuse causation with correlation, assuming that one variable had a direct impact on the other, rather than coinciding with a number of other factors that come along with the decision to open a new Starbucks.

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April 20, 2015

The "Boy Problem" of the Twenty-first Century

Tigonzales Angel Gonzales head shotBy Teresa Irene Gonzales and Angel Rubiel Gonzalez

Gonzalez holds a Ph.D. in Education from UC Berkeley and is currently a social studies teacher in New York City

In 2013, Christina Hoff Sommers wrote an op-ed for the New York Times which discussed the growing educational gap between boys and girls within the U.S. Sommers blames much of this gap on what she terms “misguided policies” that perpetuate an educational gender inequity that favors girls over boys. In order to create more boy-friendly classrooms, Sommers advocates for increased play time (recess), single-sex classrooms, and male teachers.

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April 15, 2015

Getting a Job with a Criminal Record

Headshot 3.13 cropcompressBy Karen Sternheimer

In a competitive job environment, having a criminal record might effectively exclude someone from legal employment. For some jobs, it makes sense to exclude people who have committed specific offenses in the past. No one wants their cable installer to be a convicted burglar, their child’s teacher to be a sex offender, or their accountant to have committed forgery.

But for many people who have past offenses, the charges have less to do with their character than the communities in which they live. Check out this clip from Last Week Tonight, which examines how municipal fines like speeding tickets, parking tickets, and loitering charges can cause low-income residents to end up in jail if they can’t pay the mounting fines:

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April 13, 2015

Seeing Others as Us

Peter kaufman 2014By Peter Kaufman

In 2012, there were over 1,000 documented hate groups in the United States. A hate group is pretty much what it sounds like: a collection of individuals who come together based on their shared animosity toward others. Whether they focus on race, religion, sexual orientation, or nationality, these organizations mobilize around a clearly defined difference that they perceive to have with other people. Groups such as the Ku Klux Klan, Aryan Brotherhood, Westboro Baptist Church, and the neo-Nazi National Socialist Movement, use these differences not only as a basis of their hatred, but also to justify acts of hostility, aggression, and violence against those they deem to be “outsiders.”

Although most of us would acknowledge that the attitudes and actions of these hate groups are extreme, few of us are immune to engaging in similar but less severe forms of selective separation.  An example that many young people can relate to is the scene in the movie Mean Girls when Cady (Lindsay Lohan) is introduced to the seating arrangement of the various “tribes” in the high school lunch room.  Cady quickly learns that everyone sits with people who are deemed to be just like them: preps, nerds, Asians, Blacks, wannabees, burnouts, band geeks, etc.

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April 08, 2015

Measures of Central Tendency

RaskoffBy Sally Raskoff

Have you taken a statistics course? Don’t wait too long if you are procrastinating. Mastering that material helps with other classes and in life.

One of the key concepts within statistics is measures of central tendency: mean, median, and mode. Each one tells us about how the data, for one variable or concept, cluster together although each are calculated differently.

The mean is the numerical average. You’ve probably already been calculating means —also known as averages. Add up however many scores or values in your data and divide by how many you have.

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March 25, 2015

Magical Thinking vs. Sociological Reasoning

Headshot 3.13 cropcompressBy Karen Sternheimer

A student of a colleague had failed a course after rarely attending and not completing several assignments. The ones he did complete were poorly done; he did not see the instructor in office hours despite repeated invitations to talk about improving his grade during the course. He earned 25 out of 100 points in the course, and perhaps unsurprisingly, an F.

But to my colleague’s surprise, the student emailed after seeing his final grade, asking if there was any way he could earn a C in the course (which typically requires 70%, well above his 25%). Maybe the instructor added incorrectly?

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March 19, 2015

Why is the World so Screwed Up?

Peter kaufman 2014By Peter Kaufman

The title of this post may seem like a rhetorical question but I am actually quite earnest in asking it. Each day, we hear about countless instances of greed, hatred, violence, and destruction, and all of the pain, suffering, and sorrow that ensues. Although the ubiquity of these problems makes them seem so normal and ordinary that we may not even question them, I don’t think it’s possible to be a sociologist without wondering why these horrible social ills exist.  

The list of “screwed up” things is a bit overwhelming to comprehend because there are so many problems affecting so many different people, places, and things. As sociologists, we often look to patterns and trends as a way to analyze and understand what exactly is going on in the world. But with this seemingly never-ending list of atrocities, it may seem fruitless to try to identify a single contributing factor to all of society’s collective dilemmas. 

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