Interview: Making New Worlds

Close up of astronaut's reflection on their helmet, as they work in space

I’m featured in the first episode of Making New Worlds, a podcast inviting experts from different fields to discuss the ethics of colonising other planets.

The issue we discuss is not about scientific space exploration (collecting data about other planets), but whether it is ethical for humans to settle in Mars or other planets. My responses represent sociological considerations about the inequality that is inherent in colonialism. The quotes below are excerpts from me; listen to the entire podcast in the link.

Picture of terrain on Mars, showing an aerial view of what appears to be sea, land and clouds. A quote from me is overlaid over the top, from the article, “And there is something profoundly unethical ... on our own planet.”
Ethics of colonising other planets

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Beyond Arm Chair Social Science: Diabetes and Food Insecurity

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.

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

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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

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“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.

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Hierarchiology: A Fun Way to Understand Complaints About Work

Someone I know keeps complaining about the hierarchy at their work and how people higher up the chain do not work as hard as everybody lower down the ranks. In this person’s eyes this is a fact that is irrefutable. It is a point of view I am very familiar with as I’ve heard it often. It makes me think of a friend of mine who years ago told me that people are promoted to the highest level of their incompetence. This is otherwise known as the Peter Principle, Laurence Peter and Raymond Hull’s satirical view of organisations, as laid out in their 1969 book of the same name. Or as this comic explains, The Dilbert Principle, works just as well.

This 1969 Time Magazine review describes the Peter Principle through the theory of hierarchiology, which is the ‘the study of hierarchies in modern organisations’. The last tenet is: ‘Final Placement Syndrome… [or] what the ordinary sociologist calls “success”‘. Funny stuff.

Credit: The Dilbert Principle (1995)

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Beauty, Biology and Discrimination

Several recent articles recreate the ever-popular idea that beauty aesthetics are based on biological imperatives. The premise of this argument is false – beauty, sex, gender and the social consequences of their related biological processes are not pre-determined. This line of thinking lumps the complexity of human experience and sexual expression into a uniform category and it provides the false impression that nothing can be done to change human behaviour. Sociology can help unpackage how and why so-called “common sense” ideas about beauty become established as commonplace knowledge. Contrary to what mainstream culture may have us believe, beauty ideals can be challenged and transformed. Beauty-based discrimination is not natural nor is it unavoidable.

We need to theorise the meaning of beauty in our lives so that we can educate for critical consciousness. - bell hooks
We need to theorise the meaning of beauty in our lives so that we can educate for critical consciousness. – bell hooks

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