Stephanie Medley-Rath

Stephanie Medley-Rath is an assistant professor of sociology at Indiana University Kokomo. Her research interests include the sociology of autobiography, cognitive sociology, and the scholarship of teaching and learning.

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What is Status?

Ascribed. Achieved. Master. Today, Stephanie Medley-Rath is going to explore the various ways to categorize the many statuses we all have.

White. Woman. Sociologist. Mother. Scrapbooker. These things are some of my statuses. My list includes ascribed, achieved, and master statuses. Some of the items fit multiple categories and their categorization can change over time. Let me explain.

An ascribed status is a status that you are either born with or it is given to you through no action on your part. For example, my age is an ascribed status. I can not change the year I was born or the fact that time continues on aging me daily. Age, however, is less salient for me than it once was in the context of my work. For example, I have reached a point where I am older than most of my students, and I no longer get questions from the older students about my age. I do still get questions on occasion from curious colleagues. I am at a point in my life where age is less salient.

Now, consider the age of a traditionally-aged college student: aged 18-24. This age range includes people who just gained the right to vote, buy tobacco products, and get married without parental permission. Some members of this age group have gained the right to legally purchase and consume alcohol. This age group, however, may still have challenges renting a car. The point is that age limits opportunities and activities for children and young adults.

Is it possible for age to also be an achieved status? An achieved status is just that–a status that required some action on your part to achieve it. Age itself would not be an achieved status because there is nothing you can do to change your age. You can however, change how other people perceive your age through changing your outward appearance. Teenage girls may attempt to look more “grown-up” by wearing heavier make-up or more revealing clothing. Adults might use plastic surgeries, hair dying, age-defying beauty products, or clothing to appear younger than their biological age. Age remains an ascribed status, but our perceived age can be an achieved status….

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Driving Norms and Autonomous Cars

Can a robot follow human-made norms? In this post, Stephanie Medley-Rath wonders how autonomous cars can navigate both driving mores and folkways. 

I loathe driving. If someone else volunteers to drive, I will almost always take them up on that offer. I am perpelexed by rich celebrities who cause car accidents, are charged with a DUI, or sometimes both(!). When I become a rich celebrity, my first major purchase will be to hire a driver so that I never have to drive myself again. Since I chose a career path not paved with gold, I will have to settle for saving my pennies until autonomous cars make their way into my price range.

The arrival of autonomous cars for regular people (i.e., not rich celebrities) seems to be fast-approaching and is coming up in more everyday conversations. Critics and talking heads are asking questions such as:

  • Is a driverless car safe?
  • How does an autonomous car know what to do?

As a sociologist, I am particularly interested in the second question: how does an autonomous car know what to do? These cars can be programmed with sensors to negotiate obstacles, with rules encoded in software to follow the law, and gps so the car knows where to go. But is this enough? Can autonomous cars be programmed to learn and adapt to all driving norms? Can all driving norms be written into a rule that a robot can follow?

This point was reiterated in a recent New York Times article, Google’s Driverless Cars Run Into Problem: Cars With Drivers. Autonomous cars are programmed to follow the law or mores. Mores are norms that are thought to be so essential that they are typically written into law. Most drivers, however, do not strictly adhere to driving mores. Drivers do not come to complete stops at stop signs. They speed up to make it through a yellow light instead of slowing down to stop at the soon-to-be red light. They drive above the speed limit. People use hand or eye gestures to communicate with one another about who should go first through a four-way stop instead of following the right-of-way rules.

In addition to mores, there are a number of driving folkways–or norms not strictly enforced. Let’s consider norms about merging lanes using two different scenarios.

Consider the case of drivers merging in an approaching construction zone. It seems reasonable to assume that construction zones could be programmed into the car’s software so that it knows exactly where to merge and which lane to merge into without needing to observe other cars or read signs as a human driver needs. But what about unexpected merging? What if there is a car accident which requires people to merge unexpectedly? How would an autonomous car know when and how to merge in this situation?…

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Target, Toys, & Gender: How Much Do Words Matter?

Words matter, but how much? In this post, Stephanie Medley-Rath examines the other ways in which gender-based signage remains in Target even with the elimination of gender-based words.

Target recently announced that it intends to remove gender-based signage in the toy aisle and the bedding aisle. Almost immediately the Internet reacted with both praise and criticism of Target’s decision.

At first, I thought this was wonderful. There really is no such thing as a “girl” or “boy” toy. Toys are toys, but as a society we tell a child what toys to play with based on our stereotypes and by the toys we put in front of them. After my initial reaction, I thought about it some more and decided I need to actually visit a Target before making up my mind.

I was at my local Target two weeks ago and observed workers restocking the toy section. Then I heard Target’s announcement and thought they must have been rearranging due to the new signage. If there are no signs indicating “girl” or “boy,” then they must be reorganizing the toy aisles to reflect this. Wrong!

I went back to Target a few days later (after the announcement) and did notice some rearranging had taken place. I can only really comment on the Lego section as that is the section in which I spend the most time and money. My Target has had Legos in two aisles. In one aisle, Legos  fill both sides. In the second aisle, Legos fill one side (the side closest to the other Lego aisle). The Lego aisles are placed in the middle of the toy section.

Let me first describe what the toy section looks like as a whole. At one end of the toy section, one can find toys for infants and toddlers. Next, you will begin seeing toys in pink and purple packaging: Disney Princess, Barbie, My Little Pony, Monster High, My Generation dolls, and a few others. Then the Lego section appears. Finally, the packaging turns more blue: Superheroes, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, Matchbox cars, Nerf Guns, and so on….

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Helicopter Parents Harm Their Kids… or Do They?

Helicopter parenting is the latest way parents can ruin children–at least that is what the popular press would have you believe. In this post, Stephanie Medley-Rath details how she goes about assessing media claims on the topic.

Have you heard the news? Helicopter parents are ruining their kids? Here are just a few of the recent headlines:

I clicked on one titled “Kids of Helicopter Parents are Sputtering Out” (Slate) and read it looking to see which of the author’s claims were supported by empirical data (i.e. data gathered via scientific observation or experimentation) and which other claims were only supported by anecdotal data or anecdata (i.e. data that comes from a single person’s non-scientific observations of the world they live in).

How to Scrutinize an Article

My goal for this piece is to not get at the “truth” of helicopter parenting. Instead, I want to show you how I go about judging the credibility of an author’s claims. But first, what is helicopter parenting? Helicopter parents are perceived to be overinvolved in their child’s lives to the point the child can not make decisions for themselves.

Author’s Credentials

The first thing I do to establish an article’s credibility is to examine the author’s credentials….

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On The Ocean Social Class Can Be A Matter of Life and Death

Recently multiple stories of migrants and refugees being stranded at sea or dying in the Bengal Bay and the Mediterranean Sea. In this essay, Stephanie Medley-Rath shows us how social class has always affected who lives and dies when accidents happen on the ocean.

Sociologists argue that social class–or more accurately, socioeconomic status–can be a matter of life and death. Socioeconomic status is a measure of a person’s or household’s income (and wealth), education, and occupation.

Socioeconomic status is correlated with health outcomes (overall health, cigarette smoking, and unhealthy behaviors), education outcomes (SAT scores, college graduation, and undermatching), and even marital outcomes (getting married in the first place and staying married).

If you are early in your sociology class, you might be thinking something like this: “But really? Socioeconomic status is a matter of life and death? That seems a bit dramatic and besides, everyone dies eventually.”

Let’s explore this a bit more by examining the influence of socioeconomic status (or SES) on maritime travel[1].

How Social Class Affected Who Survived The Titanic Disaster

In 1912, the Titanic hit an iceberg and sank. The ship only had enough lifeboats to accomodate slightly more than half of the number of passengers and crew onboard. Approximately one-third of the passengers and crew survived the sinking. Survival, however, was not left purely to chance.

A person’s likelihood of suriving the sinking was correlated with social class. Of the 324 first class passengers, 201 survived (62.35%). Of the 277, second class passengers, 118 survived (42.45%). Of the 708 third class passengers, 181 survived (25.56%). In short, the wealthiest had a greater chance of surviving compared to the poorest on the ship (see Titanic Fast Facts)….

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“The Trouble with Girls…” is Really the Trouble with Sexism

Recently The Nobel Prizing winning scientist Tim Hunt made some controversial and sexist remarks about “the trouble with girls” in science. In this essay, Stephanie Medley-Rath uses her daughter’s STEM camp experience to argue that the real trouble in STEM fields is not with girls, but with sexism.

This summer my daughter attended a STEM-themed day camp. While STEM stands for Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math, I really think the S could stand for sociology, but nobody asked me. The day camp was open to any child, but really it was mostly the children of middle class parents who were able to attend. The camp cost a fair amount of money and required parents to drop kids off at 9am and pick them back up at 3:30pm. There aren’t too many working class families that could both afford the tuition costs and have work schedules flexible enough to handle the drop off/pick up times. While I could go on about the social class implications of this STEM camp, I want to focus on gender.

In sociology 101 classes we often talk about social class, gender, and race individually, but in reality each of us lives at the intersection of our class, gender, and race[1]. To this end, sociologists emphasize a concept called intersectionality. What this means is that there are many characteristics that influence our life chances. You are probably most familiar with race, class, and gender stratification. But these things do not exist in isolation. For example, I know what the world is like for white middle-class women because I am one and have been one my entire life. Race, class, and gender work together. People perceive others on the basis of all of these things. As you have also learned in sociology, however, sometimes one of these characteristics becomes the most salient or trumps the other characteristics….

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Structural Strain Theory and the Baltimore Riots

Why do people riot? In this post, Stephanie Medley-Rath explains how Robert Merton’s structural strain theory can shed some light on the Baltimore riots. 

Over the last few weeks, thousands of people took to the streets in Baltimore, Maryland and cities around the country to protest the killing of Freddie Gray and the violent mistreatment of African Americans across this country by law enforcement. Last Monday, a small sub-set of the protestors in Baltimore rioted, looting and burning multiple business. Both the mainstream news media and many people on social media immediately started asking, why are these people rioting? Why would anyone riot in city they live in? While the answers to those questions would take for more time than I have hear, part of their answers lie in the strain theory of deviance.

Structural Strain Theory

The sociologist Robert Merton argued that deviance (i.e. people breaking social norms/rules) is produced by how that society distributed the means to achieve cultural goals. According to his structural strain theory (or anomie strain theory), deviance is a result of a mismatch between cultural goals and the institutionalized means of reaching those goals.

Cultural goals refer to legitimate aims. In the United States, we might refer to the cultural goal as the American Dream. In general, the American Dream includes economic success, home-ownership, and a family. A person achieves the American Dream through hard work and education (i.e., a college degree). Education is an institutionalized means of achieving the cultural goal. Military service might also be considered an institutionalized means….

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What is a Peer Reviewed Article?

I have a paper due tomorrow and my professor wants us to use peer reviewed sources! Ack! I don’t know what that means? Relax. In this post, Stephanie Medley-Rath is going to explain the peer review process and give you tips on locating peer reviewed sources. 

Once upon a time, I was an undergraduate. I don’t recall writing any research papers as a freshman, but had friends who did. I distinctly remember a panicked friend who had been asked to write such a paper. The students were told they needed to use “peer-reviewed” references. He had no idea what that meant. I had no idea what that meant or where one might go to find such a thing. In hindsight, asking the professor or going to the library and asking a librarian are obvious people to ask for clarification (this was the era before we googled everything).

Faculty forget that most students do not come to college knowing what peer review means. We request students to use peer-reviewed references, but give little indication of what this actually means or where one finds them.

What does peer review mean?

The peer review process is in place to help ensure the credibility of an article. So, let’s walk through an example. I conduct a research project. Part of my job and the scientific process is that I share these results. The gold standard for sharing these results is in a peer-reviewed publication. I write up my results in a format deemed suitable for my desired journal. I submit my manuscript and I wait. The editor of the journal sends my manuscript to two or three experts in the field. These are experts on the topic in my manuscript. They are well-suited to vet my manuscript because they know the topic intimately. They should be able to make the determination if I am making a unique and worthwhile contribution to the field because they know nearly everything there is to know about the field….

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How my Whiteness Unlocked Doors

Currently, the U.S. Supreme Court is considering a case that involves racial discrimination in housing under the Fair Housing Act. In this post, Stephanie Medley-Rath describes how whiteness offered her certain advantages when apartment hunting and asks whether racial discrimination needs to be intentional in order to have a negative impact on a community.

White family buying home

When I moved from a large Southern city to a mid-size Midwestern factory town (which I’ll call Soybean City), I thought finding a place to rent would be a breeze. I was spoiled by the well-maintained rentals I could easily find in the large Southern city I was moving away from. They were affordable. They were clean. They came with amenities, such as tennis courts, swimming pools, and even a place to garden.

I had moved many times before, but this move was to be different. I would have my baby with me as I searched and I had only two days to find a place. Prior to coming to Soybean City, I called property managers to explain my needs, timeframe, and to schedule showings. On one of these calls, the landlord expressed relief that they were finally getting rid of their current tenant because he was black. Interesting. This landlord assumed from the phone call that I wasn’t black. So I scratched that overtly racist landlord off my list and kept looking.

A few days later, I traveled to Soybean City. I was quickly frustrated. …

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“Visiting Disneyland Causes Measles”… Um, No

Visiting Disneyland causes measles. Huh? Something doesn’t quite add up…. In this post, Stephanie Medley-Rath illustrates how visiting Disneyland has recently become correlated with contracting measles and uncovers the true culprit behind outbreak.

One hundred cases of measles have been reported in the United States in 2015.  News reports vary and the Center for Disease Control (CDC) data is a few days old, but anywhere from one-half to a majority of these cases are linked to the outbreak at Disneyland. Therefore, going to Disneyland causes measles.

You’re thinking, “no it doesn’t.”

But, these people would not have contracted measles if they had not visited Disneyland (or came into contact with someone who went to Disneyland). Therefore, Disneyland causes measles.

Ridiculous, right?

Visiting Disneyland does not cause measles. Visiting Disneyland in the past couple of weeks, however, is correlated with risk of contracting measles. Always remember, correlation does not equal causation.

A correlation means that a relationship exists between two or more variables. When you hear the word correlation think “co-” meaning shared and “-relation” meaning relationship. In this scenario, contracting measles and visiting Disneyland are correlated with one another. Further, January and 2015 are also correlated with contracting measles. What this means is that a person who visited Disneyland in January of 2015 is at a higher risk of contracting measles than someone who did not visit Disneyland during this time period….

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