87 posts categorized "Relationships, Marriage and Family"

September 30, 2010

Online Dating Experiences

todd_S_2010b By Todd Schoepflin

I haven’t thought about dating in a while. I guess that’s what happens when you’ve been married for six years. I met my wife in an old-fashioned way: at work. I had the type of the job that was satirized in the movie Office Space. The clock never seemed to move. I’d stare at my computer screen for eight hours waiting for my shift to end. Tina provided much-needed relief from the drudgery of my cubicle existence. These days, the word “date” means that we have a babysitter for a few hours, giving us time to grab a cheeseburger and a beer.

I have no experience with online dating, and before I watched this video interview of Dan Ariely I had never heard a scholar talk about it. Ariely, Professor of Behavioral Economics at Duke University, has studied online dating and makes some really interesting comments about the subject in the interview. image

Ariely points out that typical online dating websites break people down into “searchable attributes” such as height, weight, income, and political views. These  websites operate on the mistaken assumption that people are easy to describe on the basis of such attributes. He uses wine for an analogy. You might be able to describe the wine you drink, but that doesn’t matter very much. What matters is that you know if you like it or you don’t.

He thinks that’s kind of like dating. Being able to describe a person based on a set of characteristics isn’t very useful. It’s the full experience of spending time with someone that tells you whether you like a person or not. It’s not a simple matter of someone being the “perfect” weight and having the “right” eye color. In Ariely’s opinion, breaking people into attributes turns out not to be informative. What’s informative is what happens when you share an experience with someone.

Ariely concludes that people have unsatisfying experiences with online dating. Although websites can match people based on their preferences, they can’t predict if people will actually like each other in the real world. Sure, you can pick someone online who is tall, has brown eyes, and hair that looks great to you, but that doesn’t mean you’ll enjoy that person’s company when you’re on a date.

Something I found really fascinating in the interview was Ariely’s discussion of whether people are superficial. Consider, after all, that people do search for potential dates in terms of hair color, body type, and income. Realistically, he says, people are superficial; for example, generally speaking, women prefer tall men and men prefer skinny women. So women and men both search out partners based on features they find physically attractive.

However, in defense of online daters, Ariely makes a good point: if that’s the search criteria available to people to use, then they’re going to use it. Naturally, a lot of people will have preferences when it comes to hair color, height, and weight. So it’s not that people who use online dating are more superficial than any other group of people. Rather, he believes the typical online dating system exaggerates our tendency to be superficial.

Did you notice the comments from people who reacted to Ariely’s interview? I found a few of them to be very interesting. For instance, a man named Mark said: “I think online dating is unsatisfying for most people because dating in general is unsatisfying for most people.” Think about all of your dating experiences: have most of them been satisfying or disappointing? And, if you have online dating experience, did the outcome of those dates differ significantly from dates that came about in other ways?

A comment I found especially insightful was made by Elizabeth, who said: “Perhaps one of the best things about dating online is that one can know the deal image breakers (smoking, drinking, how many kids, etc.) before falling for someone, before attempting to justify a relationship that won’t work.” That strikes me as an intelligent point. Honestly speaking, isn’t it true there are certain things about potential dating partners that you won’t accept?

I asked my friend Don about this. Don is a 38-year-old never married man who has accumulated vast dating experience. A few years ago he was in a serious relationship that soured because he doesn’t want to have kids. In essence, the fact that he doesn’t want children was a deal breaker in that relationship. He recently set a date using the free dating website called Plenty of Fish. He described his date as a “very pretty, 40-year-old Pilates instructor who doesn’t want kids.”

I asked Don if he thought there were such things as “deal makers.” In other words, if having kids (or wanting to have kids) is a deal breaker for some people, couldn’t we say that not wanting kids is a “deal maker” for other people?

Fair enough, he responded, but in his dating experience, he finds that people tend to focus on differences rather than commonalities. He wonders if this is because people are trying to find the absolutely perfect match. Because technology enables people to access an unlimited number of people, maybe they feel they should hold out for Mr. or Ms. Perfect.

When I told Don I was writing a blog about online dating, he said: “Yeah, because you know so much about that.” He was teasing me because I haven’t been on a date with someone other than my wife since 2000, when I met her. I replied: “Well, suppose I wanted to cheat. You know there are websites that cater to married people, right?” Although I have no plans to destroy my marriage, I have heard radio advertisements of a website tailored to people in relationships. The website AshleyMadison.com uses the trademarked slogan “Life is short. Have an affair.” Isn’t that lovely?

An article in Time asserts that “cheating has never been easier” now that the AshleyMadison website has applications for iPhone and Blackberry. The site has 4 million members and includes options for males seeking males and females seeking females. I guess cheating is for everyone! Watch CEO Noel Biderman get grilled by the hosts of The View (a person involved with a website that facilitates cheating makes an easy target). He downplays the influence of the website by saying “AshleyMadison.com didn’t invent infidelity.” Touché.

While reading up on the topic of online dating, I came across an article in the New York Times that refers to Cheekd.com as “the next generation of online dating.”

Members purchase cards with phrases and give them to people they encounter in everyday life. One example is “I am totally cooler than your date.” See someone in a restaurant who you think is good-looking? Walk by someone on the street that looks interesting? Simply hand them a card with an identification code that allows the person to find you on the website. Lori Cheek, the founder of the website, says: “It’s almost like you’re shopping online, but you’re shopping in real life.” Cool idea, I guess it gives new meaning to “pick up lines.” I wonder if they have a card that says “Are you from Tennessee? Because you’re the only 10 I see.” Sorry, couldn’t help myself.

I know of two couples who were definitely satisfied with their online dating experiences. Heather and Brian (pictured on their wedding day) met on eHarmony, have been married for over a year, and are expecting their first child soon. Heather explained something she and her husband liked about eHarmony: “We both agree now that many of the things that their questionnaire asked about definitely make us more compatible than some other couples that we know. They focused on values and how we viewed the roles of husband and wife.” As for Jonathan and Nhein, they met on Match.com and then married. No kids yet, but they have a cute little dog!

Do you know anyone who has tried online dating? If so, what has their experience been like? What can we infer about the sociological meanings of relationships?

August 16, 2010

Baby Showers as Rituals

new janis By Janis Prince Inniss

clip_image002clip_image004Baby showers are such a common ritual in the U.S. that showers are even being held for American reporters covering the war in Iraq. I’ve been to quite a few baby showers; I’ve helped to plan some and hosted others. Many of the games I can live without: guessing when the baby will be born and guessing the baby’s weight are tolerable but some of the games played at these parties are not my cup of tea.

But like all showers or other gifting parties, my favorite part is the opening of the presents. No other kind of party has such cute stuff! The cutest little outfits. Teeny baby hats. Bath time toys. Little stuffed animals. Bumpers and sheets. Blankies. Many of the gifts correspond to a theme/motif if the parents have specified, and if the parents know the sex of the baby the gifts will be predominantly pink or blue. Even the party favors are cute--tiny pacifiers and bottles, and cakes shaped like diapers! The “entertainment” sometimes includes mothers sharing terrifying birthing stories.

clip_image006Baby showers are another ritual that many of us attend, but we rarely think about their social significance (I discussed birthday party rituals here). Certainly, baby showers serve to welcome a baby, whether born or not. And in some cases they can help the parents and their friends and family get used to the idea of a pregnancy or even come to terms with an initially unwelcome pregnancy. Due to the ritualistic nature of such an event, there are specific elements we expect. What purposes do they serve?

At the most pragmatic level, baby showers provide many of the myriad items that babies need or that parents simply desire. When I was a little girl, it appeared to me that the only things you needed for babies were nappies (cloth diapers), loose-fitting tops, and a couple of (glass!) feeding bottles.

In the warmth and relative poverty of some of my neighborhoods growing up in Guyana, much more was superfluous. Why would someone who doesn’t walk wear shoes? In the heat, why bother with socks? Why dress up to stay at home? (Certainly, babies had Sunday best outfits too and were christened in their finest.) There was no need for car seats,or even for fancy carriers when a simple carrier could be fashioned from a piece of cloth. Most people didn’t have an entire bedroom to devote to a baby, so there was no need to decorate a nursery.

But in the U.S. today, babies seem to me synonymous with lots of paraphernalia: car seats for every stage of life, or car seats that morph from seat to carrier to stroller to luxury vehicles! And there are high chairs, folding strollers, deluxe strollers, jogging strollers, bouncy seats, designer clothing, mounds of toys, chests to store the toys, and a plethora of breastfeeding aids (breast pumps, breast feeding cushions, breast feeding bras, breast feeding wraps). In the context of all there is to buy for a little one, a shower seems like a great idea.

Of course, a shower is more than a ploy to get gifts. Isn’t it? But the baby shower ritual is not as universal as we might think.

clip_image008I never thought much about baby showers and their meaning or whether they’re universal. I suppose the pragmatic aspect made sense to me and I left it at that. But a recent conversation with a relative caused me to think more about baby showers; my aunt said that she wasn’t used to baby showers occurring before babies are born and that she didn’t like the idea.

She explained that in England, these events—which are not actually called showers there—are given after a baby is born. (This is changing as American-style showers become more popular.) Why would you wait until then? I’m used to the model of North Americans doing everything to prepare for a baby’s arrival, often, many months before the birth. Often the only thing left to do is literally wait for the baby’s arrival. Clothes have been bought, washed and hung in the closet. Nurseries have been painted and decorated with murals and furniture. Appliances and other paraphernalia have been assembled.

But as my aunt pointed out, what happens with all of these plans in the event of the baby’s death? Perinatal (stillbirths and deaths in the first week of life) and neonatal (deaths in the first four weeks after birth) death do occur. In 2006, about 19,000 babies in the U.S. died in their first month alive. (Have a look at this post for some information on infant mortality in the U.S.)

Considering how much more dangerous childbirth was—both for mother and baby—it is not surprising that in some cultures and countries it would remain prudent to be cautious about preparing for a baby. Many Jewish Americans, for example, have baby showers only after they baby is born. Remnants of old childbirth fears—and the reality that there is an element of risk involved in pregnancy and birth—may explain why in some cultures it is still considered bad luck or improper to hold a shower or offer a baby gift for an unborn child. How do you think the social significance of a post-birth baby shower might differ from a shower held for a baby that hasn’t arrived yet?

August 09, 2010

Reality Television and Researching Children: Ethical Issues

KS_2010a By Karen Sternheimer

Are you a Kate Plus 8 fan? How about The Real Housewives of New Jersey? 19 Kids and Counting? These three reality shows, and many others, feature children either as central or occasional “characters.”

Sociologist Hilary Levey recently questioned some of the legal issues surrounding children on reality television in a USA Today op-ed. She points out that child actors have specific legal protections in states where child performers have traditionally worked, like California and New York, which mandate that a minimum of fifteen percent of a child’s income be placed in a trust account they can later access as adults. However, children on reality shows currently have no legal right to any money their show earns, nor have they typically been protected by child labor laws since they are technically not actors, as a Los Angeles Times story recently discussed.

In contrast to reality TV producers, researchers who study children and families in their homes adhere to specific ethical guidelines that may illuminate the debate about the ethics of children on reality television. (For a couple examples check out sociologist Arlie Russell Hochschild’s classic study, The Second Shift, and sociologist Annette Lareau’s Unequal Childhoods: Class, Race, and Family Life).

Researching children might involve surveys, experiments, or extended observations, which bear some similarities with reality television shows that involve children. In contrast to reality show producers, researchers mask the identity of the children they study and virtually never release their images publicly, let clip_image002alone hours of video.

As Janis Prince Inniss wrote last year, universities and research institutes have Institutional Review Boards (IRBs) that monitor all studies its researchers conduct.

Anyone who has filed an application with their IRB knows that the process can be lengthy and sometimes stressful, as board members can require repeated clarifications about your research plan and its purpose. And yet this is demanding in order to protect both the subjects involved and, of course, protect the institution from any legal liability.

In most cases researchers are supposed to fully disclose the nature of the study and its purpose to all potential participants. If researchers plan to use any deception or mask the true purpose of the research—which they sometimes do—the researchers must prove to the IRB that this is absolutely necessary, and document a full list of worst-case-scenario contingency plans to help their subjects. At a minimum, researchers should debrief participants after the study is over, which includes telling them what the study was really about and make sure that all participants are physically and psychologically okay.

When applying for IRB approval, researchers must report whether their study includes populations considered uniquely vulnerable, such as minors. (Pregnant women, prisoners, and the disabled are considered vulnerable populations, too; pregnant women because of their physical condition and prisoners and the disabled because they might be easily coerced into participating in research).

To protect all participants, researchers are required to obtain informed consent, meaning that before agreeing to participate, an individual should be informed of all of the potential risks and benefits that their involvement in the study might bring. It is also meant to prevent people from being pressured into participating.

Special populations—like children—may fear repercussions from adults if they refuse to participate. Federal guidelines require not only parental consent, but also children’s assent—which means the child must agree to participate in the study too. Here are some of the guidelines, from the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS):

HHS will conduct or fund research in which the IRB finds that more than minimal risk to children is presented by an intervention or procedure that does not hold out the prospect of direct benefit for the individual subject, or by a monitoring procedure which is not likely to contribute to the well-being of the subject, only if the IRB finds that:

(a) The risk represents a minor increase over minimal risk;

(b) The intervention or procedure presents experiences to subjects that are reasonably commensurate with those inherent in their actual or expected medical, dental, psychological, social, or educational situations;

(c) The intervention or procedure is likely to yield generalizable knowledge about the subjects' disorder or condition which is of vital importance for the understanding or amelioration of the subjects' disorder or condition; and

(d) Adequate provisions are made for soliciting assent of the children and permission of their parents or guardians, as set forth in §46.408.

§46.407 Research not otherwise approvable which presents an opportunity to understand, prevent, or alleviate a serious problem affecting the health or welfare of children.

Basically, these guidelines require that any risks to children involved with research be as minimal as possible, and that children’s activities in the research process are generally similar to those in their normal lives.

clip_image002[5]Many reality shows focus on children’s everyday activities, as item (b) above discusses. But critics have asked what risks might come with their participation. Having cameras record a child’s temper tantrum or struggles with potty training might seem innocuous, but it raises questions about a child’s right to privacy. Adults would almost certainly never allow a camera to follow them into a bathroom, and might feel more empowered to ask the crew to turn off the cameras during an emotionally difficult time.

Item (c) raises series distinctions between research and reality television. While risks of research could be outweighed by the benefits of the knowledge researchers gain about human behavior, reality television makes no claim to provide social benefits aside from entertainment. Yes, we might learn what it is like for a family to have an unusually large number of children, but most programs don’t necessarily add to our body of knowledge.

Are the potential risks children might face through participating in reality television worth the financial gain? The answer is not clear cut. Yes, their parents might be able to afford to provide more for them materially. The children could get to travel and partake in many kid-friendly adventures they wouldn’t get to do otherwise.

And yet concerns about physical injury during the 2007 filming of Kid Nation and the potential psychological effects of living in front of cameras remain important questions. What other ethical concerns arise from children appearing on reality television?

August 02, 2010

A Closer Look at Interracial Marriage Statistics

new janis By Janis Prince Inniss

“Interracial Marriages at an all time high, study says” – CNN

“Study: 1 in 7 New U.S. Marriages is Interracial” – CBS News

Interracial marriage: more than double the ‘rate in the 1980s’” – The Christian Science Monitor

Interracial Marriage More Common Than Ever, but Black Women Still Lag, Pew Survey Shows One in Six New Marriages Now Between People of Different Colors” - ABC News

After 40 years, interracial marriage flourishing, Since landmark 1967 ruling, unions have moved from radical to everyday” - MSNBC

New Study Finds There Are More Interracial Marriages Than Ever” – Glamour magazine

Armed with these headlines alone, what can we surmise about interracial marriage in the U.S.? Given that such unions are “flourishing,” “common,” and at “an all time high,” I might assume that the people I know are unusual because they are not in interracial relationships.

But let’s go beyond the headlines. In fact, let’s go to the source of many of these headlines --a recent Pew Research Center analysis of U.S. Census Bureau data. The data show that 14.6 percent of all new marriages in the U.S. occurred between people of differing ethnicities/races. The distinction between new marriages and already married people is an important one to pay attention to because it tells us what population the statistic refers to; without keeping that in mind, the numbers tell us nothing.

So back to the statistic--14.6 percent – because it refers to new marriages, and new marriages are only a portion of all marriages..

It is hard to qualify 14.6 percent or 8.0 percent of almost anything as being abundant; the bottom line regarding interracial marriage in the U.S. is that it remains highly unusual. Yet the media has been very busy reporting results of the Pew Research Center on interracial marriage.

What some of these headlines highlight is a trend. They point out that although intermarriages are a small portion of all marriages, over the past 30 years, the portion of new and ongoing marriages has increased drastically. Notice that some headlines highlight this comparison: In 1980, 3.2 percent of all married people were in interracial relationships, but 8.0 percent were in 2010. And the 14.6 percent of new marriages that are interracial is up from 6.7of new marriages in percent in 2008.

In both cases, it is legitimate to refer to current rates of interracial marriage as being “at an all time high” and indeed they are now “more than double” what they were. But hopefully, with some training, either of these kinds of qualifiers will prompt you to ask, “High? How high?” and “More than double what number?” Unless we think about and get this kind of detail, we are left with the impression that interracial marriage has swept the land!

As we consider these statistics, it’s also important to remember that interracial marriages were illegal in some states in the U.S. until 1967, with the U.S. Supreme Court decision in the Loving v. Virginia case. Given the social and legal context of the day, even without knowledge of the data of the last 30 years, would you have guessed that there was a rash of interracial marriages in 1968, 1969, or 1970? Or even in 1977, ten years after the Supreme Court decision? No. Therefore, baseline data on interracial marriage reflects the scarcity of this phenomenon.

And because of that, even relatively small increases can be described as indicative of big change. For example, 2 percent is double 1 percent, but 2 percent of something still isn’t a lot. Increases from 3.2 percent to 8.0 percent, and from 6.7 percent to 14.6 percent represent the same kind of change.

At the end of the last post on interracial marriage, I wrote, “Regarding young Mr. Smith, like 84.5 percent of people in his racial/ethnic group, he is marrying within his race.” The first chart in that piece contained the answer to Mr. Smith’s racial identity; unlike 15.5 percent of Blacks, he is not entering an interracial marriage. That same chart also highlights the point—displaying data for four racial/ethnic groups—that most newlyweds are not marrying people of a different racial/ethnic background.

Take a look at the chart below:

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Initially, as I looked at the bars representing black men next to the bar representing black women, I was perplexed. Why? Because the proportions are so similar; it looked to me like black men and black women marry “out” at the same rate, and to the same other race/ethnicity. But how is that possible when we know from an even earlier post focusing on black/white interracial relationships (see chart below) that there are far more white women and black men married than there are white men and black women?

I expected to see that jump out at me in the bar chart above and was surprised to see such similarities. Do you see the fault in my initial thinking? It’s the issue of the population again. Data in the bar chart are of blacks who “out-married”, while the line graph compares raw numbers of black/white couples. Therefore, to make a direct comparison I had to remind myself that the shaded portion of the bar chart that represents black marriages to whites represents about 100,000 women but more than 300,000 black men.

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Source: U.S. Census Bureau, Table 59 and MS-3.

Blue line represents black husband/white wife.

Red line represents white husband/black wife.

Both the headlines and the data about interracial marriage remind us that we need to think critically about what numbers we hear about really tell us about social change.

July 13, 2010

Interracial Marriage among Newlyweds in the U.S.

new janis By Janis Prince Inniss

Last week, I received an envelope in the mail that was clearly an invitation. I recognized the return address as that of a couple that my husband and I have been friends with for almost ten years—let’s call them the Smiths. The Smiths host several parties annually for which we receive written invitations. Still, this looked more formal than an invite for a summer gathering. The envelope was as thick as a wedding invitation, but the Smiths have been married for many years. What could it be? A ”major” birthday?

Inside was a wedding invitation for their son’s nuptials. You don’t know the Smiths, but if I told you the race of their son, would you be able to guess the race of his soon-to-be bride? How about if you had information about whom most newlyweds marry?

Who do people marry? Much has been written about romance and the challenges of finding suitable dating partners, but once people find a mate and decide to marry, who do they choose? Let’s focus on the race/ethnicity of the newly married who wed someone outside of their race/ethnicity.

By looking at the chart below, you will see the percentage of newlyweds who married someone of a different race/ethnicity than their own in 2008. Notice that that the percentage of people “marrying out” (marrying someone of a different race) varies across racial/ethnic groups.

The group with the most out- marriages—Asians—did so at a rate of almost one third (30.8 percent). Whites had the lowest out- marriage rate of the groups, with fewer than one in ten whites (8.9 percent) married to someone of a different race than their own.

Does any of this surprise you? Did you expect any of these numbers to be higher? Lower? More similar across groups? Why would one racial/ethnic group “marry out” at a rate that is particularly different from another? For example, why do Asians and Hispanics “marry out” so much more than blacks and whites--especially whites? Or to flip the question around, why are out-marriage rates for blacks and whites so low? Do you think that some groups have cultural attitudes that shape their attitudes towards intermarriage? What role, if any, do you think the numbers of available people within one’s racial/ethnic group play in any of this?

 

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Source: Marrying Out: One-in-Seven New U.S. Marriages is Interracial or Interethnic (Pew Research Center)

Who are newlyweds marrying when they do marry out their racial/ethnic group? As indicated in the series of pie charts below, the answer depends on the group. For minority groups though, the majority of intermarriages do not occur with other minorities but with whites. Of newlywed Asians, 75.1 percent married whites, of Hispanics 80.5 percent, and of blacks 57.5 percent. So who do whites marry when they marry outside of their race/ethnicity? Almost half (48.8 percent) of all newlywed whites married Hispanics.

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Note: Other includes American Indian, two or more races and “some other” race categories.

Data reflect marriages to someone of a different race/ethnicity in the previous 12 months.

Source: Marrying Out: One-in-Seven New U.S. Marriages is Interracial or Interethnic (Pew Research Center)

What patterns, if any, can we detect in looking at the spouses of men and women in new interracial marriages? The charts below provide such data. One of the more striking differences between males and females who recently “out-married” is among whites: Of those who intermarried in 2008, far more white men married Asian women than white women married Asian men (26.9 percent compared to 9.4 percent), while white women were far more likely to marry black men than white men were to marry black women (20.1 percent compared to 6.9 percent). Another noteworthy difference is that of Hispanics who married someone of a different race/ethnicity, the proportion of Hispanic women who married black men was much higher than Hispanic men who married Black women (13.2 percent compared to 4.5 percent).

What about the “desirability” of certain groups as spouses? (I presume that marriage is some indication of someone’s desirability—at least desirability as a marriage partner.) The lack of desirability of black women and Asian men as spouses for those who intermarried in 2008 is worth noting. White, Hispanic, and Asian men in mixed marriages married women of every other racial category more than they did black women. Similarly, white, black, and Hispanic women who entered interracial marriages in 2008 did so with men from other racial/ethnic groups ahead of Asian men. Both white women and white men however, were desired as partners by blacks, Hispanics and Asians in interracial marriages in 2008. As the data in the pie charts illustrates, the majority of minorities in intermarriages—both male and female—married whites (ranging from 57.2 percent to 83.3 percent).

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Stay tuned to this space as we answer some of the questions raised in this piece and continue to learn more about intermarriage in the U.S. And regarding young Mr. Smith, like 84.5 percent of people in his racial/ethnic group, he is marrying within his race.

June 08, 2010

Short Text Messages: Illusion over Substance

new janis By Janis Prince Inniss

I have discussed my anti-texting bias in previous posts, but I do recognize that texting can be useful. For example, I taught my mother to text when she was in her late 70s! Recovering from surgery meant to give her a sense of sound, Mum was down to one poorly performing ear. As she prepared to visit family by plane in another state, I realized that she would be virtually deaf upon arrival. My mind filled with worst-case scenarios of family attempting to pick her up at the airport, but being unable to locate her despite repeated calls to her cell phone or airport pages. Mum’s sight is pretty good, however, so I taught her to text a few hours before she departed. That holiday season, she kept me apprised of her activities with several texts per day; I got running commentary on her vacation and she got my responses without any problem .

Although I object to how expensive texting can be, I understand why people might find it useful. Texting allows people to ”say” things when they can’t speak; the advantages of this are obvious and often we are saying things we probably shouldn’t, to people we probably shouldn’t, and at times when we probably should be doing something else. Consider that text messages were allegedly a part of Tiger Woods’ extramarital affairs, are used by teachers who prey on their students sexually, and helped cause the downfall of former Detroit mayor Kwame Kilpatrick. The consequences of teen sexting have been widely discussed and debated. Less dramatic, but still in the same category of inappropriate use is texting someone while you’re in a meeting or in class.

People text while doing other things, such as watching movies, having conversations, eating, and working. (Note that research on multitasking indicates that the term more properly refers to doing more than one thing poorly.) That’s what one Wal-Mart cashier who texts at work is doing: While customers push their goods up to the cashier, he reads a text. And while I get my credit card out of my purse, swipe, and sign it, he types a text! (I’ve seen this particular cashier do this repeatedly, so I know he wasn’t doing it once in an emergency). People—teens in particular— are even texting and driving, giving rise to increasing numbers of car accidents due to distracted driving. (Oprah Winfrey has been raising awareness to this issue through her “No Phone Zone” campaign.)

About one third of teens send more than 100 texts per day—and this is the primary way that teens communicate (over phone calls, instant messages, emails, face-to-face, and social networking.) Why is texting so popular? Is it because it allows us to seem communicative, even when we really aren’t?

Let me give you a few examples. I have friends and family members who send annual Christmas Day text message blasts to everyone in their address books. It’s great to receive a holiday greeting, of course, but it feels so impersonal. (Is a blast text any less personal than a computer generated greeting card, electronic card, or an annual family newsletter sent to everyone?) A short telephone call, even voice message seems more personal to me than the blast.

Now that Mother’s Day seems to be cause for acknowledgment not only with those who mothered us, but all mothers we know (a post for another time), I have started receiving blast texts wishing me a Happy Mother’s Day; other so-called holidays also bring me blast texts wishing me a Happy Whatever! Given that the text senders and I don’t communicate on a regular basis, I think actual conversations such as “How are the kids?” “And your Mom?” “How are things at school?” would be real—or at least better approximations of—communication. A text message can give the illusion that we are communicating even when we are not.

Ever think about why someone is sending you a text rather than calling or visiting you? I do. Visits are not as convenient (or maybe even appropriate) as other methods of communication. But given that texts are inconvenient to type (at least for some of us) and that there is a 160 character limit, a text message provides a limited form of communication. This makes sense when we remember that we refer to as texts are technically “short message service”. Short message, not full conversation. As one among other modes of communication, texts are fine but if used too often they give the appearance of communication, in a medium that is by nature unable to support a substantive conversation. Texts can’t convey emotion to the extent that a voice or non-verbal cue can, which is why sensitive conversations are not as suitable for this medium. And given that people are often texting while attending to other tasks, how engaged can they really be with the person they are texting or with the people around them?

May 10, 2010

Ancestry and Paths of Power

new sally By Sally Raskoff

Have you been watching the TV show Who Do You Think You Are? In the show, celebrities trace their genealogy and perhaps it will inspire people to do the same for themselves. Each celebrity has had surprises as well as answers to their questions.

Have you ever seen your genealogy or worked on completing it? It’s a slow but fun process. One usually starts by talking to older relatives who are still alive about who their parents and grandparents were and where they lived.

There are many websites, agencies, and governmental information depositories to find documents and proof that your people existed in the time and place that you expect. The Census Bureau gives access to the individual records 72 years after the census, so you can look up records for residence and all the other fun information they recorded.

My father had worked on his genealogy, so we knew something about his ancestors. We know very little about the ancestry of my mother and my spouse’s parents. I had some time and jumped online to see what I could find.

It was fascinating to find records of our relatives in places like the 1920 census.

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Eventually one may have to rely on the family trees that other people make – but websites that collect such information make it quite easy to gather that information. That information may not have any documentary evidence to back it up, but it’s still interesting even if the likelihood of inaccuracy increases.

If you go back far enough in time or place, other records may come into play, including local stories or anecdotes. In one such case, a line on my father’s side goes back to identifiable Vikings. Ragnar Lodbrok says that his ancestry went back to Odin, who was the main god in Norse mythology.

The interesting thing I noticed while tracing my Viking ancestors was that there was a marriage that connected this line with another line that went straight to the first five generations of the English House of Wessex.

This marriage intrigued me since it brought together two kinship networks that in early generations had been warring with each other. I wonder if they knew since they were at least six generations later than the identifiable royals and Vikings. This had to be what we now call a political marriage, as they were combining kingdoms when they married.

It is easy for us to ignore the fact that love-based marriages and choice in marriage is a relatively new concept. In her book, Marriage, A History: From Obedience to Intimacy, or How Love Conquered Marriage, Stephanie Coontz shows very clearly how once marriage evolved into a choice based on emotion.

Most of my searches go one or two generations and stop. These two lines kept going and going as more and more names were linked. It was quite exciting to trace the links especially as they kept going. However, I soon realized that the links were connected because they must be linked to people who were important enough to document.

It’s often the case that lives are documented only if they are important for the historical record or someone deems them important enough to record. This would apply to oral traditions as well as written records. Only the powerful or (in)famous are consistently found in historical records.

The exception would be in records like the census, birth records, or the like. Does the existence of such records equalize social class levels? And are all the records we produce accurate?

A research methods teacher once told me an old joke that our data is only as good as the lonely clerk who wrote it all down. Not everything that gets recorded, and then taken as fact, is accurate. That may be because our way of calculating some statistic is actually done for ease, not for accuracy.

My frustration in doing my genealogy are those dead ends where there is no record anywhere of who those people’s parents were or where they came from. Perhaps those people were not recorded because they were not deemed important enough? Most of the lines trace the fathers much more effectively than the mothers. This echoes the patriarchal power that defines many of these cultures.

Or are the missing records more a matter of technology? People at that time might have known all of this information but those records might not have lasted or perhaps they were destroyed in some disaster. I have many Irish relatives whose path stops at the same time history books tell us about the potato famine. Perhaps they were lost to that famine or they were the ones who emigrated through some means. Apparently, at that time, there were mass migrations out of Ireland, though no one was logging who went were and their hometowns were all listed as their port or departure, not their actual origins.

We might assume that technology will assure that the records we are keeping now will be kept for eternity. I’m not so sure. Think about how many computer systems you may have had so far – are they all compatible? I still have some floppy disks in my closet but nothing to read them since my computer now only uses USB ports and DVD drives. (I knew I should have backed those up!)

In 200 or 2,000 years from now, will all ancestral records that we now have still be intact and accessible? 2,000 year ago some people were writing some things down when the supplies were available but those records weren’t always kept from generation to generation. Political turmoil, war, disasters of all types put such records at risk. SO much can happen in that space of time.

Think of just how much information that would be! Generational patterns are fascinating – to learn about just five generations, one must track 32 people. Your two parents had four parents had eight parents had sixteen parents – who had 32 parents. And that’s only accounting for six generations.

What information survives over generations? Stories of the powerful -- or the unlucky-- whose lives affected the course of history. Power gives access to many benefits in society as it increases one’s life chances. It also increases one’s chances of documenting one’s ancestry and knowing more about how one’s family came to be. The nameless others are probably just as, if not more so, interesting but since they had no access to power, we will never know.

April 05, 2010

Sociology Meets The Bachelor

KS_2010a By Karen Sternheimer

A few weeks ago, I was asked to appear on 20/20 to discuss the group dynamics that might emerge while filming a reality show like The Bachelor. I’m always pleased when a sociological perspective is included in popular culture, particularly since we Americans traditionally view things from an individual perspective.

The segment’s correspondent, Chris Connelly, asked me several very interesting questions about group dynamics and why people might behave in ways that they might not in a different situation. As with any program, time constraints permitted only some of our discussion to air, so this post will expand on our conversation. The main question Connelly asked me was, What sort of group dynamics emerge when people are isolated from their regular lives, as they are on shows like The Bachelor?


When people encounter a situation they are unfamiliar with, they will often try to create order. Sociologist Harold Garfinkel studied how jurors must figure out how to organize their deliberations in the absence of specific rules about how to do so. Likewise, when people enter a situation such as a reality show, where there might not be specific rules about how to interact with other participants, they might use other reality shows they have seen to guide their behavior.

People who choose to be on a show like The Bachelor are likely to be somewhat savvy about “unscripted” programming and therefore probably know what sort of reality “characters” get the most screen time. As one of the show's producers admitted, many contestants aren’t necessarily there to find true love, but to get on television. In a tough economy like this one, appearing on a reality show could put someone on the fast-track to celebrity and perhaps to a career of sorts that involves simply being themselves (like Heidi Montag and others).

And of course candidates for the show aren’t selected because they are necessarily good matches for the Bachelor/Bachelorette. They tend to be people who look good in bathing suits, have a bit of an exhibitionist streak, and who might be somewhat emotionally volatile. Conflicts will emerge when you combine these factors with free-flowing alcohol. And of course a television show without drama is not likely to stay on the air for very long.

In some ways shows like these bear passing resemblance to dynamics in cults and other total institutions, a term sociologist Erving Goffman coined to describe organizations that essentially run a person’s life, if only for a short time. When someone participates on The Bachelor, they live in a spectacular mansion and must cut off contact from the outside world (contestants report not even knowing that Barack Obama was elected president while in the house). They cannot talk about what went on during the show until after it has aired either.clip_image002

Their time is structured by producers, and they feel lucky to be chosen to spend time alone with a central figure that the other participants fawn over. To be selected by this (sometimes) charismatic figure at the end of the show signifies specialness. This dynamic is not unlike the way cult figures interact with the group’s leader. To the outside world, a cult leader might seem really creepy and strange, but in the context of a total institution, their attention might imply salvation.

In the context of The Bachelor, it is normal for the anointed one to have sexual rendezvous with multiple women, and for the women to have friendly conversations with each other in which they compare notes about those encounters. Separated from trusted others, such as friends and family, who might in normal circumstances weigh in on their romantic lives, the experience seems okay. While in our daily lives we might have many things to define our identities, such as school, our work, and our relationships with friends and families, little else defines contestants during this process but how well they fare with the bachelor/bachelorette.

Just as psychologist Philip Zimbardo found in the Stanford prison experiment, in a short period of time people will change their behavior to conform to the expectations of those granted powerful roles. Connelly asked me why people seldom want to leave, and I suspect the answer is similar to Zimbardo’s findings. No, The Bachelor is not a prison, or even a mock prison, but the context is very powerful here. Participants live in a fantasy-like setting, don’t have to go to work, and can spend their evenings in beautiful formal wear. They might travel to exotic locales and have dinner with an impossibly perfect sunset as the backdrop.

I know, so far this sounds like the opposite of Zimbardo’s experiment. But the point is that people often become somewhat passive when others have defined the situation for them. And the situation on The Bachelor is that being chosen as “the one” by the bachelor is the super ordinate goal, even if one is miserable in the process—or really doesn’t care much for the bachelor as a person. In the prison experiment, people adapted to their roles as prisoner and guard too well, and soon let go of their normal inhibitions and began acting accordingly. It is likely that people on a show like The Bachelor would soon behave in ways they might not normally too.

There are many other interesting sociological aspects to The Bachelor and similar shows, including issues pertaining to gender, the “happily ever after” fantasy of love and marriage, and the celebration of consumption. What sociological issues do you see in this and other so-called reality shows?

March 29, 2010

Birthday Parties, Weddings, and Other Rituals

new janis By Janis Prince Inniss

What kind of society would ritually mix together a white powdery starch made of grains, with a crystal sweetener, churned milk, and ovoid shaped female cells laid by birds, infuse the mixture with a carbon dioxide releasing chemical and then cook the resulting mixture? Why would they do this? And why would they stick a lighted wax pole into this concoction?

For the last several days, we have been celebrating my mother’s milestone birthday. Reaching 80 and looking as she does and feeling as she reports would be considered a wonderful achievement for many, but given my mother’s recent illness and hospitalizations (which I wrote about here and here), this birthday feels particularly triumphant. The last year has seen Mum’s health steadily improve without one step backwards. And for most of that year she has been able to resume the life she had before illness – walking several times a week, living independently, and seeming to have more energy than I do.

So in collaboration with my siblings, I was delighted to get into a planning frenzy for an event to include fifty of her closest friends and some of our family. Since Mum loves the colors black and white, the color scheme was easy to decide on. The white plates adorned with pastel colored roses I found completed the color palette I would use: black and white with pink, yellow, and purple flowers.

clip_image002 clip_image004 clip_image006After planning the event, buying the goods, and cooking most of the food, I was exhausted by the evening of the party. Afraid that in my exhaustion I would forget some important aspect of the evening’s proceedings, I asked a visiting relative to take over. What’s the big deal? After spending so much time and energy planning this party, I didn’t want to forget something like – say the birthday cake – or the order of some of the formalities. Why? Because just about everybody has been to a birthday party (notable exceptions would be someone raised and living as a Jehovah’s Witness) and we all know the rituals associated with birthday parties.

Ever think about the rituals we engage in when we celebrate birthdays? There is the cake. (Did you recognize the ingredients and yourself above? Flour, sugar, butter, eggs, and baking powder. All baked, and then just at the right moment, we add candles and light them.) The birthday person must blow the candles out while making a secret wish.

Weddings, Thanksgiving, Christmas and other holidays are filled with rituals as well. Some are widely known and others are particular to our families. Notice that advertisers are keenly aware of the role of rituals in our lives and that many commercials are created to highlight the commercial aspect of various ritualistic times; Christmas is an extreme example with the gift-giving aspect heralded by advertisements of anything from cars to the year’s must have toy. As I mentioned in this post, it is the gift giving ritual of Christmas that gives some retailers as much of three-quarters of their annual profit.

Rituals reflect our social context and as such may highlight issues such as gender inequality. Weddings include many rituals for us to examine gender. Have you ever thought about some of those as you attended a wedding? Who is “given away” at a Christian or American secular wedding? Usually, a father—or other close male relative or friend—“gives” the bride to the groom as was done with arranged marriages in a transfer of property. This wedding ritual may be the one most changed in the last 30 or 40 years as couples deem it too patriarchal and come up with innovative changes such as having both parents walk the couple down the aisle (and in the Jewish tradition, it has always been customary for both parents to walk both the bride or groom down the isle). At our wedding, my groom and I walked down the aisle together. Others have infused this part of the wedding ceremony with fancy dance moves as seen on The Office.

Indeed, rituals change as we do. The traditional “first dance” of newlyweds at their weddings has been very staid and to a classic love song. Recently, many couples have been opting for a choreographed number to pop music such as seen in this video:

Why do we engage in rituals? In his book, Understanding Family Process: Basics of Family Systems Theory, one of my favorite sociology professors, the late Carlfred Broderick, describes rituals as mechanisms that all societies use to ensure that families share enough common ground. Rituals refer to ways that family members share values, celebrate their common identity, and regulate behavior; they have circular dynamics: the values that lead families to take part in a ceremony are reinforced by their participation in it. Rituals also help us mark transitions: married instead of single, and coming of age, for example. Less happy transitions are also marked by ritual—funerals are filled with many rituals and some people now have divorce parties/showers to mark their new status.

As you participate in and observe rituals think about what they mean and how various symbols are used to express those meanings.

March 04, 2010

Private Lives of Public People: Tiger Woods and Other Sex Scandals

new janis By Janis Prince Inniss

I have many reactions to Tiger Woods’ televised mea culpa. The one that prompted this post is embarrassment, however. As I watched a recording of the entire 14 minute speech, I felt an overwhelming urge to look down in order to avoid looking at Woods’ eyes as he spoke. (When his face on camera failed and they moved to a side shot, I like that distance between us better.) Although Woods did not offer any real details about his extramarital affairs, this was the first time he had publicly said anything about them. Instead of releasing another short, crisp written statement on his website, this time he spoke directly to the viewer, saying to me, you, and the rest of the world things like:

Elin and I have started the process of discussing the damage caused by my behavior. As Elin pointed out to me, my real apology to her will not come in the form of words; it will come from my behavior over time. We have a lot to discuss; however, what we say to each other will remain between the two of us.

I was embarrassed to hear this kind of information, for example, because I felt like a Peeping Tom. I could imagine an exchange between the couple in which Elin told Tiger that if he were really sorry he would stop having extramarital affairs. That’s couple talk though—what people couples say to each other in private.

As a professional marriage and family therapist, I have heard such private conversations in my office. But since I don’t know this couple personally, and I’m not their therapist it felt odd to be privy to their deeply personal conversation. It was interesting to note that Woods asked the public to request their privacy just after he revealed part of one of their private conversations. He also revealed where he’s been for the past month and a half:

It's hard to admit that I need help, but I do. For 45 days from the end of December to early February, I was in inpatient therapy receiving guidance for the issues I'm facing.

With this comment, Woods admitted what had widely reported in the news: that he had been undergoing treatment. Although Woods did not directly acknowledge that he was in a sex rehabilitation program, it is easy enough to put two and two together. Again, this is information that I consider private—despite the existence of a television show such as “Celebrity Rehab with Dr. Drew”.

As I proceed, I understand people have questions. I understand the press wants to ask me for the details and the times I was unfaithful. I understand people want to know whether Elin and I will remain together. Please know that as far as I'm concerned, every one of these questions and answers is a matter between Elin and me. These are issues between a husband and a wife.

Indeed, when I imagined what Woods could or would say if he finally made an appearance, like most people I thought he’d express remorse and perhaps offer details about his affairs. But how is any of this my business? When did details about the sex lives of public figures become open to the public? Why are they?

If you’re old enough to remember when the O. J. Simpson court case hijacked our televisions, you might recognize the name, Robert Kardashian. Kardashian—now deceased—was one of Simpson’s attorneys. Today, the name Kardashian is synonymous with the E! reality hit show – “Keeping Up With the Kardashians”– and its star, Kim Kardashian. Best as I can figure out, before getting involved with fashion, and being a spokesperson, Kim Kardashian was famous for co-starring in a sex tape with singer Ray J. Similarly, Paris Hilton’s road to fame seems to have been well paved by her sex video.

A number of the women who allege that Tiger Woods had affairs with them have also gained some media exposure which looks like it will be parlayed into 5 or 10, if not 15, minutes of fame. Rather than being ashamed of their roles in the damage to a marriage, many of these women have made television appearances:

Some of these women have made murmurings of regret and apology but don’t appear to be sufficiently embarrassed to want to crawl under a rock—the place I presume I would want to be if I were discovered in such an entanglement. Instead, high profile journalists such as Meredith Viera air of their stories. Perhaps the greatest example of this publicity hounding was the post Woods apology “news” conference by Veronica Siwik Daniels and her attorney, Gloria Allred. This alleged Woods mistress demanded a personal apology from Woods because she said she had given up so much for him, including her porn movie career.


Actually, I was hoping that Woods would never make a statement or do an interview about his affairs. Why? Because it would be an interesting sociological exercise in what happens when such public figures do not take this beaten path (coming forward to confess, and cry, as they unload their burdens on us).

Every media expert I saw discuss the Woods story said that in order for the golfer to return to the sport and continue to endorse products, he would have to at least make a statement and perhaps also agree to a big, tell-all interview with someone like Barbara Walters or Oprah Winfrey. The sociologist in me couldn’t help but wonder what would happen if he didn’t. Is there another path back? Can some one person redefine the bounds of privacy? Or perhaps Woods would stay out of the limelight…forever.

With 24 hour news reporting and online social media, how much detail about the private lives of public people does our appetite now demand? And what do we gain, or lose, from having access to the private lives of public people?

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