Category Archives: The Social Contract

Classics

This week for my inequality class we read some writings by Marx, Weber, and Durkheim. I’d just like to say that sometimes classics are more interesting when you have CliffsNotes, and less interesting when you have to read the classics themselves.

Sorry, world.

P.S. I also have a lot of trouble following the plot in black & white movies. Think there’s a connection?

Limited

Summer break is about halfway over! We still have some fun adventures coming up in the next two months, but I’m also looking forward to school starting again.

I have 6 classes left to complete – 1 general ed (physics), a statistics course, social psychology, and 3 400-level sociology classes. The physics, stats, and social psych classes can all be taken through independent study, and my plan was originally to do those during the summer, take the 400-level classes on campus this fall, and graduate in December. (Thankfully, I opted to take a little break, so I basically have the summer to relax.)

I knew trying to take the 400-level classes together would severely limit any flexibility in my schedule; since it will also be the Romgi’s final year of law school, I doubted we’d be able to work around each other’s classes. So I decided I’d just find a babysitter for while I’m at school.

It turned out to be a little more challenging than I thought to find a block of classes. I don’t want to spend an hour on campus in between classes, partly because I’ll be paying someone to watch the kids – and the less babysitting I have to pay that person for, the better. Eventually I was able to enroll in the physics class (Tuesday nights from 6-9 – the Romgi can watch the kids then, and by the way, that is an insane time for class), statistics (MWF at 10am, with a lab on Wednesdays at 9am), and one 400-level sociology class: inequality & society.

One downside right now is that there are several classes I’d like to take, but don’t have time for. I don’t need them to graduate and I’m not sure I can justify spending the extra money on babysitting, not to mention the extra time doing classwork. Here are a few I’d love to take if I could:

Soc 325 – Introduction to Sociology of Religion. This is taught by my favorite professor (he teaches the theory classes), and it sounds fascinating. Before I decided to major in sociology I was working on a (very informal) essay about religion in society. From the description the professor gave, this class is my essay, but better. Lots better.

Soc 365 – Sociology of Aging. There’s a lot of debate about how to care and provide for the elderly. Is it a responsibility of the individual, the community, or the government? This class examines that issue, along with social attitudes about aging and social policies regarding the elderly.

This may surprise you: Soc 328 – Sociology of Sport. I find it fascinating how complex organizations and systems have developed to govern and oversee sports. For example, we have a very clear history of the invention of basketball. In just over 100 years we go from the first game ever played to an official institution regulating professional games, teams, and players. I think it’s an interesting example of how complex systems develop.

Soc 390R – Social Welfare Policy. I imagine that taking this alongside the inequality & society class would be fascinating. I’d also be interested to see the BYU perspective on the topic.

Depending on what’s offered next winter semester, I may or may not be able to take Soc 429 – Social Change & Modernization, which looks at contemporary social change through the various theories we studied in Soc 311; and Soc 470 – Sociology of Law, which I think it fairly self-explanatory.

Then there are some non-sociology classes I’d be interested in taking, like ArtHC 111 – Introduction to Art History; Anthr 101 – Social/Cultural Anthropology (my limited knowledge of anthropology comes from watching Bones, and I’ll be honest, it sounds a lot like sociology…with more physical artifacts), Engl 356 – Myth, Legend, & Folktales; Music 201 – Civilization: Music, which explores history from Greek antiquity to the seventeenth century from the perspective of musical literature; and Phil 110 – Introduction to Philosophy.

But, for now I’ll just be glad that I’ve had the chance to take as many classes as I have. Switching majors four times has been a good experience, I suppose. (And when I finish I will have exactly the number of required credits to graduate. Sociology is a very short major.) What classes would you take, if you could?

image source

Aladdin + rational choice theory

I thought we’d start off with one of the more basic, and useless, contemporary sociological theories: rational choice theory. This is basically economics. Humans engage in actions that will maximize profit – the most reward for the lowest cost. According to rational choice theory [RCT], humans are rational actors and will always make rational choices (and by rational, they mean profit-maximizing). Pretty easy, right? Hopefully you’ll pick up on some of the obvious flaws to the theory as we go along.

In Disney’s Aladdin, the main character is a thief because he can successfully avoid being captured and imprisoned while still getting food and other necessities without paying for them. Reward = free food; cost = risk of being caught; profit = large enough to make Aladdin rationally decide that stealing is worth it. It’s in his best interest to do so.

Jasmine doesn’t want to get married (or, more specifically, to be obligated to get married). Why? Well, everyone has preferences. Jasmine prefers not to get married. Here’s a major flaw of RCT: it can’t, and doesn’t attempt to, explain why people want certain things; it just says that we all have preferences, and we seek to maximize those preferences. So Jasmine runs away from the palace because it helps her avoid being married off.

Jafar is pretty straightforward. He wants power. Selfish people are so easy to explain with RCT. (And, anyway, according to RCT we’re all self-interested.)

Here’s a brief plot summary, with 3 points I want to analyze: Aladdin steals some bread. Jasmine runs away from the palace to avoid marriage. Aladdin helps Jasmine in the market place. He is captured by the guards and imprisoned. Jafar (in disguise) gets Aladdin to steal the magic lamp. Genie grants Aladdin 3 wishes. Aladdin promises to use his third wish to free Genie from an eternity of servitude. Aladdin becomes Prince Ali and woos Jasmine on a magic carpet ride. The guards try to drown Aladdin but Genie saves him. Aladdin exposes Jafar’s power-hungry motives. Jasmine and Aladdin plan to marry. Jafar steals the magic lamp and becomes Genie’s new master. He wishes to be sultan, then sorcerer, then genie, after which he is imprisoned in his own lamp. Aladdin uses his third wish to free Genie. The sultan changes the law so Jasmine and Aladdin can marry.

1. After Aladdin and Abu steal a loaf of bread and sit down to enjoy it, they see some little kids rooting through the trash for food. Aladdin generously hands over his half of the loaf. RCT says this is not real generosity; altruism does not exist (except for saints and fools, who are arguably not rational actors), which means that Aladdin is simply trying to appear noble because he prefers to be seen as such. Notice that Abu is reluctant to hand his bread over.

2. When Aladdin is thrown into the ocean by the guards, Genie frantically tries to get Aladdin to wish to be saved. Why? Is it because he cares about Aladdin as a friend, or because Aladdin has promised to free Genie with the third wish? Maybe both. Aladdin is a good master to Genie, which makes Genie want to keep him around. Perhaps for Genie the only thing better than having Aladdin as a master is being free. And by forcing Aladdin to use his second wish to avoid drowning, Genie hopes to guarantee his own sooner-than-later release from servitude. Of course, in the real world, we’d attribute Genie’s action to the bond he and Aladdin have formed, but RCT demands that we explain actions in terms of profit. Does Genie profit by saving Aladdin? He certainly avoids years of waiting in his lamp at the bottom of the ocean before being discovered by a new master.

3. RCT is going to have a tough time satisfactorily explaining why Aladdin ends up freeing Genie with his third wish. It looks as though Aladdin gives up his chance to spend a happy life with Jasmine just to keep his promise to Genie. Sure, Aladdin’s a good guy, but what rational sense does that make? Here’s what RCT would say: Aladdin prefers keeping his word more than he prefers being happily married to the woman he loves. Or maybe Aladdin prefers appearing to be a good guy. Whatever it is, Aladdin is acting on his preferences.

In that last example, did you see the circular logic? Aladdin has preferences, and he acts to maximize them. We can see what his preferences are by examining his actions. So preferences motivate actions, and actions reveal preferences. If I stand outside in the rain, RCT says it must be in my self-interest to do so. If I come inside from the rain, RCT says it must be in my self-interest to do so. Which is my preference – standing outside or coming inside? RCT can only discern my preference by looking at my action, but then it explains my action by saying I was acting on my preference. Really, guys. This is a little ridiculous. Right?

Anyway, I want to apologize. This has turned out to be a little bit more of an undertaking than I imagined. It will take me a while to get the hang of what I’m doing with the sociological theory/movie analysis thing. I know this post was rambling and unorganized, but quite honestly I’ve had a long day and I don’t feel like sitting down to edit it. At least RCT can explain that easily!

Ritual

According to classic sociologist Emile Durkheim,

There can be no society which does not feel the need of upholding and reaffirming at regular intervals the collective sentiments and the collective ideas which make its unity and its personality. Now this moral remaking cannot be achieved except by the means of reunions, assemblies and meetings where the individuals, being closely united to one another, reaffirm in common their common sentiments.

In other words, the Royal Wedding is one example of a ritual – a highly routinized act – that unites us. It’s obviously much more important for British citizens, but the rest of us can participate to some extent, though I doubt the ritual is quite as symbolic to us as it is to Brits. On a smaller scale, something like a football game has the same uniting and reaffirming effect.

Basically, it’s good for society. That’s why you should care about the Royal Wedding. (Also, it was really touching to see the new Princess Catherine crying happily when they got into the carriage.)

And there’s your sociological insight for the day.

(Quote taken from The Elementary Forms of Religious Life, 1912.)

Barriers to exclusive breastfeeding

This paper was submitted to Brigham Young University in April 2011 and may not be reproduced in any way without my permission.

Across continents and cultures, women have a commonality in their ability to bear children. With this potential comes also the ability to provide nourishment for infants through breast milk. Research shows that exclusive breastfeeding in the first months of life medically benefits both the mother and child. Yet considerable global challenges exist to effective, sustained breastfeeding, in developed as well as in developing nations. Lack of information about the benefits of breastfeeding, lack of interest or economic ability to breastfeed, and lack of adequate health on the mother’s part all contribute to the low worldwide rate of exclusive breastfeeding. In order to overcome these issues, health workers and breastfeeding proponents must help provide feasible methods for combining employment and breastfeeding, tactfully address long-standing cultural beliefs and practices, and inform mothers of the enormous safeguards presented by breastfeeding, even for HIV-positive women.

Studies have repeatedly demonstrated that breast milk provides the optimal combination of food and nutrients for infants in the first six months of life. Evidence shows that breastfeeding reduces the risk of morbidity by protecting the infant from common bacterial and viral infections, many of which can be fatal in infants (Goldman, Hopkinson & Rassin, 2007). Breastfeeding can provide complete and sufficient nutrition, even for infants with low birth-weight. Exclusive breastfeeding encourages growth more quickly and effectively than alternative feeding methods in these infants (Labbok, 2006). This is most likely because breast milk contains specific proteins that help an infant’s immune system develop properly (Egalsh, Montgomery & Wood, 2008). This in turn leads to healthier children. Breastfeeding avoids much of the risk of potentially life-threatening conditions, including diarrhea, that arise when formula is prepared in poor sanitation settings (Arvelo et al., 2010).

Not only does breastfeeding positively affect the immediate health and growth of infants, numerous long-term health benefits exist for breastfed children. Breastfeeding as an infant negatively correlates with the risks of obesity, diabetes, and childhood leukemia (Eglash et al., 2008). Furthermore, breastfeeding positively affects a child’s mental development. Studies point to increased cognitive development in the early years of life for breastfed children (Goldman et al., 2007). Additionally, breastfed children display greater acceptance of new foods and of a wider variety of foods (Maier, Chabanet, Schaal, Leathwood & Issanchou, 2008). Exposure to a wider variety of foods ensures that children continue to receive the full spectrum of nutrients required for healthy, sustained growth.

Children are not the only individuals to reap the benefits of exclusive breastfeeding; breastfeeding positively affects women’s health, as well. Breastfeeding may substantially reduce the risk of several life-threatening diseases. Women who breastfeed their children experience lower incidences of both breast and ovarian cancer (Collaborative Group on Hormonal Factors in Breast Cancer, 2002; Hanna & Adams, 2006). Furthermore, studies demonstrate an inverse relationship between breastfeeding and the risk of developing type 2 diabetes (Ip et al., 2007). Breastfeeding positively correlates to an increase in women’s mental health . Mothers who breastfeed tend to have considerably shorter and less physically strenuous postpartum recoveries (Mezzacappa, Kelsey & Katkin, 2005).

The World Health Organization [WHO] recommends that women throughout the world provide only breast milk for their children for the first six months of life and continue to breastfeed, while introducing complementary foods, until children are two years old—or longer (WHO 2011). Despite this, surveys indicate that only 33% of mothers in the United States do breastfeed exclusively for at least six months (WHO Global Data Bank, 2010). The low rate of exclusive breastfeeding has several causes in developed countries. Both the personal preferences of the mother and external societal expectations can discourage breastfeeding. Qualitative studies have shown that some women prefer not to breastfeed because they feel it is less convenient than using formula (Raisler 2000). In some instances, women may be unaware of the benefits provided by breast milk that are not available through other sources (Miracle & Fredland, 2007). A survey of the change in attitudes toward breastfeeding in the United States found that people were increasingly likely, in the past decade, to agree that infant formula is as healthy as breast milk (Li, Rock & Grummer-Strawn, 2007).

More commonly, women must return to employment after their maternity leave ends, and they find it difficult to breastfeed while working full- or part-time. Mothers who work outside the home are less likely to initiate breastfeeding, and typically wean more quickly if they do breastfeed, compared with mothers who do not work outside the home (Berger, Hill & Waldfogel, 2005). While in some instances this may be attributed to a personal preference for formula feeding, a lack of lactation support in the workplace also contributes to the problem. A study of women in the United Kingdom found that “mothers were pressured by employers to return to work [before their maternity leave was over]—looking and behaving just as they had before childbirth” (Gatrell, 2007). These employers made little effort to make any real provision for the continuation of the maternal role through breastfeeding. Societal sensitivities to the act of breastfeeding creates a barrier to discussion with employers about lactation in the workplace. Researchers have found that there is a great deal of discomfort about breastfeeding due to “breasts’ sexual connotation in American society” (Kedrowski & Lipscomb, 2007).

The biggest challenge for women who wish to continue breastfeeding after their return to work is finding time to express milk. In the United States, legislation encourages employers to accommodate nursing mothers by permitting break time to breastfeed on-site or to express breast milk, and by providing lactation facilities. Although 23 states have enacted statutes relevant to breastfeeding in the workplace, only 12 of these statutes include any enforcement provision (Murtagh & Moulton, 2011). Suggestions by breastfeeding proponents that women request specific accommodation to pump milk at work seem far too optimistic. Women who are least likely to be able to effectively combine work and breastfeeding are those typically employed in low-income jobs where they may have little say in the organizational policies (Kimbro, 2006). Little real progress has been made toward breastfeeding-friendly workplaces (Rojjanasrirat, 2004).

Evidence shows that mothers who breastfeed their children demonstrate “reduced turnover, absenteeism, and health care costs, . . . fewer absences, fewer absences related to the illness of their children, and shorter absences when their children were ill” (Angeletti, 2009). This may be due to the fact that breastfed children are generally more healthy, and therefore the mother is less likely to require time off to care for a sick child. Even though employers benefit from employing women who breastfeed, a survey found that few employers saw any value in supporting breastfeeding in the work environment (Libbus & Bullock, 2002). Only three states have legislation in place permitting employers to take steps to be designated as “baby-friendly” or “mother-friendly,” and employers that are interested in such designations tend to employ salaried workers in white-collar positions. Unfortunately, low-income women are least likely to initiate breast feeding, least likely to be able to breastfeed or express breast milk at work, and least likely to have health insurance—all factors that eventually lead to increased costs for employers (Murtagh & Moulton, 2011). Information on the long-term cost reduction to employers of allowing breastfeeding or milk expression in the workplace should be made more public and readily available. Both employers and working mothers should be aware of state and federal legislation about lactation in the workplace. This will empower women to take advantage of the medical, emotional, and financial benefits of exclusive breastfeeding by helping them overcome resistance to or ignorance about expressing milk or breastfeeding at work.

Barriers to exclusive breastfeeding exist in other nations, as well. The overall rate of exclusive breastfeeding for at least six months is only 37% in the developing world, and 39% in the least developed countries (UNICEF, 2010). Studies indicate that there are multiple reasons for the low rate of breastfeeding in the international community. Long-standing traditions in diverse cultures discourage exclusive breastfeeding, or even using breast milk as a primary food source, because of cultural beliefs that breast milk is an inadequate nutrition source for infants. A qualitative study found that women in Cameroon initiated mixed feeding almost immediately after birth, partly due to tradition and partly due to the requirement that women work in the field, long distances from their homes—which made breastfeeding just as unfeasible for these women as for employed mothers in Westernized countries (Kakute et al., 2005). A group of mothers surveyed in Langa, South Africa reported no exclusive breastfeeding. Participants in the study indicated that mixed feeding was introduced within an infant’s first month of life, based on a belief that breast milk was an incomplete nutrient (Sibeko, Dhansay, Charlton, Johns & Gray-Donald, 2005). A similar culture belief was found in Tukey, where more than one-third of mothers in a study reported that they stopped breastfeeding before six months because they felt their milk would not provide adequate nutrition (Yesildal et al., 2008). Similarly, reliance on generational wisdom may discourage breastfeeding. Grandmothers in Malawi are likely to give or direct new mothers to give supplementary root infusions to infants based on the belief that breast milk alone would not satisfy an infant’s hunger (Kerr, Dakishoni, Shumba, Msachi & Chirwa, 2008). Vietnamese women supplement breastfeeding with water or formula on the basis of the perceived nutritional insufficiency of breast milk (Almroth, Arts, Quang, Hoa & Williams, 2008). Many cultures, then, are reluctant to promote exclusive breastfeeding at any age, since breast milk on its own is considered inadequate for proper infant growth and development.

It will be difficult to surmount this cultural opposition to exclusive breastfeeding, despite research that supports the claim that exclusive breastfeeding significantly benefits the health of both the mother and baby and that breast milk is a complete nutrient for an infant’s first six months of life. Health workers must proceed cautiously in trying to combat years of tradition that discourage exclusive breastfeeding. Informing women of the advantages of breast milk requires sensitivity to cultural norms and practices. The effort to overcome these barriers to breastfeeding should focus on education for women.

Even where cultural barriers to exclusive breastfeeding are not as strong, there may still be other issues preventing the practice. Because an HIV-positive mother can transmit the virus to her infant through breast milk, health experts have debated the risks involved with breastfeeding (Coutsoudis, 2005). A randomized study in Kenya found that the HIV transmission rate through breastfeeding is 16.2% by age two years (Nduati et al., 2000). Early research on the possibility of HIV transmission through breast milk motivated many health care organizations to urge HIV-positive mothers not to breastfeed their infants (Hankins, 2000). However, the risks of formula-feeding may outweigh the risk of transmitting HIV through breast milk. A study in Botswana showed that non-breastfed babies were at a higher risk for a variety of communicable diseases because formula or other alternative foods were prepared with unsanitary, contaminated water (Arvelo et al., 2010). United Nations guidelines now “recommend exclusive breastfeeding for HIV-infected women for the first six months of life unless replacement feeding is acceptable, feasible, affordable, sustainable and safe . . . before that time” (UNICEF, 2009). In developed nations, these criteria can be met with relative ease; however, in resource-scarce nations, formula feeding is often not an option. Easy contamination of formula and other foods increases the risk of disease—and this risk of contamination is substantially higher than the risk of HIV-positive mothers transmitting the virus to their children via breast milk (Kuhn, Stein & Susser, 2004). Yet the information disseminated to women on the risks of formula-feeding versus breastfeeding is often conflicting or unclear, particularly as the research in this area is still new. Mothers may face the choice between higher risk of disease and higher risk of HIV transmission without being fully informed about either alternative.

Where possible, exclusive breastfeeding is the most favorable feeding method. In an infant’s first months it leads to short- and long-term health benefits. Women who breastfeed also experience a variety of health benefits. However, worldwide rates of exclusive breastfeeding rates are extremely low. For many women, a lack of reliable information prevents the practice. In the United States, there is a growing belief that infant formula provides the same nutrients and benefits as breast milk. Cultures across the globe recommend early mixed feeding to supplement breast milk, which is perceived as insufficient for proper infant growth. Education would help these women, as well as women in HIV-stricken countries who have received conflicting information on the risks and benefits of breastfeeding for HIV-positive mothers.

Where there is already a large body of knowledge in developed nations on the advantages of breastfeeding, addressing lactation in the workplace will enable women to initiate and continue breastfeeding even while they are working part- or full-time. Additional research on the effects of breastfeeding-friendly workplaces would aid breastfeeding proponents in recommending further legislation to encourage or require employers to accommodate lactating mothers. For all women who face barriers to exclusive breastfeeding, as well as for their families and employers, research and education will help address these challenges, providing a better life experience for mothers and a better future for their children.

Effects of parental incarceration on child outcomes

This paper was submitted to Brigham Young University in April 2011 and may not be reproduced in any way without my permission.

The imprisonment rate in the United States has increased drastically over the last three decades. With the increasing proportion of inmates who are incarcerated for drug offenses, which now carry mandatory minimum sentences, many children now have parents in prison. The Bureau of Justice estimated in 1991 that approximately 1.5 million children have an incarcerated parent; although the majority of these parents are fathers, a growing population of mothers are imprisoned. Of the 200,000 women in prison in 2006, as much as 70% had children under the age of 18. The effects of parental imprisonment on child outcomes have been well-studied, but the trends in mass incarceration and the increasing proportion of incarcerated mothers necessitates further research.

Since 2000, sociologists, psychologists, and child welfare advocates have in large measure turned to qualitative, in-depth studies to gain insight into the effects of parental incarceration as perceived by children and their caregivers. The small sample size of these studies limits the extent to which data can be generalized, but there is nevertheless important information to be gleaned from this research. Conversely, studies with larger sample sizes have relied on extensive data analysis to compare variables; these quantitative studies are excellent sources for a range of statistics on parental imprisonment and its effects on child outcomes. Though there is a growing body of research on maternal incarceration in particular and the unique problems it poses for caregivers, this is a relatively new area of sociology. The rapid but recent growth in the number of mothers who are imprisoned has not been studied to the same extent as paternal incarceration. Here we will examine some of the existing literature on the effects of parental imprisonment, with a special focus on mothers in prison, as well as the issues parental imprisonment raises for child care. In order to focus on the most recent data available, the scope of this literature review is limited to studies published since 2001.

Children with incarcerated parents are more likely than their peers to have behavioral problems. These problems manifest tend to manifest themselves differently for boys and girls. In a secondary analysis by Wilbur et al. (2007), children aged 6-11 years old were interviewed to determine their self-reported depression levels. Participants were part of a longitudinal study examining the effects of intrauterine cocaine exposure. Children who had incarcerated fathers had significantly higher self-reported depression scores compared to children who did not have incarcerated fathers. Additionally, after administering questionnaires about behavior problems to participants’ school teachers, a strong correlation was found between paternal incarceration and externalizing behaviors. A major finding of the study was that girls were more likely to self-report internalizing behaviors, such as depression, in relation to paternal incarceration, whereas boys were more likely to be reported to have externalizing behaviors, such as aggression and hyperactivity. However, because the research was drawn from a larger study of intrauterine substance exposure, its primary purpose was not to look in-depth into the effects of parental incarceration; rather, it was intended to be an exploratory beginning and a starting point for further research.

In addition to experiencing negative emotional and behavioral effects from parental imprisonment, children with incarcerated parents suffer social and material disadvantages, which can further detriment child well-being. As part of the Fragile Families and Child Wellbeing study, Geller, Garfinkel, Cooper, and Mincy (2009) interviewed parents at the birth of their child and again when the child was one and three years old. Geller et al. found that fathers and mothers who were incarcerated were less likely to be employed by the child’s third birthday, worked less consistently, and earned less than parents who had never been imprisoned. Thus, following paternal incarceration, children were more likely to receive public assistance, experience material hardship, and experience significant residential instability. These socioeconomic outcomes were also related to increased aggression in boys whose fathers were imprisoned. Though the separation of risk factors, causes, and effects is nearly impossible, it is clear that parental incarceration is correlated both with economic troubles and behavioral problems for children.

Parental incarceration has far-reaching effects for families, who are likely to experience a wide variety of hardships when a parent is imprisoned. Wildeman and Western (2010) argued that previous research ignored the spillover effects of incarceration, including the financial burden placed on both the ex-inmate and the ex-inmate’s family. Regarding the economic strain of imprisonment, Wildeman and Western found that incarceration diminished men’s total earnings by up to 30%, and that men were 14% less likely to contribute financially to their families with small children upon release than their peers who had never been in prison. Consistent with other research, the study showed that boys were more likely than girls to become aggressive after experiencing parental incarceration. It also discussed the strong correlation between parental incarceration and boys’ criminality and delinquency. According to the researchers, this intergenerational transmission of crime is one of the most troubling effects of incarceration, particularly in light of the ever-increasing number of imprisoned parents.

Imprisonment rates have consistently been shown to be higher for non-white and low-class individuals, which means that socioeconomically disadvantaged children are at a higher risk for parental incarceration and for suffering the negative outcomes associated with this experience. Wildeman (2009) estimated the risk of parental imprisonment for black and white children, born in 1978 and in 1990, from birth to age 14. He found that parental incarceration had emerged as an important childhood risk for black children, though it remained uncommon for white children. The risk of maternal imprisonment increased slightly for both races, but remained small, whereas the risk of paternal imprisonment was already high for blacks—1 in 7 black children born in 1978 had a father sent to prison by their 14th birthday—and climbed by 1990 to 1 in 4. Beyond racial differences in imprisonment rates, Wildeman examined the risk of incarceration by education level. Pronounced race and class inequalities were visible; while 1 in 25 white children of high school dropouts experienced paternal incarceration, 1 in 14 black children of college-educated parents experienced paternal incarceration. By 1990, black children were about equally as likely to have a college-educated father as to have a father sent to prison. Paternal incarceration therefore became a fairly common risk for black children, and this risk could further disadvantage children and exacerbate existing social inequalities.

There may be additional emotional, economic, and legal risks for children whose mothers are imprisoned. Dallaire (2007a) reviewed existing literature on maternal incarceration and found that despite the average prison sentence being three years, most courts assumed that guardianship arrangements made by incarcerated mothers would be adequate for meeting a child’s needs. No federal, state, or local agencies were responsible for obtaining information on children separated from their mothers during maternal imprisonment, yet nearly three-quarters of children with incarcerated mothers were displaced from their homes, and most changed their living arrangements at least once during the prison sentence. This discontinuity of care led to a higher risk of academic failure for children; one cited study found that a third of incarcerated mothers in the sample had at least one child who had been held back a grade in school. Risk factors accumulated as children of incarcerated mothers grew older. Adolescents with mothers in prison were found to be more likely than their peers to be connected to deviant or delinquent subcultures, to be sexually promiscuous, and to drop out of school—all risk factors for criminal activity.

Indeed, maternal incarceration more than paternal incarceration seems to be predictive of negative child outcomes. In a sample of 88 children, ages 9-14, of incarcerated addict mothers (Hanlon et al., 2005), children self-reported characteristics correlated with drug use and criminal activity as adults. The most commonly reported characteristic was difficulty at school. A third of the respondents had failed a grade or spent time in a special education class. Fully half were suspended at some point, for fighting and/or subordination, and 10% had been expelled. Two-thirds of the participants stated that they themselves had been involved in delinquent activity, mainly minor property crimes or minor theft, and 19% had been arrested. Other risk factors included having a mother who did not complete high school (55%) and a lack of a significant father figure at any point in the child’s life (47%). These behavioral problems may be indicative of a decreased likelihood to complete high school and an increased likelihood to turn to delinquency as an adult.

The effects of maternal imprisonment on children’s school outcomes may vary by the child’s age at the time of the mother’s incarceration. Cho (2010) analyzed data on over 8,000 children who attended Chicago Public Schools from 1991 to 2004 to look for a possible correlation between the timing of maternal incarceration and the likelihood of a child dropping out of high school. She found that children were most likely to drop out of school if they were in early adolescence (age 11-14) at the time of maternal incarceration. In particular, boys were 55% more likely to drop out due to their own incarceration if they had been exposed to maternal imprisonment during early adolescence than at any other time. The intergenerational transmission of crime and delinquency was visible, as almost half of the mothers had 11 or fewer years of education, indicating that they too may have dropped out of school, and many of their children dropped out of school due to their own incarceration.

Other research has confirmed the link between maternal incarceration and child incarceration. In a sample of imprisoned mothers and fathers who self-reported on the status of their minor and adult children, Dallaire (2007b) found that adult children of women in prison were 2.5 times more likely to be incarcerated than adult children of male offenders. Maternal incarceration was also correlated with other familial incarceration; when a mother was imprisoned, it was likely that her relatives were also imprisoned, leading to a depletion of available caregivers for children in the family.

This lack of family resources creates legal challenges for imprisoned mothers who want to retain parental rights to their children. Many states have statutory provisions that include parental incarceration as a criterion for termination of parental rights. Dalley (2002) interviewed 49 mothers in prison and found that not only were they ignorant of the legal process that would remove parental rights, they were often left out of the proceedings—intentionally or not—and were unaware of their right to petition to appoint temporary guardianship rather than have their children enter the Division of Family Services system. In addition to being uninformed, a large portion of the women were incapable of understanding the seriousness or enormity of the issues; nearly 80% had been regular drug users during the past five years, and the majority of the women displayed cognitive development delays. Dalley recommended that incarcerated mothers be educated about their parental rights and that prison and child welfare agencies coordinate to work in the child’s best interest while maintaining respect for the mother’s rights.

The increase in the number of incarcerated mothers has led to an influx of children into the foster care system, yet states have relatively few child welfare policies in place for dealing with children of incarcerated parents. Halperin and Harris (2004) argued that mothers in prison who have children in foster care not only have a limited ability to attend hearings about their child’s status, they are generally unaware that the length of their incarceration, if over 15 months, may automatically relinquish their parental rights. In surveying state child welfare agencies, Halperin and Harris found that 92% of the agencies did not have any data on how many foster care children had parents in prison, and only 21% of the agencies record such information upon child intake. Consequently, caseworkers do not work toward a successful reunification of mother and child, and there is an increased likelihood that the mother’s parental rights will be terminated due to her lack of aggressive involvement in the child’s guardianship proceedings.

Because of the limited data available on children in the foster care system with parents in prison, it is difficult to estimate the combined effects of parental incarceration and foster care. According to data collected by Johnson and Waldfogel (2002), 10%-14% of children with incarcerated parents are in foster care, but there is no information on whether these children were placed in foster care prior to or during parental incarceration. The study argues that coordinating policies from the criminal justice system and child welfare agencies would increase the ability of the state to collect data in order to best help parents and children.

Few programs exist to aid mothers reenter family life after incarceration. Arditti and Few (2006) found that upon release from prison, women were in extremely precarious financial situations—92% owed fines to the criminal justice system, averaging $4,718, and most had difficulty finding work because of their criminal record. Compounding this financial strain, mothers were likely to have unstable child care arrangements, making it harder to find employment. Yet where community services were unable to help, women relied on family and friends for emotional and financial support. These support networks helped enable mothers to return to work and to reestablish family relationships.

The presence of support networks is important during incarceration, as well. In their interviews with caregivers of children visiting parents in jail, Arditti, Lambert-Shute, and Joeste (2003) saw some of the challenges created by parental incarceration for the inmate’s family. A quarter of the caregivers who worked outside the home prior to incarceration stopped working in order to look after the inmate’s child. As a whole, the caregivers—who were mainly comprised of wives or partners, but who also included female relatives—had been economically disadvantaged prior to inmate incarceration, and fell well below the poverty line afterwards. The expenses related to imprisonment, together with the lack of income or child support from the inmate and an increase in work-family conflict resulting in loss of employment, led many caregivers to seek public assistance; two-thirds indicated they were somewhat or much worse off financially since inmate incarceration. These caregivers widely reported that they felt social isolation due to the stigma of having a family member in jail, and worried about the impact the situation would have on the children.

The social stigma of having a relative in jail may actually lead to increased caregiver stress, which translates to children as rejection from the caregiver. Mackintosh, Myers, and Kennon (2006) surveyed children of incarcerated mothers and their caregivers to determine the relation between caregiver stress and a child’s perception of feelings of warmth and acceptance from the caregiver. Although the caregivers tended to be single, unemployed, and poor, to suffer health-wise after taking children in, and to experience parenting stress, older children were less likely than younger children to feel rejected by their caregivers. Children who had fewer life stressors were more likely to feel accepted by their caregivers and to have fewer externalizing behaviors. In circumstances where the caregiver took children in only after another family member was no longer able to care for the children, caregiver stress levels were higher and perceived warmth and acceptance rates were lower. This underscores the importance of having stable support networks who can help provide child care when mothers are incarcerated. Continuity of care has been shown to reduce the risks a child experiences during maternal incarceration.

However, most children who have mothers in prison are already at high risks for cognitive and developmental delays. Poehlmann (2005) interviewed 60 children, their incarcerated mothers, and their caregivers to examine the relationship between a child’s risk status, intellectual outcomes, and home environment. The study tallied risk factors for the child, mother, and caregiver, assessed the home environment, and administered cognitive tests to the child. Poehlmann found that maternal and caregiver risks were highly correlated—caregivers, usually inmate’s mothers, were likely to share risk factors with inmates, such as socioeconomic status, education status, and drug and alcohol use. Caregivers who had multiple risk factors were less able to provide safe, responsive home environments for the children; in combination with maternal risk factors, this correlated with children’s poor performance on the cognitive assessments. 32% of the children had sub-average test scores, confirming that their intellectual outcomes were compromised, consistent with the high risk status of child, mother, and caregiver combined. Thus, in addition to the negative behavioral outcomes associated with maternal incarceration, children of female inmates may already be at an intellectual disadvantage which is exacerbated by the conditions brought about by imprisonment.

The existing literature on the effects of parental incarceration touches on a variety of issues. Perhaps the biggest challenge to performing effective and useful research on the subject of parental incarceration is the lack of official data regarding children of inmates. Though it is clear that the number of children in the foster care system who have incarcerated parents is increasing, little more is known about this group of children. Child welfare agencies should implement policies to track these children and, where appropriate, to work toward successful reunification of child and parent. The available information strongly suggests that maternal incarceration has highly negative outcomes for children, especially early adolescents. A particular effort should be made to design programs that target offenders who are mothers in an attempt to teach them proper parenting skills and to curb recidivism.

The nature of sociological research itself may have contributed to the small number of studies on maternal incarceration. Quantitative studies must rely on existing large bodies of data, and to this point in time, much analysis has already been done on these data banks. Further research of this nature will be a major undertaking, requiring large-scale coordination with the criminal justice system, schools, and child welfare agencies. Qualitative studies, on the other hand, are not only time-consuming but typically have a small sample size, limiting the extent to which they can be generalized to the larger population. If further qualitative research is to be done, it should seek to discover the particular parental rights challenges faced by imprisoned mothers, the legal status of and proper advocacy for children whose parents are both incarcerated, and effective methods of preventing the negative outcomes associated with parental incarceration.

With the rapidly increasing rate of imprisonment, there is a significant need to be aware of the societal effects of the prison boom. Higher risks of academic failure, aggressive behavior, and delinquency appear to exist for children of incarcerated parents, and it is important to understand the full implications of these risks—not only for the children who are at risk, but for society as a whole.

Jürgen Habermas

WOW, guys. Juggling two kids and five classes has been easy compared to reading some of Habermas‘s work.

I’ll try to give you a better summary after we have an actual class lecture on Habermas tomorrow, but the basic idea I can get out of the 20 pages I read is that he came up with the concept of two main components to all societies: system and lifeworld. Understanding this part wasn’t too bad; the lifeworld is kind of the informal setting for our norms, and family is a big part of the lifeworld. The system is the political and economic formal institutions of society. But then the excerpts got into a very academic and theoretical discussion of how politics work – how we influence politics as citizens, how the mass media interacts with politics…and the second selection I had to read was really way over my head. I’d like to tell you what it was about, but it was full of sentences like this:

[The mass media] free communication processes from the provinciality of spatiotemporally restricted contexts and permit public spheres to emerge, through establishing the abstract simultaneity of a virtually present network of communication contents far removed in space and time and through keeping messages available for manifold contexts.

Anyone care to translate? So far my classes really haven’t been too challenging. I’ve had some struggles with the other critical theorists we’ve discussed in this particular class (Contemporary Sociological Theory), but Habermas…sheesh. My brain needs a break! I think I’ll finish reading How to Train Your Dragon now.