06 – Deviance

Sociologist Ashley Mears of Boston University conducted participant observation research as a fashion model and her story is covered in a Slate article, “America’s Next Top Sociologist,” written by Libby Copeland. As indicated in the article, this kind of on-site research  continues a long tradition in sociology whether as a boxer, a cotton picker, or a prisoner.

For her research, Mears interviewed models, talent-agents, magazine editors, and others involved in the fashion industry to get their perspectives, but she also worked as a model herself and recorded her experiences after walking runways and attending casting calls. She found that there is a glut of young women from around the world all seeking to make it in the industry, and, as a result, the pay and working conditions are poor for most.As noted in the article:

A day-long shoot for Vogue pays a paltry $150, for instance, while a shoot for Britain’s influential i-D magazine, which Mears calls “one of the most sought-after editorial clients for a model,” pays absolutely nothing, not even the cost of transportation or a copy of the magazine for the model’s portfolio.

The industry works like a winner-take-all market, with a few very successful winners and an abundance of others who never experience much success.

Age also plays a role, and the window of opportunity in the high-fashion industry is narrow. By the time a model is in her mid-twenties, she has likely aged-out and is seen as “ancient by industry standards.” Mears reports that, given the number of women competing, the likelihood for success ends up being more like a lottery than being based on appearance or ability alone. And yet, she states, “You realize the probability is slight but the possibilty is enticing.”

Mears has written a book reporting on her research, titled Pricing Beauty: The Making of a Fashion Model (University of California Press).

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Gallup’s annual poll on perceptions of crime finds that, once again, a greater percentage of Americans think that crime rates are rising:

They provide a summary of results here: Americans Perceive Increased Crime in U.S.

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Two of the Soc101.com posts that receive the most hits involve breaking norms. One reported on an experiment where a group of people drive the speed limit (Drive 55) and the other involves free hugs.

This past week I stumbled across a video by the group Improv Everywhere. I see them as norm breakers extraordinaire. Their motto is “We cause scenes.” What they do is go out on missions (sometimes involving hundreds of participants) and do the unexpected. Through videos, photos, and text, we get to stand back and see what happens.

For example, they describe the mission I stumbled across this week, “Subway Yearbook Photos,” this way:

For our latest mission, we installed a photography studio on a random subway car. We claimed that the MTA had hired us to take photos of every single person who rides the subway and that we’d be producing a yearbook at the end of the year. Most people were happy to pose for us, and the resulting photos show just how diverse New York subway riders can be.

As this video shows, part of what is both fun and interesting is watching how people respond when their daily routine is disrupted. We expect others to abide by taken-for-granted norms, and when they don’t we seek to make sense of what is going on and adapt our behavior accordingly.

Once at their site I also stumbled across an annual mission they run, “The No Pants! Subway Ride.” Part of what’s interesting about this one is that the number of participants has exploded over the years. In 2002 there were just 7 participants. They describe the 2009 mission this way:

The eighth annual No Pants ride had 1,200 participants in New York and well over 1,000 more in 21 other cities across the globe. The New York ride took place during a snow storm (a first) and was carried out on four train lines.

It would be really interesting to know what it is about this mission that attracts so much participation. It is certainly something that most people would not do on their own in a normal day’s activities. (BTW, in 2006, the No Pants ride was halted by the police who cleared the train and took 8 people into custody. The charges were later dropped. That video is available in the above story link and here.)

I’ve actually posted about Improv Everywhere before, reporting on their mission in which they picked out an unknown band making its NYC debut and acted like rabid fans in “The Best Gig Ever.” It is still one of my all-time favorites because it raises questions about what we see as real, how much we can trust others to be honest in their performances, and what happens when we find out we’ve been duped.

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Harvard professor Henry Louis Gates, Jr., was arrested in his own home on suspicion of breaking and entering. According to a story from The Washington Post, Gates described his experience as:

part of a “racial narrative” playing out in a biased criminal justice system. Shortly before the charge against him was dropped this afternoon, the Harvard professor who has spent much of his life studying race in America said he has come to feel like a case study.

“There are one million black men in jail in this country and last Thursday I was one of them,” he said in an interview with The Washington Post Tuesday morning. “This is outrageous and that this is how poor black men across the country are treated everyday in the criminal justice system. It’s one thing to write about it, but altogether another to experience it.”

According to the story, a neighbor called the police to report that two Black men were trying to force their way into Gates’s house (he’d had trouble getting the front door open after returning from a trip to China). Even after showing the police his I.D. that included his picture with his home address on it, he was still arrested, placed in handcuffs, taken to the police station, and placed in a jail cell.

According to the article, the experience has inspired his idea for his next PBS documentary:

His next project on race, he said, will be rooted in his arrest. “I hope to make a documentary about racial profiling for PBS,” he said. “[The idea] had never crossed my mind but it has now.”

He said the documentary will ask: “How are people treated when they are arrested? How does the criminal justice system work? How many black and brown men and poor white men are the victims of police officers who are carrying racist thoughts?

An interview with Gates about the experience appears on The Root, a site for which he is the Editor-in-Chief.

The New York Times has a post up with responses from a variety of professionals titled The Gates Case and Racial Profiling.

[h/t to BoingBoing]

Here’s a link to a graph that documents Past Month Use of Selected Illicit Drugs among Persons Aged 12 or Older in the US: 2002- 2007. It is based on data from the 2007 National Survey on Drug Use and Health: National Findings [pdf] which is produced by the Department of Health and Human Services.  Among other things, they find that:

In 2007, an estimated 19.9 million Americans aged 12 or older were current (past month) illicit drug users, meaning they had used an illicit drug during the month prior to the survey interview. This estimate represents 8.0 percent of the population aged 12 years old or older. Illicit drugs include marijuana/hashish, cocaine (including crack), heroin, hallucinogens, inhalants, or prescription-type psychotherapeutics used nonmedically.

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BoingBoing reports on a study that suggests that people are more likely to lie when writing email than when writing with pen and paper. They summarize the key finding this way:

According to the researchers, those using email during the negotiations lied 92 percent of the time compared to pen-and-paper users who fibbed around 64 percent of the time.

Is there something about email as a means of communication that makes people more willing to lie? What consequences might this have for communication in the future? Can we trust what people are writing to us? How might it differ for other forms of electronic communication?

A story on the original study is also available here.

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I’m not quite sure how I stumbled on this link, but it turns out that the film of Stanley Milgram‘s famous experiment about obedience to authority (wiki) is available to view online. This is the experiment in which people thought they were giving electric shocks to another person who would give wrong answers to multiple choice questions under the assumption that they were trying to “teach” the person being shocked to remember through negative reinforcement (for the full description, see the Wiki link above). This is a classic experiment that raises serious ethical questions about informed consent and emotional harm to those being studied.

I’d never seen the whole film before. I confess to feeling very uncomfortable watching what Milgram was doing to his subjects. I am sure that the justification was the knowledge gained about how far people were willing to go in harming (perhaps even killing) another due to the authority of another, but it’s impossible to watch this film and not ask whether the ends justify the means. In the end, an amazing percentage people (about 65%) were willing to administer extreme/dangerous shocks (even after the person supposedly being shocked stopped screaming and was silent).

One of the most interesting parts of the film for me was way at the end, at about 39:30, where they discuss the ways they sought to control for various factors that might affect the outcome (such as the ability to hear/see the person being shocked, the closeness of the scientific authority, the location of the experiment, etc.).

A key concern that some have regarding (illegal) immigration is the impact it has on jobs for citizens. Recent studies provide some data about the impact. A story in the Los Angeles Times (February 28, 2007) titled “Immigrants boost pay, not prison populations, new studies show” provides some information. Regarding pay, for example, they report:

A study released Tuesday by the Public Policy Institute of California found that immigrants who arrived in the state between 1990 and 2004 increased wages for native workers by an average 4%.

The full report on which this part of the story is based, authored by Giovanni Peri and titled How Immigrants Affect California Employment and Wages [pdf], is available here.

Regarding immigrants and crime, the LA Times reports:

Another study released Monday by the Washington-based Immigration Policy Center showed that immigrant men ages 18 to 39 had an incarceration rate five times lower than native-born citizens in every ethnic group examined. Among men of Mexican descent, for instance, 0.7% of those foreign-born were incarcerated compared to 5.9% of native-born.

The orginal study was published by the “Immigration Policy Center” and is titled “The Myth of Immigrant Criminality and the Paradox of Assimilation: Incarceration Rates among Native and Foreign-Born Men” [pdf].

In a New York Times article titled “When Is Thin Too Thin?“, Eric Wilson writes about a September 2006 fashion show at which the models:

appeared so gaunt and thin that their knees and elbows were larger than their concave thighs and pipe cleaner arms, and their bobbling heads looked as if a slight breeze could detach them from their frail bodies.

He reports that questions have arisen about the degree to which designers are contributing to the trend. Even though such criticism has led to some increased visibility for images of women who are not so thin, in the initial fashion roll-outs, ultra-thin is the norm. And designers remain resistant to pressure to change:

The producers of these fashion events have largely dismissed the concerns. On Saturday a British cabinet member, Culture Secretary Tessa Jowell, called for London designers to follow the example of Madrid by banning underweight models. But the British Fashion Council, led by Stuart Rose, the chief executive of Marks & Spencer, said it would not interfere with the designers’ aesthetic. And some designers said it was misleading to equate thinness with being unhealthy and that the standard cited by the organizers in Madrid did not take into account age and puberty, which may cause a model who is unusually tall to appear frighteningly thin.

Wilson summarizes the Madrid decision to mandate against ultra-thinness this way:

Last week the organizers of Madrid fashion week, usually an overlooked event in comparison with the major shows in New York, London (this week), Milan and Paris, said they were banning models with a height-to-weight ratio below what the World Health Organization considered normal. In effect, models who weigh less than 125 pounds are prohibited from working the runways. Organizers of the event said they wanted to project “an image of beauty and health.”

Reports on the Madrid decision are available here (CNN: “Skinny Models Banned from Catwalk”) and here (BBC: ” Madrid bans waifs from catwalks”).

How does a word come to mean what it means? How do we come to share those meanings. The answer has to be tied, at least in part, to the communities or subcultures within which the words are used and the meanings are taken for granted. I came across a post on BoingBoing.net about a book that collects slang terms for a variety of subcultures. The book is “Talk the Talk: The Slang of 65 American Subcultures,” by Luc Reid, and it looks to be something of a slang dictionary. The Boingboing post puts it this way:

a thoroughly enjoyable toilet-tank-top reference book, the kind of quirky thing that is endlessly fascinating and full of odd insights into worlds you never suspected existed. It’s a collection of glossaries of the slang of 65 American subcultures, from skinheads to hookers, puppeteers to ren faire habituees, con artists to Antarctic researchers, truckers to prisoners.

There is also a website devoted to the book at subculturetalk.com. It includes a list of the 65 subcultures covered in the book (under Table of Contents), some of which include: bodybuilders, circus people, goths, online gamers, pro wrestling fans, surfers, and many others. A sample of a couple of pages from the book (including slang from gardeners) is available here (pdf).

Such language helps to clarify the boundaries between the insiders and outsiders and provides a greater sense of identity for the members.

If only I can get some subculture to adopt the word chickenjagging, perhaps it will move farther along the path toward wordification. Eleanor would be thrilled. :)

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