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Data That Save Lives: Suicide & The Crisis Text Line

In this piece, April Schueths discusses how social scientists are using new sources of data to aid in the prevention of suicide.

Yesterday, September 10th, was World Suicide Prevention Day, a day to raise awareness and support the expansion of global resources and services to prevent suicide. The World Health Organization reports that suicide is a serious public health concern in all countries and is currently the 15th cause of death worldwide. Sociologists are well aware that certain conditions, circumstances, and life events can influence the rates of suicide within a community. The reason we know this because of sociological data.

In fact, sociologists have been using data to study suicide for more than a hundred years. French sociologist, Emile Durkheim (1897), studied European countries and found that groups of people with lower rates of social integration, that is fewer social ties to one another, tended to have higher suicide rates. Durkheim’s work helped researchers move away from just individual-level explanations and look at how larger social structures such as social status, industrialism, and capitalism can impact mental distress.

Durkheim’s analysis relied on data collected from previous researchers and public records to draw his conclusion. However today, with modern technology, social scientists can now access anonymous crisis data from teens reaching out for help. in real time using the Crisis Text Line (CTL). The CTL is a service that allows people to text back and forth with a trained crisis counselor anonymously. The CTL is the largest set of publicly available crisis data in the United States and is a good example of how data can save lives of people, especially teens, on the verge of suicide.

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Weighty Matters: The Biggest Loser and Framing Fatness

Many people try to lose weight, but very few succeed in keeping it off – even those who were on The Biggest Loser. In this post, Amanda Fehlbaum reveals that America’s obsession with weight has more to do with how fatness is framed in our public discourse than improving people’s health.

The United States is engaged in a national public health campaign to eat healthy and get more active in order to combat fatness. The dominant message from the government, media, and public health is that the country is in the midst of an obesity epidemic that puts not only the wellness of citizens, but the safety and finances of the nation at risk. As a result, Americans have become focused on fat, its meanings, its morality, and what we can do to rid ourselves of it.

One indication of our society’s obsession with fat is the television programs dedicated to weight loss. First, there are plenty of infomercials for diets and exercise programs that promise new, fun ways of burning fat. Then, there are commercials throughout the day in which a celebrity spokesperson invites viewers to join them in their easy, simple weight loss program. Last, there are the television shows about weight loss, such as My 600 lb Life, Fit to Fat to Fit, Extreme Weight Loss, and My Diet is Better Than Yours.

Can there be a ‘Biggest Loser’?

The longest running weight loss-related television show is The Biggest Loser. The show is a contest in which the person who loses the greatest percentage of their starting weight wins a cash prize. The Biggest Loser completed its 17th season in February 2016 and the show consistently ranks in the top 10 of the U.S. Nielsen ratings. The contestants engage in intense dieting and exercise over the course of a few months. The winners tend to lose close to, if not over, half of their original body weight over the course of 7 months.

The Biggest Loser was in the news recently because of a study that followed 14 of the 16 contestants from the 8th season over the past six years. Researchers were shocked to find that the contestants’ metabolism had significantly slowed and were, in essence, trying to get the contestants back to their original weight. Scientists already knew that engaging in any sort of deliberate weight loss will result in a slower metabolism after the diet ends. What they did not know was that metabolism does not bounce back, even years later. Furthermore, the contestants also had below normal levels of leptin, a hormone that controls hunger. Weight crept back on to the contestants and some are heavier today than they were before starting The Biggest Loser. For example, the season 8 winner has gained over 100 pounds back of the 239 he lost….

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Bun in a New Oven: Our Social Bodies in the Age of Uterus Transplants

The Cleveland Clinic recently performed the first uterus transplant in the United States, giving a woman the opportunity to become pregnant. In this piece, Amanda Fehlbaum reflects on how such an organ transplant is not just biological, it is social, too.

We tend to think of reproduction as a biological concept. In school, we learn about how egg and sperm meet and offspring result after a certain gestation period. Reproduction, however, is deeply culturally constructed and not nearly as simple as it appears. Technological advancements make the situation even more complex and demonstrate how childbearing is far from just biological.

Take, for example, news that surgeons at The Cleveland Clinic have performed the first uterus transplant in the United States. An unnamed 26 year-old woman, born without a uterus, received a uterus from a deceased donor after a nine-hour surgery on February 24, 2016. She will have to wait a year before trying to become pregnant through in vitro fertilization. After one or two pregnancies, the uterus will either be removed so that the woman can stop taking medication to prevent organ rejection or allowed to be rejected and wither away. 

Social Bodies

There is a propensity in our society to see the body as a biological object rather than something that must be understood within a social, cultural, and historical context. Women’s bodies in particular have a wide variety of norms, taboos, and expectations placed upon them, as seen in a previous Sociology in Focus piece. In fact, women’s bodies are largely tied to their reproductive abilities and some women, like the 26 year-old, yearn to experience pregnancy.

In a piece from The New York Times about uterus transplants, the 26 year-old woman notes that she had always assumed that she would have children. She was devastated to learn at age 16 that she had ovaries, but no uterus, due to Mayer-Rokitansky-Küster-Hauser syndrome. She wondered if anyone would want to marry her if she could not bear children. Ultimately, she did marry and adopted two children; however, she still wanted the experience of pregnancy:

“I crave that experience. I want the morning sickness, the backaches, the feet swelling. I want to feel the baby move. That is something I’ve wanted for as long as I can remember,” she said.

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Don’t Drink the Water: The Crisis in Flint from a Sociological Perspective

When something bad happens, often people’s first instinct is to blame themselves rather than look at the larger social context in which it happened. In this essay, Amanda Fehlbaum explores the way that the water crisis in Flint, Michigan, went beyond being one woman’s private trouble and became a much larger public issue.

The news about Flint, Michigan’s water crisis has been both heartbreaking and frustrating to learn about. A recent report from The Guardian claims that “every major US city east of the Mississippi” tampers with their water tests in order to give lower indications of the amount of lead in drinking water. Such a claim is very serious and cities around the country are now looking into the lead levels in their own drinking water. I live in a suburb of Youngstown, Ohio. While no notices have been given about my drinking water have been made, another Youngstown-area community in my county found lead levels that exceeded federal standards. Given that you cannot see, smell, or taste lead in the water, you have to place trust that your water department has your best interests in mind.

A Public Issue

Lead in water can lead to delays in physical and mental development in infants and children as well as kidney problems and high blood pressure in adults. Lead can also accumulate in the body in kidneys, teeth, bones, and the liver and be released during times of stress, when bones break, or during pregnancy. Amount of lead in water is measured in parts per billion (ppb). Water tests that reveal 15 ppb are meant to trigger measures to lower the level, although The Washington Post states that even 5 ppb are cause for concern….

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Running on Red: A Marathoner Tests the Menstruation Taboo

There is an unwritten rule for women: hide your menstruation and any products associated with it. One woman recently decided to break this rule while running 26.2 miles through London without a tampon to stop her flow? In this post, Amanda Fehlbaum examines the reaction to Kiran Gandhi’s run and argues that people’s discomfort has to do with maintaining civilized bodies.

As a person who has completed four half marathons, I take inspiration from reading stories about other runners and their reasons for taking take to the road. Recently, the story of Kiran Gandhi’s experience at London Marathon made international news. The tale of Kiran’s run could have gone unnoticed among the 37,675 racers were it not for the growing spot of blood between her legs. Kiran consciously ran without a tampon for 26.2 miles.

Kiran Ghandi

This is the stuff of nightmares for many women. Menstruation is a taboo subject- to be hidden from sight at all times. The concealment of one’s period has come to be a cultural norm or a behavior that is expected of girls and women. I would venture to guess that many women share my adolescent experience of burying a package of maxi pads under the rest of the groceries and hoping that the cashier at the checkout stand was a woman (heaven forbid it was a male classmate!).

Why Did She Do It?

There were a few reasons that Kiran ran without a tampon. As noted on her blog, one reason she let her period blood flow was because she did not want to worry about changing a tampon. She wrote, “It would have been way too uncomfortable to worry about a tampon for 26.2 miles.” Tampons have to be changed every 4 to 8 hours depending on the heaviness of the flow and the absorbency of the tampon itself. Kiran would have had to find a way to have tampons on hand throughout the race, plus a way to adequately wash her hands before and after insertion. If you have spent any time in a port-a-potty, you know that the experience is neither that pleasant, nor is it the most sanitary environment.

The second reason Kiran ran without a tampon was to combat the stigma of periods. Menstrual blood has had a bad rap for quite some time. The Roman naturalist Pliny the Elder thought that menstrual blood could ruin crops, dull steel blades, drive dogs mad, kill bees, and sour milk! While our ideas about periods have progressed to be less damaging, there is still an idea that periods are dirty. Kiran had this in mind when she ran. After the race Kiran wrote:…

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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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The Sociology of Sickle Cell Disease

In this guest post, Dr. April Schueths and Dr. Raymona Lawrence show us how Sickle Cell Disease is affected by how society is structured.

“It feels like knives are stabbing me all over my entire body.” To live with Sickle Cell Disease is to live with immense chronic pain. This quote was taken from our ongoing research on the health care experiences of people living with Sickle Cell Disease (Lawrence et al. 2014). Beyond the pain, to live with Sickle Cell Disease is to live with a disease that many people don’t understand and many doctors don’t know how to properly treat. Sickle Cell Disease shows us how social constructions and social structure profoundly change the experience of living with a chronic disease.

blood tubes in rack

The Social Construction of Sickle Cell Disease

If you’ve heard of Sickle Cell Disease, chances are you’ve also heard the myth that it is a, “black disease.” Sickle Cell Disease affects people of all races. According to the World Health Organization, the Sickle Cell Trait is more common among people whose ancestors came from areas of the globe where malaria is common, such as West and Central African, the Mediterranean, and the Middle East. The Sickle Cell Trait provides some protection against malaria which partially explains why it is more common in these geographic regions (for more information about the controversies surrounding Sickle Cell Trait, see Lawrence and Shah 2014).

It is true that African Americans are affected at a higher rate than any other racial ethnic group. Nelson and Hackman (2013) report that 1 in 500 African Americans was affected by Sickle Cell Disease, but that rate dropped to 1 in 3000 for all other racial ethnic groups. All told, Sickle Cell Disease affects approximately 100,000 in the United States and millions more worldwide.

Despite the scientific evidence, many still believe that Sickle Cell Disease is a “black disease” and this misconception affects the quality of care individuals with Sickle Cell receive and the amount of money devoted to Sickle Cell research and advocacy (Smith et al. 2006). Or put in more sociological terms, the way we socially construct Sickle Cell Disease influences the social structures that surround it.

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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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Panic or Pandemic? Understanding the Ebola Crisis

Heard the word “Ebola” lately? This rare and exotic disease has become a household term in America over the past few weeks. In this post, Ami Stearns suggests that our fear of Ebola might be better understood from studying our fear of outsiders.

PHIL disinfection Ebola outbreak 1995.jpg

I don’t mean to sound like an alarmist, but something must be done about this disease NOW. Deaths due to the highly contagious virus are estimated at anywhere from a low of 3,000 to a high of 49,000 in America. Every economic resource at our disposal should be employed to warn our citizens of this imminent danger. Public service announcements should be tailored to alert everyone about the threat of contagion and the measures that can be taken to stop the terrifying progression of this often-fatal illness. This is no new disease either. If we aren’t very careful, we could see a repeat of 1918-1919, where this epidemic caused the deaths of 20 to 40 million people worldwide. Every media outlet should be covering this potential disaster relentlessly!

What am I talking about? The flu, of course!

Oh, just the flu? Yawn.

The flu has wreaked havoc throughout history, killing more individuals during that 1918-1919 pandemic than were killed during World War I. And yet- it’s the flu. Nothing to get excited about. How then can we explain the utter panic and grim forecasts dogging the Ebola virus?…

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Janay Rice, The Cycle of Abuse, & Obstacles for Victims

The disturbing video of NFL player Ray Rice punching his then-fiancée during a dispute in an elevator has been seen by many and resulted in a great deal of discussion.  Ray Rice’s contract was terminated on Monday and he was suspended indefinitely from the NFL. His wife Janay Rice recently released a statement that led to more debate and confusion in the public. She stated “THIS IS OUR LIFE! What don’t you all get…Just know we will continue to grow & show the world what real love is!” How do sociologists explain violence in relationships and the occurrence of victims staying with an abusive partner? In this post, Mediha Din describes the concept of the Cycle of Abuse and social barriers that make it difficult for victims to leave abusive relationships.

Ray Rice

Many people were surprised to find that one month after the assault in the elevator in Atlantic City, Janay Rice married the man that hit her. Many people also wonder the same thing about someone they know- how can he or she stay with that person?

Before analyzing abusive and unhealthy relationships, it is important to note that we cannot make assumptions about the relationship between Ray and Janay Rice, we can only use the public attention regarding this case as a starting point for discussing abuse. We must also remember that victims of abuse can be male or female, heterosexual or homosexual, married, dating, or “hooking up”, adults, teenagers, or tweens, rich or poor, educated or dropouts, and of any cultural, religious, or racial backgrounds.

In 1979, psychologist Lenore E. Walker developed the social theory of the Cycle of Abuse (also known as the Cycle of Violence), describing patterns that are often seen in unhealthy relationships. The cycle consists of three stages. Tension Building, Abuse, and Honeymoon.

Tension Building: During this stage, the victim feels things could blow up at any moment. The victim may feel that he/she is walking on eggshells, anticipating an explosion. Anything might set the abuser off, such as not returning a text or phone call immediately. The abuser may start a fight for no apparent reason.

Explosion. During this stage there is an outburst that includes some form of abuse. It can be intense emotional, verbal, sexual, or physical abuse, or a combination. This can include hitting, slamming someone against a wall, screaming, yelling, or humiliating. The abuse is not always physical and it does not always leave a mark. Spitting on someone is an example of abuse that is emotionally damaging but won’t leave a bruise.

Honeymoon: In this stage the abuser often apologizes profusely. They may say “I love you”, promise that it will never happen again, and buy the victims gifts. During this stage the abuser also often tries to shift the blame away from them self. They might blame their stressful job, alcohol, drugs, family stress, and very often- the victim, for the outburst of abuse….

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