Wednesday, December 31, 2008

Who said the magic is gone?

Yesterday was our 18th anniversary, and I'm not sure, but I think that it's the get-rid-of-junk anniversary. I spent most the day hauling stuff to the dump and Salvation Army, and it felt great to get rid of stuff. Maybe not romantic, but not much I'd rather be doing on a cold, windy day. (Also took Cathy out for dinner and a movie--the dump closes at 4:00 after all).

Tuesday, December 30, 2008

Social learning theory and

There are lots of things that we can get from other people—information about a good restaurant, tickets to the game, a cold. To that list, we can add criminal behavior, at least according to social learning theories of crime.

There are several different versions of social learning theory, each with its own emphases on how we learn which social behaviors from whom. The one that I would like to focus on here has been popularized by Ron Akers and Robert Burgess. They explained the social learning of crime in terms of operant conditioning. As you’ll remember if you took an introductory psychology class, operant conditioning occurs when we change our behavior in response to rewards or punishments that we receive. This is why we punish our pet for making a mess of our carpet, or we ground our child who stayed out too late.

Akers and Burgess identified four types of punishments and rewards that affect us. Positive reinforcement is giving someone something pleasant; negative reinforcement is taking away something bad; positive punishment is giving something unpleasant; and negative punishment is the removal of something pleasant.

To give examples of each of these, as related to crime, the money one gets from burglary would be a positive reinforcement. Installing a burglar alarm to reduce the threat of a break-in would be a negative reinforcement. Fining someone for a crime would be a positive punishment. Taking away someone’s freedom by placing them in prison would be a negative punishment (though the difficulties they encounter in prison would be positive punishments).

As I’ve described it so far, social learning doesn’t go much beyond Pavlov's dogs —we gravitate toward reinforcing behavior and away from punishing behavior. What makes this theory social, however, is that we learn not just from our own experiences but also from others. We observe what other people do, and we see what happens to them as a result of their behavior. If their behavior produces a desired outcome, we’re more likely to adopt that behavior as our own. If it produces an undesired outcome, we steer clear of it. This is called imitation.

Imitation doesn’t happen randomly. It’s not like we walk down the street, pick someone we’ve never met, and start trying to learn from them. (Though, now that I think about it, this might not be a bad approach to life). Instead, we learn from the groups we belong to, especially our family groups and peer groups. This accounts, in part, for why young people are so heavily influenced by their friends.

Recently I came across a fascinating and powerful effort to use the principles of imitation and punishment to reduce drunk driving among young people. The clip_image002website takes high school and college students who have been in drunk driving fatalities, and it allows them to apologize to those who have been harmed. Most of the stories revolve around one friend driving, getting into an accident, and killing another friend who is a passenger. The videotaped apologies shown on are nothing short of anguishing. Here’s one of the featured stories/apologies.

A textbox on the website tells the story of what happened to Ashley:

“Ashley was at home when she got a call from her friend, Jen, who wanted to hang out. Jen came over, and without Ashley’s parents knowledge, they spent about six hours drinking beer and watching TV in Ashley’s room. At 4:00 a.m., Ashley got hungry, and the two decided to go to an all-night supermarket. Ashley drove.

One of her front wheels hit the edge of a driveway and came off, which sent the car spinning into a brick barrier, impacting on the passenger side where Jen was riding.

Jen died at the hospital. Afterwards, Ashley didn’t remember that her friend had even been in the car with her.”

Behind this textbox is a video clip of an attractive young woman who has obviously been crying. As the video clip rolls, she is so choked up that she can barely speak. She is utterly despondent, destroyed by what happens. In between gasps, she gives this apology to Jen’s father.

“Mr. Dunlap, I don’t know how else to tell you, what happened to Jen. She was my best friend. I can’t live with myself for what happened to her. I don’t understand why why it was her and not me. I’m the one that deserves to die. I have to live with every day, and every day I can’t face myself. I can’t get out of bed. Why did Jen die? I loved her so much.”

The video clip goes on, but I stopped because, frankly, it was too painful to watch. The video clips serve as a reference group, almost as if a friend was telling you something terrible that happened to them so that you can learn about. After watching them, I had newfound appreciate for the power of imitation in social learning theory.

Originally pulished on

Sunday, December 28, 2008

1.5 days of Christmas Cheer

In past years, I've thought of myself as anti-Christmas. I would be just as happy without the holiday & see the decoration, gifts, and especially Christmas music as a waste. By the time Christmas rolled around, I was borderline resentful toward it.

This year, however, I tried something different--I completely ignored anything to do with the holidays--just turned it out. No holiday greetings, not Christmas music, no buying gifts, nada. I told family I didn't want any gifts. Then, on the day before Christmas, I bought a few things and went to a neat Christmas eve service. Christmas day was just hanging out with the family, playing with the kids.

So, I have 36 hours of Christmas cheer, at most, but I kind of enjoyed the holiday this year.

Saturday, December 27, 2008

Barn windows (pic)

I came across this barn/garage hidden way in the woods. About a month after I snapped this picture, it was torn down. :-(

Tuesday, December 23, 2008

Men in the doghouse II

Here's another video about being in the doghouse. Apparently Bono, lead singer of U2, forgot his wife's birthday--oh-oh--and this is his apology. This has to be one of the all-time great get-out-of-the-doghouse moves ever (besides being a great song).

Techniques of neutralization

Okay everyone, time for a test. Raise your right hand if you’ve ever done something that went against your value system, that harmed others, or was otherwise just wrong. Now, raise your left hand if you still think that you’re a pretty good, moral person. My guess is that most of us have both of our hands in the air at this point (in fact, I’m having to type with my nose).

This raises an interesting question. How can we, or anyone who breaks society’s moral codes, still think of ourselves as moral members of society? David Matza and Gresham Sykes developed a theory to explain this, called “techniques of neutralization.”

Here’s how it works. Society has various expectations of how we’re supposed to act. We can call these norms. As part of the socialization process, we internalize these norms, coming to hold them as our own values and beliefs. People who are unable to internalize them are shunned and sometimes even considered psychopaths. When we break the moral code, then, we need someway of justifying it to ourselves so that we see ourselves--and can present ourselves to others--as full-fledged, moral members of society. We need something like a get-out-of-jail free card in the game monopoly, something that will cover our wrong-doing so that we don’t suffer the consequences of being defined as immoral or apart from society in our actions.

Techniques of neutralization do just this by providing simple and powerful rationales for why we violate society’s norms, and we use them to explain to ourselves and others why it was “okay” that we do wrong. Matza and Sykes identified five separate techniques of neutralization:

1) Denial of responsibility. We acknowledge doing the behavior considered wrong, but we claim that we had no choice—that we had to do or we were forced to do so.

2) Denial of injury. We acknowledge doing the wrong action, but we claim that no one was harmed by what we did, so it really shouldn’t be a problem.

3) Blaming the victim. We acknowledge that people were hurt by our actions, but we claim that though we did the action, it was really the victim’s fault—they brought about or otherwise deserved our behavior.

4) Condemn the condemners. We abdicate all responsibility for our behavior, and instead we point to the people condemning us. They are the problem, not us. What they have done wrong excuses our behavior.

5) Appealing to a higher loyalty. We claim that while we violated some social norms, we’re actually adhering to other norms and loyalties, and these higher principles justify our behavior.

It’s pretty straightforward to illustrate these techniques using everyday wrongdoing. Suppose that you cheat on a test. You could deny responsibility. Rather than redefine yourself as a cheater, you might decide that you really had no choice—you just have to graduate this semester.

You can deny the injury. You could also say that you did cheat but it didn’t hurt anyone. If the professor doesn’t use a strict grading curve, then bumping up your test score won’t change anyone else’s score, so what’s the harm?

You could blame the victim. If the professor hadn’t made his/her tests so confusing, you wouldn’t need to cheat, so it really is their fault. You could condemn the condemners. Who is the college faculty and administration to make a big case out of cheating—we all know that they cheat at their jobs.

Finally, you could appeal to a higher loyalty. Maybe you didn’t really want to cheat, but your parents are counting on you to graduate and get a good job, and for that you need a good grade point average. As such, you did it for them.

What’s truly remarkable about these techniques of neutralization is that they are used with even the most heinous of crimes.


Josef Fritzl held his daughter as a sex slave in a basement dungeon for over twenty years. He fathered seven children by her, ranging in age from five to nineteen at the time of Fritzl’s arrest, and none of them had ever seen sunlight! Fritzl was only discovered when one of the older children feel gravely ill, and they sought medical help.

What was Fritzl’s response to this hideous crime? He denied the injury, explaining that he could have let the older child die, but instead he risked discovery to get her help. Certainly he should get some credit for that, no?

clip_image003Let’s take an even worse case. Adolf Eichmann was an SS officer in Nazi Germany. He was placed in charge of the logistics of Hitler’s final solution--the mass extermination of Jews--so Eichmann was responsible for the murder of millions of people. If ever someone should just fess up to being a monster, it should be Eichmann, but that’s not what happened. When he was brought to trial, he simply denied responsibility and said that he was just obeying orders.

"Why me," he asked. “Why not the local policemen, thousands of them? They would have been shot if they had refused to round up the Jews for the death camps. Why not hang them for not wanting to be shot? Why me? Everybody killed the Jews."

These are pretty extreme examples of people using techniques of neutralization to justify their actions. Can you think of any others?

Originally published on

Monday, December 22, 2008

Men in the doghouse I

Marriage means many things for men, including being in the doghouse for what you've done, what you've not done, and what you didn't know even existed. This is a common denominator among all married men that I've ever met, and so it's no surprised that advertisers use it to sell their wares.

Here's a funny video demonstrating how the doghouse works. I really like the guy's complete cluelessness (I can relate) as well as the woman's look to get him into the doghouse (where do women learn it?).

Thanks Paolo!

Sunday, December 21, 2008

In praise of muscle memory

Some friends invited us to a 3-day ski vacation up in Northern Vermont, so off we went. I had not downhill skied for 25 years (though did lots of it back in the day), so I was a little apprehensive about hitting the slopes. I had this image of being wheeled to-and-from class all semester in traction.

No worries, for it took my body about .5 seconds to remember what to do, and I skied the whole time without falling. This is not to say that I just happen to be great at these kinds of things, for I also did some cross-country skiing, which I have not done much of, and I fell plenty.

A couple of funny things:
- I cleaned out my father's house this last summer, (in writing that, I realize it sounds metaphorical--maybe something to do with personal growth, but here I mean it literally), and I threw away my old skiis and boots. I figured that if I hadn't used them in 25 years, I wasn't ever going to. Needless to say, I was renting equipment within the year.

- As usual on these things, we prayed for safety on the trip. So we skied for three days with nothing worse that a bruise. Then we drove home 6 hours through snow and on icy roads. One stretch of road had a dozen cars overturned or off the road--like something out of a Mad Max movie. (It's supposed to be worse today, so we just drove on). We made it safely. We got home to a driveway under 6 inches of snow, so I bounce and start shoveling--after sitting for so long--and I think I pulled something in my back. Ugh... Next time I pray for not just getting home, but getting home and into the house! ;-)

Saturday, December 20, 2008

Friday, December 19, 2008

Do churches grow in bad times?

Here's an interesting article in the New York Times about the effects of economic difficulty on religious participation. It appears, perhaps not surprisingly, that church attendance goes up when times get tough.

The article has various pastors talking about business being booming, and it also reports on a study by David Beckworth. He found that evangelical churches grew faster during recessions than during other years. Mainline churches declined, though at a slower rate.

Beckworth's explanation: "though expanding demographically since becoming the nation’s largest religious group in the 1990s, evangelicals as a whole still tend to be less affluent than members of mainline churches, and therefore depend on their church communities more during tough times, for material as well as spiritual support. In good times, he said, they are more likely to work on Sundays, which may explain a slower rate of growth among evangelical churches in nonrecession years."

Thursday, December 18, 2008


I just finished reading a book about Sherman's March to the Sea, and I loved the language that the soldiers used in their letters and narratives. One term, in particular, seemed like it could come in handy: popinjay.

General #1 said that there had never been more of a popinjay than General #2 as one, so, of course, I had to go look it up.

1. a person given to vain, pretentious displays and empty chatter; coxcomb; fop.
2. British Dialect. a woodpecker, esp. the green woodpecker.
3. Archaic. the figure of a parrot usually fixed on a pole and used as a target in archery and gun shooting.
4. Archaic. a parrot.

Now that I know what one is, I'll have to make sure that I don't become one.

Wednesday, December 17, 2008

Andy Rowell's take on Follow Me

Here is Andy Rowell's take on Follow Me, a book I reviewed extensively in fall.

For those interested in the topics raised by Follow Me, Andy has a list of church consultants and evaluation plans that would prove quite useful.

Tuesday, December 16, 2008

Merton's Strain Theory, Crime, and My Pants

When it comes to explaining crime and deviance, there are a couple theories that sociologists always teach, and one of them is Merton’s strain theory. Robert Merton (1910-2003) was probably the foremost American sociologist. His strain theory starts with the general assumption that societies provide both culturally-valued goals and culturally-valued means. The goals are based on shared assumptions in a society about what people should strive i.e., what constitutes success. Here in the U.S. it’s the American Dream—good paying job, nice house, couple of kids, and new cars. The means are how you’re supposed to obtain the goals. Here in the U.S. the narrative for success emphasizes hard work and education. Basically, the story is that if you work hard, go to school, then you can become anything that you want.


Things get interesting, according to Merton, when there is an imbalance between the goals and the means. Specifically, when society doesn’t provide the means to everyone to accomplish the goals it sets out for them. This means that there are some people in society who are aiming for something that they probably can’t obtain. The result of this, according to Merton, is something called strain, an unpleasant emotional condition. Frankly, I’m not exactly sure what goes on in the body with strain, but it seems to be a mixture of angst, stress, and feeling pissed off.

Once someone feels this strain, there are a handful of ways they can deal with it and some responses to strain can result in criminal behavior. In Merton’s terms, one can react to strain by conforming. This means that the person accepts both the goals and the means of society and just plods along doing what they’re supposed to get ahead. Another response is ritualism. Here the person gives up on the goals of society, accepting that he/she will never obtain them, but continues on with the means.

Say a person gives up on the American Dream, but they continue to show up for work every day just the same. Retreatism involves rejecting both the goals and the means. For example, one might just drop out of society, giving up on everything. Rebellion also involves rejecting goals and means, but rebellion, as opposed to retreatism, which entails finding new goals and new means to obtain them. Finally, innovation is accepting society’s goals but coming up with new means of obtaining them, means that society doesn’t approve of. This, commonly, leads to deviance and crime.

To illustrate each of these responses to strain, which Merton termed “modes of adaptation” (BTW, I think that we sociologists get paid more when we come up with fancy terms), let’s consider a simple act of student deviance: cheating on an exam. College students are supposed to get good grades and graduate—this is their culturally-valued goals. They are supposed to do this by studying hard and learning lots—other culturally valued goals. Merton’s vision of conformity, then, happens when students do just this, when they study hard, get good grades, and graduate.

What happens, though, when students aren’t able to accomplish the goals set out for them? Well, they could just keep on going to class and studying, even though they do badly and have little hope of being an academic success. This is ritualism. They could also just give up on everything and stay in their dorm rooms playing video games and partying. This would be retreatism. They could redefine the goals and means of college—that it’s about making a social change rather than learning, and so they might get into the protest scene. This would be rebellion. Finally, they could hold onto visions of academic success but achieve it with disapproved means such as cheating at tests or plagiarizing papers. This would be innovation.

clip_image004Okay, so far I’ve given you a fairly standard presentation of strain theory, but I wonder if we can broaden its application to a wider array of goals and means, including cultural tastes and fashions. What got me thinking about this, and what is the impetus of so much in my life, is Ben & Jerry’s ice cream. You see, I love to eat ice cream, especially on hot summer days (though winter days work just fine as well). As a result, I gained weight but I didn’t notice because I wore shorts all summer. Now that it’s autumn, though I have discovered that none off my long pants fit me anymore. What should I do? As a sociologist, I ask WWMD (What would Merton do)? And so I turn to strain theory for alternatives.

The culturally-valued goal here is looking slim, and the culturally-valued means are eating well and exercising regularly. Conformity, then, would entail a healthy, fit life style in which I’m looking good and my pants will fit me. Ritualism would be continuing to say that I’m on a diet but not really changing. Retreatism would be just giving up and living in sweat pants or maybe buying bigger pants. Innovation would be to get some sort of surgery or maybe wear a girdle. Rebellion would be to cast down the tyranny of fashion expectations and just wear shorts all year around (which is a bit of a challenge in New England).

What will I do? Oh, the strain of it all.

Originally published on

Monday, December 15, 2008

National Study of Campus Ministries

Here's an interesting study of campus ministers, both in denominations and non-denominational ministries such as Inter-Varsity Christian Fellowship.

The study is mostly descriptive, who are the chaplains and how do they see their work. A couple of findings struck me:

- Time and money. The chaplains work long hours for only modest pay--no surprise there, I suppose.

- Satisfied. They really like their jobs. 84% are satisfied or very satisfied. Only 13% plan on leaving in the next five years.

- Growing. Most find student participation increasing (67%) over the last three years. Only 24% said it remained the same and 10% said it was decreasing.

Thanks Carson for the link!

Sunday, December 14, 2008

One more funny graph...

Come to think of it, why are area charts always round?

Saturday, December 13, 2008

Waterfall picture (pic)

From a picnic we took as a family. It's located on the other side of the state.

Friday, December 12, 2008

Graph illustrations for teaching social methods

Part of teaching is always being on the lookout for new material to illustrate an idea. I'm teaching social research methods next semester, and I've found the ideal website for illustrating how to construct and interpret graphical data:

Here are some funny ones:

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

Put down the baby Jesus and come out with your hands up

Here's an item from the overlap of criminology and religion... Apparently some churches and families who put out a public manger scene are tired have having the baby Jesus stolen, so they have installed it with a GPS unit to track the offender. Apparently these statues can be rather expensive, so the churches see this as cost effective (and some security companies donate their services).

Maybe for churches that can't afford satellite technology, there could be a baby Jesus that explodes in green ink if taken (like banks do to deter robbery).

Tuesday, December 09, 2008

The value of teasing

The New York Times had an interesting article about the benefits of teasing. Here's the link, and it's thesis statement is that:

"Teasing is a mode of play, no doubt with a sharp edge, in which we provoke to negotiate life’s ambiguities and conflicts. And it is essential to making us fully human."

Now, there are few things that come naturally to me, but teasing others is one of them. At various times I've tried to stop, thinking it was worthless, but I just can't. All this time I thought that I was just having fun, but now I realize that I'm actually becoming and making others more fully human.

Sweet! Now I can justify buying the remote control whoopee cushion I've had my eyes on. It's part of my gift to humanity!

Monday, December 08, 2008

So much for the wisdom of sociologists

A tenet of pop social psychology is based in the 2004 book the Wisdom of Crowds by James Surowieck. Basically it holds that if you have the right group of people solving some puzzle, they will do better than just a single person.

Well, it's a fun idea to think about, but it's hard to see how it works. (In statistical terms, increased sample size means more efficient estimates, but not less biased.)

One can simply reflect on past presidential elections to know that sometimes even the general population gets things wrong.

This last election, we had a betting pool here in the department picking the number of electoral votes that Obama would win. There were about a dozen of us in the pool, and every single one of us were too low. Obama won 365 votes, and the highest guess was in the 350s.

Maybe the wisdom of crowds doesn't apply to sociologists?

Saturday, December 06, 2008

Red and yellow leaves (pic)

Here's a picture of our neighbor's yard at the end of fall... I took it from atop a latter (and he ended up raking later that afternoon). I was drawn to the strong yellows and reds.

BTW, I'll give this picture to the first rock band that asks for it. ;-)

Friday, December 05, 2008

Brad Wright, photographer to rock stars

The internet certainly makes for odd connections.

I received an e-mail this week from a member of a rock band in Slovakia. He wanted to use one of my photographs for the band's music. (I was going to write album cover, but then realized that those don't really exist anymore.)

Hm-m-m-m, does this go on my vita?

Here's the picture:

Monday, December 01, 2008

Yet another reason to want to be a kid

Floyd is on a local swim club, which means that he has 1.5 hour swim practices two nights a week. There are about 15 or 20 kids his age in the club, and when they finish swimming it's getting late, about 7:30. So, some of the kids just put on their pajamas, and head home ready for bed.

I've got to tell you, this is a very appealing idea--going straight from work to being ready to sleep. Given the role constraints of being a middle-aged adult, I don't think that I could pull it off, but part of me would very much like to change straight to my pajamas after work, head home, and plop down on the couch.

Yet another good thing for kids.