Sociology of Small Scale Farming

Woman farmer in Sapa, Vietnam

By 2013, Vietnam had halved malnutrition by investing in small scale (family) farming in just 12 years. Can the same happen in other nations? The United Nations believes so. What are some of the sociological considerations to boost the success of small scale farming? While this agricultural enterprise may be able to help families reduce hunger, it may not necessarily help households rise above the poverty line, unless social issues such as gender inequality are also addressed.

Sociology of the National Arboretum

Playground at the National Arboretum Canberra

One of the themes of my visual sociology is the representation of science. Conservation is as much about social practices as it is about earth science, biology and other natural sciences. Today’s post is about the sociology of the National Arboretum, which sits on Ngunawal country. Ngunawal people are the traditional custodians of this part of Acton, west of the city in Canberra. Less than a seven minute drive central business district, this is one of the world’s largest arboretums for rare and endangered trees. I am no arborist. I cannot even claim to be a fan of gardening. I was interested in the Arboretum first in an attempt to capture a visual sociology of Canberra, and second to see how people interact with this place as a science centre. The focus of my post today is on the social dynamics of the Arboretum, especially on community aspects of conservation and the trees that drew the greatest interest amongst the crowds I saw: the Bonsai and Penjing Collection .
National Arboretum (18)

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Sociology of the Anti-Vaccination Movement

Any time there is an article about vaccine initiatives, a segment of the public begin to shout about government conspiracies and their perception of nefarious science. What is behind the anti-vaxxer movement? I start by discussing the scientific evidence about the fraud that inspired the anti-vaxxer movement before providing a broad sketch of the public who don’t believe in vaccination.

The science demonstrating that there is no link between autism and vaccines is peer-reviewed and well-established. The original paper that made the assertion that such a link existed was retracted by the original publisher, The Lancet, due to fraud by Andrew Wakefield and his team.

People who are convinced that vaccines cause autism have never read the original article that made this outlandish claim, let alone understand the science and its motives. For example, the fact that the study used a sample of only 12 boys; that the methods and conclusions were falsified; and most importantly, that Wakefield had a financial interest in making his fraudulent claims. He was funded by lawyers who were engaged in a lawsuit against vaccine companies. The retraction can be clearly seen on the original paper. The original retraction states:

“no causal link was established between MMR vaccine and autism as the data were insufficient.”

It is rather ironical that some people imagine there is some financial or political incentive amongst scientists to support vaccines. This is simply not true.

Sociology of the Anti-Vaccination Movement
Continue reading Sociology of the Anti-Vaccination Movement

Vaginal Mysticism: Women’s Health and Celebrity Culture

Many people understand that celebrities are not health experts, yet the media persist on giving them a public forum to share their health and lifestyle advice. Journalists insist on printing celebrity musings without critical insight. This is dangerous. We see this in the anti-vaccine movement, but it’s pervasive in other ways. Over the next couple of days I’ll present a couple of case studies focusing on why it’s especially damaging to present celebrity ideas about women’s health without consideration to the social impact.

First up, I show the problems of presenting scientifically invalid ideas about vaginal health. A popular young American actress, Shailene Woodley, has reportedly suggested that genital yeast infection and other genital conditions can be cured by exposing vaginas to sunlight. She says she read this advice in an article by “an herbalist.” The media has repeated this advice and even recommended it with relish.

Young women who have limited access to sexual health education and who may not understand their bodies do not need to be exposed to pseudoscience. The individual musings of celebrities can be ignored at the individual level. At the social level, however, the media have cultural authority and a responsibility to inform readers about health issues. This is done by drawing on expert advice, not egging on damaging celebrity endorsements.

Let's talk about vaginal health in an honest and informative way.
Let’s talk about vaginal health in an honest and informative way.

Continue reading Vaginal Mysticism: Women’s Health and Celebrity Culture

Sociology of Government-led Climate Change Denial

Photo via Flickr
Photo via Flickr

The Abbott Government in Australia has previously stated it does not believe in climate change and it has significantly withdrawn funding for this line of research in its latest Budget (along with funding for most non-medical scientific research). A recent change on the Department of Environment’s website has removed a reference to the link between extreme weather conditions and climate change. The Department says this change reflects the findings of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), which is incorrect. In order to provide some context for my post, it’s best to understand the Abbott Government’s historical and current position on climate change. I specifically focus on the public discourse by Abbott and his Ministers. They discuss climate change science as both something that is open to interpretation and something that can be fought with selective use of science.

The IPCC describes climate change as:

a change in the state of the climate that can be identified (e.g. using statistical tests) by changes in the mean and/or the variability of its properties, and that persists for an extended period, typically decades or longer. It refers to any change in climate over time, whether due to natural variability or as a result of human activity.

Climate change action is an interdisciplinary effort, requiring the knowledge and contribution of scientists, community planners and health workers, and other experts from many fields. It requires research as well as social policy intervention at the local community, state, federal and international levels.

I wrote part of this post on my Google+ and I encountered much push-back from a vocal minority of individuals vehemently opposed to the science of climate change.* As such, I wanted to expand on my original argument, and put climate change denial in sociological context. Research shows that political interests shape the extent to which climate change science is rejected, particularly when individuals have a direct or vested interest in an economy of fossil fuels, or where they have an ideological opposition to renewable energy and social change more broadly.  My focus is on the sociological consequences of extreme weather events, specifically on community planning and community resilience (the knowledge, resources and planning necessary to deal with extreme events). Continue reading Sociology of Government-led Climate Change Denial

Beyond Arm Chair Social Science: Diabetes and Food Insecurity

Food Insecurity - The Other Sociologist
“Exhaustion of food budgets might be an important driver of health inequities” – Hilary Seligman and colleagues

By Zuleyka Zevallos, PhD
The internet is filled with many science blogs and websites holding themselves up as experts on all sorts of research topics. It’s frustrating to see the high volume of articles where non-experts feel qualified to dismiss social science research. The damage is worse when it’s journalists and scientists without social science training, because the public doesn’t always know that these people aren’t qualified to write about social science. I will demonstrate this through a case study of the sociology of diabetes.

With increased media attention on diabetes, the public has come to expect certain behaviours from people who have this condition. While some people understand that there are some differences between the two broad types of Diabetes (Type 1 and Type 2), there are many misconceptions about what causes diabetes and how this condition should be treated. With these misconceptions comes judgements about the people who get diabetes, and why this may be the case.

I am not an expert on the biology of diabetes. I can however speak to the sociological aspects of this disease. As an applied researcher, I have worked on projects in the sociology of health, such as examining the influence of organisational practices on health outcomes. I’ve also researched socio-economic disadvantage amongst minority and vulnerable groups and the impact this has on social integration, help-seeking behaviour and wellbeing. Social disadvantage will be the focus of my analysis here. I use my discussion on the socio-economics of diabetes to explore the problems that arise when non-experts wade into social science issues using individual explanations (such as personal experience and opinion) rather than scientific evidence about societal processes. I call this “arm chair” social science because it does not adhere to the social theories and methods for analysing social issues.

My post begins with the social science research on diabetes, centred on the research of Hilary Seligman. Her team’s work was refuted by a science blogger who is not a social scientist, and who subsequently posted this critique to Science on Google+, a large multidisciplinary Community that I help moderate. Below I discuss Seligman’s longitudinal research on how poverty affects the experience and management of diabetes. Seligman uses the concept of “food insecurity” to situate her research. I draw on other studies that lend further support to this concept. I discuss the influence of social location on the management of diabetes. That is, I will examine the socio-economics of where people live as a key factor in diabetes care. I end with a discussion of the exchange on the Science on Google+ Community and the problems of viewing diabetes from an individual perspective. Continue reading Beyond Arm Chair Social Science: Diabetes and Food Insecurity

Japan’s Disposable Workforce: Alienation, Suicide and Social Responsibility

By Zuleyka Zevallos

Shiho Fukada’s Pulitzer Centre project on Japan’s “disposable workers” focuses on people who are precariously employed in casual and “dead end” jobs. They are underpaid, working long hours but without any of the benefits or sense of stability of full time employment. This affects people who are homeless as well as white collar workers who are driven to suicide due to mental and physical exhaustion. I see that Fukada’s photo essay offers an insightful visual critique of economic progress and the rapid increase of an “underclass” in one of the world’s most advanced societies. I argue that Fukada’s work might be understood through the sociological concept of anomie, a term that describes the social alienation that follows a society’s shift in morals and values. In this case, I explore how a cultural change in attitude means that workers are less valued in Japan, leading to socio-economic and mental health problems. I draw a comparison between the Japanese and the Australian workforce. I conclude by showing how sociologists seek to help governments, employers, developers and community organisations work together to better support a sustainable and ethical economic future.

Shiho Fukada via Pulitzer Centre
Shiho Fukada via Pulitzer Centre

Continue reading Japan’s Disposable Workforce: Alienation, Suicide and Social Responsibility

“Culture of Silence”: Why Common Sense Stops Us From Seeing Substance Abuse in Middle Class Families

Photo by Alan Cleaver via Flickr. CC

By Zuleyka Zevallos

The British not for profit organisation 4Children has published a study that finds parents who are wealthier tend to drink and use drugs more frequently than people from lower socio-economic backgrounds. Most middle class parents do not see their alcohol and drug use as having a negative impact on their families. At the same time, these parents are overwhelmingly worried about substance abuse in wider society.

These findings seem to defy “common sense.” First, the results go against the social convention that substance abuse is a bigger problem for poorer people. Second, if middle class parents are consuming drugs and alcohol at higher levels, why don’t they see this as a problem for themselves, when it causes them alarm in others?

The 4Children study suggests that there is a “culture of silence” about substance abuse in middle class families that British society is not prepared to acknowledge. I use this  study to make a point about the social construction of deviance. This means that, because there is already a high degree of moral panic and stigma about being poor, drugs and alcohol abuse is seen as symptomatic of poverty.

Middle class groups enjoy certain social benefits, which include not having their personal problems define their character. This is why drinking and alcohol abuse is seen as a private affair for middle class families, and not a social illness. Poor people and other minorities are not entitled to such privacy.

I show how social perceptions of deviance are shaped by class privilege and the problematic values that lie beneath “common sense.” My analysis is not an indictment of people who are drug and alcohol dependent; instead, I seek to move away from frameworks of shame and stigma generally associated with substance use and abuse. My post explores why the personal troubles of some groups are positioned as a public issue for others.

Continue reading “Culture of Silence”: Why Common Sense Stops Us From Seeing Substance Abuse in Middle Class Families

Ashaninca Hallucinations: Challenging Western Concepts of Medicinal Knowledge

By Zuleyka Zevallos

Last year, I read about anthropologist Jeremy Narby’s participant observation field research with the Ashaninca, an indigenous group living in the Peruvian Amazon. His research is detailed in the book, The Cosmic Serpent: DNA and the Origins of Knowledge, as well as the follow up,  Intelligence in NatureI’ve thought a lot about this research since. Narby’s research focuses on the way Western science constructs medical knowledge in ways that do not accommodate mystical experiences from Other cultures. Western medicine has come to adopt the Ashaninca’s knowledge of rare plants, as they have been proven to positively affect health. Nevertheless, Western scientists refuse to take into consideration how the Ashaninca gain this knowledge because it is derived through drug-induced hallucinations. This is in spite of the fact that these hallucinations come from the same plant ecosystem that Western science  is eager to plunder. How do we reconcile this knowledge divide? Narby argues that the Ashaninca’s understanding of plants and ‘alternative medicine’ must be understood in concert with their pathways to this knowledge. This includes the hallucinations which are used to commune with nature.

Ashaninca Hallucinations

Continue reading Ashaninca Hallucinations: Challenging Western Concepts of Medicinal Knowledge

Telling Other Stories of Climate Change in Africa and Around the World

Danger of a single storyA couple of weeks a go, in her CNN opinion column, Mary Robinson wrote her praise for women’s leadership in sustainable environmental progress. The piece was titled: Why women are world’s best climate change defence. Robinson is the former President of Ireland and she is now the head of the Mary Robinson Foundation (a ‘climate justice’ organisation). Robinson puts forward a call to action on the ‘gendered dimensions’ of climate change – but she doesn’t really say what this means. While the title of her paper talks about ‘women’, her commentary focuses on rural women in developing nations, especially in Africa.

Today I unpack the ideas that Robinson presents with respect to gendered environmental practices in African countries and developing nations. I contrast these with practices in advanced nations. I refer to Chimamanda Adichie’s writing about the dangers of telling ‘a single story’ about developing nations, specifically about ‘Africa’.

Different parts of the world face unique environmental challenges due to their national landscape and population distribution. Painting a singular picture about the gendered dimensions of climate change in developing nations narrows the scope of environmental progress.

Continue reading Telling Other Stories of Climate Change in Africa and Around the World