Monday, November 19, 2007

Justice May Be Blind But Her System Is Not

A new report identifies that the rising rate of imprisonment in the U.S. has not resulted in a decline in the actual crime rate that many neo-conservative ideologues had predicted. The report "Unlocking America" also identifies that the massive expense that is incurred from this explosion of the prison population represents a significant burden on society. The U.S. has often considered itself a "law and order" society where revenge and justice are used in the same breath. Ideas of deterrence and paternalism inform the vast majority of our criminal policies. The linkages between the increased inequalities and hopelessness experienced by those who are born without is something that is often discarded as an important factor.

It is time for the U.S. to look to other models of justice that have found more success and attempt to create massive change. One significant barrier to any reform is the massive profit that is being made by the corporations that are building and running these new mega-prisons, as well as those industries (food, bedding, security) that are making an exorbitant profit from providing substandard services (in a parallel with the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan).

The outdated notion of "lock them up and throw away the key" clearly has not provided Americans with the level of security they desire. A more nuanced approach to sentencing and rehabilitation is necessary to provide real safety. The further polarization of wealthy Americans into gated communities and the poor into squalid decaying inner cities only exacerbates this crucial problem. A serious focus must be made to close the gaps between the richest and the poorest. This must also be coupled with substantive reforms to our democratic process that allows for a more inclusive civil society where more voices have a chance to be heard.

The prison problem is a prime example of the ideology of neo-conservativism being passed off as fact. There are many different options for punitive actions in a criminal justice system. In the U.S. only the most expensive and least supported (in terms of facilitating a safer society) in the empirical literature are utilized. Examples such as those currently used in Scandinavian countries can help us to start a dialogue and create substantive reform.

A further point that must be identified is the fact that in terms of costs "white collar crime" represents a significantly larger drain on society than violent crime does. Though those folks that commit this sort of crime are more likely to receive a slap on the wrist versus real substantive punishment. When the quality of the lawyer is one of the main determinants of a persons chance of getting a fair trial, our justice system cannot be called just. The fact that crimes committed by the poor are those that are labeled a "social problem" just shows the complete bias and unobjective nature with which prosecutions are handed out. Those who cannot afford to pay for a good lawyer get a public defender, one of the most overworked and underpaid jobs. This vast discrepancy in quality of trial is just a further indication of the inequitable system under which we live.

Thursday, November 15, 2007

Social Problems Require A Social Solution

A recent report from the UK finds that obesity is not the individual problem that most people seem to think. Instead, social factors appear to play a larger role in determining whether or not someone becomes obese. For someone in sociology this seems reasonable, but for those not familiar with the field it may be hard to understand how social forces can create social problems.

Some will still argue that it is an individual's "choice" and responsibility to control and regulate themselves. This atomistic view of the world misses the way in which our choices and ideas are constrained by the social world in which we live. For example, energy dense foods (e.g. fast food) that are cheap and available to the poor are more likely to lead to obesity than more nutrient dense food (e.g. fresh fruits and vegetables). While many would say that this just means that the poor need to "make better choices," the fact that these findings show a clear pattern by sociodemographic factors indicate that ideas of choice and responsibility are not sufficiently nuanced to get at the reasons for difference.

Societal factors such as sedentary lifestyle, energy saving devices, automobility, and energy dense cheap foods are all on the rise. Social problems require social solutions and this report just highlights this. A considered response is necessary to combat this problem. It is important to identify and attempt to work on structural factors and not just the symptoms. Issues of consumerism and excess consumption must be examined along with things such as education. We also must come to hold corporations more accountable for their actions and products. Simply providing the nutritional information of the products is not sufficient. It is true that people have the ability to decide what they are consuming. The fact that it is often easier to consume something fast and unhealthy than something self-prepared and nutritious shows a failure of the market to provide adequate alternatives.

Friday, November 9, 2007


For those of you who are undergrads, this is not meant as an insult to you. Though if the below applies to you, then feel free to pretend that I am glaring at you condescendingly.

So far in my graduate career, I have had the good fortune of being able to TA for quantitative methods. This class is intended for third year students, but due to an intense fear of anything with numbers in this department, most put it off until their fourth year and often their last semester. This creates a problem because it is also the most often failed course in the department. One of the professors that teaches it even remarked that they lose students from sociology to anthropology just because people are so afraid of this course. I have even had to deal with a student taking it for their fourth time (once you fail it three times you have to get special permission from the department to take it again, and it is the last chance).

With that lead up I imagine you are wondering why I would say that TAing this class would be fortunate in any way. My absolute favorite part is the hilarity of the students involved and their lack of basic academic skills even in their junior or senior years. While I have to say the overall level of students is higher than my previous university, the ones that are bad are REALLY bad. In the class we mostly do everything on SPSS and the first couple weeks are always dedicated to getting people familiar with the program and how to open data sets, save outputs, etc. So you can imagine my surprise when in the final weeks of the previous semester, at time in which students should be well into their final project, a student raises her hand and says "How do I open my data file?" Now this particular student was never terribly engaged and continually refused to get extra help when it was offered. When I came over to her desk she had no idea how this most basic of functions could be carried out. I explained it to her and helped her find her data file so she could continue her project. I use the term "continue" very loosely because clearly she had not done much up to this point.

Another thing that continues to amaze me about my students and students in general is their immense fear of their textbooks. They aren't assigned as a joke or as a paperweight; they provide relevant information about the class. On Wednesday the professor who I TA for was out of town for a conference (in the Bahamas... that bastard) and he asked me to present that weeks lecture to the class. It was on bivariate statistics, specifically correlation coefficients and t-tests. This is something that I am quite familiar with so I had no problem agreeing to present on it. I amended the power-point that he used last year for the class with some of my own work. Upon beginning the lecture is was clear that 90%-95% of the class had NO idea what I was talking about. This lead me to the depressing realization that the sorry sods had not even bothered to glance at their book prior to coming to class. Fernando (the professor) went out of his way to assign two textbooks for the class. One is your average introduction to social statistics book that can be dense at times. He also assigned a companion book which is much easier to read and covers the topics of the class but in less depth. This book is so easy to read that at times it nearly insults your intelligence. The lecture went well overall and I was able to get the few students that did read to answer the prompts for participation throughout the lecture.

Not reading your book in any class is something I can't understand. But in a class like quantitative methods where you can't fake your way through lecture is not the place to do it. You can probably B.S. your way through a social problems lecture, or maybe even a history or philosophy lecture, but if you don't even know what a correlation coefficient is your are pretty much screwed. The blank stares from the lazy majority made this clear. Luckily I noticed early and was able to adjust the lecture down a few steps to drag these folks along and hopefully I inspired them to at least find out where they stashed their textbooks (unlikely, I'd assume). Then in the lab in the afternoon one of my students asked me a specific question about one of the statistical tests. I explained it without thinking anything of the question. The student responded "how do you memorize all of the information about all these tests?" I told her that I use most of them in my thesis work but that I also skim the chapters prior to each lecture. One of my more hilarious students (one of his research questions is whether having sex increases someones self-perceived happiness using statistical analysis, and who also is in two bands, one a "lighter version of Marilyn Manson" and the other devoted to covering old Japanese pop songs) piped up and said "I haven't even read either text book." I should have been surprised by this comment but I wasn't. I remarked that it probably wasn't something I would admit. If you are paying to go to college and paying for your books you are just wasting your time by not reading your books. Even if you pull an A without reading, your comprehension of the material is much less than someone who engaged with the literature. While I understand that reading myspace/livejournal/facebook may be more exciting than reading your textbook, they don't make you look any less like a moron for failing a class for the second or third time.