What does psychology consider harassment?

Because certain entities on the web feel like redefining all forms of internet harassment and threat as “trolling” just because it happens online or via unusual media, I decided to look at what actually qualifies as harassment in psychology (rather than in law, since we’re talking about whether it affects people, not whether it’s illegal). I looked at a couple psych studies that were doing experiments on the effects of harassment, and excerpted the part where they describe the form of experimental harassment they subjected their test subjects to, as well as relevant results:

http://www.jpsychores.com/article/S0022-3999%2898%2900075-0/abstract
Harassment used in experiment:

For subjects in the harassment condition, scripted harassing comments were delivered on a fixed schedule, at minutes 2, 6, and 10 of the task, by an experimental assistant of the same gender as the subject. All experimental assistants (three women and three men) were trained to deliver the harassing statements in a firm, authoritative, but neutral (i.e., not angry) tone of voice.

Results:

The harassed subjects reacted more strongly than the control subjects to the stressor on all cardiovascular and cortisol measures and recovered more slowly than the nonharassed controls. In addition, several gender differences in response to the stressor and during the recovery period were observed. The harassed men exhibited the largest reactivity on cortisol and DBP indices, whereas the harassed women showed a more pronounced response on the subjective ratings of hostility and HR. The harassed groups were the only ones to show significant cortisol responses, with cortisol reactivity in harassed men approximately twice that of their female counterparts. Control groups did not exhibit significant cortisol reactivity. During the recovery period, harassed men exhibited attenuated return to baseline on cardiovascular indices and cortisol, whereas women, overall, tended to exhibit an overcompensation response on cardiovascular measures.

http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/10661604
Harassment used in experiment:

For subjects in the Harassment condition, the procedure for the first four TAT cards was identical to that just described for subjects in the Nonharassment condition. Before the fifth card, however, the experimenter said that the last four stories had been “somewhat boring,” and that the subject should try harder to make the next few stories interesting. After the fifth card, the experimenter said “you still do not have it right.” After the sixth and seventh cards, the experimenter again indicated that the stories were inadequate, and said “I cannot see what the problem is,” and that “you should make some effort” to improve them. During the eighth story, the experimenter interrupted the subject with a critical comment.

Results:

Results indicate that the harassment manipulation affected increases in [heart rate], [systolic blood pressure], and [diastolic blood pressure]. Furthermore, among subjects in the Harassment condition, anger repressors showed greater HR reactivity than low anger expressors, but similar HR reactivity to that shown by high anger expressors. [...] among subjects in the Harassment condition, anger repressors reported levels of anger arousal similar to those of low anger expressors, but lower than those reported by high anger expressors. For subjects in the Nonharassment condition, no such effects emerged

There are other definitions, e.g. cyberbullying being typically defined as intentional and/or repeated harassment, which is ok except intent is hard to prove and easy to deny; and vague definitions that include terms like “verbal abuse”, which don’t explain anything. When studying entire organizations, there tends to be also a requirement of “creating a hostile environment” for harassment, so that even when each person only commits a harassing act once, it still counts.

Conclusion: Even mild interruption, ridicule, and criticism elicits stress responses, and all these mild stress-response-elicitors count as harassment in psychology. That doesn’t mean we should stop criticizing people, and it doesn’t mean that people who want to be skeptics, scientists and/or activists don’t need to learn to deal with a certain degree of both criticism and “trolling”. However, as with microaggressions, a constant barrage of aggression (some low-grade some decidedly less so) is typically more wearying/damaging than the occasional blatant, massive outburst. Consequently, telling a person who’s subjected for months to non-stop criticism, “satire”, parody, “trolling”, and plain old “as defined by every college campus everywhere” harassment* on multiple fronts that they aren’t being harassed is pure, unadulterated bullshit. Even the thickest skin will eventually be worn down** my months, or even years, of this sort of thing.
What this means in effect is that even harassment that doesn’t quite live up to persecutable legal standards*** still causes harm to people. Real, measurable harm.

What the pitters & their associates have been doing to certain individuals for months, even years now is definitely this kind of long-term harassment that creates a toxic environment and has negative physiological effects on people.

And the Horde isn’t entirely guilt-free here, either. The Reset rule and the Three Post rule exist for a reason, m’kay?

EDIT: more studies on this and related topic can be found at the bottom of this comment, because I’ve talked about this before.

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*for example, NDSU defines it as “unwelcome verbal or physical behavior which has the intent or effect of unreasonably interfering with the individual’s employment or academic endeavors or creating a hostile, intimidating or offensive environment. Harassment may include (but is not limited to) jokes, derogatory comments, pictures, and/or direct physical advances.”
**interestingly, the second study cited here also points out that people who repress their anger still have a hightened physiological response, but they don’t seem to perceive it (or want to disclose it to the researchers)… so “thick skinned” people may well not actually all be that thick skinned, just good at repressing their emotions. The physiological harm is still there though.
***according to USLegal.com, the legal definition of harassment in the US is determined by state, but typically includes this basic core:

Harassment is governed by state laws, which vary by state, but is generally defined as a course of conduct which annoys, threatens, intimidates, alarms, or puts a person in fear of their safety. Harassment is unwanted, unwelcomed and uninvited behavior that demeans, threatens or offends the victim and results in a hostile environment for the victim. Harassing behavior may include, but is not limited to, epithets, derogatory comments or slurs and lewd propositions, assault, impeding or blocking movement, offensive touching or any physical interference with normal work or movement, and visual insults, such as derogatory posters or cartoons.

Forbes is lying about a study to promote AGW denialism

So there’s this Op/Ed piece titled “Peer-Reviewed Survey Finds Majority Of Scientists Skeptical Of Global Warming Crisis” in Forbes right now. It refers to this paper in Organizational Studies, a journal largely focusing on the sociology of organizations.

The Op/Ed piece is blatantly lying about the paper.

Let’s start with the title. For one, the paper is not a survey. Surveys are quantitative, and therefore strive for large and representative samples; this paper was a qualitative study, with a sample selected on the basis of usefulness to the topic, not because it’s representative. Secondly, the author of that Op/Ed piece, James Taylor, claims that a “majority of scientists” is skeptical of AGW. Except that the paper doesn’t study “scientists”; it studies “professional experts in petroleum and related industries”*, and refers to them collectively as “professionals”, not “scientists” like Taylor does. Plus, right in the introduction the paper explains that “there is a broad consensus among climate scientists” about AGW being real. Which is not a group of scientists the paper studies, because its focus is not what the scientists doing research on climate issues conclude from their research. The abstract of the paper (emphases mine):

This paper examines the framings and identity work associated with professionals’ discursive construction of climate change science, their legitimation of themselves as experts on ‘the truth’, and their attitudes towards regulatory measures. Drawing from survey responses of 1077 professional engineers and geoscientists, we reconstruct their framings of the issue and knowledge claims to position themselves within their organizational and their professional institutions. In understanding the struggle over what constitutes and legitimizes expertise, we make apparent the heterogeneity of claims, legitimation strategies, and use of emotionality and metaphor. By linking notions of the science or science fiction of climate change to the assessment of the adequacy of global and local policies and of potential organizational responses, we contribute to the understanding of ‘defensive institutional work’ by professionals within petroleum companies, related industries, government regulators, and their professional association.

In the paper the authors state the purpose of the paper as follows:

Our aim is to examine the construction and disputation of expertise in a contested issue field and the consequences this has for the mobilization for or against regulation.

and

How do professional experts frame the reality of climate change and themselves as experts, while engaging in defensive institutional work against others?

It’s a sociology paper; about social construction of “expertise” on AGW which justifies in the minds of professionals “defensive institutional work, i.e., the maintenance of institutions against disruptions” caused by demands for climate-action. It wouldn’t make sense to study research scientists in climatology for this.
Plus, studying specifically professionals working for oil companies and oil-related industries (in Alberta, no less!) is going to severely skew the proportion of professionals studied who are denialists. Which the authors of the study are quite upfront about**, but which Taylor completely ignores in favor of claims like:

the overwhelming majority of scientists fall within four other models, each of which is skeptical of alarmist global warming claims.

Taylor then quotes parts of the paper where the oil-industry professionals are classified into 5 groups of positions about AGW. Mostly the quotes are ok, but they are trimmed to look less like the “social construction of climate change” categories that they actually are in the paper.

Lastly, Taylor takes a swipe at the authors of the paper (where he once again calls it a survey. dude, no.) for being “alarmists”, because they use accurate terms (“deniers”, etc.); he then claims that because of the obvious pro-AGW-bias of the authors, “alarmists will have a hard time arguing the survey is biased or somehow connected to the ‘vast right-wing climate denial machine.’”. Which is silly, since of course the study is connected to the denial machine; it’s about the denial machine, sampling a group of people who have every reason in the world to deny that their institution (the oil industry) is fucking with the climate.

And then another blatant lie:

Another interesting aspect of this new survey is that it reports on the beliefs of scientists themselves rather than bureaucrats who often publish alarmist statements without polling their member scientists.

Again, this is neither a survey, nor does it study scientists. It confirms that among climate scientists, there is a consensus that AGW is real and a problem. But these folks are not the subject of the study; it’s a study about denialist self-rationalization, so of course it’s full of deniers. Also, it’s of course not “bureaucrats” that publish consensus reports on AGW; unlike the subjects of this study, the IPCC is actually a body of actual climate scientists doing actual research on our climate.

The Forbes article concludes thusly:

People who look behind the self-serving statements by global warming alarmists about an alleged “consensus” have always known that no such alarmist consensus exists among scientists. Now that we have access to hard surveys of scientists themselves, it is becoming clear that not only do many scientists dispute the asserted global warming crisis, but these skeptical scientists may indeed form a scientific consensus.

1)”hard surveys of scientists”, my ass. 2)1/3 of people even within the oil industry agreeing that AGW is a thing and a serious problem, plus another 17% basically answering “I don’t know, and neither do you” cannot in any way be construed as a “consensus” against AGW even among the group studied.

Lastly, and slightly OT, I’ll also note that the denialist goalposts have moved so thoroughly that even in the oil industry, “virtually all respondents (99.4%) agree that the climate is changing”. Now it’s all about whether to do anything about it.

The paper itself is quite interesting, since the concepts they’re analyzing apply to other debates about what is or isn’t scientific and who is or isn’t a legitimate authority on any given topic is relevant to many other areas***, especially where “defensive institutional work” is being done****. Really though, the most amazing thing about it is that a paper examining the ways in which denialists frame their denialism by defining experts as those who agree with them in order to justify defensive responses to attacks on the oil industry ends up being used to define experts (i.e. “scientists”) in such a way that it agrees with denialists and justifies their defensive, anti-regulatory reactions. It’s so very meta.
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* specifically, members of The Association of Professional Engineers and Geoscientists of Alberta (APEGA); no research scientists.
**they definitely don’t claim they have a representative sample of “scientists” or “experts on AGW”, since that’s not the point of the study. Quite the opposite, since this is not a quantitative study, but one using qualitative methodology. They’re not interested in how many people believe what, but in the content and diversity of these positions and the methods of justifying them.
**(examples: defining Rebecca Watson as an illegitimate authority in skepticism, because she has a communications degree rather than a science degree; shifting boundaries of what is or isn’t True ScienceTM to exclude many social sciences; hyperskepticism; etc.
****any claim of “you’re harming The Movement”, and “I like this community the way it is, stop trying to change it”, ever.

A kitteh and a link dump

I was going to write a post using most of these, but I changed my mind. Still, the links are informative reading, so I’m just going to post them without the article that was supposed to go around them. And just to make the post more than just a dry linkdump, here’s a picture of Dusty:

Not a safe space — a good 101-level explanation of what the term “safe space” even means.

Michigan Legislators Demand Control of the Organ Which Must Not Be Named — summary of what thedrama in Michigan, with summary of the effects of their anti-woman bill

Chicago Police misclassifying trans women of color in the sex trade as “johns” in its “end demand” initiative — article on how the police manage to turn a anti-procurers-of-prostitution campaign into a campaign to arrest, out, and shame poor trans women of color

Despite The Evidence, Anti-Choicers Persist in Lying About Emergency Contraception — article by Amanda Marcotte about something I’ve been saying repeatedly: the science has already shown that hormonal contraceptives, including Emergency Contraception, doesn’t cause implantation failure.

Respect as it applies to anti-harassment policies — A conference organizer states his opinion about the relative importance (or lack thereof) of whether anti-harassment policies will make it harder for people to get laid.

Playing Cassandra

I’m feeling distinctly pessimistic today. As I’ve written in the past, the notion that “The arc of history is long, but it bends toward justice” may be a necessary belief to remain motivated in generations-long battles for justice, but as an “is” statement (as opposed to an “ought” statement), it is naive at best in light of the cyclical nature of civilizations. All civilizations in the history of humankind have, sooner or later, declined and fallen into a “dark age”.

And with that cheery introduction, I’ll give you the following:
1)Rachel Maddow analyzing the effects of money on US politics. Basically, Republicans and corporations now have enough money at their disposal to win even extremely unlikely electoral races. And the Democrats’ plan to survive and counter this? winning, then amending the constitution. except that, as just noted, they can’t really win anymore. So basically, unless the Repubicans actually manage to self-destruct, the US government is now wholly theirs, on all levels, for years to come.

2)A graph and summary about oil prices since the economic crisis. oil prices are currently falling because of assorted political clusterfucks, but for the last year, despite fluctuations, they are as high as they were at the beginning of 2008. and anything “good” happening economically will instantly reverse the current downward trend. so, it seems our choices right now are economic collapse somewhere important and the continuation of the Era Of Cheap Oil, or economic stabilization/recovery and the official end of oil below $100/bbl. Peak Oil, anyone?

3)In Europe, xenophobia always lurks just under the surface, threatening to erupt. The EU and its predecessor were created to end a history of conflict that includes the Hundred Year War, the 30 Year War, and that started both world wars. And they were doing a decent job of it, considering, before the global economic meltdown. But because the meltdown happened before the EU figured out how to manage itself in crisis situations, it is now in a political as well as an economic crisis. With predictable results: Fascists are getting elected wherever sufficient distrust of the other EU members has managed to break to the surface

4)And last but not least, speaking of the long arc of history: here’s a paper in Nature (I haz pdf) about possible “critical transitions” in the global ecosystem in the next century or so. I’ve kind of written about these transitions before. They’re basically what happens to an ecosystem when it stops being resilient enough to withstand a particular environmental pressure: it undergoes a drastic change until it can regain (relative, temporary) equilibrium as an entirely different ecosystem, one that usually doesn’t sustain the same species and communities as before. And this paper basically discusses the possibility that our biosphere is about to undergo a critical transition as a result of human-caused pressures on the system. Some choice quotes:

Here we summarize evidence that such planetary-scale critical transitions have occurred previously in the biosphere, albeit rarely, and that humans are now forcing another such transition, with the potential to transform Earth rapidly and irreversibly into a state unknown in human experience.

This Modelling suggests that for 30% of Earth, the speed at which plant species will have to migrate to keep pace with projected climate change is greater than their dispersal rate when Earth last shifted from a glacial to an interglacial climate, and that dispersal will be thwarted by highly fragmented landscapes.Climates found at present on 10–48% of the planet are projected to disappear within a century, and climates that contemporary organisms have never experienced are likely to cover 12–39% of Earth48. The mean global temperature by 2070 (or possibly a few decades earlier) will be higher than it has been since the human species evolved.

Although the ultimate effects of changing biodiversity and species compositions are still unknown, if critical thresholds of diminishing returns in ecosystem services were reached over large areas and at the same time global demands increased (as will happen if the population increases by
2,000,000,000 within about three decades), widespread social unrest, economic instability and loss of human life could result.

Inequality in science, race edition

I’m surprised none of the science-related blogs I read have picked up on this story yet(which has been reported by the NYT, as well as Democracy Now), so I guess I’ll have to do it myself. From a study just published in Science showing that black scientists less likely to receive NIH-funds than white scientists:

Although proposals with strong priority scores were equally likely to be funded regardless of race, we find that Asians are 4 percentage points and black or African-American applicants are 13 percentage points less likely to receive NIH investigator-initiated research funding compared with whites. After controlling for the applicant’s educational background, country of origin, training, previous research awards, publication record, and employer characteristics, we find that black applicants remain 10 percentage points less likely than whites to be awarded NIH research funding.

That’s unfortunately unsurprising, but sad nonetheless. If I understand the paper properly (and there’s no guarantee that I have, so take the following discussion with all the skepticism it’s due), it seems to indicate that a lot of the discrimination isn’t directly related to bias in the selection, but to bias in career advancement elsewhere (access to resources). That’s probably a large chunk of it, and certainly racial discrimination as well as cultural hurdles aren’t improbable. But AFAICT from the study, even taking into account all of these, there’s still a remaining bias. So is it possible that there’s bias in the selection process itself?

My main question, which the article doesn’t answer, is how the NIH would know the race of their applicants; and if it doesn’t, what the factor that leads to this discrimination could be. A particular focus in the research? Maybe it’s not so much the race of the scientist that’s being discriminated against; minority researchers often try to fill the gap of lacking research about the special circumstances of the groups they belong to, so possibly it was the “race” of the proposal that was being discriminated against (I hope that sentence makes sense; obviously proposals don’t have a race, but may have a “non-standard” (AKA non-white) focus that could be identified as less-than by subconscious bias or even outright bigotry). This may also explain the much lower citation count (but doesn’t explain the much higher citation count for Asian and Hispanic authored papers; it would be necessary to see whether Black, Asian, and Hispanic authors are comparably likely to focus on minority-relevant research topics, and whether minority-focused subjects correlate with citation count to figure out what’s going on there). If the bias is indeed related to research topics, it would be very difficult to circumvent subconscious bias, since there would be no possibility of blind applications for obvious reasons.

The study shows a few other interesting things aside from that main point. For one, the ridiculously low number of Native scientists in biomedical research (only 41?! That’s fucking tragic in and of itself). Two, it seems to me from the data that the reason Asians and Hispanics don’t show the same disparities might not be because they’re not discriminated against. I can’t precisely parse what it says on this subject, but doesn’t it seem to say that Hispanics and especially Asians outperform whites on certain measures, but that those don’t translate in proportionately higher rates of proposal acceptance? It’s either that, or it says that these measures are irrelevant for proposals by non-blacks, and only seem to matter for blacks, who have the lowest citation and publication counts, and the fewest last-authored papers as well. *confused*

“post-modernism”, physics-style

The ubiquitous use of “post-modernist” as an insult meant to describe some sort of uber-relativistic, solipsistic mental-masturbation has always bugged me. Post-modernism was a very important development that deconstructed the illusion of humans (or “scientists” or “men”, depending on the topic) as objective observers of reality. It posited humans as interpreters of reality, who constructed models, symbols, etc.to make a counter-intuitive reality comprehensive to brains that never had any “reason” to evolve the ability to do so. And yet, people sneer at post-modernism and constructivism (the idea that reality is constructed by people) as some sort of wooey, New Agey “everyone can have their own reality and their own facts” sort of BS.

Well, imagine my glee when, while reading an article in Skeptic about Stephen Hawking’s 2010 book The Grand Design, I come upon a discussion of Hawking’s “Other Controversial Theory”: Model-Dependent Realism.
The article in Skeptic explained MDR in the terms very similar to the ones the social sciences have been using for years (but with more neurologyscience*), and the more I read about it, the more it seems to be the very same thing. But this time, it comes from a source not so easily dismissed by nerd-snobbery: the world’s most famous physicist**. A relevant quote from the book:

[Model-dependent realism] is based on the idea that our brains interpret the input from our sensory organs by making a model of the world. When such a model is successful at explaining events, we tend to attribute to it, and to the elements and concepts that constitute it, the quality of reality or absolute truth. There is no picture- or theory-independent concept of reality. Instead we will adopt a view that we will call model-dependent realism: the idea that a physical theory or world picture is a model (generally of a mathematical nature) and a set of rules that connect the elements of the model to observations. This provides a framework with which to interpret modern science. According to model-dependent realism, it is pointless to ask whether a model is real, only whether it agrees with observation. If there are two models that both agree with observation … then one cannot say that one is more real than another. One can use whichever model is more convenient in the situation under consideration. It might be that to describe the universe, we have to employ different theories in different situations. Each theory may have its own version of reality, but according to model-dependent realism, that is acceptable so long as the theories agree in their predictions whenever they overlap, that is, whenever they can both be applied.
According to the idea of model-dependent realism …, our brains interpret the input from our sensory organs by making a model of the outside world. We form mental concepts of our home, trees, other people, the electricity that flows from wall sockets, atoms, molecules, and other universes. These mental concepts are the only reality we can know. There is no model-independent test of reality. It follows that a well-constructed model creates a reality of its own.

source

So: I’m going to have to read that book now, just to make sure I’m not entirely deluding myself about this (wouldn’t want to end up like those morons who think relativity and quantum physics “are what Eastern religions have been saying for millenia”), and if it turns out to be that MDR really is a physicy version of constructivism/post-modernism, next time someone sneers at those concepts because they’re primarily used in the social sciences (and, *gasp* the arts and humanities), I might have to link them to a discussion on MDR and/or suggest the book to them.
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*dum… dee… dum…
**Yes, I’m fully aware I’m making an appeal to authority. However, nerd-snobbery is an argumentum ad hominem, and I find that, in non-formal discussions, those two cancel each other out nicely. So, to get those who commit the ad hom against constructivism to get past their mistake, I present them with an authority their tribalist brains might be willing to take seriously. In terms of intellectually honest debate, this might be cheating a bit, but fuck it: if it gets the morons to pay attention to such important concepts, it might be worth it.

Homework blogging, episode two

This is my semester-long project on social inequalities in Laos, minus the poster-presentation (if anyone wants me to, I can post the poster in a separate entry). It’s epically long for a blog-post, with an epically long resource-section for a blog-post, but fuck it. I’m a child of the net-generation, and therefore if it’s not on the internet, it wasn’t worth writing in the first place :-p

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Economic Development and Inequality in Laos

Laos is an extremely poor country which has for most of its history been (and still is) a peripheral country both economically and politically, and has therefore not seen much development in terms of education, health, infrastructure, and economic well-being. And while the country has been experiencing impressive economic growth and development over the last 20 years, it has done so in ways that have increased inequalities within the country along gender lines and especially strongly along ethnic lines. The reasons for this growing inequality are a complex interplay between Laos’ status as a peripheral nation within the Modern World System with its resulting dependence on foreign aid and foreign markets, and its internal stratification system which privileges lowland, ethnically Lao (and closely related) populations over ethnic minorities living higher up in the hills and mountains of the country, and which privileges men over women.

Introduction to relevant concepts

The Modern World System(Kerbo, 2009, pp. 467-478), a concept that extends the class system internationally, acts upon countries like Laos by means of political, military, and economic influence directed at it from various Core Nations. For Laos, these influences begin with its colonial history, and continue with its use as a source of cheap natural resources and a business location for businesses that have encountered resistance and critique elsewhere, be it Thai logging companies(Rigg & Jerndall, 1999, pp. 151-152), or Scandinavian dam-construction companies(Usher, 1999, pp. 136-139), and includes the US government(Baird & Shoemaker, 2007, pp. 870-871) as well as a host of aid agencies and economic groups all of which have their own idea of how to shape Laos.
The ethnic aspect of this internal stratification system is based on racialization, meaning the process by which previously not existing racial categories and attributes are assigned to all members of a newly defined racial group. In Laos, the issue is the racialization of lowland vs. upland/highland populations into “civilized lowlanders” vs. “primitive hill tribes”, as well as an increasing conflation of Laotian national identity with Lao ethnic identity, via governmental, educational and other institutions(Ireson & Ireson, 1991, pp. 925- 926).
Similarly, the gender aspect of this internal stratification system is based on gender construction, i.e. the social creation of the male/female dichotomy which assigns specific, dichotomous definitions of what it means to be male or female. In Laos, these constructions of gender are traditional, patriarchal constructions based for one in agricultural life, which often makes women’s work and women’s needs invisible, and also in Theraveda Buddhism, which places the male above the female because it considers women closer to the material world(Ireson-Doolittle & Moreno-Black, 2004, p. 15).
Lastly, the concept of intersectionality allows us to look at how different inequalities have been affecting each other. Intersectionality is a term for interactions of different kinds of social disadvantages and discrimination working together in a matrix of oppression to mutually reinforce each other. In Laos, the main intersections happen at the level of poverty, ethnicity, and gender.

Laos – An Overview

Laos, officially called the Lao People’s Democratic Republic, is a landlocked country in Southeast Asia, which shares borders with China and Burma(Myanmar) to the North, Vietnam to the East, Cambodia to the South, and Thailand to the West. It has an area of ca. 91428 square miles, only 4% of which is arable land, with the rest being mostly thick mountain forests. The total population is approximately 6368000 people, with one third of the population living in urban areas. Its economy is still largely agrarian, with 80% of the labor force employed in agriculture, the remaining 20% working in services and industry. The official language is Lao, but French, English, and various ethnic languages are also spoken(CIA, 2011). There are 47 currently recognized ethnicities within the country, with the ethnic Lao the largest of these groups. These ethnic groups are variably grouped either by geographic association into Lowland Lao (Lao Loum), Upland Lao (Lao Theung), and Highland Lao (Lao Soung) (Cao, 2009, pp.183-184), or by ethno-linguistic groups roughly into Lao-Tai, Mon-Khmer, and Tibeto-Burman/Miao-Yao(UNICEF, 1992, Table 1.3).
The history of Laos as a distinct political entity begins in 1535, with the founding of the Lao kingdom of Lan Xang after the conquest of Luang Phrabang (in the North of modern Laos) and Vientiane two years prior. It was a predominantly Buddhist, multi-ethnic kingdom similar to its neighbors, but unlike its neighbors it was isolated from the outside world for most of its existence. It lasted until 1571, after which it repeatedly fell under the control of its various neighbors, and by 1782 was absorbed by Siam(Evans, 2002, pp. 9-25), to eventually become a tributary state with overlapping suzerainty (meaning they paid tribute to more than one overlord), a sort of buffer-zone between Siam and Vietnam(Evans, 2002, p. 40).
At the end of the 19th century, colonizing European powers played an icreasingly dominant role in Southeast Asia. France laid claim on part of the former kingdom of Lan Xang as a tributary to Vietnam, which was under French control. It took control over the area in 1893, at first directly incorporating the South as a colony into “French Indochina”, while in the North the Kingdom of Luang Phrabang was indirectly incorporated as a protectorate. This arrangement was changed in 1899, when Laos finally became a single colony. Laos remained a French colony until 1945, but the French did not show much interest in Laos, which was unprofitable. It was loosely administered, mostly by imported French and Vietnamese bureaucrats, and the French established little in the way of public education for Laotians. There was also virtually no industry, very little land used for commercial crops, and little trade with the rest of French Indochina because of bad road infrastructure, thus providing little revenue for development in the country. In fact, opium grown by ethnic minorities in northern Laos was the only profitable income to the colony’s budget(Evans, 2002, pp. 41-50), and is to this day grown in the area, sparking occasional attempts by the government to eradicate it, usually with no other effect than economic and social damage to the tribes inhabiting the areas(Baird & Shoemaker, 2007, pp. 870-871).
In September 1945, Laos declared independence from France. This did not last, and even though in 1946 Laos became a constitutional monarchy within the French Union, from the late 40′s to the mid 70′s the country was in a state of civil war between the US-supported Royal Lao Government and the communist Pathet Lao. Throughout that time, the royalists controlled the part mostly inhabited by ethnic Lao, while the communists controlled areas mostly inhabited by ethnic minorities(Pholsena, 2006, p. 2). During this time, especially early on, plenty of foreign aid flowed into Laos from the USA. However, the money went primarily to maintaining a military, and the rest fueled an unsustainable boom for the Laotian urban elite, with none going towards development of the country. This created great resentment towards the USA (Evans, 2002, pp. 101-103). The divisions escalated as Laos became a “secret” battleground in the Vietnamese-American war. The RLG depended more and more on military support by the USA, while the PL depended on support from North Vietnam. By 1963 any pretense of neutrality in the conflict had disappeared(Evans, 2002, pp. 146-147).
After the end of the Vietnamese-American War in 1972, several years of negotiation and attempted coups followed, resulting eventually in the collapse of US military support as well as a military victory of the Pathet Lao(Evans, 2002, pp. 166-172). Since then, Laos has been a single-party communist state. Despite economic reforms begun in 1986 (decentralizing the economy and courting foreign investment and trade), and a new constitution written in 1991, the main political structure remains communist: while members of the National Assembly are elected, the candidates are selected by the Lao People’s Revolutionary Party. All other parties are forbidden, and no official pressure groups exist. The current president of Laos is Lt. Gen. Choummali Saignason, elected by the National Assembly in June 2006. The current Prime Minister is Thongsing Thammavong, nominated by the president and elected by National Assembly last December(CIA, 2011).

Modern Challenges

Today, Laos is one 49 countries on the United Nations’ “Least Developed Countries” list created in 1971 to designate countries seen as most disadvantaged in their development because of, among other things, low per capita income and low human capital, i.e. a lack of an educated, skilled workforce(Gore & Kozul-Wright, 2011). Despite having had a high economic growth rate averaging 6% since (except during the Asian economic crisis in the late 90′s, and now again during the Global Economic Crisis after 2008), Laos is still a very poor and underdeveloped country, with an economy dependent on export of natural resources such as timber and electricity(CIA, 2011), as is typical for peripheral nations.
The biggest challenges facing Laos today are the inequalities along ethnic and gender lines. For one, there’s a pressing question how to eliminate ethnic inequalities and integrate the multitude of ethnic groups into one Laotian society without further disrupting or destroying the cultures and communities of these various groups in misguided attempts at acculturation and development. And two, there’s the question of inequality between men and women, which has always been great in Laotian society and which has already improved in some areas, especially education, but at the same time has caused new problems, such as the so-called “feminization of agriculture”(Ireson-Doolittle & Moreno Black, 2004, p. 106) or the undermining of traditional inheritance rules which often favored the youngest daughter by new land-registration and distribution regulations which will often list the “head of household”, who is almost always considered to be a man, as the owner of a property(Viravong, 1999, pp. 155-161).
Both these challenges are made even more difficult by Laos’ position as a peripheral country dependent on foreign resources and foreign markets for its development. As such, Laos is constrained in its development by the demands of such foreign organizations, as well as the types of economic and developmental help offered by them. Nor can minorities wield any influence on what projects are undertaken in Laos, because they are severely underrepresented in government(Ireson & Ireson, 1991, p. 925) and language and educational barriers make it difficult for these minorities to communicate with the outside to make their plight heard by the constituencies and regulatory organizations to whom all those international organizations may be responsible.

Ethnic Inequality

The opening of the markets in the late 1980′s has brought many businesses as well as NGO’s and aid organizations to Laos. The development resulting from this inflow, while theoretically meant to lift the whole country out of poverty and improve the lives of men and women alike, has in reality concentrated most development in cities and surrounding areas, typically inhabited by ethnic Lao and other closely related populations. On the other hand, most supposed rural development, especially in mountainous areas, has more often than not resulted in cultural and economic disruptions.
Despite the previously mentioned high economic growth rate over the last two decades, the rate of poverty reduction has been only 1% per year, and economic inequality has been on the rise. In 2002, 36% of the population was still living below the poverty line, with the capital of Vientiane having the lowest rate at 12.2% and the highlands having the highest with 52.5%. The mountainous areas inhabited by the Lao Theung and Lao Soung, who make up 80% of Laos’ poor despite only making up 1/3 of its population, have continued suffering from underdeveloped infrastructure and poor access to services such as healthcare and education. For example, the travel distance to the nearest health center increased for the poor from 6.64 miles in 1993 to 7.27 miles in 2003. During the same time frame, the travel distance to the nearest health center decreased from 4.6 miles to 4.04 miles for the non-poor(Dowling & Yap, 2009, pp. 439-447).
Part of the reason for these growing inequalities is the remoteness of some of the areas in question. However, some of it is due to political and historical reasons that put the ethnic minorities on a different political side than the ethnic Lao majority(Cao, 2009, p. 184; Pholsena, 2006, p. 2). These divisions, among other things, have contributed greatly to the racialization process of the non-Lao ethnicities, which are still often denigrated as traitors and forbidden from migrating freely to different parts of the country(Baird, 2010). The population of Laos has undergone multiple rounds of racialization, starting with the French attempt to differentiate the population on their side of the Mekong from populations on the Siamese side, and ending with the constant redefinition and reclassification of Laotian populations, first into the three geographical categories of Lao Loum, Lao Theung, and Lao Seung (which were meant to foster unity among the ethnic groups as all being part of a Lao population, as well as give the dominant cultural group a majority at 68% of the population), and then into ethno-linguistic categories, and lastly into separate ethnic groups (which for the first time showed that Laos in fact does not have a true ethnic majority, as ethnic Lao make up around 49% of the population, which is a plurality). More specifically, racialization of non-Lao populations has been occurring as part of the process of trying to create a national Laotian culture. Laos as a country is a very modern creation, and not at all congruent with what most people would consider “natural” nations, i.e. a geographical region with one dominant culture or ethnicity, which is also the place where most of the people of that culture or ethnicity reside. Half of Laos’ population does not belong to the largest ethnic group (ethnic Lao), while at the same time, most of what could be considered ethnic Lao live outside the borders of Laos, in Thailand. Because of this, Laos seems to be fighting of doubts about its legitimacy as a country, and is therefore seeking to find a national identity to use as a weapon against such doubts(Evans, 1999). That, combined with the predominance of ethnic Lao in powerful and visible positions in major institutions, has led to a conflation of a national, Laotian identity with the identity of ethnic Lao. Conversely, the cultures of the non-Lao populations have been defined as primitive, environmentally damaging, and possibly outright un- or anti-Laotian. The customs, language, and lifestyle of the ethnic Lao are seen as the standard to which ethnic minorities must adapt to become more “civilized”, and more “Laotian” for the sake of cultural integration as part of “nation building”(Baird & Shoemaker, 2007, p. 872). So, despite the fact that the constitution of modern Laos specifically refers to Laos as a multi-ethnic country and society, defining Laotians by nationality rather than ethnicity; and despite the fact that it specifies the different ethnic groups’ right to protect and maintain their own cultural heritage, while at the same time promising to improve the socioeconomic conditions of the minority groups(Pholsena, 2006, pp. 5-6), very little attention is paid to any rights to self-determination of ethnic minorities, and their lives are often disrupted in the name of progress, which has been defined as adopting ethnic Lao language, lowland rice paddy cultivation, and living in sedentary villages(Ireson & Ireson, 1991, p. 926). The worst example of such disruption is internal resettlement.
Some reasons for resettlement are internal to Laotian politics. In the 1970′s and early 1980′s, such internal reasons would include resettlement for security reasons. Populations potentially allied with anti-communists would be removed from borderlands. Today, security is rarely considered a reason for resettlement. More often, the cause are either attempts at cultural integration of ethnic minorities into a lifestyle more closely resembling ethnic Lao lifestyles, or attempts at bringing infrastructure to rural populations cost-effectively, by concentrating the populations around roads, hospitals, etc., instead of attempting to bring those resources to small, widely scattered settlements(Baird & Shoemaker, 2007, pp. 871-872). Sometimes, such resettlements are entirely the consequence of foreign influence: dam construction prompted by foreign companies no longer able to do business in their home-markets(Usher, 1999), attempts at eradicating swidden-agriculture partially prompted by foreign logging interests(Ireson & Ireson, 1991, pp. 929-930; Rigg & Jerndall, 1999, pp. 149-154), or attempts at eradicating the farming of opium poppies prompted by the US “War on Drugs”(Baird & Shoemaker, 2007, pp. 870-871). Support among the foreign organizations working in Laos for such resettlement practices is mixed. Some forms of resettlement were outright actively encouraged by foreign organizations, especially in the case of opium eradication. In other cases, the resettlement was either “tolerated” as fact (because criticizing the government actions would have been seen as “too political” for an aid organization), or the organizations had no understanding of the situation and were ignorant of resettlement practices. Commonly, international agencies frown upon what they perceive as “involuntary” resettlement and claim not to support it, while either tolerating or outright supporting “voluntary” resettlement. However, the reality of the situation is rarely this clear-cut, as most of the “voluntary” resettlement is initiated by the government rather than the village, with threats and empty promises being used to manipulate people into moving “voluntarily”(Baird & Shoemaker, 2007, pp. 878-882). In other situations, while no official resettlement is taking place, people are forced to move by changing environmental conditions. Such was, for example, the case after the construction of the Theun-Hinboun dam. There project was hailed as a non-disruptive small-scale project, and indeed no villages were going to be inundated by its construction, and so no plans for resettlement were made. However, the dam caused declines in local fish-catches ranging from 30%-90%, as well as inundation of garden plots, loss of access to drinking water in the dry season, and various transportation difficulties. As a result of these and similar problems, many people felt it necessary to abandon their homes and relocate elsewhere, without adequate financial compensation (since no resettlement-money was set aside for the project)(Shoemaker, 1998, pp. 6-11).
Resettlement or relocation of this sort has strongly negative effects on the affected ethnic minorities. According to Evrard & Goudineau(2004, pp. 948-952), villages that resettle straight from the mountains to the lowland areas can lose up to 30% of its population due to malaria and other diseases in the first year after resettlement. It also often causes economic disruption, when lifestock also succumbs to diseases or when promised rice-fields don’t materialize. As a result of such negative effects, some people migrate back to their original settlements. They either settle permanently and in defiance of government orders in their old villages, or, more commonly, they officially settle in the new location but live in their old village, and migrate to the new site during the rainy season and when official visitors are expected. In any case, the disruption of people’s lives contributes to, and in some cases even creates, the poverty in which members of these ethnic minorities find themselves.

Gender Inequality

Laos is largely a patriarchal society, though at least in the case of the Lao Loum less so than neighboring countries and cultures. Gender construction is primarily based on traditional, religious definitions of masculinity and femininity and their social rank in regard to each other, communist claims to striving for gender equality notwithstanding. A large part of the gender construction and gender stratification in Laos comes from a mix of Buddhist and spiritual religious traditions. Ethnic Lao religious background is one of a mix of strongly patriarchal Theraveda Buddhism which devalues women and considers them more attached to the material world than men, and animism in which women play active roles as spirit mediums. While this gave women a certain status in their villages, it also cut them off from formal education, since until 1975, such education was mostly provided to boys by Buddhist monks, while girls learned skills from their mothers. After 1975, the traditional balance begun to shift due to war and communist politics, but the results were mixed. On the one hand, the importance of secular education as a tool for national integration helped send more boys as well as girls to school. On the other hand however, the ban on the sale of contraceptives as well as other encouragements to larger family sizes put women in greater danger, since healthcare in Laos has been very rudimentary and hardly improved upon under communist rule, creating one of the highest maternal death rates in the world at 653 deaths per 100 000 births, and contributing to general deterioration of women’s health. It also put an extraordinary, additional burden on mothers as well as oldest daughters, since child care of all kind is still considered to be almost exclusively women’s work, and siblings are expected to take over a large portion of the mother’s child-caring duties(Ireson-Doolittle & Moreno-Black, 2004, pp. 15-17, 80-83). Since the economic liberalization of Laos, the structures have changed once again, leading to what is called the “feminization of agriculture”: for one, better road access, as well as increased work opportunities outside of agriculture, have increasingly been drawing more men than women away from rural areas, leaving increasingly many women with the sole responsibility for farming; two, the introduction of farming machinery such as small tractors and irrigation pumps has eased the field-labor of men, while doing nothing to ease traditionally female tasks such as transplanting seedlings or weeding (Ireson-Doolittle & Moreno-Black, 2004, pp. 76-81, 105-106). Another consequence of liberalization is the rush to privatization of land, and registration thereof as private ownership. While the laws regarding land registration are generally phrased in gender-neutral terms and even acknowledge traditionally matrilocal inheritance, registration itself is often made in the name of the “head of household”, who is generally considered to be a man. This practice actively undermines traditional ethnic Lao inheritance patterns, which usually left household land to the youngest daughter. This combination of traditionally matrilinear inheritance patterns and new patriarchal registration patterns create situations in which wifes lose their houses to their husbands, who retain their wife’s heritage after a divorce and may even acquire even more land by repeated remarriage. Some women do manage to get property registered in their own name, but these are often better educated women in urban areas, thus reinforcing inequality between the poorer rural areas and the more wealthy urban areas(Viravong, 1999, pp. 157-161).
Unlike in the case of ethnic inequality however, the communists actually acted on their claimed commitment to equality at least to the degree of creating the Lao Women’s Union to represent the needs of women and work for their equality. So, unlike in the case of ethnic minorities, women do have a means of having their issues heard by both the government and the international community. The LWU was founded as the Lao Patriotic Women’s Association in 1955, primarily as a tool of the Pathet Lao to organize women in the fight against Royalists. However, the LWU was also meant to promote equality between the sexes, and it has been doing so with a certain degree of success: it was partially responsible for gaining women the right to vote in 1958(Ireson-Doolittle & Moreno-Black, 2004, pp. 18-19) , and after the economic reforms in the late 1980′s, has promoted various programs meant to improve women’s lives in the same way that mens lives were being improved. One such example is the Luang Phrabang Women’s Development Project that run from 1988 to 1993, which reduced water-carrying time for women by creating running water systems, and eliminated the need for rice hulling by creating rice mills; helped with basic necessities such as mosquito nets, or building materials for child-care centers; and providing training and resources for more marketable production-practices which increased the women’s incomes(Ireson-Doolittle & Moreno-Black, 2004, pp. 154-167).
Still, traditional patriarchal culture and sexism in government as well as international and foreign organizations, most of which are predominantly staffed and led by men, mean that gender inequality iremains a great problem despite recent improvements in some areas and attempts by the LWU to stop the erosion of already existing rights of women in others(Viravong, 1999, p. 162).

At the intersection of gender and ethnicity

Intersectionality is another important aspect of social stratification in Laos. For ethnic women in Laos, the previously described ethnic and gender inequalities intersect to create an even heavier burden, and a second layer of stratification in which ethnic Lao women are more privileged (both traditionally and through modern development practices which favor the Lao Loum over other populations) than minority women, and minority men are more privileged (both through traditional patriarchal social structure, and through modern developments that improve labor conditions and work opportunities primarily for men rather than women) than minority women.
Education is an excellent example of the how the intersection between gender and ethnicity plays out in Laos: by 1989, the enrollment rate at the primary level was 66% for all of Laos, with the highest rate in Vientiane Prefecture at 95%, and the lowest in Sekong (a highland province primarily inhabited by Lao Theung) at only 6%. 80% of students enrolled in primary schools were Lao Loum, 16% were Lao Theung, and only 4% were Lao Soung, even though these groups make 68%, 22%, and 10% of the population, respectively. The ethnic inequality expressed itself even stronger in terms of gender, since girls made only 26% of the Lao Soung students, but 40% of the Lao Theung and 46% of the Lao Loum students(UNICEF, 1992, pp. 83-88).
By 2005, literacy and overall enrollment in education had vastly improved from the late 1980′s, but inequalities remained: while the net enrollment rate in primary education for Lao-Tai populations was around 76%, Ethnic minorities still enrolled at less than 50%. Similarly, the literacy rate for adults (age 15+)in 2005 was 82.5% for men but only 63.2% for women, and 85% for Lao-Tai but only 61% for non-Lao-Tai populations(Phetsiriseng, 2009, pp. 271-272). In terms of higher education, the inequalities become even more glaring. In 1995, Laos combined its 3 existing universities into a unified system now called National University of Laos (NUOL). Then, two smaller, “regional” universities were established: Champasak University (CU) in 2002, and Souphanouvong University (SU) in 2003. 93% of the students at NUOL are Lao Loum, while students at the much smaller and newer CU and SU are predominantly Lao Theung and Lao Soung. In total, as of 2005, 92.8% of all public university students were Lao Loum, 2.5% were Lao Theung, and 4.7% were Lao Soung. And again, we see the intersectionality of gender and ethnicity play out: while 34.2% of those Lao Loum students were women, only 20.5% of Lao Theung and 14% of Lao Seung students were. Or, to put it differently, 96.4% of all female students were Lao Loum, 1.5% were Lao Theung, and 2.1% were Lao Seung(Ogawa, 2009, pp. 288-295). This shows that ethnic inequality in higher education is even higher among women than among men, a clear example of intersectionality at work.
These stark differences in terms of educational achievement have multiple reasons. For one, primary education is funded similar to the way it is done in the U.S, with local taxes. Theoretically, areas that have a surplus are supposed to pass this surplus on to areas that are experiencing a shortage, but in reality this does not happen. The result is that even though teachers are supposed to get bonuses for working in poor, rural areas, the shortfalls in tax income often mean that teachers don’t get any pay at all for extended periods(Phetsiriseng, 2009, pp. 276-278). As a consequence, fewer teachers are willing to teach in those areas, and those that do are less well educated. Another reason for the inequality are language barriers. Most teachers are ethnic Lao, and teach in Lao. Most ethnic minorities however speak their own languages, and are not fluent in Lao(Ireson & Ireson, 1991, pp. 927-929). At the level of higher education, the simple lack of universities in minority areas has been the main contributing factor to inequality.
For women, the inequalities can be explained to a large degree by the above described “feminization of agriculture”, as well as traditional gender-roles which consider formal education less important for girls than for boys, and which see more need for a girl to stay at home and help(Ireson-Doolittle & Moreno-Black, 2004, p. 17). The latter also help explain the greater ethnic disparity for women than for men: ethnic minorities in Laos have stronger patriarchal cultures, and as such these gender-roles are more strictly enforced and followed among minority populations than among the ethnic Lao populations(Ireson-Doolittle & Moreno-Black, 2004, pp. 81, 167). Also, distances to schools are greater and many schools for ethnic minorities are organized as boarding schools(Ireson & Ireson, 1991, p. 928), thus creating larger absences, which once again are less accepted for girls than for boys.

Conclusion

While Laos has always been a nation with ethnic and gender inequalities in terms of status and political power, economic inequality was less prominent simply because Laos was universally underdeveloped and poor, with very little diversification in terms of labor (a consequence of being a peripheral nation). Recent reforms however have exacerbated economic inequalities because development coming from the outside had to go through government channels, and thus was directed into areas beneficial to those who already held the political power in Laos: men of ethnic Lao or closely related ethnic backgrounds. Thus, many policies that would not be acceptable in countries with a vocal populace were introduced into Laos for the economic benefit of the local elites (as well as the incoming organizations and businesses, who had to worry less about local resistance) to the detriment of ethnic minorities who had no power to prevent the projects, nor any organizations to speak for them and address their issues. Similarly, new regulations were shaped and used by men, who had greater access to the public sphere, to gain advantages to the detriment of women’s traditional but inofficial rights. New technologies also helped increase inequality in terms of the amount of labor performed by men and women in agriculture. However, women did have the Lao Women’s Union to work with them and speak for them, and so many negative effects could be tempered and some of the international money diverted to support infrastructure that improves women’s lives as well.

References

Baird, I. G. (2010). The Hmong come to southern Laos: Local responses and the creation of racialized boundaries. Hmong Studies Journal, 11, 1-38

Baird, I. G., & Shoemaker, B. (2007). Unsettling Experiences: Internal Resettlement and International Aid Agencies in Laos. Development and Change, 38 (5), 867-888

Central Intelligence Agency. (2011). The world factbook. Retrieved from https://www.cia.gov/library/publications/the-world-factbook/geos/la.html

Cao, H. (2009). Ethnic minorities and regional development in Asia: Reality and challenges. Amsterdam: Amsterdam University Press

Dowling, J. M., & Yap, C. F. (2009). Chronic poverty in Asia: Causes, consequences, and policies. Hackensack, NJ: World Scientific

Evans, G. (2002). A short history of Laos: The land in between. Crows Nest, NSW: Alan & Unwin

Evans, G. (1999). Introduction: What is Lao culture and society? In G. Evans (Ed.), Laos culture and society (pp.1-34). Chiang Mai: Silkworm Books

Evrard, O., & Goudineau, Y. (2004). Planned resettlement, unexpected migrations and cultural trauma in Laos. Development and Change, 35 (5), 937–962

Gore, C., & Kozul-Wright , Z. (2011). An overview of UNCTAD’s least developed countries report 2010: Towards a new international development architecture for LDCs. European Journal of Development Research Vol. 23 (1), pp. 3–11

Ireson, C & Ireson, D. (1991). Ethnicity and development in Laos. Asian Survey Vol. 31(10), pp. 920-937

Ireson-Doolittle, C. & Moreno-Black, G. (2004). The Lao: gender, power, and livelihood. Boulder, CO: Westview Press

Kerbo, H.R. (2009). Social stratification and inequality. New York, NY: McGraw-Hill

Ogawa, K. (2009). Higher education in Lao PDR. In Y. Hirosato & Y. Kitamura (Eds.), The political economy of educational reforms and capacity development in Southeast Asia (pp. 283-300). [S.I]: Springer

Pholsena, V. (2006). Post-war Laos: The politics of culture, history, and identity. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press

Phetsiriseng, I. (2009) Education reform context and process in Lao PDR: Focusing on basic education. In Y. Hirosato & Y. Kitamura (Eds.), The political economy of educational reforms and capacity development in Southeast Asia (pp. 265-278). [S.I]: Springer

Rigg, J & Jerndall, R. (1999). Plenty in the context of scarcity. In M.J.G. Parnwell & R. L. Bryant (Eds.), Environmental change in South-East Asia (pp.145-162). New York, NY: Routledge

Shoemaker, B. (1998, April 1). Trouble on the Theun-Hinboun. Retrieved from: http://www.internationalrivers.org/southeast-asia/laos/theun-hinboun/trouble-theun-hinboun

Usher, A.D.(1999). The race for power in Laos. In M.J.G. Parnwell & R. L. Bryant (Eds.), Environmental change in South-East Asia (pp.123-144). New York, NY: Routledge

Viravong, M.(1999). Reforming property rights in Laos. In I. Tinker & G. Summerfield (Eds.), Women’s rights to house and land: China, Laos, Vietnam (pp. 153-162). Boulder, CO: Lynne Rienner Publishers Inc.

UNICEF. (1992). Children and women in the Lao People’s Democratic Republic. Vientiane: UNICEF

Non-custodial parents, the numbers

In arguments about the fairness of family law, most of the time the argument centers on anecdotes, or, at best, around partial, cherry-picked statistics, so I decided to look into what the numbers say as a whole about divorce, unmarried parents, custodial parents, non-custodial parents, and their socioeconomic situation.

So. For starters, most studies done on divorce show that women end up economically worse off, while men end up economically better off after a divorce. Now, this data skews a bit because the further into the past you go, the stronger the effect is, and most of the studies I was able to find were old. The most frequently reappearing study is one done in the 70′s (here is a re-evaluation of said study, from 1995), and most other ones are longitudinal studies written up in the 90′s (if someone has more recent data on this, I’d be grateful), or are studies about Europe. The last paper I link to cites non-divorce-related discrimination as the source of this impoverishment of women. This discrimination, while diminished from the 70′s and 80′s, still exists, and so a base difference in divorce outcomes very likely still exists*. The question then would be whether family court decisions are making up or even inverting the effect of this discrimination and thus lessening or reversing the impact divorce has on the people involved. And since this post is specifically about parents, whether and how divorcees with children are affected.
A study from Washington (the state, not the city) shows how the economic situations differ for joint households vs. single-parent households, and how the economic situations of parents change after a divorce. In most cases, everybody is worse off uncoupled, but the mother is worse off than the father regardless of whether she’s the custodial parent or not. Custodial mothers experience a smaller reduction than non-custodial mothers (42% vs. 48%), but custodial fathers experience a greater reduction than non-custodial fathers (14% vs. 11%). The situation looks somewhat different in Title IV-D cases(pdf link!) in which the father is the custodial parent, where the noncustodial mothers actually end up with an increase of economic well-being from a shared household, while the custodial fathers end up with a large reduction (31% for divorcees, and a drastic 85% for all cases). Despite what MRA’s claim though, custodial mothers are not better off than non-custodial fathers in any of the scenarios, both in absolute and in relative terms.
What those statistics seem to tell us that child custody does not impoverish fathers and enrich mothers, and that the only situation in which men end up worse off than women are custodial fathers in IV-D cases (but the divorced custodial fathers are still better off than the divorced custodial mothers, so I’d REALLY like to know how large the cohort of unmarried single fathers in IV-D cases is, and what causes the DRASTIC departure from all the other statistics). But the demographic most bemoaned by MRA’s, the non-custodial fathers, end up on average getting the best economic deal out of living in a separate household (meaning the least reduction of economic well-being), be it because of divorce or being unmarried, only second (and only in relative terms) to the much smaller cohort of non-custodial IV-D mothers.

The other thing that MRA’s often argue is that the Family Courts are biased because mothers are more likely to get custody than fathers, and more likely to get sole custody than have a shared custody. Apparently this was true in the 90′s, when 75% of all cases resulted in sole custody for the mother(in 40% of which the father didn’t even have visitation rights). That number however includes the 1/3 of all fathers who wanted the mother to have sole custody. When custody had to be decided by outside sources (trial or mediation), sole custody for the mother only happened 44% of the time. Still more than joint custody or sole custody to the father, but evidently it was possible for fathers to gain at least some access, if they wanted it. 70% of fathers still reported not having as much access to their children as they wanted, though (interestingly, no one compiled that statistic for women, even though 25%-56% of them might theoretically feel the same).
So, yes, at least in the 90′s there was discrimination against fathers in custody agreements. Prejudiced attitudes of fathers and mothers against the need for the father to be involved seem to have figured very heavily into this, and probably this also reflected the attitudes of the courts. How this has changed over the last 15-20 years I don’t know, but neither complete parity nor a lack of change is likely (the former because social change doesn’t happen that quickly, and the latter because attitudes towards fathers’ involvement in parenting have been changing significantly). One thing that has been happening is an increasing demand for joint custody, and some states even made joint custody mandatory, at least temporarily. That would improve the situation of the non-custodial parent in terms of access to the child, but it is not at all clear that it improves the situation of the child. Certainly, in cases where a couple chooses joint custody (or for that matter, intra-marriage co-parenting, since a lot of studies simply focus of father-involvement in raising children), the children are better off; but comparing that to cases in which joint custody wasn’t voluntarily chosen and then mandating it is a bit like saying that because children of married couples are better off than children of divorced couples, we should ban divorce. In both cases, the conflict and antisocial behavior most likely responsible for the problems won’t disappear just by removing the most obvious indicator of problems. In fact, it can make things worse.
From my personal perspective, then, joint custody mustn’t be mandatory, but it should be the default assumption of courts unless evidence is present that another arrangement is better for the child (i.e. evidence of harmful and antisocial behavior of one parent, as well as evidence for high-conflict between the parents).

In conclusion, there does seem to be some discrimination against fathers in family-court, but it’s not at all what MRA’s claim it is. Non-custodial fathers come out of a separation a lot better off than anyone else, even if they have to pay child-support. The discrimination that IS present seems to be focused on the good-oldfashioned sexist assumption that men pay and women do everything else, which means fathers who want more involvement in their children’s lives won’t necessarily get it. However, forced joint custody, while certainly better taking into account the rights of the fathers, might well be trampling on the rights of the children, and is therefore not necessarily the best solution to the problem, either. Getting away from patriarchal attitudes and patriarchal child-care assumptions would probably make it more possible to see to the welfare of a child on an individual basis.

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* originally, I’d thought to point out that this might have changed during the current recession, which resulted in a greater loss of traditionally male jobs than traditionally female jobs, but while this is true, the losses between 2007 and now were from 88% to 81% for men, and from 73% to 69% for women, and I’m not going to just assume that all these non-working women are trophy wives and voluntary SAHM’s, though I’m sure some are. And apparently, women are starting to catch up, and unlike men, they’re not just becoming unemployed, they’re leaving the labor force altogether.

No, it’s not my job to teach you

“It’s your job to teach me about feminism. Now do it.” is a square on the sexist-bingo card, and it’s a trope that pops up in just about any other subject of the culture wars, be it racism or evolution (think of all the e-mails PZ and other famous atheists get that basically demand that the whole universe be explained to the writers of the emails, personally)or any number of other topics. When being a n00b, the attitude of feminists/atheists/etc of linking to previous discussions, suggesting reading material, or just flat-out refusing to get into the discussion can be frustrating*, and look very arrogant, cowardly, and generally off-putting. But it is a necessary tactic, since one’s free time is a limited resource, and having the same conversations over and over, for the benefit of just one individual, is neither an enjoyable nor an efficient use of one’s time.

For that reason alone, places like Pharyngula are so very precious and important. It might be the culture of valuing evidence-based discussion, or the knowledge that the discussion there is read by many people (so that any argument can inform more than just that one individual being adressed), or something else entirely, but a place where many knowledgeable people are willing to share their knowledge in personal discussion, and where these discussions are archived for posterity, is a very valuable resource. Similarly, places like the feminism101 blog, or the TalkOrigins Archive make it possible to shortcut many conversations by simply referring the person to already existing, laboriously collected, answers to their n00b questions.

What I really wish we had were similar repositories for links to, and summaries of, various scientific papers that support many of the feminist points (the name-on-resume study, various scholastic achievement studies, etc.). I used to have a vast collection of links to such studies, but I misplaced a lot of them, and sometimes finding them again is impossible, or at least very time-consuming. A nicely alphabetically sorted archive of feminist causes and the science to explain/support them would be epically useful, and linking to the whole archive would be a nice little “I’ve got science, what have YOU got” Fuck You to those who insist that feminists argue from emotion alone.

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*I admit freely to feeling that frustration as well. For example, I would not be opposed at all if SC just stopped doing anything else and taught me everything she knows. But unfortunately, I’ll have to do it myself, and just be grateful for the book suggestions :-)