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Archive for July, 2009

Gates/Crowley and the Sociology of Deference

It’s hard to know just exactly what role race played in the well publicized arrest of Harvard scholar Henry Louis Gates Jr.  Race is one of those variables that so imbues life in the United States that rare is the sociological research that does not have to control for race.  We are socialized to see race even when we are being educated about racial tolerance.  So to pinpoint just what role race played in this one issue, where race as a variable cannot be controlled, is well nigh impossible. And it may even be unnecessary.  This issue can be understood without the racial variable, and may even be of greater social value if we look at the role of power and deference rather than white and black.

By assuming that race is not a variable we can move on to a different, more concrete explanation and lesson.  Let’s assume that Sgt. Crowley was not looking at race.  He still arrested a man from his own home who, it could be argued, had good reason to over-react to what was happening.  Let’s leave race out of the equation when looking at Prof. Gates’ reaction to being confronted by a police officer in his own home.  On one hand, it is not pleasant, and may even be offensive to be accosted and accused of wrongdoing when all you were doing is trying to enter your own home.  On the other hand, if Prof. Gates had simply controlled his anger, it’s likely that Sgt. Crowley would have gone on his way and this would be nothing more than a one inch story on page A17 of the Boston Globe.

But what was it, exactly, that Sgt. Crowley and Prof. Gates were reacting to.  Of course, race may be a subtext, but it may not necessarily be the defining variable.  A better explanation may involve the role of deference and status between the two men.  Gates, an Ivy League professor, and Crowley, a police sergeant.  Both of these men hold positions of status and authority.  As such, both men expect (and some may argue, deserve) a certain amount of deference to be applied to any interaction concerning them.  Being accosted by the police in his  own home is definitely a breach in deference from the point of view of Prof. Gates.  True, it may be that such status for a black professor may require greater nuance than for a white professor, but we are trying to control the race variable here.  For Sgt. Crowley, Gates’ non-deferential behavior toward an officer of the law (a sergeant, so an officer with authority) could also be seen as an affront.

In essence, what we see here could be defined as a good old fashioned conflict cycle based on the refusal to recognize and apply requisite deference rituals.  As a man with a deep counseling background I can tell you that conflict cycles almost always end badly.  And this situation ended badly.

So what can be learned from this perspective.  I would suggest that the onus of this lesson should fall on the police.  Yes, Harvard professors could abide a lesson or two, but in this matter, it was Sgt. Crowley who was on another person’s property–albeit doing his job.  As the man with the badge and the authority of the state behind him, just as is the case with counselors engaged in conflict cycles with clients, he had the responsibility to defuse the conflict with strategies that did not involve force. I’m sure police receive training with regard to conflict cycles, but may not fully understand the role that ritual deference plays in their lives. An understanding of deference may make it easier for the police to deal with such situations where breaches in deference are hard to elaborate.

This blog is not meant to deny the role of race in this issue, but rather to offer a different, more practical, lesson that may be obscured by the race variable.

–Another aside to this story may have to do with neighborhood/community relations.  If the woman who reported the “break-in” (who was not the same woman who called 911) had been better incorporated into her community, knew her neighbors, it is unlikely she would have been alarmed by two men forcing their way into a home.  According to the New York Times, this woman was a fairly new resident in the neighborhood. But there was a time when neighbors would introduce themselves almost immediately to newcomers.  Rituals for accepting new members into a neighborhood have broken down over the years.  This is another matter that is not being addressed because race is the default debate.

Air Polution and IQ

For a few years now I’ve suggested changing track when it comes to the hydrocarbon debates.  It’s not that I’ve changed my mind about Global Warming. Global Warming is very much a reality and may be happening even faster than experts have predicted. When it comes to the discourse, however, the lines are pretty well drawn. Those who do not accept the validity of Global Warming, for whatever reason, are unlikely to change their minds. That does not mean that such people cannot be brought into the movement for change that can perpetuate global warming policy.

The fact is that the same chemicals contributing to global warming are also contributing to other negative consequences for our society. Such consequences include the destruction of our future, not through cataclysmic climate change, but equally cataclysmic destruction of the intellectual capacity of our future.

According to research done by the Columbia University Mailman School of Public Health, pre-natal exposure to high concentrations of air polution can result in a five point IQ deficit. Now, I’m not sure of the predictive value of a five point IQ deficit, but the fact that air pollution can have such effects bares consideration.

Controlling carbon emissions is not just about keeping the earth from heating up, but also about keeping the brains of our children from cooling down.

On Baseball and Teaching

                I love baseball.  I really do. I grew up with the game as a kid, whether I was playing in my neighborhood street with a waffle bat and ball of tape, or a sandlot, or playing for the world’s worst little league team (we were 0-9. We would have been 0-10 but for one game when only 7 of our players even bothered to show up).  I used to be a Yankees fan deep in Red Sox territory, mostly because of my contrary nature I suppose.  Baseball was an important part of my youth as I tracked my favorite professional players, Dave Winfield, Don Mattingly, Nolan Ryan; their records were memorized and fiery debates defined my friendships.  I still have stacks of baseball cards collecting dust somewhere in my pile of collected stuff.

                Lately, however, I have turned my back on professional sports, including baseball.  I don’t follow the players, I don’t watch the games, I don’t buy the merchandise.  My disillusionment of baseball began in 1996. My favorite team, the Yankees, was on target to go to the World Series, which I had not seen since the early eighties.  I was excited to see my team do so well and reveled in being a part of that experience.  Embracing a team is an emotional experience for which its victory is your own victory.  That was until the players decided to go on strike. 

                I was flabbergasted. Why would they go on strike? It turned out that they wanted more money.  Now I come from a proud union tradition.  My father was a union organizer and president. I was walking picket lines when I was six years old.  I’m a supporter of unions and I support the right of workers who want to make more money…but baseball players? Really? 

                At the time I was working in a wilderness program.  I was a supervisor working with troubled young men in the northern skirts of the Everglades.  I was on the job twenty-four hours a day.  If I was lucky I would get two days off a week.  My pay was adequate as I had few living expenses, but it was certainly not high.  My colleagues and I worked very hard with very little material remuneration to improve the lives of the kids in our care.  So when the baseball players went on strike it made me take a good, hard look at what they were striking for. It was eye opening.

                In essence, these grown men were working very hard at hitting and throwing a ball.  That was it.  Their total contribution to society was in the satisfaction derived by others that a certain group of people were especially adept at manipulating a small, leather-bound ball of string. These groups of people, these teams, became reference groups for millions throughout the country if not throughout the world. I thought, this is a pretty tenuous thing on which to derive a sense of personal satisfaction. 

                In 1996 the median salary for a player on the New York Yankees was $1.1 million.  The lowest paid players, second baseman Andy Fox and outfielder Matt Luke, made $109,000 a year.  The highest paid, Ruben Sierra (pictured below), made $6.2 million a year…and he was a designated hitter, so he only played offense, which translates to about three or four times at bat, then he was done!


Ruben Sierra

                In contrast, the average salary for teachers in 1996 was just over $37,000.  In 2007, the median salary for a player on the New York Yankees was over $5 million, a 400% increase.  Average salary for teachers in 2007 was around $51,000, which amounts to around 27%.  However, when you look at the adjusted numbers for teachers $37,000 in 1996 was the equivalent of about $49,000 in 2007. So in real terms, teacher salaries have only increased less than a 4% since 1996.  Using the same calculus, if the median salary in real dollar value increase for a player on the New York Yankees still amounts to a 232% increase!

                I can argue that income is a good indicator of how much a society values its members and the work that those members do.[1]  After all, the salary of a player on the New York Yankees could be argued to reflect the value that individuals are willing to pay to attend ballgames, watch games on TV and/or purchase merchandise. Teacher salaries represent what taxpayers or in the case of private schools, tuition payers, are willing to pay to acquire the skills in a classroom. If this is the case, then it is very obvious that those who are charged with teaching our own children and infusing them with cultural understanding as well as capital are of significantly lower value than those who hit balls with sticks!  This is a problem.

                Does this model stand up to scrutiny in the real world? I argue it does.  Say, for instance, that the community had a choice between investing in teachers or investing in baseball, using my model above one should predict that the community would choose baseball.  Fortunately for this study, albeit regrettably for the community, this experiment was played out in my home of Lee County, Florida. 

In 2008 a budget shortfall of $29 million created a crisis for the Lee County school system.  The school board scrambled to find ways to resolve this crisis (which is, as of this writing, not yet resolved).  After making significant cuts the school board was still faced with a $14.6 million hole.  Almost 250 teachers were laid off at the end of the 2008/2009 school year.  Some suggestions for finding the money included cutting teacher benefits by as much as 73%. Nowhere among the local news articles and even editorials that I’ve examined on this subject did anyone, public or in office, suggest ways of raising more money for teachers and schools. Instead, all plans rested on the need to cut services.[2]

At the same time, the county received the shocking news that the Boston Red Sox were considering leaving Fort Myers and moving to Sarasota.  Shocker! This could not be allowed to happen! Lee County Commissioners stumbled all over each other to find ways keep the Red Sox in Fort Myers.  To do so they were willing to shell out an estimated $80 million to build the team a brand new stadium. Contrast this to the $14.6 million or even the $29 million shortfalls in the school budget that required cuts in educational services.

But wait, there’s more! The Red Sox had been in Fort Myers since 1993.  They were induced to open spring training in the city when commissioners decided to build the City of Palms Park on three city blocks taken over by eminent domain.  The new park cost around $23 million, toward which the county only paid against the interest.  Consequently, fifteen years later, Lee County still owes over $26 million on a park that may well be empty after 2011.  The park was built with the understanding that it would raise the standard of living in a troubled and impoverished part of the city.  This has not happened. Now it is hoped that another team can be induced to move its spring training to the City of Palms Park.  Really? Without renovations that will cost how many million dollars? Good luck with that.

Now the argument could be made that the Red Sox bring needed revenue into the county.  That has not been established scientifically.  One study estimated that having a professional team in the community for spring training can bring in as much as $25 million a year.  How this figure is derived, however is questionable.  Academics note that local taxes and sales revenue do not substantiate this conclusion.  Indeed, there’s no real evidence the Red Sox bring any revenue to the county.  A local study revealed that only 1.3% of tourists claim to come to Lee County to see spring training games.

Regardless, local officials demonstrated that when it comes to a crisis in education, the solution involved cutting funds, benefits, programs and jobs including instructional jobs. A crisis in baseball, however, involved finding new sources of revenue to raise the money needed to keep a team in the community whose overall value does not go beyond the personal satisfaction gained by knowing that people who are very good at hitting balls with sticks are doing so close by.  Again, we have a problem.

[1] Granted, I will admit that using income as such a model may be problematic. For instance, if I were to conduct a survey of who you would rather have with you if stranded on a deserted island, I would hypothesize that a teacher would score higher than a baseball player (maybe that depends on the teacher and the baseball player).  However, income is a real issue for real people in the real world; therefore I favor this model to the hypothetical surveys that could be done.

[2] Granted, there was some very constructive discourse into examining waste in the school system.

I can’t tell you how glad I am that the bankers are making money again.

Really, I can’t.  It does not come as a surprise to me that vast resources were put into play to maintain the integrity of the economic elite by the power elite.  In less than a year, those who actually created the economic crisis appear to be back on their feet.  According to Nobel Laureate, Paul Krugman (one of the few economists I’ve read who has made accurate predictions about the crisis and what it would take to resolve it), it is business as usual for these banks.  In essence, they create money in dubious and ridiculously unstable ways, steering their investors into lucrative, short term profits with the a renewed certainty that their largess will be covered by the us, the American taxpayer.

In essence, we the people are the financial insurance for firms like Goldman Sachs, Bank of America, Morgan Stanley et al. Why shouldn’t these companies accrue huge, short term profits when their long term losses are covered by Taxpayer Financial Insurance. I have an idea. Why can’t we, the taxpayers charge the financial institutions for the insurance that we provide? Every other insurer is paid for the risks of providing the insurance, but the American taxpayer gets nothing but grief from this arrangement.

In the meantime, what is going on with the American taxpayer, on whose shoulders the profits of America’s largest banks rest. Why, we’re still struggling to make ends meet, keep our homes, find jobs and keep ourselves above water.  There is no working class or middle class bailout as such.  For working Americans, the recession is very real and very current.

It’s a shame that we are still tied to the invalid theory that wealth will ultimately trickle down from the top tier of society to the workers. We were told this during the twenties, only to have the country nearly destroyed by the Great Depression. We were then sold this rancid fruit by the infamous Reagan Revolution and his descendants (which apparently includes President Obama), which includes Republicans and Democrats. In that time the American worker experienced nothing but sagging wages, loss of benefits, decreased job security and one recession after another.  This was bolstered by a self destructive reliance on credit to create an illusion that our economic conditions were improving.

As always, working Americans must wait for the scraps to fall from the tables of the rich for our sustenance!

A Classic Sociological Question: Are Humans, by nature, Warlike?

Every semester I face the same challenges from students who are steeped in the the cultural awareness that much of human behavior is biologically and even genetically determined. Oftentimes in my discussions about social problems or the foibles of society I hear the comment, “it’s just human nature.” That sparks a response and a challenge from me.  What exactly is human nature? Where does it come from? How is it manifest?

This is the classic nature/nurture (n/n) argument. How much of our human behaviors are biological (n/) or how much is cultural (/n)? And this is sticky ground, especially for a sociologist.  Sociologists, by virtue of our training, see the social in everything. Of course we do. That’s how we are trained.  We also tend to be very skeptical of claims of a biological, genetic or evolutionary explanation of human behavior, especially when such explanations tend to reinforce what we have identified as negative stereotypes, such as male dominance, or female aptitude for math.

That being said, however, there does seem to be a growing body of science that would suggest that sociology does not explain everything about human behavior, even mass behavior.  That there are some n/ influences involved.  Influence, however, is not causation.  When scientists try to measure the influence of one factor compared to another factor with regard to any phenomenon what we are really measuring is an explanation for variance. So when the newspapers report a new finding on the genetic influence on violence, for instance, what they are really reporting is that geneticists have explained maybe 10% of what contributes to violence.

Another question that arises is how much nature versus how much nurture is involved in human phenomenon? What are the percentages? 50/50? 40/60? 60/40? Usually the class wants to compromise and suggest 50/50, not because there’s any scientific validity, but rather because 50/50 is a good conflict resolver.  So is it human “nature” to want to resolve conflict with a 50/50 scale, or is this a cultural expression of game theory? Hard to say.

The reality is that it is not that simple because I would offer that many human phenomena that are influenced by n/n actually involve an overlap rather than clear divisions on two sides of an argument. It may very well be that in order for certain phenomena to be expressed there must be both natural and cultural factors at play. Where one begins and the other ends is not so much a boundary as rather a blending or shading effect.

The example that I use is height.  Height in the United States is almost completely genetically pre-determined.  However, genetics does not explain the full nature of height.  Nutrition and health also contribute to the phenomenon of height, and these are often cultural and institutional /n variables.So I ask the seminal question: Are human beings naturally warlike? Are the efforts of the peace movement in vein because we, as human beings, are naturally pre-disposed to kill each other? And what are the obvious consequences in a world full of total weapons and weapons of mass destruction?

It’s a good question with very telling sociological implications.  A must for every sociology class. In class I often get an immediate response. Yes! Human beings are, by nature, warlike.  That explains the vast, bloody panorama of human history.  One war after another for five thousand years.  Was history really like that? Or is that simply an artifact of studying what is interesting to us, thus jumping from one war to another, creating the illusion that the history of man is the history of warfare?

As my students learn, however, sociology is not about the immediate and obvious response to an answer.  Sociology is in the details.  For sociologists, war is a social phenomenon involving power, institutional arrangements, cultural elements and historical components, and therefor not a biological imperative. War is hierarchical and involves divisions of labor.  It’s founded on social constructs of justice and threat, even empathy for those who are being victimized.

During the discussion I often ask why it is, if people are naturally warlike, that it takes a concerted and often expensive effort on the part of a government to convince its people to go to war.  We talk about the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution and the Mushroom Cloud paradigm offered by the Bush Administration.  If human beings are naturally warlike, why do governments have to lie to get us involved? War, from this perspective, is a purely sociological phenomenon.  Case closed?

Well, not really. War may be a social construct, but the larger issue of violence needs to be resolved. Are human beings naturally violent? And, of course, are certain human beings naturally more violent than others? This may be a little trickier. Again, the assumptions start to fly, sometimes with predictable racial overtones that it is imperative to explode.

The most likely answer to this is that yes, under certain circumstances, violence may be a natural response in human beings. When facing an unavoidable threat, it might be a natural response to strike out and fight.  Often, however, I see that it is more descriptive to suggest that it is human nature to avoid and run away from the threat rather than face it head on…if one is alone.  But what about when we are in a group and perceive an advantage in numbers.  Is it natural, then, to turn to violence when avoidance would have been the individual option? How much of this is nature and how much of this is the sociological response to group dynamics. After all, it may very well be human nature to form groups, while the kind of group and the group dynamics may be sociological.

I also remember reading some research many years ago that attributed aggressive behavior to poor nutrition.  I remember thinking, this makes sense from an evolutionary standpoint.  If you have poor nutrition your body may be reading that as a lack of resources. It is, therefore, in one’s biological best interest to become more aggressive to attain greater resources for survival. However, access to resources is one of the most basic sociological motivators and determinants. Our access to resources is often defined not by the natural consequences of drought, but rather through social inequity.  Again, where does biology kick in and sociology overcome? It’s difficult to say.

But here we have two examples of how aggression may be, at least to some extent, a natural phenomenon: threat to an established social group, and restricted access to life resources. Both of these phenomena have naturalistic, biological, genetic, evolutionary correlates as well as sociological influences and consequences.

We can then take a look at how power groups, such as governments, can use these very powerful phenomena to encourage acts of mass violence such as war or terrorism.  By invoking fear, a natural response, governments, sociological entities, can motivate populations to perform acts that they would not be so inclined, either by nature or nurture, to do on their own.

In class we often discuss the process by which people learn to kill other people in war.  The argument could be made that people, by nature, find killing other people distasteful. That’s why great effort is put in to define the enemy as being somewhat less than human.  A great deal of analysis has been put into this.  The process of dehumanization is a necessary correlate to war.  This becomes difficult to maintain as we spend time in an occupied nation and start to see those people who were the enemy acting like human beings. I started reflecting on this after talking to vets whose job it was to conduct surveillance on the enemy.  One vet stated, “I got to see them when they didn’t know I was watching.  They would be laughing and crying and tripping over things, sharing pictures of girlfriends, just like my buddies.” Under such circumstances it becomes necessary to remind soldiers that the enemy is a constant threat, hidden in the general population ready to strike, thus demonizing everyone.

That warfare is contrary to human nature is betrayed by the heavy, psychological toll paid by many (some would suggest “all”) veterans.  According to research conducted by the Defense Department, the best way to help veterans deal with the stresses of combat is to minimize the amount of time that they are actually in combat and maximize the time that they are living a normal life. So which circumstance is the “natural” condition of humanity?

Nature/Nurture debates are fascinating and great fun in the classroom and sure to get a response. Sociologists, however, need to allow more room for the nature aspects of social phenomenon otherwise the lessons that we can teach are muted by unrealistic explanation. By examining how biology and sociology overlaps we can reach more students and influence more minds to be aware of the very real social uses of this dialectic.  If science, be it biology or sociology, has taught us anything it is that there is no clear determinism in the lives of real people.

Secrecy is about power, not protection

Have you ever been a part of a group in which secrets were being shared? Where were you in relation to those secrets? Were you the person sharing the secrets? The person learning the secrets? Or were you out of  the secrets loop? Perhaps you were the subject of the secrets.  Regardless, where you are in relation to the secrets being shared is a definitive characteristic of one’s status within a group or sub-group because secrets are a mechanism of power.

The same is true at the national or societal level, though admittedly the dynamics become much more complex. In any given society there are those who learn and share information, those who receive the information, those who are the subjects of that information and those who are not.  What’s more, this flow of information is typically directed upward along the social hierarchy, with those at the top, whom we can call the power elite receiving the most information and those at the bottom receiving the least.

Those at the top of the ladder have access to the most sophisticated technologies and infrastructure for gathering, disseminating and analyzing information while those at the bottom are mostly dependent upon the elite to share their information.  And this is where secrecy comes in.  The more the power elite can control the dissemination of information to the lower tiers of the society, the more power they can incorporate into their social groups. Indeed, one measure of power may very well be one’s ability to control the flow of information.  Power may very well be defined as the product between how much information one can glean from other groups and how much information can be kept secure from the knowledge of other groups.

The Bush Administration knew this very well. They ran a tight ship of secrecy, making sure that very little leaked from the inner sanctums of their power groups. Everything was subject to strict control, to the point where Vice President Cheney actually invented his own Top Secret categorization.  To avoid sharing information the Bush team claimed executive privilege. When that didn’t work, Cheney actually defined himself as part of the legislature, not the executive, therefore not subject to judicial demands for executive information while at the same time claiming executive privilege. The Bush Tango around releasing information was almost a thing of beauty.

At the same time, no other administration placed so much emphasis on gathering information on as may people as is humanly possible while excluding as many from the flow of information as could happen.  It was under the Bush Administration that Total Information Awareness was developed, shot down by Congress, then forgotten, then renamed and passed on to the NSA.  Those laws designed to protect the privacy of American citizens.  No problem.  Ignore them, undermine them, undercut them and make sure no one knows what we are doing.  Those who do know, such as the gang of eight legislators in the House and Senate intel. committees, impose the strictest secrecy enforced by law, or political maneuvering to guarantee that no one knows the extent of the information being gathered. Otherwise, order the CIA to conduct program without even telling Congress. If Congress asks questions lie.

Now we have a new administration inheriting the power infrastructure from what may, by the algorithm defined above, be defined as the most powerful in the history of this country.  Will Obama take a step back and scale down these huge discrepancies of power.  He has promised that his would be a transparent administration.  In some ways maybe it is. On the other hand, the infrastructure, the rationalization, the experts are all there for his use, and Obama does not seem interested in dismantling such a colossal power structure.  If Lord Acton was correct about the corrupting effects of power, then we must admit that Obama has inherited the most corrupting infrastructure in history.  Power institutions do not have a history of disempowering themselves.

How Late Term Abortion Saved My Life

This is a very important and divisive issue.  It is crucial that we hear stories of all involved.  Unfortunately it seems that those who have abortions remain silent about their experiences and motivations.  This is a very deliberate process of stigmatizing and shaming women into not sharing their experiences and thereby limiting the discourse.

Read the article below by Cecilly Kellog, a very brave woman for challenging the prevailing stigmas. The comments are also interesting.

How Late Term Abortion Saved My Life

Mark Fiore is Awesome!