Wednesday, April 29, 2009

Differential Opportunity for Criminal Behavior

Jocelyn Addison, Nia McBrayer, and Jenniffer Watson are three college-aged women who needed some money. They could get a job, but that would probably cramp their style—with work hours and all. They could have asked their parents or family, but maybe they felt shy or had done that a lot before. So, instead, they decided to rob a Dollar Store in Bedford, Ohio. (Now that raises red flags right there. Is a Dollar Store the best place to find a lot of money? Why not go rob the Two-Dollar Store and double your take?).

They walked in with masks and a BB gun (in case the store was defended by a small bird?) and demanded money. The manager claimed that she couldn’t open the safe, (got to watch those crafty Dollar Store employees), and so the three young ladies left empty-handed. The manager called the police, who apprehended them about a mile away from the store, and each woman was charged with robbery.

Now, it might sound like these three novice criminals didn’t know what they were doing, but, to the contrary, when the police searched their car, they found a printed document, downloaded from the web, entitled: “How to Commit Armed Robbery in Six Easy Steps.” This document, downloaded 12 hours before the crime (so that they had enough time to learn the subtleties of robbery), spelled out exactly what a prospective robber should do, and they had followed some of its advice.

clip_image001The funny thing is that this guide was written as a joke. For example, the first step advises the reader to get appropriate gear, such as a mask or sunglasses. A ski mask “gives you a badass look as well as conceal your appearance.” The website promises good things with the mask, for wearing one will reduce “your chances of being caught… by .001%.” Next you need a big bag for carrying all the loot that you’ll get. The website recommends one with a dollar sign printed on its side, like in cartoons. After that, the website offers valuable guidance on picking partners, planning the robbery, executing it, and getting away.

What’s the point of this true-but-funny story? It illustrates that not everyone has the same access to crime—a line of thinking developed by sociologists Richard Cloward and Lloyd Ohlin. As the story about the Dollar Store robbers suggests, some people, don’t have the knowledge needed to pull of crimes successfully. They don’t have family members or friends to teach them how to do it, and some crimes require special knowledge. Okay, robbing a Dollar Store might be pretty straightforward, but what about opening a safe or embezzling someone or creating counterfeit money? Some crimes take a certain amount of expertise, and many people do not have that expertise.

Other people do not have the opportunities to commit certain crimes. Some crimes need a person to have access to specific people and situations. Do you want to defraud stockholders? Well, you should probably have a job in a stock-trading company. Want to commit white-collar crime? It helps to have a white-collar job.

This differential access to crime compliments an idea that most of us are familiar with, and has been studied a lot in sociology--differential access to conventional gain, such as schooling and employment. Not everyone can pay for college or knows how to get into good colleges. Not everyone has the connections or experience needed to land a good job. In a way this makes the world unfair, for those who have can get more.

This discussion makes one wonder about the role of the internet. I don’t know if you’ve tried lately, but you can find information about just about anything online. I once challenged a colleague to come up with some human activity that wasn’t represented on-line, and he guessed “elbow fetish.” Well, it turns out that there are plenty of people who live in appreciation of the well-turned elbow. Go figure.

There is plenty of information on-line on the techniques of criminal behavior. For proprietary sake, I won’t list the sites here, but they are out there. So it’s possible that the advent of the web might give more people more ability to commit crimes more effectively. I just suppose that you have to be careful about which advice you follow.

Originally published in

Tuesday, April 28, 2009

Plane hits cow

Two things that don't go well together... airplanes and cows

Monday, April 27, 2009

Sunday 30s

Okay, I have forgotten enough good lessons about life that I would probably prosper by not learning anything new and just trying to remember what I've learned in the past. Here's an example.

During grad school, my wife and I made good friends with John Alexander, former president of Inter-Varsity Christian Fellowship. Among the things that he told us about were what he called "Sunday 30s." He and his wife Betty had four children, and every Sunday he would give each child 30 minutes in which to do whatever the child wanted (within legal bounds I suppose). As a result, he spent a lot of time building forts and attending tea parties.

Well, I did this for years with my oldest son, but I had pretty much forgotten about it until recently. We started them up again, and my boys love them. Favorite activities include wrestling and playing video games.

The value of Sunday 30s is not so much the time but rather the reorientation of parent-child interactions. For me, there are some kid activities that I just don't enjoy at all, and so throughout the week I structure my time with them toward mutually shared interests (plus they sometimes just have to tag along with what I'm doing.) Sunday 30s affirms their interests as important while making me try new things. Makes me wonder why I ever stopped.

It's probably good that I'm posting about this now before I forget about them again.... :-(

Saturday, April 25, 2009

Mill pond at sunset (pic)

There are lots of old mill ponds in New England, complete with waterfall. Here's a picture of one at sunset, and I cropped it so it's just above where the water falls. The water backing up made interesting patters which I tried to capture as they reflected the sunset.

Friday, April 24, 2009

Long-shot door-to-door evangelism

Laurence Innaccone and Rodney Stark have developed a paper entitled "The Logic of Long Shots: A Theory of Cold-Call Witnessing" in which they study the door-to-door evangelism of Mormons and Jehovah's Witnesses. In it, they discuss the success (or, more accurately, the lack of success) of this approach. It turns out that a dedicated Jehovah's Witness has about a 95% of *not* converting anyone in a given year. Wow, that's a lot of "no's." Mormons apparently have a similar rate.

This fits with what I've learned talking to Mormon missionaries who have come to my house. Poor kids, they're looking for a convert, and they get a sociologist--long, wide-ranging conversations about what they are doing and why but, alas, no conversion. I have been told that for these full-time missionaries, one convert a year is pretty good.

Still, JWs and Mormons are growing faiths and this evangelism, despite its low success rates, adds to their numbers.

About 1.7% of Americans are Mormon (same percentage as Jewish)
About .7% are JWs.

Wednesday, April 22, 2009

How American Congregations are Changing (and Staying the Same)

Have you ever picked up a sociology journal and tried to read one of its articles? Well, good luck if the article uses numbers because most quantitative sociological research uses multivariate analysis such as regression that can be difficult for those without a background in statistics to understand. Now, once you get used to this type of research, these articles can make sense, but the methods do pose a barrier for most non-academics . (Qualitative studies have their own problems that typically involve using way too many big, funny sounding words that probably don’t mean anything). That’s probably why the journal American Sociological Review is not sold in supermarket checkout lines.

Every once in awhile, however, studies come along that demonstrate that some of the most important things we learn are simple percentages. Sociologist Mark Chaves provides an example with his National Congregations Study. For this study, conducted in 2006-7, Chaves interviewed pastors or other church leaders from about 1,500 churches drawn from a nationwide, random sample, and he asked them a bunch of questions about their churches. He had done a similar study in 1998, and this allowed him to measure how American congregations have changed over the last decade.

Any guesses as to how?
As reported in the Winter 2008 issue of Sociology of Religion, he and a coauthor found four main changes in congregations in the last ten years:

1) Churches use a lot more technology than they used to. They are much more likely to use e-mail to communicate with their members and web pages to advertise themselves in the community. I suppose that this change didn’t surprise me much. The church I attend now has blogs, web pages, Facebook groups, and uses something called Twitter, which may or may not involve birds. This technological change has implications for congregations. By better advertising their beliefs and values, churches might attract like-minded people from further away. This might increase the theological homogeneity of congregations—having people who have similar beliefs with one another than might have previously been the case. Technology also costs money and time, which raises the question of what are churches cutting back on to support their use of technology.

2) Worship services have become more informal. Services are now less likely to have choirs and to use written programs. Instead, they are more likely to have services featuring drums, jumping, shouting, dancing, raised hands in praise, applause, and calling out “amen.” There are some variation in which churches do which—with Catholic churches less increased informality and black churches showing more—but this increased informality appears to be a general trend in religion as it is in society as a whole. clip_image004In line with this trend, probably the best known Evangelical pastor, Rick Warren, who said the invocation at Barack Obama’s inauguration, is known for wearing Hawaiian shirts when he preaches.

3) Clergy age. From 1998 to 2006, the average age of the American adults has increased by 1 year, but the average age of pastors has increased by 5 years! The median age of the head clergy in the study went from 48 years to 53 years old. That’s a big change, and it’s happening the most in Catholic and mainline Protestant churches (and least in Evangelical and black churches.) What is causing this big change? One explanation is that fewer future-pastors are going into seminary right after college, and more are taking on the ministry as a second career, after retiring from a secular career.

4) The demographic make-up of congregations is changing. Overall, the average age of congregation members is increasing faster than the general population. For example, in 2006, 30 percent of the congregants were over age 60, but in 1998, only 25% were. Also, the racial and ethnic make-up of congregations is becoming more diverse. For example, from 1998 to 2006 the number of completely white congregations dropped from 20% to 14%.

Now, so far I have focused on the changes in American churches because, for some reason, discussing changes is more interesting than thinking about what stays the same; nonetheless, the study found a number of things that have stayed about the same over the past decade. They include the median size of congregations (about 75 people), the high number of women in the pews, the low number of women in the pulpit, and involvement in social services.

There, wasn’t that interesting, and you didn’t have to read a single regression coefficient. Maybe sociology journals just need to make themselves more accessible to the general public. I’m thinking more pictures of Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie on the cover?

Tuesday, April 21, 2009

Stavos Flatly (video)

Lots of people have commented on the amazing performance by Susan Boyle on Britain's Got Talent, but some may overlooked the true breakout performance: Stavros Flatly.

Here's the video.

Now that is beauty and grace!

Monday, April 20, 2009

Three Myths About Christians and Divorce

Here's an article by sociologist D. Michael Lindsay. (It's a proven fact that people are smarter when their first name is an initial!). He examines prevailing beliefs about Christianity and Divorce, and he identifies 3 myths.

1) Christians divorce as often as non-Christians.

2) Church attendance makes no difference.

3) Things are only getting worse.

He provides compelling evidence from the General Social Survey to refute these common beliefs...

Check it out.

Sunday, April 19, 2009

The Sunday comics say that... Gus is pretty smart

At the breakfast table this morning, Gus picked up the comics, read Foxtrot (one of our favorites), adn about 2 minutes later had solved the "secret" message on top. Uh-h-h-h, I didn't even think it could be solved.

Saturday, April 18, 2009

A silver leaf in the river (pic)

Here's the bank of the local river when the snow was melting. I loved the colors and shapes, though I'm not sure that I have the leaf in the right place. I wimped out and didn't want to wade into the freezing water to get it "just right". The picture is shot through moving, very clear water, which is why it has weird magnification throughout it.

Friday, April 17, 2009

Please, be careful how you talk about religion. This is a university.

Yesterday I went to see Cliffe Knechtle talk on campus. Cliffe is an open-area apologist for Christianity. For 20 years now, he's been going to college campuses around the country, and at the center of campus he gives a short talk about Christianity. He then opens it up for questions and challenges, which he invariably gets.

Here at UConn, he drew crowds of 30-50 students, at least when I walked by, and he was always in an animated discussion with him. Cliffe has been doing this for so long that he's very polished. He has a thoughtful answer for everything, and he has a smooth presentational style. Nonetheless, some of the students were getting very, very agitated with him.

In thinking about why, I started to wonder if there's an unwritten norm on campuses that it's okay to express your worldview, and you can have any of a wide range of views, but it's not okay to tell somebody that their view is incorrect or otherwise wrong.

Religious interaction on campus sometimes seems to be like show-and-tell. People state their religious preferences and beliefs, people react politely, and that's it. The idea of exclusivity--that one religion is more right or factual than others--really has no place in this model. As such, some of the reactions to Cliffe were of the "how dare you" variety, attempting to shame him for his outright declaration of Christianity as Truth.

What do you think? What are the norms on/off campus about discussing religion?

Thursday, April 16, 2009

An inspiring talent (video)

In case you haven't seen it already, here's the video of Susan Boyle on Britain's Got Talent.

Why is this video so powerful. In the words of Andy Crouch: "It offers a picture of our age’s ├╝bercynical critics surprised by joy. It gives a glimpse of the creative capacity latent in who knows how many lives. And perhaps therefore it gives us a glimpse of the embodied glories that await us, the grace that waits just around the corner of our hopes and fears."


Thanks Jeff!

Wednesday, April 15, 2009

An illustration of a non-linear effect

In teaching methods, I cover non-linear effects (where the change in Y resulting from X varies by the level of X). I've been looking for a good illustration of it, and lo and behold, I found a very good one for college students.... I bet that my students will better understand the concept now.

Sunday, April 12, 2009

Floyd's comment on Good Friday

We went to our church's Good Friday service, and it was rather abstract. Lots of music, readings, and a silent drama involving building a cross. Beautifully done, but not your average service.

Toward the end, eight-year-old Floyd leaned over and asked, every so politely, "Can we go now. I don't get most of this."

After we left (at the end of the service), I thought that's a pretty darn good reason.

Saturday, April 11, 2009

Spring run-off (pic)

This is a cool time of year to take pictures of the local rivers because there is lots of water, and it hasn't turned green/murky yet.

Friday, April 10, 2009

Watch your language...

Here's an interesting story from the New York Times. Apparently a number of states still have blasphemy laws on the books, and while rarely, if ever, enforced, they're still the law of the land. According to the story, some are about religion in general while others are explicitly Christian. It seems to come up when companies apply for names that could be considered blasphemous and the state says no.

Thanks David.

Wednesday, April 08, 2009

Being Off-Time in the Life-Course

When we think of going through life, we often think in terms of how old we are. Children celebrate birthdays, middle-aged people wear t-shirts proclaiming that they are over the hill, and drug stores have rows and rows of birthday cards.

Another way to keep track of life is in terms of age-graded life stages. A life stage is a set of roles and activities that we participate in. They can be based on any number of things such education, marital status, employment, hobbies, even the condition of our bodies. Some stages are age-graded, meaning that society norms exist regarding when we should experience these stages. For example, with education, we’re supposed to attend elementary school as children, then middle school, then high school, and then, maybe, college in our late teens and early twenties. With work, we can work part time while in school, maybe bounce between jobs after we graduate, but by our late twenties or so we should probably have settled down in our careers.

Given that there are social norms regarding when we go through these life stages, it’s interesting to examine what happens when people violate these norms and either don’t go through a life stage or do so at the wrong time. This is called being “off-time,” and it can have a wide range of consequences.

Let me tell you about a friend from college. Back in school, he was completely on-time, and he was enacting age-appropriate roles. He was single, a college student, and he really enjoyed partying—all things that are fitting for someone in their late teens or early twenties. Then, after he graduated, he got a good job, started making some good money, and he bought a fancy sports car. So far so good. After that, however, the trouble started, at least from a life-course perspective. You see, he sort of never left that fun-single-guy stage, but now he’s in his late-forties.

What was appropriate then seems awkward now. He still wants to date attractive young women, but they don’t really want to date him. His desire to “party” used to be fun but now it’s a cause for concern. He would like to start a family, but the women his age are now more likely to pull out pictures of their grandchildren. To make matters worse, he got tired of his old job, and he is trying to get into a new career, which means he has to start at an entry-level job.

My friend’s situation illustrates some of the problems with being off-time. It can lead to a loss of social opportunity. For example, he is less likely to find an eligible marriage partner now that he’s older. He’ll also probably have a harder time on the job market as he competes with younger people. His life situation also puts him out of synch with his friends. When he wants to go out and have fun, they’re going home to their families. It’s also a source of embarrassment, for he feels awkward in social situations where he’s the only older single person.

Another example of the detrimental effects of being off-time comes from criminology research. Studies have found that girls who hit menarche (i.e., go through puberty) early are more likely to be involved in criminal activity than girls who are more on-time. Why? When a young girl starts to develop into a woman, she starts to attract older boys, and teenage boys are more involved in criminal activity than just about any other segment of society.

This is not to say that being off-time is always bad. Having enough money to retire in your forties would make you off-time, but many people would still want that option. Also, we can be off-time in one area but on-time in others. An example would be someone in their thirties who is married with kids (on-time) and goes back to school for their college degree (off-time).

Still, being off-time can cause a variety of problems and raise some eyebrows, and not because we’re doing something wrong, per se, but rather we’re doing it at the wrong time of life.

Tuesday, April 07, 2009

Why we clean house

This is why we host Bible Study at our house each week...

Saturday, April 04, 2009

Puppy under Christmas Tree (pic)

This last Christmas, we bought a puppy for the boys. She's a miniature poodle (to minimize allergy problems for me), and I got to name her--Attila (nicknamed Tilly). Her's picture of her under the Christmas tree, amidst the decorations she pulled down and exhausted from chasing around the boys.

Friday, April 03, 2009

A politician we can believe in

Though I'm mildly interested in following politics, I don't gravitate to any of the political parties. It's entirely unclear to me which of the political parties more closely matches Christian values (and there are some days when I think both are quite far away).
I was reading about the possible floods in Fargo, ND, and I came across a profile of the mayor there, Dennis Walaker. Here's a story from that profile:

When an 8-year-old girl died after the car she was riding in spun out of control and was struck by another car, Walaker blamed the crash on a rut that the city failed to fix. He thought it was important to let the driver—the victim's 15-year-old sister—know it wasn't her fault, and he wasn't worried that it could open up the city to a lawsuit.

So, basically, he was willing to assume legal liability because he wanted to speak the truth to protect a grieving young person. Wow! (Clearly he's not a lawyer). How would ever convert this type of values into a political platform?

Not surprising, Walaker came to elected office late in life (he was the director of public works). The cynic in me wonders if that kind of "not-me-first" attitude gets wiped out of people who enter politics earlier in their lives... there's just too much incentive to be political.

Wednesday, April 01, 2009

Is "God is Dead" Dead?

In 1882, German philosopher Friedrich Nietzche declared that “God is Dead.” With this statement, he didn’t mean that God has suffered a physical death of some sort, like slipping on an icy planet or something, but rather that humans had lost their ability to believe in God, and as such religions, like Christianity, had lost their moral basis and would not last long. Nietzsche wasn’t the first or last person to predict the decline of organized religion. Among the other predictions:

* In 1710, English thinker Thomas Woolston said Christianity would be gone by 1900
* Voltaire said in religion would crumble in 50 years
* Thomas Jefferson said in 1822 that “there is not a young man now living in the United States who will not die a Unitarian”
* Famous dead-white-guys Karl Marx, Friedrich Engels, and Sigmund Freud each predicted that religion soon crumble
* Renowned sociologist Peter Berger wrote in 1968 that in “the 21st century, religious believers are likely to be found only in small sects, huddled together to resist a worldwide secular culture.”

Secularization is the idea that societies are transforming from the sacred to the secular, from religious beliefs to rational, scientific principles. As the quotations above suggest, secularization has been expected for hundreds of years by some very smart people, but contemporary evidence suggests that they were wrong.

Religion is perhaps as strong as ever. A simple ride down the road will usually turn up local church buildings, often full on Sundays. Worldwide, Christianity has about 2 billion adherents, Islam 1.2 billion, Hinduism 800,000 million, and Buddhism 350,000. Over two-thirds of all humans adhere to one of these four religions alone.

Here in the United States studies find strong evidence of continued religiosity. Around 85% -90% of Americans believe in a God, and over three-fourths affiliate with a religion. An interesting chart presented by Iannaccone graphs out the number of paid clergy in the United States since 1850. As you can see, it’s remained level and has slightly increased in recent decades.
Certainly some societies have transitioned from religious to secular-based forms of government. In the early 1990s, Turkey, for example, adopted an explicitly secular form of government. In contrast, other countries have made the reverse transition. Iran in 1979 went from the more secular Shah-led government to a government based on religious fundamentalism. A number of the Iron Curtain countries have seen a resurgence of faith with the fall of Communism and its insistence of secularism.

This isn’t to say, however, that secularization has not occurred in any way. It’s reasonable to believe that the church has less formal authority in many countries than it did in past centuries. Also, the way in which religion is practiced is changing around the world. For example, here in the United States religion is often experienced as a private, spiritual endeavor rather than a participation in an authoritative social institution. In an effort to be more effective, many churches are adopting business models of organization and presentation to society, moving them toward a more secular appearance. Some religious groups, such as the Salvation Army and the YMCA have transitioned almost completely into secular groups.

However, religion hasn’t gone anywhere, and it probably won’t be gone anytime soon. In fact, the failure of past predictions of complete secularization highlight the continued significance of religion in modern day society.