Tuesday, March 31, 2009

Floyd fights the man

In our house, the kids playing a game with me usually means roughhousing. For example, a couple of years ago, when we wanted to play chess, we set up two chessboards across the room, and played the game by throwing chess pieces at each other's boards.

Well... Floyd is getting tough. The other night we wrestled and he got tickled pretty good. When finished, with me panting on the floor, he stood up, and with a little grin said tauntingly: "Is that all you've got?"

Ugh. I'm even getting trash-talked!

Monday, March 30, 2009

An illustration of spurious correlation

Spurious correlation is one of those concepts for which I'm always looking for good illustrations. Well, the search may be over with the graph below. Not only does it illustrate spurious correlation, it involves pirates, and I definitely need to work more pirates into my lectures.

Thanks Jeff!

Saturday, March 28, 2009

Rock Wall in Fall (pic)

Here's a picture where the idea was better than the execution. The colors in the background were screaming bright, so I thought that I'd try shooting them through the rock wall. There was so much difference in the exposure between the rocks and the trees, that I overexposed the trees and lost a lot of the color.

Thursday, March 26, 2009

When sheepherders go bad

Okay... here's a sport that you've never heard of, and probably didn't think could exist: Extreme Sheep Herding or what Sheepherders do when they have way too much time on their hands. Check it out, it's really funny.

Thanks Sherry!

Wednesday, March 25, 2009

General Deterrence and an Eye for an Eye

Ameneh Bahrami was a young woman in her twenties who worked as an electronics technician. She lived in Tehran, Iran, and in her free time she enjoyed photography and sight seeing. Several years earlier, when she was in university, she and some friends gave some clothes to a bedraggled, younger student named Majid Movahedi. Movahedi fell madly and obsessively in love with her and pursued her for several years. Finally, Bahrami made it clear that she would not marry Movahedi. “Continue with your life,” she told him. “There is absolutely no hope for us.” What Movahedi did next forever altered Bahrami’s life and stirred a national controversy in Iran. Movahedi staked out her office, and then as she was leaving one day, he poured sulfuric acid over her, permanently blinding and disfiguring her.

Iran, of course, is a fundamentalist Islamic country, and Bahrami petitioned the courts to punish her attacker according to Islamic jurisprudence. Recently, an Iranian court accepted her request and ordered that five drops of sulfuric acid be placed in each of Bahrami’s eyes so that he will be blinded in a similar manner--literally an eye for an eye.

As sociologists, we could examine this heartbreaking story in terms of gender and domestic violence or we might use it to explore the role of religion and the law. Instead, I want to address a different aspect of it, and that involves Bahrami’s and the court’s reasoning for this punishment.

In explaining her reasoning for requesting this punishment, Bahrami said that she wanted to prevent this type of crime from happening to any one else. “I am doing that because I don’t want this to happen to any other women.” The courts agreed with her. “If propaganda is carried out on how acid attackers are punished, it will prevent such crimes in the future," said Mahmoud Salarkia.

This motivation for punishment—to prevent future crimes by others—illustrates the criminological concept of general deterrence. Deterrence refers to preventing crime, and general deterrence is punishing one person as a way to prevent the crimes of others. Here in the United States, punishing criminals is also viewed as a general deterrent; in fact, that’s one of the arguments for the death penalty. By killing criminals who have killed, the criminal justice system might prevent future killings.

General deterrence works best when potential criminals find out about punishments given to previous law-breakers. So, punishing someone quietly with no one else knowing would have little general deterrence effect. It is not unreasonable, then, to expect that the sulfur-in-eyes punishment of Majid Movahedi might have some deterrent effect, for the case has become widely known, and the brutality of the punishment might make other men in Iran think twice before similarly attacking a woman.

Related to general deterrence is the concept of specific deterrence, when a person is punished not to prevent other people from committing crimes but rather to prevent that person from committing future crimes. For example, locking someone up in jail creates specific deterrence because it makes it difficult for that person to commit additional crimes (at least against the general population). The proposed punishment of Movahedi would also serve as a specific deterrent, for it will be more difficult for him to attack people if he’s blind.

The idea of deterrence assumes rationality among criminals. The reasoning goes like this: If society makes known the costs of crime, people should be less likely to participate in it. What if, however, criminals are not responsive to the costs of crime? Given Movahedi’s very strong emotions at the moment he injured Bahrami, would knowledge of future punishments kept him from attacking her? It’s unclear, but we might expect strong punishments to deter rationally-based crimes, such as theft, more strongly than emotionally-based crimes.

The application of general deterrence has its own issues, for not only does the victim have rights, but so does the attacker—though they forsake many of them when they commit crime. Is it reasonable to punish one person harshly in order to benefit other people? Is it appropriate for society to “make an example” of someone? In the story above, Bahrami is such a sympathetic figure that it’s easy to overlook these issues, but they still stand.

Questions remain about the effectiveness and appropriateness of general deterrence, and yet it stands as one of society’s main defenses against law-breaking. Do you think general or specific deterrence work? If so, in what situations might they be most effective?

(Originally posted on everydaysociologyblog.com)

Tuesday, March 24, 2009

Monday, March 23, 2009

Christianity as safety from gang members

Here's a summary of an ethnography about gangs in Honduras. The summary is from the sociology magazine Contexts, which covers a wide range of topics in a very accessible format (Disclaimer: I think that I'm on its editorial board):

"jesus and the gang

Pentecostal Christians in Honduras have a little extra security from gang violence, and his name is Jesus.

Based on ethnography and interviews with youth there, Jon Wolseth (Latin American Perspectives, July 2008) found young men have converted in order to deal with the violence that surrounds them.

Pentecostalism offers Honduran men an alternative way of living that gangs respect. Converted men are seen as “domesticated” because their new ethics prohibit drinking, drugs, and dancing. Also, gangs respect “cristianos” because they’re seen as close to God—which means messing with one may result in divine retribution.

Following the path of Christ, then, becomes an opportunity for some men to avoid getting involved in a gang or a valid reason to leave a criminal past behind. It also gives converts newly meaningful lives. By internalizing a new set of values, including a belief in “sanctuary,” they create a protective social space apart from everyday violence.

As long as the adherent continues to demonstrate his religious commitment through action, God will protect him. This belief gives young men a narrative to explain experiences with gang aggression—from narrow escapes to heavenly justice being leveled against perpetrators."

Saturday, March 21, 2009

Stream in fall (pic)

I took this picture at a state park with some dramatic waterfalls. Facing the waterfalls, I looked behind me and saw this...

Friday, March 20, 2009

Religion among poor teens

Here's a summary of a recent article about the role of religion among poor teens. It turns out that they have active, but disaffiliated religious lives...

"Poverty not only affects American teenagers’ self-esteem, educational achievements, and life chances, but it also influences their faith, according to Philip Schwadel (Sociology of Religion, Summer 2008). Poor adolescents differ from their non-poor counterparts in religious beliefs and practices.

Using data from the National Study of Youth and Religion, Schwadel finds poor teens are more likely to have active, but private, religious lives and they’re much less likely to participate in institutional religion. Moreover, poor teens are more likely to see their faith as important to their daily lives, but its salience comes from personal prayer and scripture reading, rather than attending services, Sunday school, or youth group activities. Finally, poor teens are less likely than non-poor teens to believe in life after death, but are significantly more likely to believe there will be a judgment day for God to reward and punish.

Religious faith can help teens through their confusing adolescent years, and whether or not they live in poverty seems to help explain what that religious experience will look like."

Wednesday, March 18, 2009

Cologne and Self-Fulfilling Prophesies

I go to the gym at my town’s community center, and I can always tell when a high school boy has used the locker room recently—it smells strongly of Axe or Lynx body sprays. In a triumph of marketing, Unilever has convinced a whole generation of young men who think that if they douse themselves with the right spray, beautiful women will throw themselves at them. Don’t believe this is true? Well, here’s documentary evidence provided in an Axe commercial.

As a middle-aged person, I just roll my eyes at anything I don’t understand about young people. (“Kids these days”, said in a cranky voice). Some scientists, however, have taken the time to figure out if in fact these man-spays actually work, and what they have found wonderfully illustrates the sociological concept of a self-fulfilling prophecy.

This study gave a group of young men cans of aerosol spray to use. Half the respondents had the real stuff—that smells so good—and the other half had a spray that didn’t really have anything in it. The researchers then gave the young men a series of psychological tests which were filmed. These films were then shown to young women, and the women were asked to rate the attractiveness of the male respondents. Lo and behold, the men who had sprayed themselves with the real body spray were deemed more attractive.

How did this work? The women viewers could not smell the men, yet they were more attracted to the men who smelled differently. The researchers concluded that the body spray had no direct effect on the women viewers, rather the sprays altered moods of the men who wore them. Smelling a certain way apparently made the men feel more confident, and so they acted differently, more confidently, than those who did not get the good-smelling sprays. The women viewers noticed this more confident manner and found it attractive.

The researchers then showed photographs of the male respondents to group of women, and the women did not find the good-smelling guys to be more physically attractive. It was the good-smelling guys’ behavior, not their physical appearance or scent that attracted women. The right smell made the guys act more confidently, so, somewhat counter-intuitively, the secret may not be whether a woman thinks a man smells good, but rather whether a man thinks he smells good.

This effect of body-spray—making a man more attractive because he thinks he is more attractive—represents a self-fulfilling prophesy. This concept has a long history and many uses, but here it refers to the effect of a changed self-identity. A change in the situation (i.e., body spray) changes a man’s attitudes about himself (more confidence) which in turn changes how others react to him (attraction).

Self-fulfilling prophesies show up in a remarkably wide range of social behaviors. If a basketball player thinks she’s going to miss a free throw, she probably will. If a child comes to believe that they are a bad kid, they’ll act that out. If a student thinks they are smart and hard working, they will do better in school.

In fact, I wonder if the logic of the study described above applies to all fashions. Wearing the right style at the right style at the right time might actually make us more attractive due to feeling better about ourselves. (Of course, some styles are inherently attractive, regardless of social definition. They always look great—for example, the baby blue tuxedo I wore to high school prom).

In this essay, I’ve focused on the effects of our self-image on our behavior, but there’s an equally rich story to be told about how society affects our self-image. Gender and racial stereotypes affect the self-images of groups of people. Parents, teachers, and friends constantly affect how we see ourselves. Advertising and all manner of media alter our self-perceptions. In the end, this concept, of a self-fulfilling prophesy, helps us to understand both who we are and what we do and how both are influenced by the society that we live in.

As you go through today, think about how you’re social interactions change how you see yourself, and how this in turn changes how you act and how others respond to you. Also, don’t forget to douse yourself with something that you think smells good.

(Originally posted on everydaysociologyblog.com)

Tuesday, March 17, 2009

A funny cartoon

Perhaps this is the true loss of faith in our country?

Monday, March 16, 2009

Priest stands up to The Man

The main way that priests get into the news is through immoral behavior. Here's a priest who made it in with moral behavior--gasp! (Not that priests act morally, but rather that the media would notice.) Recently a Catholic priest, James Manship, here in Connecticut was arrested for allegedly interfering with an arrest.

Rev. Manship has a lot of Hispanics in his parish, and he believed that the police were harassing them. So, he went to the scene of an arrest.

According to the police report, "East Haven Officer David Cari said Manship was repeatedly told he was standing too close to police while they were investigating. Cari said Manship took an "unknown shiny silver object" from his coat pocket, which he concealed in his hands and refused to identify."

Oops... it turns out that the good Reverend brought along a video camera, and it's clear from the clip that he did nothing of the sort. I'm sure that the police and city will be in full CYA mode and try to make this probably-false arrest go away, but clearly the priest is standing up for what is right.

Click here for the video

Friday, March 13, 2009

Do abstinence pledges work?

This article presents a nice analysis of a statistic about abstinence pledging. The study in question uses a matched-case design, in which they get people who are similar in as many ways possible except for the key difference under study. Then, the two groups are observed to see if they act differently over time.

Turns out that people who are identical in regards to their sexual attitudes, behaviors, values, etc... but differ only in making an abstinence pledge end up having similar sexual behaviors.

While the authors make various criticisms of the study, I wonder if there is another criticism to be noted. Specifically, perhaps the study controls for the causal mechanism, thus suppressing the effect of a pledge. If pledges work, it might be by changing values and attitudes. The study in question, however, makes these similar for both groups--hence no difference.

Here's an everyday example of how this might work. Eating chocolate can cause weight gain by increasing the number of calories a person eats. However, if a study compares people who consume the exact same number of calories, then those who eat chocolate will probably not gain any more weight than those they are compared to. The conclusion: Eating chocolate does not cause weight gain (and I die a happy sociologist). In reality, the researcher just controlled for the causal mechanism.

Going back to the abstinence study, it may be that young people who make an abstinence pledge differ in their behavior precisely because it changes their values and attitudes.

Thanks Andy!

Wednesday, March 11, 2009

Fine Chocolate and Altruistic Behavior

I came across a story that captures essential elements of the human existence—helping others and fine chocolate.

The Quichua people live in the Ecuadorian rain forest, and they grow cacao (the beans from which chocolate is made). For many years, they struggled along, selling these beans for 20 cents a pound to a middleman who then sold them to a large chocolate maker. They wanted to make more money from their cacao, but they didn’t know how to make that happen.

Along came Judy Logback, a woman from Kansas who was volunteering with an organization promoting biodiversity. The first thing she did was arrange for them to take the beans to market themselves, where they got a full 48 cents a pound! (It’s good to be the middleman). This was good, but after several years the Quichua people wanted even better—they wanted to make and sell their own chocolate.

Ms. Logback hired an expert to teach the cacao farmers how to ferment their own beans, and she found a chocolate maker in the United States to create a formula for them. Yet another American loaned them money and hired Swiss chocolate makers to teach them how to make fine chocolate.

As a result of this assistance, the Quichua formed a chocolate cooperative that includes 850 families. The cooperative buys the cacao beans from the families for a full $1.95 a pound—a long way from the meager 20 cents they started with. They make chocolate at their own factory, and it is sold at Whole Foods Markets under the name “Kallari,” and it is praised as “smooth, rich and straightforward.” (Come to think of it, I would like to have those characteristics myself).

In this story, the hard work of one volunteer dramatically changed the lives of thousands of people: ‘“Judy really sacrificed a lot for us,” said ElĂ­as Alvarado, Kallari’s director of production and natural resources. “The people in the communities really love her for what she has done.’”

What Ms. Logback did probably represents an instance of altruism — helping others without expectation of getting rewards for oneself. Why did Ms. Logback, or anyone for that matter, act altruistically? We could attribute altruistic behavior to people’s personality; e.g., she is a loving, caring person who gives to others. This is probably quite true, but sociologists who study altruism have found a variety of social factors that affect whether or not we help others.

For example, sociologists have found that the more people who could help in a given situation, the less likely that any one person will offer to help. So, if you’re there watching someone in need, you’re less likely to do something if there are other people watching too. Sociologists call this a bystander effect, and they explain it as the result of diffusion of responsibility.

If we see others around as well, we might think that they are going to help, or that they are better able to help, and so we don’t do anything. The end result could be a bunch of good-hearted people standing around, doing nothing to help. (For a truly horrifying example of this, read about Kitty Genovese). So, perhaps Ms. Logback wouldn’t have helped the Quichua if there had been other aid workers working with them.

Another factor involves how we explain why people need help. It’s not just enough for us to see people in need, we have to think of them as deserving of help.

Various sociological studies have found that we’re less likely to help someone if we think they don’t deserve it or if the problem is their own fault. One classic study involved a “confederate” (someone helping the researcher, not a Civil War reenactor) falling down on a subway. Sometimes the confederate acted like he/she was drunk, other times they did not, and the researchers then watched how quickly people went to help the fallen person. Sure enough, the subway riders were much less likely to help the fallen person who appeared drunk. It turns out that how we determine why someone is in need affects whether we help them. Perhaps Ms. Logback would have been less helpful if she had viewed the Quichua as somehow responsible for their own poverty.

Finally, people are more likely act altruistically if they see others acting altruistically. This is called the modeling effect, and it suggests that we learn from others, or at least are inspired by them. Studies have found that if we see a person put money into a charity box, we’re more likely to do so ourselves. Perhaps Ms. Logback watched other people in her organization do good work for indigenous peoples, and that led her to try the same herself.

Helping others is a matter of the soul and the heart, but it is also influenced by a variety of social factors. The social conditions of any given circumstance might determine whether you do the right thing and live a life with fine chocolate.

(Originally published in Everydaysociologyblog.com).

Monday, March 09, 2009

Darwin as agnostic?

Here's an article that makes a good point about Darwin. While the New Atheists have held him up as their spiritual leader, it's not clear how much he would have agreed with that evolution precludes a creator. At the very least, it's not a case that he made in his lifetime.

"In particular, what would have baffled Darwin is his recruitment as standard bearer for atheism in the 21st century. Darwin kept his pronouncements on religion to a minimum, partly out of respect for his Christian wife. Despite continuing claims that he was an atheist, most scholars acknowledge that he never went further than agnosticism.

Yet bizarrely, the whole 19th-century collapse of faith is now pinned on Darwin. While he was poring over his pigeons, biblical scholars were hard at work radically revising the historical understanding of the Bible and arguably doing as much as he ever did to undermine the possibility of a literal reading of scripture. The work of the Victorian geologist Charles Lyell debunked the idea of seven days of creation in Genesis long before Darwin.

The fear is that the anniversary will be hijacked by the New Atheism as the perfect battleground for another round of jousting over the absurdity of belief (a position that Darwin pointedly never took up). Many of the prominent voices in the New Atheism are lined up to reassert that it is simply impossible to believe in God and accept Darwin's theory of evolution; Richard Dawkins and the US philosopher Daniel Dennett are among those due to appear in Darwin200 events. It's a position that infuriates many scientists, not to mention philosophers and theologians.

"A defence of evolution doesn't have to get entangled in atheism," says Mark Pallen, professor of microbial genomics at Birmingham and author of The Rough Guide to Evolution. Bob Bloomfield, of the Natural History Museum, says: "We want to move the agenda on to the relevance of his ideas today and put aside this squabbling over faith and dogma.""

Thanks David!

Saturday, March 07, 2009

Poison Ivy on a Rock (pic)

Fall is the only time of year that I like poison ivy.

Friday, March 06, 2009

Cherie Blair: Christians are marginalised

Here's an interesting article about Cherie Blair, wife of former British Prime Minister Tony. In it, she discusses her views about the role of Christianity in British society. In particular, she states that it's marginalized and that as a Christian, she/others felt pressure to keep it to themselves. The article quotes her husband as saying: "while it was commonplace in the US and elsewhere for politicians to talk about their religious convictions, "you talk about it in our system and, frankly, people do think you're a nutter"".

I would say that in our political system, it's a good thing for a politician to label themselves as a Christian, but it gets awkward if they are verbal about the specifics of it; i.e., its role in everyday life and how it guides their decisions.

Stephen Carter put it well in his book, Culture of Disbelief, when he wrote religion is trivialized in a way that society accepts it only as a hobby--something done quietly and in private.

Wednesday, March 04, 2009

100,000 visits

Last week some time, this blog passed 100,000 visits since I started it. (It works out to about 190,000 "hits"--the number of page views.)

Now, I know that this is a small number for some blogs, but I'm kind of happy about it. It's certainly about 99,000+ more visits than I expected when I started 2+ years ago.

I think that I'll celebrate by... writing another blog post.

Tuesday, March 03, 2009

How it should have ended--Lord of the Rings

My boys, Floyd and Gus, love this Lord of the Rings parody, and I'm afraid it might have ruined the movie for me, because know when I see the film, which was on TV the other night, I wonder why the characters didn't try this much easier approach. (The website gives this treatment to a bunch of films).

Monday, March 02, 2009

On the business end of social comparison theory

Social comparison theory posits that we look to others to learn and to assess how we're doing. Who we compare ourselves with varies by why we're comparing ourselves with them. For example, are we trying to learn from them? Feel good about ourselves? See if we're doing as expected.

Well, last week I had someone tell me about a photographer named Christopher Burkett. I went to his website, and I initially thrilled by the beauty of his photographs. (See below for one of his best). Then, and not much long after, I got rather depressed that I'll probably never take a photo as beautiful as his. Ugh.... Maybe I should go find some mediocre photographer to cheer myself up with?