Spam, Letters to the Editor and Gossip

catching a cold at the unemployment line

If the link between sudden unemployment and poor health is as strongly related as public health studies indicate, we may have an epidemic on the horizon.

Good news, though, comes in a recent study in the Journal of Epidemiology and Community Health (February 2009). Using self-reported health data collected from 23 European countries, Clare Bambra and Terje Eikemo confirm that unemployment is linked to poorer health. However, welfare states with the most generous levels of benefits have the lowest disparity, even when controlling for demographic and economic differences. This suggests a healthy safety net makes for healthy people, even when they’re unemployed.

Interestingly, the researchers find this pattern is less relevant for women—income replacement for women’s work, even in generous welfare states, may be too little and undervalued to have a substantial impact. In any case, the researchers suggest minimizing the effects of unemployment may be as simple as—gasp!—providing a cash cushion when people lose their jobs. A.B.

getting scammed by spam

“Dear Sirs, My name is Mr.Moses Odiaka. I work in the credit and accounts department of Union Bank of NigeriaPlc, Lagos, Nigeria. I wonder why anyone would ever fall for the too good to be true scam that I am proposing to you.”

Andrew Smith (Cultural Studies, January 2009) looked at 550 examples of such Nigerian scam e-mails and developed some possible answers. While the easiest explanation is simple greed, Smith argues Americans and Brits in particular are susceptible to the schemes because they fit preconceived notions about Africa and the rest of the foreign world.

The emails’ content often describes unstable and needy countries perpetually at war and natives unable to manage wealth. The author of the email, according to Smith, offers to act as a mediator who can explain this alien culture to the Western reader, allowing recipients to feel like they’ve received privileged knowledge about Nigeria.

There’s an economic angle as well, Smith says, but it’s more interesting and subtle than you might think. The appeal of the Nigerian scam e-mail for Westerners isn’t only that it offers a chance to get rich, but also that it appears to let recipients see how wealth comes into the world in the first place. In a capitalist system, money seems like it comes from nowhere. The appearance of these emails thus seems to explain—even as they allow recipients to participate in—the otherwise mystical creation of wealth.

People fall for these scams not despite the fact that they are too good to be true, but precisely because they are. M.K.

leading the internet herd astray

Does thinking something is true make it so?

In a novel Internet experiment, Mathew Salganik and Duncan Watts (Social Psychology Quarterly, December 2008) tested the idea of the “self-fulfilling prophecy” by manipulating the popularity rankings of an online music forum.

Their experiment’s website prompted visitors to listen to and rate free songs from unknown but “upcoming” artists and provided real-time information on how popular these songs were with other visitors. These results were tabulated and analyzed. Later, the researchers inverted this information for randomly selected participants so that popular songs instantly appeared unpopular and the worst ranked song was suddenly ranked as the most liked.

The authors found this artificial inversion had a huge effect. Previously unpopular songs quickly experienced renewed popularity amongst listeners, while songs previously popular became universally disliked.

However, this self-fulfilling effect was only temporary for the once-popular songs—they gradually recovered their ratings over time. But clearly non-popular songs got a boost. Perceived popularity, it seems, can certainly pull you up, but genuine popularity can’t really be kept down. A.B.

not everyone welcome on the glass escalator

Sociologists have known that when men enter so-called women’s jobs, they often advance in the profession faster than their female colleagues. We call it the “glass escalator.” But after interviewing black male nurses, Adia Harvey Wingfield (Gender and Society, February 2009) found that many of the same factors pushing white men up the escalator actually disadvantage African American men.

While white females may welcome their white male colleagues, black men are often perceived as physically threatening. White men may have an easy time bonding with a (usually white) male supervisor, but African American men may experience difficulties because of racial differences. Moreover, stereotypes of African American men as aggressive and incompetent leads co-workers to believe they’re actually less qualified than white female nurses to perform their jobs.

This research suggests that while white men ride the glass escalator, black men may be asked to take the stairs. M.K.

helpful tip for selling stuff on ebay

To both film producers and online hawkers, casting a wide net to pitch a product seems like a smart business strategy. A classic western with a comic twist should appeal to fans of both genres, for example. The same goes for those rare Elvis stamps on eBay. But how many categories can a product span before it’s spread too thin?

Not many, according to Greta Hsu, Michael Hannan, and O”zgecan Koc,ak (American Sociological Review, February 2009). Films and eBay items rely on a meaningful set of categories to attract consumers. When products attempt to appeal to too many niches, consumers figure them a poor fit in any particular one, thus reducing their appeal.

For example, the authors examined whether films described by critics and distributors as “generalist” did better at the box office than those targeted to specific niche audiences. Not only did these films perform worse than more specialized ones, they were panned by critics. Audiences like it best when a film is a “full-fledged” member of their favorite genre.

And it isn’t just audiences who have trouble with too many categories—producers do, too. Whereas movie genres aren’t typically assigned by film studios, eBay items are labeled by the sellers themselves. Again, items that spanned multiple categories were less likely to sell. Basically, generalist sellers failed to reach their target audience.

For something to sell, it has to meet the expectations of a discerning and specific audience. When it comes to films and eBay auctions, sometimes less is more. W.L.

letters to nobody

With town meetings becoming more rare, citizens write to newspapers to complain about everything from presidential scandals to leaky water mains. But letters pose a problem meetings don’t—there’s no guarantee anyone’s listening.

Face-to-face contact is important for public deliberation and debate. However, letters to the editor are directed to nobody in particular. Andrew Perrin and Stephen Vaisey (American Journal of Sociology, November 2008) looked to the Greensboro News and Record to understand how writers tailor their letters based on their “imagined” audiences.

Turns out writers pattern their argumentative strategies based on whether the problem is local or not. Downtown revitalization and neighborhood crime are addressed in a more civil and respectful tone—after all, local reputations are at stake for the writers and the newspaper. But when the problem is national or global, such as social security or terrorism, writers adopt an angry or emotional rhetorical style.

Perrin and Vaisey suggest letter writers imagine two parallel public spaces for airing their grievances—one that’s distant and quarrelsome, and another that’s local and polite.

Letters to the editor indeed provide a useful forum for voicing our concerns, even if there’s no way to gauge how others will react. W.L.

patience not always a virtue

It doesn’t take a sociologist to figure out that shantytown dwellers are exposed to environmental toxins, poverty, and lack of opportunities. After two-and-a-half years of ethnography and intensive interviewing in an Argentinean barrio, however, Javier Auyero and De’bora Swistun (Sociological Forum, March 2009) found another subtler and insidious downside to shantytown life: the inability to control time.

The residents of the barrio the authors studied live beside a hazardous waste incinerator, an unmonitored landfill, and a petrochemical compound. Over the last 50 years the area has become polluted with toxins like lead, chromium, and benzene. Half the children have high levels of lead in their blood, which has led to lower IQs and increased neurobehavioral problems.

For decades lawyers have promised successful lawsuits on residents’ behalf, corporations have promised funds to help families relocate, and public officials have promised neighborhood improvements. Yet those with the power to deliver on these promises come and go, and the residents don’t have the power to affect if or when changes will occur. They also can’t move out of the area—they don’t have the money to relocate.

The possibility of a time when their lives will be better keeps the residents hopeful, but indefinite delays year after

year put them into a holding pattern of frustrated waiting. Because those who control time are those with power, the neighborhood residents are transformed from people able to influence their futures into passive onlookers perpetually waiting for a better future. S.G.

cease and desist that casual sex

Criminologists have found that teens who have sex are more likely to engage in criminal behavior. However, few have explored how the type of relationship in which teens are having sex affects their criminal tendencies.

Addressing this research gap, Bill McCarthy and Teresa Casey (American Sociological Review, December 2008) compare the criminal involvement of teens having sex within a loving, romantic relationship with those who have sex in emotionally distant relationships.

They find that teens who have “loveless” sex are more likely to engage in criminal behavior. Teens who have sex in romantic relationships, though, are no more likely to engage in criminal activity than teens who abstain from sex altogether. The authors also argue that romantic love decreases the criminal involvement of teens who have previously engaged in criminal activity.

McCarthy and Casey suggest those in romantic relationships are less likely to be affected by “strain” caused by sexual involvement, including anxiety over contracting STIs, increased conflict with parents, intense regrets, and shame over being labeled by peers as a “slut” or one who “sleeps with sluts.” T.O.

the 7 habits of highly effective muslims

In the United States, we generally associate “faith-based initiatives” with the non-profit sector. But in Indonesia, faith is big business, Daromir Rudnyckyj (Cultural Anthropology, January 2009) learned after attending “spiritual reform” training sessions at Krakatau Steel, one of Indonesia’s largest steel manufacturers.

Rudnyckyj attended 12-hour, threeday sessions with many of Krakatau’s 6,000 employees. The sessions fused corporate training programs like The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People with specific interpretations of Islamic religious scripture and practice.

Spiritual trainers encouraged employees to interpret their work as a form of religious worship, and told them that being an honest, accountable, and productive worker was also being a more pious Muslim. They also encouraged employees to use techniques like regular prayer to cultivate individual accountability and an ethic of self-management. They called it “built-in control” against workplace corruption.

While it would be easy to interpret such sessions as disingenuous attempts to co-opt workers’ religious practices in the service of secular capitalism, Rudnyckyj argues corporate and government elites in Indonesia really do believe a lack of religious piety is to blame for the country’s lagging global competitiveness. The overall reasoning behind these sessions, Rudnyckyj found, was to enlist employees’ spirituality in making the company more globally competitive. And, as more Indonesian companies have accepted the idea that cultivating their employees’ religious virtues can enhance their bottom lines, the spiritual reform business continues to boom. D.W.

sticks, stones, and genocide

Language is a powerful tool, and when words are used to cast certain groups as less than human it can set the conditions for, and even intensify, genocide.

John Hagan and Wenona Rymond-Richmond (American Sociological Review, December 2008) argue that expressing attitudes about socially created racial categories through dehumanizing racial epithets aided the Sudanese government’s genocide of black African groups in Darfur. And the enlistment of the Janjaweed militia clearly played a role in the process.

Analyzing data from the U.S. State Department’s Atrocities Documentation Survey of Darfurian refugees in Chad, the authors mapped the use of racial epithets during attacks on Zaghawa, Fur, Masalit, and Jebal villages. They found demeaning language to be most concentrated in the regions that government and militia forces had attacked together. Violence was highest when government forces participated in the attacks and increased with the use of racial epithets. The concentration of racial epithets and severe victimization had no connection to the presence of rebels in attacked villages, dispelling Sudanese counterinsurgency claims.

Hagan and Rymond-Richmond show that groups rallied together under an ideology of superiority and that expressing their hatred through language was crucial to their violent and oppressive actions. Based on this, they also suggest the government-led violence in Darfur meets the legal criteria of genocide. J.S.

gossip without borders

No matter how far you move, you may never get beyond the reach of your gossiping friends, family, and neighbors. At least that’s one conclusion that can be drawn from Joanna Dreby’s (Qualitative Sociology, March 2009) interviews with families split across the U.S.-Mexican border.

Dreby conducted 150 interviews on appropriate gender roles with migrants and family members on both sides of the border. Men who leave their wives and children for work in the United States are expected to be economic providers for their families in Mexico, while women who leave their children behind are supposed to remain caretakers of their children and guardians of the family’s morality.

Dreby found that gossip across borders plays a key role in ensuring that migrant men and women don’t stray from these expected roles and obligations.

Much of the gossip focuses on the alleged extramarital affairs of migrants. Affairs are more acceptable for men, as long as they remain faithful in sending money to their wives and kids. In contrast, women’s affairs are less tolerated (even in the case of single mothers) because they’re perceived as hindering their ability to care for their children across distances and as compromising the morality of the family. In different ways for male and female migrants, then, gossip is social control from a distance.K.H. & S.G.

when confusion hides agreement

The failure of the Enron Corporation was so spectacular its name quickly became synonymous with corporate crime. With so many companies soon after found to be committing securities crimes, it was impossible to call it a “few isolated incidents” or the fault of a “few bad apples.”

In fact, these companies’ crimes were so shocking in scale and scope they caused what James W. Williams (Theoretical Criminology, November 2008) calls an “interpretive crisis” as the media struggled to make sense of what was happening. While such a crisis could have called into question the very bases of capitalist enterprise, it instead revealed a shared set of assumptions held by most media outlets.

Williams examined articles from five major newspapers and magazines from the United States, Canada, and England, and found that while the diagnosis (and the suggested cures) for the scandal varied greatly from article to article, all agreed on a set of fundamental interpretations about the nature of America’s market system.

Among these common bases were the ideas that market economies are natural and inevitable, and that any form of regulation to free markets must satisfy a very high burden of proof, always bowing to the supposedly natural instincts of the market.

So while it may have appeared the media were struggling to understand what the market was and how it worked, they were unanimous in accepting the fundamental principles of the capitalist market, even in the wake of one of its biggest crises. J.S.G.W.

multiculturalism in korea

Despite strictly controlled immigration and pride in ethnic homogeneity, South Korea is on the fast track to becoming a multicultural society in much the same way Western nations did.

Andrew Eungi Kim (Ethnic and Racial Studies, January 2009) uses governmental data to identify and analyze the forces that will drive a growing influx of foreigners to Korea in the coming decade.

At the core is an impending “age quake” (triggered by a rapidly aging population and low fertility rates) and Koreans’ recent avoidance of low-wage manual jobs, which will create an estimated need for 4.8 million workers by 2020. Moreover, sex selective abortions have skewed gender ratios and contributed to a “marriage squeeze,” which has already led to an increase in foreign brides marrying Korean men. Accompanying intermarriages are “Kosians,” the bi-ethnic offspring of Koreans and other Asians, predicted to rise to 3.3 percent of the population by 2020.

These phenomena may help Korea sustain economic growth while closing its labor and bride gaps. But it may come at the cost of contending with social problems like illegal immigration and ethnic hostilities, problems Western societies faced transitioning to multiculturalism. J.S.

the neighborhood made me do it

Next time you blame the parents of a delinquent, think again. A new study by Brent Teasdale and Eric Silver (Social Problems, February 2009) argues the neighborhood in which children are raised has more to do with their tendency to commit crimes than parents’ efforts to keep their kids on the straight-and-narrow.

Using data from the National Longitudinal Study of Adolescent Health, the researchers found that regardless of a teen’s race, age, gender, or family structure, those who live in lower socioeconomic areas were more likely to commit crimes than those in affluent areas. And that finding held regardless of the lessons parents taught their kids at home.

If parents are to blame, then, it’s more for the neighborhoods where they raise their families than their actual approaches to parenting—which, of course, has less to do with moral choices parents make than economic limitations on a family’s budget. K.H.

whispering white power

Due to the stigma associated with violent racism, members of white supremacist organizations find they must hide their affiliations in many social circles. According to an interview-based study by Pete Simi and Robert Futrell (Social Problems, February 2009), this forced silence often makes their inner racist stronger.

This effect is particularly pronounced at work. Members of white supremacist groups are expected to push constantly toward the goal of an Aryan nation. Being unable to voice their beliefs openly in their jobs leaves individuals feeling like they’re letting the movement down. In response, they spend hours of paid labor time on white supremacist websites, listening to white power music, and paging through Aryan literature so they feel like loyal Aryans.

White supremacists also hide their beliefs from their peers at school. School is viewed as a necessary evil—something an Aryan child must survive in order to better the white race. Instead of speaking out on campus, white supremacist children strengthen their resolve with the movement by journaling about white power and telling stories of Aryan superiority in take-home essays.

It’s only in public arenas, like shopping malls, that members feel free to show their Aryan beliefs in racist tattoos or loud conversations about white supremacy. K.H.

cash out your dead

While most of us don’t see anything morally wrong with collecting life insurance when loved ones die, we may think twice about cashing in on the deaths of people we don’t even know. Yet, as sick individuals look for ways to pay medical bills, future funeral expenses, or simply to enjoy the remainder of their lives, many are turning to strangers to buy their policies and pay the premiums in exchange for the full death benefit when the seller dies.

A full-blown market for buying other peoples’ policies emerged in the early 1990s (in the midst of the AIDS epidemic), and as of 2007, investing in other peoples’ deaths was a $13 billion industry.

Business may be good, but according to Sarah Quinn (American Journal of Sociology, November 2008) the industry also faces increasingly high-profile charges of “ghoulishness” in the national media. In response, industry executives are reframing the practice of investing in death in more morally upright terms.

Quinn’s interviews with high-level executives revealed that many framed the issue as one of financially “consoling” terminally ill individuals who are having trouble making ends meet and “dying with dignity.” Other executives focused less on substance and more on the process of buying and selling itself— they discussed the practice as a highly rational and anonymous one, no better or worse than making any other investment in a capitalist market.

This research illustrates, among other things, the role of morality in markets. Even in the hyper-rationalized world of a market economy, industry elites still have to spend significant energy convincing people that what they do is not only profitable, but right. D.W.