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Lecture 2 - Segment 1

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    I’d like to follow up on our last lecture about the sociological imagination and talk about three questions
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    that are characteristic of the discipline of sociology.
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    And the first is: How are the things that we take to be natural socially constructed?
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    How are the things that we take to be natural socially constructed?
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    There’s a basic flaw in common sense, and human reasoning more generally, that goes something like this:
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    The things we see before us every day are “supposed to be that way”; they come from nature.
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    But sociology teaches us that many of the things
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    that we think are natural are actually man- and woman-made —
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    which does not necessarily mean this makes us freer from so-called “nature” —
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    in fact, we may not be as free as we think, even armed with this insight.
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    But that hasn’t stopped many people from using the insight to try to bring about very important social changes,
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    some of which have succeeded and some of which are slow to progress.
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    For example, let’s say that you go up to a baby or a small child on the street —
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    at least here in Princeton, New Jersey — perhaps in a stroller or crawling next to the parents.
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    What’s the first question you’re going to ask those parents?
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    Very likely you’re going to say, “Does your child have a penis or a vagina?”
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    You need to know the answer to that question right?
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    Because without knowing the answer to that question you cannot proceed any further in the interaction —
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    that is, if you are a typical human being, like me.
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    And this is because without knowing if the child has a penis or a vagina
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    you don’t really know how to interact with that child.
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    Now in fact, it’s probably not the best thing in the world to ask that question in that way to a parent.
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    In fact, if you were to go up and ask the question in that way,
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    at least here in Princeton, and all of the other places where I have lived,
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    you would be considered very unusual, if not strange.
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    So instead, we ask the question in a more benign way:
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    We say, “Is your child a boy, or a girl?”
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    Well, actually, even if you ask it like that, some parents will not be thrilled
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    because they want to believe that you can tell what their child is.
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    Which highlights how significant it is that we be able to interact with a child in an appropriate way.
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    So when you go up to a child on the street,
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    the first thing you might say to a parent is; “What’s your baby’s name?”
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    That’s a kind of subtle way of asking the sex of the boy or the girl
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    without saying “I can’t really tell if your child is a boy or a girl.”
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    And once you’ve figured out whether or not you are interacting with a boy or a girl,
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    that might cause some significant difference in the way that you will interact, or what you will say next.
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    So if you find out that it is a little boy named Michael — which is a popular boy’s name
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    when people currently at Princeton were born in the early 90’s —, you might say, “Hey buddy, how are you doing?”
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    Or if you find out that it’s a little girl named Ashley — which was also a popular girl’s name in the early 90’s,
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    when many of the students at Princeton who are here today were born —,
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    you might say, “Hi sweetie, how are you?”
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    That will be the beginning of a kind of interaction that is gender-based.
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    By gender, we mean The social, cultural and psychological meanings
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    which get attributed to sex.
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    And I’d be curious, by the way, about how this all works in the places that you live.
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    Why is gender so important to social interaction?
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    There’s nothing else quite like that.
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    If we go up to a baby on the street, and we don’t know what race they are,
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    we can pretty well interact with them, at least here in the United States.
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    Sure, there are parents who will signal a certain racial affiliation by how they fix the child’s hair,
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    or what kind of garments they have the child wear;
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    but on the whole, people don’t need to know the race of a child in order to interact with it.
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    Whether the child is black or white or Latino or Asian for example,
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    is not going to have a significant impact on the nature of the interaction.
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    The same thing with social class, right?
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    We don’t really need to know what social class a child comes from in order to interact with it.
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    In order for an interaction to be successful, we don’t need to know
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    whether a child is from the working classes or the middle classes or the upper middle classes
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    or that group that has become popularly known as the top one percent.
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    There are many of the people of the upper classes
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    who dress their children in clothes from the Gap or Old Navy,
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    stores which sell their products very widely to people of many different classes.
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    And likewise, there are many poor people in the United States
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    who dress their children in labels that come from elite names like Ralph Lauren or Tommy Hilfiger.
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    You can’t necessarily tell what social class a baby comes from.
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    And more importantly, you don’t feel you need to know.
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    But gender is completely different.
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    You expect to know the gender of a child before you can interact with it.
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    Now the one thing that occurs to you, or to me when you need to know the gender of a child
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    and that all interactions are gendered from the beginning is you come to the realization
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    that from a very early age a child is going to be enacting the role of a boy or a girl.
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    They re going to respond to the expectations of the people around them with regard to gender.
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    And through processes of interaction, they are going to come to think about themselves as a boy or a girl.
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    And because this happens at such a young age, when they’re infants, in fact,
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    we can see the ways that gender expectations come to be socially constructed at the earliest part of life.
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    Now this is not to suggest that this thing I am saying is social, does not have some biological basis to it.
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    This is not to suggest that brain science does not have a significant amount
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    to contribute to our understanding by looking at the differences between male and female brains.
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    But what it does suggest
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    is that there is a very strong component of male and female which is socially constructed.
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    Part of my agenda in this lecture is
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    not to say that the biological is a residual category that doesn’t matter,
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    but to say that we’re going to engage in an enterprise of disentangling,
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    to try to figure out which parts are biological, and which are social;
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    because from the standpoint of common sense, it is all biological.
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    Most people who are not educated in sociology see these differences as rooted in nature.
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    A few years ago, the president of Harvard, Larry Summers made a deliberately provocative statement —
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    for which he later apologized — suggesting that the existence of fewer women in science
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    might have something to do with there being fewer women
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    at the higher end of the intelligence distribution as measured by IQ scores.
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    He was trying to suggest that there was something innate or natural about this outcome.
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    Now, once we know that there is a strong social component to male and female,
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    we may hope that there are things that we can do to influence the environment
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    that may actually have an impact on the long-term outcomes of men and women.
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    We know that there is significant amount of gender inequality even in the United States today,
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    a country that has been thinking about these differences longer than some other countries.
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    And at the same time we find that many of these differences are intractable, or very difficult to eradicate.
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    But to come back to the statement by the president of Harvard,
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    there’s actually been some progress in getting more women into fields like biological sciences.
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    Summers’ remarks ignored some very important data.
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    In 1966, less than one percent of U.S. doctoral degrees in engineering were awarded to women;
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    while in 2001, the number had risen to about 17%.
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    Surely the IQ of women at the high end of the distribution
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    did not change that significantly during this period.
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    These numbers suggest that a lot of progress still needs to be made.
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    Some of our institutions in American society are working very hard
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    to ask what we can do to change gender inequality
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    and to change the sense of how it is natural for men and women to behave or act in particular ways.
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    In math and science training, a vast amount of sociological research has demonstrated
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    that when teachers or parents have low expectations for girls,
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    then women will not develop their potential talents.
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    We know that, for a very long time in universities like Princeton,
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    there were very few women who went into science and engineering.
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    And there was a sense on the part of many women
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    who went into these universities that it was a male thing to do.
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    This view was something encouraged at the earliest stage of life.
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    Over time expectations have changed,
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    and we have more and more women going into science and engineering.
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    But these are things that the university knows begin with a pipeline.
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    and they can only be changed if the stereotypes
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    and the sense of what is appropriate and natural for different genders to take on
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    changes at the earliest parts of life,
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    coinciding, perhaps, with the very moment when we are starting to interact with children in gendered ways.
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    Or let’s take an even more controversial example: racial differences in IQ.
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    Sometimes, when white people find out that I’m a sociologist
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    they’ll ask why it is that blacks are doing worse than whites in the United States.
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    And it’s not uncommon for folks to suggest to me that it is because they’re not as smart.
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    And they’ll cite evidence that blacks have lower IQ scores in general —
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    Quote, they’re not as smart so they don’t do as well, right?
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    Now it is true that blacks have lower IQ scores, in general, than whites in the United States.
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    People who argue this argue that it’s based on genetics.
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    One explanation is that they have smaller brains than whites; but that is wrong.
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    In his book « Intelligence and How to Get It », Richard Nesbitt says
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    that Albert Einstein had a smaller brain than the average black person —
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    Brain size is not the cause of these differences.
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    There’s also the claim that these lower IQ’s are inherited.
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    Well, there are many studies that have been done that have demonstrated
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    the ways that IQ is also based on the environmental influences — the social context in which people live.
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    Thus, according to Nisbett, the average child in a poor family will hear
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    substantially fewer words, per day, than someone in an upper middle class family.
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    By a time a child reaches five years old,
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    he or she will have heard many more words in a higher income family.
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    Vocabulary, it turns out, is a very significant determinant of how people do on IQ tests.
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    According to Nisbett, the average IQ in the United States
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    over the course of the past 50 years — since World War II — has gone up 15 to 20 points.
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    That is just the average for Americans as a whole.
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    And it’s impossible for the genetics of the country to have changed that much over the past 50 years.
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    So we know that there is something about the environment of the United States
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    that is affecting the group as a whole.
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    And during this period, the average difference in IQ between blacks and whites decreased significantly.
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    It was fifteen points in 1945 and it’s nine points today.
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    According to Nisbett, that corresponds to a certain level of improvement in the black population —
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    compared to the white population — in their standard of living.
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    The average black today has a higher IQ than the average white in 1950 — another interesting thing to explain.
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    So these are some examples of how it is
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    that one of the great achievements of the social sciences and thinking about IQ
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    has been to understand the way that many things we take to be natural
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    are not completely based on genetics, but are themselves a function of the social environment.
Title:
Lecture 2 - Segment 1
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