80 posts categorized "Relationships, Marriage and Family"

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?

February 15, 2010

Just Say No to Sex: Is Abstinence Only Education Effective?

new sally By Sally Raskoff

A recent study about sex education is now big news: abstinence-only sex education is effective! No other scientific study of such programs has found any success, so it’s no surprise that this should make a splash in the news media.

Looking at the study more closely, and with a sociological lens, there are some important issues to consider.

The basic study used data from four different urban (low income) middle schools in the same northeastern city in four groups: one received an 8 hour “abstinence-only” curriculum by specially trained teachers who discussed the risks of pregnancy and sexually transmitted infections (STIs); one received an 8 hour “safer-sex” curriculum; one received a more comprehensive curriculum for either 8 or 12 hours that included information from both programs already mentioned; and one group received an 8 hour “healthy living” curriculum that is not considered sex education.image

The research design states that they were randomly assigned into these groups. The curriculum was for an 8-10 hour learning experience and the students were re-surveyed 24 months after the initial class to assess their sexual histories during that time.

Two years after the class, it appears that 48.5% of the control (healthy living) group was sexually active compared to 42% in the comprehensive group, 52% in the safer sex group, and 33.5% in the abstinence-only group.

The abstract of the article summarizes these findings and includes some other details. The mean age of the African American participants was 12.2 years, thus their average age at the follow up would be a young 14. About 84% of the them were still enrolled at the follow up survey, so the overall findings omit 16% who moved or dropped out of the study.

Are these points relevant? Perhaps.

We’re talking about 12 and 14 year olds and their likelihood to have sex.


Looking at the Centers for Disease Control’s (CDC) Youth Risk Behavior Survey data for a northeastern urban city (New York City), almost half of the high school students reported ever having sexual intercourse – although less than 10% had done so for the first time before they were 13 years old. Of course, while this data is for the entire city of New York, the study in question is specifically in low-income urban schools thus they may not be comparable.

Here are the data for the Boroughs individually and two other northeastern cities:


The study group was in 8-9th grade when they were followed up thus comparing these data above (for the 9th grade) to the study’s findings, it appears that the 40-50% figures aren’t too far out of the norm. Some of these cities have a large population of people who have relatively lower average income levels, compared to averaging out all of New York City.

Is it problematic that 15.6% of the people are missing from the analysis? Whether or not their inclusion would have altered the pattern is an unknown factor. There are many reasons why these students would have dropped out , and in fact a 15.6% disappear from a low-income urban school population is lower than one would expect.

Access to the research report is only through a subscribed database thus the public wouldn’t be able to find out any more details. If your school library gives you access, look up the study and see what else you can find out about its research design and methods.

The authors, interviewed on NPR and other media outlets, talk more about the specific curriculum and how it was different from previous ‘abstinence-only’ programs. clip_image004This curriculum was “not moralistic” nor was it “negatively oriented” according to the media reports. Instead, it sounds like they discussed the very sociological concept of how life chances are affected by the choice of whether or not to have sex.

One might also notice that this study did not ask about pregnancy or STI incidence nor did it follow the subjects past the age of 14 (yet). Not much attention has been paid to some of their other significant findings, e.g., multiple partners. The students that received the more comprehensive curriculum had “reduced reports” of having multiple partners compared to the control group.

When you consider risk behavior of children, i.e., having sex before one is 13 or 14, this study is fascinating, but more detailed analysis needs to be done before we jump to broad conclusions about what type of program is effective. The media reports have mentioned that the researchers (and others) caution about drawing societal conclusions from the results of any one study. Such warnings are important to heed – especially once you look into the details!

February 11, 2010

The Hardest Job I've Ever Had

image By Todd Schoepflin, Ph.D

Assistant Professor

Department of Sociology

Niagara University

[email protected]


I’ve had some hard jobs over the years. When I was a college student I worked at a summer camp for developmentally disabled adults. Many were low functioning, and a few were schizophrenics with violent streaks. My first job after graduating from college was as a counselor for adolescents with serious emotional problems (a few of them had violent streaks too). That job didn’t pay very well, so I had a second job teaching factory workers who were preparing for their GED exams. They were high school dropouts working the overnight shift at a textile factory (imagine having to work all night on your feet and then come to class to learn math and writing skills).

Currently I work as a college professor--although it’s not a grueling job, it’s not as easy as it looks. It’s challenging to prepare courses, it’s no fun spending weekends grading, and it’s hard to do to research (it’s even harder to get research published). But I feel very lucky to have this job because I know there are far tougher jobs.

The hardest job I’ve ever had is being a parent. My wife and I have one child, a beautiful and energetic boy who is two-years-old. And make no mistake about it--taking care of a child is work, and I can think of no other work that is more challenging.troy_es

I love my son more than anything else in the world but the phrase “terrible twos” applies to him lately. His favorite word is “no” and his typical behavior is to resist anything that we’d like him to do. He doesn’t want his diaper changed. He doesn’t want to put on socks. Or shoes. Or a jacket. Or a hat. This isn’t particularly convenient considering we’re in the middle of a cold winter in Buffalo. Try telling a two-year-old that he needs a warm coat because it’s freezing outside. It won’t work. There’s no reasoning with a two-year-old.

Recently my wife and I took our son to a restaurant at a mall. The restaurant had an exit door that connected to the mall. He ran out into the mall, walked into a store, and started pulling things off the shelves. Saying “don’t do that” had no impact. Nor did efforts to redirect him (“C’mon Troy, let’s go back to the restaurant and see Mommy.”) And least effective was grabbing him when I ran out of options. I brought him back to the restaurant as he was kicking and screaming. You think a thirty pound two-year-old isn’t strong? Guess again. Tantrums are a way of life these days. And with each tantrum I question my competency as a parent.

I say this as someone who is generally confident at his jobs. I was good at that summer camp for disabled adults, I did a good job working with emotionally troubled adolescents, and I believe I’m a good college professor. I’m not saying I’m not a good parent, I’m just saying I don’t always feel like one.

I hope this doesn’t sound like whining and complaining. That’s not my intent. My purpose is to emphasize that childcare is work. It just happens to be unpaid work. And it’s often the case that women do the bulk of this unpaid work. Childcare is often unnoticed, undervalued, under appreciated, and, as I’m suggesting, it can be overwhelming. It’s also very tiring. Take a look at the picture of my son and me--it might suggest a relaxed state of affairs, but I am exhausted most of the time. Fatigue has been a constant feeling for my wife and me because our son usually gets up at 5:30 in the morning. It makes for long and tiresome days.

Troy_December_08_001All of the difficult work and challenges come with the territory. I didn’t think being a parent would be easy, I just didn’t know it would be so hard. That doesn’t mean I don’t love my son or love being a parent. Since the day he was born I’ve poured my heart and soul into being a good father. I did my fair share of overnight feedings when he was a newborn and I’ve always been very involved with diaper changes and baths. And due to my flexible schedule as a college professor I’ve been able to be home with him lots of days when it’s just him and me. It’s a privilege to have a job that allows me to spend significant time taking care of him in the early years of his life. And since he’s been in my life I can honestly say I’ve never been happier. But life as a parent is hard and  knowing how demanding it is to take care of one child, I marvel at how parents appear to be so skilled at taking care of several children. And I’m amazed that so many women take great care of their children without the help of a spouse.

I find it interesting that when the topic of childcare comes up in my sociology courses, some of my male students say they would never want to be stay-at-home dads. I wonder why. Is this because childcare is still viewed primarily as women’s work? Do you think it’s accurate to say that men are reluctant (or even uninterested) in having a major role in childcare? If so, why do you think that’s the case?

It’s interesting to reflect on how society’s norms created the roles of women as caretakers and men as breadwinners. These once clearly defined roles seem to be blurring in today’s world. There are lots of men who are very involved in the day-to-day care taking of their children, and there are lots of women who earn more than their husbands and whose incomes are vital to the financial well-being of their families. Looking ahead to the future, what do you think the norms will be in terms of gender and childcare?

February 01, 2010

Men and Marriage

new karen 1 By Karen Sternheimer

Once upon a time, marriage was the bedrock of social mobility and economic stability for women. A recent Pew Research report indicates that there has been a major reversal: according to their analysis, men actually benefit financially more from marriage than women do.

But not by much. Pew researchers point out that the median household income for American -born men aged 30-44 increased 61% between 1970 and 2007, compared with 60% for married women of the same age. Unmarried women’s income increased 59% during this time, while unmarried men’s income rose only by 16%.

Pew researchers suggest that:

From an economic perspective, these trends have contributed to a gender role reversal in the gains from marriage. In the past, when relatively few wives worked, marriage enhanced the economic status of women more than that of men. In recent decades, however, the economic gains associated with marriage have been greater for men than for women.

At first, the story seems to be about unmarried men aged 30-44: why have their incomes grown more modestly?


There are two key factors to consider here. In 1970, unmarried men in this age group were the highest earners, so they had started off well ahead of the others. Single men still significantly out earn single women, as you can see in the graph below. What’s happened is that working women’s wages have caught up a bit with men’s. According to U.S. Census data, women earned about 59% of what men earned annually in 1970; in 2008 their earnings rose to 77% of men’s annual wages. Still a big gap, but a smaller gap no less.

Today, married men have the benefit of a partner with stronger earning power compared with 1970, when fewer married women were in the labor force. Both men and women are much more likely to be college educated today compared with 1970, but women now comprise nearly 54% of college graduates, in contrast to just 36% in 1970. This education gap means that a growing number of marriages includes a wife who has more education than her husband, and in some cases a higher income, as the graph below details. While the percentage of wives who earn more than husbands has grown significantly, keep in mind that the vast majority or women in 2007 did not earn more than their husbands.


Note that one thing is remarkably consistent: men and women are very likely to marry someone with levels of education similar to their own. As sociologist Dalton Conley told Time magazine, "High-income women marrying high-income men is one of the drivers of inequality." Conley added that, "This leads to family instability and a cycle of disadvantage," for less educated lower earners, particularly as higher levels of education and income are associated with greater marriage stability.

Basically, the better educated you are the more you earn, and the more likely you are to stay married. This means that education provides a double advantage economically: not only are you likely to earn more, but you are likely to benefit from a working partner. And according to the Pew researchers, college educated women “are more financially desirable as marriage partners.”

But it’s not that single men are “screwed”, as Time magazine’s headline boldly suggests. Single men earn 89 cents on the dollar annually compared with married men, while single women’s annual household income is just 65 percent of married women’s income. Men still earn more than women within every educational category; in fact, one might argue that the greater proportion of women earning bachelor’s degrees is a result of a greater need for credentials for women in the workforce.

If anything, the first graph above serves as a reminder of how single women continue to lag behind their male counterparts. While single women’s income gains might have outshone single men’s in terms of percentage, in actual dollars women still seem to benefit economically from marriage more than men. If we consider that single women with children likely bear additional financial responsibilities, a second income is all the more important.

Sociologist Kathryn Edin has studied this issue for many years, and points out that marriage for low-income single mothers might not hold the economic benefits many presume. She interviewed many women who talked about their desire to get married, but noted that marriage to a low-earning man could mean more financial hardship rather than less. It might sound like a good idea for low income women to find a high earning man, but as the data above reveal, people are highly likely to meet and marry people with similar levels of education. The Cinderella story of a poor woman meeting and marrying a prince might be common in fairy tales, but in reality it is very uncommon. A recent New York Times blog includes a discussion of these and other important points about the realities of marriage today from sociologists and other scholars.

The moral of this story is that higher educational attainment can lead to both higher earnings and a greater likelihood of marital stability. Another good reason to earn your degree!

January 18, 2010

Tiger Woods and the Hyper-Sexualization of Black Men

new janis By Janis Prince Inniss

The Wanda Sykes Show recently spoofed The Publisher’s Clearing House Sweepstakes. Sykes and the rest of the Prize Patrol pay women for denying that they have had sex with golfing legend, Tiger Woods with this offer: “(The Tiger Woods Cleaning House Damage Control) is giving away millions to girls who know how to zip it!” When the Prize Patrol tries to award a $10 million check to Kelly O’Brien, and a Black woman answers the door, Sykes says, “Clearly, we have the wrong house!”

With that line, Sykes and her show state what is obvious but not much commented on in the Woods sex scandal: All the women who claim to have had sex with Woods are white.

Tiger Woods has said his self identity is that of “Cablinasian”—a term he created to account for his Thai, African American, Chinese, Native American, and Caucasian racial and ethnic heritage. By describing himself this way, Woods set himself apart from other mixed race Americans who are usually identified as African American—both by themselves and by others in the society. (Click here to read more about racial classification in the U.S.) Regardless of our self-identity, however, others classify us based on their own ideas about race. No matter how Tiger Woods describes himself, most Americans probably think of him as African American.

Given the country’s racial legacy, what role does Woods’ race play in the news coverage of his extramarital affairs? There is no lab in which we can run an experiment to answer this question definitively and all comparisons to other famous people—whether athletes, politicians, or actors—will be have limitations revolving around at least two issues. First, as one of the most famous and most accomplished athletes today, Woods is very unique. Second, a perfect comparison would have to include enough people who are very similar on a number of variables. Without the ability to make such precise comparisons, this public conversation is still a platform from which we can reflect on issues of race that this story raises.

How is race relevant in this case? Elin Nordegren, Tiger Woods’ wife is white and so are all of the women he is alleged to have had affairs with. (Woods admits to infidelity but does not say with whom he has dallied.) How much of the frenzied chasing of this story is related to those two factors, when most see him as African American? And what of the steam coming out of reporters’ ears as they discuss the case? Do they seem even more revved up than usual? For example, Pat Lalama was Guest Host on CNN’s Nancy Grace Show and she made no objections to the following comments by Lou Palumbo, a private investigator

LALAMA: Lou Palumbo, private investigator, former Nassau County Police investigator. You`ve seen a lot of this kind of thing, how does this rank to you, this case?
PALUMBO: As low as you can go, quite frankly. I mean.
LALAMA: Really?
PALUMBO: Yes, he`s somewhat on himself here. It wasn`t an issue that he wasn`t finding comfort or rapport in his home with his wife and he sought comfort with someone else. This guy was a sociopath. I mean, he traveled through continents to do this. And it`s unconscionable and quite frankly his complete lack of regard first and foremost for his children is inexplicable.

And I really don`t think this guy cares, quite frankly, and I think he`s a coward. In fact, what he should do is come out of hiding and just confront this issue and try to make some sense of it with people which we know he cannot do but he needs to confront this issue. He`s just hiding.

Palumbo’s comments and demeanor have been common among television commentators who seem to feel no need to appear journalistic as they discuss the Woods saga. How much of this vitriol is really based on the old stereotypical threat of African American men pursuing white women and defiling them?

That old fear was at the root of many lynchings and other racially motivated crimes against blacks. In 1955, Emmett Till, a 14-year-old African American boy was beaten, shot, and then tied to a 70-pound cotton gin fan before being thrown into a river. His crime? Allegedly whistling at or maybe touching a white woman when he visited Mississippi from Chicago.

According to Jane Dailey, Till’s murder is seen by many historians as being directly tied to the Supreme Court decision in Brown v. Board of Education. How so? The decision was seen as opening white women to the sexual advances of black men in school; Walter C. Givhan, an Alabama state senator said the real purpose of the decision was “to open the bedroom doors of our white women to Negro men."

The tone of some of the coverage of the Tiger Woods sex scandal is suggestive of those earlier days. To be sure, Tiger Woods is no Emmett Till. (And I’m no apologist for Woods and his wandering ways!) In some ways, the 34 years between their births might as well be 134 years: Woods is married to a white woman, is wealthy, and famous. He’s famous for being the best in the world in a sport that has been mainly played by rich whites. I am reminded, though, that in other ways 34 years is not very long. For example, although interracial marriages have increased since Till’s time, they are still relatively rare—they make-up about 7% of all U.S. marriages. Coverage of the Tiger Woods affairs tinged with a lens that says that he has ‘gone too far’ –first by marrying a white woman and worse by cheating on her with even more white women—underscores some of that recent history.

Speaking about Woods, celebrity judge Jeanine Pirro exclaimed, “Men are pigs!”, and although tamped down, there was intense coverage of a physician who treated Woods because the doctor was being tied to performance enhancement drugs. With all of the non-stop coverage of this story, I have seen none of the contempt for Woods directed at the ever-growing list of women who agreed to have sex with the married superstar athlete, a subject for another post.

Do you detect a racial subtext in the coverage of this story? How do you imagine the coverage of the story would be the same, or different, if Woods was married to a black woman? Or if he were white? What if the women alleging that he was their paramour were women of color? How does this story reinforce the stereotype of the hyper-sexualized black man?

December 31, 2009

Infidelity, Tiger Woods, and Émile Durkheim

new karen 1

By Karen Sternheimer

By now you might be tired of hearing about Tiger Woods and his alleged mistresses. I know I am. And yet when high profile figures are thought to cheat on their spouses it becomes big news again and again, especially if a politician or celebrity is involved. Once Tiger’s story goes away there is sure to be another public figure whose behavior will enter the public fray for dissection.

There are many explanations for why people are interested—it’s salacious, it pervades the news at a time when ratings matter and news organizations’ budgets are being slashed, and in the Woods case it seems to be an opportunity for several people to get their fifteen minutes of fame. These are just a few of many explanations that have sparked a slew of conversations about why this is even news in the first place (including one I recently participated in on NPR). But how might the founder of sociology explain the attention celebrity infidelity receives if he were alive today?

clip_image002Emile Durkheim (1858-1917) is often regarded as the father of sociology, both for employing research methods to study sociological phenomena and for the theories he created about social life. While he lived before our hyper-mediated age, some of his ideas can add insight into why stories of infidelity seem to get the public’s attention.

Durkheim was very interested in how complex societies remain cohesive. He, and those that adopted his way of thinking, were very interested in how various aspects of society operate in concert in order to maintain the social order. Often called functionalism, this school of thought dominated sociological thinking for most of the twentieth century. One of functionalism’s central questions asks: What is the glue that holds increasingly diverse and sometimes divergent groups together?

Here’s where infidelity fits in. The collective disgust and outrage people express about high-profile cheaters serves to reaffirm a central societal value of fidelity. Functionalists emphasize the importance of shared values in creating bonds across society. News of infidelity is a chance for most of us to feel connected in agreeing that this behavior is wrong. While we might not agree on much else (witness the hotly debated health care reform legislation and other political melees), there aren’t too many people who are publicly pro-infidelity. Yes, it seems counterintuitive that something that could break up a marriage and family might provide social bonding. It may not do a family any good, but functionalists might argue that pillorying cheaters serves an important purpose for the rest of us.

Just as public hangings and stockades served to embarrass law breakers of the past and send a message to others of what would happen to them if they followed suit, media floggings serve a similar function today. Functionalists might argue that so much news focuses on undesirable behavior for the purpose of helping to maintain the social order; if we agree upon a set of norms and values we might feel a greater sense of who we as a group are and thus follow the rules. You might have noticed that when defining people as outsiders from our society we often focus on how their norms and values are different from ours.


It doesn’t take bad behavior to help unify an otherwise diverse society. According to Daniel Dayan and Elihu Katz, authors of Media Events: The Live Broadcasting of History, media events that galvanize the public’s attention serve the very important purpose of creating a shared culture and history in a complex society that can often feel fractured. Major media events can serve as common experiences to help us feel more connected.

Tiger Woods and other public figures involved in scandals enable the rest of us the chance to reaffirm a sense of shared values, but on the most basic level they provide a common topic we can all talk about, and therefore feel a greater connection to one another.

The functionalist perspective is not without its shortcomings. For one, we might argue that a complex society such as ours has a multitude of competing values, rather than a stable set of shared beliefs. It’s also important to note that people’s actual behavior falls short of the very values they may claim to hold. Proponents of conflict theory might argue that the focus on shared values and beliefs leaves out the issue of power: the power some have to define societal values and the power to evade punishment when said values are violated.

Sociological theories offer many perspectives that seek to explain social life. What other sociological concepts might help us understand the role that infidelity plays in public life?

December 23, 2009

The Sports Figure as Morality Teacher

new janis By Janis Prince Inniss

Do you receive medical advice from your very smart mail carrier? Or dental advice from a sociologist? Do you look to your garbage collector to help you with career plans? No? Why not? Most of us recognize that people have differing areas of expertise and believe that particularly with regard to important issues such as our health, career, and finance we should seek the best advice and direction—from professionals in these areas.

Yet we often look to celebrities to be arbiters of good taste and expertise on everything including politics, fashion, music, and morality. For example, well after her heyday as a sitcom star, Susan Somers has found fame and fortune as fitness guru (she hawked the Thighmaster) and more recently as an “expert” on hormones, offering advice that many health officials hotly dispute. Legions of celebrities endorse politicians ; in 2008 we saw Oprah Winfrey and Robert DeNiro for Candidate Obama, and Elisabeth Hasselbeck and Clint Eastwood for Candidate McCain among many others. It is the man many consider to be the worlds’ greatest golfer—Tiger Woods—that brings this home though.

According to his website, Woods has won 93 golf tournaments including the 1997, 2001, 2002, and 2005 Masters Tournaments; 1999, 2000, 2006, and 2007 PGA Championships; 2000, 2002, and 2008 U.S. Open Championships, and 2000, 2005 and 2006 Open Championships. Along the way, Woods has amassed several historical firsts. Among them: first major championship winner who is of Asian or African race/ethnicity, the youngest Masters champ, widest victories of margin in the U.S. Open and Masters championships; the first person to hold all four professional major championships simultaneously in 2001.

Woods earned record winnings from the various tournaments and even larger sums as a spokesman for Nike, Tag Heuer, Cadillac, Gatorade, American Express, Gillette, AT&T and other products; the 34-year-old golfer is considered a billionaire from his earnings on and off the greens.

The golfer’s appeal has increased viewership of the sport on television and in person. His announcement of an “indefinite break” from the sport is considered “crippling” to ratings of the sport on the networks. Lest you think—as I did—that this is hysteria, consider that without Woods, television viewership of the Chevron World Challenge was down 54% this year, compared to last year. As a good sociologist, you know that this information does not tell us anything about causation, that is, the cause of the decrease in viewership. However, a study by Nielsen ratings giant confirms that without Tiger Woods, television viewership was almost cut in half last year. So, apparently Tiger Woods = golf!

Still, that’s golf! Not medicine, or technology or finance or even sociology. With word (more like a steady stream of words) about Woods’ extra-marital affairs we’ve had an onslaught of media attention with people expressing surprise. But what do we really know about Woods or any other celebrity?

In this case, we as the public “know” Woods as a golfer. This gives us no idea of who he is as a man. Or as husband. Or father or friend. Through interviews, we may come to know a celebrity somewhat. Or we may come to know what that person wants us to know or think of them based on a carefully crafted image. The golfer with the yacht aptly named Privacy, has granted few interviews despite his fame. Therefore, the public has had little access—real or apparent—to who he is as a person. I guess that means we could project whatever ideas we have about him because he said or did nothing to contradict our ideas of who he is.

Woods was frequently referred to as a “disciplined golfer” and apparently many people thought that this meant that he was disciplined in every aspect of his life. Again, he’s a golfer. Why do we think we know anything about his capacity to be disciplined anywhere but in the sports arena?

Who do we look to regarding ethics and morality? Where do we get our teachings about right and wrong? Where should we get such training? From our parents? Schools? Religion? Religious leaders? Celebrities/sports figures? Which of these answers seem most out of place in the line-up?

Why all the surprise at Woods’ acknowledged infidelity? I have no insider knowledge about Woods, but that’s just the point. Neither do many people who are/were surprised by this story. Perhaps one way to help explain this is found in this post about celebrities by Karen Sternheimer:

Everyone else knows who they are, but we might not really like them. In fact, we may enjoy finding out that they aren’t that perfect after all. In a large, heterogeneous society as our own, we tend to have fewer and fewer social networks in common with others--except for celebrities.

German sociologist Ferdinand Tönnies had a name for this condition: Gesellschaft. Celebrities can become a form of social glue that helps us bond by our admiration and (frequently) condemnation of high-profile people and reaffirm a sense of shared morality.

Perhaps we are less surprised than outraged. The story of Tiger Woods’ extramarital affairs is a colossal one around which we as observers can bond in our moral indignation. What sociological reasons do you think explains the public’s fascination with this story?

November 23, 2009

The Sociological Significance of Pictures

author_janis By Janis Prince Inniss

Although I’m not as into it now, I used to love photography…back in the days when we all used film I toted my heavy 35mm camera around. Now everyone—or so it seems—has a digital camera and/or one on their cell phone.

When I was very young my father was a photographer and he taught my brother the trade when he was in his late teens. As my brother developed a photography business I became his assistant—fetching his bag and other such glamorous activities. Along the way, I picked up an interest in photography.

I would take tons and tons of pictures at every event, outing, and holiday trip. After grappling with storing all the pictures, I started to ask myself how many pictures of any one event I really needed. Even 155 pictures of my trip to Yosemite National Park does not change the fact that it is in the past and sometimes enjoying myself rather that shooting pictures has made for better memories.

When I was almost 18, I went to my father’s funeral. It was probably only the second I had attended so I didn’t really know what was done at funerals. Just before leaving our grandmother’s home for the funeral, somehow I got a hold of my brother’s camera. I wasn’t sure what I would do with the camera; what would be an appropriate picture to take given the occasion? I knew that I would not take pictures of my father’s lifeless body. Not only did I consider that that morbid but I refused to even view my father’s body, let alone take a picture of him.

I don’t remember taking any of them, but all these years later I have pictures from my father’s funeral. And I’m glad that I do. They remind me of the early impact of our father’s death on me and my siblings. And the pictures remind me of who attended the funeral. I have forgotten most of the people who were there that day who were not photographed.

Recently I attended an “un-birthday party” in Tampa, an event held to honor the 153 children in this county who did not live to their first birthdays in 2007. Particularly striking was a presentation from a photographer from the Now I Lay Me Down to Sleep organization. The organization exists to take pictures of babies of who have died at birth or who are expected to die soon after. Professional photographers donate their time and the photographs are free for the parents. As the organization’s website points out, taking a picture of such a baby is not necessarily on the minds of grieving parents. (Click here to see a Los Angeles Times story about bereavement photos).


But as you can imagine, a picture of a baby who only lives for a few hours, days, or months can be of tremendous value to many parents. Not so long ago, many hospitals did not allow or encourage parents to see these babies. Today, parents are encouraged to name their babies, to hold them—acknowledge their lives, however short -–as a way to help cope with their grief. With the professional quality pictures they receive from this organization, parents are granted an important memento that most new parents have or expect—wonderful pictures of their newborn.

Photographs have meanings attached to them. For parents who have lost a baby, a Now I Lay Me Down to Sleep photograph underscores the fact that they did have a baby—for however short a period. The pictures serve as proof that their child existed; it is documentation that this child lived.

Indeed, a photographic image is worth a thousand words. Lately we’ve witnessed dust-ups over news organizations use of the wrong picture to illustrate a story. In an apparent effort to impress us with the size of a “tea party” in Washington protesting President Obama’s health care plan, several websites showed a picture that turned out to be 10 years old. The 10-year-old picture shows an enormous crowd that stretches for blocks, and that was described as being up to 2 million people. It should not surprise you that some conservative blogs reported this high number while mainstream news organizations said that the crowd was in the thousands. At issue here was the ability to say that a particularly high level of discontent exists among “the people”.

We shape pictures—by deciding what pictures we take and how we take them—but pictures also shape our worlds—whether in telling us how big a crowd is, reminding us of a poignant time, or providing tangible proof of a loved one’s life. Societal context and our own personal context shape how we think about these images.

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