You may have heard that Megan Smith former Vice President of GoogleX is now the Chief Technology Officer for The White House. Smith has both a Bachelor and a Masters degree in Mechanical Engineering from MIT, she serves on the MIT Board, and she is also a successful entrepreneur. She has an outstanding commitment to gender diversity and she is one of the few big-name leaders in Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM) who is visible in her work with Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, and Queer (LGBTQ) communities. Smith was formerly the CEO of PlanetOut, an online LGBT organisation. Let’s take a look at Smith’s amazing credentials and her work on women in STEM and LGBTQ advocacy.
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.
This the story of how sociology can improve public science. I discuss the social science research explaining why some sections of the general public resist research evidence. As some of you know, I’m one of around 20 Moderators who run Science on Google+. Our Community is managed by practising scientists and our membership includes researchers as well as members of the public who are interested in science. I run the Social Science stream (along with Chris Robinson who created the Community). Our Community aims to improve the quality of science posts and public outreach, by connecting the public to real scientists. This week, we celebrated the fact that our Community has grown to 200,000 members. The Community receives numerous posts each day. We want to move discussion away from people sharing their personal opinions on “fluff” science pieces that often end up distorted in the news, and instead we’d like to focus on the relevance, validity and reliability of peer reviewed science. Invariably, we get people coming to the Community specifically looking to argue about how all science is wrong (usually with regards to social science), corrupt (often regarding life sciences), or “just a theory” (creationist arguments against the physical sciences).
These critics do not focus on the scientific content of a study. They focus on moral and cultural arguments, which to them are scientific. For example, when discussing research on gender inequality in science, there’s a variation of: “In my engineering class there’s only two women. I think that most women just aren’t interested in science. That’s not sexism to point out the truth.” (Yes, it is sexist.) When discussing research on climate change: “There’s inconclusive evidence on this!” (No, the evidence is compelling.)
Most of these people do not use credible scientific research to back up their claims, but they evoke some general statistics (“everyone knows…” and “countless studies show”).We ask for links to peer reviewed science, which never come. Sometimes they post links to conspiracy videos that have no scholarly merit. Despite their lack of evidence, these people are thoroughly convinced that they are scientists or that they are very well informed on a topic. They cite ideas of science from popular culture (“science is about questioning everything!”). Otherwise they draw on something they heard in the news or they revert to personal anecdotes and subjective observations.
These critics are the exception, as most of our Community members are genuinely curious in science and learning. The problem is that these anti-scientist “scientists” take up a lot of time and they derail discussions. So what motives them?
Chad Haney, one of our colleagues and a Curator for the excellent Science Sunday, wrote a fantastic post about how social psychology concepts might explain why people refuse to engage with scientific evidence. Chad invited me to comment on his post, and this has led me to crystallise thoughts that I’ve had circling my head since I started blogging seven years a go. Other than a sheer love of the social sciences, why bother with public science? Who is our audience? Does it “work” and how do we measure its success? How can we improve it?
My post will discuss the sociology of beliefs, values and attitudes to describe the cultural, institutional and historical ways in which the public has engaged with science. I present two case studies of “hot topics” that usually draw anti-science comments to our Community regarding gender inequality and genetically modified foods. I show how cultural beliefs about trust and risk influence the extent to which people accept scientific evidence. I go on to discuss how sociology can help improve public science outreach. Continue reading The Sociology of Why People Don’t Believe Science
By Zuleyka Zevallos, PhD
In a fun rummage through vintage sociology, I found an interesting study by Isidor Thorner. Writing in 1951, he used a survey of Americans from various backgrounds to determine the relationship between New Year’s Resolutions (NYR) and Protestant values. Below I take a look at the major findings of Thorner’s study, exploring the historical and cultural variations of resolutions.
Protestant culture highly valued the idea of being in full control of one’s emotions. This meant being organised and denying oneself frivolous pursuits so as to be free to fulfil religious duty. Not adhering to these strict values brought about great personal shame.
Thorner argues that the New Year’s resolutions helped Protestants to manage their emotional baggage, and that over time, this practice lost its religious connotation and spread more widely.
By Zuleyka Zevallos, PhD
In honour of Nelson Mandela’s life, I thought it would be useful to take a critical look at the sociology of Mandela’s leadership. As the world mourns the death and humanity of Mandela, let’s also reflect on the social bases of Mandela’s courage and strength. This is as an opportunity to better understand how Mandela’s social experiences inspired his search for social justice.
In their excellent study, Davide Morsellia and Stefano Passini draw on social psychology and sociology in order to compare the social and political influences on three world leaders of civil rights movements in three different societies: Nelson Mandela in South Africa, Mahatma Gandhi in India and Martin Luther King Jr in America. The researchers argue that these three world leaders engaged in “prosocial moral disobedience” – that is, they actively went against authority despite the personal persecution that followed. They did so not simply due to personal qualities, but as a direct result of their socialisation. Mandela will always be remembered as an extraordinary individual, as will Gandhi and MLK. This post will show that this is not the way these leaders understood their lives and activism. My post will explore how Mandela’s moral development and personal attitudes were affected by social context. Continue reading Nelson Mandela’s ProSocial Moral Disobedience
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.
By Zuleyka Zevallos, PhD
This week I interviewed sociologist and activist Dr Dan Brook for Sociology at Work (video below). I enjoyed chatting with Dan about his philosophy that sociology is inherently about social justice and social transformation. Any sociologist would agree with this – but how do we actually help achieve tangible social change? I’ve been thinking a lot about why some social justice movements are more successful than others. This has been on my mind for awhile, since I met with an old colleague a couple of months a go.
My colleague is a fellow sociologist and a political refugee who can never return to their birthplace due to persecution. After resettling in Australia, my colleague had been an academic for some time, but he felt limited in his capacity to achieve social change. He left academia and has been working as a researcher for law enforcement for the better part of a decade. This colleague is older than I am and he has a wistful view of social activism in the 1960s. He wondered,”Why don’t people care today like they did back then?” I explained that people back then were not inherently more radical – the fact is that social justice was at their door. It was on the news every night. Many people they knew personally were dying in wars overseas. The political economy was personally affecting their everyday lives. My colleague did not like to hear this; he wanted to think that people were simply “better people” back then. As he saw it, people simply cared more about the world before and they don’t care much today.
Today’s post shows that “caring” is only part of the picture when it comes to social justice activism. Resources such as money, time and technology have a significant impact on people’s ability to turn a grassroots social justice issue into social reform. Social context also matters. What is the political, social and economic climate in which activists work? I will also show that there are two general types of activists whose resources and networks help them yield higher returns on their efforts.
By Zuleyka Zevallos, PhD
Below is a great interview with sociologist Dr. Tina Uys, who talks about the urgent need for sociology in South Africa (where she lives). Inequality is shifting rapidly in many ways, for example in education, but it does so without adequate institutional support. Uys discusses the problems facing South African sociology, such as funding cuts. Uys then talks about her journey through her sociological career, one which did not begin with sociology in mind. I see that Uys’s story may be common. It certainly echoes my own career.
Today’s post is about the pressing need to better market a unified vision of sociology to our students. Academic, applied and public sociologies serve different interests: one is about theoretical development, the other about serving government and community services, and the latter is about engaging the public’s imagination. Elsewhere, I’ve shown that applied sociology is poorly understood by academics. It’s like we’re a collective of practitioners working adjacent to one another, without a broader external view of how we fit together. It’s time to bring our various sociological approaches together.
By Zuleyka Zevallos, PhD
Today is the “Other September 11.” On this day in Chile, 1973, President Salvador Allende was killed in a coup by Augusto Pinochet. My blog post explores the ongoing impact of this event on Chileans living in Australia.
In his historic speech, Allende’s final address to the nation, he talks of his sacrifice against imperial forces and his vision for the future. SBS News has a great website commemorating this event, including the role that the Australian Government played in feeding intelligence to the USA, which eventually led to the rise of the Pinochet regime. When the Australian Labor government came to power in 1972, Prime Minister Gough Whitlam is said to have been appalled about Australia’s involvement in the coup and removed his Government’s political support.
Australia began accepting Chilean refugees in the mid-1970s. The Chilean-Australian community grew from 6,000 in 1971 to over 24,000 by 1991. Continue reading Chileans in Australia: The Other 9/11 and the Legacy of the Pinochet Regime
By Zuleyka Zevallos, PhD
Sociology and anthropology have long used the experiences of “third sex” cultures, such as the Native American Two Spirit people, to teach students about the social construction of sex and gender. In many cultures around the world, people are allowed to live their lives beyond conventional binaries; they need not adhere to the biological sex they were born into. These people are usually revered and there are special circumstances where individuals are allowed to shift their gender position. These groups, including the Two Spirit people, are used as examples in the sociology of Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, Queer and Intersexual (LGBTQI) issues. Recent scholarship, however, has questioned this practice, demonstrating that social scientists are applying Western concepts to misappropriate the Two Spirit phenomena.
My post gives a broad overview of the social science concepts of gender and sexuality. I then discuss the spirituality, gender and sexuality of Two Spirit people as well as the history and culture that informs their social position. Let me put my analysis in context: I am not Native American nor am I a transgender person. I identify as a *cis-woman of colour (*that is, my biological and gender identity align). As a sociologist who has researched, published on and taught gender and sexuality courses, I seek to explore how Western social scientists, queer theorists and other social activists have misappropriated the Two Spirit experience to highlight social causes.
I propose that social science needs to move forward from our dominant understandings of the Two Spirit experience. My aim is to start a conversation about how we might expand sociological understandings of gender and sexuality using this case study. How do we best communicate the social construction of gender and sexuality to students and to the public? I argue academics and activists need to be mindful that, even with the best of intentions, misappropriation of cultural traditions of minority groups is dangerous. This perpetuates historical practices that have silenced Indigenous experiences. There are better ways to appreciate and form solidarity with Other cultures. This begins by listening to the way minorities speak about their own experiences, rather than projecting our seemingly-progressive perspective onto Others.
I begin by giving a background on what inspired this post as an example of public sociology. Public sociology describes how we produce sociology for mass audiences outside academia. My focus here is on how we use sociology in the classroom and in social media. It is vital to the longevity of our discipline that sociologists explain our key concepts to general audiences. At the same time, I see it important that we publicly own up to, and invite a public discussion about, the changing dynamics of power which influence social theories. We also need to take responsibility for the way we teach and publicly discuss social science ideas. This means being more critical about the ways in which social science ideas are produced and disseminated, especially via social media.