94 posts categorized "Relationships, Marriage and Family"

January 21, 2011

Social Theory and Siblings

new sallyBy Sally Raskoff

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

January 14, 2011

When Our Baby Was Born

todd_S_2010aBy Todd Schoepflin

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

December 31, 2010

Culture and Parties

new janisBy Janis Prince Inniss

So you guys are married?

How long have you been married?

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

Where are you from? I can hear an accent.

And he, where is he from?

     Where did you guys meet?

    What do you do? Where do you work?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

November 15, 2010

Discovering Sociology and Intimate Strangers

new janis By Janis Prince Inniss

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

November 04, 2010

Family Rules: What Is a Family?

new janis By Janis Prince Innis

When I learn of friends and families who have decided to live together, I wonder about the legal implications—especially when the couple decides to buy a home or share some other large financial undertaking. In fact, when I hear of some couples getting married, I often think about the legal implications of those unions. Does she really want to be legally bound to that guy? Is he sure about legally joining with such a woman?

The romantic notion of marriage is that it is a union between a man and woman (or, if you’re more liberal, this definition could include two people of the same sex). Have you ever been married or even involved in a long-term serious relationship? If so, then you know that these relationships are not ever just between two people!


I’m sure you’ve heard things like: I don’t care what his mother thinks because I’m not marrying her! Really? Marriage and similar relationships are not only legal institutions but also social institutions that define who our family is. And trust me, your family of origin (the one into which you were born) has a lot to say and do with your family of (pro)creation (the one you create through marrying and having children).

At a basic level, think about the quality and nature of family relationships if your in-laws hate you! Imagine the friction this could cause between you and your spouse and between your spouse and his or her parents. Want to bet that this will interfere with the spousal relationship? And if children are born into this fractured situation, how do you imagine all of this might play out? Yes, it will lead to another area of battle: “Your mother hates me! Why would I let her watch the baby?”

The truth is that although we like to think about our romantic lives as just ours, they exist in a much wider context. Wearing my family therapist hat, I could discuss the many ways that your past influences your mate selection. But thinking as sociologist, I know the familyour most basic unit of societyis important too.

I had never heard of the Sister Wives until I saw it showcased on The Oprah Winfrey Show, but it illustrates some important issues about family formations in this society. The show is about a polygamous family (one in which three or more people are married). Actually, it features a polygynous family—one man with more than one wife; this is the most common form of polygamy. How come? Why is polyandry—one woman married to at least two men—not at least as common as polygyny? How come fundamentalist Mormons practice polygyny, but not polyandry? Do you think that in a society of single women outnumbering single men, these double standards are a surprise?

In a society in which we have double standards about sexual mores and behaviors that constrain female sexuality, polyandry would be an even bigger stretch than polygyny. (In fact, the husband in the show referred to the idea of his first wife being in a polyandrous relationship as “vulgar.”) This is an example of how much more prescriptive we can be about the numbers of sexual partners women have than men.

During the show, one of the “Sister Wives” asked a question worth considering: Given that all of the women entered into this relationship freely, why can’t they be left alone? (I think the comment was made in the context of the husband facing felony charges for bigamy.) Good question: Why can’t society leave people to form families as they like? Or do you think you’re free to stay single, mingle as you want to, or marry whomever you choose? Surebut there are a few guidelines:

1. Be single if you want to, but you’ll miss out on the tax and other incentives that married couples enjoy.

2. If you’re cohabiting, be glad you didn’t live in a time when it was illegal to do so, as you would not have been able to rent a place together. And if you live in Florida, Michigan, Mississippi, North Carolina, or Virginia, be careful as these five states still have anti-cohabitation laws on the books! According to a legal expert I consulted, these laws have not been enforced in years and are thought to have been made unconstitutional by the U.S. Supreme Court decision, Lawrence v. Texas, 539 U.S. 558 (2003), which gave gay couples a constitutional right to be intimate—and therefore, gives heterosexual cohabitants the same right.

3. Your beloved had better be of a different sex (in most states of the United States, anyway) or you can’t marry.

4. You had better only have one beloved, or at least keep your additional loves outside of marriage. We practice monogamyat least ostensibly. (I’m not endorsing extramarital affairs, simply stating the conditions for marriage in this society.)

5. Your beloved had better not be a family member. (Like almost every other society, we insist on rules upholding exogamy: We prohibit marriage and sex between relatives.)

Can you think of other rules to add to this list?

October 28, 2010

My Fascination with Teen Mom

todd_S_2010b By Todd Schoepflin

If someone were to tell me I would watch a reality television show on MTV called Teen Mom at the age of 38, I would have called that person crazy. But it happened. I watched several episodes of the now completed season two. Why was I drawn to the world of teen moms?

First of all, I actually relate to a lot of what happens on the show because I’m a parent too. Obviously I’m neither a teenager nor a mom, but I strongly identify as a father. I consider my self to contain three major identities: college professor, father, and husband (not necessarily in that order). Sure, there’s more to me than those parts, but those are the three statuses that dominate my life. And the father part of me likes to watch how other people parent.

In sociological terms, the teen moms portrayed on the show served as a reference group for me. They provided a host of parenting behaviors to which I could compare and contrast my own style of parenting. I’m not saying they were a highly influential reference group. I’m only saying they were a group of parents that I could use to evaluate my own parenting ability—like when I make note of what parents do when I encounter them at playgrounds, grocery stores, parties, and anywhere else I see other people parenting.

I find it interesting to take a moment to think about the title of the show. The two-word title imagegets right to the point. Though the characters on the show have several statuses (they are females, daughters, girlfriends, friends, students, and employees), the title of the show indicates that “teen mom” is their master status. Above and beyond everything else, they are teen moms. In other words, their status as teenage mothers trumps all their other identities. We watch them in a variety of capacities—on the job, interacting with their families, socializing with friends—but ultimately we viewed them in their societal position as teenage moms.

I’m intrigued by the coverage these young women have received from the magazine industry. Lately I’ve seen them on several magazine covers, including a recent issue of Life & Style. Notice that Amber is described as an “out-of-control monster” who is prone to violent outbursts and someone who associates with a convicted felon. Such disapproval signals that Amber is deviant.

The message is clear: “normal” people don’t date convicted felons and they aren’t violent. The rest of us can distance ourselves from Amber by assuring ourselves that we would never act like her. Though I was appalled by some of her behavior on the show (especially when she repeatedly hit her daughter’s father during one episode), I was perhaps drawn to the Jerry Springer aura she brought to the show.

I find it fascinating that these women have become de facto celebrities for being teen moms—pretty amazing when you think about it. Though in Amber’s case, the fame comes with a price—harsh judgment that she’s the parent none of us would ever want to be.

I should point out that one teen on the show is a different kind of mother. Catelynn gave her baby up for adoption, and so we watched her ride an emotional roller coaster as a birth mother who keeps in touch with the adoptive family and her biological daughter. I have to say I was often impressed with the maturity exhibited by Catelynn and her boyfriend Tyler.

In the episodes I watched, they handled themselves in responsible and dignified ways (regular viewers would probably agree that Catelynn is more mature than her mother). Farrah and Maci are also presented as mature mothers, for the most part. We had a glimpse into Farrah’s life as a working teenage mother who is raising her daughter without a father to help her (as viewers know, he died). And Maci (my favorite person on the show) always impressed me as wise beyond  her years, a usually composed mother who seems to take very good care of her son while being caught in a battle with her son’s father over the visitation schedule.

I also paid attention to the young men who were featured in the show. I’ve already brought up Tyler, depicted as Catelynn’s supportive boyfriend who takes great interest in their biological daughter. He seemed like an all around good guy who wants a life that’s very different from his own father’s (his father was in jail during some episodes).

Another young man featured on the show was Gary, who initially struck me as a lazy and unhelpful father but who later gained my sympathy after enduring verbal and physical abuse from Amber. Over time, he seemed to put more care and concern into being a father. And then there was Ryan, who seemed the opposite of Maci in terms of maturity and parenting ability. Whereas Maci seemed capable and engaged as a parent, Ryan usually seemed to lack passion and energy as a parent.

Part of my fascination with the show comes from the fact that I became a parent for the first time at age 35. I’ve described in a previous blog how parenting is the hardest job I’ve ever had. And so, whenever I watched the show, I was interested in how these young moms dealt with the stress and challenges that accompanies being a parent. I honestly can’t say with certainty what kind of father I would have been in my teenager years. My guess is I would have been overwhelmed and not altogether fit to be a good father. My current vantage point is that of a married man with a secure job and supportive family. I came into parenting in a stable phase of my life with a host of emotional and financial resources. It would have been a very different story in my teens or even in my twenties.

Overall, Teen Mom takes us inside the worlds of women who’ve been impacted by a life-changing circumstance. The experiences of getting pregnant and giving birth at a young age have influenced their life chances.

If you’re a high school student or college student reading this blog, and you don’t have a child, think about this: How different would your life be if a baby came into your life? Would you be able to maintain your current routine of school and work? And if you follow this show, what is your opinion of these teen moms and dads? Do you respect them? Admire them? Dislike them? Feel sorry for them? Does watching the young women influence your thoughts about being a parent? In other words, does watching the show make you more or less interested in having children? Finally, what is your ideal age for having your first child?

October 18, 2010

Suicide: The Need for Social Solidarity

new sally By Sally Raskoff

Recently, the news has focused on a number of teen suicides, mostly by gay male teens who were bullied and mistreated by their peers and others. These tragedies have prompted a national conversation about how to protect gay teens from bullying.

The debate emphasizes the importance of safe schools, organizations, the impact of hate crime laws and other policies designed to protect people from being discriminated against based on their sexual orientation. Many states have anti-bullying laws in place, although these laws may not say more than call for an anti-bullying stance without clearly defining what bullying is. Ellen Degeneres and other public figures have made public statements aimed at teens who are victims of the kind of bullying that those who committed suicide experienced.

clip_image002Organizations like the Gay Lesbian and Straight Education Network (GLSEN) and Parents, Families and Friends of Lesbians and Gays (PFLAG) have emphasized that supportive and affirming teachers, parents, and others can make all the difference for young people struggling with being bullied.

National Coming Out Day is October 11th, and so discussions about fostering respect and equal rights for people regardless of their sexual orientation or gender identity typically increase during the fall. That the news of Tyler Clementi's death would yield so much coverage now is a sad reminder of how much these discussions are still needed.

Will the national conversation result in changes that will prevent such suicides in the future?

The news has speculated that many of those who committed suicide in response to bullying were teenage gay males. Perusing the details of these cases, it is not clear that they all self-identified as gay, but it is clear all were assumed to be gay and/or were taunted with gay epithets. And they are all male. These are not trivial facts.

Our culture (and many others) confers privilege to men over women. Yes, some things have changed over time, but patriarchy still guides the structures our society. With that power comes the need for what sociologists call hegemonic masculinity, which defines men as separate and different from women. Thus our gender traits are identified as dichotomous and opposing, with men as dominant and women as subordinate. Hence, masculine traits revolve around power and dominance while feminine traits center on nurturing and support for others.

clip_image004Heterosexuality is a necessary trait for men within hegemonic masculinity, and men often feel pressure to demonstrate to their male peers that they are sexually active with women. Men who are attracted to other men – or who others accuse of being attracted to men - are likely to be punished more than women who are attracted to other women. Men, as the power group, must adhere more completely to their masculine definitions than women to theirs. Women and their sexual interests are not a target for society since, as the powerless group, what they do matters less.

There are many studies that clearly show that the targets of childhood and adolescent harassment are typically those who vary from our society’s norms, including norms of gender.

The teasing, taunting, harassment and bullying that the kids in the news experienced are, unfortunately, not unique. There are young people who experience this every day who have not and will not commit suicide. So, why did these people commit suicide?

To explain this, we can take it all the way back to Emile Durkheim’s dissertation, Suicide, and the importance of social connection. Durkheim identified different types of suicide, including altruistic suicide, egoistic suicide, anomic suicide, and fatalistic suicide.

What most of these types of suicide have in common is a problem with social bonds. Altruistic suicide, the exception, is a death intended to benefit the social group. The others all have some detachment from social groups. Egoistic suicide is committed when people are not highly integrated into a social group and society is characterized by individualism. Anomic suicide results from disappointment amidst the lack of any social bonds and eroding social norms. Fatalistic suicide occurs when people are so oppressed by society that they see no other escape.

All of these types could be used to explain the suicides of these teenagers as the result of social forces.

What, then, is the solution?

Connectivity and societal acceptance would be logical solutions to the problem. Schools and families need to work harder to be respectful of the variation of humans and provide safe environments. Happy, healthy, and productive people should be the goal.

Having safe schools and adults who are “allies” is crucial. Equally important is educating people about sexual orientation so that they do not perpetuate stereotypes and misinformation.

It’s likely that the more we know about sexual orientation, the more accepting we will be of variation, and this greater knowledge may lead to the erosion of the imperative to create identity based on sexual orientation. Linking identity to sexual orientation, as we currently do, is a relatively new phenomenon and many societies have existed without it, including our own.

Forming community and social supports are the effective techniques to lower the rates of suicide. What else might be effective strategies, especially when considering the sources of the problems?

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?

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