Study confirms intimate partner violence leading health risk factor for women

Kim Webster, University of Melbourne and Zuleyka Zevallos, Swinburne University of Technology

Barely a week passes without a media report of the suffering or tragic death of a woman at the hands of a partner. Typically, these accounts focus on the individuals involved. While important, in isolation, such a focus can belie the fact intimate partner violence is a wider social problem, obscuring both the factors contributing to it and opportunities to prevent it.

A study being launched today by Australia’s National Research Organisation for Women’s Safety confirms the serious impacts of intimate partner violence. The analysis, undertaken by the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare, provides estimates of the impact of intimate partner violence on women’s health.

Data from the Personal Safety Survey, Australia’s most reliable violence prevalence survey, was used as a key input.

Since the age of 15, one in four women in Australia have experienced at least one incident of violence by a partner. This includes violence perpetrated by a live-in partner as well as boyfriends, girlfriends or dates. This is based on a definition of violence, used by the Personal Safety Survey, which includes physical and sexual assault, as well as face-to-face threats the victim believed were likely and able to be carried out.

When emotional abuse by a live-in partner is included, (defined as controlling behaviours aimed at causing fear or emotional harm), it is estimated one in three women have experienced violence or abuse by an intimate partner. Continue reading Study confirms intimate partner violence leading health risk factor for women

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 The original paper that made the assertion that such a link existed was retracted by the original publisher, The Lancet, due to fraud by Andrew Wakefield and his team.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

Beyond Arm Chair Social Science: Diabetes and Food Insecurity

“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

Paternalism, Colonialism and Indigenous Education

Photo by Mark Roy via Flickr
Photo by Mark Roy via Flickr

By Zuleyka Zevallos, PhD

WARNING: Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander readers are warned that the content on this page may contain images and references to deceased persons. (Why this warning?)

The Council of Australian Governments has conducted a national review of Indigenous socio-economic outcomes. Its recent report finds that while some measures are improving, there is still a large gap between Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australians. This post provides a snapshot of the findings with a focus on education and responses by the state. One of the solutions being offered to improve educational outcomes amongst Indigenous youth is to send them to boarding schools. I discuss this in relation to Australia’s colonial history and the Government’s paternalistic views on Indigenous welfare.

I review other approaches to Indigenous education, which focus on working to students’ strengths in order to improve outcomes. This means making curriculum more focused on applied skills, vocational training within remote communities, and ensuring knowledge is culturally relevant. At the same time, educational efforts must avoid “pigeon holing” Indigenous students and teachers. Instead, education needs to make leadership and career pathways more accessible, and ensure that Indigenous insights are being fed back into the education system.

Finally, my post explores how sociological teaching and activism needs to change in reflection of the history of Indigenous educational practices.

Continue reading Paternalism, Colonialism and Indigenous Education

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

Challenging the Social Value of Child Marriage

By Zuleyka Zevallos

Challenging the Social Value of Child MarriageThe 11th of October 2012 was the inaugural Day of the Girl. This year, the focus was on the eradication of child marriage. Around the world, 70 million girls were married before they reached the age of 18. My post today explores how the interrelated issues of gender, education and child marriage might be addressed by sociology. My focus is primarily on girl brides. While young boys are also married, the research I review shows that the adverse effects of child marriage have chronic health and socio-economic impact on young girls. The “value” attached to child brides refers to the cultural and economic issues underlying child marriage. Young girls are married off according to dominant beliefs about preserving women’s “honour” (that is, ensuring virginity before marriage), as well as the costs of raising girls. Child marriage has been linked to people trafficking in extreme situations. In most other cases it maintains the status quo in poor or underdeveloped areas, where economic deprivation is used to justify men’s dominance over young women’s reproductive and life choices. In order to eliminate child marriage, communities need to be shown practical demonstrations that delaying marriage increases everyone’s welfare. Continue reading Challenging the Social Value of Child Marriage

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

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

Continue reading Beauty, Biology and Discrimination