80 posts categorized "Relationships, Marriage and Family"

July 14, 2011

Marriage, Max Weber, and Verstehen

new sallyBy Sally Raskoff

Max Weber talked about verstehen as a very important concept for sociologists and social scientists. When studying people, even at the macro level of society, it is important to really understand what’s going on at the micro level of interactions and individuals. That’s what verstehen is all about: understanding what goes on in the lives of people from their particular perspective so that one can better understand how things work at the larger level of society.

In sociology, we analyze the importance of social rituals and social bonds. Symbols and rituals tie us together and reinforce our bonds as we celebrate or mourn together.

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July 11, 2011

Sociology vs. the Obvious

KS_2010aBy Karen Sternheimer

What is sociology?

This question may seem obvious (especially—I hope—if you have taken or are taking a sociology class), but when I asked this question on a midterm years ago, I observed a troubling pattern.

While the majority of students successfully responded in some form that sociology is the systematic study of patterns of human interaction with special focus on social institutions and processes of power and inequality, a few students regularly answered as follows:

“Sociology is just what you think about things in society,” or

“Sociology is what peoples’ opinions are about their community,” and similar responses to this effect.

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June 30, 2011

Power and Decision Making

new sallyBy Sally Raskoff

In California, the sexual orientation of a judge has become news following his judgment about Proposition 8. Prop 8 was passed by California voters in 2008, and served to amend the state’s constitution to deny access to marriage for same-sex couples. Recently, the judge’s sexual orientation has been disclosed as “homosexual,” and some are suggesting that the decision he made was biased because of his personal status.

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May 12, 2011

"Reality" TV, Stereotypes, and Teen Parenthood

clip_image002By Kim Cochran Kiesewetter

Instructor, Sandhills Community College

I think most people would agree that there is little to nothing “real” about reality television… which is why we enjoy is so immensely. Millionaire Matchmaker? I may or may not have subjected my poor spouse to more than one episode of that particular show’s highly uplifting material. When it comes to “reality” TV though, no one wants to watch the every day exciting-ness of most of our lives and producers of these shows are well-aware of that fact. They choose subjects that ensure that the people involved are sure to bring drama, suspense, and emotion to boot. It brings in the ratings!

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May 02, 2011

Heterosexual Norms and Friendship

new sallyBy Sally Raskoff

Have you ever wondered if men and women can be “just friends”?

I started thinking about this the other day when I heard some people talking about these issues. When a woman and a man forge a friendship, especially if one or the other is already in a committed relationship with another person, why do some people think it’s weird?

The people I heard discussing a married friend were very distrustful of the ability of the friend to maintain her marriage to one man and her friendship with another. While they might have more relevant information than I do about their friend’s past commitment history, I will volunteer a sociological reason for their suspicion.

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March 16, 2011

Research Methods and Studying Sex

new sallyBy Sally Raskoff

Sexual behavior is challenging to measure. Alfred Kinsey famously studied sex in the mid-twentieth century, and although groundbreaking, his study relied on convenience sampling which prevents us from being able to generalize the results to the entire population.

The National Health and Social Life Survey (NHSLS), conducted in 1992, has been considered a more scientifically rigorous study. Two more recent studies, the National Survey of Family Growth (NSFG) and the National Survey of Sexual Health and Behavior (NSSHB) provide us with a more current picture of sexual behavior in America.

The NHSLS, NSSHB, and NSFG are all national probability samples, which means that we can generalize the findings to the larger population even though they didn’t survey everyone in the country.

The older NHSLS is based on 3,432 respondents (1,901 women, 1,531 men), ages 18-59. The NSFG is sampled an astounding 13,495 people (6,139 men, 7,356 women), ages 15 to 44. The NSSHB sampled the largest age range, including 5,865 people (2,929 women, 2,936 men,), ages 14 to 94.

The findings from all these studies are quite interesting--and not just because they have to do with sexual behavior.

Each study asked about sexual orientation identity. The older NHSLS data showed 98.6% of women and 96.9% of men said they were heterosexual, 0.9% women and 2.0% men said homosexual, gay, or lesbian, and 0.5% and 0.8% men said they were bisexual.

The newer studies show slightly different data:

Sexual Orientation






NSFG, 2006-2008 18-44





Homosexual, Gay, or Lesbian
















Homosexual, Gay, or Lesbian








Source: NSFG: Tables 12 & 13; NSSHB: Table 1.

The table above shows the primacy of the heterosexual category, with which most people identify. However, comparing data on identity to those based on behavior, a fascinating pattern emerges: Identity does not always match behavior.

Sexual Behavior



NSFG (2006-2008)



Any Opposite Sex Contact



Any Same Sex Contact



No Sexual Contact with another person



Source: NSFG: Table 7.

Notice how the identity data patterns show very few people aligning with the homosexual or bisexual categories. Yet when asked about homosexual or bisexual behavior, much higher percentages appear.

Since both studies utilize probability samples, they are both representative of the larger population. There can be some sampling error, wherein some groups might be systematically excluded in ways that might bias the data. When this happens one sample may not fully represent its population. Is that what’s happening here? Or is there more going on?

Part of the answer might lie with methodology. The NHSLS used face-to-face interviews and focus groups. The NSFG used in-person interviews using “Audio Computer Assisted Self-Interviewing” technology. The NSSHB used “Research Panels accessed through Knowledge Networks” via the internet, although they did provide hardware and internet access when necessary. When dealing with a sensitive subject like sex, how the data are collected will have a big impact on the results.

Another clue would rest with the different ways the questions were asked. Each study asked about the issues in slightly different ways.

For the NSFG, what was considered “sexual behavior” was different if it was same-sex or other-sex contact. For the NSSHB, questions were about specific behaviors based on who were their partners.

While the studies were conducted at different times, that is not necessarily problematic. Cultural patterns such as these do not tend to shift quickly.

Our scientific techniques for high-quality research are based on systematic methodologies. Because such techniques can yield different results we need to replicate or repeat research studies as often as possible. Many studies on the same topic can give us a lot of data patterns which then can be compared and compiled so that we can see more clearly what is going on in our social world. What other factors do you think might create more high-quality data on sensitive issues like this one?

January 21, 2011

Social Theory and Siblings

new sallyBy Sally Raskoff

Do you have brothers and sisters? Are you very different from each other or are you similar? Many people might report that they are more different than they are similar to their siblings. Researchers have come up with theories as to how people with similar genes and backgrounds can have such different personalities, have different talents, and sometimes make radically different life choices.

A recent story from National Public Radio (NPR) presented three theories about why siblings can be so different. The reporter briefly introduced a Darwinian File:Siblings.JPGtheory of Divergence, a sociological theory of Environment, and a social psychological theory of Exaggeration. She then described how each theory might help to account for the two brothers’ differences.

  1. The Darwinian theory suggests that in order to compete for their parents’ limited attention and secure their survival, siblings might purposely take on unique characteristics in order to maximize the resources devoted to them.
  2. Exaggeration theory suggests that children react to their families’ assessment of their personality characteristics and exaggerate qualities that family members perceive them to hold. This theory is similar to labeling theories and one of my favorite sociological concepts, the self-fulfilling prophecy. Labeling theories tend to examine how social realities are structured as a result of how we label things and people in specific ways. If you call someone stupid, you may only notice the things they do that seem less intelligent. A self-fulfilling prophecy is when a situation or condition is set out as truth yet it is in fact false. The consequence of this information has the effect of actually bringing that situation or condition into reality and then to some extent becomes. Sociologist Robert K. Merton coined the phrase, and gave an example of a bank that was fine in the morning, but during a day filled with rumors of its financial woes finds itself bankrupt at closing because customers heard these rumors and acted upon them, rushing to the bank and withdrawing their assets.
  3. The Environmental approach argues that although siblings grow up in the same families, life events will impact children differently based on their age, and therefore they might have profoundly different environments. According to that theory, the siblings had very different experiences while growing up in the same family. The timing of family events impacted the kids differently depending on their ages. The conclusion of the NPR story suggests that the two brothers’ differences might be best explained by the Environment theory.

File:Mannerheim siblings.jpgAnother example of this type of “environmental” theory is Jessie Bernard’s classic study of “his and hers” marriages, described in her 1972 book The Future of Marriage. She argued that each participant in a marriage has a unique perspective and experience. She also pointed out that men generally had a better experience in marriage than women, a finding that surprised many.

Studies like these can explain some of the mysteries of human relationships. They can also explain why, potentially, a cloned individual will not be an exact copy of its source, since the experience that the clone will have as it grows and matures will be markedly different than that of its DNA donor.

The NPR story got my attention because it was an interesting application of theory and mirrors what we do in class. As you learn different theories, each of which have a unique explanation, it is important to try them on to see how well they explain a specific phenomenon. In some cases, all theories may have something to add, while in other cases, one theory may emerge as more relevant than the others.

Are you significantly different in some way from some or all of your siblings? If so, what social theories might help explain your differences?

January 14, 2011

When Our Baby Was Born

todd_S_2010aBy Todd Schoepflin

When I was young I thought a man paced in a hospital waiting room until his wife gave birth. The image in my head was of a new father passing out cigars to celebrate the birth of his child. But my wife has given birth twice now and I’ve yet to spend any time in a waiting room.

For both births I was in the delivery room for the entire time, except when I was asked to step out briefly so that the anesthesiologist could administer something to my wife to relieve the pains of labor. That’s one of the rare situations when it’s acceptable for someone to yell “GIVE ME THE DRUGS,” which was my wife’s catchphrase during our son’s recent birth. Christmas came early for us in 2010, when our son Mack was born on December 10. This blog serves as a sociological reflection of the experience.

One thing that stood out to me was how technology played a significant part on the day of his birth and during the first days of his life. In the delivery room I had a ton of nervous energy. Let’s face it, there’s not much a husband can do during labor except to encourage his wife and do his best to comfort her. There were hours of waiting around before the birth actually happened.

So aside from talking to my wife, I spent some time sending text messages to my brother and a good friend. It was pretty much a way of killing time and sharing my enthusiasm and happiness. When our first son was born in 2007, I don’t recall sending any text messages at all. In fact, if memory serves, the phone I had at that time didn’t even send text messages. For a long time I had no interest in texting and resisted using it as a form of communication. By 2010, however, I succumbed to the texting culture in which we live. So there I was sending text messages while anticipating a major moment in my family’s life.

There’s no way I can adequately describe the miracle of birth. There are no words I can type to do it justice. Let’s just say it’s amazing and mind blowing to see the birth of a baby. Tears of joy spilled out of my eyes when the delivery was successful and our baby had joined the world (this may be one of the few times it’s socially acceptable for a man to cry). The nurse asked me to cut the umbilical cord. I tried to refuse because scissors and newborn flesh seemed like a really bad combination. But the nurse insisted and so I performed the duty.

We called our friends and family to announce our good news, sent some text messages, and, of course, we posted pictures on Facebook. The picture you see is one we put on Facebook, and in response some Mack
people wrote “he’s handsome”--obviously a gender specific term. I think it’s safe to say the same baby in a pink outfit would be called pretty rather than handsome.

Other people wrote to say they liked his name. Would they tell us if they didn’t? Isn’t it a norm to say that someone’s new baby is beautiful and that you like their name? (By the way, remember when Facebook was only for college students? Things sure have changed. My 65-year-old father uploaded pictures from his digital camera onto his Facebook page before we posted pictures on my wife’s page).

Leaving the hospital the first time after the baby was born, I felt different compared to when our first son was born. When our first son was born I felt a dramatic change come over me, and I thought other people could sense it, as if somehow they knew I had just experienced a life-changing event. It was as though there was a sign on my forehead that said “New Father.” This time I felt a different sensation. It was like someone pressed the reset button, and suddenly my wife and I were back to the world of miniature diapers and overnight feedings.

We received gifts—lots of gifts—and it was interesting that some of the gifts were handmade, such as blankets and winter hats. That’s not something I’d expect in a society in which everybody is so busy all of the time. Gift cards are so popular in our society because they make gift-giving an efficient process. Don’t get me wrong, we were happy to receive those too! But nothing compares to the personal touch of a gift made by someone you know. Family members brought over food that they cooked, and that was also a nice personalized touch.

As I write this, our baby is two weeks old, and our first Christmas with him was awesome. A new baby is better than any gift you could find under a tree or in a stocking. Now, if only babies came with manuals, they’d be much easier to figure out! But with uncertainty and anxiety comes adventure and surprises. Babies truly are amazing and have a unique capacity to turn your life upside down.

December 31, 2010

Culture and Parties

new janisBy Janis Prince Inniss

So you guys are married?

How long have you been married?

Any children? How old are they? Two girls? Two boys?

Where are you from? I can hear an accent.

And he, where is he from?

     Where did you guys meet?

    What do you do? Where do you work?

As you attend social gatherings this holiday season, will you meet people who ask these kinds of questions? Maybe you will be asking these questions yourself. Tell me a little bit about the people with whom you’ll be “hanging” and I think I can make a reasonably good prediction about whether you’re likely to be asked such questions; I can also make a decent guess about the food you’ll be served. It’s not that I’m psychic, but culture does impact how we “hang out” with others.

There are fellow Caribbean people with whom I’ve associated for many years and have never asked such questions of each other. In fact, it was only a couple weeks ago that I learned the profession of a Caribbean woman I have known for almost 10 years. (Let’s call this woman Jean.)

It’s not that Jean and I don’t see each other often. We have many of the same friends and attend many of the same gatherings --many of which are in each other’s homes. I enjoy Jean’s company and would guess that she feels the same way about me. We’ve talked about many important issues including parenting, religion, churches, being women of a ”certain age”…personal issues, to be sure.

Yet, we rarely talk about our careers. We each know where the other works and will ask something very general like: “How is work?” “How are things at ZYX Corporation?” But typically, we don’t spend time discussing what we do. And so after all these years, it was a native born American in our midst who asked Jean, “What do you do?” I couldn’t help but be amused that after knowing Jean for so many years—and knowing quite a bit about her—I had no idea what she does professionally.

It’s not that Caribbean people don’t discuss work; we do. But we have different rules regarding such topics—deemed personal—than many North Americans do. For example, probably due to the occupational prestige accorded professors, there has been some buzz even among my Caribbean friends about my recent career change. (Read more about occupational prestige here.) And with close Caribbean friends, we talk about our careers, and lots of other highly personal things. However, Caribbean people usually don’t ask these questions—which are considered nosy—as a way of getting to know someone.

clip_image002When I started graduate school, I was excited to start receiving invitations to classmates’ and professors’ homes. It was the first time I learned the term “potluck” and remember being baffled when, in response to my queries, I was told that I could bring chips and dip. Chips and dip?

I figured the host would provide the more substantial food like rice and chicken. I still remember being stunned at the first of several such events when the entire menu consisted of finger foods; it is no exaggeration to say that I experienced culture shock! I kept looking for the real food. I could not believe that a party could take place with a variety of chips, dips, crudités, nuts, desserts, and drinks! (In other words, everything but anything resembling an entree!) I would leave these events starving with the slightly upset stomach I get from noshing on these snacks. I learned though; after a few of these experiences, I realized that going to these parties was not an excuse to skip cooking; I would have dinner at home and then enjoy a few nibbles at these events.

clip_image004This is exactly how not to have a party for Caribbean people. (My classmates at USC and professors were all North American.) At every party hosted by my Jamaican friends, I have been served Jerk Chicken and Rice and Peas. While there may be some other variables, those two delicious dishes have been constants. Parties hosted by other Caribbean people include dishes such as Curried Chicken, Baked Chicken, but always, always there is rice and chicken among other offerings.

Whether it’s being held at noon, four, or eight in the evening, Caribbean gatherings include heavy food. And when I’m invited to one of these, I know that I don’t need to cook and eat before attending.

clip_image006So think of this as a primer for holiday gatherings. If you’re going to be among North Americans, expect finger foods and questions like the ones I included at the beginning. If you’re among (English speaking) Caribbean people, know that those questions may be off-putting and that you’ll be served rice and chicken in some form. (Note that as with any generalization, there are bound to be variations not addressed by such characterizations.)

Culture affects large and small aspects of our lives. Here, I’ve focused on only two: food and an aspect of interaction. Do you think these peculiarities of these two cultures tell us anything important about what each culture values?

November 15, 2010

Discovering Sociology and Intimate Strangers

new janis By Janis Prince Inniss

As an undergraduate, I took an Introduction to Sociology class to fulfill a requirement. Although I had an aunt who was a sociologist, I still didn’t know what that sociology meant. The book I remember reading in that class—which I still have wrapped in brown paper for protection—was a compilation of some famous social science essays. The most memorable was “Body Ritual among the Nacirema”. From that book, I also remember reading “Who Owns America? The Same Old Gang” by Maurice Zeitlin, about the concentration of wealth in the U.S. Reading these and other essays, I was fascinated that such interesting material could be part of sociology.

clip_image002I think that it was in my Sociology of the Family class that I was assigned Intimate Strangers: Men and Women Together, written by sociologist and psychotherapist, Lillian Rubin. That book heightened the spark I felt in my Introduction to Sociology class. I became engrossed in reading the book, and the experience was more akin to reading a novel, rather than a book for class. I couldn’t believe how real the descriptions and conversations were! They matched many of my experiences and observations of male/female relationships perfectly. The book also provided the most compelling explanations for the problems encountered in intimate relationships that I had ever read. I found the writing and the insights profound.

Rubin’s thesis is that because males and females are socialized so differently almost from birth, by the time we are adults, our psychological outlook is vastly different, and in many respects, almost opposite. This is largely because women, in most cases, are the primary care-takers of children. Therefore, girls experience the formation of their gender identity and ego boundaries with someone of the same sex.

Imagine my excitement when a chance encounter with my Introduction to Sociology professor led to him saying that he knew Lillian Rubin! I couldn’t believe it. That anyone I was remotely connected to knew the author of this book that had so moved me, was unbelievable. (Although my father was a writer, a connection to this author felt like Professor Levine was saying he knew Michael Jackson or some other world famous celebrity.) And, he said, she would be coming to Queens College to teach soon.

Indeed, Lillian Rubin came to teach at my school and I was had the chance to meet her. I took a class with her and fell further in love with sociology. I don’t remember what grade I got for the essay I wrote in her class, but she returned it, heavily edited with suggestions and corrections. I’ll never forget that Dr. Rubin offered to review a revised version of that paper too. As she was a visiting professor, she gave me her home address and that began a relationship that continues to this day.

Reading Intimate Strangers just as I was grappling with such relationships myself made for an impactful experience, personally and professionally. Not only did the book provide me with important insights, but the research methodology it uses is one that continues to appeal to me. Rubin’s work—in Intimate Strangers and other studies, particularly Worlds of Pain: Life in the Working-Class Family – is considered exemplary of qualitative research. These works have all been very influential in my practice of sociology, that is, in the ways that I conduct sociological research. Like others, Intimate Strangers showcased Rubin’s ability to elicit profoundly personal tales from people, partly because of her skills as a psychotherapist. She was also skilled at analyzing data, and presenting it all in a clip_image003most engaging manner. (It is noteworthy that Rubin is among the bestselling authors of sociology books.) Each of those are skills that drew me to becoming a sociologist—a particular kind of sociologist. I am a sociologist who tends to be interested in questions best answered by “thick description” (or a scoop of ice-cream). The research seminar I took with Dr. Rubin gave me the opportunity to learn from a master about qualitative methodology, and I built on those skills in graduate school and subsequent research.

Reading Intimate Strangers and then meeting the author provided me with clarity about who I could be professionally. I was already a psychology major, so I identified with the therapist career that Dr. Rubin was also pursuing. Until then, I didn’t have a clear sense of how my clinical interests could be paired with and even enhance my sociological interests. Before reading Intimate Strangers, although I was excited about the discipline of sociology, I didn’t know on what areas in the field I wanted to focus; marriage and family issues continue to drive my professional interest today. And I had given little thought to questions of research methodology. This experience continues to shape my professional identity and path; I wish you a journey that is at least as exciting.

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