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

Continue reading Beyond Arm Chair Social Science: Diabetes and Food Insecurity

Why I Moderate Comments on My Blogs

A young White boy screams into a microphone. The top of the image says: Why I moderate comments on my blogs

Today, I will reflect on the commenting policy that covers my various blogs and social media. In a nutshell, my policy says: 1) discuss sociology; 2) be polite; 3) stay on topic; and 4) be aware of your own bias. I rarely acknowledge individual abuse that comes my way and I delete the majority of abusive comments I receive on my blog, and I block and report abuse on my social media. Periodically, I will discuss broad patterns of these comments on Twitter, using the hashtag #SocModeration (standing for ‘sociology moderation’). This allows me to reflect on the personal costs of what it means for me, a minority woman, to battle racism and sexism online while writing about the sociology of inequality. At the same time, not publishing abuse on my actual blog keeps my ‘home’ welcoming for my key audience: primarily other women of colour and anyone else who respects minorities.

People who come to my blogs to hurl abuse see sexism and racism as insults and as subjective ideas that can be rejected. I discuss how the concept of White male privilege dislocates this individual perspective on discrimination. I end by arguing that, despite the problems I face, public outreach is important. It’s something that sociologists and other scientists can be, and should be, battling together.

We don’t condone interpersonal violence face to face. We can’t be complicit on this culture online. The scientific community needs to take a collective stance against silencing minorities and White women from participating in public discussions. Let’s not allow the normalisation of abuse online. People who are already underrepresented should not expect to be subject to harassment simply because we write about inequality. We should expect to feel safe in leading public debates on education, science and social justice.

Someecards picturing a White man pointing his finger. At the top of the image are the words: "White privilege: "We'll decide what's racist and what's not racist. We're the deciders of everything."
Image source

Continue reading Why I Moderate Comments on My Blogs

Stella Young on Ableism

Inspiration porn is an image of a person with a disability, often a kid, doing something completely ordinary – like playing, or talking, or running, or drawing a picture, or hitting a tennis ball – carrying a caption like “your excuse is invalid” or “before you quit, try”… 

Let me be clear about the intent of this inspiration porn; it’s there so that non-disabled people can put their worries into perspective. So they can go, “Oh well if that kid who doesn’t have any legs can smile while he’s having an awesome time, I should never, EVER feel bad about my life”. It’s there so that non-disabled people can look at us and think “well, it could be worse… I could be that person”. Continue reading Stella Young on Ableism

Sociology Careers Panel

Earlier today I spoke on a careers panel at the postgraduate day for The Australian Sociological Association. I wanted to share a couple of the questions we were asked. These ranged from specifics like how to set up a business to broader questions about how to manage ethics and how to maintain a professional identity. One of the key themes from the panellists was learning to translate theory into practice and networking. I spoke about writing for your future clients via a specialist blog and using social media.

Sociology of Medical Technologies

The democratisation of medical knowledge is a great thing to aspire to, but this post below makes some worrying claims about how social media and technology can improve healthcare. I’ll discuss why we should critically evaluate the social assumptions we make about having lay people access medical information via technology and the problems of relying on social media ratings to make judgements about medical practitioners’ scientific competency.

The Venture Beat article by Sean Mehra enthusiastically embraces the possibilities that new technologies, especially social media, can have on healthcare. Mehra is the head of product at HealthTap, a social platform where the public can have their medical questions answered by professionals. Mehra argues that one technological innovation would be to have a platform where medical doctors can rate other doctors’ competencies.

Universities already do this: educational facilities train and certify medical practitioners. While improving “bedside manner” and social connection with patients is something I’d support, social skills can be better integrated into medical training. Some medical courses require that their students take a humanities class. Nurses, for example, might be asked to take a sociology unit. Medical doctors are not always required to do the same. Having an understanding of social and cultural issues would strengthen patient relationships.  Continue reading Sociology of Medical Technologies

Social Media Tough to Resist

An upcoming study to be published in Psychological Science finds checking social media “is ranked the highest desires to resist” in comparison to nicotine and sex. The study’s lead author, Wilhelm Hofmann, says:

Desires for media may be comparatively harder to resist because of their high availability and also because it feels like it does not cost much to engage in these activities, even though one wants to resist.”

I look forward to reading the paper because I have a lot of questions about the methods. As reported, The Mail Online seems to have conflated the concepts of “desire” and “willpower,” which is problematic. 

Social Media for Young Patients

The New York Times has featured an American pediatrician who uses social media, her blog and texts to keep her teenage patients informed.

“The payoff, say doctors who text, tweet and post, is a better-informed teenager who finds social media a faster and less embarrassing means to have questions asked and answered.”


Google’s Glass Ceiling: A Case Study of Why Organisations Lose Innovative Women

Google's Glass CeilingBy Zuleyka Zevallos

Last month, The New York Times gave a disheartening insight into Google’s Executive hiring practices. Google is predominantly staffed with young men,* and they have trouble hiring and retaining women. Google turned to its “famous algorithms” to work out why this was the case, developing spreadsheets to help address the matter. In Google Executive land, it seems, engineers and computer scientists are characterised as “guys” who are proactive in advancing their careers, while women are seen as failed “business” people who don’t ask for promotions. Google has taken some measures to address their hiring practices, but its Executives seem to accept that their gender imbalance (30% women to 70% men) is unlikely to change much. While I focus on Google as a case study, my analysis deconstructs the flaws in the gender logic that large companies have about workplace inequality. Studies find that it is not the fact that women do not ask for promotions that impede their career progression; nor is it simply the decision to exit the workplace to have children. Instead, empirical data show that when employers are faced with equally qualified and experienced candidates who put in the same amount of work and who have the same outcomes, they are more likely to hire, promote and remunerate men over women. I argue that there is a resistance in workplaces to understand how their organisational practices are structured in ways that impede women from thriving professionally.

Gender imbalance and inequality are not inevitable. These are the outcome of daily interactions, organisational practices, policies, and unexamined norms and values. Sociology can help workplaces address gender inequalities by taking an organisational approach to gender. Such a framework makes gender biases visible and involves everyone in addressing inequality – not just women, but people of all genders, as well as the Executives who hold ultimate power in organisational change. Continue reading Google’s Glass Ceiling: A Case Study of Why Organisations Lose Innovative Women

Tumblr and the Presentation of Romantic Self

One of the things that fascinates me is the way a lot of young people seem to use Tumblr, which is basically as a positive, aspirational alternative to the social networking institution they’re accustomed to: Facebook. Rather than forcing them to represent themselves as they are, which I think is Facebook’s major goal, Tumblr allows them to represent the romantic self (or selves) they wish to be. I think this is a big part of the intense emotional attachment a lot of people seem to have to Tumblr.

Facebook is currently #1 in terms of time spent online, but Tumblr recently became #2. I think this is because they both appeal to intense human desires, but I would argue that off the two Tumblr appeals to the more positive.

Buzz Anderson, quoted by Fred Spears in an interview with Pixel Union. (via blech)

Buzz is awesome.

(via joshuanguyen)

Twitter Censorship a Back-Flip on Human Rights

By Zuleyka Zevallos

Twitter censorship
Twitter censorship

One year ago, Twitter celebrated that it would uphold free speech as a ‘human right‘ for countries that had censorship laws. On the 26th of January, Twitter announced a back-flip on its previous public pronouncement that it was the bastion of free speech:

As we continue to grow internationally, we will enter countries that have different ideas about the contours of freedom of expression. Some differ so much from our ideas that we will not be able to exist there. Others are similar but, for historical or cultural reasons, restrict certain types of content, such as France or Germany, which ban pro-Nazi content.

Twitter’s blog includes a link to Chilling Effects, a site that alerts users about what content has been flagged for censorship. The complaints currently listed are about media content. What will happen when the complaints are about freedom of expression for various political activist groups?

Continue reading Twitter Censorship a Back-Flip on Human Rights