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Sociological Images

Inspiring sociological imaginations everywhere.
Apr 23 '14
Transcending the nature/nurture debate
The phrase “nature/nurture debate” refers to an old competition between those who think that human behavior and psychology is determined by biology (that is, genetics, both evolutionary and individual, hormones, neurology, etc) and those who believe that it is determined by environment (that is, socialization, cultural context, experiences in childhood, etc).  While the nature/nurture debate rages in the mass media, most scholars reject it altogether.  Instead, social scientists and biologists alike recognize that our behavior and psychology is the result of an interaction between nature and nurture (yep, even sociologists like myself).
A recent story on NPR illustrates this beautifully.  James Fallon, a neuroscientist specializing in sociopaths, had been scanning the brains of murderers for 20 years.  His research had demonstrated that sociopath brains have a distinct appearance: dark patches in the orbital cortex, the part of the brain responsible for moral thinking and controlling impulses.
You can see the dark patches in the brain on the right, the brain on the left is a “normal” brain.
At a family gathering one day, Fallon’s mom mentions that there were some pretty violent types in Fallon’s own family history (it apparently didn’t come up anytime in the previous 20 years !!!) and, so, he investigates. It turns out that there were eight proven and alleged murders in his ancestral line, including Lizzy Borden, one of the most famous murderers in history. 
Because Fallon knows that the atypical neurology associated with sociopaths runs in families, he decided to scan the brains of all his family members.  No one had the dark patches.
Except him. 
Fallon had the dark patches.  In fact, that brain on the right: that’s him.
Not only did he have the neurology of a typical sociopath, he also carried a genetic determinant known to be associated with extreme violence.
Fallon doesn’t have the answer to why he’s not a sociopath, but scientists think that a person needs to have some sort of experiential trigger, like abuse as a child, in addition to a biological predisposition.

Significantly, [Fallon] says this journey through his brain has changed the way he thinks about nature and nurture. He once believed that genes and brain function could determine everything about us. But now he thinks his childhood [and his awesome mom] may have made all the difference.

For related examples, see our posts on the response of testosterone levels to political victories and the historical shift in the average age of menstruation.
Lisa Wade is a professor of sociology at Occidental College. You can follow her on Twitter and Facebook.

Transcending the nature/nurture debate

The phrase “nature/nurture debate” refers to an old competition between those who think that human behavior and psychology is determined by biology (that is, genetics, both evolutionary and individual, hormones, neurology, etc) and those who believe that it is determined by environment (that is, socialization, cultural context, experiences in childhood, etc).  While the nature/nurture debate rages in the mass media, most scholars reject it altogether.  Instead, social scientists and biologists alike recognize that our behavior and psychology is the result of an interaction between nature and nurture (yep, even sociologists like myself).

A recent story on NPR illustrates this beautifully.  James Fallon, a neuroscientist specializing in sociopaths, had been scanning the brains of murderers for 20 years.  His research had demonstrated that sociopath brains have a distinct appearance: dark patches in the orbital cortex, the part of the brain responsible for moral thinking and controlling impulses.

You can see the dark patches in the brain on the right, the brain on the left is a “normal” brain.

At a family gathering one day, Fallon’s mom mentions that there were some pretty violent types in Fallon’s own family history (it apparently didn’t come up anytime in the previous 20 years !!!) and, so, he investigates. It turns out that there were eight proven and alleged murders in his ancestral line, including Lizzy Borden, one of the most famous murderers in history. 

Because Fallon knows that the atypical neurology associated with sociopaths runs in families, he decided to scan the brains of all his family members.  No one had the dark patches.

Except him. 

Fallon had the dark patches.  In fact, that brain on the right: that’s him.

Not only did he have the neurology of a typical sociopath, he also carried a genetic determinant known to be associated with extreme violence.

Fallon doesn’t have the answer to why he’s not a sociopath, but scientists think that a person needs to have some sort of experiential trigger, like abuse as a child, in addition to a biological predisposition.

Significantly, [Fallon] says this journey through his brain has changed the way he thinks about nature and nurture. He once believed that genes and brain function could determine everything about us. But now he thinks his childhood [and his awesome mom] may have made all the difference.

For related examples, see our posts on the response of testosterone levels to political victories and the historical shift in the average age of menstruation.

Lisa Wade is a professor of sociology at Occidental College. You can follow her on Twitter and Facebook.

Apr 22 '14
From dramatic mechanism to sitcom joke: the rise and fall of quicksand.
“For many of us, quicksand was once a real fear,” write the producers at Radio Lab:

It held a vise-grip on our imaginations, from childish sandbox games to grown-up anxieties about venturing into unknown lands. But these days, quicksand can’t even scare an 8-year-old.

Interviewing a class of fourth graders, writer Dan Engber discovered that most understood the concept, but didn’t find it particularly worrisome.  ”I usually don’t think about it,” said one.  They were more afraid of things like aliens, zombies, ghosts, and dinosaurs.  But they understood that it was something that people used to be afraid of: ”My dad told me that when he was little his friends always said ‘look out that could be quicksand!’”
Engber became fascinated with what happened to quicksand.  He found a source of data — compiled by, of all things, quicksand sexual fetishists — that included every movie scene that involved quicksand from the 1900s to the 2000s.  Comparing this number to the total number of movies produced allowed him to show that quicksand had a lifecourse.  It rose in the ’40s, skyrocketed in the ’60s, and then fell out of favor.
Why?
Engber found a pattern in the data.  In quicksand’s early years, the movie scenes featured quicksand as a very serious threat.  But, after quicksand peaked, it became a  joke.  In the ’80s, quicksand even made it into My Little Pony and Perfect Strangers.  Later, in discussions about plot lines for Lost, the idea of quicksand was dismissed as ridiculous.
I guess it’s fair to say that quicksand “jumped the shark.”
In sociology, we call this the social construction of social problems: the fact that our fears don’t perfectly correlate with the hazards we face.  In this case, media is implicated. What is it making us fear today?
Lisa Wade is a professor of sociology at Occidental College and the author of Gender: Ideas, Interactions, Institutions, with Myra Marx Ferree. You can follow her on Twitter and Facebook.

From dramatic mechanism to sitcom joke: the rise and fall of quicksand.

“For many of us, quicksand was once a real fear,” write the producers at Radio Lab:

It held a vise-grip on our imaginations, from childish sandbox games to grown-up anxieties about venturing into unknown lands. But these days, quicksand can’t even scare an 8-year-old.

Interviewing a class of fourth graders, writer Dan Engber discovered that most understood the concept, but didn’t find it particularly worrisome.  ”I usually don’t think about it,” said one.  They were more afraid of things like aliens, zombies, ghosts, and dinosaurs.  But they understood that it was something that people used to be afraid of: ”My dad told me that when he was little his friends always said ‘look out that could be quicksand!’”

Engber became fascinated with what happened to quicksand.  He found a source of data — compiled by, of all things, quicksand sexual fetishists — that included every movie scene that involved quicksand from the 1900s to the 2000s.  Comparing this number to the total number of movies produced allowed him to show that quicksand had a lifecourse.  It rose in the ’40s, skyrocketed in the ’60s, and then fell out of favor.

Why?

Engber found a pattern in the data.  In quicksand’s early years, the movie scenes featured quicksand as a very serious threat.  But, after quicksand peaked, it became a  joke.  In the ’80s, quicksand even made it into My Little Pony and Perfect Strangers.  Later, in discussions about plot lines for Lost, the idea of quicksand was dismissed as ridiculous.

I guess it’s fair to say that quicksand “jumped the shark.”

In sociology, we call this the social construction of social problems: the fact that our fears don’t perfectly correlate with the hazards we face.  In this case, media is implicated. What is it making us fear today?

Lisa Wade is a professor of sociology at Occidental College and the author of Gender: Ideas, Interactions, Institutions, with Myra Marx Ferree. You can follow her on Twitter and Facebook.

Apr 21 '14
Marx photobomb? Oh hell yes.
He looks judgmental because he is judging us.

Marx photobomb? Oh hell yes.

He looks judgmental because he is judging us.

Apr 21 '14
How to change the world one shrug at a time.
This is, by far, the best response to inquiries about male cross-dressing that I have ever heard. If you don’t already love Eddie Izzard, you might now. His response in a nutshell? “I’m not wearing women’s dresses. I’m wearing my dresses. I bought them. They are mine and I’m a man. They are very clearly a man’s dresses.”
Johnny Depp does a similarly good job of refusing to take the bait in this clip from the Late Show with David Letterman. Letterman queries his rationale for wearing a women’s engagement ring. Depp just plays dumb and ultimately says that it didn’t fit his fiancée, but it did fit him. So… shrug.
The phenomenon of being questioned about one’s performance of gender is called “gender policing.” Generally there are three ways to respond to gender policing: (1) apologize and follow the gender rules, (2) make an excuse for why you’re breaking the rules (which allows you to break them, but still affirms the rules), or (3) do something that suggests that the rules are stupid or wrong.  Only the last one is effective in changing or eradicating norms delimiting how men and women are expected to behave.
In these examples, both Izzard and Depp made the choice to disregard the rules, even when being policed. It seems like a simple thing, but it’s very significant. It’s the best strategy for getting rid of these rules altogether.
Thanks to Dmitriy T.C. for the links!
Lisa Wade is a professor of sociology at Occidental College. You can follow her on Twitter andFacebook.

How to change the world one shrug at a time.

This is, by far, the best response to inquiries about male cross-dressing that I have ever heard. If you don’t already love Eddie Izzard, you might now. His response in a nutshell? “I’m not wearing women’s dresses. I’m wearing my dresses. I bought them. They are mine and I’m a man. They are very clearly a man’s dresses.”

Johnny Depp does a similarly good job of refusing to take the bait in this clip from the Late Show with David Letterman. Letterman queries his rationale for wearing a women’s engagement ring. Depp just plays dumb and ultimately says that it didn’t fit his fiancée, but it did fit him. So… shrug.

The phenomenon of being questioned about one’s performance of gender is called “gender policing.” Generally there are three ways to respond to gender policing: (1) apologize and follow the gender rules, (2) make an excuse for why you’re breaking the rules (which allows you to break them, but still affirms the rules), or (3) do something that suggests that the rules are stupid or wrong.  Only the last one is effective in changing or eradicating norms delimiting how men and women are expected to behave.

In these examples, both Izzard and Depp made the choice to disregard the rules, even when being policed. It seems like a simple thing, but it’s very significant. It’s the best strategy for getting rid of these rules altogether.

Thanks to Dmitriy T.C. for the links!

Lisa Wade is a professor of sociology at Occidental College. You can follow her on Twitter andFacebook.

Apr 20 '14
The U.S. is a “low tax country.”
This chart comes from Chuck Marr at the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities.  As Marr explains:

The United States is a relatively low-tax country, as the chart [above] shows.  When measured as a share of the economy, total government receipts (a broad measure of revenue) are lower in the United States than in any other member of the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), even after accounting for the modest revenue increases in the 2012 “fiscal cliff” deal and the taxes that fund health reform.

Martin Hart-Landsberg is a professor of economics at Lewis and Clark College. You can follow him at Reports from the Economic Front.

The U.S. is a “low tax country.”

This chart comes from Chuck Marr at the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities.  As Marr explains:

The United States is a relatively low-tax country, as the chart [above] shows.  When measured as a share of the economy, total government receipts (a broad measure of revenue) are lower in the United States than in any other member of the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), even after accounting for the modest revenue increases in the 2012 “fiscal cliff” deal and the taxes that fund health reform.

Martin Hart-Landsberg is a professor of economics at Lewis and Clark College. You can follow him at Reports from the Economic Front.

Apr 20 '14
The commodification of Easter festivities.
The word commodification refers to the process by which something that is not bought and sold becomes something that is.  As capitalism has progressed, more and more parts of our lives have become commodified.  Restaurants are the commodification of preparing and cleaning up meals; day care and nannying is the commodification of child raising; nursing homes is the commodification of caring for elders.
We sometimes post instances of commodification that tickle us.  Previously I posted about a company that will now put together and deliver a care package to your child at camp.  A parent just goes to the site, chooses the items they want included, and charge their credit card.  As I wrote in that post: “The ‘care’ in ‘care package’ has been, well, outsourced.”
I was equally tickled by this photograph, taken by sociologist Tristan Bridges, of pre-dyed Easter eggs. This is a delicious example of commodification.  If you don’t have the time or inclination to dye eggs as part of your Easter celebration, the market will do it for you.  No matter that this is one of those things (e.g., a supposedly enjoyable holiday activity that promotes family togetherness) that is supposed to be immune to capitalist imperatives.
While we might raise our eyebrows at this example, newly commodified goods and services often elicit this reaction.  We usually get used to the idea and, later, have a hard time imagining life any other way.
Lisa Wade is a professor of sociology at Occidental College and the author of Gender: Ideas, Interactions, Institutions, with Myra Marx Ferree. You can follow her on Twitter and Facebook.

The commodification of Easter festivities.

The word commodification refers to the process by which something that is not bought and sold becomes something that is.  As capitalism has progressed, more and more parts of our lives have become commodified.  Restaurants are the commodification of preparing and cleaning up meals; day care and nannying is the commodification of child raising; nursing homes is the commodification of caring for elders.

We sometimes post instances of commodification that tickle us.  Previously I posted about a company that will now put together and deliver a care package to your child at camp.  A parent just goes to the site, chooses the items they want included, and charge their credit card.  As I wrote in that post: “The ‘care’ in ‘care package’ has been, well, outsourced.”

I was equally tickled by this photograph, taken by sociologist Tristan Bridges, of pre-dyed Easter eggs. This is a delicious example of commodification.  If you don’t have the time or inclination to dye eggs as part of your Easter celebration, the market will do it for you.  No matter that this is one of those things (e.g., a supposedly enjoyable holiday activity that promotes family togetherness) that is supposed to be immune to capitalist imperatives.

While we might raise our eyebrows at this example, newly commodified goods and services often elicit this reaction.  We usually get used to the idea and, later, have a hard time imagining life any other way.

Lisa Wade is a professor of sociology at Occidental College and the author of Gender: Ideas, Interactions, Institutions, with Myra Marx Ferree. You can follow her on Twitter and Facebook.

Apr 19 '14
Before homosexuality, times were so gay! 
This is our newest addition to our “Before Homosexuality” board. See more examples of what life was like before same-sex attraction was a part of our collective consciousness at the SocImages Pinterest site.

Before homosexuality, times were so gay!

This is our newest addition to our “Before Homosexuality” board. See more examples of what life was like before same-sex attraction was a part of our collective consciousness at the SocImages Pinterest site.

Apr 18 '14

Using racial stereotypes to gender a laundry product.

This set of Italian commercials for fabric dye are super clever and reveal a fantastic set of cultural assumptions about gender and race.  Above is commercial #1 (no Italian needed).  The message?

"Coloured is better” or black men are physically and sexually superior to white men.

The second ad, though, takes it in a WHOLE different direction. See it at Sociological Images.

Apr 17 '14
How to lie with statistics: The relationship between Florida’s Stand Your Ground law and gun deaths.
At Junk Charts, Kaiser Fung drew my attention to a graph released by Reuters.  It is so deeply misleading that I loathe to expose your eyeballs to it.  So, I offer you the mishmash above.
The original figure is on the left.  It counts the number of gun deaths in Florida.  A line rises, bounces a little, reaches a 2nd highest peak labeled “2005, Florida enacted its ‘Stand Your Ground’ law,” and falls precipitously.
What do you see?
Most people see a huge fall-off in the number of gun deaths after Stand Your Ground was passed.  But that’s not what the graph shows.  A quick look at the vertical axis reveals that the gun deaths are counted from top (0) to bottom (800).  The highest peaks are the fewest gun deaths and the lowest ones are the most.  A rise in the line, in other words, reveals a reduction in gun deaths.  The graph on the right — flipped both horizontally and vertically — is more intuitive to most: a rising line reflects a rise in the number of gun deaths and a dropping a drop.
The proper conclusion, then, is that gun deaths skyrocketed after Stand Your Ground was enacted.
This example is a great reminder that we bring our own assumptions to our reading of any illustration of data.  The original graph may have broken convention, making the intuitive read of the image incorrect, but the data is, presumably, sound.  It’s our responsibility, then, to always do our due diligence in absorbing information.  The alternative is to be duped.
Lisa Wade is a professor of sociology at Occidental College and the author of Gender: Ideas, Interactions, Institutions, with Myra Marx Ferree. You can follow her on Twitter and Facebook.

How to lie with statistics: The relationship between Florida’s Stand Your Ground law and gun deaths.

At Junk Charts, Kaiser Fung drew my attention to a graph released by Reuters.  It is so deeply misleading that I loathe to expose your eyeballs to it.  So, I offer you the mishmash above.

The original figure is on the left.  It counts the number of gun deaths in Florida.  A line rises, bounces a little, reaches a 2nd highest peak labeled “2005, Florida enacted its ‘Stand Your Ground’ law,” and falls precipitously.

What do you see?

Most people see a huge fall-off in the number of gun deaths after Stand Your Ground was passed.  But that’s not what the graph shows.  A quick look at the vertical axis reveals that the gun deaths are counted from top (0) to bottom (800).  The highest peaks are the fewest gun deaths and the lowest ones are the most.  A rise in the line, in other words, reveals a reduction in gun deaths.  The graph on the right — flipped both horizontally and vertically — is more intuitive to most: a rising line reflects a rise in the number of gun deaths and a dropping a drop.

The proper conclusion, then, is that gun deaths skyrocketed after Stand Your Ground was enacted.

This example is a great reminder that we bring our own assumptions to our reading of any illustration of data.  The original graph may have broken convention, making the intuitive read of the image incorrect, but the data is, presumably, sound.  It’s our responsibility, then, to always do our due diligence in absorbing information.  The alternative is to be duped.

Lisa Wade is a professor of sociology at Occidental College and the author of Gender: Ideas, Interactions, Institutions, with Myra Marx Ferree. You can follow her on Twitter and Facebook.

Apr 16 '14

The Illusionists, a documentary.

Writer and director Elena Rossini has released the first four minutes of The Illusionists.  I’m really excited to see the rest.  The documentary is a critique of a high standard of beauty but, unlike some that focus exclusively on the impacts of Western women, Rossini’s film looks as though it will do a great job of illustrating how Western capitalist impulses are increasingly bringing men, children, and the entire world into their destructive fold.

The first few minutes address globalization and Western white supremacy, specifically.  As one interviewee says, the message that many members of non-Western societies receive is that you “join Western culture… by taking a Western body.”  The body becomes a gendered, raced, national project — something that separates modern individuals from traditional ones — and corporations are all too ready to exploit these ideas.

Subtitles available here.

Lisa Wade is a professor of sociology at Occidental College and the author of Gender: Ideas, Interactions, Institutions, with Myra Marx Ferree. You can follow her on Twitter and Facebook.