Correlation, Causation, & Teen Moms

High school sex ed, popular TV shows, and national PSAs would all have us believe that becoming a parent as a teenager (especially if you’re a girl) will cause tragic outcomes for both you and your child. In this post, Kim Cochran Kiesewetter helps explore the difference between causation and correlation to help in understanding how addressing social problems like teen pregnancy can get really complicated, really quickly.

Pregnant Woman in Swimsuit

“You’re supposed to be changing the world… not changing diapers.” “I never thought I would be a statistic.” These sayings, paired with pictures of coyly posed celebrities, are the crux of the Candie’s Foundation’s most recent campaign to prevent teen pregnancy. NYC’s approach is similar, replacing the celebrity photos with images of crying children beside tag lines like, “I’m twice as likely not to graduate high school because you had me as a teen.”

Coupled with images from popular shows like MTV’s 16 & Pregnant and Teen Mom, at this point most Americans would take for granted that being a teen parent is the cause of a long list of poor social outcomes from dropping out of high school to living in poverty to raising kids who have their own set of problems. However, social researchers would caution that just because a relationship exists between teen parenting and negative social outcomes doesn’t mean that one is necessarily causing the other. As we’re about to explore, proving that something caused something else isn’t as simple as it may seem at face value….

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Learning Demography with the Guess Who? Board Game

What can a board game teach us about demography and the U.S. population? In this post, Stephanie Medley-Rath explains how the board game Guess Who? fails to accurately reflect the U.S. population.

I realize that board games are supposed to be “fun” (at least that is what non-sociologists say), but as a sociologist, I feel the need to ruin everything.

My child was super-excited to find Guess Who? at the thrift shop last week. I recall this game existed when I was child, but I don’t recall ever playing it. So when we got home, my daughter immediately showed me how to play. My first observation about the game was that while it does a  semi-acceptable job of portraying racial diversity, it does an especially poor job at portarying gender or age as it actually exists in the United States.

As I examined the people on the board, I began thinking about how representative this board game is of America. While my daughter asked me if any of my people had “eyeballs looking to the side,” I was busy doing a census of the demographics portrayed on the board.

Here’s how race, gender and age demographics (or characteristics) are represented in the game:

  • White = 19 (79.17%)
  • Black = 5 (20.83%)
  • Men = 19 (79.17%)
  • Women = 5 (20.83%)
  • Elderly (or those who have gray hair) = 5 (20.83%)
  • Children = 0
  • Adults (18-65) =19 (79.17%)

Based on this board game, the typical American is a white man aged 18-65. Hmmm….sounds a lot like Hollywood. So how far off is Guess Who? from the American population?…

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Watch Out NYC!: The Sociologists are Coming (to Share Research)

Sociologists are about to descend upon New York City for their annual professional conferences. In this post, Stephanie Medley-Rath explains that this ritual is just a step in the research process, that of sharing research. 

Podium from the presenter's perspective

Remember back in junior high when you did a science fair project? You selected a topic, developed a hypothesis, did the experiment, prepared a poster, and presented your research to a small audience. Well, this week thousands of sociologists will visit New York City to do our version of a science fair: the annual sociology conferences, where we share our research.

Sharing our research is an important part of the research process. We share our research in a variety of ways, but the typical way of sharing research is through presenting our research at a professional conference, publishing in a peer-reviewed journal, or ideally both.

I first attended the American Sociological Association in 2002 as part of the Undergraduate Honors Program. It was beyond overwhelming! I attended by myself as an undergraduate and got my first experience of actually presenting research to other people interested in sociology. I presented my mediocre paper at the Undergraduate Honors Program Roundtables. I had no idea what a roundtable was! This certainly was not like the science fair I did in junior high, nor was it like anything I had even done in college. There were no posters. I did not have to stand up in front of the room. Instead I got to sit during my presentation. At a roundtable, papers are typically grouped by topic with 3-4 other papers. Each person takes a few minutes to present their research to the other presenters at her or his table and sometimes an occasional audience member. This was the first time I was able to share my “research” outside of the classroom….

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Does Oprah Interview Like A Sociologist?

It’s graduation season! That means caps, gowns, and awards ceremonies that sometimes include celebrity commencement speeches. Oprah Winfrey spoke at Harvard University this year, and was also awarded an honorary degree by the prestigious institution. One of the things that Oprah is respected for is speaking with passion. This skill is not only important for public speeches, but also for her current television show, Oprah’s Next Chapter. The show includes interviews with celebrities in their homes, reminiscent of the interviews she was known for on the Oprah Winfrey Show. Oprah’s interview skills often make for great television, but would a sociologist use the same methods for interviews in social research? In this post, Mediha Din describes research methods.

Oprah Winfrey

In our previous post, Jimmy Kimmel, Starbucks, and Sleeper Questions we explored how researchers may encounter problems with reliability when conducting an interview or surveying participants.

To increase reliability, sociologists work to avoid common errors in the design of research questions. The most common mistakes are using questions that are double-barreled, loaded, threatening, unclear, or include built-in assumptions.

Double-barreled questions make the mistake of asking two or more questions in one. For example, if you ask your friend “Is Professor Din’s class easy and interesting?” the response “yes” is unclear. The class might be easy, but not interesting, or the other way around.  As sociologists, we work to ensure that double-barreled questions are broken into two separate questions to avoid an unclear response: “Is the class easy?” and “Is the class interesting?”

“You read the whole chapter, didn’t you?” Leading or loaded questions should also be avoided. These are questions that subtly push a respondent to give a certain response. Think of movies with courtroom scenes of an attorney jumping up while their witness is being questioned by the prosecution to say “Objection your honor! Leading the witness!” Leading/loaded questions can be worded to get either a positive or negative response. Compare the next two examples:…

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A Common Sense Guide to Gun Violence

Sociologists study common sense because what we take to be common sense does not always match reality. In this post, Stephanie Medley-Rath explores the ways in which common sense about gun violence differs from the realities of gun violence.

Hand Gun

Sociologists often study common sense. Common sense refers to those things that everyone knows are true. Think about all of those warnings on many products. For example, a coffee cup with the warning that it is hot. Common sense tells us that coffee is hot. We shouldn’t need this warning, but it remains. These warning labels are in place because somebody once was harmed by the product. We often assume that they were harmed due to a lack of common sense (or lapse in judgement), rather than the product or manufacturer is at fault. So what does a warning lable on a coffee cup have to do with sociology?

Sociologists use research to access the accuracy of common sense because much of what we take as common sense is actually either incorrect or just a bit off from reality. Take gun violence, for example.

In recent months, gun violence has taken center stage as a focus of concern. Due to tragic, mass shootings, we have once again become occupied with what we perceive to be increasing gun violence (we were concerned with it in the late 1990s due to Columbine and other school shootings). Mass shootings, once again, appear to be on the rise. When school teachers and children, movie goers, and mall shoppers are gunned down at seeming random, we are reminded of what we believe about gun violence, that it is random and unpredictable. Any one of us could be an innocent bystander. The reality is that most gun violence is not all that random and innocent bystanders are newsworthy because they are typically rare.

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Jimmy Kimmel, Starbucks, and Sleeper Questions

Late night television shows, news specials, and talk shows all include segments from time to time that are labeled as “social experiments.” But do their surveys, interviews, or investigation tactics have any connections to actual research methods sociologists would use when studying human participants? In this post, Mediha Din discusses the complexity involved in designing survey questions.

Jimmy Kimmel sets up an experiment. He wants to know if the new $7 cup of coffee offered at Starbucks lives up to the hefty price tag. His crew heads to Hollywood Blvd. in Los Angeles to ask coffee drinkers for their opinions. The participants sit down in front of two Starbucks cups, labeled A and B. They are asked to take a sip from each, and see if they can tell the difference between the regular coffee, and the premium $7 Costa Rica Finca Palmilera. The participants taste the beverages and quickly begin giving their feedback on which is the more expensive brew. They describe their choice as “richer” “bolder” “smoother” even “beany.” His experiment has one very interesting catch though-the cup of coffee in both cup A and cup B is exactly the same!

The video of this segment from Jimmy Kimmel Live isn’t just a good laugh, it’s also a perfect example of a type of question used in social research known as a sleeper question.

A sleeper question is designed to ensure that a respondent is accurately reporting their knowledge….

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Stereotypes in Kids Books: Girl Animals have Eyelashes

Children’s picture books are, by design, simple straight forward stories that beat you over the head with their messages. Given that their audience is typically learning language, culture, and the basics of how to behave in society, this really shouldn’t surprise us. But in the desire to simplify the story, do picture books teach children stereotypes? In this piece Stephanie Medley-Rath answers this question and discusses how stereotypes are widely used in picture books.

Mother and daughter read book

As a parent of a preschooler, I read a lot of children’s picture books. My poor child, however, has a sociologist for a parent. I’ve stopped reading books mid-story due to not only gender stereotypical[1. Stereotypes are oversimplified beliefs about a social group (e.g., women are emotional).] depictions, but downright offensive gender depictions and explained to my daughter why the book is problematic. In Otto’s Trunk, the mother elephant literally becomes a household appliance. She is shown using her trunk to vacuum, while the father elephant is shown reclining and watching television. Mother elephant is wearing a slip and has on bright blue eye shadow. Before you pass off this portrayal as just an outdated book, the book was published in 2003….

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Sampling Pinterest

The criticisms of Pinterest can teach us about the importance of sampling. In this post, Stephanie Medley-Rath explores how random sampling and convenience sampling contribute to our understanding of what Pinterest is really about.

I have had a Pinterest account for about a year and a half. When I initially received my invitation, I began following a lot of people in the scrapbooking community that I did not actually know in real life. None of my friends in real life were on Pinterest. Over the last year, that has changed. I now follow the boards of not only complete strangers (wow, that sounds really creepy), but also the boards of people I know in real life (still sounds kind of creepy).

So who cares who I follow on Pinterest? Who you follow on any social network site shapes what you see in your feed on that site and your impressions of the site. For the first few months I was on Pinterest, it was a wonderful place to spend waste time because most of what appeared in my feed included crafty projects, color combinations, and scrapbook pages-all the things I really wanted to see and browse. Now my feed includes these items, plus fat-shaming imagery, homeschooling curricula, beautifully designed infographics, and sociologically-focused images (see Sociological Images or The Sociological Cinema). My feed changed as the type of people I followed expanded to more diverse groups using pinterest for different reasons. I went from following mostly people who were heavily involved in scrapbooking and other crafts, to people with a much wider range of interests….

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Nationalism and the Olympics: Meddling with Medal Counts

The Olympic Games is one of the key markers for nationalism in contemporary society. Supposedly, if a country wins a large number of medals, this becomes an international indicator of the country’s overall superiority. The United States typically does very well in the summer Games, leading the way in both gold medals won and total medal count, though China has been a close second in the past two summer Games. Bear in mind, however, the United States has a population of about 310 million, and China 1.34 billion. In this post, David Mayeda breaks down which countries are the true Olympic standouts, considering each country’s population size, and questions the Games as an indicator of nationalism.

“U.S.A. U.S.A. U.S.A.” You could hear the national pride in the chants coming from the American fans. The United States won more medals at this summer’s olympic games than any other country with 104 total medals and 46 gold. The People’s Republic of China earned 88 medals with 38 gold. More than any other symbol of the Olympics, a nation’s medal count is supposed to be a measure of a nation’s global superiority. While it’s true that the Olympics are idealized as a two week international love, peace, and unity extravaganza, this sentiment is at best quaint.

If anything, the Olympics promote a fleeting nationalism within countries – a sense of solidarity, shared values, and cultural pride within a nation’s borders that revolve around athletes’ international success. For instance, all Americans can supposedly take pride in Michael Phelps’s ongoing success across three Olympic Games. It is apparently behind Phelps that all American citizens can rally together, assimilated as one, for about a week.

And in turn, as the USA wins the most gold’s and medals as a whole, Americans in general can assert their collective global superiority. With their Olympic dominance, we can safely assume that the United States must hold greater levels of technological advancement, athletic training innovation, work ethic, physical superiority, mental acumen, and well, just must be the best, period. Right?

Not so fast….

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Can Sociologists Hurt People?

Researching humans is what social scientists do, but what happens when they want to conduct research that would harm the people in their study? In 1993 a team of researchers in Baltimore Maryland wanted to find out which method of lead paint removal was most effective. Their study allowed predominately African American families with small children to live in homes they knew were contaminated with lead. In this piece Nathan Palmer discusses three key aspects of ethical research and how if followed they protect human subjects.

Researchers in Baltimore, who wanted to find the best method for removing lead paint from old houses, watched as children suffered from lead poisoning for years. These are the charges brought by two parents who are now suing the research team. The parents argue that while they knew that their home had lead paint in it, the researchers gave them a “false sense of security” from test results that only showed low levels of contamination. The research conducted from 1993 to 1999 enrolled 108 low income African American families many of whom were already living in the contaminated homes.

The first two judges to hear this case dismissed it, but later a judge upheld the case arguing that it was very similar to a modern day Tuskegee Experiment. During this experiment African American men in Alabama who suffered from syphilis were monitored by the U.S. Public Health Service from 1932-1972. The men were not told they had syphilis, but rather only that they had “bad blood”. Worse yet, when penicillin became the widely available cure for syphilis, the researchers decided it was more scientifically valuable to document how the men would die from the disease than to give them treatment. While this is beyond tragic in it’s own right, these men also unknowingly passed the disease to their wives and partners and many of their children were born with congenital syphilis.

“What it going on here? Can researchers really do stuff like this?” are the first two questions many of my students have. And the answer is, no.

Because of incidents like the Tuskegee experiments, federal research ethics and regulations have been established. Before a researcher can carry out a study on human subjects they must, if they receive federal funding, have their methods reviewed by an independent panel to verify their safety. These panels, often called an Institutional Review Board (IRB)[1], are guided by the three pillars of ethical research: 1. Do No Harm, 2. Informed Consent, 3. Voluntary Participation.

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