Archive for December, 2012

While many associate December 25 with Christmas, it is also the day that a young boy, having been accidentally left home alone by his parents, nearly murdered two would-be burglars in 1989. Watching the documentary about these events that was released in 1990, I’ve always wondered what sorts of injuries the burglars sustained. Thankfully, the internet has provided an answer. Dr. Ryan St. Clair comments on how lucky McCallister was to get out of the house alive, given that the two burglars had the physical characteristics of superheroes. Luckily, like all superheroes, they had a weakness. Dr. St. Clair comments on what finally brought them down:

At this point, Marv and Harry have both suffered potentially crippling hand and foot injuries. Harry has proved to be nearly impervious to burns, and both managed to retain consciousness after taking a flying paint can straight to the face. Suddenly, a frail elderly man appears and weakly slaps them in turn with a flimsy aluminum Home Depot snow shovel. And, somehow, this is too much for them, and they collapse

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Buying gendered gifts for children.

Using toys to perpetuate class inequality.

Being surrounded by assholes who are intent on crushing your dreams.


The world’s most offensive Christmas song.

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It used to be that TED speakers were a rather small group. Now, however, thanks to the proliferation of TEDx talks (which are organized by outsiders), the barrier to entry has been lowered significantly. Not wanting to sully the good name of TED, the TEDx blog posted a letter to organizers to help them tell the difference between “good” and “bad” science. Instead of summarizing the letter myself (because I’m lazy), I’ll quote some parts of the Slate article where I first read about it:

GOOD: “It makes claims that can be tested and verified,” and “It is backed up by experiments that have generated enough data to convince other experts of its legitimacy.”

BAD: “Has failed to convince many mainstream scientists of its truth,” and “Comes from overconfident fringe experts.”

These are then followed by a series of “red flag” topics and behaviors that, again, should serve as a warning that what the speaker is saying may not be legit: They are selling a product, they claim to have privileged knowledge, they demand TEDx presents “both sides of an issue.” (That last one is a biggie: In many cases there aren’t two sides unless one side is “reality” and the other is “nonsense.”)

If you’re not organizing a TEDx event, I think that this list might be equally useful as a guide for students who are trying to distinguish between “research” and “crap.”

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With Santa’s yearly visit just a week away, toys are on the mind of many children. Sociologists often talk about the gendered nature of toys, and I recently discussed one Swedish company’s efforts to advertise toys in a gender-neutral way, but a recent New York Times article* looks at a divide that we are less likely to focus on: social class.

In the article, Gina Bellafante argues that the types of toys sold at Walmart and Toys R Us differ greatly from those from more upscale stores focused on learning and creativity. In her most quotable paragraph, Bellafante writes:

In the way that we have considered food deserts — those parts of the city in which stores seem to stock primarily the food groups Doritos and Pepsi — we might begin to think, in essence, about toy deserts and the implications of a commercial system in which the least-privileged children are choked off from the recreations most explicitly geared toward creativity and achievement.

She concludes with the counterpoint that puzzles and other upscale toys have not been proven to bolster children’s cognitive abilities, but I think it would be interesting to study whether children in wealthier homes do, in fact, play with different types of toys. I also think it would be interesting to see whether they actively ask for these toys or whether their Christmas lists look like those of their less fortunate counterparts.

*I saw this a while ago via The Society Pages but forgot about it when the grading storm struck again. Thankfully, another post at The Society Pages reminded me about it.

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In the wake of shootings that involve classrooms, whether elementary, middle school, high school, or college, I ask myself what I would do in a similar situation. I have been fortunate to never have a a student that I was genuinely afraid of, but that is no guarantee against violence. Claire Potter, a.k.a. Tenured Radical, has had such an experience and discusses the possible ways that the situation may have played out:

So because I knew nothing, except that this had occurred in a small town near my old rowing club that I had driven through multiple times to get to I-84, what I thought about was the campus shooting I experienced on May 7 2009. On that day, a young woman at Zenith was gunned down in front of her friends at the campus bookstore by a man who had stalked and threatened her for several years.

And on that day, the campus went into, as they say now, “lockdown.” We had very little information about what had happened, or what might happen next. My office was in a small building: we locked all the doors and gathered upstairs. I, at least, was well aware that if the gunman proceeded up the hill towards the main campus, ours would be the first building he got to.  As we waited, for hours, I turned different scenarios over in my mind. Most of them had to do with running away: how thick was the front door? If the gunman entered our building, could we all escape in good order through the back? And as Director of the building, would it not be my moral duty to help everyone else get out in front of me, be the last to leave, and assume the greatest risk?

In case you have never had this experience, these are the kind of things you think about as you are waiting to see if you are going to die you are going to become a casualty. After a bit, my co-teacher, a young postdoc, and I quietly confided to each other our worst fear: that the shooter was one of our students, a young man I will call Jack. Jack’s eccentricities had morphed, week by week, into what both of us believed was a full-blown psychosis, resulting on odd to scary behaviors.

Suddenly, the front doorbell rang: we looked out the window and — it was Jack. What to do? If he was the shooter, could we keep him out? If he was not the shooter, he was in danger, and as his teachers, we had a moral obligation to help him. What if, floridly psychotic or not, murderer or not, he had come to us for help?

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After a brief lull as the eye of the storm passed overhead, grading continued early this week. Now that the storm is passing it can be confirmed that a record amount of grading has taken place in the past week. This storm included:

  • 80 papers from three courses
  • 60 traditional exams from two courses
  • 20 take-home exams from one course
  • 30 research proposals from one course

The total? 190 assignments/exams graded in 14 days. While the weather can be unpredictable, I hope to never find myself in this sort of storm again!

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They can be just as “fuzzy” as qualitative data.

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A staple of Introduction to Sociology courses is the toy assignment, in which students are asked to visit a local store and take note of the gendered nature of the offerings. While boys and girls might not universally agree with the things that are supposed to be for them, the prevalence of these messages in stores, ads, and TV commercials makes them hard to avoid. As reported by the Wall Street Journal, one company in Sweden is challenging these norms in its most recent Christmas catalog.

A comparison of Top-Toy’s Swedish catalogs with their Danish counterparts shows girls have replaced boys in some photos featuring toy guns, and boys have swapped places with girls in photos featuring dolls and stuffed dogs. In one picture in the Swedish catalog, a boy is blow-drying a girl’s hair whereas in the Danish version, a somewhat older girl is blow-drying her own hair.

Top-Toy also is working on adjusting store displays and packaging to reflect the gender-neutral approach, said Jan Nyberg, Top-Toy’s sales director in Sweden. Boys and girls can now be seen playing together on boxes of “Happy House,” Top-Toy’s own kitchen set.

“We can’t decide what the big toy makers’ boxes should look like as their products are made for the global market, but we can make changes on our own boxes and in our stores,” Mr. Nyberg said.

A saleswoman said she hasn’t seen much difference in store displays but noted employees now are trained to avoid stereotypes when talking to customers. “If someone asks for a present for a 5-year-old girl, we don’t automatically take them to the dolls section,” she said. “Instead, we ask them what her interests are.”

Sweden appears to have gender norms that are very different than those in the US, so it seems that the store is reflecting society rather than attempting to change it, but it would be nice to live in a place where kids grow up receiving messages that they could be, and play with, anything that they want.

Via: The Society Pages


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I have always considered A Charlie Brown Christmas, How the Grinch Stole Christmas, and Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer to be the holy trinity of Christmas specials. (While I later developed an appreciation for the other Rankin-Bass animated shows, I am steadfast in my belief that Frosty the Snowman is absolute shit.) Over the years my affinity for these specials, and Rudolph in particular, has been challenged by my knowledge of sociology. This doesn’t stop me from watching it each year, but the sort of joy I receive from it now comes as much from mocking it as it does from nostalgia (and quite a bit more than the joy I receive from believing it is any sort of good storytelling). Here, then, are some semi-sociological thoughts (and questions) I had while re-watching Rudolph on TV the other night:

  • For having a very distinctive appearance himself, Santa sure isn’t very accepting of differences in appearance.
  • Based on the four food groups that Buddy discusses in Elf (Candy, Candy Canes, Candy Corns, and Syrup), they really do need a dentist at the North Pole.
  • Other than Rudolph and Hermie, Clarice and Yukon Cornelius are about the only non-assholes in the entire movie.
  • Why doesn’t Yukon Cornelius’s tongue ever get stuck to his pick axe?
  • Which is worse for a kid, the threat of being eaten by an abominable snow monster, or whatever might happen on an iceberg with a strange man?
  • My favorite gender stereotyped line, spoken by Donner when Rudolph’s mother (a.k.a. “Mrs. Donner”) and Clarice want to help him find Rudolph: “No, this is man’s work!” They show their respect for his wishes by waiting a few minutes before setting out on their own.
  • On the Island of Misfit Toys, what is wrong with the girl and the scooter? Some have speculated that the girl has emotional issues. She does smile a lot and cry a lot. Maybe she is manic depressive. Some are apparently misfits on the outside, some are misfits on the inside.
  • Given the talking toys, do Rudolph and Toy Story exist in the same universe?
  • When everybody thinks that Yukon Cornelius has died, this only reinforces the belief in gender stereotypes. As Sam the snowman says, “Well, they are all very sad about the loss of their friend, but they realize that the best thing to do is to get the women back to Christmas Town.”
  • Has anybody watching Rudolph ever actually been sad about the supposed death of Yukon Cornelius? I doubt it. Regardless, he is believed to be dead for less than a minute of screen time, so the sadness wouldn’t last long.
  • Santa gains a lot of weight very quickly. That can’t be healthy.
  • To all of the kids who have wondered how Santa gets down their chimneys, the answer is that HE DOESN’T! The toys are delivered via umbrella and then eat the cookies themselves. (Do toys eat?) The ends of the umbrellas must also double as lock-picks for houses without chimneys.
  • Where I grew up, Rudolph went down in history like Columbus, not George Washington, Abe Lincoln, or whatever historical figure people put into the song where you lived.

What can we take away from all of this? Rudolph lives in a world of bigoted, sexist assholes. They hate him until they need him to help them out. In this way, Santa is like the captain of the football team who bullies the smart kids in school until he needs help with his math homework. I wonder how Rudolph was treated when they didn’t need his help to get through a terrible storm…

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This time via the Freakonomics blog, where he says that all of this is stupid and discusses his views on ethnography, stating:

The other storyline speaks to the core of academic knowledge. When you live with people, or spend years with them, as the means of obtaining your data, what are the evidentiary standards that you should follow? “Ethnographic” work is fuzzy. I’ve never lied, made up characters, or otherwise misrepresented facts. The struggle arises in ensuring that your memory adequately recorded the events, and then validating them before you go to print. Neither are very straightforward or easy to accomplish, particularly when you study crime and marginal social groups. The University prohibits me from using real names, so third-party validation is difficult to achieve. So, in practice, I work in teams, where many people can discuss what we all saw. I’ve collaborated with students and faculty in all of my research — with gangs, sex workers, public housing residents, etc.

In general, I think there is a healthy and vigorous debate among ethnographers about how our work should be conducted. This includes how we should write for the public, and I think we could all do a better job of making our work more accessible and enjoyable to read.

I’m not sure that his view of himself as a “rogue” sociologist and statements about “fuzzy” ethnography support his claims of rigorous data collection.

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