Sociology Focus

Parents You’re Ruining Halloween

Quick! Grab your kids, and handcuff them to the nearest radiator this Halloween. It’s for their own good. After all, children are FOUR TIMES more likely to die from a pedestrian accident on this night. And how could the pedophiles POSSIBLY resist all those children running around? And please, please, inspect their candy for razor blades or signs of foul play. In this piece, Angie Andriot deconstructs the myths and the fears surrounding Halloween. 

Victorian Halloween Card

Halloween is a night to be scared. But not all fears are created equal. We should fear monsters, vampires, ghosts, and ghouls. We should fear walking up to that house with the light on. Because there is a masked man with a chainsaw behind that bush over there, waiting. Waiting. WAITING. But another fear (an..ahem…decidedly more illogical one) is ripping away our opportunity to introduce innocent children to such thrilling journeys through wastelands of ghosts and goblins.

Take a look at darn near any newspaper this time of year, and you will be inundated with safety tips. Talk to parents and you will be inundated with fear for their child’s safety on Halloween night. Unsuspecting innocent children out walking the nighttime streets, knocking on strangers’ doors (Gasp! What if they’re drug dealers?!? Or pedophiles?), taking candy that may very well be laced with arsenic, or hiding a razor blade. What’s a concerned parent to do?

A relatively new phenomenon is the Trunk-or-Treat. Often put on by churches, in nice safe parking lots, where all the cars are stationary and all the adults are law-abiding church-going non-pedophiles with absolutely no interest in killing your kids for the sheer fun of it. Parents have a nice, safe, place to send their kids to get candy. I mean, drug dealers, sadists, and pedophiles don’t go to church, right? They’d spontaneously combust upon walking through the doors. So we’re cool, right?

Now, I’m not knocking the safety precautions. Really. Many of these measures are indeed important. It’s quite possible that those children who do end up hurt on Halloween are the ones who ran out into the street without looking both ways first, or didn’t have anything reflective on them, or went willingly into a stranger’s house. And I’m not knocking trunk-or-treat. It’s an awesome way for folks out in the boondocks to give their children the trick-or-treat experience when door-to-door is really mile-to-mile. And it looks like a great community activity, whereas on an everyday trick-or-treat street, all the parents are safely isolated in their respective homes. But I am asking, can we step back from the fear and look at the hard data?

Enter sociology, stage right. Sociology and statistics, that is. But first, the sociology.

For sociologists concerned with social problems, one of the key distinctions they focus on is between objective conditions and subjective concerns. An objective condition is anything rooted in hard evidence. Facts, data, sensory input. A subjective concern, on the other hand, is evaluative. It can be rooted in morals, values, or just ideas about what is “too much” or “weird.” Social problems are defined by their subjective concerns, not their objective conditions. So, what makes something a social problem is NOT whether or not it significantly affects lots of people, but rather it hinges on whether people are in an uproar about it. Take Halloween dangers, for example. People are in an uproar because they believe Halloween to be dangerous for kids. Thus Halloween becomes a social problem. Here are the fears I’ve encountered:

  1. Halloween Sadism – Adults are lacing candy with poison or needles or razorblades and then passing it out to unsuspecting kids.
  2. Death by Car – Kids are out on the streets, but so are the cars. Recipe for disaster.
  3. Pedophiles Lurking – What other night of the year can pedophiles just sit at home with their lights on and then have kids come like moths to the flame, taking candy from a stranger?

So let’s look at these sociologically one at a time.

  1. Adults are tampering with candy. Joel Best is a sociologist at the University of Delaware, and he has done a content analysis of media coverage of this “Halloween sadism” between the years of 1954 and 1989. He found a complete absence of evidence to support this claim. Two cases of apparent Halloween candy tampering have occurred, and both were eventually found to be relatives of the kid, trying to frame the nefarious “Halloween sadists.” One was a dad who put cyanide in his 8-year-old son’s Pixie Stick (purportedly to collect a hefty child insurance policy), and the other was a child who got into his uncle’s heroin stash, and then the family tried to cover the accident by sprinkling heroin over the child’s candy stash.
  2. Children are more likely to be killed by a car on Halloween. What is interesting about Dr. Best’s paper is that he also mentions another statistic indicating that there IS real danger on Halloween – it just comes in the form of vehicular manslaughter. The stat? Children are FOUR TIMES more likely to be killed by a car on this night than on other nights. And this is true. Funny thing about relative propositions based on odds ratios, though. They can be a tad misleading. Sample size matters here. So what is our sample size? “Overall, among children aged 5-14 years, an average of four deaths occurred on Halloween during [the hours of 4-10pm] each year, compared with an average of one death during these hours on every other day of the year” (CDC 1997). Four. Their “four times more likely to be killed” stat is, in raw numbers….wait for it…THREE MORE CHILDREN. In the entire country. Hardly an epidemic.
  3. Children are in greater danger from pedophiles on Halloween. Short answer: no. In a study conducted by Chaffin, Levenson, Letourneau & Stern (2009), they found no increase in non-familial sexual assaults of children on Halloween. They examined a national incident-based crime reports over a 9-year period of time in order to come to this conclusion. Only about 10% of child sexual abuse comes at the hands of strangers. If you fear for your child, take a look at the people that child already knows.

Based on the evidence above, I suggest these fears are disproportionate to the actual danger. Teach your kids basic safety (look both ways before crossing, don’t break free from the crowd and wander off on your own, wear reflective gear, etc). Teach them to trust their gut: if something seems wrong, run. Inspect their candy if you must, but don’t make a big deal about it. And by all means, let them have their Halloween. We have bigger things to worry about here. Like that creepy masked man in the bushes…Is that a chainsaw in his hand!?!

Dig Deeper:

  1. What does this article indicate about the relationship between objective conditions and subjective concerns? Which do you think is more powerful in terms of your own decisions regarding what is a social problem?
  2. Joel Best supports his argument that Halloween Sadism is a myth by showing there is no evidence to prove it is true. Has he proven there is no such thing as Halloween Sadism? Why or why not? Is it possible to prove a negative?
  3. Can you think of any other examples of instances in which fear has overwhelmed people’s ability to objectively examine the facts? Explain.

I’m An Animal (When No Ones Looking)

Most people think nature is a good thing, but yet we humans tend to hide from the public all of the things that make us humans. Environmental sociologists argue that this separation of the natural self and the social self is completely socially constructed. In this post Nathan Palmer explores how we separate our social selves from our natural selves and why this may lead to mistreatment or domination over the natural environment.

George Carlin

George Carlin

Hey, do me a solid and think of all the curse words you know. Now say the dirtiest one aloud, I’ll wait… What does that even mean? I’ve never heard that word before. I just Googled what you said and that’s nasty.

Now that you’ve got your list and the people around you wondering why you are talking to your computer, tell me what all those curse words have in common (besides their social inappropriateness). Stumped? Let’s try another angle.

Comedian George Carlin famously came up with a list of 7 dirty words that you can’t say on television. I can’t repeat them here, but take a look at the list and see if what all these words have in common jumps out at you.

Environmental sociologists would point out that almost all the words we consider obscene describe our animalistic functions or the orifices where they take place. Genitals, sexual intercourse, and excreting various fluids are the basis of most curse words. What’s up with that? More perplexing is that these are common acts. Everyday, I hope, you use the bathroom. Almost everyone will have sex in their life and I hope they enjoy it. Our genitals are central to becoming pregnant and giving birth; something most parents cherish. So why are these words the basis of socially inappropriate language? What does it mean that the words that describe bodily functions we perform often if not everyday are socially inappropriate? Before I answer that, let’s take a quick look at how we present our bodies to the world.

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Posted by Nathan Palmer

The 2011 Rugby World Cup and New Zealand’s 99%

About three months ago I moved from Honolulu, Hawai’i to Auckland, New Zealand. Moving to a new country made me keenly aware of my American-centered sports interests. While in the United States gridiron football is king, across the Pacific and Australasia, the sport of choice is rugby. For the past six weeks, New Zealand has been hosting the 2011 Rugby World Cup (RWC), with the home team’s “All Blacks” just defeating France 8-7 in the finals. During this time, the RWC had to share its stage with global movements for social equity.

In downtown Auckland (New Zealand’s biggest city), the landscape transformed from a typical big city central business district (CBD) inundated with glitzy stores, to one that shared commercialized space with increasingly ubiquitous RWC advertising and merchandise. Continue reading

Posted by David Mayeda under

Sociology of the Drive Thru

Living on the west coast often means partaking in the joys of In ‘n’ Out Burgers. One day, instead of just ordering up a Double Double, Alexa Megna received an extra side of sociology with an impromptu lesson on norms. In this post Alexa asks, what happens when things break down and we enter into the normless world of anomie.


I have a confession to make. Are you ready? Here it is: I love In ‘n’ Out. You know the burger joint on the west coast that is infamous for it’s tasty burgers, fries, and shakes? (For all of you east coasters, it’s like a better version of Five Guys. But that’s my own bias.) One day I found myself craving a Double Double from In ‘n’ Out. I just had to have one. So as I wheeled up to the drive thru line all I could think about was the Double Double heaven I was soon to be in.

Until, something funny started happing. The truck in front of me completely skipped the “Order Here” speaker box. He just drove right through. “That’s weird,” I said to myself as my turn at the box came up. Then I waited. And waited. I started looking around wondering if this was some joke. Why was the loud voice in the little box not talking to me? After looking around at the car behind me and huge expanse of space between the truck in front of me, I quietly said, “Uhm… hello?” Nothing. Continue reading

The Gays are Evil and Other Mind Tricks

Gays cause cancer, global warming, train crashes, floods, divorce… In this piece, Bridget Welch explores how we change our minds to keep mental balance and how others exploit this tendency to win us to their side.

Did you know that gays caused the terrorist attack on September 11th? It’s true. Reverend Jerry Falwell and Pat Robinson say so. Gays also cause tornados. This claim is backed by no other than Rick Perry’s Florida election co-chair Pam Olsen.

That’s not all. Gays also caused Hurricane Katrina, countless earthquakes, the collapse of the mortgage finance market, a horrific massacre of Muslims, and played a pivotal role in the holocaust. I don’t know how we didn’t see this evilness coming. Gays have been destroying the world for centuries! They even caused the collapse of the Holy Roman Empire!

Okay. If you in any way, shape, or form, thought I was seriously arguing that gays are the root of any and all evil in the United States, please pay extra close attention to what I’m about to explain.

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Ack! Invasion of the Pregnant Teenagers

Pregnant teenagers are currently a focus of popular media, yet teen pregnancy is at historic lows. Stephanie Medley-Rath explores why teen pregnancy is such a popular plot line in our entertainment, when the reality is so different?

Pregnant Teen Looking at Pregnancy Test

Pregnant teens have long fascinated me ever since I was a teenager. I had a difficult time understanding why anyone would choose to or accidentally become pregnant as a teenager. Of course, growing up the projectory of my life was always “once you graduate high school, then you go to college.” A baby as a teenager would have severely interfered with my plans of dorm-living and keg parties (and that pesky thing known as getting my degree). Though teen pregnancy was far from epidemic in my high school, it wasn’t exactly shocking. Today, the teen pregnancy rate is at a historic low.

Go read that last sentence. Teenage pregnancy rates are declining, not increasing.

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Occupy Troll Street: “Please Stop Being Greedy”

Occupy Wall Street is a rapidly growing social movement against corporate corruption and greed. Despite the massive numbers of supporters around the world, and the numerous events in other cities, this movement seems to be confusing to a lot of folks.  In the hopes of making it a little more clear, Sarah Nell describes how easily her first grader “got it” through playing with troll dolls and fuzzy balls.

Troll Doll with pile of Fuzzy Balls

“What’s the deal with this Occupy Wall Street thing?,” a friend asked me.  “What do they mean ‘We are the 99%’?” A lot of people seem to be wondering this same thing (without much insight from the mainstream media). Saying “We are the 99%” aims to illuminate the vast inequalities in wealth in the U.S., mainly that the top 1% of the population owns 43% of the nation’s financial wealth. To make the math really easy, let’s say we have 100 people and 100 bucks. One person – that 1% – has $43. Now there’s 57 bucks to split between 99 people – 80 of whom need to find a way to share a measly $7. If you don’t believe me, see this. 1

So, the 99% is fed up with the corruption and greed of the 1%, especially because people are suffering in ways U.S. citizens have not seen (on a large scale anyway) since the Great Depression. “Okay, so we’re unequal,” you might be thinking. “But all those numbers don’t help me understand why people are camping out in a park in New York City. They didn’t see a pie chart and take to the streets, right?” No. They didn’t. Not exactly. The distribution of wealth as it is today is not a brand new reality. Yet the rich are getting richer, even in a time when the economy hasn’t been this bad since the 1930s. To understand the varied kinds of suffering I mean, hear it from the people themselves. Continue reading

Steve Jobs & The Routinization of Charisma

Steve Jobs

Steve Jobs, co-founder of Apple, died this week. I didn’t know him and yet his death moved me deeply. It shook me awake. When I woke up sad this morning I did the only thing I know how to do, I thought about Steve Jobs and his passing sociologically.

Of all the things you could say about Steve Jobs, without a doubt, one of them was that he was a great charismatic leader. During his presentations his words, energy, and style could create a “reality distortion field” that would make mundane aspects of his products sound revolutionary. His spirit worked almost like a Jedi mind trick telling reporters what they were to write in their reviews. His charisma seemed superhuman.

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The Lady is a Feminist…or is She?

There has been a recent rise of conservative, evangelical women identifying themselves as ‘feminists.’ And there has been an equally strong backlash among prominent feminists who take issue with these women claiming the ‘f-word’ for themselves. What is a feminist? Can one who believes in separate gender spheres also truly promote gender equality, or are they merely kidding themselves, or worse, promoting a wacked-out femogyny? In this post Angie Andriot explores the many faces of feminism for answers.

Lady Lilith

"Lady Lilith" by Dante Gabriel Rossetti (1828-1882)

While perusing Facebook recently, I came across the most intriguing question:

“Is being a lady antithetical to feminism?”

Well….now there’s a conundrum. And boy howdy did it spark a debate! Heck, we couldn’t even agree on what it means to be a lady. For that matter, what’s a feminist? Let’s break it down, shall we?

  1. When I say I am a female, I am referring to my sex. This is a biological category.
  2. When I say I am feminine, I am referring to my gender. This is a social category.
  3. When I say I am a lady, I am referring to my…..manners? “Breeding?” Social class? Self-actualization? Depends on who you ask. This is definitely more evaluative.

Being lady-like typically means that you are exuding a particular kind of femininity: a well-mannered, polite, self-possessed sort of femininity. Here’s what comes to my mind when I hear the term: A lady is mild-mannered. A lady does not curse or shriek or holler. A lady is modest, chaste, and virtuous. She is the counterpart to the gentleman, and she balances him out by letting him pull out her chair, open the door for her, and perform other such chivalrous acts. But perhaps most importantly, a woman who thinks of herself as a lady, first and foremost, has embraced gender norms and sex distinctions. Women, at their best, are ladies. Men, at their best, are gentlemen. These are complementary, but distinct categories.
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Posted by Angie Andriot under ,

Hey Workers! Clean up My Mess!

Cleaning up messes is a dirty job, but someone’s gotta do it, right? But just who has “gotta do it?” Who are these invisible workers? Have you ever looked at messes from a cleaner’s perspective? Perspective-taking is a critical part of developing a sociological imagination. In this post Sarah Nell argues that by learning to take the perspective of others, you can understand and appreciate them more as workers, citizens, and human beings.

Hotel House Keeping

Most likely, someone cleans the spaces you frequent: classrooms, dorm rooms, cafeterias, shopping malls, and so forth. But do you see them? Do you know who empties your trash and who mops the floor? Who replaces the toilet paper roll and who scrubs the toilets? Who changes the light bulbs and cleans up unexpected messes like vomit, broken glass, or spilled liquid? Depending upon where you live, this person is probably a racial minority and is also likely to be a woman. Do you know her name or anything about her? Have you ever thanked her or spoken to her? I ask you this because of something I observed recently while in Las Vegas for an ironically located sociology conference. Before you continue, I want you to take the perspective of others by imagining yourself as the workers in these stories.

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