Sunday, November 26, 2006

Fast Food is Making Me Fat!

Do you love McDonald's, Burger King, and Wendy's? If so, why? If not, why not? Is fast food bad for you or not? Is the heavy consumption of fast food a social problem? A public health problem? No problem at all?

Who is more responsible for obesity in America - the obese people or the fast food companies? What can social science research teach us about this question? Hmm...

Talking heads in the media tell us that the fast food companies are peddling cheap, unhelathy crap because they can, and they can make us buy their junk food. Or, media types (John Stossel comes to mind) tell us that people get fat because they eat too much and don't get enough exercise. The assumption here is that people are deciding to spend their time eating and doing things other than exercising. Are these assumptions reasonable or not? Here is another question that some social scientific thinking can help us answer.

Science suggests that the assumptions made by "conservatives" regarding fast food consumption are simply not reasonable. Here's something to think about: Our brains are wired to want food when food is available. This biological urge to eat and store up fat researves varies in intensity from one person to another, but we all have that urge. Eating to store fat goes back to prehistory when the food supply was uncertain and packing on some fat when the opportunity presented itself was a good strategy for surviving lean times.

Even worse, our decisions about what to eat are not generally part of some rational, long-term plan. Most of our decisions are really driven by peer pressure, time constraints, fatigue ("I'm tired and just want some dinner."), information that we receive and process without much conscious reflection, and prejudices and biases that vary in nature from one person to another. YOur childhood is also a powerful influence on bahvaior. If dinner often came from Burger King or Arby's when you were growing up, chances are you still like fast food.

Social pressures do, undeniably, shape our behavior. Relentless marketing efforts do influence buying decisions. Our feeling, probably not based on reality, that we are frantically busy and haven't got time for "real" food today also drives our buying decisions. And hundreds of food buying decisions per year add up to a fast food diet or some other sort of diet.

Lesson: If you avoid fast food, maybe you shouldn't feel too proud of yourself! Likewise, if you have turned into a fast food junkie, you shouldn't be too hard on yourself.

And on a slightly different subject...

For culture critics fast food represents yet another form of cultural imperialism. We are infiltrating and umdermining local culture with our bland, generic, unhealthy fast food. Never mind that fast food chains really do adapt themselves to local culture in ways large and small. The McDonalds in Odessa, Ukraine (actually there are at least 2 locations) charges extra for condiments. In India, McDonalds does not serve beef. In China, McDonald's restaurants are cool hangouts and date destinations, at least for the younger crowd. I think some fast food places in Europe serve beer and wine. So, here is some (adminittedly weak) evidence that fast food restaurants are shaped by the culture of other countries.

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Saturday, November 18, 2006

Do Sociology by Patronizing Escort Services?

I'm not sure if you could do a valid study this way. Ditto for working underover as an escort. Please correct me if I'm wrong about either of those things. Today's topic is the escort service.

You've all seen the ads for companies offering  female companionship with a discreet and sexy young woman. (I have to wonder if the women are really as attractive as the photos in the ads suggest.) Escort services sell "companionship" rather than offering to trade sex for money. This makes the services barely legal, at least in the United States. I suppose escort services would be legal in Australia and the Netherlands, where prostitution is legal.

Questions about the business:

  • How many are there in the United States?

  • How many men in the USA have used an escort service?

  • How many men in the USA have used one and would never admit it, even on an anonymous survey?

Questions about the escorts:

  • Who are the escorts?

  • Why do they do it?

  • How long has the average escort worked in the field?

  • How do they think about the services they provide?

  • Do they like men or not?

A sociological question:

Are there any measurable impacts, good or bad, of escort services? I know feminists probably think that escort services just encourage men to view women as sex objects. Conservatives think that escort services are bad because they enable sexual immorality and break up relationships.

And a brief footnote about the illusions and fantasies that pervade society:

Men are generally expected/expecting to pay for sex. Some forms of exhange are socially acceptable (wedding ring), others are not accepted (giving $20 to a hooker) and others are barely tolerated (hiring a $350/hour escort for "companionship"). So, the illusion here is that women can be ezpected to freely share sexual experiences as a sign of love and commitment. If you won't "share" until you get a wedding ring or a few free meals then you are really exchanging sex for some of the man's resources. Think about that before hitting the dance clubs tonight.

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Monday, November 06, 2006

Election Day!!!!

Thank God the campaign ads are going away soon. I'm sure that I am not the only one who is relieved about this. My original ideas was to write about escort services, but election day intervened in my blogging schedule. Now I feel compelled to make some observations about elections and voting and Congress.

Let us start with some questions then:

1. Why do politicians and parties run negative ads? Is it because there is real evidence that they sway voters' opinions? Maybe the ads persist because political advisors and consultants have this idea to "sell" to politicians who are looking for any possible advantage over their competition.

2. Why do politicians insist on mking emotional appeals? Maybe they understand that decision making is erally emotional and not rational as we are often pleased to believe.

3. What sorts of people are more likely to vote? Less likely to vote?

4. What sorts of people are not likely to vote for each of the most common reasons for not voting: not enough time, not interested in politics, belief that voting will not make a difference.

5. What social factors (race, age, education level, peer pressure, et cetera) influence voter participation and why?

Here are a couple of observations too:

Some places (towns, counties, states?) forbid the sale of alcoholic beverages on election day. I noticed this a few years ago when I lived in Alliance, Ohio.

Sending a few new faces to Congress will not allow for a change in Congress. Why? The newbies are entering an established social world with rules (formal and informal), relationships, and traditions that are not going to change because some people would like for things to work differently.

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Saturday, November 04, 2006

Thoughts About Grocery Shopping

Ever been to a grocery store or supermarket? I thought so. Maybe you never paused to think about why grocery stores have the features that they have. And why do we have grocery stores at all? Why don't we just have farmer's markets and bakeries and such? Those things used to be the norm in the United States and in much of the world people still like to shop at specialty stores and farmer's markets even when there are supermarkets to visit.

This is also true in Odessa, Ukraine where there is at least one chain of supermarkets. Those stores are small by American standards but have most of the features we associate with North American supermarkets. Some of the locations feature currency exchange kiosks. The supermarkets also sell whiskey and vodka.

One likely reason for the American love of supermarkets does suggest itself: Americans love convenience! And what could be better than stopping at one store to get a lot of prepared and packaged foods. Yes, you can buy produce and meat and such at supermarkets. Just look at peoples' shopping carts and you'll see how much of the food is convenience food like microwave dinners and cans of soup. A can of soup is a convenience food? Yes.

If you've been alive for a more than a few years I'll bet you've noticed a few commonalities in the North American supermarkets. Here are a few: frequent shopper cards, magazines, tabloids, office supplies, departments (at least a bakery and deli), extra services like money orders, greeting cards.

You may have noticed that other innovations in the supermarket business have spread around the country. Some supermarkets sell organic foods and "health" foods only. Wild Oats and Whole Foods are probably the most famous of those supermarket chains. Some supermarket chains offer online shopping and home delivery.

Why are supermarkets the way they are? Well, three sociological processes are at work. The people who design grocery stores and the people who manage supermarkets are all in social networks (clubs, trade associations, whatever) that foster idea sharing. This could explain why the same sorts, like Fourth of July cookout displays, appear everywhere. Sometimes government regulations determine that stores need to have something, such as a public restrooms. Thirdly, people pay attention to social trends and to the competition. When something seems like a good idea - say frequent shopper cards - the idea tends to be picked up by other companies.

Next time: Escort services!

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